Sarah woke with a start. She lay in the semi-darkness of the motel room wondering what had wakened her. It hadn’t been a nightmare this time – she was all too familiar with the pounding heart and the cold gripping fear that always came when she woke from those dreams. No, this was actually a gentle comforting waking, and Sarah breathed a happy little sigh. She was no closer to answers than she had been the day before, but she was filled with an unusual peace.
She thought about her evening with Uncle Will and the solid goodness he had exuded. Sitting across from her in Holly’s Diner he had reached over and taken her hand. “Sarah,” he had said, “It’s no coincidence that we’re both here at the same time. I believe the good Lord wants us to team up and get through this together, and really find some answers we both need. But we’re going to make sure we pray about every step we take, okay?” With that he had solemnly begun a simple prayer, asking for God’s guidance and direction and ending with a prayer for ‘peace that passeth understanding.’ Sarah smiled into the darkness, thinking of Uncle Will’s quaint King James phraseology. “That must be what I feel though,” she reflected, “the peace that passeth understanding. I sure don’t understand why I’d feel peace with my whole world turned upside down and that witch living in grandma’s house!”
She reached over and flipped on the bedside lamp, and once again picked up the small black bible. She hardly even knew where to start. She turned the pages at random, finally tossing the book aside in frustration.
She snapped the light off once more and stared at the opposite wall where a blinking neon light shining through the mini-blinds made a striped pattern brighten and grow dim. Bright and dim. Bright and dim. Like a pulse. She could faintly hear music coming from the cocktail lounge across the parking lot and it occurred to her that she might take a walk over and have a drink. Maybe that would help her sleep. But she remained motionless. It really was nice to just lie here and be still. Be still. And from somewhere deep in her memory Sarah remembered the words “Be still, and know that I am God.” Be still….
And the next thing Sarah knew the blinking light was glorious brightness forcing its way through the cracks of the blinds. She was awake and completely rested as she crossed the room to open the blinds and welcome the day. She looked at the alarm clock – 8:35! She and Will had arranged to meet back at Holly’s at nine o’clock. She’d better get moving!
Twenty minutes later, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, Sarah stood at the bathroom mirror putting on some lipstick when a small red flashing light on the bedside telephone caught her eye. She had a message! The phone must have rung while she was in the shower. It was probably Uncle Will wondering where she was.
But the voice was not Will Barton’s. “Hello, Sarah. It’s Jon. I know you said you needed some space, but I miss you, Honey, and I…well I can’t really talk about it on this machine, but I…something has happened and I want to talk about it with you. I’ll call you after awhile. Or you can call me…”
What in the world? That was not like Jonathan. Besides she hadn’t told him where she’d be staying. She hadn’t even known where she’d be staying, she thought ruefully. But in a small town like Hillbrook it was a simple matter to call the one or two motels and inquire. She wondered what would have been important enough for Jonathan to set aside his normal reserve and call looking for her after she’d made it clear that she wanted time alone. Well she couldn’t think about it now. She was late already. She stood indecisively for a moment, and then quickly dialed Jonathan’s number. The faraway ring sounded once, twice… Sarah pushed the button down with her finger, replaced the receiver and hurried out to her car.
Uncle Will grinned broadly, as he waved Sarah into the booth, brushing aside her breathless apology for her tardiness. “I’ve already ordered, and here’s Lucy with your coffee.” He paused as the pretty young waitress set a cup of steaming coffee in front of Sarah, “We’re having pancakes with blackberry syrup…. Remember?”
“Oh Uncle Will! I do remember. We used to have blackberry pancakes all the time when I lived with you.” Sarah felt sharp tears prick at her eyes. This man was so very dear! “Aunt Leona never would have any because she was always on a diet, and you said it was okay ‘cause you could eat enough for both of you!”
They laughed together and Will shook his head. “Poor Leona. She kept such a tight rein on herself. I always tried to get her to lighten up a little but…” Will stopped suddenly, as if realizing that nothing would be gained by being critical of his absent wife.
Between bites of pancakes dripping with butter and blackberry syrup, Will filled Sarah in on the course his life had taken over the last few years. “After your Aunt Leona left I just about went crazy,” he admitted, “I couldn’t work. I could hardly think straight. Fortunately I had quite a few articles I’d written and filed away, so the syndicate used those, and they really cut me a lot of slack. They even republished some of my earlier columns… I kept hoping she’d come back. I prayed she’d come back. But then when the divorce papers were served to me I knew it was for real. She didn’t want anything, Sarah. She just wanted to be free to do her art. Maybe I should have split our community property with her, sent it to her in care of her lawyer or something…but I was mad – you know, honey? I didn’t even know where she was! So I got the money and she got her freedom. Then I got back to work, and I have to say the Lord has really blessed me. The syndication is over two hundred now and they’ve published a book of my articles that’s actually selling pretty well.”
Sarah remembered how excited they’d been when Uncle Will’s syndicated column had reached 50. “Wow, that’s great, Uncle Will! Maybe you’ll be as famous as Will Rogers someday! I always said you reminded me of him!”
“Well, the Lord’s blessed me, that’s for sure.” He affirmed, “But I’d give it all up and be poor again if I could go back to what Leona and I had in those early years – ” He broke off suddenly, staring out the window. “Well I’ll be…” he stared out the window as a heavy set woman disappeared into the bank just across the street. “Come on, Honey. I think we’re onto something.”
Setting a twenty dollar bill on the table, Will took Sarah’s elbow and guided her to his car. “Here, why don’t you put this on,” he handed her a baseball cap from the rear seat, “and do you have some sunglasses?”
Sarah giggled. “I feel like a spy, Uncle Will! What’s going on?” Will grinned as he sat low in the driver’s seat, the engine now running, the car poised to pull out of the driveway.
“Ve vill follow ze suspect,” he intoned as Agnes emerged from the bank and got back into her car.
They continued the lighthearted chatter and silliness as they drove down the highway, staying a discreet behind Agnes’ big touring car. “There’s the old swimming hole.” Will pointed off the right of the highway.
“Oh yeah…Grandma never wanted me to come down here when I lived with her,” Sarah remembered, “but Aunt Leona said she and her friends came here all the time during the summer. They called it their swimming hole but I think it was really their gossip hole.” She laughed. “It didn’t sound like they swam very much. Aunt Leona said it was a certain group of girls from the town and some from farther out in the country – they all got together and talked and played down here in their secret place. And most of the girls would sit on their little handmade quilts. Aunt Leona said quilting wasn’t her strong point, but she said my mother loved to quilt. Mother was a real homebody. Aunt Leona said she did everything well.”
Sarah knew she was babbling, but she continued. “My mother didn’t come down here as often as Aunt Leona, I guess, but she did come sometimes. Aunt Leona said they all liked it when mother came ‘cause she watched all the smaller kids – told them about nature and bible stories and just showed them interesting little things. She must have been an angel!” Sarah stopped short, tears stinging her green eyes.
Will chuckled. “An angel. Yep – I guess that’s what young Michael Kent thought too when he decided that rafting down the river was a good pastime for a summer afternoon! I had my first job at the Texaco station down there by the bridge where the river narrows. That’s where Mike always pulled his canoe out. I was new here in Hillbrook, and he was one of the first kids I met. That was the same summer young Cammie Fitzgerald drowned and – ”
“Wait a minute!” Sarah interrupted, “Fitzgerald? I knew that Cammie girl drowned down here. That’s why Grandma didn’t like me to come down and play by the river. But I don’t think I ever knew her last name was Fitzgerald. It was the Fitzgerald Foundation that funded Aunt Leona’s drama scholarship. Any connection?”
“Oh yes. Geoffrey Fitzgerald was a great patron of the arts. Every year he gave one of the graduating seniors a full scholarship to a fine arts college. It was a memorial to his daughter, Cammie.
“She was several years older than Leona, I think, and very active in drama at the high school and even back when she was junior high. It was her daddy that got the Festival Theatre folk to open up auditions so the junior high students could try out. That little Cammie gal sure didn’t like it though when Leona got the lead part in “Hamlet” when she was only twelve. I guess that was the first time Cammie ever tried out and didn’t get the lead. After that Leona always got the leads, all through high school.
“You know she almost had to give up that Ophelia part…I guess she’d already committed to a full time babysitting job that summer before she was chosen for that part in the play. She said her mom was going to make her keep that commitment and then Agnes took the babysitting job to help her out. Leona just about worshipped old Agnes for that!” Uncle Will smiled ruefully. “She said if Agnes hadn’t helped her out like that, her acting career would have ended before it began.” He shook his head sadly, “I don’t know that that wouldn’t have been better all then way around.”
Sarah reached over to give her uncle’s hand a shy little squeeze. They drove in silence for some miles, enjoying the rural beauty of the countryside around Hillbrook Township. Gazing sidelong at Uncle Will’s face, Sarah could easily guess his painful train of thought. In a wave of courageous charity she encouraged him to speak. “Tell me about how she was, Uncle Will. Aunt Leona, I mean.”
“Well, of course the first time I saw your Aunt was that summer the Festival Theatre began their outdoor Shakespeare plays. We’ve were talking about it back there. Leona was a most striking “Ophelia.” Such a transformation took place in that girl when she stepped on the stage.
“All the world’s as stage.” murmured Sarah.
Uncle Will glanced at her quickly and smiled. “I’m afraid I was a bit like Prince Hamlet myself in those early days, Sarah! I remember I wrote her a most extravagant love letter, bidding her to ‘doubt that the stars were fire and to doubt that the sun did move, to doubt truth to be a liar, but never to doubt my love!’” I made it my business to read up on what she was interested in, but that Shakespeare stuff was sure a bit to bite off for a fifteen year old kid! We were only kids. She was only twelve but she knew just what she wanted, and I was only fifteen. But I knew I wanted her!”
Sarah stared uncomfortably out the window, wishing she hadn’t allowed the conversation down this path, but Will continued as if lost in the memory. “I followed her to New York 6 years later when she went to Steadwyk Acadamy. I enrolled at the State College and spent time with her when she had time to give me. Then Lois and Mike were killed and Agnes left so suddenly for Europe.
“You know, I believe she’s going to the airport!” Sarah interrupted suddenly.
“I think you’re right,” confirmed Will as they followed the car now leaving the main road. “What do you make of that?” They pulled the car to the side of the road and watched silently as Agnes pulled her car into the lot marked “long term parking.”