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Sable Peak: Part 2 – Chapter 36

VERA

Five years later …

“Got your flashlight?” Dad asked.

I held it up. “Yep.”

“Better get back to camp. It’s already dark.”

“Okay.” I threw my arms around his shoulders, hugging him as tight as possible with my massive belly between us. At eight months pregnant, hugs were becoming tricky. “Love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Vera.” He kissed my hair. “Never forget how much I love you.”

“Never.” I held him for another moment, then let go.

In the five years since Mateo and I had found Dad on Sable Peak, it hadn’t gotten easier to walk away. There was always a lingering fear that something would ruin the peace we’d found.

Maybe Agent Swenson. He came to town every year, sometimes twice. He’d ask questions and be a general nuisance, but otherwise, his visits felt like a huge waste of time. Luckily, he usually found me at Eden Coffee. Only twice had he visited our home. But with each unannounced ambush, it would put us on alert.

Dad would stay close to his home in the mountains—his “chalet” as he referred to it because that sounded fancier than shanty. And I’d spend weeks looking over my shoulder.

But the nerves would eventually pass, and we’d settle into our routine again, and Dad would visit me at home late at night.

Tonight, home was the camper Mateo and I had bought before this year’s annual Eden family camping trip, because not a chance I was sleeping on the ground while I was this pregnant. The spot we’d chosen for this year’s campout was close to the cabin, in case something happened with the baby, so Dad had snuck down to meet me for a hug.

He met me a lot these days, at least three times a week. Last week, he’d come every day. His visits had increased with the size of my belly.

We usually sat on a swing at the firepit, talking for an hour. I’d tell him about Mateo and Allie. He’d ask questions about my college classes. When I’d finished my last course this spring, he’d whittled a graduation cap out of wood as my gift. The night of my baby shower, he’d brought me a set of woodland creatures, each intricately carved, to put in the nursery.

It was rare that we talked about my sisters. Even rarer that we talked about my mother, though he shared the story of how they’d really met. I knew it already, but I’d let him tell me anyway. He’d confessed about her struggles with addiction and explained her upbringing with abusive, alcoholic parents.

Only once had we discussed that night. I told him exactly what I’d shared with Mateo. I cried hard, reliving that nightmare. For each tear I’d shed, Dad had wept two.

It had been important to me that he know I didn’t blame him for that night. But no matter what I said, he’d always carry that guilt. So we stuck to safe topics about school, the future and the Edens.

I was an Eden now. Two months after we’d gotten engaged, we’d married in a small ceremony in a fall meadow on the ranch. My wedding ring was a bit tight on my swollen fingers, but I hadn’t taken it off since Mateo had given it to me.

Vance had walked me down an aisle of wild grasses to an archway wreathed in flowers. My dress had a lace bodice with long sleeves. The back had dipped low, revealing my spine and shoulder blades before the skirt flared out in a swish of silk.

Allie had been my flower girl, dressed in a burnt orange fluffy tulle skirt and white lace shirt. She’d done remarkably well at dropping petals on the path, soaking in the attention of her grandparents, aunts and uncles.

She’d turned around at the end of the aisle and yelled, “You go, Mommy.”

Three months after the wedding, the final paperwork to approve my adoption had come through.

There were days when it still didn’t feel real, but then I’d kiss Mateo and send up a silent thanks to the angels who’d kept me going. Who’d kept me alive. All so I could be here, walking along a forest trail with my flashlight illuminating the way to a campground brimming with laughter.

Everyone thought I’d snuck away to rest. Though I was sure Vance knew what I was actually doing.

He’d spotted Dad on an autumn hike a couple years ago. Or rather, Dad had let Vance spot him. We didn’t talk much about it. Secrecy had kept Dad’s whereabouts safe, so we’d agreed the less we said the better. But sometimes, I’d come home and find Vance’s truck parked at the cabin and Vance nowhere in sight.

When I reached the clearing cramped with seven campers—every couple had upgraded from tents—I glanced over my shoulder.

Dad stood in the shadows, twenty feet away, always keeping watch to make sure I made it home.

I blew him a kiss, then waddled toward our camper.

Mateo shoved off the side where he’d been waiting since I went to say hello to Dad. “Hey, Peach.”

“Hi.” I walked straight into his arms, burying my nose in his T-shirt. The flannel he’d been wearing over it was so warm that I’d stolen it earlier. The sleeves were rolled up three times and the hem fell nearly to my knees.

I leaned away, my chin on his sternum as I stared into the sky. “What did I miss?”

“Foster and Jasper are sharing old UFC stories. Remind me never to pick a fight with either of them.”

I laughed. “Because you fight so often.”

“For you, I’d fight them all.”

I tipped my head back farther. “I love you.”

“Love you too. Want to go back to the fire?”

As our family’s laughter and stories filled the night air, I smiled up at the heavens. Out here, with no city lights to interfere, the Milky Way swirled through twinkling diamond stars.

“Let’s hide out here for a few more minutes. Make a wish on a shooting star.”

“You get the wishes.”

“You don’t have any?”

“They already came true.” He spun me so my back was pressed against his chest, his hands splayed on my belly.

We were having a boy. Mateo had wanted to name him Jake, but I’d dug my heels in and insisted he was Mateo Jr.

Matty.

Allie was practically vibrating with excitement to be a big sister. She’d been helping me get everything ready by folding onesies and baby blankets. Now that school was over, I was nesting.

I’d graduated with my bachelor’s degree in social work this spring. The online offerings had only gotten me so far, and for the past three years, I’d been taking classes at the university in Missoula.

The four-hour-round-trip drive from Quincy would have been impossible had I needed to make it every day. Luckily, my husband was a damn good pilot.

I’d been able to limit my classes to two or three days a week, and on those days, Mateo would fly me to Missoula, drop me off for school, then return every afternoon to bring me home.

On the days when the weather was bad, we either drove or I stayed home. Every one of my professors had been understanding, and since I’d worked my tail off to get good grades, they’d accommodated my absences.

The job hunt would start when I was ready, but for now, I was enjoying the last month of my pregnancy. Besides, with Mateo’s schedule getting busier, I wanted to stay home and spend more time with the kids.

Mateo’s flight school had been more popular than either of us could have imagined. He flew almost every day with at least one student, sometimes more. He was in the process of building another hangar at the airfield for the Cessna he’d bought, a less complicated plane than his Cirrus and more affordable for his younger students.

Three Quincy High kids were becoming pilots, two seniors and one junior.

The hangar was his second big construction project of the year. We’d added on two bedrooms to the cabin and a bathroom.

It was exciting and busy and … normal.

“It’s more than I expected.”

“What? Camping?”

“A normal life.”

Mateo’s arms tightened as he leaned down for a kiss. Then he stood tall again, both of us staring up at the stars.

They offered light. Hope.

They stared down at us without a cloud in sight.

Maybe my sisters were up there. Allie knew about them. So did Mateo. Whenever a memory crossed my mind, I gave it voice. Five years, and I saw them the way I saw Mateo and Allie.

Not a cloud in sight.

This life of ours was clear and a million.


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