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by Carole Bellacera

December, 1941

As Eileen sneaked a peek at the roast bubbling in the oven, she thought she heard a car pull up outside.  She frowned.  "Oh, no.  Not already!"

Would her in-laws never learn to arrive when they were expected, instead of being over an hour early?  But when she went to the front door to look out, the driveway was empty.  The winter day was so still that only the slightest breezes disturbed the fronds of he palm trees bordering the street in front of the house.  Just another lazy Sunday morning in southern California.  Except her in-laws were due for dinner in another hour. 

It wasn't that Eileen didn't like Paul and Simone, but without Josh around, there wasn't much to talk about.   

As she turned from the front door, the baby gave a hard kick.  Eileen's hand went to her swollen belly.  "Except for you, of course," she whispered, smiling.

Only one more month to wait.  Once the baby arrived, they could board a ship for Hawaii...and at last, be a real family.  But now, it was time to make her father-in-law's favorite corn pudding to go with the roast beef.  It was the one recipe from Eileen's Kansas family that the lofty Van George's hadn't peered at as if it had arrived from a distant planet.  Well, come to think of it, they had looked at it like that, but once Paul tentatively tried it, it was a hit.

Eileen dragged a foot-stool over to the cabinet to search for the cans of corn on the top shelf.  She found two of them, but was still searching for a third when she thought she heard the front door open.  But as she turned to look, her hand grazed one of the cans, and it tumbled.  She lunged for it.

"Ohhhhhh!"

In slow motion, she felt the foot-stool topple under her feet.  Instinctively, she grasped her belly to protect the unborn child from the fall.  But instead of the cruel contact with an unforgiving Linoleum floor, she found herself cushioned in strong, reassuring arms.

"Wha...?"  She twisted her head to see who had saved her from an ugly fall, and her mouth dropped open in delight.  "Josh!  Oh, my God!"  She wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face into the white collar of his naval uniform.  His arms tightened around her.  After a moment, he placed her on her feet and pulled away to look at her. 

"Eileen, sweetheart...is this the way you've been taking care of yourself while I'm away?  You're too pregnant to be climbing on rackety foot-stools."

Eileen grinned up at him, her hands resting on his shoulders.  "Oh, hush now, and kiss me."  He did as she insisted, a long, thorough kiss.  "Ummm...your lips are cool.  What have you been doing, eating ice cream on the sly?"  Her hands entwined around his neck.  "What on earth are you doing here, Josh?  You didn't tell me you had leave."

His blue eyes gazed somberly into hers.  "I had to see you, honey.  Something has come up."

"Tell me later."  Eileen slipped out of his arms.  She didn't want to hear his bad news. "It could only be that his ship was leaving Honolulu...possibly going somewhere dangerous.  Although America had so far managed to stay out of the war raging in Europe, just last night she'd heard that tensions between the U.S. and Japan were building.  "Come and see the nursery, Josh.  Your mother helped me decorate.  I told her there was no need...that I'd be joining you in Honolulu, but you know how she is.  'Better be prepared in case your plans change.'  Do you know how many times I've heard her say that?"

He'd followed her down the hall to the nursery.  At the threshold, she turned and slipped her arm around his waist.  "What do you think?  We decided on pale green.  Your mother's idea, of course.  I know I'm having a boy, Joshua Van George, the Second."

"You've done a super job, hon." He grasped her hands and pulled her into the room.  "Sweetheart, I don't have much time, and there's so much I have to tell you."

"Oh, please, Josh...tomorrow!  Tell me everything tomorrow.  Let's have today and tonight for ourselves.  Honey!  Your hands are like ice.  And here I am burning up!  It must be the excitement of seeing you again.  Come on in the kitchen and I'll put on a pot of coffee.  Your parents are coming for Sunday dinner.  Oh, Lord!  The roast!"  She tried to tug her hands out of his, but his grip tightened.

"Eileen!" Urgency roughened his voice.  "You've got to listen to me!"

Frozen, Eileen stared up at him, her heart jolted by the pain in his eyes.  She felt the blood drain from her face.  Whatever he had to tell her, one thing was for sure.  It was going to be worse than she'd thought. 

He stared down at her for a long moment, and then something in his eyes changed.  It was as if he'd resigned himself to a decision.  His hands touched her face, tracing the line of her cheekbones.  "My dear Eileen.  From now on, you'll have to be very brave."

Eileen shook her head, trying to hold back the tears.  His hand dropped from her face.

"Go check your roast, hon," he said softly.

Slowly, she turned, biting her bottom lip to keep from crying.  But before she could move away, Josh reached out and clutched her to him.  His lips kissed the top of her head.  Beneath his pristine uniform, she could feel him trembling.

"I'll come back to you," he whispered.  Then as quickly as he'd grasped her, he let her go.  "Go, now."

Idle chatter.  That was the only way to deal with things now.  "Come on in the kitchen and keep me company while I finish up dinner."

She peeked into the oven at the roast.  "Your parents are going to be so excited to find you here.  Why didn't you tell me, Josh?  I would've roasted a turkey, and we could've had a late Thanksgiving dinner.  Now, that would've been special."  She reached under the sink for the potatoes.  "I was going to make mashed potatoes for your dad, but since you're here, why don't I make cottage fries?  I know how much you love my cottage fries."

When there was no answer, she turned to look over her shoulder.  But Josh wasn't in the room.  She gave a little shrug and began to wash the potatoes.  He must've stopped off in the bathroom.  But by the time she'd greased the potatoes with lard and placed them into the oven, he still hadn't returned.

"Josh?"

The bathroom door was open, the room empty.  Puzzled, Eileen returned to the nursery, but he wasn't there, either. She checked their bedroom, thinking he may have gone there to reminisce about the two short weeks they'd had together before his ship had left San Diego.

But it, too, was empty.  With a growing sense of concern, she stepped out onto the patio.  Had he come outside for fresh air?

Eileen stood in the heat of the mid-day sun, hugging her arms as a sudden chill crept over her.  There was no hint of Josh's presence.  It was unnaturally still outside, even for a Sunday.  There was no sound of children playing, no crunch of wheels on the pavement in the street out front, no big band music coming from the house next door.  Just the lonely sound of palm fronds clacking softly in the sudden breeze.

The phone rang from the kitchen, shattering the silence and startling Eileen.  Her heart lurched and began to race.  With a dry throat, she stepped back inside and went to the telephone.

It was her mother-in-law's hysterical voice.  "Do you have the radio on?  The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!  Eileen, they say the Arizona has been sunk." She began to sob.  "That's Joshua's ship, isn't it?"

As Eileen listened to her mother-in-law cry, her eyes went to the two cans of corn on top of the kitchen counter.  The foot-stool, the one that had caused her to fall, was gone.

***

April, 1997

"My great-grandmother is dying," the little girl said brightly.

"Hush, Robin.  That's not a nice thing to say."

"But it's true, isn't it, Mommy?  That's what Jimmy said."

"Your big brother is very rude," said a familiar voice. "Your great-grandmother is very, very tired."

Eileen struggled to open her eyes.  A woman in white stood next to the bed, adjusting the flow of her I.V. 

Another nurse.  She'd seen enough of the in the last few months to last a life-time. 

"Oh, look!  She's waking up," the nurse said brightly.

"Hi, Grandma.  How you feeling?"  asked the other voice.

Fine and dandy.  What say we skip this joint and go bungee-jumping?

"Sybil, I don't think she can hear you," a third voice said.  "You know the drugs really have her out of it."

Oh, yes, the drugs!  If Eileen knew they'd make her feel this good, she would've tried them 55 years ago.  Maybe it would've helped her deal better with being a widowed 20-year-old with a premature baby.

The third voice had been Jennifer's--the daughter she'd been carrying when she'd got the horrifying news about The Arizona.

Eileen had never married after Josh's death.  It would've been like buying K-Mart clothes when you were used to Chanel.

"Grandma, the man is here to see Great-Grandma."

Eileen grimaced as a stab of pain found its way through the protective layers of cotton produced by the painkillers.  What was little robin talking about now?  What man?

Jennifer's voice echoed her thoughts.  "What man, honey?"

"Him!  There, by the door.  Don't you see the man in the white suit, Grandma?"

"Sybil, I think maybe you should take Robin down to the cafeteria for ice cream.  The poor thing is bored senseless."

With an effort that exhausted her, Eileen turned her head toward the door.  And there he was, immaculate in his white naval uniform.  Josh.  He'd finally returned, just as he said he would.

As the little girl and her mother reached the door, Robin stopped and tugged on Josh's jacket.  "Who are you?"

Smiling, Josh dropped to one knee and gazed into her eyes.  "I'm your great-grandfather, Robin.  I've come to take your great-grandma away to a new home."

Sybil tugged on Robin's hand.  "Come on!  Quit acting silly.  You and your imaginary friends!"

Robin allowed herself to be pulled along by her mother.  But at the door, she dug in her heels and turned back.  "Will Great-Grandma be happy where she's going?  Mommy says she hurts a lot now."

He nodded.  "I think she'll be very happy.  And best of all, she won't hurt anymore where I'm taking her."  He ruffled her blonde hair.

"That's good, then," Robin said.

After they left, Jason stood up.  His blue eyes gazed at Eileen from across the room.  She smiled, wishing she had the strength to beckon him closer. 

As if reading her mind, he moved to the side of her bed.  His hand reached for hers.  It felt warm, and for the first time in days, Eileen felt the cold chill disappear from her body.

"Hi, hon.  You've raised yourself a beautiful line of daughters.  I wish I'd been around to help."

Eileen moved her cracked, dry lips.  It had been a long time since she'd had the strength to talk.  But there was so much to say to him.  50 years' worth of things to say.

  "I never...told...anyone..."  Was that her voice?  So raspy and worn?    She wet her lips and tried again, "...about...that...day..."

His hand tightened on hers.  "I had to come back that day to say goodbye.  But I bungled it, didn't I?  I just couldn't do it when it came right down to it.  You were so bright and cheerful.  So happy to see me.  And so pretty with your belly all rounded with our baby."

"Not so pretty now...am I?"

His blue eyes glowed as he stared down at her.  "You're beautiful to me.  You always will be."  He paused for a moment and then said, "Are you ready, Eileen?  It's time for us to go, you know.  That's why I've come."

Eileen nodded.  "I'm...ready.  But I'm so...tired."

"Don't worry.  Just hold onto my hands.  I'll do the work."

His hands encircled hers.  The radiating glow of heat traveled up her arms and gradually enveloped the rest of her exhausted body.  Suddenly, she felt herself lifting, floating upwards.  She looked down and saw her 75-year-old shell of a body n the bed below.  And there, sitting in a chair nearby, was her beloved Jennifer, flipping through the pages of a magazine.

Good-bye, Jenny.  She felt a little sad at leaving their daughter behind, but now, she knew they'd meet again someday.

Josh squeezed her hand.  "Don't look at the bed.  Look at yourself."

With widened eyes, Eileen looked down at herself and saw that she had the slender shape of a 19-year-old.  As they passed through the hospital corridor, Josh looked back and flashed a reassuring smile.  She grinned back at him.  Together, they headed down the corridor and passed through a door marked EXIT.

 


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