He pulled out a chair. It made a grating sound on the worn yellow linoleum. “I’m not sure feeding a man is a big leap forward.”
She gave him a crooked grin and took a seat across from him. “Actually, I thought I’d go shopping.”
He plucked up a mouthful of egg in his blunt-edged fingers. “In Mystic? Unless you’re looking for the ideal steel-head lure, I don’t know how much luck you’ll have.”
Annie stared down at her eggs. She wanted to eat—she really did—but the sight of the food made her faintly nauseous. She hoped her dad didn’t notice. “I thought I’d start by getting a few books. This seems like a good time to catch up on my reading. Hell, I could get through Moby-Dick in my spare time. And the clothes I brought won’t work up here.”
“Yeah, white’s not a very practical color up here in mud-land. ” He poured a blot of ketchup alongside his eggs and peppered everything. Reaching for his fork, he glanced across the table at Annie. She could tell that he was doing his best not to grin. “Good for you, Annie Virginia.” Then, softer, “Good for you.”
Mystic dozed beneath a bright spring sun. The town was full of activity today, with farmers and housewives and fishermen scurrying up and down the concrete sidewalks, in a hurry to get their errands done while the clouds were slim and spread out beneath a pale blue sky. Everyone knew that those same clouds could suddenly bunch together like school-yard bullies, releasing a torrent of rain so vicious that even a full-grown eagle couldn’t take flight.
Annie strolled down Main Street, peeking into the various stores, a couple of times pushing through a half-open door. Invariably a bell tinkled overhead and a voice called out, Hiya, miss. Fine day, isn’t it? At the Bagels and Beans coffee shop, she ordered a double tall mocha latte, and she sipped it as she moved down the street.
She passed stores that sold trinkets for tourists, hardware, fabric, and fishing tackle. But there wasn’t a single bookstore. At the H & P Drugstore, she picked up the latest Pat Conroy bestseller but couldn’t find anything else that interested her. There wasn’t much of a selection. It was too bad, because she needed a manual for the rest of her life.
At last, she found herself standing in front of Eve’s Leaves Dress Emporium. A mannequin smiled down at her from the display window, wearing a bright yellow rain slicker and matching hat. Her awkwardly bent elbow held a sign that read: Spring is in the air. Multicolored silk flowers sprouted from watering cans at her booted feet, and a rake was slanted against one wall.
Annie pushed through the glass door. A tiny bell tinkled at her entrance.
Somewhere, a woman squealed. “It can’t be!”
Annie looked around for the owner of the voice. Molly Block, her old high school English teacher, came barreling through the maze of rounders, her fleshy arms waving.
“Annie?” she said, grinning. “Annie Bourne, is that you?”
“It’s me, Mrs. Block. How are you?”
Molly planted her hands on her wide hips. “Mrs. Block. Don’t make me feel so old, Annie. Why, I was practically a child when I taught your class.” She grinned again, and shoved the wire-rimmed glasses higher on her nose. “It’s grand to see you again. Why, it’s been years.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Molly.”
“Whatever brings you up to our neck of the woods? I thought you married a hotshot lawyer and were living the good life in smoggy California.”
Annie sighed. “Things change, I guess.”
Molly cocked her head to the left and eyed Annie. “You look good; I’d kill to be able to wear that haircut, but I’d look like a helium balloon. That white cashmere won’t last long in this country, though. One good rainstorm and you’ll think you left the house wearin’ a dead rabbit.”
Annie laughed. “That’s the truth.”
Molly patted her shoulder. “Follow me.”
An hour later, Annie stood in front of a full-length mirror. She was wearing a nineteen-dollar pair of jeans (who knew they still made jeans at that price?), cotton socks and tennis shoes, and a baggy UW sweatshirt in a utilitarian shade of gray.
The clothes made her feel like a new woman. She didn’t look like the thirty-nine-year-old soon-to-be-ex-wife of a hotshot California lawyer; she looked like an ordinary small-town woman, maybe someone who had horses to feed and porches to paint. A woman with a life. For the first time, she almost liked the haircut.
“They suit you,” Molly said, crossing her beefy arms and nodding. “You look like a teenager.”
“In that case, I’ll take everything.”
While Molly was ringing up the purchases, she rambled on and on about life in Mystic, who was sleeping with whom, who’d gone bankrupt over the spotted owl fiasco, who was running for city council.
Annie glanced out the window. She listened vaguely to the small-town gossip, but she couldn’t really concentrate. Lurlene’s words kept coming back to her, circling, circling. Kathy died eight months ago. She turned back to Molly. “I heard . . . about Kathy Johnson . . . Delacroix.”
Molly paused, her pudgy fingers plucking at a price tag. “It was a true shame, that. You all used to be awfully close in high school.” She smiled sadly. “I remember the time you and Nick and Kathy put on that skit for the talent show—you all sang some silly song from South Pacific. Nicky wore that outrageous coconut bra, and halfway through the song you all were laughing so hard you couldn’t finish.”
“I remember,” she said softly, wondering how it was she’d forgotten it until this very second. “How’s Nick doing since . . . you know?” She couldn’t bring herself to actually say the words.
Molly made a tsking sound and snipped the price tag from the jeans with a pair of scissors. “I don’t know. He makes his rounds and does his job, I guess—you know he’s a cop, right? Don’t see him smile much anymore, and his daughter is in pretty bad shape, from what I hear. They could use a visit from an old friend, I’ll bet.”
After Annie paid for her new clothes, she thanked Molly for the help and carried her purchases out to the car. Then she sat in the driver’s seat for a while, thinking, remembering.
She shouldn’t go to him, not now, not spur-of-the-moment, she knew that. A thing like this needed to be thought out. You didn’t just go barging into a strange man’s life, and that’s what he was: a stranger. She hadn’t seen Nick in years.
Besides, she was broken and battered herself. What good could she be to a man who’d lost his wife?
But she was going to go to him. She had probably known from the second Lurlene mentioned his name that it was inevitable. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense; it didn’t matter that he probably wouldn’t remember her. What mattered was that he’d once been her best friend, and that his wife had once been her best friend. And that she had nowhere else to go.
It was approaching nightfall by the time Annie gathered the nerve to go see Nick. A winding brown ribbon of road led to the Beauregard house. Towering old-growth trees bracketed the road, their trunks obscured by runaway salal bushes. Every now and then, through the black fringe of forest, she could see a glittering silver reflection of the lake. The last few rays of gray sunlight fell like mist through the heavy, moss-draped branches.
It wasn’t raining, but tiny droplets of dew began to form on the windshield. In this, the land of ten thousand water-falls, the air was always heavy with moisture, and the lakes were the aquamarine hue of glacial ice. Some, like Mystic Lake, were so deep that in places the bottom had never been found, and so remote that sometimes, if you were lucky, you could find a pair of trumpeter swans stopping by on their migratory patterns. Here, tucked into the wild, soggy corner of this secret land, they knew they would be safe.
The road twisted and turned and finally ended in a big circular dirt driveway. Annie parked next to a police squad car, turned off the engine, and stared at the beautiful old house, built back at the turn of century, when woods were solid and details were hand-carved by master craftsmen who took pride in their work. In the distance, she could hear the roar of the mighty Quinault River, and she knew that this time of year it would be straining and gnawing at its bank, rushing swollen and headlong toward the faraway shores of the Pacific Ocean.
A pale yellow fog obscured half of the house, drifting on invisible currents of air from the lake. It crept eerily up the whitewashed porch steps and wound around the carved posts.
Annie remembered a night when this house had been spangled in starlight. It had been abandoned then; every broken window had held jagged bits of shadow and moonlight. She and Nick had ridden their bikes here, ditched them alongside the lake, and stared up at the big, broken house.
I’m gonna own this house someday, Nick had said, his hands shoved deeply in his pockets.
He’d turned to her, his handsome face cut into sharp angles by the glittering moonlight. She hadn’t even seen the kiss coming, hadn’t prepared for it, but when his lips had touched hers, as soft and tentative as the brush of a butterfly’s wing, she’d started to cry.
He had drawn back, frowning. Annie?
She didn’t know what was wrong, why she was crying. She’d felt foolish and desperately naive. It was her first kiss—and she’d ruined it.
After that, he’d turned away from her. For a long time, he’d stared at the lake, his arms crossed, his face unreadable. She’d gone up to him, but he’d pulled away, mumbled something about needing to get home. It was the first and last time he’d ever kissed her.
She brushed the memory aside and fixed her thoughts on the here and now.
Nick and Kathy had fixed up the old house—the windows were all in place, and sunshine-yellow paint coated everything. Hunter-green shutters bracketed each window, but still the whole place looked . . . untended.
Last year’s geraniums and lobelia were still in the flower boxes, now a dead, crackly bunch of brown stalks. The grass was much too long and moss had begun to fur the brick walkway. A dirty cement birdbath lay on its side amid gargantuan rhododendrons.
And still it was one of the most beautiful places she’d ever seen. The new spring grass was as green as emeralds and as thick as chinchilla fur; it swept away from the building and rolled gently to the blue edge of the lake. Behind the house, swollen clouds hung suspended in a sky hammered to the color of polished steel.
Annie tucked her purse under her arm and slowly crossed the squishy wet lawn, climbing the white porch steps. At the oak door, she paused, then took a deep breath and knocked.
She was just about to turn away when she heard the slow shuffling of feet. Suddenly the door swung open, and Nick was standing in front of her.
She would have recognized him anywhere. He was still tall, over six feet, but time had whittled the football star’s muscles to a whipcord leanness. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and the dark, corrugated muscles of his stomach tapered down into a pair of bleached Levi’s that were at least two sizes too big. He looked as tough and sinewy as old leather, with pale, lined skin stretched across hollowed-out cheeks. His hair was ragged and unkempt, and something—either time or grief—had sucked its color away, left it the silvery hue of a nickel when struck by the sun.