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The Fourth Wish: Chapter 14 - That Letter

Melanie bursts into floods of tears when she hears the contents of the letter which her father has sent to her mother.

Elizabeth Varadan's wonderful novel contains heaps of magic, but at its heart is a perceptive and heart-warming account of how children cope with the break-up of their parents' marriage.

To read earlier chapters of this engrossing story please click on The Fourth Wish in the menu on this page.

Cory was peering intently at his comic book when she opened the apartment door. Too intently. He looked up, his expression guarded, and grunted hello. Melanie surveyed the room. It was more orderly than usual. The soup bowl was gone. The other comics were neatly stacked at the foot of the couch. Cory’s blanket was folded across his knees. The television was silent. This was not the Cory she knew. He must be up to something.

Her eyes went to the coffee table. But the letter was still propped against the tree, next to the presents, just as when she had left.

Erin rushed over and turned on the television. “Floyd and Flora Flower,” she cried in a pleased voice, as a man and woman dressed in green, their faces surrounded by giant flower petals nodded from side to side and sang, I love the sun, I love the rain…. She sat cross-legged on the floor, next to her packages.

Melanie put her own bags down next to Cory and squinted to see what he was reading. Vance Klorg, Space Detective— Summons from Titan. She grimaced. “Don’t you ever get tired of comic books?”

“Uh-uh.”

Erin tore her glance from the screen. “Mondo brought us home. And you know what? He didn’t even make us pay.”

“Cool.” Cory went back to his adventure.

“Are you okay?” asked Melanie. Normally he would be up, trying to peek into the bags to find out what they’d gotten him. Maybe he was sicker than she had thought. “You want some juice?”

He shook his head. "I dod’t thig so. Thadks."

Thanks? He must really be sick. She felt his forehead. No fever. Just this quiet politeness. Puzzled, Melanie took her presents to the bedroom. She started wrapping them to pass the time until their mother would come home and read the letter.

She had just put Erin’s seahorse canteen in the bottom drawer, when she heard the apartment door open. There was a sound of voices and her mother’s laughter. Melanie’s ears pricked. That other voice—she recognized it. She hurried out into the short hallway.

There stood Pete Garrity, just inside the doorway. Her mother was smiling up at him, all dimples about something he had just said.

“Thanks again,” she was saying. “It was a nice coincidence!” Erin hovered at her side, beaming.

“Well, hey, there!” said Pete, as Melanie came into the living room. He tipped his red cabby hat. To her mother he continued, “My good luck. Like I said, I just dropped off a customer around the corner, and…poof! There you were, coming out of the restaurant.” They both chuckled.

His good luck? Coincidence? Poof? Melanie folded her arms. Arthur was going to have a lot to answer for when he came over later—giving out her mother’s job address like that, telling what time she got off work.

And why was her mother still smiling at Pete like that? Like… like he was Travis Heartworth! Or Bill Drexel. Melanie glanced at Cory on the couch. He was grinning. Erin was gazing at Pete as if he were in his magician costume, performing wonders. Had they forgotten there was urgent business to take care of?

“There’s a letter from Dad under the tree,” said Melanie in her most tragic tone. Her mother’s smile disappeared, which gave Melanie a little pang. Pete looked flustered.

“Okay, Marlene,” he said. “I’d best let you get on with your evening.”

Marlene? Pete was calling their mother Marlene?

When the door closed behind him, their mother turned with a faint, faraway look on her face. She went over to the tree to get the letter. Loosening the flap with her fingernail, she carefully opened the envelope. They all watched and waited as she scanned the pages. Her expression was hard to read.

“Well,” she said at last. “I can’t say I’m surprised. In fact, I expected something like this.”

“Like what?” Melanie felt as if a hand had reached into her chest, wringing the breath right out of her.

“My dear Marlene,” began their mother in a calm, impersonal voice. "I know you will do a good job explaining this to the kids....” She clicked her tongue against her teeth the way she often did when something annoyed her. She skimmed a few lines, editing as she went. “Last year when I docked at Boston, I met Dorothy, and we found we had so much in common....

“Apparently Dorothy’s father was in the merchant marines, and she doesn’t mind all the travel,” explained their mother. She continued, “Our marriage did not work out, but I’m sure you will agree with me our kids were the best gift to us both that either of us could ever ask for….” Her face softened and she smiled around at all of them. “That’s for sure.”

But Melanie would have liked to read the parts her mother skipped, to read all her father’s words. Discouragement had wrapped around her like a heavy blanket at the mention of Dorothy. What business did that woman have coming into their lives?

“Last month Dorothy and I got married....” Scan. Scan. “Dorothy understands that my children will always be my children. She even helped me pick out their presents….

“And he wants us to be friends, always,” finished their mother, folding the letter and replacing it in the envelope. She nodded absently. “There’s certainly no point in being enemies.” The faraway look was on her face again, as if she were actually thinking about something else.

“Well, I don’t want to be friends with him!” exploded Melanie. “And I’m not going to be friends with his haggy old new wife, either! And he can just keep his stupid old present if she helped him pick it out!”

She ran down the hall to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. She put her palms to her face, as if that might stop the flow of tears, but they dribbled through her fingers. Flinging herself across the bed, she gave way to sobs that came from somewhere so deep inside she felt like she would turn inside out. She didn’t know she could cry that hard. It scared her. But it felt good, too, as if all the misery dammed up inside over the past year were flooding out.

Gradually her tears subsided. Her sobs turned to hiccups, then sniffling. Melanie got up and wiped her eyes and nose with tissues, wishing she could go splash water on her face. But that might mean running into her mother or Cory or Erin, and she didn’t feel like facing anyone. She guessed her mother was still explaining how this Dorothy person was going to be a friend.

She pulled out the shoe box with her father’s cards, shuffling through them. What a long time ago this morning seemed! And how dumb those cards sounded now: “Bet you’d like a ride on this camel. Bet you’d like a ride on this elephant.” Her father still wrote to her like she was a little kid. Melanie felt like dumping them all over the floor. But then she’d just have to pick them up again and put them away. She crammed the lid on the box and sat down on the bed, starting to reach for her diary. Instead, she held her hands helplessly in her lap. Even her diary was no good for this.

There was a tap on the door. Her mother came in, closing it behind her. She gave Melanie a wash cloth and sat beside her on the bed. The cloth was wet and cool and felt good against Melanie’s eyes. She found herself crying all over again.

“How could he do this to us?”

“Melanie, he’s been gone for over a year. He has to have a life.”

“It’s not fair,” Melanie wept.

“Fair,” murmured her mother. “What do you think would be fair?” she asked after a pause.

Melanie took the cloth away from her face in surprise. “Well, um….” She blinked, confused. She set her chin. “He should come back to us.”

“He can’t do that,” replied her mother. “It wouldn’t be fair to him. Or to me,” she added. “We weren’t happy anymore. Always arguing. I was so tired of him being gone all the time.”

“He’s gone all the time now.” Melanie dabbed her eyes with the cloth. “Why is this any better?”

“Because it’s clear that he’s gone, and why he’s gone,” said her mother. “When we were married, I kept wanting him to settle down and get a job that would let him stay in Sacramento. Each time he took that bus down to San Francisco and shipped out, I’d tell myself, ‘Marlene, this is the last trip. This one will give us something for a down payment on a house.’ But, it never was the last trip. And there never was enough for a down payment.” She took the damp cloth from Melanie, folded it, then folded it again. “Believe me," she sighed, dropping the cloth on the bed. "It’s better for me this way.”

“Well it isn’t for me,” Melanie insisted. “And I’m not going to open Dorothy’s stupid old present. I don’t even want to see Dad anymore,” she added, “if she could take him away from us like that.”

“Dorothy didn’t take him away from any of us, Melanie,” said her mother in a quiet voice. “I think it’s good that he found someone who can understand him.” She smoothed the hair from Melanie’s forehead. “He meant it when he said his children will always be his children. He always loved getting presents for you. He was like a kid when he went shopping. He’s really just a big kid himself. That was the problem.” She gave a rueful shrug. “I wanted a grown-up.”

Melanie regarded her solemn face. “Why did you marry him?”

For a moment her mother looked young and shy. “Well….” She folded her arms and looked off into space. “Marrying him looked pretty good in high school. Your dad was popular! He was…cool.”

Melanie blinked, wondering if she had heard right. Her mother? Calling Dad cool? But then Mrs. McCormick raised her eyebrows, looking sensible and motherly again.

“Cool isn’t everything,” she advised Melanie. “A lot of things look different after high school.”

“Are you sorry you married him?” worried Melanie.

“Oh, no! Not at all! Like he said, you three are the best things that ever could have happened to us.” Her mother smiled. “He had that right!”

Melanie did her best to smile back.

Her mother rose. “Arthur and Wayne are across the street getting take-out tempura. Come out and join us when you feel like it.”

“I thought they were going out for tacos,” said Melanie. It always sounded strange to hear her mother call Arthur’s father Wayne. Mr. Hensley seemed to fit him so much better.

“Well, one thing led to another,” said her mother. “Cory called Arthur. Then Wayne got on the phone and insisted on treating us all to tempura. He says he’s wrapping up this draft of his book, so he’s celebrating.”

Melanie thought of her earlier conversation with Arthur. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever…did you ever, like…think about marrying Mr. Hensley?”

Her mother gave a startled laugh. “Goodness, no! He’s a nice friend,” she amended. “And I worry sometimes about Arthur not having his mother. But… Wayne is almost like a brother.”

“Does that make Arthur almost like a cousin?”

“I suppose you could say that.”

“Good,” said Melanie. “That’s better than a stepbrother.”

Her mother laughed again. “By the way,” she said. “Mrs. Sloan sent over some gingerbread for dessert before she left for Reba’s. It seems you forgot to bring back a plate for Cory and she decided to send more for all of us.”

After the door closed behind her, Melanie fingered the damp washcloth, considering what her mother had told her. She took her diary out from under her pillow. She had just positioned herself on the bed and flipped to this morning’s page, when there was a new knock on the door.

“Beladie?”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” she called.

But Cory knocked again and came in, closing the door, and sidling over to her, his round face scrunched up in concern. “You okay?”

She sighed and closed her diary. “I notice you don’t seem upset.”

“Dot really,” he agreed. “Dot like last year. I guess I’b used to the idea.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it,” Melanie confessed.

“I thought you bight like to talk,” he said. "It helped be whed we talked last year.”

“Gee, Cory!” Melanie was at a loss for words. She gave her forehead a swipe with the damp cloth. “Thanks, but… I just talked to Mom.”

“Well, if you deed be….”

Touched, Melanie smiled. “Honest, I’m okay,” she assured him. As he started for the door, her earlier hunch came to mind. “You didn’t seem very surprised about Dad getting married.”

Cory froze, gave the door a guilty glance, and tiptoed back.

“I steabed the letter oped ad read it,” he confided. “Like Arthur said.”

“Steamed!” Melanie exclaimed.

“Yeah.” His face lit up. “I looked it up id by detective hadbook, add it works! If you steab it, it doesd’t show afterwards.”

“But… but, I saw it,” sputtered Melanie. “Under the tree, all sealed up! Mom opened it. We watched her.”

Cory grinned. “I used a glue stick.”

“Cory,” began Melanie, in her big-sister voice. “That was very wrong of you.” He nodded and kept grinning. Both of them burst into giggles.

Suddenly Melanie remembered why she had to hide her diary in different places. She fixed him with a stare. “Don’t you ever do that to one of my letters,” she warned.

“You wadda oped your presedt?” he asked. “It bight cheer you up.”

“I don’t even want to see that present, not ever! Not if Dorothy helped pick it out. But don’t try to throw me off, Cory. Promise me you will never ever steam open one of my letters.”

“I’b talkig about by presedt for you.”

“You have your present for me? When did you have time to shop? You didn’t sneak out today when we were gone, did you?”

He shook his head. “I got it last week. With Arthur.”

“Last week? And Arthur knew about this?” A trickle of guilt ran through Melanie, thinking of how mean her thoughts had been about them both. She chewed at her fingernail, tempted.

“No, I guess I’ll wait for Christmas Eve,” she finally told him. “But thanks. I really do feel better. Tell Mom I’ll be out in a few minutes, okay?” She opened her diary and picked up her pencil.

“Okay.”

“And don’t ever read my diary again, either,” she told him, when she noticed him eyeing the open book.

“I’ll give you a clue,” he said on the way to the door.

“Clue?”

“It locks,” he told her, and went out.

“Uh-huh. Locks.” Melanie tapped her lower lip with the pencil, trying to compose her thoughts. Finally she wrote:

This is the most confusing day in my entire life. My dad isn’t
as great as I thought he was. There’s this horrible woman in our
lives now, named Dorothy.
And Cory and Arthur aren’t as bad as I thought they were, even
though I’m glad Arthur isn’t my stepbrother.
And my mom married my dad because he was cool in high
school. I can’t imagine either one of them ever being in high school.
Or being cool. I don’t have time to write any more right now. I wish
Could lock this instead of having to hide it again.

She looked up and smiled into the empty room. Suddenly she knew what Cory’s present was.

© Elizabeth Varadan 2006



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