To Catch a Thief(3)

By: Nan Dixon

Poppy had run a charter fishing boat out of Tybee. When she was little, she’d loved sitting on her grandfather’s lap as the wind tangled her hair and they flew across the waves. He’d smelled of salt, sunshine and fish. Love.

The white shells on the drive crunched under her Ford Focus’s tires. She stared at the yellow house on its white stilts. Two drives flanked the central staircase and led under the house to carports.

The trim on the windows, steps and railing needed a fresh coat of white paint. So did the porch. The two-story house wasn’t big, but her mother didn’t need more space. And Carolina had always loved the small widow’s walk off the attic. As a child, the house had looked like sunshine. At least she’d convinced her mother to put up vinyl siding so the yellow looked fresh.

Sighing, she pulled into the right-hand drive, but couldn’t park her car completely under the overhang because boxes filled the parking space.

After unloading her bags, she headed up the steps. In the screened-in porch, she found the spare key hidden in a small case under Poppy’s rocking chair.

Taking a deep breath, she turned the key and pushed open the door. A wave of cold from the air-conditioning hit her first, making the skin on her arms pebble. But then the sterile furniture her mother had bought to replace her grandparents’ warm sofas and chairs chilled her heart. Gone were the blues of the ocean and yellows of the sun. Mamá had replaced everything with black, gray and metal.

She hauled her cases to her bedroom. Even here, her mother had taken out the colorful quilt Yaya had made for her. Now a black comforter covered her bed. Carolina couldn’t hold in another shiver. “Oh, Mamá.”

She opened her suitcase but couldn’t dredge up the energy to unpack.

Down in the kitchen, she made a cup of calming tea, a box she’d bought the last time she’d visited. Then she turned up the temperature so she didn’t freeze. She tried to sit in a gray chair in the living room, but her legs stuck to the cold leather.

It was hotter than a skillet outside, but she headed to Poppy’s porch rocking chair. She flipped on the ceiling fan and waited, cuddling her mug.

A half hour slipped away. Her tea cooled. She sipped and rocked, her life on hold, waiting for her mother. Always waiting. Her eyes closed.

There was a crunch of tires on the drive and she jerked awake.

Her mother pulled up in a new car. A BMW? How could her mother afford a new car on a legal assistant’s wages? Carolina’s eight-year-old Focus looked out of place next to the sleek foreign vehicle.

“Carolina,” her mother called as she climbed out. “Help me!”

Carolina pushed open the door and hurried down the steps.

“Mamá.” She wrapped her mother in a hug. “How are you feeling? Should you be running around?”

Her mother air-kissed her cheeks. “Right now I’m fine, more than fine. I can’t believe these doctors. Always trying to scare me to death.”

Her mother’s black hair was long and curly. When it had grown back after her breast cancer treatments ten years ago, it had gotten curlier. Chemo curls. She smelled of—amber and sandalwood. Her blue eyes sparkled. There were lines around her mouth and eyes, but she was still beautiful.

And didn’t seem sick—at all. The tea churned in Carolina’s stomach. She’d run home from Nashville and missed her chance at a record contract. She bit her lip. “Is your cancer really back?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Her mother waved at the bags in the back seat. “Can you grab those, dear?”

Carolina gathered the bags. “I thought you were hurting for money.”

“I deserve some joy.” Her mother’s heels clicked on the steps. “I’m dying.”

Dying. The word smashed into her diaphragm, knocking the air out of her lungs. Her mother was her only family. If she died, there would be no one. She’d be alone.

“Come on.” Her mother held the door open. “Let me show you what I bought.”

Carolina dragged the bags up the stairs and into Mamá’s colorless living room.

“I found this incredible scarf so I had to find a dress. And, of course, I needed new sandals.” Her mother tugged the bags out of Carolina’s hands.

Carolina sank into the chair for the fashion show. How many times had her mother modeled beautiful clothes—clothes she couldn’t afford. The scarf was gorgeous—and expensive. But then, so were the dress and sandals. “Can you afford all this?”

Her mother twirled. “I deserve this. After I got pregnant with you, I had to give up everything—my career, my travels, my fun. Since my cancer is back, I refuse to go out looking like a hag.”

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