These Tangled Vines - Julianne MacLean



Florida, 2017

The telephone rang and woke me from a dream. I must have been deep in the REM cycle, because I was cognizant of the ringing, but I believed it was part of the dream, so I chose to ignore it. It was not until at least the fourth ring that I finally opened my eyes.

Rolling to my side, I flung an arm across the bedside table, picked up the telephone, and pressed the talk button.


A woman with a thick Italian accent replied, “Buongiorno. I am looking for Fiona Bell. Is this the correct number?”

Blinking a few times into the murky dawn light, I sat up to lean on an elbow and squinted at the clock. It was not yet 7:00 a.m. “Yes. This is Fiona.”

“Ah, bene,” the woman replied. “My name is Serena Moretti, and I’m calling from Florence, Italy. I have news for you, Fiona, but I am afraid it’s not good.”

Inching up against the headboard, I pressed my palm to my forehead and squeezed my eyes shut. If this woman was calling from Italy, it could mean only one thing. This was about my father. My real father. The one I’d never met.

“What is it?” I asked, still groggy from sleep and struggling to rouse my bleary brain.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “I’m so sorry. I just realized what time it must be there. I think I miscalculated the time difference. Did I wake you?”

Heavy raindrops battered the window of my house on the Florida Panhandle, and palm fronds slapped repeatedly against the glass. “Yes, but it’s fine. I should be up by now anyway. What’s this about?”

The woman cleared her throat. “I regret to tell you this, but your father, Anton Clark, passed away last night.”

Her words lodged in my ear, and I couldn’t seem to process them, nor could I figure out how to respond.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, speaking as if it were common knowledge, as if everyone knew that a stranger who lived in Italy was my biological father, when in fact no one knew. At least no one on this side of the Atlantic. There was not a single soul in North America who knew the reality of the situation. Not even my dad. The secret about my true parentage was my mother’s parting gift to me in the hours before her death from a brain aneurysm, and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven her for that.

I sat up a little straighter and searched my mind for the proper response. I wanted to say the right thing, but it wasn’t easy, because my emotions were whirling around inside me like a tornado. Of course, it was terrible for someone to die—I felt bad about that—but this man was a complete stranger to me. I knew nothing about him except that he had impregnated my mother when she and my dad spent that terrible, tragic summer in Tuscany thirty-one years ago.

I had no idea what happened between my mother and this man because Mom was heavily medicated and unable—or perhaps unwilling—to go into detail when she dropped that bomb on me. She was close to death, and she must have known it.

“Don’t ever tell your father,” she had said. “He thinks you’re his, and the truth would kill him.”

So there it was. Mom had told me nothing about my real father except his name and nationality, and she had forced me into a vow of silence when I was eighteen and convinced me that if I ever asked questions about the circumstances of my conception or let something slip, I would be responsible for my father’s demise.

For the past twelve years, I had been keeping her secret because I believed her—that the truth would indeed kill my father. I still believed it, because with Dad’s health issues, every day was a challenge as well as a blessing. That’s why I had buried my mother’s secret deep in the darkest hollows of my consciousness. I had forced myself to forget what she had told me. I’d purged it from my brain. Pretended it wasn’t true, that it was just part of a nightmare.

But now, a woman was calling from Italy, and she knew things.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “What happened?”

“It was a sudden, massive heart attack,” the woman explained. “He was gone before the paramedics even arrived, and there was nothing they could do. I hope it will give you some comfort to