Downtown wore the shabby, forgotten look of a white-haired old man left out in the rain. A single, tired stoplight guided nonexistent traffic past the huddled group of brick-and wood-fronted stores. Fifteen years ago, Mystic had been a booming town supported by fishing and logging, but the intervening years had obviously been hard ones that had driven merchants to more lucrative communities and left in their wake several vacant storefronts.
Rusted pickup trucks were parked at an angle behind thirty-year-old meters; only a few people in faded overalls and heavy winter overcoats could be seen on the sidewalks.
The stores that were left had down-home names: The I of the Needle fabric shop, the Holey Moses Doughnut counter, the Kiddie Corner consignment clothing store, Dwayne’s Lanes bowling alley, Eve’s Leaves Dress Emporium, Vittorio’s Italian Ristorante. Each window displayed a placard that read THIS ESTABLISHMENT SUPPORTED BY LOGGING—a resentful reminder to distant politicians, living in pillared homes in faraway cities, that logging was the lifeblood of this region.
It was an exhausted little logging town, but to Annie, whose eyes had grown accustomed to steel and concrete and glass, it was gorgeous. The sky now was gray, but she could remember how it looked without the cover of clouds. Here, in Mystic, the sky started deep in the palm of God’s hand and unfurled as far as the eye could see. It was a grand land of sublime landscapes, with air that smelled of pine needles and mist and rain.
So unlike Southern California.
The thought came unwanted, a stinging little reminder that she was a thirty-nine-year-old woman, perched on the edge of an unwanted divorce. That she was coming home because she had nowhere else to go.
She tried not to think about Blake or Natalie or that big, empty house perched precariously above the beach. Instead, she remembered the things she didn’t mind leaving behind—the heat that always gave her a headache, the cancer she could feel lurking in the invisible rays of the sun, the smog that stung her eyes and burned her throat. The “bad air” days when you were advised to stay indoors, the mud slides and fires that took out whole neighborhoods in a single afternoon.
Annie had roots in this county that went deep and spread far. Her grandfather had come here almost seventy years ago, a block-jawed German with an appetite for freedom and a willingness to use a saw. He had carved a good living from the land and raised his only son, Hank, to do the same. Annie was the first Bourne in two generations to leave this soil, and the first to get a college education.
She followed Elm Street out of town. On both sides of the road, the land had been cut into bite-size pieces. Modular homes huddled on squares of grass, behind yards cluttered with broken-down cars and washing machines that had seen better days. Everywhere she looked, Annie saw the evidence of logging: trucks, chainsaws, and signs about the spotted owl.
The road began its slow, winding crawl up the hillside, thrusting deeper and deeper into the forests. One by one, the houses receded, giving way to trees. Miles and miles of scrawny, new-growth trees huddled behind signs that read: CLEARCUT 1992. REPLANTED 1993. There was a new sign every quarter mile or so; only the dates were different.
Finally, she reached the turnoff to the gravel road that meandered through fifteen acres of old-growth timber.
As a child, this woodland had been her playground. She had spent countless hours climbing through the dewy salal bushes and over crumbling nurse logs, in search of treasures: a white mushroom that grew only by the light of a red moon, a newborn fawn awaiting its mother’s return, a gelatinous cache of frog’s eggs hidden in the bogs.
At last, she came to the two-story clapboard farmhouse in which she’d grown up. It looked exactly as she remembered: a gabled, fifty-year-old structure painted a pale pearl gray with white trim. A whitewashed porch ringed the whole house, and baskets of winter-spindly geraniums hung from every post. Smoke spiraled up from the brick chimney and merged into the low-slung layer of gray fog overhead.
Behind it, a battalion of ancient trees protected a secret, fern-lined pond. Moss furred the tree trunks and hung in lacy shawls from one branch to another. The lawn melted down toward the silvery ribbon of a salmon stream. She knew that if she walked across the grass, it would squish between her toes, and this time of year, the stream would sound like an old man snoring in his sleep.
She maneuvered the rented Mustang to the parking area behind the woodshed and shut off the engine. Grabbing her purse, she walked up to the front door.
Only a moment after she rang the bell, her father opened the door.
The great Hank Bourne—all six feet three inches and 220 pounds of him—stood there for a second, staring at his daughter with disbelieving eyes. Then a smile started, buried deep in his silvery-white mustache and beard.
“Annie,” he whispered in that scratchy, barrel-chested voice of his.
His arms opened for a hug, and she launched herself forward, burying her face in the velvety folds of his neck. He smelled of woodsmoke and Irish Spring soap and of the butterscotch hard candies he always kept in the breast pocket of his work shirt. Of her childhood.
Annie let herself be carried away by the comfort of her father’s embrace. At last, she drew back, unable to look at him, knowing he’d see the tears in her eyes. “Hi, Dad.”
“Annie,” he said again, only this time she heard the question he didn’t ask.
She forced herself to meet his probing gaze. He looked good for his sixty-seven years. His eyes were still as bright and curious as a young man’s, even tucked as they were in folds of ruddy pink skin. The tragedies he’d endured appeared only occasionally and quickly retreated—a shadow that crossed his wrinkled face when a stoplight turned red on a rainy day, or when the heartless sound of an ambulance’s siren cut through the fog.
He tucked a scarred hand—cut long ago by the unforgiving blades at the lumber mill—into the bib of his faded denim overalls. “You alone, Annie?”
She flinched. The question contained layers and layers. There were so many ways to answer.
He looked at her so intensely she felt uncomfortable, as if he were seeing into her soul, into that big house on the Pacific Ocean where her husband had said, I don’t love you, Annie.
“Natalie left for London,” she said weakly.
“I know. I’ve been waiting for you to call with the address. I thought I’d send her something.”
“She’s staying with a family called Roberson. It’s raining every day, cats and dogs from what I und—”
“What’s going on, Annie Virginia?”
She swallowed the rest of her sentence on a gulp of breath. There was nowhere now to go except forward. “He . . . he left me, Dad.”
He looked hopelessly confused. “What?”
She wanted to laugh and pretend it was nothing, that she was plenty strong enough to deal with this, but she felt like a kid again, tongue-tied and lost.
“What happened?” he asked softly.
She shrugged. “It’s an old story. He’s forty . . . and she’s twenty-eight.”
Hank’s lean, wrinkled face fell. “Oh, honey . . .” She saw him search for words, and saw the sadness fill his eyes when he came up empty. He moved toward her, pressed a dry-skinned palm against her face. For a heartbeat, the past came forward, slid into the present; she knew they were both remembering another day, long ago, when Hank had told his seven-year-old daughter that there’d been an accident . . . that Mommy had gone to heaven. . . .
She’s gone, honey. She won’t be coming back.
In the silence that followed, Hank hugged his daughter. She laid her cheek against the comforting flannel of his plaid work shirt. She wanted to ask him for some words of advice, some comforting thought to take to her lonely bedroom and curl up into, but they’d never had that kind of relationship. Hank had never been comfortable handing out fatherly wisdom. “He’ll be back,” he said quietly. “Men can be pretty damn stupid. But Blake will realize what he’s done, and he’ll be back, begging for a second chance.”
“I want to believe that, Dad.”
Hank smiled, apparently bolstered by the effect of his words. “Trust me, Annie. That man loves you. I knew it the first time I saw him. You were too young to get married, I knew, but you were a sensible girl, and I said to myself, now there’s a boy who’s going to take care of my daughter. He’ll be back. Now, how about if we settle you into your old bedroom and then bring out the old chessboard?”
“That’d be perfect.”
Hank reached out and grabbed her hand. Together they walked through the sparsely decorated living room and up the rickety stairs that led to the second floor.
At Annie’s old bedroom, Hank turned the knob and pushed the door open. The room was a wash of yellow-gold wallpaper lit by the last lavender rays of the fading sun; it was a young girl’s floral print, chosen by a loving mother a lifetime ago, and never changed. Neither Annie nor Hank had ever considered peeling the paper off, not even when Annie had outgrown it. A spindly white iron double bed dominated the room, its surface piled high with yellow and white quilts. Beside a narrow double-hung window sat a twig rocker, the one her father had made for her on her thirteenth birthday. You’re a woman now, he’d said, you’ll be wanting a woman’s chair.
She had spent much of her youth in that chair, gazing out at the endless night, clipping photographs of celebrities from a Teen Beat magazine, writing gushy fan letters to Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy, dreaming of the man she would someday wed.
He’ll be back. She wrapped Hank’s words around her, letting them become a shield against the other, darker thoughts. She wanted desperately to believe her dad was right.
Because if he was wrong, if Blake didn’t come back, Annie had no idea who she was or where she belonged.
The night had passed in fitful waves. On several occasions, Annie woke with a start, the remnant of a sob floating in the darkness around her, the sheets coiled about her legs, damp and sour smelling. She’d spent the past four days wandering around this old farmhouse like a lost spirit, feeling restless and bruised. She rarely ventured far from the phone.
I made a mistake, Annie. I’m sorry; I love you. If you come home to me I’ll never see Suzannah again. She waited for the call all day, and then, at night, she collapsed into a troubled sleep and dreamed about it again.
She knew she should do something, but she had no idea what. All her life she’d taken care of people, she’d used her life to create a perfect setting for Blake’s and Natalie’s lives, and now, alone, she was lost.
Go back to sleep. That was it. She’d burrow under the down comforter again and sleep. . . .
There was a knock at her door. “I’ll be out in a while,” she mumbled, reaching for her pillow.
The door swung open. Hank stood in the opening. He was wearing a red and blue plaid flannel shirt and a pair of bleached, stained denim overalls—the makeshift uniform he’d worn to the lumber mill for almost forty years. He was holding a tray full of food. Disapproval etched his face, narrowed his eyes. He carefully set down the tray and crossed the room. “You look like hell.”