Right Next Door

Page 1

FATHER’S DAY

For Lois and Bill Hoskins,

living proof that love is

better the second time around

One

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Robin Masterson muttered as she crawled into the makeshift tent, which was pitched over the clothesline in the backyard of her new home.

“Come on, Mom,” ten-year-old Jeff urged, shifting to make room for her. “It’s nice and warm in here.”

Down on all fours, a flashlight in one hand, Robin squeezed her way inside. Jeff had constructed the flimsy tent using clothespegs to hold up the blankets and rocks to secure the base. The space was tight, but she managed to maneuver into her sleeping bag.

“Isn’t this great?” Jeff asked. He stuck his head out of the front opening and gazed at the dark sky and the spattering of stars that winked back at them. On second thought, Robin decided they were laughing at her, those stars. And with good reason. There probably wasn’t another thirty-year-old woman in the entire state of California who would’ve agreed to this craziness.

It was the first night in their new house and Robin was exhausted. They’d started moving out of the apartment before five that morning and she’d just finished unpacking the last box. The beds were assembled, but Jeff wouldn’t hear of doing anything as mundane as sleeping on a real mattress. After waiting years to camp out in his own backyard, her son wasn’t about to delay the adventure by even one night.

Robin couldn’t let him sleep outside alone and, since he hadn’t met any neighbors yet, there was only one option left. Surely there’d be a Mother of the Year award in this for her.

“You want to hear a joke?” Jeff asked, rolling on to his back and nudging her.

“Sure.” She swallowed a yawn, hoping she could stay awake long enough to laugh at the appropriate time. She needn’t have worried.

For the next half hour, Robin was entertained with a series of riddles, nonsense rhymes and off-key renditions of Jeff’s favourite songs from summer camp.

“Knock knock,” she said when it appeared her son had run through his repertoire.

“Who’s there?”

“Wanda.”

“Wanda who?”

“Wanda who thinks up these silly jokes?”

Jeff laughed as though she’d come up with the funniest line ever devised. Her son’s enthusiasm couldn’t help but rub off on Robin and some of her weariness eased. Camping was fun—sort of. But it’d been years since she’d slept on the ground and, frankly, she couldn’t remember it being quite this hard.

“Do you think we’ll be warm enough?” she teased. Jeff had used every blanket they owned, first to construct the tent and then to pad it. To be on the safe side, two or three more were piled on top of their sleeping bags on the off-chance an arctic frost descended upon them. It was spring, but a San Francisco spring could be chilly.

“Sure,” he answered, missing the kidding note in her voice. “But if you get cold, you can have one of mine.”

“I’m fine,” she assured him.

“You hungry?”

Now that she thought about it, she was. “Sure. Whatcha got?”

Jeff disappeared into his sleeping bag and returned a moment later with a limp package of licorice, a small plastic bag full of squashed marshmallows and a flattened box of raisins. Robin declined the snack.

“When are we going to buy me my dog?” Jeff asked, chewing loudly on the raisins.

Robin listened to the sound and said nothing.

“Mom…the dog?” he repeated after a few minutes.

Robin had been dreading that question most of the day. She’d managed to forestall Jeff for the past month by telling him they’d discuss getting a dog after they were settled in their house.

“I thought we’d start looking for ads in the paper first thing tomorrow,” Jeff said, still munching.

“I’m not sure when we’ll start the search for the right dog.” She was a coward, Robin freely admitted it, but she hated to disappoint Jeff. He had his heart set on a dog. How like his father he was, in his love for animals.

“I want a big one, you know. None of those fancy little poodles or anything.”

“A golden retriever would be nice, don’t you think?”

“Or a German shepherd,” Jeff said.

“Your father loved dogs,” she whispered, although she’d told Jeff that countless times. Lenny had been gone for so many years, she had trouble remembering what their life together had been like. They’d been crazy in love with each other and married shortly after their high-school graduation. A year later, Robin became pregnant. Jeff had been barely six months old when Lenny was killed in a freak car accident on his way home from work. In the span of mere moments, Robin’s comfortable world had been sent into a tailspin, and ten years later it was still whirling.

With her family’s help, she’d gone back to school and obtained her degree. She was now a certified public accountant working for a large San Francisco insurance firm. Over the years she’d dated a number of men, but none she’d seriously consider marrying. Her life was far more complicated now than it had been as a young bride. The thought of falling in love again terrified her.

“What kind of dog did Dad have when he was a kid?” Jeff asked.

“I don’t think Rover was any particular breed,” Robin answered, then paused to recall exactly what Lenny’s childhood dog had looked like. “I think he was mostly…Labrador.”

“Was he black?”

“And brown.”

“Did Dad have any other animals?”

Robin smiled at her warm memories of her late husband. She enjoyed the way Jeff loved hearing stories about his father—no matter how many times he’d already heard them. “He collected three more pets the first year we were married. It seemed he was always bringing home a stray cat or lost dog. We couldn’t keep them, of course, because we weren’t allowed pets in the apartment complex. We went to great lengths to hide them for a few days until we could locate their owners or find them a good home. For our first wedding anniversary, he bought me a goldfish. Your father really loved animals.”

Jeff beamed and planted his chin on his folded arms.

“We dreamed of buying a small farm someday and raising chickens and goats and maybe a cow or two. Your father wanted to buy you a pony, too.” Hard as she tried, she couldn’t quite hide the pain in her voice. Even after all these years, the memory of Lenny’s sudden death still hurt. Looking at her son, so eager for a dog of his own, Robin missed her husband more than ever.

“You and Dad were going to buy a farm?” Jeff cried, his voice ebullient. “You never told me that before.” He paused. “A pony for me? Really? Do you think we’ll ever be able to afford one? Look how long it took to save for the house.”

Robin smiled. “I think we’ll have to give up on the idea of you and me owning a farm, at least in the near future.”

When they were first married, Robin and Lenny had talked for hours about their dreams. They’d charted their lives, confident that nothing would ever separate them. Their love had been too strong. It was true that she’d never told Jeff about buying a farm, nor had she told him how they’d planned to name it Paradise. Paradise, because that was what the farm would be to them. In retrospect, not telling Jeff was a way of protecting him. He’d lost so much—not only the guidance and love of his father but all the things they could have had as a family. She’d never mentioned the pony before, or the fact that Lenny had always longed for a horse….

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