The slam of a door caught Claire Simpson’s attention as she watched snow fall on the small patch of beach barely visible beyond the Yaquina Bay Elementary breezeway. Even though she stood close to the parking lot, she hadn’t heard the pickup drive in. She was surprised by its arrival, since school officials had cancelled classes earlier to avoid the onset of a severe Pacific storm.
A well-groomed man, his uniform suggesting military personnel, climbed from the truck. Trench coat flapping about his knees as the wind played tag, he opened the doors of the extended cab, and lifted first a girl, then a boy from the back. The little boy ran toward the playground, exuberance oozing from his busy body. He pointed to the beach, but the blunt sound of an angry voice turned him around. He walked bent over toward the truck, head hanging like a scolded dog.
Claire didn’t recognize either child, but perhaps they attended school elsewhere. The man might be here to pick up his wife. She hadn’t met all of the staff’s spouses. The threesome entered through the main doors and disappeared. She returned her attention to the storm, mesmerized as the churning ocean slapped at the edge of the sand, daring the falling snow to encroach its mighty waters. The waves seemed to laugh as the fragile flakes vaporized in the rush of the wind.
She hadn’t grown up on the Oregon coast and assumed the north Pacific was all surf and sand. She’d never have guessed the shore could be covered in white, nor had she seen it this way, even in pictures. Mounds on the beach turned into oversized marshmallows. Driftwood transformed to fanciful fences. Did this happen often? On the sand? In November?
Yet here snow fell—sloppy, fat flakes fluttering down like a curtain of white fairies on a theater’s stage opening night. The quiet drift of the airborne dancers made her pulse race, their presence evoking memories from her past—images she’d tried to forget.
A brisk whack of wind chilled her. She turned to the school where for the last two years she’d filled her days as the learning specialist. Except today. The voices of children were missing in light of the unusual snow day. The swings jingled in the breeze, their black seats responding to the swish of cold air driving the storm inland. The silvery slide no longer shone, its curved form home to pockets of wintry slush instead. When the squall landed shortly after nine, the superintendent ordered the buses back. High winds were expected, along with freezing rain, and maybe the snow. She glanced down at the little stretch of beach peeking through the housing project surrounding the school. Cross off the maybe. Snow still fell.
She checked her watch. Staff members were free to leave at noon. She should be packing up for the day. Grocery shopping lay ahead. The errand meant she’d brought her car. Any other Monday she’d have walked the short mile from her duplex to the school. But providence had smiled on her, so she wasn’t stuck walking home in the storm.
Claire scooted in through the side entrance and headed to her office. The family she’d seen a few minutes before stood talking with the principal. The man, gesturing with his hands, spoke as if agitated. The children clung to his pant legs. She watched them a few minutes, then realized her gawking might be considered rude and entered her room. She couldn’t put a finger on her angst, but something about the scene bothered her. Perhaps the father had had a bad experience elsewhere.
She lifted the stack of files she needed to work through tonight, stuffed the papers into a canvas tote, and set it on the floor. In her position, paperwork never ended. Individual education plans had to be evaluated quarterly. Goals set for the disabled student needed to be addressed, assessed, and re-addressed.
She grabbed her coat, buttoned the front, and headed to the door. Grabbing the tote, she locked her office and followed the red tiles toward the entrance. The man she’d seen earlier still stood talking with the principal. Acknowledging them with a nod, she veered to the left.
“Claire?” The principal’s voice caught her by surprise.
She turned and faced the superintendent, the woman’s smile forced as if she were dealing with an obnoxious student. Claire eyed the two children, noting the little girl slumped on a chair by the wall. Sandy blonde hair tumbled over her forehead, hiding her eyes. The little boy, arms folded and a frown on his face, stood beneath his father’s hand, the man’s fingers firmly planted on the top of the child’s head. “Hello.”
“Claire, this is Montgomery Chandler. He and his children recently moved to Newport.” The principal gestured to the boy. “This is Mason. His sister is Mia.”
She held out her hand. “Claire Simpson. I’m the learning specialist.” She smiled at Mason, then Mia.
Mr. Chandler let go of Mason and shook her hand.
The twins studied her, shy grins on both of their faces. The boy, hair like his sister’s, had eyes the color of dried walnuts. The girl looked up, and Claire noticed her eyes were blue. Claire glanced at the father. His clear blue eyes scrutinized her like a bug under a microscope and confirmed who the little sister favored. Her cheeks burned in the intensity of his stare. “Twins?” She never liked to ask that question because people often took offense in the obvious, but since this pair were brother and sister, she decided to risk it.
“Yes.” Mr. Chandler drew the boy back toward him, and placed a firm grip on the child’s shoulder. “Both of them were doing well in school when we left Seattle.”
“It’s nice to have you join our community.” No mother had been mentioned, but Claire decided this was not the time to ask. She could access the children’s files easily enough. “Will they start tomorrow?”
Montgomery stiffened at the question. “I had hoped they’d start today, but the weather had other ideas.”
The principal gestured as she spoke. “Usually these storms are only wind and rain. When snow threatens, we have to think of the safety of our students traveling in buses on slick roads.”
“Mia and Mason will arrive by car. My sister will pick them up.”
Claire found the defensiveness in his voice curious. More than ever she wanted to read their file.
The principal pressed her fingers together. “Tomorrow, then?”
“Tomorrow.” Mr. Chandler nodded at Claire. “Nice to have met you, Mrs. Simpson, even though my children will have no need of your services.”
Claire stifled the urge to correct the man. He was wrong on two counts. She didn’t have a married name, and his children, of the many she’d met at this school, already seemed likely candidates for her expertise. She hadn’t encountered many second-grade girls who still sucked their thumbs, and the little boy’s unspent energy threatened to explode from beneath his jacket, despite his father’s firm hand. Parts of the family’s puzzle appeared to be missing. What those pieces were, Claire didn’t know, but to do her job, she needed to find them.
He turned, and with a grip on Mason’s coat jacket, extended his other hand to Mia, who scuffled to his side sucking her thumb. The threesome walked to the door, the man’s brisk strides making the children hustle. As the door opened, Mia glanced back, her sad eyes searching the hallway. When she found Claire standing where she’d left her, she lifted a pudgy hand and waved.
Time for Claire to fill in the gaps of the puzzle.
Montgomery slid his two children into the back seat of their crew cab, fastened the seatbelts, and hurried to the driver’s side. As the engine warmed, he looked over the little grey building where the twins would attend school. The large red letters naming the structure seemed out of proportion to the building’s size. Beyond the long, boxlike exterior, a larger addition rose from the back, a space he guessed to be an auditorium or gymnasium. The playground extended behind, newer looking play structures and sturdy swings filling the fenced recreational area. He glimpsed a limited span of the ocean in the distance, the view obstructed by a housing development that graced the school’s perimeter.
“Is that a kite? A kite flying in the snow?” Mason’s voice rose from the back, high-pitched and excited. Like a ballerina pirouetting on a stage, the kite lifted into the air, reaching a lofty space and dashing toward the ground again.
“Yes, the person holding the string must either be frozen or nuts to brave this wind and the cold.” Montgomery watched, fascinated by the strange dips and turns of the kite’s dance across the beach. He hadn’t flown a kite in years. He understood Mason’s enthusiasm.
“He might be cold, Dad.” Mason leaned as far forward as his seatbelt would allow. “But think of all the fun he’s having.”
“I hope he doesn’t catch pneumonia down there.” Montgomery put the truck in gear and reversed out of the small parking place. “I need to drop by the NOAA headquarters and let them know I’ve arrived. After that we’ll go see if your Aunt Ellen is home yet.” He glanced in the rearview mirror for a response. Mason, nose pressed against the glass, sat watching the kite. Mia, thumb stuck in her mouth, had collapsed in the corner of her seat, fast asleep.
He sighed. His sister Ellen had her work cut out for her with these two. Had she known what she was doing when she volunteered? He wondered if he should have accepted her offer. But the transfer from Seattle left him few alternatives. If only Marissa could have beaten her illness last spring, she could have transferred with him. But the illness that raged its war against her claimed its victim, its iron grip on her fragile form silencing the spark within her forever. He couldn’t help the painful longing tugging at him. The kids so needed her. He needed her.
Mason shrieked. “It got away, Dad. The kite flew away.”
Mia, startled by her brother’s scream, awoke and started crying.
Montgomery fisted the steering wheel and closed his eyes. Why did it feel as if everything they did ended in a crisis? How had Marissa smoothed each squall into an ocean breeze? Calmed every fear with a quiet word? He had no answers. He hadn’t been home enough to learn. How would his family survive without her?
Claire shivered as she walked into her apartment. She set the groceries on the kitchen counter, hurrying to start the flame in the front room’s standing fireplace. The little electric hearth, with its counterfeit blaze and glowing logs, had been a gift from her mother. The fireside might not contain a real fire grate and burning coals, but in minutes it could heat her kitchen, dining, and front room area to a comfortable seventy degrees. In this coastal climate, with the windy days and rain-filled nights, she welcomed the warmth. The snow today made the device even more appreciated.
By the time the apartment lost its chill, Claire had put away her purchases, made a cup of hot chocolate, and settled down at her desk to study the paperwork she needed to finish. Two of the teachers had registered a complaint against a second-grade girl who continued to sneak cigarettes into the girl’s restroom and smoke them before dropping them in the toilet. The girl’s foster parents didn’t know where she might be getting the packs, but considering the child’s history of pandering on the streets for her drunken mother, the illegal possession of smokes didn’t surprise Claire. Figuring out a way to change the girl’s attitude toward what she was doing became the goal. Claire had no clue how to proceed. What eight-year-old had already learned to smoke?
The telephone interrupted her thoughts and she picked it up.
“Hi, Claire.” Her mother’s voice sounded strong and healthy.
“You must be feeling better.” Claire settled deeper in her chair. “Your flu bug made its exit, I take it?”
“Pretty much. I still have a residual cough.” Her mother stopped and cleared her throat. “But I’m on the mend. How was school today? Did I understand the news correctly? You had snowy roads?”
“Yep. I saw snow near the water’s edge. I’m used to flurries in the valley, but I’ve never seen snow falling on sand before.” Claire remembered Montgomery Chandler and his two children, the father upset that his son and daughter didn’t get to start school today. “The students were sent home because of slick roads.”
“Better safe than risking trouble.”
Claire listened to her mother ramble for a few more minutes, waiting for the inevitable question she always posed.
Mom didn’t disappoint. “I saw Jamie’s mother at the grocery store, and she asked about you.”
“You two are never giving up on us, are you?”
“You came awfully close to tying the knot, Claire. I haven’t forgotten. But I also understand why you wouldn’t want to try again.”
“He left me three days before we went to the altar. For reasons I find unacceptable. I’m trying to forget.”
“I don’t blame you, though I thought it was only a misunderstanding at the time.” Mom paused. “But you obviously had your mind set. Running away to Pennsylvania sealed the deal.”
“What was I supposed to do? Sit around and wait for him to come crawling back?” She sipped her hot chocolate. “Angie and Brennan had space for me. And the teaching program at Penn State was excellent.” She set the cup down. “I believe I landed on my feet after Jamie’s debacle.”
“You did. Quite well.” Her mother sighed. “Any new men in your life?”
Claire smiled at her mother’s question. Mom’s mission, it seemed, centered around getting Claire married. Mom had almost accomplished her goal when she and Jamie Duval, an Olympic hopeful, became engaged. The wedding guests had returned their RSVP’s when Jamie sent her a note saying he’d changed his mind. He’d been invited to compete in a slalom at Aspen and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The event might have been his ticket to the next Olympics.
Only Claire understood the real reason for his departure. Though betrayed, discovering this side of Jamie before she repeated her vows had been a godsend. He’d dumped her with the wedding expenses, the embarrassment, and a future forever carrying the burden of their past in silence. To save face, she’d opted to live with her married sister, Angela, in Pennsylvania. She spent the year there finishing her degree, earning her teaching credentials and healing from the brokenness Jamie’s departure created. Time well spent.
When she returned to teach in Newport, he had the audacity to make a reappearance, pleading with her to forgive him. Once she might have considered his request, but she’d discovered the truth behind his absence. Another woman had caught his attention. That she couldn’t forgive.
Her mother still waited for an answer. “No, Mom. This is a coastal town. Single men are usually here for the weekend, looking for a good time before they hurry back to jobs in the valley. Those who are permanent wear rings on their left hand or, so far, haven’t interested me, when I’ve had the opportunity to meet someone new.” She raised her chin in defiance, as if her mother could see. “But I’m happy in my job, glad to be free of Jamie’s control over me, and enjoying my enduring single status. What Jamie and I had is over. I’m not going back there again. Ever.”
“I know. I’m only thinking of your happiness.”
“I am happy, Mom. I discovered a new life after Jamie walked out. I found out God loves me as I am. Past mistakes are forgotten in His eyes. My slate has been wiped clean. That in itself made me happy. It has nothing to do with my broken engagement or marital status.” She checked the clock. “Anyway, I’m midway through a pile of papers I need to complete before tomorrow. I’ll have to say goodbye for now.”
“I admire your dedication to your students.” Mom sniffed and blew her nose. “You’ve done well with your education.”
“Thanks. Stay healthy. Praying for you.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Angie asked me to have you call her. Apparently Fallyn has been having problems. She thought you might have some insights into her behavior.”
Claire swallowed hard. “I’ll call her soon. Thanks for the heads-up.”
Fallyn had problems? Her five-year-old niece held a special place in her heart. She’d give up her life to help the child.
A cold shiver passed over her. Fallyn …