Stupidly, she burst into tears. She knew it was true. She was thin and ugly and dirty—and no one, including Blake, would ever want her again. The thought made her sick to her stomach. She clamped a hand over her mouth and raced to the bathroom. It was humiliating to know that her father could hear her retching, but she couldn’t help it. Afterward, she brushed her teeth and moved shakily back into her room.
The worry in Hank’s eyes cut like a knife.
“That’s it,” he said, clapping his hands together. “You’re going in to see the doctor. Get your clothes.”
The thought of going out, of leaving, filled her with horror. “I can’t. People will . . .” She didn’t even know what she was afraid of. She only knew that in this room, here in her little girl’s bed, she felt safe.
“I can still throw you over my shoulder, kiddo. Either get dressed or go into town in those pajamas. It’s up to you. But you’re going to town.”
She wanted to argue, but she knew her father was right, and frankly, it felt good to be taken care of. “Okay, okay.” She made her way slowly into the bathroom and re-dressed in the same rumpled clothes she’d worn on her trip up here. Putting her hair up was way too much for her; instead, she finger-combed it and covered her bloodshot, baggy eyes with sunglasses. “Let’s go.”
Annie stared out the half-open window of her dad’s Ford pickup. Behind her head, the empty gun rack clattered against the glass.
He maneuvered the vehicle expertly between the pot-holes in the road and pulled up in front of a squat, brick building. A handpainted sign read MYSTIC MEDICAL CLINIC. DR. GERALD BURTON, FAMILY PRACTITIONER.
Annie smiled. She hadn’t thought about old Doc Burton in years. He had delivered Annie into the world and seen her through almost two decades of colds and ear infections and childhood accidents. He was as much a part of her youth as braces, proms, and skinny-dips in Lake Crescent.
Hank clicked off the engine. The old Ford sputtered, coughed, and fell silent. “It seems odd to be bringing you back here. I’m suddenly afraid I missed a booster shot and they won’t let you start school.”
Annie smiled. “Maybe Doc Burton will give me a grape sucker if I’m good.”
Hank turned to her. “You were always good, Annalise. Don’t you forget it.”
His words brought it swelling back inside her, sent her falling back into that big house by the sea where her husband had told her he loved another woman. Before the sadness could get a good hold, she squared her shoulders and opened her door. “I’ll meet you at . . .” She glanced around, wondering what was still around.
“The riverpark. You used to love it down there.”
“The riverpark,” she said, recalling all the evenings she had spent down at the bank, crawling through the mud, looking for fish eggs and dragonflies. With a nod, she climbed down out of the truck, hitched her bag over her shoulder, and strode up the concrete steps to the clinic’s front door.
Inside, a blue-haired old lady looked up at her. Her name tag read, HI! I’M MADGE. “Hello. May I help you?”
Annie suddenly felt conspicuous in her rumpled clothes, with her hair hanging limp and lifeless around her face. Thank God the sunglasses hid her eyes. “I’m Annie Colwater. I’d like to see Doctor Burton. I think my father made an appointment.”
“He sure did, darlin’. Have a seat. Doc’ll see you in a jiff.”
After she filled out the insurance forms, Annie took a seat in the waiting room, flipping idly through the newest issue of People magazine. She hadn’t waited more than fifteen minutes when Dr. Burton rounded the corner and strolled into the waiting room. The ten years she’d been gone showed in the folds of red skin along his neck and in the amount of hair he’d lost, but he was still old Doc Burton, the only man in all of Mystic who religiously wore a tie to work.
“Well, Annie Bourne, as I live and breathe.”
She grinned up at the old man. “It’s been a long time.”
“So it has. Come, come.” He slipped an arm around her shoulder and led her into the nearest examining room. She hopped up onto the paper-covered table and crossed her feet at the ankles.
He sat in a flecked, yellow plastic chair opposite her, eyeing her. Coke-bottle-thick glasses magnified his eyes to the size of dinner plates. She wondered how many years ago he’d started to lose his vision. “You don’t look so hot.”
She managed a smile. Apparently his vision wasn’t all that lost. “That’s why I’m here. Hank said I look like hell—he figured it must be a disease.”
He let out a horsey laugh and opened a manila folder, poising a pen on the blank page. “Sounds like Hank. Last time I saw him he had a migraine—and he was sure it was a brain tumor. So, what’s going on with you?”
She found it hard to begin. “I haven’t been sleeping well . . . headaches . . . sick to my stomach . . . that sort of thing.”
“Any chance you could be pregnant?”
She should have been prepared for the question. If she’d been ready, it wouldn’t have hurt so much. But it had been years since any doctor had asked the sensitive question. Her own doctors knew the answer too well. “No chance.”
“Any hot flashes, irregular periods?”
She shrugged. “My periods have always been irregular. In the last year, I’ve skipped a couple of months completely. Frankly, it’s not something I worry about— missing a period. And yes, my own gynecologist has warned me that menopause could be just around the corner.”
“I don’t know . . . you’re a little young for that. . . .”
She smiled. “Bless you.”
He closed the chart, laid it gently across his lap, then looked up at her again. “Is there something going on in your life that would lead to depression?”
One word to describe a mountain of pain. One word to steal the sunlight from a person’s soul and leave them stranded in a cold, gray landscape, alone and searching for something they couldn’t even name.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
She looked at the old man. The gentle understanding in his rheumy eyes took her down a long and winding road, and at the end of it, she was twelve years old again, the first girl in her class to menstruate. Hank hadn’t known what to say, so he’d bundled her up, taken her to Doc Burton, and let the doctor handle her fear.
Tears stung her eyes and slipped unchecked down her cheeks. “My husband and I recently separated. I haven’t been . . . handling it very well.”
Slowly, he pulled his glasses off, laid them on top of his papers, and tiredly rubbed the bridge of his beaked nose. “I’m sorry, Annie. I see too much of this, I’m afraid. It happens in little ole Mystic as often as it does in the big city. Of course you’re blue—and depression could certainly explain sleeplessness, lack of appetite, nausea. Any number of symptoms. I could prescribe some Valium, maybe start you on Prozac. Something to take the edge off until you come out on the other side.”
She wanted to ask him if he’d known a woman who came out on the other side . . . or one whose husband had changed his mind . . . but they were such intimate and revealing questions, so she remained silent.
He slipped the glasses back onto his nose and peered at her. “This is a time when you want to take dang good care of yourself, Annie. Depression isn’t a thing to trifle with. And if it all gives you too many sleepless nights, you come on back around. I’ll give you a prescription.”
“Pills to take the place of a lover?” She forced a grim smile. “Those must be some drugs. Maybe I’ll just take a handful now.”
He didn’t smile. “Handful isn’t a word I like to hear, and sarcasm doesn’t sit pretty on a lady’s tongue, missy. Now, how long are you sticking around?”
She felt a wash of shame, as if she were ten years old again. “Sorry. I have to go . . . home in mid-June.” Unless Blake calls. She shivered inwardly at the thought. “I guess I’ll be here until then.”
“Mid-June, huh? Okay, I want to see you on June first. No matter what. I’ll set you up with an appointment, okay?”
It felt good to have someone care about her progress. “Okay. I’m sure I’ll be better by then.”
He walked Annie out of the clinic. Patting her shoulder, he reminded her again to take care of herself, then he turned and disappeared back down the hallway.
Annie felt better as she left the clinic and headed across town to the park. The crisp spring air rejuvenated her, and the sky was so blue and bright she had to put her sunglasses back on. It was one of those rare early spring days that held all the promise of summer. She passed a huge chainsaw-cut statue of a Roosevelt elk and wound through the park, kicking through the last black winter leaves that clung to the dewy grass.
She found Hank sitting on the same wooden bench that had always been alongside the river. She sat down beside him.
He handed her a Styrofoam cup of steaming hot coffee. “Bet you haven’t had a decent cup of coffee since high school.”
She curled her fingers around the warm cup. “I do have a latte machine, Dad.”
They sipped their coffees in silence. Annie listened to the comforting, familiar sound of the rushing water.
He pulled a croissant out of a paper sack and handed it to her. Her stomach rebelled at the thought of eating, and she waved it away.
“What did the doc say?” Hank asked.
“Big surprise . . . I’m depressed.”
“Are you pissed off yet?”
“Last night I pictured Blake being eaten by piranhas— that seems angry, don’t you think?” He didn’t answer, just stared at her until, more softly, she said, “I was for a while, but now, I’m too . . . empty to be angry.” She felt tears rise and she couldn’t stop them. Humiliated, she looked away. “He thinks I’m nothing, Dad. He expects me to live off alimony and be . . . nothing.”
“What do you think?”
“I think he’s right.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Give me some advice, Dad. Some words of wisdom.”
She laughed in spite of herself. It was exactly what she would have expected him to say, and even though it didn’t help, the familiarity of it was comforting. “Thanks a lot, Dad. I ask for wisdom and you give me bumper stickers.”
“How do you think people come up with bumper stickers?” He patted her hand. “Everything is going to work out, Annie. Blake loves you; he’ll come around. But you can’t keep spending all your time in that bed. You need to get out. Do something. Find something to keep you busy until Blake gets his head out of his ass.”
“Nice comment from my little girl. Here’s one for you,” he said with a smile. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
She pictured the pitcher of lemonade she’d made for Blake, and then the big splotch of it that had bled across the settlement papers. “I don’t like lemonade.”