Sand Castles cover(23K)

Sand Castles

PROLOGUE

He ripped the phone cord out of the wall, then grabbed her and swung her around, knocking over a floor lamp and sending shards of glass skittering over the oak floor.

"We're rich!" he whooped. "Rich! We're rich! God, we're rich!"

He set her down so abruptly that he had to hang on to her to keep her from stumbling backward. Holding her tightly, he let loose a howl of triumph. His look was wild, exultant, new.

Wendy was aghast. She was pinned to his chest, breathless. She said, "Jim, what's wrong with you?"

"First thing, phone off the hook, that's what they always tell you. Wendy, we are rich, rich, rich. Don't you get it? Rich! No more jobs ... no more bills ... Tyler will get his pick of schools and you can have the house of--"

"Jim, stop; you're scaring me!" She was afraid of the thought that was forming in her head, afraid that it might not be true. Trapped in his grip, caught in a downward drift of cheap white wine and garlic chicken, she said, "For God's sake, just tell me."

"Powerball. No kidding, the lottery." His voice had dropped to a whisper, a tip-toe along the edge of a canyon. She could see that suddenly he was afraid, too.

"The office pool. Seven of us--no, eight, eight. What am I thinking? Jack makes eight. He'll shit feathers when he learns. He's in Munich all week."

She was blinking rapidly, as if she had a speck in her eye. She was trying to comprehend. Jack makes eight. Eight of what? Eight of Jacks? Eight of what?

"How much? Tell me," she wailed, in agony now.

Her husband's lips were dry. He wet them with his tongue quickly, as if he were trying to get away with something. "Eighty--" He cleared his throat in one harsh try. "Eighty-seven."

"Thousand?" No; that wasn't enough. Not for this. "Million?" No. That was too much. She was bewildered by the math, staggered by the possibilities of it. "Tell me, damn it," she said, because she was getting lightheaded and was about to fall into the chasm.

He exploded in a single loud laugh. "Wendy, sweet dufus, concentrate! Eight-seven million dollars. Eighty-seven million dollars divided by eight and then by income tax, but--eighty-seven million dollars."

Her face felt scorched by the numbers spewing over her like volcanic ash; they blasted through her mind, obliterating thought. She began to shake. She whispered numbly, "I can't believe it. Not us. That doesn't happen." Inexplicably, she burst into sobs.

Jim howled again and hugged her and lifted her off her feet once more, rocking her left and right and then swinging her around in a circle as if she were a rag doll. Wendy laughed and cried and said, "Jim, put me down, put me down."

He was six foot two; she was half a foot shorter than he was. When they were old, he would be able to see the roots of her dark hair in that awful week before a touch-up trip to the hair dresser. But for now they were young, with over half their lifetimes yet to come. Wendy had always assumed that they would spend them in love.

How amazing to her that they would be spending them rich.



CHAPTER 1

The place smelled of cat pee, but Zina didn't mind. She had come to associate the piercing scent with abandoned creatures who needed her love.

The old house was drafty, the budget tight. It was cold in the shelter--clearly too cold for some of the cats in the cages.

"Poor babies. Hang on; I'm here. Everything's going to be all right now," Zina promised the demoralized cats. She turned up the heat, then began the day's routine of cleaning the cages and replenishing the food in them.

Each of the cats was to be let out in turn as she tidied up; but the one that Zina invariably let out first was the gray female with the earsplitting howl--the kind of wail that made homeowners hang out of their windows at midnight and lob hand grenades of shoes and clocks. The gray cat wanted out. Now.

All of the volunteers were hoping, against all odds, that the cat, nicknamed Banshee, would somehow be adopted and leave (she was not only loud but bulimic). But not Zina. She loved every cat in every cage without reserve. Whether the cats were fat or skinny, young or old, male or female, mute or loud, she loved them all. After four years of volunteer work, Zina had made hundreds of friends: almost every one of them had four legs and whiskers.

The door opened, and a woman entered on a sharp gust of April air. "Good morning, Zina. You're here bright and early."

Sylvia Radisson, volunteer Director of Flo's Cat House, was much more clear-eyed than Zina about what it took to run a successful shelter.

Money. "Zina, sweetie, you've got a really heavy hand on the thermostat. Oil prices are sky high; every degree really does matter," she said, throttling back the heat. "It's the Sphynx, isn't it," she ventured.

Zina glanced at the bizarre, hairless cat huddled in the back of his cage. "He always looks so cold."

"Yes, he does, doesn't he?"

"I know! I'll knit him a vest," she decided. "You think he'd wear it?"

"It can't hurt to try," said Sylvia. She paused at a cage and wiggled a finger through the bars; a young calico inside plopped on her back and began gnawing gently on it.

"One of these days, Zina," Sylvia said over her shoulder, "you're going to find yourself a husband. And then you'll be knitting baby sweaters, not cat vests."

After a silence, Zina said softly, "She likes it when you drag a pencil across the cage for her to attack."

Sylvia turned her wise, middle-aged smile from the cat to the keeper. "Later. After I've caught up with my paperwork." The look she saw on the younger woman's face made her shrug. "Some people--you--are better at parenting than others, Zina. I just happen to shine more behind a desk."

"You're good at everything," Zina said generously.

"Not everything. Some things. And one of them is making sure that this shelter doesn't go belly up four years after opening. Flo would not approve."

Zina glanced up at the historic photograph that hung, improbably, between the rows of cat cages. Florence Benson, a young woman with a sober expression on her face and a cat on her lap, was seated in a carved chair on an oriental carpet in the very same room that now smelled of cat pee. Below the sepia-toned photograph was a framed excerpt of her will.

I give and devise residential real estate that I may own at the time of my death, located at 24 Wood Road, Hopeville, Massachusetts, together with all buildings and improvements thereon, to the Hopeville Animal Rescue League with the wish that said real estate shall be used for purposes of sheltering abandoned cats.

How old had she been when she died, this only daughter of a farming couple? Ninety-seven, someone had said. Nearly a century of living without a husband, without a child. So, yes, it could be done.

"Zina?"

"Hmm?" She had to rouse herself from her revery, as she so often did, and re-enter the world of the here and now. "I'm sorry; I was off daydreaming."

"I said, could you do the calico next? A woman is supposed to come in this morning to look her over."

Look her over. As if the cat were a used car. It didn't seem right. It never seemed right. Who could pick up a cat, pet it, play with it, and then walk away? The thought that people did that not only with cats and dogs but with children at adoption fairs never failed to shock Zina. But then, she knew that she was easily shocked. Sensitized, her brother called her. Because of that day.

"Okay, but that means the Banshee goes back in her cage ahead of schedule. She's not going to like that. Hold your ears."

The predictable howl of protest drove Sylvia to close the door of her office.

Saying awful things in soothing ways to the newly locked-up gray cat, Zina began tidying the calico's cage while its inmate roamed free. "Shh, bitchy-bitchy-bitchy Banshee, shh, there, now, Banshee, it's okay." She folded the dirty newspaper at the bottom of the cage and dumped it in a plastic bag. "Someday you'll have a real home of your own to throw up in. Shh-h. Don't be upset."

She opened the regional news section of the Worcester County Sentinel and was fitting it to the bottom of the calico's cage when a photo on the front page caught her eye. It was a shot of a group of men with arms folded across their chests and broad grins on their faces, looking as if they'd just won the SuperBowl.

Jackpot! read the headline. Obviously not athletes, the very ordinary men were wearing suits and ties and standing around a cluster of desks. Zina read the caption below the photograph:

Winners of the $87,000,000 Jackpot in their downtown Providence office. The winning ticket was purchased by Ed Baynard, third from left. All eight men plan to continue working at their jobs in the insurance brokerage.

Eighty-seven million dollars! Zina scrutinized the third man from the left, the one who had made them all millionaires. Ed Baynard was a middle-aged, ordinary-looking man with an appealing grin and a pot belly. He looked ecstatic. They all did.

All except the tallest among them, the one on the right, the one whose face was slightly averted. Who looked somehow distressed to be caught on camera, as if he were ashamed to have won so much money without earning it.

What an odd pose, she thought. Maybe he dropped something and was looking around for it.

She studied his face more closely, aware that her cheeks had begun to burn and her heart to beat faster. It was impossible to see his features clearly, and his dark hair was so much shorter and receding, and there was a kind of puffiness that was different, but ....

She studied his face more closely.

It wasn't him, of course. It couldn't be him. But her breath was coming short and fast now, and she felt weak. She found herself holding the folded paper up over her head and trying to see his face from underneath, an excercise in futility.

She studied his face more closely: squinting, tilting her head to one side, all the time aware of the thundering of her heart. What if it were him? Why couldn't it be him? He had to live somewhere, be something, do something. Why couldn't he be working in Providence for an insurance brokerage and buying tickets in a lottery pool?

She ran into Sylvia's office and in a voice that didn't sound anything like her own, said, "A magnifying glass--please, I need one!"

Sylvia looked up, startled. "I don't have one."

Zina looked around wildly, the way she would for a fire extinguisher if the next room were ablaze. "Oh ... God. Oh, God, I have to go home."

The director jumped to her feet from behind her desk. "Are you all right? Are you feeling well?"

"Yes, I'm fine. But ... I have to go home."

"Now?"

"Now!"

"Is it truly important, Zina? Because we talked about how I was leaving at ten and wouldn't be back until one. And the woman is coming about the calico."

Her look of dismay said so plainly that Zina was failing her, failing the calico, failing Florence. All for a magnifying glass.

Zina raked her hands through the sides of her long blond hair while she reconsidered her overwrought reaction. It was not him. It couldn't be him. All this time, just a few hours' drive away? Not in Hollywood, not in London, but living in Providence? Not an actor, not a playwright, but an insurance agent?

She was making a fool of herself. Again. She had done it twice before--once, when she had chased a stranger down a street in Boston, and another time, more recently, when she had tried to convince Zack that she'd seen Jimmy in a home mortgage commercial on cable TV.

Wrong then. Wrong now.

With a wrenching effort, she forced a smile. "I forgot that you had to go somewhere," she confessed. "This can wait, Sylvia. I'll stay."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely." She felt a nipping through her sock and looked down to see the calico wrapping its front paws around her ankle. Her melancholy smile turned more cheery.

"Monster. You're hungry, aren't you--or is it that you just want to play?" Scooping the calico up with both hands, she nuzzled nose to nose and then carried the young cat out of the office.

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