Those four little words threw him into a tailspin, but somehow the words to decline Mary’s request wouldn’t form on his lips. He hadn’t said grace or any other semblance of a prayer in two years. His shooting had merely been the last in a long line of grievances against the Almighty. He sucked in a deep breath. One brief prayer wouldn’t mean he was back on speaking terms with God.
“Sure.” Jared cleared his throat, searching his mind for one of the formula prayers he’d learned as a child, but his mind remained infuriatingly blank as Mary bowed her head.
He could do this—it wasn’t that hard. “Please bless our food. Amen.”
“Amen.” Mary opened her eyes and reached for the pasta bowl. “Spaghetti?”
Jared accepted the bowl. She didn’t seem to think anything was amiss with such a short prayer. Maybe it was all right. Breathing in the scent of oregano and basil with anticipation, he forked a mouthful of hot pasta and sauce into his mouth. He washed it down with a swig of iced tea.
“Delicious. I could get used to this.” He looked up from his plate at Mary. The girl, no make that woman, could certainly blush a lot.
She lowered her head. “You’re welcome. Glad you stayed.”
The two ate in silence for several minutes before Jared reintroduced the topic of her ninth birthday. “You didn’t get a chance to finish telling me about the day you left.”
Mary picked up her iced tea glass. She took a sip, then blotted her mouth with a napkin. “After I grabbed what I could stuff into the sack, my father drove me to the station. My mother stayed behind to direct the movers in the house.” She twirled her fork into her noodles. “I found out later that most of the furniture and household goods had been sold to a local resale shop and the rest given to the Salvation Army.”
She put down her fork and picked up the sea glass from the middle of the table, turning it over in her hand. “They only took two suitcases of clothing with them into their new life as missionaries.”
Jared speared a tomato with more force than necessary at the pain behind those words. How any parents could treat their child like that, leaving her behind to become missionaries in a foreign country was beyond his comprehension.
“Father bought my ticket and put me on the train. Until that moment, I thought he was going with me to Aunt Geraldine’s, but when the whistle blew, he stood to leave. He handed me an envelope to give to Aunt Geraldine, patted me on the head, then he was gone. I watched him walk away from the train.” Her voice caught and she dabbed at her eyes with her napkin. “He never once looked back. Not once,” she said in a voice almost too low to hear. “It was as if I were a piece of furniture that needed to go to a new home so they could move on without me.”
“That’s terrible.” Jared stared down at his nearly empty plate, his appetite gone. He looked up at Mary.
“I used to pretend they really weren’t my parents, that my real folks had no idea where I was and would find me one day.”
“What happened after you arrived at Aunt Geraldine’s house?”
Mary grimaced. “My mother had called Aunt Geraldine a month or so beforehand to ask if she could keep me for a few months, but no specifics were ever given. Typical, really, of how my mother operated. She usually had no idea what we were having for supper until she decided to check the fridge that afternoon. We had strange meals all the time.”
“How did Geraldine react when you showed up at her doorstep?” Jared wanted to enfold her in a hug, but he was afraid she might break down completely if he did. Something about the way the story unraveled made him think she didn’t often tell it. He knew from experience that the act of speaking the dreadful thing aloud was a big part of the healing process.
Mary folded her arms on the table. “She was surprised, to say the least. I was no help, because I couldn’t answer her questions. I was tired and out of sorts from the long train ride from Philadelphia to Warrenton, Virginia.
“By the time the train pulled into Union Station in Washington, D.C., about seven o’clock that night, I was starving and near tears. I had nothing to eat since breakfast. We stopped in D.C. for a while, and everyone disembarked. I sat there terrified of moving for fear that I wouldn’t arrive at Aunt Geraldine’s. I had seen that my ticket was punched to Warrenton, and I knew the stop was Washington. The conductor, an older gentleman with the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen, stopped by my seat to ask if I was going to get off to stretch my legs. He must have seen the terror and confusion in my eyes because he held out his hand and said he would take me to find a bite to eat.”
Mary’s fingers tightened and again Jared tamped down the urge to comfort her. Her story gripped his heart as none of his patients’ tales ever had, probably, because he knew her, had known her so well back then. He felt transported back to his own childhood. The only sad thing to happen to him as a kid had been Mary’s abrupt departure. He refocused on her as she continued her narrative.
“I clutched his hand as if I were drowning and he were my rescuer. We walked over to the station and he directed me to the coffee shop. I went into the restaurant with my stomach growling before I thought to see if I had any money.” Mary’s hand moved to her stomach, as if in sympathy.
“I was sure my father had given me some in the envelope he had handed me on the train, but when I opened it, it only contained a single sheet of paper, a letter to Aunt Geraldine. I stuffed the letter back in the envelope and frantically searched my pockets. I didn’t turn up as much as a penny.”
She shook her head. “I stood there, hands hugging my body, and wished I had stayed on the train. At least then, no one would know I had no money. Then the conductor handed me some money for a sandwich and lemonade.”
She paused and Jared thought she must be reliving that train ride. “What happened when you got to Warrenton?”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.