Sweet Salt Air
By Barbara Delinsky
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Barbara Delinsky
All rights reserved.
Quinnipeague lay eleven miles from the mainland. With a year-round population of nearly three hundred, it was serviced by a daily mail boat that carried groceries and a handful of passengers, but no cars. Since Charlotte had one of those for the first time in her life, she proudly booked the ferry, boarding in Rockland on a Tuesday, which was one of only three days each week when its captain cruised past Vinalhaven to islands like Quinnipeague. Nicole had offered airfare to speed up the trip, but Charlotte flew everywhere else in life. This summer was to be different.
The car was an old Jeep Wrangler, bought from a friend of a friend for a fraction of its original cost. Giddy with excitement, she stashed the soft top in back, and, as the warm June air flowed freely through windows and roof, drove up from New York herself. She welcomed the time it would take. After a frantic two months of work to free herself up, she wanted to slow down, decompress, and maybe, just maybe figure out why she had agreed to a last summer on Quinnipeague. She had sworn she wouldn't return, had sworn off painful memories.
But there were good memories as well, all of which had flooded back as she read Nicole's e-mail in Ireland that day. She replied instantly, promising to phone as soon as she returned to New York. And she had. Literally. Right there in baggage claim while waiting for her duffel to come through.
Of course, she would come, she had told Nicole, only afterward doing the reasoning. For starters, there was Bob. She hadn't gone to his funeral because she hadn't had the courage to face even a dead Bob after letting him down—letting them all down—so badly. So she owed Nicole for the funeral, and owed her for the betrayal.
But obligation wasn't the only reason she had accepted the invitation. Relief was another; Nicole herself had suggested the collaboration. And nostalgia; Charlotte missed those carefree summers. And loneliness; she spent her life with people, but none were family as Nicole had once been.
And then there was the book. She had never worked on a book, had never actually collaborated on anything, though it sounded like a piece of cake, having someone else run the show. When she thought about the people she would interview, Cecily Cole came to mind first. Talk about compelling characters. Cecily was island cooking in many regards, since her herbs were what made the food special. She had to be the centerpiece of the book. Talking with her would be fun.
Charlotte could use a little fun, a little rest, a little make-believe—and Quinnipeague was the place for that. Even now, as the ferry passed in and out of fog, reality came and went. You can't go home again, Thomas Wolfe had written, and she prayed he was wrong. She expected some awkwardness; ten years and very different lives later, she and Nicole couldn't just pick up where they'd left off. Moreover, if Nicole knew of her betrayal, all bets were off.
But if Nicole knew, she wouldn't have asked Charlotte to come. Nicole Carlysle didn't have a devious bone in her body.
Leaning out from the side railing, she caught a breath. There it was—
But no, just an ocean mirage quickly swallowed by the fog.
After moving past empty benches, she held tightly to the front rail. Anticipation had built since leaving New York, accelerating in leaps after New Haven, then Boston. By the time she passed Portland, impatience had her regretting the decision to drive, but that changed once she left the highway at Brunswick and started up the coast. Bath, Wiscasset, Damariscotta—she loved the names as much as the occasional view of boats, seaside homes, roadside stands. FULL BELLY CLAMS one sign read, but she resisted. Clams served on Quinnipeague were dug from the flats hours before cooking, and the batter, which was exquisitely light, held bits of parsley and thyme. Other fried clams couldn't compare.
The ferry rose on a swell, but plowed steadily on. Though the air was cool and the wind sharpened by bits of spray, she couldn't get herself to go inside. She had put on a sweater over her jeans when the ferry left Rockland, and while she had also tied back her hair, loose tendrils blew free. They whipped behind her now as she kept her eyes on the sea. Some called North Atlantic waters cold and forbidding, but she had seen others. Turquoise, emerald, teal—none moved her as gray-blue did. Seventeen summers here had made it a visceral thing.
Her camera. She needed to capture this.
But no. She didn't want anything coming between her eyes and that first sighting.
Having relived it dozens of times in the preceding weeks, she thought she was prepared, but the thrill when the island finally emerged from the mist was something else. One by one, as the fog thinned, the features she remembered sharpened: jagged outcroppings of rock, a corona of trees, the Chowder House perched on granite and flanked by twin roads that swung wide for a gentle descent from town to pier, like symmetrical stairways in an elegant home.
That said, there was nothing elegant about Quinnipeague, with its rutted paths and weathered docks. But Quinnipeague wasn't meant to be elegant. It was meant to be authentic. Shutters were practical things to be closed in the fiercest of winds, and, when open, hung crooked more often than not. Wood was gray, clusters of buoys tacked to the side of the fishing shed were bright despite their chipping paint, and the gulls that swooped in to perch on tall pilings always left their chalky mark.
Sailboats grew distinct from power ones as the ferry neared. There were fewer lobster boats than Charlotte remembered, fewer lobstermen she had read, though those who remained would be out pulling traps this Tuesday, hence moorings with only dinghies attached.
Her pulse sped when she saw a figure running down the pier, and in that instant, the bad of the past blew right back out to sea. She waved frantically. "Nicki! I'm here—here, Nicki!"
Like there were other people on the ferry. Like Nicole could possibly miss her. Like Nicole could even hear her over the thrum of the boat and the slap of waves on pilings. But Charlotte couldn't help herself. She was a child again, having traveled alone from Virginia with her heart in her mouth and here, finally, so relieved to have reached the right place. She was a teenager, a seasoned flier now from Texas, electrified by the sight of her best friend. She was a college student who had taken the bus up from New Haven to summer with a family that wanted to hear about her courses, her friends, her dreams.
For all the places she'd been in the ten years since that wedding summer, no one had ever been waiting for her.
In that moment, seeing Nicole bubbling with excitement on the pier, her own relief was so great that she forgave her the timidity, the docility, the sheer agreeableness that had made her such easy prey for betrayal—traits Charlotte had seized on over the years to forgive her own behavior.
But this was a new day. The hovering fog couldn't dull the reds and blues of the boats. Nor could the smell of seaweed overpower that of the Chowder House grill. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while with agonizing precision and a grinding of gears, the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier front and center in her sight.
Beautiful Nicole. That hadn't changed. Always petite, she looked positively willowy standing there on the pier. Always stylish, she was even more so now in her skinny jeans and leather jacket. The wind whipped her scarf, which likely cost more than Charlotte's entire summer wardrobe—the latter being vintage L. L. Bean, emphasis on vintage, having traveled with Charlotte for years. Style had never been in her lexicon. The closest she came to it now were her flats, bought three years before at an open-air market in Paris.
Chug by chug, the ferry backed its snub stern to the end of the dock. The instant the captain released the chains and lowered the ramp, Charlotte was off and running. Throwing her arms around Nicole, she cried, "You are the best sight ever! You look amazing!"
"And you," Nicole cried back, clinging tightly. Her body shook. She was crying.
Charlotte might have cried, too, her throat was that tight. Ten years and such different lives, yet Nicole was as excited as she was. Grasping at everything that had been so right about their summers together, she just held on, swaying for another few seconds until Nicole laughed through her tears and drew back. Running her fingers under her eyes, she explored Charlotte's face. "You have not changed a bit," she declared in the voice Charlotte remembered—high, not quite childlike but close. "And I still love your hair."
"It's the same old mess, but I love yours. You cut it."
"Just last month, finally. I mean, I may still sound like I did when I was ten, but I wanted to look like an adult at least." Blond and straight, her hair had always fallen to midback. Cut now in a wedge, it was shaped neatly around her face in a way that gave focus to the green of her eyes, which were luminous with lingering tears and suddenly anxious. "Was the trip okay?"
"It was fine—"
"But it was long, and you're not used to driving—"
"Which was why I wanted to do it, and it was good, it really was—and for the record, Nicki, you always looked gorgeous, but this cut is very, very cool." By comparison, Charlotte might have felt unsophisticated, if she hadn't known that women paid big bucks for hair like hers, and as for her voice, which was neither high nor distinct, it got her where she needed to be.
Nicole was eyeing her shoes. "Love those. Paris?"
Charlotte grinned. "Absolutely."
"And your sweater? Not Paris, but fabulous. So authentic." Her voice grew urgent. "Where did you get it? I need one."
"Sorry, sweetie. It's a hand-me-down from a woman in Ireland."
"So perfect for this place. It's been a dismal, cloudy June. I should have warned you, but I was afraid you wouldn't come."
"I've survived dismal and cloudy before." She glanced up the hill. "The island looks just the same." Past the Chowder House were the general store left and the post office right, both buildings long and low so as not to tempt the wind. "Like nothing's changed."
"Little has. But we do have Wi-Fi at the house. Got it set up last week."
"For just us two?" she asked to be sure. Nicole had initially told her that Julian would be up with her the week before, but was planning to leave before Charlotte arrived. If he had decided to stay on, it would change the tenor of her visit, putting the fragility of her relationship with Nicole front and center.
But Nicole was all cool confidence. "Hey. We deserve it. Besides, if I don't keep blogging, people will lose interest and wander away, and then there won't be as many to hear me when I start pitching our book—which I feel a hundred percent better doing now that you've agreed to help. Thank you, Charlotte," she said earnestly. "I know you have more important things to do."
Charlotte might have insisted that this was as important a project as she'd done in a while, if a gruff call hadn't cut off the thought.
"Hellooo." The ferry captain shot a thumb at her Jeep. "Gonna get it off?"
"Oh." She laughed. "Sorry." Releasing Nicole, she ran back onto the ferry and slid behind the wheel. By the time she revved the engine, Nicole was in the passenger's seat, sliding a hand over the timeworn dashboard. "I am paying you for this."
Charlotte shot her a startled look and inched forward. "For this car? You are not."
"You wouldn't have bought it if it weren't for my book, and you won't take money for that."
"Because it's your book. I'm just along for the ride." She laughed at her own words. "Can you believe, this is the first car I've ever owned?" She eased it onto the dock. "Is it real or what?"
"Totally real," Nicole said, though momentarily wary. "Safe on the highway?"
"It got me here." Charlotte waved at the captain. "Thank you!" Still crawling along, she drove carefully off the pier. When she was on firm ground, she stopped, angled sideways in the seat, and addressed the first of the ghosts. "I'm sorry about your dad, Nicki. I wanted to be there. I just couldn't."
Seeming suddenly older, Nicole smiled sadly. "You were probably better off. There were people all over the place. I didn't have time to think."
"A heart attack?"
"No history of heart problems?"
"That's scary. How's Angie?" Nicole's mother. Charlotte had phoned her, too, and though Angie had said all the right words—Yes, a tragedy, he loved you, too, you're a darling to call—she had sounded distracted.
"Bad," Nicole confirmed. "They were so in love. And he loved Quinnipeague. His parents bought the house when he was little. He actually proposed to Mom here. They always said that if I'd been a boy, they'd have named me Quinn. She can't bear to come now. That's why she's selling. She can't even come to pack up. This place was so him."
"Woo-hoo," came a holler that instantly lifted the mood. "Look who's here!" A stocky woman, whose apron covered a T-shirt and shorts, was trotting down the stairs from the lower deck of the Chowder House. Dorey Jewett had taken over from her father midway through Charlotte's summers here and had brought the place up to par with the best of city restaurants. She had the gleaming skin of one who worked over steam, but the creases by her eyes, as much from smiling as from squinting over the harbor, suggested she was nearing sixty. "Missy here said you were coming, but just look at you. All grown up."
A lifelong Mainer, she talked the part. Loving that, Charlotte laughed. "I was twenty-four when I was here last, no child then."
"But look at you. That's some sweater!" The sheer ebullience of the woman made Charlotte laugh again. "And Missy? Well, I've seen her these last years, but I tell you, the two a' you put the rest of us to shame." Her brows went up. "You hungry? Chowder's hot."
Chowdah, Charlotte thought happily. It was late afternoon, and she was starved. But Nicole loved to cook, and Nicole was calling the shots.
Leaning across the stick shift, Nicole told Dorey, "To go, please, with corn bread and fiddleheads."
"You'll be taking the last a' those," Dorey confided. "I had a vendor try to convince me to shrink-wrap and freeze, but they're never the same. I only have 'em now because they're from up north"—nauth—"and the growing season was late this year. They'd have been gone a week ago, if business hadn't been slow, but the price a' gas is so high, and no one's out day-cruisin' anyways when the wind's so mean. Think you can tough out the chill?" she asked, seeming impervious to it herself with her bare arms and legs.
But Charlotte was still focused on hunger. "Maybe a couple of clams, too?"
"You got 'em. Drive up top. I'll bring 'em out."
The island was long and narrow, undulating on the surface of the ocean like a kind and gentle cobra. Its broad head, which faced the mainland, was raised to support the center of town. Once a fishing village, its narrow streets remained home to a handful of lobstermen and clammers, though most of the property was now owned by the locals that serviced newer residents. The latter, whose homes descended along the neck, included artists, businessmen, and computer programmers, all drawn to the island for its peace.
Beyond the neck was the body of Quinnipeague, accessed by a single sinuous road that slithered past mud flats, sheltered beaches, and rock ledges. The dirt drives leading to summer homes were marked by mailboxes that, come July, would be nearly hidden by wild roses and geraniums.
Nicole's house was second to last, a full seven miles from the pier and two shy of the tip of the tail. Though less ostentatious than some of the newer homes that had been built since Charlotte had visited last, it was a grand white house, two stories high with a widow's walk, black shutters, wide porches, and arms skimming the ground on either side. Those arms held guest rooms that had, on occasions like Nicole's wedding, slept twenty.
The main house was for family. Bedrooms here were on the second floor to optimize their view, while the first floor, originally broken by doorways and walls, had been reconfigured into two large rooms, one for eating, one for living. Both opened to a wide patio that led to the sea.
Whereas life in the kitchen revolved around a trestle table of pickled oak, the Great Room was furnished to take advantage of the fireplace, which was floor-to-ceiling native stone. This was where Charlotte and Nicole now ate, sitting side by side on the floor at a huge square coffee table. Nicole had insisted on setting beautiful places, arranging their food just so, and photographing it before they started, but the camera was set aside now and the napkins unfolded.
Those napkins picked up the colors of the sofas, throw pillows, and rugs—all vibrant blues and greens that were lush against the fog outside. The logs on the grate had caught; while the heat slowly built, the chowder picked up the slack. Nicole's jacket was gone, the scarf loosely looped on her silk shirt. Likewise, Charlotte had tossed her sweater aside. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky. Copyright © 2013 Barbara Delinsky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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