Grateful thanks to Suzanne and Margaret for their wonderful beta talents.
The night air still smelled faintly of white-flowering currant as Johnny wandered back to the house, trying to shake off the melancholy that had dogged him all day. A flash from the front window caught his eye; he turned to see a new candle glowing there with Murdoch behind it, shaking the flame off a match.
Quickening his steps, Johnny stepped through the French doors and allowed his spurs to announce his presence. At the sound Murdoch turned quickly away from the candle. The match still glowed.
“Johnny, I thought you’d gone upstairs.” Murdoch sounded faintly guilty, like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Hey, Murdoch. No, I was just out getting some air…” Johnny’s words drifted away as he took in his father’s face. He wasn’t prepared for the sadness he saw there, for the indecision that quickly replaced it.
He’d only known his father for a few months and he’d never seen the man be anything but strong and confident. This unsure Murdoch was something new, and put Johnny in mind of a flighty horse. Right now he looked as if he might bolt.
Johnny tipped his head towards the candle. “That some Christmas tradition up here?”
“Not exactly.” Murdoch pursed his lips and fixed his attention on Johnny. Johnny returned the look for a moment before his eyes drifted to the candle. That was his way with skittish animals — avert your gaze and wait for the creature to trust you.
And finally, Murdoch did. “I’ve lit a candle on this night every year since your mother took you away.”
Johnny drew in a sharp breath, but he didn’t reply. After a long pause, Murdoch continued.
“That very first night I hoped she might return, and I wanted her to know she was welcome to come back. I lit a candle in this window every night from then until Christmas. Even when I admitted to myself that she wasn’t coming back, I still lit candles from the thirteenth until Christmas. I wanted my son…you… I wanted you to know you were always welcome to come back home.”
Neither man moved for a long time. Then Johnny spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. “Today’s her birthday. She never said we…she never said anything about it happenin’ on her birthday.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I didn’t throw her out, John. God knows I didn’t throw you out. Teresa said you thought…for all these years, you thought…” He could no longer speak around the catch in his voice.
Johnny, head bowed, took a step closer to his father. “My mother wasn’t always…truthful, I guess you could say.” His chin came up and he looked straight at Murdoch. “One thing I’ve learned about you, old man, is that you don’t lie.”
Together they watched the candle flicker as if it held the answer they both sought. Finally Johnny clapped his father lightly on the shoulder and started upstairs. He stopped with his foot on the first riser.
“Murdoch? I’m here now, and Scott’s back too. Why’re you lighting that candle tonight, then?”
Murdoch turned back to the window. “Because it’s her birthday,” he said.