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Praise for The Wishing Tide
Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
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Also by Barbara Davis
Through my fault.
Through my fault.
Through my most grievous fault.
The sea, it seems, has become my priest, the punishing, faceless thing to which I confess my sins, silent witness to my self-inflicted wounds. We’re alike in many ways, a restless beating of water and salt, a shifting and seething of secrets, of treacheries. Reckless. Dangerous.
The tide, you see, is a fickle thing: stealing in, sliding away, always, always turning. She comes while you’re not looking, a silent, liquid thief, only to rush away again, retreating from the shore like a coward. She gives sometimes, too, though, in fleeting, unexpected moments, yielding up her treasures and her dead—but never, ever her secrets.
And so here I sit on the dunes in my carefully mismatched clothes, hour after hour, day after day, frozen in my looking back. Do not look behind you . . . lest you be swept away. That is what scripture says. Only there is nowhere for me to look but back. No future. No redemption. Like Lot’s wife, I am turned to salt, my tired eyes trained on the blue-gray horizon, where sea meets sky, where my yesterdays meet my tomorrows, a ragtag eccentric, watching and waiting for something that never comes.
Oh, I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am. I’m called Dirty Mary by the locals, though Crazy Mary would be more appropriate. I’m not dirty, but I am crazy. I have the pills and the scars to prove it. I don’t mind the name. It keeps people at a distance, which is exactly how I like them—the more distant, the better. I have no wish to share myself with anyone, you see, to unwrap either the then or the now, the before or the after. I move alone through the world. It’s better that way—safer.
There are more like me—many, in fact—who hide behind masks and write their own fairy tales. Bright or dark, it makes no difference. We would not have our true selves stripped bare, would not have cold eyes peering between our emotional blinds. Our sins and follies are ours alone, to mourn or rewrite as we choose.
I have chosen the latter.
I pay no attention to the buffeting wind, or to the sand gusting up from the dunes. Mother Nature, it seems, is bent on pitching a bit of a blow. Penny. They’re calling her Penny. High time, too, I’d say, for that good lady to show what she’s made of. We should all do that now and again, unleash a bit of ourselves—a flash of lightning, a growl of thunder—just to prove to the world and the White Coats that we haven’t been beaten, that beneath our cool, glassy surfaces we are still forces to be reckoned with.
I know about reckoning. I have lived through the reckoning.
I think of that time now, that other time, that other storm, and the day my life took its final, irrevocable turn toward disaster. I let my eyes wander briefly down the narrow strip of beach, down to Starry Point Light, hazy and chalk white in the windy distance, startled, as I always am, by how little things have changed since that awful day. And I wonder how this can be—after all that has happened, after all I have lost. It matters little now, I suppose. And so I say let the storm come, with its wind and whipping sea. Let it take what it will. For me, the sea has already done her worst.
Of all the rooms at the Cloister House, Lane’s favorite was her writing room in the northeast turret. She loved the smoothly curved walls and high, curtainless windows, how the light played over the smoothly worn floorboards and turned the jars of sea glass along the sills into chalices of pastel jewels. But most of all, she loved the view, nothing short of spectacular when the day was clear and bright but even more breathtaking at night, when stars filled the sky and the moon turned the sea to quicksilver.
But tonight, as she peered over the rim of her cold cup of tea and listened to the wind gusting in off the Atlantic, there was nothing to see: no moon, no stars, nothing but the rhythmic sweep of Starry Point Light and her own reflection in the wavy panes.
They didn’t have tropical storms in Chicago. Penny would be her first. There had been scares, of course, close calls that caught the attention of the locals and even sent a few scurrying to prepare, but they’d been incredibly lucky, something to do with El Niño. Now it seemed their luck had run out. Not that she was worried. She’d been through plenty of firsts in her life, plenty of lasts, too, and had managed to survive them all. More than five years had passed since she landed in Starry Point, the last in a sandy string of islands along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. At the time it seemed an unlikely place for a Chicago girl to end up, a small spit of land tethered to the world by a series of narrow, sand-swept bridges. But something had whispered as she crossed that last bridge, something that said this spit of land, with its charming old lighthouse, pastel-washed bungalows, and sleepy Victorian village, this place at the end of the world, might be the perfect place to begin again. And begin again she had.
Running a bed-and-breakfast had never been her dream. In fact, until she laid eyes on the Cloister, the idea had never crossed her mind. She’d had no idea where to start, but with a failed marriage, a failed pregnancy, and a failed novel to her credit, one more failure wasn’t likely to make much difference one way or another.
She liked to pretend it was the view that captured her heart—powder white dunes and teal blue seas, Starry Point Light standing tall and formidable in the distance—but that wasn’t the absolute truth. Those things kept her guest register full during the season, but for Lane the Cloister’s appeal had to do with its twin Romanesque towers and rough-faced gray stone, wholly unexpected and starkly at odds with Starry Point’s wooden shingles and white picket fences.
I’m all wrong, it seemed to say. I don’t belong here.
Yet here it stood, proud, indomitable—a survivor. And now it belonged to her. For the first time in years, perhaps in her life, she was in charge of her own life, with no one peering over her shoulder, ready to pounce on her slightest mistake. And if running it took most of her waking hours, so what? For now, that was enough. And when the season ended—three weeks early this year, thanks to tropical storm Penny—there was time to pursue her freelance work: scribbling articles about things she’d never done and places she’d never been.
Lane’s teacup came down with a clatter as a fresh gust of wind slapped at the windows, rattling the old panes in their frames. Everyone said that waiting was the worst. Everyone was right. Snapping off the lamp, she rose from her desk and headed downstairs.
In the kitchen she rinsed her cup and saucer, then decided to make one last round to check the locks. She had already checked once, right after the Burtons went up for the night, but these days it didn’t pay to take chances. As if a late-season storm weren’t excitement enough for one small town, a recent rash of break-ins on the normally sleepy island had the good people of Starry Point bolting their doors and demanding answers.
Nine break-ins reported so far: all petty, and all unsolved. But in a town where sand-sculpture contests and chowder cook-offs qualified as excitement, they might as well have been armed home invasions. And now, with her last guests fleeing inland tomorrow morning, she would soon find herself alone for the entire winter.
The thought was vaguely unsettling as she took one final peer through the curtains. Across the street, the Rourke place stood grave and forlorn. The once-fine house was empty now, and had been for years, its rear windows boarded after a fire ravaged the upper floors and took the life of five-year-old Peter Rourke. In the dark the place looked grand enough, when you couldn’t see the overgrown shrubs and shabby lawn, or the faintly scorched brick above the third-story windows. She stifled a shiver, as she always did when her eyes lingered on the Victorian-style greenhouse hunkered against the north side of the house.
She had ventured inside once, not long after moving to Starry Point, had stood in the center of the ruined conservatory, choked with weeds and saplings, more than half its small square panes in shards on the packed earth floor. It had given her the creeps then, and it still did. But it made her a little sad, too.
It was a shame that a home that once belonged to one of Starry Point’s most beloved mayors had been allowed to go to ruin. For years, the Preservation Society had been vowing to restore the place and open it to the public, but as far as she could tell, little progress had been made in that direction. In the meantime, years of neglect had taken their toll, until all that remained was the hollow echo of the home’s former grandeur. And yet it remained a favorite on Starry Point’s seasonal walking tours—mostly because locals insisted the place was haunted. Lane didn’t believe it, of course, but it had become clear that owning a bed-and-breakfast across from the local haunted house wasn’t exactly bad for business.
She was surprised when the banjo clock in the hall sounded a single, throaty peal. How was it already one a.m.? The Burtons would be up in five hours, ready for breakfast and anxious to stay ahead of the weather. She didn’t blame them. According to the news, Highway 12 was bumper-to-bumper all the way to the mainland. She only had one more window to check.
Lane went still when she saw the light, a wide, milky beam floating past the first-floor windows of the Rourke House. She’d heard people use the expression frozen to the spot but had never experienced it firsthand—until now. Her heart thumped heavily in her ears as she squinted through the curtains, following the beam’s steady progress and trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the light was gone.
The police cruiser pulled up along the curb and cut its lights. Lane watched from the window as the officers emerged from the car, relieved that Donny Breester hadn’t decided to answer the call. But then, Starry Point’s chief of police wasn’t one to put himself out when there was nothing to be gained, and after five years of trying—and failing—maybe he’d finally grasped that when it came to Lane Kramer, there was absolutely nothing to be gained.
She watched as the pair split up, then melted into the shadows at the back of the abandoned house. When they reappeared an impossibly short time later, she hurried out to meet them. The night air was thick and hazy with salt and chillier than she’d expected. She shivered as she made her way to the street, wishing she’d put more on her feet than a pair of flip-flops. Rick Warren and Gary Mickles were waiting for her at the base of the drive. Rick holstered his flashlight and tipped his hat. Gary spat, hooked his thumb between his paunch and his duty belt, and said nothing. Neither looked especially happy that they’d been called.
“Did you find anything?” Lane aimed the question at Rick, the less annoyed-looking of the two. “The light disappeared, but I never saw anyone moving away from the house. I’ve been watching since I hung up with dispatch.”
Rick was scribbling in a small notebook. “No sign of anyone around back,” he muttered without looking up. “No signs of forced entry. All the windows are still boarded. So unless somebody had a key—”
“There was a light,” Lane said again, shivering now, and painfully aware that she was standing outside in a bathrobe. “It moved past the front windows, right to left, then back again.”
Gary craned his neck in the direction of Starry Point Light and waited for the beam to sweep back around. “There’s your intruder right there,” he snorted.
Lane stared at him, incredulous. “You think I saw the beam from the lighthouse?”
Mickles spat again and hitched up his drooping belt. “Moves past those windows just like you said. Mystery solved.”
Lane bit back the remark on the tip of her tongue and turned to Rick. “The light I saw moved slowly. And it moved from right to left, not left to right. It wasn’t the lighthouse. It was . . . something else.”
Rick jotted a final note in his book, then flipped the cover closed before stuffing it back into his pocket. “Light can do tricky things, Mrs. Kramer, especially late at night.”
Especially late at night? What was that supposed to mean? Were there special laws of physics that kicked in after dark?
“Rick, I’ve lived here for five years now, and I can promise you that if the beam from Starry Point Light came anywhere near those windows I would have seen it before tonight. If you don’t believe me, stand here and watch it for yourself. The beam’s too high, and it moves in the wrong direction.”
Mickles snorted again, clearly impatient. “Maybe the light looks different from over at your place. I read somewhere that light can bend.”
Even Rick thought it was a stupid answer. He shot Mickles a look that told him to be quiet. “I don’t know what you saw, Mrs. Kramer, but I can tell you there’s nothing there now. We’ve checked the place out top to bottom and there’s no way anyone was in that house tonight.”
“So you’re saying I imagined it?”
Mickles let his breath out through his teeth, heavily scented with the onions he’d obviously had for dinner. “Don’t feel bad. Every time the wind blows these days, some woman’s picking up the phone and dialing 911. You haven’t got anything to worry about over here, though. So far all the incidents have been on the sound side. Hey, maybe you saw one of them ghosts that’s supposed to live there—the boy, or the old man.”
Lane stifled a groan. It was clear that nothing she said was going to make these two take her seriously.
Warren must have sensed her frustration. “How about I arrange for a car to drive by from time to time and keep an eye out? I’d be happy to do that if it’ll make you feel better, but in all honesty, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get inside that old house. Everyone knows it’s been empty for years. I’ll send that cruiser around, though.” He tipped his hat. “You have yourself a good rest of the night.”
Lane fumed as she watched the cruiser’s taillights disappear down Old Point Road. They thought she was a hysterical female, a woman living alone, given to bouts of paranoia. But they had agreed to send a patrol around. That was something, at least. She turned to look again at the Rourke House—not a sign of life or light now—and wondered if Mickles might not be right. Maybe her imagination had been working overtime, conjuring things that weren’t there. But no, in her mind she could still see the light. Someone had been in that house.
Morning came too soon for Lane. It had been well after two by the time she’d crawled into bed, and she’d spent another hour tossing, trying to explain away what she’d seen, and failing completely. The fact that the Burtons would be pulling out in less than an hour did little to brighten her mood. In the five years they’d been staying at the Cloister, Dan and Dottie Burton had become like family, sending newsy e-mails along with the latest travel pics, and lately, drawings had begun to arrive in the mail from their granddaughter, Shelly. The most recent, a somewhat abstract rendition of her new puppy, Tango, stared back at her with bright green crayon eyes as she closed the refrigerator door.
Lane couldn’t help smiling. They had been her very first guests, a sweet, comfortable old couple, married so long they’d actually started to resemble each other, and often finished each other’s sentences. She could hear them upstairs now as she pulled out a handful of silverware and prepared to set the table—opening and closing bureau drawers, making a final check for items left behind, followed by the steady bump of suitcases being lugged downstairs. It would certainly be quiet when they were gone.
After filling the cream and sugar, Lane stacked a tray with mugs and carried it to the small sunroom just off the kitchen, where high arched windows usually offered a stunning view of the beach. Today, the view was anything but stunning. The sea was a heaving mass of gray-green swells, and the sun was nowhere to be seen, lost in a sky of scudding pewter clouds. She frowned at the windows, washed the day before yesterday and already hazy with salt spray. After the Burtons were gone she wouldn’t have to wash them until March if she didn’t feel like it.
Dottie Burton’s cheerful greeting brought Lane around with what she hoped was a warm smile. “Morning, Dottie. All packed and ready to hit the road?”
Dottie was a young sixty, plump and pretty in a lived-in sort of way, with a quick smile and the slow, sweet drip of Nashville, Tennessee, in her voice.
“Dan’s putting the bags in the trunk as we speak. I hate that we’re having to desert early. Really, we’d be happy to pay you for the other three days.”
Lane filled a mug with coffee and passed it over. “Don’t be silly. It’s not like I lost a booking. The season’s over.”
“And tomorrow you’ll have this big old place to yourself.” Dottie heaped a third spoonful of sugar into her mug and began to stir. She took it sweet, like her tea. “It must be a relief not to have to cook for anyone but yourself, to just eat a sandwich over the sink if you feel like it. By the way, what smells so amazing?”
Lane lifted her nose and sniffed, then remembered the breakfast casserole she’d stuck in the oven. “Good Lord! It’s the breakfast if I haven’t burned it.”
Dan appeared as Lane pulled the casserole from the oven. He spotted the coffeepot on the table and made a beeline for it. “Pretty nasty out there,” he said into his mug. “Windy as the very devil, and I don’t like the look of that sky. No, sir.”
Lane took another quick peek out the window. “Let’s get you fed and on the road, then.” The casserole was crispy at the edges, but salvageable. She served up two plates and carried them to the table, then topped off their coffee. “I made muffins, too, so you can take some with you. If the weather turns and you have to pull off, at least I know you won’t starve.”
Dottie looked up from her plate. “Do you think it’s going to get that bad?”
Lane bit her lip as she eyed the sky through the kitchen window, but she gave the woman’s plump shoulder a squeeze. “It’s only a tropical storm. Just some wind and rain, maybe a few trees down, but then, I’m no expert. I’ve never been through one of these. They haven’t made us leave, so that’s a good sign, right?”
Dan shot his wife a look that said eat faster.
When the breakfast plates were in the sink, Lane bagged a half dozen still-warm muffins and filled two to-go cups with coffee. They said their good-byes on the front porch—a handshake from Dan, a hug and a kiss on both cheeks from Dottie, along with promises to send pictures of the new grandbaby when he arrived in spring.
“You write lots of pretty articles this winter, honey. I’ll be looking for them. And maybe if you get time you could go see your mama for the holidays. I don’t like to think of you here by yourself on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
“I’ll be fine,” Lane assured her. “And up to my ears in deadlines by the time the holidays roll around. Please promise you’ll be careful. Pull off if it gets bad, or turn around and come back. Your room will be waiting.”
Lane waved from the porch as the Burtons’ silver Buick backed down the drive. As the car disappeared from sight, her eyes slid across the street to the Rourke House. Suddenly, she felt silly. In the light of day there wasn’t anything remotely sinister about the place. And yet as she stared at its windows, rimed with years of salt and dust, she couldn’t shake the memory of last night. She shivered again as she turned to go inside, reminding herself that the police had promised to keep an eye on the place.
In the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of coffee and dished up a serving of the now-cold breakfast casserole, thinking of Dottie as she ate it over the sink. With the Burtons gone the inn felt empty. But then, it always did when the last guest checked out: a peculiar blend of loss and relief as time slowed and she traded her innkeeper persona for pen and paper.
And who knew? Maybe one day she’d actually get around to visiting some of the places she wrote about. For now it was enough to hibernate, to burrow in, away from the world, and put words to paper, even if it was only an article here and there. Her name would appear in print from time to time, and now and then a check would appear in her mailbox, money in exchange for words. For a person of limited talent, it was really all she had a right to expect.
After tidying the kitchen, then stripping and straightening the Burtons’ room, Lane laced up her muck boots, donned a heavy fleece jacket, and slipped a bag of stale bread into her pocket. The wind hit her hard as she stepped out the back door, damp and full of blowing sand. Standing with her feet braced wide apart, she shielded her eyes and scanned the beach, wondering whether she should skip her usual morning walk to the light.
Aside from last year’s weeklong bout with flu, she’d made the mile-and-a-half trek to the light every morning for five years. She found clarity in the daily walks, like a kind of moving meditation that lifted away the fog and set the stage for the rest of the day. She saw no reason to let a little wind—or even a lot of wind—cheat her of that. She was contemplating going back for gloves when an unexpected flash of color caught her eye, a bright bit of purple against the dreary seascape.
But it couldn’t be. Not today, in weather like this.
Standing on tiptoe, Lane peered past the back gate, stunned to see that the ragtag old woman was, in fact, seated in her customary spot on the dunes. She had appeared for the first time only a few weeks ago, a rarity since most beach walkers disappeared the minute the warm weather did. Even die-hard Starry Point natives—Old Pointers, they called themselves—rarely ventured onto the dunes past October, and this was the middle of November. Yet, each morning like clockwork, she continued to appear, clutching her purple bag and staring out to sea, as if watching for something no one else could see.
Today, she sat huddled against the wind in an oversize Windbreaker and a lumpy gray sweater, clutching the ever-present bag as if the wind might take it. They had never spoken, or even made eye contact, though Lane had always been curious about the woman’s story. For the slimmest of moments Lane considered approaching, but something in the rigid set of the old woman’s shoulders seemed to forbid it. Instead, she braced against a fresh blast of wind and zipped her jacket to her throat.
The gate wailed as she dragged it open, then clanged shut noisily when the wind snatched it from her hand. The woman flinched, whipping her head in Lane’s direction. For an instant, eyes of indistinct color met hers, wary or confused, Lane couldn’t say which. Then, as quickly as the gaze had settled on her, it withdrew, lost again out to sea.
Determined to give the old woman a wide berth, Lane lowered her head and set off across the dunes. She wanted to pretend the encounter hadn’t unnerved her, but it had. It seemed everything unnerved her these days: old women, the wind, phantom lights in vacant houses. Maybe it was the weather. She’d heard somewhere that low pressure did strange things to cats and pregnant women. Why not innkeepers with active imaginations?
Whatever it was, she was determined to shake it. She doubled her pace, but it was far from an easy go. The dunes were already taking a beating, and the blowing sand made it hard to see. Overhead, a pack of gulls circled and dipped, screeching for the bread in her pocket.
“You know the drill, boys,” she said to them. “Not till we reach the light, and then you have to share.”
A single gull broke from the pack, wings flashing white as it swooped low, then lifted away with a shrill cry—the equivalent, Lane supposed, of a child stomping from the room. By the time she reached the lighthouse, dozens more would have taken its place.
Ahead, Starry Point Light braced for the coming storm, sturdy and steadfast after a century’s worth of rain and wind and surf. The gulls were gathering in earnest now, circling in noisy anticipation as she turned onto the jetty and covered the last few yards. The rocks were too wet to sit on, but the wind was easier on the leeward side of the light. Dragging the bag from her pocket, she crumpled a slice of bread and tossed it into the air, watching the feeding frenzy as the wind took the crumbs.
The air was a blur of salt and sand as she glanced back down the beach, so hazy she could barely make out the roofline of the inn, tucked back from the dunes. Originally built in 1896 as a convent, the Cloister had weathered its share of storms; it had weathered its share of incarnations, too, serving, after the nuns left, as everything from a boys’ home to a record storage facility and most recently a women’s health clinic, until the pious new mayor had it shut down for permit violations.
Even the name had struck a chord the first time she heard it, conjuring thoughts of peace and quiet, of seclusion—of escape. She had closed in just two weeks, plunking down nearly every cent of the divorce settlement before she had time to change her mind. It felt rash at the time—rash and good—to finally have something that was hers, and hers alone. Her mother had been horrified when she finally broke the news. But then, when had Cynthia Kramer not been horrified by something her oldest daughter had done?
And then there was Bruce, the real reason she’d left Chicago. Their marriage had been doomed from the beginning, despite her husband’s meteoric rise to become head of Chicago General’s cardiac surgical unit and all the trappings that came with such a title—the egos, the parties, the pretty young nurses. It had ended, not with a bang but with a whimper, after she’d miscarried their first child.
Her fault, of course—somehow everything was always her fault—the warm gush of scarlet soaking through her lemon yellow slacks in the middle of lunch, the sudden horror, the moment of knowing. She had come to in the hospital, the child—the little girl who was to have been named Emma—gone. Bruce was there when she opened her eyes, his first words not expressions of care or concern, but of accusation. “What did you do?”
Her marriage had died that day, along with her child, and yet, for nearly a year after, she had worn her good-wife face as it all came unraveled: through his desertion of their bed, the transparent late nights and spur-of-the-moment conference weekends, the hamper of dirty shirts reeking of someone else’s perfume.
Lane shivered involuntarily, though whether the reaction had to do with the memory of those dark days, or with the blast of sea spray that suddenly gusted in off the waves, she couldn’t say. In the time it had taken to reach the jetty, the wind had risen considerably, its constant rush melding now with the hiss and roar of the waves, until one had become indistinguishable from the other. The sea, too, was on the move, the tide pushing in, boiling up onto the rocks in a ceaseless swirl of green and white. If she stayed much longer, she was going to end up soaked.
With the bread gone and the gulls disbanded, Lane shoved the empty sandwich bag into her pocket, tugged her hood up onto her head, and made her way in from the jetty. At least the wind would be with her on the way back.
The rain started around two, just as Lane was returning from a last-minute run for supplies. She darted inside with an armload of bags, trying not to dwell on the sullen clouds shredding overhead. Every radio station up and down the dial seemed to be blasting information: storm coordinates, wind speeds, projected surges on Manteo, Nags Head, Duck, and Starry Point. She had turned it off. No point worrying about the numbers now. She was as ready as she was going to get.
Sam Redman had come by yesterday and taped all the windows with big ugly X’s. Better than nothing, he had grumbled when she told him she’d never gotten around to pricing the storm shutters he recommended four years ago. She had also misjudged when to start thinking about things like water, canned goods, and batteries. Unfortunately, Old Pointers were well acquainted with the ins and outs of storm preparation and hadn’t made the same mistake. By the time she got to town, the Village Mart looked as if it had been set upon by a pack of zombies, plundered of everything but meat and produce.
She’d had no luck with batteries but had at least managed to scare up a few gallons of water and a lone jar of peanut butter. Crunchy wasn’t her favorite, but it would have to do. She had fuel for the Coleman stove, two loaves of fresh-baked bread, and a huge pot of soup cooling on the stove. She might end up sitting in the dark, but she wasn’t likely to starve.
After recording a “closed for the season” message referring callers to the inn’s Web site, she brewed a mug of Earl Grey and carried it upstairs, resigned to nailing herself to the chair in her writing room until she completed a first draft of the vintage soap-making piece that was due next week.
The first day of the off-season was generally one of her most productive, when she was finally free to mold the ideas that had been percolating all summer, to lose all sense of time without a care for anyone else’s needs. No bread to bake, no beds to change, no constantly being available for guests.
But today was different somehow. Even her writing room failed to inspire, despite last night’s careful preparations. Folders filled with research and interview notes were stacked to her right, scraps of ideas captured on pastel-colored sticky notes were arranged to her left, and in the center, her laptop awaited only the touch of a button to bring it to life. All that was missing was inspiration.
As always, when her creativity was playing hide-and-seek, Lane reached into the desk for the old sketchbook, tucked carefully in the center drawer. From the moment one of the contractors had discovered it in a dusty nook beneath the stairs, the book had held a strange fascination for her. She had scoured it for a signature or date, anything that might offer some clue about its origin, but there was nothing. Now, after five years, she knew every scuff and scar on the leather cover, every smooth place worn along its spine, every gorgeous, lushly colored sketch: fairy-tale images of castles and princes and fair-haired damsels, each framed with an intricate vine of white flowers, like something from a child’s storybook, but all done by hand.
Even now, Lane’s fingers moved with a kind of awe as she turned to her favorite illustration at the back of the book, faded with who knew how many years, but still enchanting. It was a two-masted schooner in the throes of a storm, its sails in shreds, its keel shattered on a jagged rise of rock, and on the shoals, a bare-breasted woman with a shimmering tail and creamy white shells woven into her flame-kissed hair.
The drawing had disturbed her the first time she ran across it, its doomed ship and storm-tossed sea too real, too much like life with its storms and its choices. Be brave or yield. Lane knew about yielding, about slowly letting yourself go hollow, until one day you looked in the mirror and no longer recognized the woman staring back, and wondering where you’d gone—or if you’d ever really been there at all.
Maybe that was the real reason the image fascinated her, why little by little a kind of fable had rooted itself in her thoughts: a cautionary tale about a woman too weak to fight the tide, who chose to end her days in a great stone tower overlooking the sea. Purely fictional, of course, but sometimes—like now—her fingers itched to write that story. But she wouldn’t. Not this year. Not ever. Because doing so would mean having to confront her own long list of shipwrecks, and when all was said and done, she simply hadn’t the courage. Safer to stick to her articles and play with words she knew wouldn’t burn.
Sighing, she closed the book of illustrations and slid it back into the drawer, feeling the old familiar ache. It came less often now, but today it had come with a vengeance. Not sadness exactly, but the numbing awareness that this was all there would ever be. Once upon a time, she’d dreamed of so much more, of love and marriage and children, of somehow leaving her mark on the world. Now, as she stared out past the dunes, she saw that even the footprints she’d left in the sand a few hours ago were already gone, blown over—as if she’d never been there at all.
She sipped her tea, too sweet since it had gone cold. She hated herself when she was like this, pouty and discontent, wallowing in the past. If she wasn’t careful she’d soon find herself in the clutches of a full-blown sulk. Hardly the way she’d envisioned her first day of creative freedom.
Shake it off, Kramer. This is ridiculous. Not to mention exactly what Bruce would want.
The thought of Bruce reveling in her self-pity was enough to light a fire. Powering up the laptop, she reached for a folder with WILD AND SWEET VINTAGE SOAPS printed neatly on the tab. Before she could open it, a bit of movement caught her eye, a quick blur of purple. Surely it wasn’t. Pushing up out of her chair, she peered down at the beach. The old woman had been gone when she returned from the lighthouse, removed, Lane assumed, to safer and drier ground. Now here she was again, hunched on the dunes in a blowing gray rain. Clearly, the poor thing wasn’t well.
By the time Lane dragged on a pair of shoes and scrambled down two flights of stairs and out the back door, the woman was already on the move, crabbing her way up the dune and past the back gate. If she noticed Lane at the open door, she gave no sign, her drenched white head hunched into her collar as she skirted the boardwalk and cut across the vacant lot that bordered the inn.
With no thought for a jacket, Lane slipped out into the rain and through the gate to follow. She had no idea why, or what she might say if she were discovered creeping up behind her. She only knew the woman had no business being out in this weather. Moving furtively, she held back a few steps in hopes of avoiding discovery, but it was no good. As she turned the corner of the yard, the woman suddenly rounded on her.
For the second time that day, Lane found herself caught in that strange gaze, a mingling of panic and challenge. But this time it lingered, questioning. Friend or foe? it seemed to ask. The moment stretched, an uncomfortable eternity as they stood eying each other, soaked through and buffeted by the wind. Lane felt a prickle along the back of her neck, as if words had somehow passed between them, though the old woman stood as still and mute as stone. She should speak, she knew, say something, but her lips felt suddenly numb, useless.
It might have been a minute or an hour, but finally the old woman turned away, scuttling with startling speed across the grassy lot, vanishing behind a tall thicket of red cedars out along the road. Moments later, she reemerged on a bike, an ancient, rusty contraption with an enormous basket in front and a jaunty pink DayGlo flag in back.
Lane stood shivering at the edge of Old Point Road, arms wrapped close to her body, blinking fat drops from her lashes as she watched the bright plastic flag gradually fade from sight, praying the poor woman had a safe place to ride out the storm.
A close call. Too close.
I see her every day, scuttling down the beach to feed the gulls—the Inn Lady. She’s a bright, pretty thing, but sad, too, I think, and just a little broken. But then, everyone is fighting some private war, grappling with some missing piece, carrying some unseen burden. She hides it well enough with her quick step, always in a hurry, always one step ahead of something only she can see or feel. And yet I see it plain. To one well acquainted, there is no hiding grief. It stains, you see, seeping deep into your flesh, like a brand. A shame in one so young and lovely, but then, I was young and lovely once, too. Life plays no favorites when she sets out to break a heart.
Until today the Inn Lady has stayed away like the others, seeming to pay me no mind, though more than once I have felt her eyes between my shoulder blades. I always feel their eyes. But hers are different somehow, even when standing nearly face-to-face. It has been a long time since anyone had the boldness to look me in the eye, to risk a true seeing. Oh, they glance in my direction, but they’re afraid of what they might see, a mirror, perhaps, of the future, should life go suddenly and terribly wrong. But it couldn’t ever happen to them. They’re good, clean, decent people. And so their curiosity, and their sympathy, too, if they ever had any, turns into something hard and mean. They turn away, disgusted, while a little part of them thanks their maker it isn’t them.
But this woman is different. There was no disgust in her gaze, only curiosity and something like compassion as our eyes held for that long, rainy moment. And now, as I pedal away like the madwoman I am, I feel I have received a great kindness, perhaps the greatest of my life.
How strange that such a gift should come at the hands of a stranger, rather than the hands of someone who claimed to love me. But then, they’re all gone now, those loved ones. Swept away, burned away, blown away.
Through my fault.
Through my fault.
Through my most grievous fault.
By nightfall Penny had begun to push her way onshore. Rain lashed steadily at the windows, the wind a sharply rising keen that made the panes rattle like old bones. Lane ladled soup into a bowl and popped it into the microwave, struggling to keep her mind on what she was doing and off where the old woman might be at that moment. They had set up a shelter in the community center. Maybe she was there.
But what if she wasn’t?
It was hard to imagine the woman she had encountered this morning voluntarily shoehorning herself in with a bunch of strangers. In fact, it was impossible. A thought struck her, or rather, an image, a beam of light moving past empty windows. It was possible. It even made sense. The police swore there were no signs of forced entry, but they couldn’t have been very thorough in the few minutes they’d spent at the back of the house. They could easily have missed something.
While the microwave whirred she padded to the front parlor, peering through the curtains, past strips of soggy masking tape. Old Point Road, the empty stretch of oyster-shell macadam that brought tourists to the Cloister, was deserted now, the road swamped after hours of steady rain. Lane watched anxiously as odd bits of detritus cartwheeled down the street: fallen tree branches, an aluminum trash can lid, a sodden chair cushion she’d missed when securing the yard yesterday. Across the street at the Rourke House, nothing seemed amiss, no light of any kind, no bike with a bright plastic flag. Lane didn’t know whether to be relieved or concerned as she let the curtains fall back into place. It was a hideous night for anyone to be out, particularly an old woman. Not that there was anything she could do about it now.
In the kitchen, she thought of the Burtons as she poured a glass of Pinot and pulled her soup from the microwave, hoping they’d made it back to the mainland before things got too bad. She was about to slice herself a thick slab of bread when the lights sputtered and the kitchen went dark. The bread knife was still in her fist as she whirled around at nothing, the pins-and-needles prickle of adrenaline hot along her arms and legs, breath held in the sudden absence of household whirring and ticking.
It took a moment for Lane’s heart to resume something like its normal rhythm, and several more to accept that the lights weren’t coming back on any time soon. Feeling her way to the parlor, she fumbled with a pack of matches and lit a few candles, then groped about in the half-light to lay a small fire in the hearth. She supposed there were worse things than dinner in front of the fire, even if she was alone.
In a few minutes the blaze was going nicely, washing the walls with wavering amber light. Lane sipped her wine and stared into the flames. Candles, firelight, a stormy night—like something right out of a book. Only in books heroines didn’t schlep around in sweats and stretched-out socks, or wear their hair in grubby ponytails. Groaning, she took another sip from her glass. The only thing missing was the eleven cats.
Her head shot up when she heard a knock at the front door. Who on earth—? Before she could finish the question, the knock came again, more insistent this time. Perhaps the Burtons had turned back after all. Or the old woman—?
Carrying a candle to the window, she pressed her forehead to the glass, hoping to be able to see out to the drive, but could make out nothing but sheets of gusting rain. When the knock came a third time she turned the dead bolt and eased the door open as far as the chain would allow. The silhouette standing on her porch was too tall to belong to either of the Burtons.
“Can I help you?” she asked through the crack.
“I hope so. I’m looking for a place to stay.”
It was a male voice, deep and tired, and unless she was mistaken, a little annoyed. Lifting her candle, she tried to put a face with the voice. It didn’t do much good. All she could make out was a square jawline and a pair of very broad shoulders.
“I’m sorry, but the inn’s closed for the winter. You can try the Windjammer. Take a right up at the stop sign and head back into town. You’ll see the blue neon sign.”
“No sign,” the voice shot back over the wind. “Power’s out everywhere. Are you sure you can’t put me up? The roads are a nightmare.”
Lane had heard that voice before. It belonged to every traveler who’d been behind the wheel too long, so road weary they’d happily pay suite money to sleep in the pantry if it was all she had available. Unhooking the chain, she eased the door open another few inches, just wide enough to let the candlelight spill out onto the porch.
If the man objected to her scrutiny, he gave no sign. He stood there, one arm braced against the doorframe to steady himself against the wind. She put him at well over six feet. Forty, maybe, with longish hair dripping onto the collar of his jacket, and some kind of satchel slung over one shoulder. Okay, maybe he wasn’t an ax murderer. On the other hand, who knew what the well-dressed ax murderer was wearing these days?
“I’m really quite respectable,” he assured her, as if reading her thoughts. “I’m a professor at Middlebury College. I’m looking for a place to ride this thing out, and maybe park for the winter. I promise, the scariest thing in my bag is a collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe.”
“I don’t have any power,” Lane said, knowing it wouldn’t dissuade him.
He glanced past her, to the parlor with its candles and cozy fire. “Looks like you’re managing. Besides, I don’t need lights to sleep, which is all I want in the world right now. You can charge me double if you want.”
Lane felt herself softening. He was drenched to the bone and obviously exhausted. She could put up with him for one night, she supposed, until the storm passed and the roads were clear. Pulling back the door, she waved him in with her candle.
He wasted no time stepping into the foyer. Shrugging the satchel from his shoulder, he let it slide to the floor, then unzipped his jacket, revealing khakis and a dark blue sweater.
“Is there somewhere I can hang this? I don’t want to drip all over your floor.”
Lane took the coat, giving it a good shake over the entrance mat before hanging it on the rack beside the door, then motioned for him to follow her to the reception desk in the den. “Let’s get you checked in. The worst of the storm should blow over by tomorrow. Then you can find other lodgings.” She had taken several steps before she realized her guest wasn’t behind her.
He gave no sign that he heard her, standing almost eerily still, his head tilted back as he surveyed the parlor’s coffered ceiling. Lane cleared her throat, and he jerked his head in her direction. “Oh, sorry. Right behind you.”
At the desk Lane gave him a registration card to fill out, situating her candle so he could see. She’d have to key him into the system in the morning. No way to run a credit card, either. When he finished with the card he slid it back. Lane looked it over. Michael Forrester. Middlebury, Vermont. Nice penmanship. That was good—no serial killer handwriting.
“I’ll let you have the Tower Suite at the regular-room rate since it’s just one night and you’re the only guest,” she informed him, then launched into her standard first-time-guest speech. “All the rooms are nonsmoking. Breakfast is at nine, though with no power I’m not exactly sure what that might be. If you need anything, press two on your room phone and you’ll get me. Well, no, you won’t, actually, with the power out. I guess you can just bang on the ceiling. My rooms are just above yours on the third floor.”
“I won’t need anything except a bed. Would you like me to pay you now?”
“We’ll take care of it in the morning when the power’s back up.”
“How long’s it been down?”
“About thirty minutes.” Lane saw him glance at the tray in front of the fire, at her wineglass and half-eaten bowl of soup. “Have you eaten, Mr. Forrester?”
“Not since lunch. I was trying to beat the storm. By the time I hit town, everything was closed.”
“I’ve got some soup on the stove, but it might not be hot. And there’s fresh bread, if you’re interested.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble. I’ve already interrupted your dinner.”
“It’s no trouble. Your rate includes dinner, such as it is. Sit and I’ll bring it out. Can I bring you a glass of wine?”
Dropping down onto the couch with something between a sigh and a groan, he stretched his legs out in front of him. “Wine would be great.”
Even by candlelight it didn’t take long to fill another bowl and slice off a hunk of bread. She carried the tray in and set it on the ottoman beside her own. “It isn’t much, but at least it’s still warm.”
Michael Forrester rubbed a hand over his face, stretched the kinks from his neck. “Thanks, Ms.—I’m sorry, I don’t believe I got your name.”
“It’s Kramer,” Lane supplied sheepishly. “Sorry. I usually do the introduction thing at the desk, but everything’s a bit . . . out of sync. Call me Lane.”
Settling cross-legged on the floor, Lane reached for her wine, covertly watching her guest over the rim of her glass as he eagerly spooned up his cold soup. She could see him more clearly in the firelight. His dark hair was pushed back from his forehead, longish and still damp, not a bad look on the whole. He had a good face, too, high cheekbones and a firm, square jaw, a chin that hinted slightly at a cleft, with just enough scruff to keep him from being pretty. He probably wasn’t as old as she’d originally thought, either, just tired.
He surprised her by looking up from his bowl and lifting his glass. “My compliments to the chef, whoever he is. This may be the best meal of my life, and I’m not just saying that because you’re giving me a place to sleep, or at least not entirely.”
Lane returned the salute, certain that she detected a faint trace of Boston in his voice. She’d become a dialect expert since opening the inn. “He is me, Mr. Forrester. And you should have tasted it when it was hot.”
“Yeah, well, hot soup is overrated, especially to a starving man. And please call me Michael.” His mouth curved in an attractive way. “Dinner in front of the fire calls for first names, don’t you think?”
Dinner in front of the fire. Yes, everything certainly was . . . out of sync. It wasn’t as though she never dined with guests. She did, in fact quite often, but it was usually with people like the Burtons, couples who felt more like family than patrons. This didn’t feel like that. Suddenly, she was keenly aware of her baggy sweats and slouchy socks, her lazily scraped together ponytail. Maybe it was too dark to notice that she looked like a slob, but she doubted it. There’d been more than enough light for her to give him the once-over.
He was mopping up the last of his soup now, folding the last bite of bread into his mouth. It was silly, but with his long legs stretched out before the fire and a wineglass at his elbow, he seemed to belong right where he was. And yet there had been moments when she’d caught him glancing almost uneasily about the parlor, as if he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. What was his story? she wondered. Where had he been heading, and what was so important that he’d take to the road on a night like this? A critical job interview? A dying relative? An illicit rendezvous with a lover?
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, but she’d always maintained a strict policy against prying into the private lives of her guests. If they volunteered, well and fine, but she knew not everyone’s story was a pretty one. And so she wouldn’t ask. Instead, she offered to refill his glass.
Michael made a sound of assent, lids heavy as he stared at the flames licking up from the hearth. “Nice fire. You should probably throw another log on, though.”
“I didn’t want it to get too hot.”
“Trust me, it’s in the forties outside. With no power this place will be like a refrigerator by morning.”
Lane looked at him, surprised. She’d just been thinking the same thing. “It’s because of all the stone.”
“And the leaky old windows.”
“Architecture professor?” Lane prompted, knowing full well she was breaking her own rules.
Michael blinked heavily, clearly trying to process the question. Finally, he shook his head. “No, but I’ve had some experience with old places like this. There’s a reason there are fireplaces in every room.” The words trailed away in a stifled yawn.
Lane stood, fishing a room key from her pocket. “I think I’d better show you to your room while you can still make it up the stairs.”
“Please,” Michael half groaned. “No stairs.”
Lane smothered a smile. He’d meant it as a quip, but the words were laced with genuine fatigue. “I told you, I put you in the Tower Suite, the best room in the house. The only catch is you have to climb a few stairs.”
Michael squinted up at her with one eye shut. “How many stairs, exactly?”
“I don’t know. I never counted. But I promise you, the view’s worth every one.”
Another groan as he got to his feet and stretched to his full height. Lane wasn’t sure why she was startled. She’d noticed his height the moment she stole a peek at him through the still-chained door, then again when he was hunched over the desk filling out his registration card, but now, with him standing right in front of her, she realized he must be at least six-four. For a moment she envisioned him asleep in the Tower Suite’s four-poster with his feet dangling over the edge.
“All right, innkeeper,” Michael muttered thickly as he stooped to retrieve his satchel. “Lead the way.”
“You’d best grab a couple of those candles to take up with you,” she told him. “It’ll be pitch-dark upstairs.”
How anyone could think of sleep in the middle of a storm like this one, Lane would never know, though clearly it was all Michael Forrester was thinking about. Before she could grab her own candle, he started up ahead of her, preventing her from leading the way as he had just suggested. Never mind—she’d tell him where he was going when they reached the landing. Except he didn’t seem to need directions. Like a man with a compass, he made an abrupt right at the top of the first flight, then continued on to the end of the corridor.
Lane eyed him closely as she stepped around to unlock the door. “Are you sure you haven’t stayed with me before? You seemed to know exactly where you were going.”
“You said the Tower Suite on the second floor. This is the second floor, and even in the storm I could see the tower when I pulled up. Also, the sign on the door kind of gives it away.”
She felt foolish as she looked at the plaque on the heavy oak door, clearly engraved with the words TOWER SUITE. Gary Mickles said every woman in town was a nervous wreck. She hated to say it, but maybe he was right. Maybe the recent crime wave had unsettled her more than she realized, and soon she’d be checking under beds and sleeping with the lights on.
“Nice,” Michael pronounced as he followed her inside, though she had the distinct feeling he was just being polite. “Very . . . authentic.”
Lane had to agree. Of the inn’s twelve guest rooms, the Tower Suite was her favorite, richly appointed and period-perfect. She loved to show it off, probably because she’d spent more time and energy on it than any other room. Or maybe it was because aside from her own apartment on the third floor, the Tower Suite offered the most spectacular view of the coast and lighthouse.
Tonight, though, there was no view to brag about, only a merciless wind on the other side of the blackout curtains. The wind was louder here, too, on the second floor, howling in off the water. Maybe she should have put him on the first floor, in a room that fronted the street rather than up here, taking the brunt of the storm. In the end she doubted it would matter much. By the look of him, he’d be asleep before she made it downstairs. And by noon he’d be back on the road, on his way to wherever.
“The suite has a private bath,” she said, always the start of her spiel, “and an amazing tub, if you’re up for a soak. There’s probably still some hot water. Your toiletries are in this basket, and there are extra towels in the cabinet, along with a dryer and iron, not that they’ll do you much good.”
Michael nodded, but she could see that he’d appreciate it if she skipped the full tour and just hit the high points. “There’s a small sitting room in here,” she said, moving to the doorway of the small tower room at the southeast corner of the suite. “Normally, it’s a stunning view, though I’m afraid there’s not much to recommend it tonight.”
He surprised her by stepping past her into the center of the small turret room, the first real interest he’d shown. He stood with his back to her, his hands in his pockets, staring at the heavily curtained window. “I’ll bet you can see all the way to the light from here, watch the sun float up out of the sea and turn it silver in the morning. And at night, when it’s very clear, I bet those stars hang over the water like fairy lights.”
Lane felt a prickle along the back of her neck. His voice had gone so strange. And yet the words were exactly right, as if he’d snuck up behind her one day at her writing desk and peered out over her shoulder.
“How on earth can you describe something you’ve never seen in such perfect detail?”
Michael turned, his face all angles in the candlelight. “Did I?”
He shrugged. “I’m a writer. Well, a literature professor who writes, at any rate. We tend to have rather vivid imaginations. Surely you can describe places you’ve never actually seen?”
Lane nodded. She did it all the time, in her articles. But this felt different, visceral, a product of memory rather than imagination. But then, she supposed one ocean view was much like another.
He said nothing more as he strode past her, just waited patiently while she turned down the bed and made a quick check of the minibar. She was halfway to the door when she turned back.
“I almost forgot. The curtains are blackout. I put them up because of the light, which some guests find charming, and others . . . well . . . don’t.” She tugged the cord lightly. “As long as you keep these closed, you won’t even know it’s there.” She took a last look around the room, then handed him the key. “Breakfast is at nine. Will you be needing a wake-up call?”
Michael shook his head. “I’m a light sleeper and an early riser. Thanks, by the way, for putting me up like this. I don’t think I had another ten miles in me.”
Lane ducked her head in response and stepped out into the hall. As she pulled the door closed, she wondered what it was about Michael Forrester that made her linger in the hall a moment longer than was necessary, listening for—what? She had no idea. Finally, she started down, knowing she’d be up all night, tending her candles with one ear on the wind, waiting for some sign that the storm was beginning to abate, and wondering how much damage Penny would leave in her wake.
Michael didn’t move for several minutes, waiting until he was sure Lane Kramer had moved away from his door. What was she waiting for? The metallic snick of a pistol magazine sliding into place? A cryptic call to his comrades in Prague? He’d seen the sidelong glance she threw at him when they reached his door, the wary look of surprise when he startled babbling about the view from the turret room. She was suspicious—but of what exactly? He scowled at his own shadow on the far wall, stretched and ghoulish in the wavering candlelight, a grotesque shadow puppet. He supposed it was a wonder she’d let him in at all.
She had certainly done the place up right; he’d give her that. Even in the meager light, the room was like something from a glossy travel rag. She’d kept the elaborate woodwork, softening it with unfussy fabrics and period furniture with clean, straight lines. The result was both understated and authentic, no mean feat for a place as pompous as the Cloister. Her doing, he wondered, or a decorator’s?
Finally, reluctantly, he forced his feet to move, slow, tentative steps, as if he expected the gleaming floorboards to suddenly open up and swallow him. He felt a queer kind of vertigo as he ran light fingers over the chair rail and beadboard, wrapped them briefly around the clear, satiny coolness of the mercury-glass doorknob, as if he’d entered a kind of time warp. From the bathroom door he walked off four careful paces, then leaned all his weight on his front foot until he was rewarded with the familiar give and groan of old boards. Everything changed. Everything the same.
And wasn’t that exactly what he’d been afraid of?
The pretty little redhead, though—that was new. Women like that—long-limbed and green-eyed—had no business at the Cloister. But then neither did he anymore. What the hell could he have been thinking? He’d turned the car around not once but twice, ready to abandon the entire idea. And yet here he was, in the middle of a tropical storm for crying out loud, with no idea what he hoped to accomplish.
Too tired to bother with laces, he pried off his shoes, heel to toe, a practice that still earned him the odd scolding from his finishing school–mannered mother whenever he ventured home to Boston, which wasn’t often these days. Dumping his canvas tote on the bed, he moved to the window, pulling back the heavy blackout curtain—fast, like yanking off a bandage. Nothing but pelting rain and the thin whistle of the wind squeezing itself into the chinks between window and frame. And then came the beacon, blue-white through all the whirling wet noise, illuminating and terrible. Sister Mary Constantine’s all-seeing Eye of God.
Letting the curtain fall back, he turned away. He wanted to believe it was normal to be here, simple nostalgic curiosity. But deep down he knew it for what it was—unfinished business. Somewhere along the way, he’d taken leave of his senses. But then, that had been fairly predictable, hadn’t it?
His parents would be livid if they knew he was here. No—scratch that. His mother would be livid. His father would simply shrug it off, as he shrugged off most things Michael did. Still, this little quest of his was hardly worth a family squabble. Maybe he should call the whole thing off. It wasn’t too late. He could pull out the minute the roads were clear, watch Starry Point recede in his rearview mirror once and for all, and no one would be the wiser. But he couldn’t decide any of that now. He needed sleep, the deep, dreamless variety that dumped you into a black hole and let you crawl out when you were good and ready. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept like that. No, that wasn’t true. He could remember—he just chose not to.
With a jaw-cracking yawn he yanked off his sweater and tossed it on a nearby chair, then fished a few essentials from his tote: toothbrush, toothpaste, and a well-thumbed edition of Poe, which he placed on the bedside table out of sheer habit. For once, he had neither the stamina nor the need to read before bed.
He brushed his teeth by candlelight, briefly tempted to take advantage of the fancy shower and what remained of the hot water to wash off the road grime before he slipped between his hostess’s neatly pressed sheets. In the end, though, the knobs and jets presented more of a challenge than he was willing to tackle in the dark. Cold water in the morning would have to do. He’d probably need it to wake up anyway.
Beside the bed, he emptied his pockets into a small driftwood bowl: keys, cell phone, loose change—and a small button of faded pink satin. He’d excavated the button from a leather case he kept in his dresser back home, where he stashed the bits of his life he no longer had any use for: the diamond cuff links he had received as a graduation present but never wore, the rosary of shiny black beads that had failed to aid his boyish prayers, the class ring from Exeter with its bloodred stone, still bright as the day he’d received it. All symbols of the person others expected him to be.
Except for the button.
The button was real—the only memento he had of who he really was. He lingered over it briefly, the fabric worn thin at the edges, barely pink at all now. Most people had actual memorabilia, albums filled with photos, chests stuffed with baby clothes and discarded toys. He had a button. The candlelight flickered red against the backs of his lids as he closed them, fighting the dizzying barrage of memory—bourbon fumes and the sour pong of vomit, terror mingled with revulsion.