The cold rain splattered the windshield of her car so hard she could barely see the little house nestled among clusters of palms, oleanders, and old oaks. She turned off the engine and sighed in the sudden silence, eyes closed. The rain beat the roof of her aging Lexus like a drum. This was the first moment of peace she’d had since she’d opened her eyes this morning. She felt weary, as if she’d run a marathon—only, she thought with chagrin, without having lost an ounce.
Her brief moment of peace concluded, Dora began to revisit in her mind the questions on the exam, second-guessing her answers. Dora had never been a great student. Not like Harper with her razor-sharp intellect and Ivy League education. Dora had to study, hard, for a test. Yet no matter how much she studied, when the test was put before her, she felt a panic build in her chest and a pounding in her ears that made it difficult to think clearly. Her teachers had called her a “poor test taker.” Because of this her grades had suffered in school, but that was a lifetime ago, and she’d never been all that worried about her ranking in academics. She hadn’t finished college so she could marry Calhoun Tupper after her junior year. As her friends had joked, who needed a BA when she got a MRS?
This test was different, however. Passing the real estate exam meant the difference between starting a new career that she loved and trying to support herself and her son on minimum wage. She placed her fingertips to her temple, feeling the old fear of failure rear up in her heart—a cold shiver, a tightening in the chest. Paralyzing.
Her marriage to Calhoun had been a dismal failure. For the ten years of their union, Dora had struggled to be the wife she’d always believed she should be. She had exalted expectations set by her mother and her mother before her for generations. She and Cal had pulled together their savings and borrowed to the hilt to purchase an old Victorian house in the historic section of Summerville, South Carolina. They’d thought it was the first step toward the life they’d planned for themselves. Like any young southern bride, Dora had visions of being the perfect wife, the best mother, and a creative hostess worthy of the pages of Southern Living magazine. With the naïve excitement of youth they’d made great plans to lovingly restore what they saw as a grande dame of an old house. Oh, the plans Dora had! All she’d needed was a little money and a little time for her dreams to come true.
Time, however, had not been kind. The old treasure of a house was in fact a money pit of mold, rotting foundations, and rats in the attic. Cal’s meager salary and lack of promotions at the bank meant there was never the money to begin restoration. And Cal, it turned out, didn’t know a hammer from a paintbrush. They lived in a run-down house in an aura of disappointment. If that wasn’t depressing enough, she’d had one miscarriage after another. When at last her prayers were answered and she gave birth to her son, Nate, she’d thought things would at last improve. But she knew something about her son was off, and at three years of age Nate was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a high-functioning autism.
Naturally, Dora lost interest in the house and focused on what was important—helping her son. She withdrew from local volunteering and began homeschooling. She didn’t realize that she was becoming isolated and lost interest in herself, as well. Meanwhile Cal, too, lost interest, not only in the house but in his wife and son. Then, last summer, he had asked for a divorce.
When Cal left, Dora felt she’d failed at everything that had mattered to her and fell into a deep depression, which led to broken heart syndrome, also known as cardiomyopathy, which landed her in the hospital. Mamaw’s invitation to Sea Breeze had saved her. She’d moved to the safety of her grandmother’s and sisters’ arms. With their support, she’d begun her long journey to healing.
Now, her divorce was final. She was, for the first time in her life, truly on her own. The sensation was both heady and daunting. Dora knew she had a lot to prove—to herself, and, too, to her son. Yet she’d never felt so stressed. Money was tight. The tuition for Nate’s private school was costly, and Cal was often lagging behind in contributing his share of the payments. He kept telling her he had to spend money to get the house in shape for sale. That albatross had been on the market for nearly a year without a serious offer. If only it would sell, she’d be free of it and maybe have a little money left over. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, her mother would tell her. It was true, Dora knew that. She had to concentrate on what she could do right now. Such as getting her real estate license.
Dora squeezed her eyes tight and said a quick prayer. She just had to pass this exam. For once in her life she didn’t want to depend on anyone else or any turn of fate. She wanted to make it on her own.
But it was hard being a single parent. Between caring for Nate, cleaning the house, shopping and cooking, working fulltime, and finding time to study, the one she’d stopped taking care of was herself. Again. She was falling into a dangerous trap. She’d stopped exercising on the excuse she didn’t have time. She ate take-out food. And the wine . . . The pounds she’d lost were slowly piling back on. She felt like such a failure for slipping into old, bad patterns.
Relax. Don’t beat yourself up, Dora told herself. She took a deep cleansing breath, then exhaled out the noxious feelings of self-hatred and failure. She looked out the car window and saw the little cottage peeping out from the wet, drooping foliage. You’re home now, she told herself.
This feeling of homecoming was hard-won. She loved this little cottage. Devlin, her boyfriend, had purchased it a year earlier when the real estate market crashed. When they’d started dating, she’d helped him remodel it, even rolling up her sleeves and working alongside him. Dora had poured into the cottage all she’d dreamed of doing all those lonely years in Summerville. Devlin not only appreciated her suggestions but had incorporated them. And more, Devlin knew how to wield a hammer. Together, they’d rehabbed the house by the creek into something special. This cottage was one of her successes. Devlin had then let Dora rent the house at an amount she could afford while he waited for the market to improve. They both knew it was his way of helping her through this rough time.
Devlin was waiting for her inside now. Feeling buoyed by the thought, she pushed open the car door and ran along the winding walkway, clutching her raincoat close to her neck, to the front door. It was thankfully unlocked so she pushed it open and scampered into the dry shelter.