I drove Jamie home from the orphanage later that night. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should pull the old yawn move and put my arm around her shoulder, but to be honest, I didn’t know exactly how she was feeling about me. Granted, she’d given me the most wonderful gift I’d ever received, and even though I’d probably never open it and read it like she did, I knew it was like giving a piece of herself away. But Jamie was the type of person who would donate a kidney to a stranger she met walking down the street, if he really needed one. So I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it.
Jamie had told me once that she wasn’t a dimwit, and I guess I finally came to the conclusion that she wasn’t. She may have been . . . well, different . . . but she’d figured out what I’d done for the orphans, and looking back, I think she knew even as we were sitting on the floor of her living room. When she’d called it a miracle, I guess she was talking specifically about me.
Hegbert, I remembered, came into the room as Jamie and I were talking about it, but he really didn’t have much to say. Old Hegbert hadn’t been himself lately, at least as far as I could tell. Oh, his sermons were still on the money, and he still talked about the fornicators, but lately his sermons were shorter than usual, and occasionally he’d pause right in the middle of one and this strange look would come over him, kind of like he was thinking of something else, something sad.
I didn’t know what to make of it, being that I really didn’t know him that well. And Jamie, when she talked about him, seemed to describe someone else entirely. I could no more imagine Hegbert with a sense of humor than I could imagine two moons in the sky.
So anyway, he came into the room while we counted the money, and Jamie stood up with those tears in her eyes, and Hegbert didn’t even seem to realize I was there. He told her that he was proud of her and that he loved her, but then he shuffled back to the kitchen to continue working on his sermon. He didn’t even say hello. Now, I knew I hadn’t exactly been the most spiritual kid in the congregation, but I still found his behavior sort of odd.
As I was thinking about Hegbert, I glanced at Jamie sitting beside me. She was looking out the window with a peaceful look on her face, kind of smiling, but far away at the same time. I smiled. Maybe she was thinking about me. My hand started scooting across the seat closer to hers, but before I reached it, Jamie broke the silence.
“Landon,” she finally asked as she turned toward me, “do you ever think about God?”
I pulled my hand back.
Now, when I thought about God, I usually pictured him like those old paintings I’d seen in churches—a giant hovering over the landscape, wearing a white robe, with long flowing hair, pointing his finger or something like that—but I knew she wasn’t talking about that. She was talking about the Lord’s plan. It took a moment for me to answer.
“Sure,” I said. “Sometimes, I reckon.”
“Do you ever wonder why things have to turn out the way they do?”
I nodded uncertainly.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”
Even more than usual? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. I could tell she had more to say, and I stayed quiet.
“I know the Lord has a plan for us all, but sometimes, I just don’t understand what the message can be. Does that ever happen to you?”
She said this as though it were something I thought about all the time.
“Well,” I said, trying to bluff, “I don’t think that we’re meant to understand it all the time. I think that sometimes we just have to have faith.”
It was a pretty good answer, I admit. I guess that my feelings for Jamie were making my brain work a little faster than usual. I could tell she was thinking about my answer.
“Yes,” she finally said, “you’re right.”
I smiled to myself and changed the subject, since talking about God wasn’t the sort of thing that made a person feel romantic.
“You know,” I said casually, “it sure was nice tonight when we were sitting by the tree earlier.”
“Yes, it was,” she said. Her mind was still elsewhere.
“And you sure looked nice, too.”
This wasn’t working too well.
“Can I ask you a question?” I finally said, in the hopes of bringing her back to me.
“Sure,” she said.
I took a deep breath.
“After church tomorrow, and, well . . . after you’ve spent some time with your father . . . I mean . . .” I paused and looked at her. “Would you mind coming over to my house for Christmas dinner?”
Even though her face was still turned toward the window, I could see the faint outlines of a smile as soon as I’d said it.
“Yes, Landon, I would like that very much.”
I sighed with relief, not believing I’d actually asked her and still wondering how all this had happened. I drove down streets where windows were decorated with Christmas lights, and through the Beaufort City Square. A couple of minutes later when I reached across the seat, I finally took hold of her hand, and to complete the perfect evening, she didn’t pull it away.
When we pulled up in front of her house, the lights in the living room were still on and I could see Hegbert behind the curtains. I supposed he was waiting up because he wanted to hear how the evening went at the orphanage. Either that, or he wanted to make sure I didn’t kiss his daughter on the doorstep. I knew he’d frown on that sort of thing.
I was thinking about that—what to do when we finally said good-bye, I mean—when we got out of the car and started toward the door. Jamie was quiet and content at the same time, and I think she was happy that I’d asked her to come over the next day. Since she’d been smart enough to figure out what I’d done for the orphans, I figured that maybe she’d been smart enough to figure out the homecoming situation as well. In her mind, I think even she realized that this was the first time I’d actually asked her to join me of my own volition.
Just as we got to her steps, I saw Hegbert peek out from behind the curtains and pull his face back. With some parents, like Angela’s, for instance, that meant they knew you were home and you had about another minute or so before they’d open the door. Usually that gave you both time to sort of bat your eyes at each other while each of you worked up the nerve to actually kiss. It usually took about that long.
Now I didn’t know if Jamie would kiss me; in fact, I actually doubted that she would. But with her looking so pretty, with her hair down and all, and everything that had happened tonight, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity if it came up. I could feel the little butterflies already starting to form in my stomach when Hegbert opened the door.
“I heard you pull up,” he said quietly. His skin was that sallow color, as usual, but he looked tired.
“Hello, Reverend Sullivan,” I said dejectedly.
“Hi, Daddy,” Jamie said happily a second later. “I wish you could have come tonight. It was wonderful.”
“I’m so glad for you.” He seemed to gather himself then and cleared his throat. “I’ll give you a bit to say good night. I’ll leave the door open for you.”
He turned around and went back into the living room. From where he sat down, I knew he could still see us. He pretended to be reading, though I couldn’t see what was in his hands.
“I had a wonderful time tonight, Landon,” Jamie said.
“So did I,” I answered, feeling Hegbert’s eyes on me. I wondered if he knew I’d been holding her hand during the car ride home.
“What time should I come over tomorrow?” she asked.
Hegbert’s eyebrow raised just a little.
“I’ll come over to get you. Is five o’clock okay?”
She looked over her shoulder. “Daddy, would you mind if I visited with Landon and his parents tomorrow?”
Hegbert brought his hand to his eyes and started rubbing them. He sighed.
“If it’s important to you, you can,” he said.
Not the most stirring vote of confidence I’d ever heard, but it was good enough for me.
“What should I bring?” she asked. In the South it was tradition to always ask that question.
“You don’t need to bring anything,” I answered. “I’ll pick you up at a quarter to five.”
We stood there for a moment without saying anything else, and I could tell Hegbert was growing a little impatient. He hadn’t turned a page of the book since we’d been standing there.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said finally.
“Okay,” I said.
She glanced down at her feet for a moment, then back up at me. “Thank you for driving me home,” she said.
With that, she turned around and walked inside. I could barely see the slight smile playing gently across her lips as she peeked around the door, just as it was about to close.
The next day I picked her up right on schedule and was pleased to see that her hair was down once more. She was wearing the sweater I’d given her, just like she’d promised.
Both my mom and dad were a little surprised when I’d asked if it would be all right if Jamie came by for dinner. It wasn’t a big deal—whenever my dad was around, my mom would have Helen, our cook, make enough food for a small army.
I guess I didn’t mention that earlier, about the cook, I mean. In our house we had a maid and a cook, not only because my family could afford them, but also because my mom wasn’t the greatest homemaker in the world. She was all right at making sandwiches for my lunch now and then, but there’d been times when the mustard would stain her nails, and it would take her at least three or four days to get over it. Without Helen I would have grown up eating burned mashed potatoes and crunchy steak. My father, luckily, had realized this as soon as they married, and both the cook and the maid had been with us since before I was born.
Though our house was larger than most, it wasn’t a palace or anything, and neither the cook nor the maid lived with us because we didn’t have separate living quarters or anything like that. My father had bought the home because of its historical value. Though it wasn’t the house where Blackbeard had once lived, which would have been more interesting to someone like me, it had been owned by Richard Dobbs Spaight, who’d signed the Constitution. Spaight had also owned a farm outside of New Bern, which was about forty miles up the road, and that was where he was buried. Our house might not have been as famous as the one where Dobbs Spaight was buried, but it still afforded my father some bragging rights in the halls of Congress, and whenever he walked around the garden, I could see him dreaming about the legacy he wanted to leave. In a way it made me sad, because no matter what he did, he’d never top old Richard Dobbs Spaight. Historical events like signing the Constitution come along only once every few hundred years, and no matter how you sliced it, debating farm subsidies for tobacco farmers or talking about the “Red influence” was never going to cut it. Even someone like me knew that.
The house was in the National Historic Register—still is, I suppose—and though Jamie had been there once before, she was still kind of awed when she walked inside. My mother and father were both dressed very nicely, as was I, and my mother kissed Jamie hello on the cheek. My mother, I couldn’t help but think as I watched her do it, had scored before I did.
We had a nice dinner, fairly formal with four courses, though it wasn’t stuffy or anything like that. My parents and Jamie carried on the most marvelous conversation—think Miss Garber here—and though I tried to inject my own brand of humor, it didn’t really go over too well, at least as far as my parents were concerned. Jamie, however, would laugh, and I took that as a good sign.
After dinner I invited Jamie to walk around the garden, even though it was winter and nothing was in bloom. After putting on our coats, we stepped outside into the chilled winter air. I could see our breaths coming out in little puffs.
“Your parents are wonderful people,” she said to me. I guess she hadn’t taken Hegbert’s sermons to heart.
“They’re nice,” I responded, “in their own way. My mom’s especially sweet.” I said this not only because it was true, but also because it was the same thing that kids said about Jamie. I hoped she would get the hint.
She stopped to look at the rosebushes. They looked like gnarled sticks, and I didn’t see what her interest was in them.
“Is it true about your grandfather?” she asked me. “The stories that people tell?”
I guess she didn’t get my hint.
“Yes,” I said, trying not to show my disappointment.
“That’s sad,” she said simply. “There’s more to life than money.”
She looked at me. “Do you?”
I didn’t meet her eyes as I answered. Don’t ask me why.
“I know that what my grandfather did was wrong.”
“But you don’t want to give it back, do you?”
“I’ve never really thought about it, to tell you the truth.”
“Would you, though?”
I didn’t answer right away, and Jamie turned from me. She was staring at the rosebushes with their gnarled sticks again, and I suddenly realized that she’d wanted me to say yes. It’s what she would have done without thinking twice about it.
“Why do you do things like that?” I blurted out before I could stop myself, blood rushing into my cheeks. “Making me feel guilty, I mean. I wasn’t the one who did it. I just happened to be born into this family.”
She reached out and touched a branch. “That doesn’t mean you can’t undo it,” she said gently, “when you get the opportunity.”
Her point was clear, even to me, and deep down I knew she was right. But that decision, if it ever came, was a long way off. To my way of thinking, I had more important things on my mind. I changed the subject back to something I could relate to better.
“Does your father like me?” I asked. I wanted to know if Hegbert would allow me to see her again.
It took a moment for her to answer.
“My father,” she said slowly, “worries about me.”
“Don’t all parents?” I asked.
She looked at her feet, then off to the side again before turning back to me.
“I think that with him, it’s different from most. But my father does like you, and he knows that it makes me happy to see you. That’s why he let me come over to your house for dinner tonight.”
“I’m glad he did,” I said, meaning it.
“So am I.”
We looked at each other under the light of a waxing crescent moon, and I almost kissed her right then, but she turned away a moment too soon and said something that sort of threw me.
“My father worries about you, too, Landon.” The way she said it—it was soft and sad at the same time—let me know that it wasn’t simply because he thought I was irresponsible, or that I used to hide behind the trees and call him names, or even that I was a member of the Carter family.
“Why?” I asked.
“For the same reason that I do,” she said. She didn’t elaborate any further, and I knew right then that she was holding something back, something that she couldn’t tell me, something that made her sad as well. But it wasn’t until later that I learned her secret.
Being in love with a girl like Jamie Sullivan was without a doubt the strangest thing I’d ever been through. Not only was she a girl that I’d never thought about before this year—even though we’d grown up together—but there was something different in the whole way my feelings for her had unfolded. This wasn’t like being with Angela, whom I’d kissed the first time I was ever alone with her. I still hadn’t kissed Jamie. I hadn’t even hugged her or taken her to Cecil’s Diner or even to a movie. I hadn’t done any of the things that I normally did with girls, yet somehow I’d fallen in love.
The problem was, I still didn’t know how she felt about me.
Oh sure, there were some indications, and I hadn’t missed them. The Bible was, of course, the biggie, but there was also the way she’d looked at me when she’d closed the door on Christmas Eve, and she’d let me hold her hand on the ride home from the orphanage. To my way of thinking there was definitely something there—I just wasn’t exactly sure of how to take the next step.
When I’d finally taken her home after Christmas dinner, I’d asked if it would be okay if I came by from time to time, and she’d said it would be fine. That’s exactly how she’d said it, too—“That would be fine.” I didn’t take the lack of enthusiasm personally—Jamie had a tendency to talk like an adult, and I think that’s why she got along with older people so well.
The following day I walked to her house, and the first thing I noticed was that Hegbert’s car wasn’t in the driveway. When she answered the door, I knew enough not to ask her if I could come in.
“Hello, Landon,” she said as she always did, as if it were a surprise to see me. Again her hair was down, and I took this as a positive sign.
“Hey, Jamie,” I said casually.
She motioned to the chairs. “My father’s not home, but we can sit on the porch if you’d like. . . .”
Don’t even ask me how it happened, because I still can’t explain it. One second I was standing there in front of her, expecting to walk to the side of the porch, and in the next second I wasn’t. Instead of moving toward the chairs, I took a step closer to her and found myself reaching for her hand. I took it in mine and looked right at her, moving just a little closer. She didn’t exactly step back, but her eyes widened just a little, and for a tiny, flickering moment I thought I’d done the wrong thing and debated going any further. I paused and smiled, sort of tilting my head to the side, and the next thing I saw was that she’d closed her eyes and was tilting her head, too, and that our faces were moving closer together.
It wasn’t that long, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of kiss you see in movies these days, but it was wonderful in its own way, and all I can remember about the moment is that when our lips first touched, I knew the memory would last forever.