Chapter 18

Later that day, at Taylor’s request, Denise showed him Kyle’s journal.

Sitting in the kitchen beside him, she flipped through the pages, commenting every now and then. Each page was filled with Denise’s goals, as well as specific words and phrases, pronunciations, and her final observations.

“See, it’s just a record of what we do. That’s all.”

Taylor flipped to the very first page. Across the top was written a single word: Apple. Beneath that, toward the middle of the page and continuing onto the back side, was Denise’s description of the very first day she’d worked with him.

“May I?” he asked, motioning to the page. Denise nodded and Taylor read slowly, taking in every word. When he finished he looked up.

“Four hours?”

“Yes.”

“Just to say the word apple?”

“Actually, he didn’t say it exactly right, even in the end. But it was close enough to understand what he was trying to say.”

“How did you finally get him to do it?”

“I just kept working with him until he did.”

“But how did you know what would work?”

“I didn’t, really. Not in the beginning. I’d studied a lot of different things about how to work with kids like Kyle; I’d read up on different programs that universities were trying, I learned about speech therapy and the things they do. But none of them really seemed to be describing Kyle-I mean, they’d get parts of it right, but mostly they were describing other kids. But there were two books, Late-Talking Children by Thomas Sowell and Let Me Hear Your Voice by Catherine Maurice, that seemed to come the closest. Sowell’s book was the first one that let me know that I wasn’t alone in all this; that a lot of children have trouble speaking, even though nothing else seems to be wrong with them. Maurice’s book gave me an idea of how to actually teach Kyle, even though her book primarily dealt with autism.”

“So what do you do?”

“I use a type of behavioral modification program, one that was originally designed out at UCLA. They’ve had a lot of success with autistic children over the years by rewarding good behavior and punishing negative behavior. I modified the program for speech, since that was really Kyle’s only problem. Basically, when Kyle says what he’s supposed to, he gets a tiny piece of candy. When he doesn’t say it, no candy. If he doesn’t even try or he’s being stubborn, I scold him. When I taught him how to say ‘apple,’ I pointed to a picture of an apple and kept repeating the word. I’d give him candy whenever he made a sound; after that, I gave him candy only when he made the right sound-even if it was just part of the word. Eventually, he was rewarded only when he said the whole word.”

“And that took four hours?”

Denise nodded. “Four incredibly long hours. He cried and fussed, he kept trying to get out of the chair, he screamed like I was stabbing him with pins. If someone had heard us that day, he probably would have thought I was torturing him. I must have said the word, I don’t know, five or six hundred times. I kept repeating it over and over, until we were both absolutely sick of it. It was terrible, truly awful for both of us, and I never thought it would end, but you know . . .”

She leaned a little closer.

“When he finally said it, all the terrible parts suddenly went away-all the frustration and anger and fear that both of us were experiencing. I remember how excited I was-you can’t even begin to imagine it. I started crying, and I had him repeat the word at least a dozen times before I really believed he’d done it. That was the first time that I ever knew for certain that Kyle had the ability to learn. I’d done it, on my own, and I can’t even describe how much that meant, after all the things the doctors had said about him.”

She shook her head wistfully, remembering that day.

“Well, after that, we just kept trying new words, one at a time, until he got those, too. He got to the point where he could name every tree and flower there was, every type of car, every kind of airplane . . . his vocabulary was huge, but he still didn’t have the ability to understand that language was actually used for something. So then we started with two-word combinations, like ‘blue truck’ or ‘big tree,’ and I think that helped him grasp what I was trying to teach him-that words are the way people communicate. After a few months, he could mimic almost everything I said, so I started trying to teach him what questions were.”

“Was that hard?”

“It’s still hard. Harder than teaching him words, because now he has to try to interpret inflections in tone, then understand what the question is, then answer it appropriately. All three parts of that are difficult for him, and that’s what we’ve been working on for the last few months. At first, questions presented a whole new set of challenges, because Kyle wanted to simply mimic what I was saying. I’d point to a picture of an apple and say, ‘What is this?’ Kyle would respond, ‘What is this?’ I’d say, ‘No, say, “It’s an apple,” ’ and Kyle would answer, ‘No, say, “It’s an apple.” ’ Eventually, I started whispering the question, then saying the answer loudly, hoping he could understand what I wanted. But for a long time, he’d whisper the question like I did, then answer loudly, repeating my words and tones exactly. It took weeks before he would say only the answer. I’d reward him, of course, whenever he did.”

Taylor nodded, beginning to grasp just how difficult all this must have been. “You must have the patience of a saint,” he said.

“Not always.”

“But to do it every day . . .”

“I have to. Besides, look at how far he’s come.”

Taylor flipped through the notebook, toward the end. From a nearly blank page with only a single word on it, Denise’s notes about the hours spent with Kyle now covered three and four pages at a time.

“He’s come a long way.”

“Yes, he has. He’s got a long way to go, though. He’s good with some questions, like ‘what’ and ‘who,’ but he still doesn’t understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. He doesn’t really converse yet, either-he usually just makes a single statement. He’s also got trouble with the phrasing of questions. He knows what I mean when I say, ‘Where’s your toy?’ But if I ask him, ‘Where did you put your toy?’ all I get is a blank stare. Things like that are the reason I’m glad I’ve kept that journal. Whenever Kyle has a bad day-and he does, quite often-I’ll open this up and remind myself of all the challenges he’s made it through so far. One day, once he’s better, I’m going to give this to him. I want him to read it, so that he knows how much I love him.”

“He already knows that.”

“I know. But someday, I also want to hear him say that he loves me, too.”

“Doesn’t he do that now? When you tuck him in at night?”

“No,” she answered. “Kyle’s never said that to me.”

“Haven’t you tried to teach him that?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to be surprised on the day that he finally does it on his own.”

During the next week and a half Taylor spent more and more time at Denise’s house, always dropping by in the afternoons once he knew she’d finished working with Kyle. Sometimes he stayed for an hour, other times a little longer. On two afternoons he played catch with Kyle while Denise watched from the porch; on the third afternoon he taught Kyle to hit the ball with a small bat and tee that Taylor had used when he was young. Swing after swing, Taylor retrieved the ball and set it back on the tee, only to encourage Kyle to try again. By the time Kyle was ready to stop, Taylor’s shirt was soaked through. Denise kissed him for the second time after handing him a glass of water.

On Sunday, the week after the carnival, Taylor drove them to Kitty Hawk, where they spent the day at the beach. Taylor pointed out the spot where Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic flight in 1903, and they read the details on a monument that had been erected to honor them. They shared a picnic lunch, then waded in and out of the surf on a long walk down the beach as terns fluttered overhead. Toward the end of the afternoon Denise and Taylor built sand castles that Kyle delighted in ruining. Roaring like Godzilla, he stomped through the mounds almost as quickly as they were molded.

On the way home, they stopped at a farmer’s road stand, where they picked up some fresh corn. While Kyle ate macaroni and cheese, Taylor had his first dinner at Denise’s house. The sun and wind at the beach had worn Kyle out, and he fell asleep immediately afterward. Taylor and Denise talked in the kitchen until almost midnight. On the doorstep they kissed again, Taylor’s arms wrapped around her.

A few days later Taylor let Denise borrow his truck to head into town to run some errands. By the time she got back, he’d rehung the sagging cabinet doors in her kitchen. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, wondering if he’d overstepped some invisible line.

“Not at all,” she cried, clapping her hands together, “but can you do anything about the leaky sink?” Thirty minutes later that was fixed as well.

In their moments alone, Taylor found himself mesmerized by her simple beauty and grace. But there were also times when he could see written in her features the sacrifices she’d made for her son. It was an almost weary expression, like that of a warrior after a long battle on the plains, and it inspired an admiration in him that he found difficult to put into words. She seemed to be one of a slowly vanishing breed; a stark contrast to those who were always chasing, running, on the go, searching for personal fulfillment and self-esteem. So many people these days, it seemed, believed that these things could come only from work, not from parenting, and many people believed that having children had nothing to do with raising them. When he said as much, Denise had simply looked away, out the window. “I used to believe that, too.”

On Wednesday of the following week, Taylor invited both Denise and Kyle to his home. Similar to Denise’s in many ways, it was an older house that sat on a large parcel of land. His, however, had been remodeled over the years, both before and after he’d bought the place. Kyle loved the toolshed out back, and after pointing out the “tractor” (actually a lawn mower), Taylor took him for a ride around the yard without engaging the blade. As he’d done when he’d driven Taylor’s truck, Kyle beamed as he zigzagged across the yard.

Watching them together, Denise realized that her initial impression of Taylor being shy wasn’t completely accurate. But he did hold things back about himself, she reflected. Though they’d talked about his job and his time with the fire department, he remained strangely silent about his father, never volunteering more than he had that first night. Nor had he said anything about the women he’d known in the past, not even in a casual way. It didn’t really matter, of course, but the omission perplexed her.

Still, she had to admit she was drawn to him. He’d stumbled into her life when she’d least expected it, in the most unlikely of ways. He was already more than a friend. But at night, lying under the sheet with the oscillating fan rattling in the background, she found herself hoping and praying that the whole thing was real.

“How much longer?” Denise asked.

Taylor had surprised her by bringing over an old-fashioned ice-cream maker, complete with all the ingredients needed. He was cranking the handle, sweat running off his face, as the cream churned, thickening slowly.

“Five minutes, maybe ten. Why, are you hungry?”

“I’ve never had homemade ice cream before.”

“Would you like to claim some ownership? You can take over for a while. . . .”

She held up her hands. “No, that’s okay. It’s more fun watching you do it.”

Taylor nodded as if disappointed, then played the martyr as he pretended to struggle with the handle. She giggled. When she stopped, Taylor wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

“Are you doing anything Sunday night?”

She knew he was going to ask. “Not really.”

“Do you want to go out for dinner?”

Denise shrugged. “Sure. But you know how Kyle is. He won’t eat anything at most places.”

Taylor swallowed, his arm never stopping. His eyes met hers.

“I meant, could I take just you? Without Kyle this time? My mom said she’d be happy to come over and watch him.”

Denise hesitated. “I don’t know how he’d do with her. He doesn’t know her too well.”

“How about if I pick you up after he’s already asleep? You can put him in bed, tuck him in, and we won’t leave until you’re sure it’s okay.”

She relented then, unable to disguise her pleasure. “You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?”

“I didn’t want you to have the opportunity to say no.”

She grinned, leaning in to within inches of his face. “In that case, I’d love to go.”

Judy arrived at seven-thirty, a few minutes after Denise had put Kyle in bed. She’d kept him busy outside all day in the hope that he’d sleep while she was out. They’d ridden their bikes into town and stopped at the playground; they’d played in the dirt out back. It was hot and steamy, the kind of day that saps the energy, and Kyle started yawning right before dinner. After giving him a bath and putting on his pajamas, Denise read three books in his room while Kyle drank his milk, his eyes half-open. After pulling the shades closed-it was still light outside-she closed the door; Kyle was already sound asleep.

She took a shower and shaved her legs, then stood with a towel wrapped around her, trying to decide what to wear. Taylor had said they were going to Fontana, a wonderfully quiet restaurant in the heart of downtown. When she’d asked him what she should wear, he’d said not to worry about it, which didn’t help at all.

She finally decided on a simple black cocktail dress that seemed appropriate for almost any occasion. It had been in the back of her closet for years, still draped in a plastic sheath from a dry cleaner in Atlanta. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn it, but after slipping it on, she was pleased to see that it still fit well. A pair of black pumps came next; she considered wearing black stockings, too, but that idea was dropped as quickly as she’d thought of it. It was too warm a night, and besides, who ever wore black stockings in Edenton, except for a funeral?

After drying and styling her hair, she put on a little makeup, then pulled out the perfume that sat in her bedstand drawer. A little on her neck and hair, then a dab on her wrists, which she rubbed together. In her top drawer she kept a small jewelry box from which she withdrew a pair of hoop earrings.

Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, she evaluated herself, pleased with how she looked. Not too much, not too little. Just right, in fact. It was then that she heard Judy knocking. Taylor arrived two minutes later.

Fontana’s Restaurant had been in business for a dozen years. It was owned by a middle-aged couple originally from Berne, Switzerland, who had moved to Edenton from New Orleans, hoping for a simpler life. In the process, however, they’d also brought a touch of elegance to the town. Dimly lit, with first-rate service, it was popular with couples celebrating anniversaries and engagements; its reputation had been established when an article on the place had appeared in Southern Living.

Taylor and Denise were seated at a small table in the corner, Taylor nursing a Scotch and soda, Denise sipping Chardonnay.

“Have you eaten here before?” Denise asked, scanning the menu.

“A few times, but I haven’t been here in a while.”

She flipped through the pages, unused to so many choices after years of one-pot dinners. “What do you recommend?”

“Everything, really. The rack of lamb is the house specialty, but they’re also known for their steaks and seafood.”

“That doesn’t really narrow it down.”

“It’s true, though. You won’t be disappointed with anything.”

Studying the appetizer listings, she twirled a strand of her hair between her fingers. Taylor watched with a mixture of fascination and amusement.

“Have I told you how nice you look tonight?” he asked.

“Only twice,” she said, playing it cool, “but don’t feel you have to stop. I don’t mind.”

“Really?”

“Not when it comes from a man dressed as spiffy as you.”

“Spiffy?”

She winked. “It means the same thing as goob.”

The dinner that followed was wonderful in every detail, the food delicious and the setting undeniably intimate. Over dessert, Taylor reached for her hand across the table. He didn’t let go for the next hour.

As the evening wore on, they immersed themselves in each other’s lives. Taylor told Denise about his past with the fire department and some of the more dangerous blazes he’d helped to battle; he also talked about Mitch and Melissa, the two friends who’d been with him through it all. Denise shared stories of her college years and went on to describe the first two years she’d spent teaching and how utterly unprepared she’d felt the first time she’d stepped into a classroom. To both of them, this night seemed to mark the beginning of their life as a couple. It was also the first time they’d ever had a conversation in which Kyle’s name never came up.

After dinner, as they stepped out onto the deserted street, Denise noted how different the old town seemed at night, like a place lost in time. Aside from the restaurant they’d been in and a bar on the corner, everything was closed. Meandering along brick sidewalks that had cracked over time, they passed an antique shop and an art gallery.

It was perfectly silent on the street, neither of them feeling the urge to speak. Within a couple of minutes they’d reached the harbor, and Denise could make out the boats settled into their slips. Large and small, new and old, they ran the gamut from wooden sailboats to weekend trawlers. A few were illuminated from within, but the only sound came from the water lapping against the seawall.

Leaning against a railing that had been set up near the docks, Taylor cleared his throat and took Denise’s hand.

“Edenton was one of the earliest settled ports in the South, and even though the town was nothing more than an outpost, trading ships used to stop here, either to sell their wares or to replenish their supplies. Can you see those railings on top of the houses over there?”

He motioned to some of the historic homes along the harbor, and Denise nodded.

“In colonial days, shipping was dangerous, and wives would stand on those balconies, waiting for their husbands’ ships to enter the harbor. So many husbands died, however, that they became known as widows’ walks. But here in Edenton, the ships would never come directly into port. Instead, they used to stop out there in the middle of the harbor, no matter how long the voyage had been, and women standing on the widows’ walks would strain their eyes, searching for their husbands as the ship came to a stop.”

“Why did they stop out there?”

“There used to be a tree, a giant cypress tree, standing all by itself. That’s one of the ways that ships knew they’d reached Edenton, especially if they’d never been here before. It was the only tree like it anywhere along the East Coast. Usually cypress trees grow close to the banks-within a few feet or so-but this one was at least two hundred yards from shore. It was like a monument because it seemed so out of place. Well, somehow it became a custom for ships to stop at the tree whenever they entered the harbor. They’d get in a small boat, row over to the tree, and put a bottle of rum in the trunk of the tree, thankful that they’d made it back to port safely. And whenever a ship left the harbor, the crew would stop at the tree and members of the crew would drink a dram of the rum in the hopes of a safe and prosperous voyage. That’s why they call it the dram tree.”

“Really?”

“Sure. The town is ripe with legends of ships that neglected to stop for their ‘dram’ of rum that were subsequently lost at sea. It was considered bad luck, and only the foolish ignored the custom. Sailors disregarded it at their own peril.”

“What if there wasn’t any rum there when a ship was on its way out? Would they turn the ship around?”

“As legend has it, it never happened.” He looked over the water, his tone changing slightly. “I remember my dad telling me that story when I was a kid. He took me out there, too, to the very spot where the tree had been and told me all about it.”

Denise smiled. “Do you have any other stories about Edenton?”

“A few.”

“Any ghost stories?”

“Of course. Every old town in North Carolina has ghost stories. On Halloween, my father would sit me and my friends down after we’d gone trick-or-treating and tell us the story of Brownrigg Mill. It’s about a witch, and it’s got everything needed to terrify children. Superstitious townsfolk, evil spells, mysterious deaths, even a three-legged cat. By the time my dad was done, we’d be too scared to sleep. He could spin a yarn with the best of them.”

She thought about life in a small town, the ancient stories, and how different it all was from her own experiences in Atlanta.

“That must have been neat.”

“It was. If you’d like, I could do the same for Kyle.”

“I doubt if he’d understand what you’re saying.”

“Maybe I’ll tell him the one about the haunted monster truck of Chowan County.”

“There’s no such thing.”

“I know. But I could always make one up.”

Denise squeezed his hand again. “How come you never had kids?” she asked.

“I’m not the right sex.”

“You know what I mean,” she said, nudging him. “You’d be a good father.”

“I don’t know. I just haven’t.”

“Did you ever want to?”

“Sometimes.”

“Well, you should.”

“You sound like my mother now.”

“You know what they say. Brilliant minds think alike.”

“If you do say so yourself.”

“Exactly.”

As they left the harbor and started toward downtown again, Denise was struck by how much her world had changed recently; and all of it, she realized, could be traced to the man beside her. Yet never once, despite all he’d done for her, had he pressured her for anything in return, something she might not be ready for. She was the one who’d kissed him first, and it was she who’d kissed him the second time. Even when he’d stayed late at her house after their day at the beach, he’d left when he sensed that it was time to go.

Most men wouldn’t have done that, she knew. Most men seized the initiative as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Lord knew that was what had happened with Kyle’s father. But Taylor was different. He was content to get to know her first, she mused, to listen to her problems, to hang crooked cabinet doors and make homemade ice cream on the porch. In every way he had presented himself as a gentleman.

But because he’d never pushed her, she found herself wanting him with an intensity that surprised her. She wondered what it would feel like when he finally took her in his arms or what it would be like to have him touch her body, his fingers tracing over her skin. Thinking about it made something tighten inside, and she squeezed his hand reflexively.

As they neared the truck, they passed a storefront whose glass door had been propped open. Stenciled on it was “Trina’s Bar.” Aside from Fontana, it was the only place open downtown; when she peeked in, Denise saw three couples talking quietly over small circular tables. In the corner was a jukebox playing a country song, the nasal baritone of the singer quieting as the final lyrics wound down. There was a short silence until the next song rotated through: “Unchained Melody.” Denise stopped in her tracks when she recognized it, pulling on Taylor’s hand.

“I love this song,” she said.

“Would you like to go inside?”

She debated as the melody swirled around her.

“We could dance if you’d like,” he added.

“No. I’d feel funny with all those people watching,” she said after a beat. “And there’s not really enough room, anyway.”

The street was devoid of traffic, the sidewalks deserted. A single light, set high on a pole, flickered slightly, illuminating the corner. Beneath the strains of the music from the bar drifted the sound of intimate conversations. Denise took a tentative step, away from the open door. The music was still evident behind them, playing softly, when Taylor suddenly stopped. She looked up at him curiously.

Without a word, he slipped one arm around her back, pulling her closer to him. With an endearing smile, he raised her hand to his mouth and kissed it, then lowered it into position. Suddenly realizing what was happening, but still not believing it, Denise took an awkward step before beginning to follow his lead.

For a moment, both were slightly embarrassed. But the music played steadily in the background, dispelling the awkwardness, and after a couple of turns Denise closed her eyes and leaned into him. Taylor’s arm drifted up her back, and she could hear his breathing as they rotated in slow circles, swaying gently with the music. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether anyone was watching. Except for his touch and the feel of his warm body against hers, nothing mattered at all, and they danced and danced, holding each other close beneath a flickering streetlight in the tiny town of Edenton.

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