The Aloha Quilt
From the bedroom doorway, Sylvia Bergstrom Compson regarded the taped and labeled cartons Bonnie had stacked against the walls, leaving only a narrow aisle between the bed and the bureau. “It might feel more like home sweet home if you unpacked.”
“I don’t have time,” said Bonnie, shoving a box of sweaters under the bed for storage. Though it was October, she wouldn’t need them where she was going. “I have too much to do before my flight.”
Sylvia picked her way through the clutter to the center of the room and studied the mess, frowning thoughtfully over the tops of her glasses, which hung from a silver chain around her neck. “If you like, I can unpack for you while you’re away.”
“Oh, no, Sylvia. Please don’t go to all that trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. I’ll enlist a few of the other Elm Creek Quilters to help and we’ll spread the work over a few days.”
Sylvia didn’t need to add that they would have lots of time to finish the job before Bonnie’s return--too much time, or so thought Bonnie’s friends, who agreed that she needed a getaway but perhaps not one of such long duration.
“I’ll take care of it when I get back.” Bonnie smiled to take the sting out of her refusal. “I’m not moving in permanently, remember?”
“The invitation stands if you change your mind,” Sylvia assured her. “You’ll always have a home at Elm Creek Manor, even if you only want it long enough to get back on your feet.”
Bonnie thanked her, wondering which of her friends would next offer to take her in. The apartment in Grangerville had never been a real home, just a wayside between the condo she had once shared with her estranged husband, Craig, and wherever she might settle after her return to Pennsylvania in the spring. Sylvia had convinced her that it made no sense to keep renting an apartment for her belongings when she could store them at Elm Creek Manor for free, so Bonnie had cancelled her month-to-month lease. She had needed no more than a day to pack up the apartment, not only because the Elm Creek Quilters helped her, but also because after moving out of the condo, she had unpacked only the necessities and left everything else in boxes.
Somehow she must have known that she was not meant to stay.
“I might decide to make the manor my home,” Bonnie said, stacking a laundry basket full of quilt fabric on top of a carton of old photo albums. “I honestly haven’t thought it through. I’ve had too much on my mind and I can’t plan so many steps ahead.”
“A change of scenery and new challenges will do you good,” said Sylvia.
“I’m counting on that.” Bonnie shoved a box out of the way with her foot and sat down on the bed, absently patting the Windblown Square quilt for comfort. A few years before, she had been blindsided when she caught Craig carrying on a cyber-affair with a younger woman, but after recovering from her shock, she had fought to save her marriage. She had thrown herself into an exercise program, lost twenty pounds, had her dark curls trimmed into a flattering new style, and had endured fellow Elm Creek Quilter Diane’s coaching about the best clothes for her curvy frame and makeup for her ruddy complexion. According to her friends, she looked better than she had in years--younger, fitter, more attractive--but even then she had known that a successful makeover alone wouldn’t be enough to rekindle Craig’s affection.
Through marriage counseling and countless date nights, Craig had led her to believe they were reconciling and rebuilding, but all the while he was secretly hiding his assets for the divorce only he had known was inevitable. To make matters worse, he had told their children that she had abandoned him, that the divorce was her idea, that he was as confused and distraught as they were, that he deserved their sympathy and Bonnie their anger. CJ, their eldest son, knew their father too well to believe it, while their daughter Tammy refused to take sides and their youngest son, Barry, was far too credulous where his father was concerned. Bonnie didn’t push it. The very thought of engaging in a battle for the hearts and minds of their three grown children exhausted her. She didn’t have the energy to persuade her kids that Craig was wrong and she was right. Now that she had accepted that her marriage was over, all she wanted was to put the whole ugly situation behind her, to move on.
To feel good again. To return to the happy, contented woman she had once been and now only vaguely remembered. But how could she heal when even the protective walls of Elm Creek Manor triggered so many painful memories?
She had despaired of ever doing so until her old friend Claire phoned with an invitation as wonderful as it was unexpected. Bonnie rarely saw her former college roommate except at college reunions, but Claire kept in touch with chatty letters mailed from military bases in different foreign countries as Claire followed her officer husband from post to post. When he retired from the service, they had settled in Hawaii, having fallen in love with the island paradise while Eric had been stationed in Oahu earlier in his career. For the past several years, Claire had run a quilt shop on Maui, and when an opportunity came to expand the business, Claire contacted the longtime friend who had introduced her to quilting to enlist her help.
“A quilter’s retreat in Hawaii,” Claire had said. “What could be more perfect? And who knows more about setting up a quilt camp than you?”
“Sylvia Compson, for one,” Bonnie had said, but before she could reel off the names of the other Elm Creek Quilters who were far more qualified to tackle the project, Claire had accused her of her old fault of excessive self-deprecation and insisted that only Bonnie possessed the perfect combination of knowledge, experience, and trustworthiness that Claire needed to launch her new business venture. She offered to hire Bonnie as a consultant, and in exchange for Bonnie’s expertise, she would provide a modest stipend, room and board in Maui for the winter, and a guaranteed room at the Aloha Quilt Camp whenever Bonnie desired.
Bonnie felt as if her old friend had thrown open doors and windows to let fresh air and sunshine into a room too long shuttered and neglected. Elm Creek Quilt Camp closed for the winter, so why not spend the off-season in Hawaii? She couldn’t sit at home counting the days until her divorce, as if on the day it was final, her disappointment and anger would magically vanish. Where better to begin building a new life for herself than in Hawaii, where she would be soothed by balmy breezes and lulled to sleep by the pounding surf, where she could help a beloved friend launch an exciting new business, where everything was unfamiliar and nothing would remind her of what she had lost?
Bonnie slept better that first night in Elm Creek Manor than she had all summer long in the apartment. She woke refreshed, dug her walking shoes and sweats out of her suitcase, and went on a long, brisk walk around the estate, lingering in the apple orchard to savor the fragrance of ripe apples and to chat about the harvest with Matt, the estate’s caretaker. She couldn’t resist plucking a shiny, red Jonathon for herself and munching it as she crossed the bridge over Elm Creek on her way to the back entrance of the manor. She stretched on the stairs, enjoying the cool, gentle winds that sent fallen scarlet, yellow, and brown leaves dancing across the parking lot. The wind carried a faint whiff of wood smoke and a hint of cinnamon that told her someone had left the kitchen window open a crack.
Inside, she found several of the manor’s permanent residents sipping coffee at the kitchen table: Sylvia, of course; Sarah, the co-founder of Elm Creek Quilt Camp; Sylvia’s husband, Andrew; the newest Elm Creek Quilter, Gretchen; and Gretchen’s husband, Joe. The plates before them were empty except for crumbs, but a platter in the center of the table was stacked with waffles, and a place was set for Bonnie at the end.
“It’s Anna’s cinnamon-apple waffle recipe,” said Sarah as Bonnie seated herself. “I’m happy popping the frozen kind in the toaster, but she convinced me that I didn’t have to be a professional chef like her to make them from scratch.” She patted her tummy as if to assure her unborn twins that their mother wasn’t such a bad cook after all
“Delicious,” Bonnie declared, savoring the first mouthful. Sarah rose to pour her a cup of coffee. “Sarah, sit down. I can get that.”
“It’s no big deal.” Sarah pressed a hand to the small of her back as she crossed the kitchen, but something in her expression told Bonnie that more than the twins weighed her down. “Cream and sugar?”
“Black with two sugars, please, the usual.” Bonnie looked around the circle of friends. “All right. What’s up?”
Sylvia’s sympathetic frown prepared Bonnie for the worst. “Craig called while you were out.”
Bonnie dropped her fork to the table with a clatter. “He called the manor? How does he know I’m here?”
“Maybe he planted a tracking device in your sewing machine,” said Sarah, setting the steaming cup of coffee before Bonnie. She didn’t seem to be joking.
Bonnie should have known that he would find another way to reach her after she blocked his emails and stopped answering his calls on her cell phone. “Did you remind him that all communication must go through my lawyer?”
“I did indeed,” said Sylvia, “but he didn’t seem to hear me, so I gave the phone to Sarah.”
“You could have hung up on him.” Bonnie steeled herself. “What did he want?”
Sylvia and Sarah exchanged a glance. “He started off by complaining that Craig Jr. won’t return his phone calls,” said Sarah.
“I never told CJ not to speak to his father,” Bonnie protested. “CJ’s angry. He needs time.”
“Craig seems to think there’s a conspiracy to cut him off from his kids,” said Andrew, scowling as he always did when Craig came up in the conversation. He had no patience for any man who shirked his responsibilities to his wife and children.
“Nonsense,” said Sylvia. “Bonnie would never put her children in that position.”
Of course it was nonsense. Bonnie wouldn’t hurt her children by demanding they take sides. As badly as Craig treated her, he was still their children’s father. She knew she couldn’t speak disparagingly about him without hurting them. “What else?”
Reluctantly, Sarah said, “He said this divorce is a contest you won’t win, and then he hung up.”
Joe muttered something under his breath and drained his coffee cup. “What a horrid man,” said Gretchen.
“Are you sure that’s what he said?” asked Bonnie. “Were those his exact words?”
Sarah hesitated. “I’m paraphrasing a bit. He was ranting and it was hard to catch everything.”
“Is it possible--” Bonnie had to force the question out. “Could he have said that he won’t go along with the uncontested divorce anymore?”
Sarah blanched and eased herself back into her chair. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I guess…I guess it’s possible.”
“Oh, no.” Bonnie’s appetite fled. “I’d better call my lawyer.”
When she went upstairs for her cell phone, her heart sank to discover a voicemail waiting from Darren Taylor. Though his request for her to return his call at her earliest convenience betrayed no reason for concern, Bonnie knew her lawyer was well practiced in concealing his emotions, so his cordial tone did nothing to ease her worries.
His secretary put her call right through. “Good morning, Bonnie,” he greeted her. “Sorry to call so early, but I spoke with your husband’s attorney this morning and I’m afraid we’ve run into a snag.”
Bonnie paced the narrow aisle between the stacks of cartons pushed against the walls. “A snag like when you catch your fingernail on your sweater or a snag like being run over by a truck?”
Darren let out a dry chuckle. “Keep that sense of humor. You’re going to need it.”
“Oh, dear Lord.” Bonnie sat down hard on the edge of the bed. “Okay. Tell me.”
“Your husband has changed his mind about agreeing to a no-fault divorce.”
“Why? He doesn’t want to stay married to me. Why not get it over with?”
“Simply put, money. The marital estate is now worth much more than it was when you originally filed for a no contest.”
“Only because Agnes discovered Craig’s hidden assets.” For years, unbeknownst to Bonnie, Craig had been siphoning off money from their joint accounts to buy expensive antiques to furnish his office. On those rare occasions when Bonnie had visited him on campus, she had never suspected the furniture’s true worth, or had even known that it belonged to Craig rather than the college. Dear, faithful, curious Agnes had discovered the truth and had used her late husband’s contacts in the antiques market to arrange for an auction--an astonishingly profitable auction.
Apparently Craig had decided he wanted a greater share of the windfall.
“We agreed on a fifty-fifty split of the sale of the furniture,” said Bonnie. “That’s more than he deserves considering that he bought those antiques with our money, not just his, without my knowledge, and he never declared them as assets on any of those mountains of forms we had to fill out. Shouldn’t he be punished for that?”
“Believe me, the judge won’t look favorably upon it,” Darren assured her. “But now Craig wants to play hardball. He knows you want to resolve this as soon as possible--”
“Absolutely. Doesn’t he?”
“Not as much as he wants a greater share of the money. I’m afraid he intends to use your eagerness for a quick resolution against you. This morning his attorney informed me that Craig wants to reconcile.”
“What?” Bonnie exclaimed. “He doesn’t want to fix our marriage, and even if he did, it’s beyond saving.”
“Craig knows that. This is a tactical move, nothing more. He’ll proceed with a no-fault, non-contested divorce as long as you relinquish your claim upon the profits from the auction, on the grounds that he purchased the furniture with his own funds for his own professional use and they were never any part of the marital estate.”
“It was only ‘for his professional use’ because if he had bought furniture for the condo, I would have known about it,” said Bonnie, incredulous. “Either way, the money he used to buy it was as much mine as his!”
“I understand, Bonnie. You’re absolutely right, and a judge would surely rule in your favor if you contested his claim. But Craig is gambling that you won’t. Property disputes can drag things out for months, perhaps even years. Your husband believes you’d rather take the financial loss in exchange for finalizing the divorce as originally planned.”
“I want it to be over, but the money he spent on those antiques was equally mine. He stole it from me. I can’t let him get away with it. Not even if it meant the divorce could be over tomorrow. I can’t.”
“Then you should prepare yourself for a long, hard fight.”
Her heart plummeted. “How long?”
“He can’t keep you married to him against your will forever. The court can grant you a no-fault divorce if they determine that you and your husband have lived apart for two years and that the marriage is irretrievably broken.”
“Two years?” Bonnie fell back upon the bed, cell phone pressed to her ear. Two years before she could put the whole mess behind her. Two years before she could get on with her life. “I can’t wait two years. I don’t think I can take it.”
Darren fell silent, and she heard the rustle of papers in the background. “There are other alternatives, but they’d require more time before the court.”
Anger surged through her. Her flight to Maui was in two days! Leave it to Craig to ruin her plans to spend the winter in Hawaii. But if she had no other choice… “What alternatives?”
“We could argue for mental cruelty, but given Craig’s history…” Darren paused. “You’ve told me about internet dalliances. Is it possible that he’s committed adultery?”
“It’s possible.” Perhaps Bonnie should ask Agnes to tail Craig again. Agnes knew how to be discreet, and she seemed to have a talent for ferreting out Craig’s dirty little secrets. She pictured Agnes bursting in upon Craig in a cheap motel room, a sleazy woman yawning from boredom on the bed, Craig fumbling to yank up his boxer shorts. It was cartoonish and ridiculous and far too plausible.
“It’s not enough to suspect adultery,” Darren warned. “We have to prove it. You either have to catch him in the act--”
“Delightful thought,” Bonnie muttered.
“Or you have to show that he had the opportunity and the disposition to commit adultery. Say, for example, that you can video him entering his lover’s home in the evening and not leaving until the following morning. The services of a private detective are usually called for in these circumstances, because you can hardly put your life on hold to follow him around with a camera.”
“What about a few years back when he went to meet his internet girlfriend at Penn State for the football game?” Bonnie reminded him. “They would have shared a hotel room if I hadn’t discovered their plans and tagged along on the trip. He certainly had the disposition to cheat then.”
“I’m afraid that incident doesn’t count,” said Darren. “I assume you resumed marital relations with your husband afterward?”
“Well…yes. We were trying to work things out, or so I thought.”
“In that case, since you continued to live with your husband and engage in marital relations, the court would say that you had forgiven him, or condoned the act. You can’t use it to support your claim of adultery now. You can use only a newly-discovered affair.”
“That’s unfair. I never condoned it. I tried to forgive him to save the marriage, but I was never okay with it.”
“I’m sorry, Bonnie, but it’s the law. I warn you, following this course could get messy. If a paramour is named, she can be required to testify. If she’s married also--”
Then her secret would be out and her marriage could end up in divorce court too. So what? “Forgive me if I lack sympathy for this hypothetical other woman.”
“Understandably, but we have to be sure we’re right. It would be disastrous to accuse an innocent person. Her reputation would be ruined, her husband and children put through a terrible ordeal, all without cause.”
Bonnie inhaled deeply and sat up. “Then we’ll be sure that we’re sure. Beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the appropriate standard, right? Let’s hire the detective for…a month. If the detective can’t turn up anything against Craig within that time, I’ll assume there isn’t anything to turn up.”
Darren agreed to take care of the arrangements, so after promising to inform him if she discovered anything on her own, Bonnie hung up and stared into space, sick at heart. Despite everything, she would not have thought Craig willing to drag things out and bicker over minutia, all for the sake of money. And now she found herself in the unimaginable position of hoping he had committed adultery and praying he had not.
Could he really have started up another affair after she spoiled his first?
Had it indeed been his first?
The thought of what she might find if she searched the shadowed corners of Craig’s life frayed her every nerve, and yet, if he had cheated on her, she needed to know. She had her own health to consider. And if proof of his infidelity was what she needed to extricate her from their failed marriage, she would be a fool not to look for it.
It was possible, she told herself with a faint glimmer of hope, that the detective would find nothing to implicate him.
Bonnie showered and dressed, preparing herself for a day that was already off to a bad start. Tucking her cell phone into her sweater pocket, she went downstairs to the library on the second floor, where Sarah and Sylvia conducted the official business of Elm Creek Quilts. The double doors opened into a room spanning the entire width of the south wing. Autumn sunshine spilled in through tall diamond-paned windows on the east wall, casting long rectangles of light on the rugs and hardwood floors. Comfortable chairs and sofas formed a square in the center of the room. Oak bookcases lined the walls, their shelves bowing slightly from the weight of leather-bound volumes and framed sepia toned photographs of Sylvia’s ancestors.
Fresh logs had been stacked in the stone fireplace on the south wall, and two armchairs drawn up to the hearth as if in anticipation of a crackling blaze when the evening grew cool. To the left of the mantel hung a scrap Castle Wall quilt, a memorial to Sylvia’s first husband; to the right hung seven sections of nine comprising the Winding Ways quilt Sylvia had made for her friends. She had chosen fabrics that represented each of her friends’ unique qualities, and the mosaic of overlapping circles and intertwining curves, the careful balance of dark and light hues, the unexpected harmony of the disparate fabrics and colors evoked the sense of many winding paths meeting, intersecting, parting, creating the illusion that the separate sections formed a single quilt.
Two missing sections belonging to absent Elm Creek Quilters broke the continuity of the circles, and when Bonnie left for Hawaii, she would take her section with her too. When she returned to Elm Creek Manor, she would restore her portion of the quilt to its proper place, but while she was gone, the empty spaces would remind those left behind that their absent friends would return one day and the circle of quilters would be made whole. As Sylvia often said, “Once an Elm Creek Quilter, always an Elm Creek Quilter.” Bonnie hoped her friends would remember that no matter how far they traveled. She knew she always would, now that it would soon be her turn to set off on a journey.
Sarah sat at the large oak desk typing on the computer, but she looked up when Bonnie entered. “Did you reach your lawyer? Everything okay?”
“As far from okay as it could possibly be,” said Bonnie. “May I borrow your computer? I need to go online and see if Craig’s cheating on me.”
Sarah’s eyebrows rose. “Oh. Okay. Just let me save this.” A few keystrokes later, Sarah closed her document, opened the web browser, hauled herself out of the leather armchair, and offered it to Bonnie. “How are you planning to catch him, exactly?”
“Last time I caught him by accidentally checking his email. I thought I’d see what happens when I check it on purpose.”
“If he hasn’t changed his password.”
Bonnie hadn’t considered that, but Craig surely would have known better than to leave his account unprotected and risk discovery the same way twice. Sure enough, when she tried to log on to the Waterford College system, his old password failed.
“Try some variations,” Sarah suggested, but after a dozen such attempts, Bonnie realized it was futile. It was always so easy on television, where a clever computer expert could deftly fuse together the name of an enemy’s childhood pet and his favorite candy bar and instantly gain access to every detail of his personal life.
“He’s not going to make this easy for me,” she said, thinking aloud.
“Of course not,” said Sarah, “This is Craig we’re talking about.”
True enough, but Bonnie wouldn’t allow Craig and his ridiculous stalling tactics to ruin her plans. She would have to wait and give the detective time to do his work, but she wouldn’t wait at Elm Creek Manor. She intended to be relaxing on a white, sandy beach on Maui when Darren called with the detective’s report--and the news that would be both welcome and dreadful, whatever it was.