Catherine and Zoe are sisters, but even their mother, Eve, admits her daughters are nothing alike. Catherine is calm and responsible. Zoe is passionate and rebellious. Nobody is surprised when Zoe gets pregnant, drops out of college, and spirals into drug addiction.
One night Catherine gets a call from Zoe’s terrified daughter, Willow, saying her mother has abandoned her in a bus station and disappeared. Eve blames herself, while Catherine, unable to have children, is delighted to raise Willow as her own.
Now, five years later, Eve is grieving her husband’s death and making reluctant plans to sell the family’s beloved summer home on Prince Edward Island. But a series of unexpected revelations will upend the family and rock three generations of women.
CONVERSATION GUIDE INCLUDED
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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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Catherine’s cell phone rang at ten o’clock. She fumbled for it on the table beside her and answered despite not recognizing the number. “Hello?”
It was her niece, Willow. Her voice was a whisper, thrumming with fear. She had to repeat herself twice before Catherine understood her.
“Mom told me to call you after her bus left,” Willow said. “Can you come get me? Please?”
Willow was at South Station in Boston. Alone.
Catherine yanked a coat on over her pajamas. She’d been downstairs watching television; her husband, Russell, was already in bed. She imagined the furious conversation she’d have with Zoe tomorrow, when her sister decided to return from whatever oh-so-exciting party or man had called her away: On what planet is it okay to leave your ten-year-old daughter alone in Boston at night? In a bus station? Even you should know better!
Catherine didn’t wake Russell before plunging into the chilly night. She charged down the porch steps and out to the car before realizing she was still wearing slippers. She didn’t turn around.
She ran two red lights driving from their house in Cambridge to Boston, making the trip to the bus station in record time despite construction on the BU Bridge.
In South Station, she swept the lobby with her eyes, heart hammering. It was nearly empty. A pair of businessmen waltzed by with briefcases, their shoulders stiff as coat hangers beneath their suits. A woman in a flowered jacket passed, hand in hand with two children, walking so fast that the smallest boy was lifted right off his feet. Homeless people were draped across the benches like forgotten blankets.
Finally, she spotted Willow. Her niece was huddled in one corner of a wooden bench, a backpack at her feet, her pale hair a knotted spiderweb over her black fleece jacket.
Catherine kept her voice calm. “Hey, sweet girl,” she said. “What are you doing staying up so late, huh?”
Willow started to cry. “I didn’t know what to do, so I called you like Mom said. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. Don’t cry. I’m here. Everything’s going to be okay.” Catherine bent low over Willow, turning to glare at the vagrant woman camped closest to her niece until the woman slid off the bench and loped off, her hat pulled low.
What might have happened if she hadn’t come to get her? What if she’d been on call at the clinic tonight? Or, God forbid, what if she and Russell had taken up Mom’s offer to spend the week at Chance Harbor?
“Where’s your mom, honey?” She brushed a strand of hair out of Willow’s eyes.
“I don’t know. She told me to sit here and wait for you. Without moving.” Willow’s lower lip trembled. “I didn’t move the whole time. I promise. Can we go now? I’m tired.”
“Absolutely.” Catherine took Willow’s small, cold hand in hers, and thought, Goddamn you, Zoe. I’m going to kill you when I see you.
Of course, she didn’t know yet that her sister had disappeared.
Eve had fallen asleep easily, but woke with a start and didn’t know where she was. Her pillow was damp. She thrashed about, searching for Andrew.
Then, with a lurching sensation, she remembered: her husband was dead. She was alone at their summer house in Chance Harbor for the first time in her life.
Eve reached for the lamp on her bedside table. Her wrist connected with a drinking glass and sent it flying. Water sprayed the sleeve of her nightgown as the glass tumbled to the floor with a smash.
She used the flashlight app on her cell phone to pick her way around the broken glass to turn on the overhead light. Her face, reflected in the mirror above the oak bureau, looked like a stranger’s. Gaunt, the chin too sharp, the cheeks hollow. Her short brown hair had grown out, the curls springing nearly to her chin now.
Eve ignored the broken glass—easier to vacuum it up in the morning—and pulled on her jeans and a sweater. It was only three a.m., but she’d never get back to sleep now. She took her book downstairs and made coffee. When you lived alone, schedules mattered less. That was both good and bad.
Coffee in hand, she grabbed the car keys and jammed her feet into sneakers, then got into the car and drove to East Point, where she parked beneath the lighthouse and walked over to the chain-link fence. She could hear a distant foghorn, a low moan in the dense liquid darkness. The beam from the lighthouse swept across the sea.
Here, the Northumberland Strait met the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The colliding tides roiled and waves crashed against the cliffs below her. This was the perfect place to watch cormorants and gulls dive and to search for the slick bobbing heads of seals. The first time Andrew had brought her here, the year before they were married, he had wrapped his arms around Eve’s waist and said, “We’re not just at the easternmost tip of Prince Edward Island, you know. We’re standing at the end of the world.”
The tall grass along the fence rippled like water around her feet. Eve waded through it to one of the picnic tables on the bluff. She sat on top of it, her feet on the bench, and stared out to sea, trying not to think about her husband, Andrew, and his final betrayal.
She had lost a daughter and now her husband. She was alone. Those were the facts she had to face.
Eve returned home when the sky was pearl gray with dawn. The wind had died down, leaving the sea dead calm and the dull silver of pewter, except for the sparkling path of the new sun. The island seemed to be holding its breath. She had stretched out on top of the picnic table and slept a little; now she felt surprisingly energized.
She had made some progress in the house, going through the closets to separate the things she wanted to keep from those she would give away or leave in the house when she sold it. She would have to make at least one more trip here with a trailer to get some of the bigger family heirlooms, like the green tapestry couch that had been Andrew’s mother’s.
She also had to find a contractor, a roofer, and a painter willing to come before spring, when the house would officially go on the market. Meanwhile, in addition to fixing up the house, she also had to sort through the small barn at the back of the property.
She walked through the tall dew-sparkled grass to the barn door, took a deep breath, and pushed it open. The door creaked and groaned.
Inside, the barn was lit by small windows. The sunlight streamed through them in dusty ribbons. There was a panicked flutter of barn swallows overhead as Eve’s eyes adjusted. The barn was divided into two rooms by a half wall; one room was for the mower and trash cans and bikes, the other for Andrew’s workshop. His tools were neatly hung in their usual places, and his tall black rubber boots stood by the door.
So strange, how you could love and hate a person with equal intensity. She and Andrew had first met when Eve was a new college graduate and took a marketing job in one of his companies south of Boston. They were married six months later. Andrew was older by a decade and had a magnetic, commanding personality, even more so because of his slight Scottish brogue—inherited from his father—and because he was beautiful to look at.
Yes, beautiful. Not handsome, the way many women described their lovers and husbands, but beautiful, with that startling thatch of reddish blond hair, his sweet smile, his neat hands.
A musician’s hands, Eve had thought at first. Then she’d gotten to know Andrew and realized that his instrument was the computer; the music he played was the software he designed—entire symphonies in code that helped companies compile information and mine data.
They’d gotten married in Newburyport’s city hall but had held their real wedding on Prince Edward Island, right here in the garden behind the Chance Harbor house, surrounded by the extended MacLeish family beneath a rose arbor with the blue sea and red cliffs behind them.
Now, as Eve touched one of the hammers, idly feeling the smooth wooden handle between her fingers, she had the strangest sensation that at any moment Andrew might walk in and start telling her about his latest repair project. He’d been putting up new gutters last year. That was why he came to the island: to tinker. “Tinkering is my religion,” he said. “With this house, I’ve got physical therapy for the rest of my life.”
But of course Andrew would never work here again. Loneliness coursed through her body like an electric shock, so intense and painful that the floor tipped and Eve had to catch herself on the long workshop table.
After a moment, she went back to the house and grabbed the stack of boxes she’d brought from the garage of their house in Newburyport. Another of Andrew’s pack-rat habits was to break down every box that arrived at their house and keep it “just in case.” He’d be pleased she was reusing them, Eve thought with a smile. She’d always blamed Andrew’s inability to throw things out on his island upbringing: here, nothing was wasted.
She ferried the boxes out to the shed. She could offer the tractor and snowplow and tools to Andrew’s cousins. They could pass them on to anyone else who wanted them. She had no need for more tools, and Andrew would be heartbroken if she sold them.
Eve had nearly reached the shed with the boxes when an enormous black animal—at first glance it was easy to imagine it was a bear—appeared out of nowhere and came lumbering up to her. A dog. But whose?
She looked around. Nobody seemed to be walking the dog or calling for it. It must be one of the local farm dogs; she knew the sheep farmer at the end of the road had several.
The animal circled her legs, grinning, tongue lolling. It had the height and heft of a Saint Bernard. This wasn’t the sort of dog you typically saw up here on the island, where the farmers kept shepherds or mutts, the Americans brought golden retrievers, and the people from Montreal brought their lapdogs to the beach in sparkly collars. No, this was a dog you’d want with you in an avalanche, where it would lie on your body to keep you from dying of hypothermia or would tow you down the mountain.
“Well, aren’t you nosy,” Eve said, laughing as the dog stood beside her, gazing up at her face with merry yellow eyes. It was difficult not to feel joyful in the company of a creature so unreservedly glad to see you.
The dog kept her company as she began sorting Andrew’s tools and packing them in boxes. She had to be careful not to fill the boxes too full or she wouldn’t be able to move them. Once each box was packed, she taped it shut and labeled it carefully with a list of contents. She stacked the boxes on the other side of the shed with the bicycles. They’d have to go, too; no way could she fit four bikes in her car.
By the time Eve was ready for lunch, she’d nicknamed the dog “Bear” and let him come inside, where the animal happily galumphed around the house and then settled into a heap of black fur after devouring half her sandwich.
As she was writing up a list of tasks she hoped to complete in the coming week, Eve heard a truck drive by. Too slow to be an islander. They treated this road, which bisected the island from the south shore to North Lake, like a highway.
Now the car was pulling into the driveway. Probably a neighbor. Nobody called ahead here. They just assumed you’d want company. Andrew’s cousin Jane had already stopped by twice, once with biscuits and a second time to ask if Eve wanted help. She did not. Andrew’s aunt Maggie had come by as well, bringing snowflake rolls and homemade blueberry jam, saying there was bingo up at the church, and did Eve want to join her, try her luck tonight?
“Might make enough to fix up this old place,” Maggie had said, eyeing the roof.
Eve didn’t have the stomach for bingo, either.
She sighed now and ran her hands through her hair. She thought she’d seen everyone by now. Had hoped she was done with explanations about why she was selling the family’s island house.
The dog heard the truck, too. Bear picked up his head and tipped his ears forward, muzzle raised, whiskers trembling. His entire body had gone rigid with anticipation. There was a sharp whistle from outside, and the dog went to the door, turning to look over his shoulder at Eve to make sure she got the message.
She opened the kitchen door and stepped out onto the deck, shading her eyes against the sun as the dog trotted across the yard, tail waving, to greet a man standing by the truck.
The man rubbed the dog’s ears, murmuring something Eve couldn’t hear, then raised his head to look at her. “So you’re the one who kidnapped my dog. I’ve been looking for this son of a gun all morning.”
“He just appeared. I wondered who he belonged to, since I haven’t seen him before.”
“He was in my truck and must have jumped out when I stopped at the store down the street. Didn’t think this guy had it in him. Sorry for the bother.”
“No bother. He was a perfect gentleman.”
The man walked toward her, the dog keeping pace. Eve thought she’d never seen anyone like him. He seemed to be assembled from the parts of contrasting men. He was tall and slim, but with a weight lifter’s broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms. He wore a pair of expensive rubber boots, the sort she’d seen in catalogs, but his blue flannel shirt was faded at the elbows and his green barn jacket had a torn pocket. His pants were the sort of heavy-duty brown trousers an electrician might wear, but a gold Rolex glittered on his wrist.
The man’s hair was gray—silver, really, though she could tell by the few streaks of color left in it that it had once been dark—and a little too long in front. He pushed it off his forehead impatiently, but when he reached the deck and looked down at Eve, his eyes were as calm and deep gray as the sea had been this morning.
Eve’s mouth went dry. She had the strangest feeling that she’d met this man before, but couldn’t imagine where that might have been. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Eve MacLeish,” she said.
“Darcy MacDougall.” His big hand engulfed hers, his eyes quiet and still on her face. Then he released her.
Eve laughed. “I should have known you’d be a Mac-something.”
“Sure I am. Scots galore out on this part of the island.” He glanced beyond her at the house. “This your summer place?”
So he could tell she was from away. Her accent, probably. Eve nodded, not wanting to get into anything about Andrew’s family. For all she knew, this man was another relative. “What about you? Where are you staying?” She could tell now that he wasn’t an islander, either.
“North Lake. Been here since Landing Day in July. My first time seeing it. Quite a spectacle.”
“Yes. I’ve always loved Landing Day.” Eve bit her lip, remembering the early mornings she’d taken the girls to North Lake to watch Landing Day, the day the lobster fishermen brought in their traps for the season. She’d met Malcolm, Andrew’s cousin, there. That meeting had altered her life more than any other, in some ways.
“This is a great spot,” Darcy was saying, his gaze traveling beyond her to the house. “I bet you’ve got a hell of a view from behind your house.” He gestured with his chin. “Mind if I have a look?”
Eve was startled. No islander would ever be this forward. “No,” she said. “The view’s free.”
“My favorite price.”
She kept pace with Darcy’s long strides, the dog between them, trying to see her house as he must: the peaked roof and yellow clapboards, the deep green shutters, the ornate white gingerbread trim. There were some late perennials in the beds behind the house, but the containers and window boxes were a mess of rotting plants. She’d have to clean those out before she closed up the house for winter, too. So much work left to do. That was good: better to be busy than sad.
They stood together in front of the trellis that separated the house from the stairs leading down to the beach. “Anne of Green Gables would have loved it here,” Darcy said, surveying the long weathered boardwalk leading to stairs descending the cliff to the sea.
“I’m sure,” Eve agreed. “Anne would have called it ‘the Sea of Shining Waters.’”
He turned to look at her, cocking an eyebrow. “You know Anne wasn’t real, right?”
Her tone caused Darcy to raise both hands in surrender. “Sorry. It’s just that, anytime I take someone to visit the Lucy Maud Montgomery museums in Cavendish, I hear tourists asking where Anne lived.”
“I’m not a tourist.” Eve waited for him to ask how long she’d had the house, or why she—someone whose accent clearly marked her as from away—was staying so late in the season. Those were the usual questions. When Darcy didn’t ask them, she felt compelled to say, “Actually, I always felt sorry for Lucy Maud Montgomery.”
“I don’t know how she could have written Anne of Green Gables, spitting out pages and pages of gossipy good cheer and platitudes, when she was so depressed.”
“She was depressed? Huh,” Darcy said. “I had no idea. The only thing I know about Montgomery is that her books about Anne have inspired busloads of Japanese women to come here and buy those straw hats with red braids attached.”
“Oh, yes. Lucy had a tough time,” Eve said. “She committed suicide when she was about my age. Pills, I think. They found a note. Something like, ‘I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I might do in those spells.’ Then she goes on to ask for God’s forgiveness. Her depression probably had a lot to do with caring for her wreck of a husband.”
“Or maybe something to do with her mother dying and her father marrying a stepmother who didn’t like her,” Darcy added.
Eve stared at him, then laughed. “So you do know all about Lucy Maud Montgomery.”
“Only what my daughter tells me. She read Anne of Green Gables when she was a kid and was psyched when I got a job up this way. She’s been up here twice already this summer and spent most of her time at the museums.”
“My older daughter loved the books, too. What kind of work do you do on the island?”
“Wind energy,” Darcy said. “I’m a solar engineer. I’m up here as a consultant, monitoring the turbines at East Point.”
“A lot of people around here complain about them,” Eve said, thinking of Cousin Jane, who lived across the street from the turbines and was always fearful that one of the blades might shear off and fly into her house.
“Yes, well, tell the complainers that these ten turbines produce enough energy for twelve thousand homes and are displacing seventy thousand tons of greenhouse gases each year.”
As Darcy continued talking about the project and a grant he was writing to install a wind farm at another location on the island, Eve wished she’d put on a little makeup. Strange to be standing next to a man so much taller than she was. Eve was five foot ten. She was an inch taller than Andrew and had always thought they fit well together in bed. Malcolm, too, was about her height. What would it be like to be with a man so much taller than she was? Darcy must be well over six feet.
Abruptly, Eve felt self-conscious as she realized Darcy had stopped talking and was watching her curiously. She hoped he hadn’t asked a question. Even more, she hoped he hadn’t guessed her thoughts. Heat flamed in her cheeks and she turned away. “Where did Bear go?” she asked, scanning the backyard and gardens.
“Who? Oh! You mean Sparrow.”
Darcy grinned. “The dog’s named after Jack Sparrow the pirate, not the bird. My son named him. I’m just dog-sitting while my son’s in California.”
“What’s he doing there?” Eve asked, thinking with some relief that being married with children probably meant Darcy was a normal, reasonable man and not one of those off-the-grid types you found living here, the escapees from New York or Boston who saw how cheap the houses were on Prince Edward Island and snapped them up. They all thought they’d go native until the first winter hit and the roads disappeared under blowing snow. Then the houses went up for sale again.
“He’s getting an MBA at Stanford. Looks like you’re doing a fall clear out,” Darcy said as they walked back toward his truck and passed the barn. He whistled for the dog.
Eve had left the barn doors open while she had lunch; the boxes were visible to one side. “Yes. It’s a good time of year to do it.”
“Too bad you missed the seventy-mile yard sale a couple weekends ago.”
She made a face. “I’ve been to that yard sale. I always come away loaded down with more junk than I sell.”
Darcy laughed. “You’ve been up here in the fall before, then.”
“I’ve been on this island in every season. But I’m still ‘from away,’ as far as everyone here is concerned.”
“Me, too, even though my grandparents immigrated here from Scotland before they moved to New York.”
“So where do you live now? I mean, when you’re not here.”
“Vermont. I was at the university there, in the engineering department, for many years. I still teach a class or two when the mood strikes.” Darcy whistled again. The dog finally wandered out of the barn, blinking in the sudden sunlight and making them both laugh. “Well, better let you get back to things. Thanks for looking after the dog.”
“No problem. It was nice to have company,” Eve said.
They shook hands good-bye, and she was struck by another jolt of recognition. What was it about this man that made her feel so comfortable?
• • •
You’d think sophomore year of high school would be less about pranks and posers, but so far none of the kids seemed to have gotten that memo. Matt Tracy had already set fire to a trash can during English, making the smoke alarm go off, and the alpha girls were taking selfies of themselves in geometry.
Willow might have to throw herself out a window if she had to stay in geometry one more second. The teacher, Mr. James, was scary clean, using hand sanitizer every twelve seconds.
He had tried teaching them about angles and vectors by having the class make paper airplanes while ranting about “making math fun.” This would have been okay if Mr. James weren’t so totally OCD. The poor guy folded and refolded the same stupid piece of paper, while the robotics nerds and gamer geeks made airplanes with weights and counterweights out of bent paper clips or whatever. The student planes zoomed around in circles until one of them hit Mr. James right between the eyes. Bitchy Shelly Paradiso practically peed her pants laughing.
Now Mr. James was back at the board and Willow was drawing in her notebook. The only class she liked was art. She’d spend all day in art if she could. Last year, when Mrs. Lagrasso (whom the kids called “Mrs. Fat Asso”) taught her freshman art class, Willow had fallen in love.
That’s what art felt like to her: love. She got goose bumps of happiness every time Mrs. Lagrasso showed them another series of paintings or sculptures. Willow had been to art museums with Catherine and Russell, of course, but when she saw art through the eyes of Mrs. Lagrasso, it was different. Mrs. Lagrasso understood the power of art to surprise you with feelings you didn’t know you had.
“What are you drawing? A monkey?” a voice said over Willow’s shoulder.
It was the new kid, Henry Something-or-Other the Third. Pretty much every boy in her school was named after somebody else, or two somebodies. Like it was too much work for their parents to think up original names.
“It’s not anything. Just trying not to slit my wrists while we listen to this crap.” Willow flipped her notebook shut.
“Man, you got that,” Henry said, leaning back again.
They’d been seated alphabetically on the first day of class and had to keep those seats all year—another thing Willow hated about geometry.
Henry’s desk was next to hers. He was a ginger giant, with hair the color of paprika, long legs, and eyes like pennies. He said something else, but Willow pretended not to hear him and focused on the board, which Mr. James was filling with formulas, while she thought about her drawing.
It wasn’t a monkey, but it wasn’t nothing, either: it was actually a sketch of a homeless woman she’d seen this morning as she and Russell crossed Boston Common.
Not even eight o’clock in the morning, and the woman was sitting on a bench by the Frog Pond with her metal cart stuffed with trash bags. She was blind; a white cane was leaning on the bench beside her. The woman was playing a scratched-up old guitar. A handful of coins lay in her open guitar case.
Russell was speeding along ahead of her, but Willow slowed down to look at the woman. She was beautiful, in a strange cartoony way, with giant yellow sunglasses, a bright rainbow tam over shiny black licorice hair, a long black skirt, and a bright red shawl. Like a human-shaped piece of art.
What kind of homeless person got pimped out to play music for a few coins before the benches were even dry? Had the woman slept here?
Willow waited until she was about a dozen feet away, then turned around with her camera. She’d taken a photography class using a manual camera this summer; now she tried to always shoot in black-and-white. In geometry, she’d been sketching the woman because she was thinking about how to hand tint the photographs of her. She wanted to make hand-colored pictures like the ancient ones hanging in Nana’s house in Chance Harbor.
Spanish II came after geometry. A brutal class. Senorita Yolanda didn’t assign seats, but Henry sat next to Willow anyway, wrapping his long legs around the chair rungs.
Willow was thinking about her photographs when Senorita asked her a question in Spanish. Henry bailed her out by answering it for her. She answered the question after that, though, even using the right preterit tense for ir, always tricky: fui.
“Thanks,” Willow said as she walked to lunch with Henry towering next to her. “I owe you.”
He shrugged. “Thirty percent of our grade is participation, right? So, hey. I participated. What do you have next? Lunch, right?”
“Lunch, then art and chemistry. You?”
Henry looked pathetically hopeful. “Lunch. We could sit together. After that, English and European History.”
He’d have Russell for history, Willow realized. She was about to say this, to give Henry a heads-up on Russell as a teacher, when there was a commotion in the hall. A group of senior girls was headed their way.
One of them, Nola Simone, was the queen bee: wherever she went, the drones buzzed around her. As Willow watched, Nola shook her shining hair around her shoulders. Her hair was the color of oak leaves in fall, bright gold and yellow. Nola held her phone at arm’s length, taking selfies of herself surrounded by her friends as they moved through the hall, oblivious to the fact that everyone else had to paste themselves against the walls to make way.
Not that anyone would have tried to stop them. Watching Nola walk by, with her heart-shaped face and hot bod, her hair like all of the autumn months captured into a single elastic, was like seeing a unicorn: all you could do was stand there with your mouth open and hope she might kick magic fairy dust in your face.
“Hey, Willow,” said Trent, one of the juniors in Willow’s geometry class, a hockey player and a douche bag. He didn’t usually bother her, though; Willow prided herself on her high invisibility factor. She dressed to blend in and kept her mouth shut. Now she cringed as Trent shouted, “Why aren’t you walking with Nola and her posse? You should definitely be in that photo. Get in there, dude!”
Willow gave an elaborate shrug. “No, thanks. Why should I?”
“Because you’re one big family now,” Trent said, elbowing the guy next to him, another hockey kid whose fuzzy beard looked like a wild animal sleeping on his face.
“Me? Right. Like Nola and I are even the same species.” Willow started walking again.
Trent was trailing her, still talking. Henry kept up with her. This should have made Willow feel better. Instead, now she had to worry that Trent might start harassing Henry because he was with her.
“Hey,” Trent said, still using his fucking hockey-rink voice. “Is it true Nola’s been getting some extra-special help in history? A little one-on-one? Some hands-on learning from your dad?” He cracked up.
“Whatever,” Willow said without slowing down. She’d heard the rumors about Nola and Russell, too, but so what? Every guy in school wanted to hook up with Nola—teachers, students, coaches.
“Wow, you sure shut down Trent,” Henry said, letting his breath out in a whoosh after they’d rounded a corner and made sure Trent wasn’t trailing them to the cafeteria. “So that girl with the phone is Nola?”
“Right. Nola Simone. Senior,” Willow said.
“Mean girl alert?”
“Not really. Don’t worry about her. Nola doesn’t bother with the small stuff. She probably won’t even notice you.”
“I am but dirt on her shoe?”
“A speck,” Willow corrected. “One speck of dirt on her Jimmy Choo.”
Henry laughed as they kept moving with the flow to the cafeteria, where they sat with Willow’s only two friends at school, Kendrick and Carly.
Lunch was surprisingly okay. Not because of the food, but because it was different, sitting with a guy instead of being three fringe chicks. Kendrick was seriously Goth, all in black: eyeliner, T-shirt, hair dye, boots. Willow and Carly went more for grunge, both of them wearing hoodies and high-tops like a uniform. Easy, cheap, and your body was camouflaged. Nobody could say you were too fat or too skinny or had booty or whatever. They just wrote you off as artsy freaks and geeks.
By the end of the day, Willow was feeling like she might survive sophomore year. Mrs. Lagrasso had shown them slides from a MET exhibit of Matisse’s paintings and the textiles that had inspired them. Then she’d given them free time and Willow had made progress on her sketches. She booked time in the darkroom for Monday.
She usually rode the subway home with Russell. He stayed after school for office hours or faculty meetings while she worked with the newspaper staff or went to Spanish club, but none of the after-school activities would start until next week. Willow thought about hanging out in the music room, where Kendrick played drums in a way that made Willow’s entire spine feel like it would crumble into dust.
No, too nice a day to waste more of it inside. She’d rather go to the Common with her camera and sketch pad, maybe wait for Russell by the Park Street station. Catherine wouldn’t be home until dinner, and Willow still got freaked-out in empty houses since that time her mom passed out on the couch and set the apartment on fire with her cigarette. Willow’d had to call the fire department when she was like seven years old.
A better idea: she’d find Russell and see if he wanted to go to the North End for pizza. Catherine could meet them in Boston when she was finished at her clinic.
By now nearly everyone was gone. The deserted hallways suddenly seemed too wide. The light streamed in ribbons through the classroom windows, and the wood floors had turned to gold. A few lockers gaped open. Nobody locked anything at Beacon Hill School. What would be the point? They could all buy ten or fifty of whatever they wanted, here in this prep school that squatted in the shadow of the State House’s gilded dome.
The carpet was tongue colored and spongy beneath her feet. In the east wing, where most of the faculty offices were located, the teachers’ lounge had an overstuffed sofa and flowered chairs in front of a fireplace. The doors were heavy wood, each with a brass nameplate.
Russell’s office was at the very end of the faculty hallway. She never came down here—usually they just texted if they wanted to meet up—but her feet had carried her along while she’d been intent on her pizza plan. She could almost taste the cheese.
Willow was close to Russell’s office when she heard a noise from inside it like somebody choking. The hair on the back of her neck rose like needles, prickly under her T-shirt.
“But I can’t wait anymore,” a girl moaned. “You have to tell her.”
The girl’s voice sounded deep and sad, Willow decided: not scared. So nobody was being mugged or stabbed.
Willow crept forward, listening hard. The crying was definitely coming from Russell’s office. That made sense. Russell had won Best Teacher of the Year two years in a row because he could make history as exciting as Game of Thrones. It was like Russell actually knew the people on the pages of your history book personally.
“William Howard Taft?” he’d say. “Now, there was a guy with an eating disorder! He tried to eat himself to death, probably because he couldn’t live up to his parents’ high expectations or get out from under Roosevelt’s shadow, poor bugger.”
Plus, from everything Willow had heard other kids say, Russell treated his students like actual people. If you had a problem with an assignment or got into trouble, he’d help you.
Maybe one of his AP students was already suffering a meltdown over college. A lot of seniors here applied early decision to their top choices, which were usually Harvard, Harvard, or Harvard.
The sobs had turned into a low humming, a sound like water flowing over rocks. Willow hesitated outside Russell’s partly open door. She couldn’t see inside his office. She should text him, maybe, not embarrass the shit out of whoever was in there.
No, that was stupid. She was right here. And Russell might be psyched to have her interrupt him. Then he could ditch the crier and leave. It was Friday, after all.
Willow knocked. No answer. Just that river of voices. She pushed open the door and started to say hey, then stopped. It felt as if she’d swallowed a ball of string.
Russell was holding Nola Simone in his arms. Their faces were pressed close together, foreheads touching. Then, as if it were all happening in slow motion, Russell put his mouth over Nola’s.
Willow felt sour ick rise in her throat and slowly backed out of the room. She ran blindly down the hall’s carpeted floor so fast that she ran straight into the swinging fire door and banged her forehead on the glass.
Her eyes filled with tears. She kept running until she was out of the building, speeding down the hill and across Beacon Street to the Common, ignoring the stitch in her side.
She plowed right through the clump of people standing at the corner, waiting for the bus. Willow wished she could join them. She wanted to step onto some crowded bus and disappear.
• • •
By the time Catherine parked on Newbury Street, it was raining and the streets were dotted with umbrellas, bright spots of light against the slick gray pavement. She’d forgotten her umbrella but didn’t mind. It was a light rain, the sort of drizzle that always seemed to be falling in Scotland when they’d visited her father’s extended family. Like a damp shawl flung over your head and pinned into place.
She hoped the cool, humid air would clear her head. It had been a brutal day at the clinic. She’d been treating children with ear infections, fevers, stomachaches, sprained ankles—even one possible case of meningitis—since early this morning.
Cell phones rang, blared, and played salsa or Bollywood tunes in the waiting room as anxious parents did the work-family fandango. Although she was one of the senior nurse practitioners in the practice, Catherine never had the heart to tell parents to obey the “Please Turn off Your Cell Phone” sign by the front desk. She left the office etiquette to Alicia Sanchez, the energetic receptionist who spoke three languages but hardly seemed older than Willow.
The thought of Willow made Catherine smile as she neared the restaurant where she was supposed to meet Russell for dinner. While most parents complained noisily about their teenagers—drinking or drugs, sex or reckless driving—Willow was easy and sweet. A gift.
Of course, whispered a cynical voice in Catherine’s head, Willow’s not your real daughter. Maybe that’s why she’s so easy.
No. Catherine refused to let herself think that way. Willow was hers now. Had been for the past five years, ever since that night she’d called Catherine to say Zoe had left her at South Station. Alone.
Soon after Zoe’s disappearance, Catherine and Russell had filed the paperwork to become Willow’s legal guardians. As furious as she still felt whenever she thought about Zoe abandoning her daughter, a part of Catherine was grateful. She’d offered to take Willow before, whenever Zoe’s living situation looked sketchy, but her sister had always refused.
“She’s my kid and belongs with me,” Zoe would say fiercely, even if she was living in a shelter or once again boomeranging back into their parents’ house in Newburyport.
Catherine knew her life was more complete with Willow in it. She and Russell hadn’t been able to conceive a child of their own despite eight years of IVF treatments that had left her feeling like a bloated pincushion. That agony was over now. She’d given herself permission to quit trying to get pregnant on her thirty-seventh birthday last year.
She felt her phone buzz and pulled it out of her pocket to glance at the text. Russell: he’d arrived at the tapas place and had scored a table. With this rain, they’d have to sit inside now. Too bad.
On the other hand, as Catherine climbed the steps to the restaurant, she remembered how beautiful it was, with its burnished copper tables and red walls, the hand-painted pottery pitchers filled with sunflowers on the tables. They hadn’t been here since their wedding anniversary several months ago.
Russell had managed a table by a window on the second floor; from this vantage point, the umbrellas bloomed like lilies floating on a stream of pedestrians.
“Good job on the table. Sorry I’m late,” Catherine said.
He stood up to kiss her cheek. “I’m just sorry you had to get wet.”
“Doesn’t matter. Feels good to cool off after the day I’ve had.”
“That frantic?” Russell had ordered a pitcher of sangria. He poured a glass for her as she sat down.
“Awful. I was hit by a last-minute stampede of parents panicking before the weekend. Like every kid in the city decided to get sick because a full week of school was too much to take.” Catherine opened the menu. “How was your day?”
“What about Willow? How is she? I meant to call her when I left work, but the train came right away.”
“I don’t know. I never saw her all day. I texted her when I left school, but by then she was already home. She seemed fine with the idea of hanging out with your mom tonight, even though it was a last-minute plan.”
“Good. Maybe Willow’s mood will be better tonight than it was this morning.”
Russell shrugged. “Probably. I don’t know why you were so worried. Mornings and teenagers just don’t mix.”
He was right, of course. The teenagers Catherine saw in her office kept zombie schedules. Online all night, hardly able to function the next day.
Catherine always felt lucky that she’d married a man who understood children. That was evident the day they met, when she and Russell were both seniors at the university and working as orientation leaders for incoming students. They’d played all sorts of team-building games, and he was great at jollying even the sulkiest girls and sleepiest potheads into participating. He was handsome and sweet, especially kind to the overwhelmed new freshmen. Together, they’d comforted one girl whose boyfriend had broken up with her that weekend and had talked a couple of drunk boys out of elevator surfing.
After their orientation duties were over, Catherine invited Russell back to her studio apartment. They’d drunk cheap beer and played Scrabble as they talked. He had teased her about having a Canadian accent, imitating the way she said “sorry” and “about.” Her father’s fault, she told him: she’d spent weeks at a time on Prince Edward Island growing up, was half Canadian. Had a passport to prove it.
“Home of Anne of Green Gables,” she’d explained when Russell was confused about where, exactly, PEI was. “The Canadian Maritimes. Just keep driving northeast from Massachusetts past about five million pine trees through Maine and New Brunswick. You used to have to take a ferry from New Brunswick or Nova Scotia to the island, but now there’s a bridge.”
As Russell stood up to leave that first night, she’d decided: he was the one. She was still a virgin, had guarded herself from involvements while focusing on her studies, but this man was steady and she was about to graduate. His hair was a tangle of brown curls she could imagine grabbing by the handful, and his eyes were like blue chips of ice against his tan. He’d wanted to be a teacher even back then.
Catherine felt certain they were meant for each other. It wasn’t difficult to convince Russell to spend the night on her futon. They’d been apart very few nights since then, except for last month, when he’d been so busy with his book that she’d gone up to PEI with Willow to spend part of August while Russell stayed in Cambridge to write.
She had hesitated about the separation, knowing she’d miss him. But her mother had seemed so lost since her father’s death in May, and Willow was so heartbroken at the thought of not going up to Canada that Catherine felt like she had no other choice. Besides, as Russell gently pointed out, he’d get more writing done without them around.
They had agreed that Catherine would take Willow to Chance Harbor alone. But, before that, she and Russell had left Willow with friends and gone to New York City by themselves for a spectacular weekend of walking Central Park, getting lost in the MET, seeing a Broadway show. Their usual lovemaking was comfortable, though sometimes so predictable that it might as well have been scripted. That weekend, though, they’d stayed in a hotel with an Asian theme and made the kind of love you can only have in hotels, assuming positions on the floor and in the armchair that they’d never attempted at home.
Catherine left for Chance Harbor after that feeling cherished and oddly powerful, even happy that she and Russell would be apart for a few weeks. It would be sad to be in the Chance Harbor house without her father, she knew, but at least this way her mother wouldn’t have to go up there alone the first time. Besides, while they were in Canada, she and Russell would miss each other. Catherine took pleasure in anticipating their passionate reunion. Maybe this was what their marriage needed, the sort of jolt that would make it feel fresh again after so many years of challenges: long work days, infertility, Willow, Russell’s father’s death and then her own father’s, too. All of that had taken a toll on them.
Russell hadn’t disappointed her. On the day of their return in August, after Willow went to bed, he had led Catherine into the bedroom, gently removed her clothes, and given her a full-body massage, whispering, “Tell me what to do. I’ll follow your every command.”
Catherine sipped her sangria and shivered with pleasure. Maybe he’d be in the mood tonight. He’d been too tired to make love all week.
They ordered their usual tapas and the menus were whisked away. Russell poured them each another glass of sangria and she raised her glass to his. “Salud,” she said. “Here’s to the weekend. Thanks for arranging all this with Mom. I thought she might be too tired, since she just made that drive back alone from Chance Harbor. That must have been a brutal trip.”
“She seemed happy to do it. Feeling better?”
“Oh yes.” She smiled at him over the rim of her glass. Tonight it would be her turn to serve him, she decided. “What about you? Tell me about your day. You must be glad the first week of school is over.”
“Not so bad,” he said. “I told you, didn’t I, that I have two upper-level history classes? Both are small. Just one section of freshmen. Easy. It was a relief to be back in a routine, actually.”
“But you must miss the free time you had to work on your book this summer,” she said, surprised.
“Not really. It’s still a joy, teaching.”
Catherine heard the strain in Russell’s voice but couldn’t decipher it. Was he worried about something? Tired? That was probably it. She’d found Russell on his laptop in the living room early every morning this week, working on his book long before she and Willow even came downstairs, “before my head gets crowded,” he explained. She was proud of his focus and told him that now.
“We’re so lucky, aren’t we?” she said, gazing into her ruby-colored sangria with its slice of orange in the crystal glass. “We’re blessed to have each other and work we love.”
“Lucky. We are. Yes.”
Russell agreed in such a distracted way that Catherine forgot her drink and looked up at him. He was holding his phone under the table, staring at it like a lost man with a compass. “Who are you texting? Willow?”
“No,” he said, tucking the phone back into his pocket.
She would have pressed him, but the waiter arrived and began setting plates on the table. She was starving, Catherine realized.
Russell saw her expression and pushed the plates toward her. “Go for it,” he said. “I had a late lunch.”
They ate and talked more about the day’s events, then moved on to discuss her mother’s recent decision to sell the house at Chance Harbor. “I hate the idea,” Catherine admitted. “I’ve always loved fantasizing about summers on the island with Willow and her children. But I don’t see how we can take it on.”
“No. We can barely keep up with our own house.”
“I know. Besides, realistically, even if you have the whole summer off, I can’t get away more than three weeks a year. If Mom doesn’t want to go to Chance Harbor without Dad, what’s the point? The poor house would be one of those sad summer places that’s closed up most of the year.”
“Well, don’t give up yet. Your mom might change her mind.” Russell dipped a hunk of bread into the warmed goat cheese. “I think she’s being too hasty. Grief is clouding her perspective.”
“I know,” Catherine said. “But she says it will be too hard for her to be there without Dad. Funny. I never really thought of my parents as being close, especially after the whole thing with Zoe. But Mom really seems to miss him. I guess that’s natural after so many years, but he sure wasn’t an easy man to love.”
“Eccentric and stubborn,” Russell agreed. “But those qualities got him off the island and into high tech. I always admired the guy.”
“I know. He liked you, too.” Catherine was quiet for a minute, her throat tight with grief. Occasionally she saw a small, wiry man who resembled her father and her sorrow fell like a veil, clouding her vision. If the pain of missing him was like that for her, what must it be like for her mother?
She reached for a helping of grilled asparagus. “The thing is, I know Dad would want us all to keep going to PEI,” she said. “Chance Harbor was the one place I saw him act completely relaxed.” She smiled. “Remember how Dad started behaving like a ten-year-old the minute we arrived, so excited and happy? I don’t think I ever heard him laugh as much anywhere else.”
When Russell didn’t respond, Catherine lifted her head from the asparagus. He was focused on his cell phone again, holding it under the table, his eyes cast down at its screen. Catherine could hear the phone vibrating, an angry sound like a dentist’s drill. “You might as well answer it,” she said. “You’re not listening to me anyway.”
Russell looked up sharply. “No, I’m listening.” He picked up a shrimp and bit into it so quickly that Catherine heard the crunch from her side of the table; he must have forgotten to pull the shell off the tail. Nonetheless, he kept mindlessly chewing, his gaze still distant.
Catherine felt a slow panic rising and set down her fork. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Russell said, then dropped the shrimp and buried his face in his hands, shoulders quaking.
“Oh my God. What is it, honey?” Catherine reached over to touch his wrist, but Russell flinched away.
After a moment, he put his hands down. His eyes were red-rimmed but dry. “Sorry.”
“So,” she said slowly, “I’m guessing you surprised me by arranging this date tonight for a reason. What is it? Are you ill?” She swallowed hard around a sudden knot of fear, thinking: cancer. They were at that age when everyone was being diagnosed.
“No. I’m fine.”
“Is someone we know ill?”
“Nothing like that.”
When Russell fell silent again, Catherine felt a flash of irritation. She’d had a tough day and was too tired to play twenty questions. “Did you lose your job?”
Russell laughed, a sudden unexpected bark. “Not yet. But soon, probably. I’m sorry.”
“Shit,” she said, doing some quick mental calculations: the mortgage, car payments, utilities. They could make it on her salary, barely. But if Russell were laid off, Willow would lose her tuition waiver. What then? “That’s bad news.”
“But why would they let you go?” Her mind was stumbling through a thicket of possibilities. “You’ve been there longer than almost anyone. Did the school lose its accreditation? Is there a funding issue? I don’t get it. Surely they could have warned you before the school year started. . . .”
“It’s nothing like that.” Russell’s voice was brusque now. “It’s nothing to do with the school or their money. It’s me.”
Now Catherine’s hands went clammy. Last year a teacher was fired for looking at child pornography on a school computer. Another teacher was suspended for making racist remarks about a Native American student.
She couldn’t imagine Russell—her ethical, kind, compassionate, loving, smart husband—doing anything that would harm his students or cost him his teaching job. No, this had to be a mistake. They’d fight it. She had two friends who were lawyers. It would be all right.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t make me guess anymore. Just tell me.”
Russell tried to smile but didn’t succeed. His mouth twisted up on one side and down at the other corner, making him look like a stroke victim. “I’m going to be a father,” he said.
“What?” She stared at him, certain she’d misheard.
“It’s true.” The smile was working its way into a more familiar shape, the grooves deepening on either side of Russell’s handsome mouth into a nearly recognizable expression of happiness. But his eyes were still red and his knee was jumping under the table as he repeated tonelessly, “I’m going to be a father.”
“And yet, how funny. I’m not going to be a mother,” Catherine said, clutching her drink as if they were in the middle of an earthquake, magnitude 8.8. But it wasn’t the glass or the table or the floor trembling. It was her. She had started shaking all over.
Russell winced. She realized that he’d been doing a lot of wincing lately. It was okay when they were talking about newspaper headlines, house chores, or car repairs. But she absolutely did not want him wincing at her. Like she was the cause of his distress. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“That’s all you have to say? I’m sorry?” Her voice rose on the last two words, causing a few diners to glance in their direction. Good. Let them be witnesses to this sudden collapse of their marriage.
“I’m . . .” He stopped himself in time. “Words can’t express how terrible I feel, Catherine. I never meant to hurt you. Listen, I’m not really very hungry. Have you eaten enough? Maybe we should get out of here.” He glanced around.
The restaurant was full—the height of the Friday-night post-work crowd—and now Catherine understood that’s what Russell had counted on. When he’d asked her out on this “date,” he must have been planning to announce his big news in public to keep her reaction in check. He was going to have a baby!
A baby, something they’d both wanted and hoped for and paid big money for and failed at for years. A decade of wasted energy, foolishly hoping for something that came to nothing. Together they’d mourned and then come to terms with being childless. Then they’d become Willow’s guardians. A miracle family. They were happy.
Or so she’d thought.
Catherine was shaking even harder now—from doubt, fear, shock, and, most of all, fury. Russell was still watching her, but he was also fondling the phone in his pocket, perhaps silencing a call. A call from the mother of his child, no doubt, wondering if he’d done the dirty deed, delivered the news and, P.S., done it while having dinner in the same restaurant where Russell had taken her—Catherine, his wife!—to celebrate their last wedding anniversary.
Diamonds: he’d given her a pair of diamond earrings. She’d given him a watch. They’d kissed while walking down Newbury Street that night, and on impulse they’d ridden the swan boats in Boston Public Garden with a group of giggling Japanese tourists who had captured Russell and Catherine in their pink cloud of happiness on videos they would take home to Japan as part of their Boston memories. She and Russell would be kissing in the cloud for eternity, no matter what happened here on earth.
“Why leave?” Catherine said. “Where would we go to finish our conversation? Home to Willow and my mother?” She glanced out the window. Still raining. “Who is she?” She suddenly flashed on the hours Russell had spent working on his book in his office, on how he’d stayed home in August instead of coming with them to Chance Harbor.
“Nobody you know,” he said.
Her body felt numb with shock, but some part of her mind was still engaged, sorting through data like a computer, examining possibilities. How could getting another woman pregnant cost Russell his job? Then it dawned on her. “She’s someone you work with, right?”
Russell had the grace to look surprised. That must be the expression he reserved for clever students who spoke up in class. “Yes. Look, this wasn’t anything I ever imagined doing, Catherine. It just kind of happened. It was like being swept down a mountain in an avalanche. All I could do was swim to the surface and hope I ended up in one piece.”
“Do. Not. Tell. Me. You. Love. Her.” She spit the words out like ice cubes.
The waiter appeared. He was dark and handsome, just what a Spanish restaurant required, though his Indian features suggested he was Mexican or Guatemalan. He was savvy enough to sense disaster and looked anxious. “More tapas, señores?”
“I think we’ve had enough to eat, thank you.” Catherine fixed her eyes on Russell, daring him to make a run for it. “But we’d love another pitcher of sangria.”
“Another pitcher?” Russell raised an eyebrow. “Really, do you think that’s . . . ?”
The waiter glanced from one to the other and made his decision. “Sí, señora, I will bring that for you pronto,” he said, and dashed off with a flash of shiny black shoes.
“I plan to be here for a while,” Catherine said, settling back in her chair, “hearing all about how you’re finally going to have that baby you always wanted.”
“Believe me, it was an accident.” Russell closed his eyes as his phone vibrated again.
“Just answer the damn thing,” she said. “We both know who it is.”
He shook his head. “She can wait.”
“Only for about nine more months.” Catherine noted the sudden flush rising from Russell’s neck—he always got blotchy when he was upset—and said, “What? Is it less than that? How long before the happy event?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on, Russell. I bet you can figure it out. When did she tell you about the baby? This week? A month ago?”
Why was he being so cagey? Guilt, she hoped. “All right. That wasn’t so hard, answering a simple question, was it? Here’s another one: When’s the baby due?”
“January?” Catherine did a quick calculation. “January? You were busy fucking some woman without protection while we were burying my father?”
“It wasn’t like that!” Russell’s face was on fire now, a patchwork of pink and white.
The waiter arrived with the new pitcher of sangria and, after glancing at them both, set it squarely in front of Catherine and beat another hasty retreat.
“No?” She poured herself a glass. A full glass. “Tell me, then, what it was like.”
“Don’t do this to yourself, Catherine.”
“I’m not doing anything to me. You are. So tell me. Who is she? What does this have to do with you losing your job? Is she another teacher? A parent? A trustee?” Her eyes widened as she pictured the only colleague of Russell’s she knew well, the curvy Spanish teacher, a lively brunette in her twenties who was married to the head of school. Second marriage, of course. “Not the head’s wife, Yolanda?” That would certainly explain Russell being let go from work.
Russell remained silent as Catherine felt panic rising from the pit of her stomach to clog her throat, a sour physical lump too enormous to swallow. She was having trouble breathing around it.
As Russell’s face mirrored her stricken expression, she finally let herself understand what he’d hoped to hide from everyone. “It’s a student.”
“Yes,” Russell said, a soft exhalation of sound. “I’m so sorry.”
“I swear to God, Russell, if you apologize to me one more time, I will cut your balls off with this knife.” Catherine waved the serrated bread knife around for emphasis, causing the waiter to rush over again.
“More bread?” he suggested.
Catherine smiled at him around teeth that felt like fangs. “No, thank you.”
The waiter reached for the knife with a knowing look. He must have been familiar with knife-wielding jilted wives. Catherine obediently handed it to him. Then she passed him the bread basket and her dishes, too, after whisking crumbs into her palm and dumping those on her plate out of habit. She’d been a waitress for too many years to leave a mess. “You can take all this away. We’re nearly done here. Thank you.”
“As you wish.” The waiter bowed and removed the aftermath of their dinner.
“I cannot believe I married a pervert.” Catherine clung to her anger, which was all that kept her from dissolving.
“Please, Catherine. Lower your voice.”
“You abused a child!”
“She’s eighteen,” Russell said. “Hardly a child.”
“She’s hardly older than your own daughter! What will Willow think of you doing this to her?” Catherine folded her arms to stop herself from slapping him.
“I didn’t do this to Willow!” Russell said. “And I didn’t do it to you, either. It just happened, Catherine.”
“Stop saying that!” Catherine shouted, causing heads to swivel. Good! Let them look. Let Russell’s face stay scarlet and shamed. “Obviously this girl didn’t make a baby all by herself. How did this even happen, Russell? I swear to God, I will not leave this table until you tell me who it is. I’m bound to find out anyway. Tell me!” She threw back another gulp of sangria.
He sighed, wincing again. “Her name is Nola Simone. I met her last year. She was in my AP history class and started coming in for extra help. And, well. Those extra help sessions turned into actual conversations about things we’re both interested in. Things you don’t really care about,” he added. “Nola loves hearing me talk about my dad’s career in politics and my memoir. She’s a Civil War buff, too, just like I am.” He spread his hands. “We connected on commonalities.”
Catherine rolled her eyes. “Commonalities? Like what? Like you were registering for the draft when she celebrated her first birthday?”
“Make fun of this all you want, Catherine, but it’s not a crush or a passing thing. What Nola and I feel for each other is real.”
“How did it start being real? As in, physical?” She would probably be sorry later, knowing these details, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking. This girl was a child and Russell was an idiot.
Russell hadn’t touched the sangria in his glass. She poured it into her own. The second pitcher was empty except for the soggy fruit, as colorful and limp as dead betta fish, lying in the bottom. “Come on. You owe me that much. How did the affair start? In your office?”
The flush, which had begun its retreat back down Russell’s neck, returned. “The first time, yes. Nola admitted that she was starting to have feelings for me. Powerful feelings.”
“Was this before or after you gave her an A?”
“Don’t be nasty, Catherine. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Maybe I’m trying on a new persona to match the new personality you bought at the Playboy Mansion. How many times did you do it in your office?”
“Jesus, I don’t know.”
“Was this going on all summer?”
He nodded. “I couldn’t leave her, Catherine,” he said. “Nola’s delicate. That’s why I didn’t go to Canada with you and Willow. I couldn’t. You don’t understand what it did to Nola, thinking about me being gone for so many weeks. I was honestly afraid she might harm herself. That’s how intensely she loves me.”
“Oh my God, Russell. Listen to yourself! Wasn’t our marriage even worth you trying to stop seeing this girl? I don’t understand. Are you trying to tell me you stayed with her because you felt sorry for her? Didn’t our relationship count for anything, compared to a few hours with a girl who’s barely old enough to vote?”
“I know it sounds awful,” Russell said. “I can’t explain it, except to say Nola’s young, but not really that young. She knows a lot more than I do about some things. Traveling, for instance! Nola has been all over Europe and Asia with her family. Places I’ve always wanted to see.”
“I don’t care if she’s been to Shangri-La. She’s a child! She can’t even order a beer in a sports bar!”
Russell glanced nervously at the other diners, every one of whom was watching avidly. “Please, Catherine. Keep it down. I’d hoped you’d be more reasonable than this.”
“Well, sometimes our hopes amount to nothing, don’t they?” she said, and dumped the pitcher of bloody dead fruit over Russell’s head before walking out of the restaurant and into the rain-drenched street.
On Sunday morning, Willow made up a story about meeting a friend for coffee in Harvard Square—as if she even liked coffee, which tasted like dirt—and headed out the door with her sketch pad. She needn’t have bothered lying. Her grandmother seemed as happy to see her leave as Willow was to get out of there.
They’d had fun together Friday night, eating at Willow’s favorite burrito place in Harvard Square and then sitting with cups of frozen yogurt on one of the curved walls near Out of Town News, where they’d watched some guy do wicked cool paintings with a spray can.
Later that night, they were watching a movie when Catherine called to ask if it was okay if she didn’t come home until Sunday. As Willow listened to her grandmother’s end of the conversation—“Of course. You know I’m always happy to spend time with her; just enjoy yourself”—she pictured Catherine and Russell going to a hotel, fighting about Nola maybe, if he told her about the kiss, then making up.
She didn’t like picturing kissing or anything like that. Not after the last boyfriend her mom had. Unfortunately, thinking about Russell and Nola made Willow remember him, something she tried never to do. She had to sleep with her light on. Otherwise she’d picture Tom, the guy who Mom called the Real Deal even after Willow said she didn’t like him, sneaking into her room.
“But why don’t you like Tom?” her mom had asked, frowning as they sat at the kitchen table waiting for Tom to come home to the fried chicken Zoe had bought at the grocery store to eat with a can of beans for dinner. “He’s so much better than Doug, don’t you think?”
If you’d asked her before Tom moved in with them, Willow would have said anybody would be a step up from Doug the Slug, who’d lived with them for two years and had kept saying his back hurt too much for him to get a job. Doug was the reason her mom went back to doing molly after she’d given it up for, like, a year. Doug was why Mom drank, too, and forgot to pick up Willow from school sometimes.
Finally, after Mom came home early from work one night and found Willow freezing on the porch while Doug did coke with one of the neighbors, she’d screamed at him and dumped the Slug. They’d moved out of the apartment that night, leaving almost everything behind so Doug couldn’t find them again.
“But how do you know he won’t, Mom?” Willow had demanded. She was seven by then and tired of moving. She had also learned that not everything her mom said was true, even if Mom believed it herself.
“Because he’s too freakin’ lazy,” Mom said, with an eye roll and her laugh that was like a thousand purple cartoon butterflies. You couldn’t help laughing when Mom did.
They’d moved in with Nana and Grandpa for a month and then to a new apartment, smaller but cleaner than Doug’s, and things were good for a while.
“I’m really getting my shit together now,” Mom had said, after she’d found a new job as a waitress. She’d dumped a heap of shiny silver coins onto the kitchen table, then grinned and pulled out a wad of ones and fives. People tipped great in the new place, and Mom didn’t even have to pool her tips like she’d done in the club where she’d worked before. Plus, now that Willow was nine and old enough to stay on her own, they didn’t have to pay a sitter.
Then the Real Deal came into their lives. Tom acted like Mr. Normal, and even Willow could see he was good-looking for somebody so old. Tom had a few teeth capped in gold, but most were white and straight. He had a nice haircut and long sideburns and he wore boots, like a country-western singer.
Tom even had his own car, a shiny red one that he drove fast with the sunroof open. Once, he’d picked Willow up from school and let her ride home standing on the front seat, her head out the window. He’d whooped and hung on to Willow’s leg to keep her from falling out.
But Tom didn’t want to touch only Willow’s leg. He wanted to touch her in other places. She’d been hearing “stranger danger” stuff in school since kindergarten and knew that wasn’t okay. But her mom was so happy and Tom gave her money. They finally had electricity all the time and plenty of food, too. How could Willow make her leave the Real Deal?
She couldn’t do it. Willow decided to just stay away from Tom. She got involved in after-school stuff and played soccer on weekends, making sure she wasn’t ever alone with him in the apartment. Tom wasn’t living with them; whenever her mom was working, Willow said she’d rather stay home by herself than have him come babysit her. “I’m not a baby, Mom,” she said. “I’m almost ten. It’s insulting.”
“You’re not scared here at night by yourself?” Her mom had looked doubtful, squinching her pretty blue eyes. She knew Willow was afraid of the dark. Always had been, since the fire.
“I’m fine. You like it when Tom comes to your work and picks you up, right? You could even spend the night at his house. I can get myself to school in the morning.”
So mostly that’s what happened. For months, things went on like that, Willow tricking herself into thinking things were okay and taking care of herself.
Then, one night, Tom had come to the apartment while Mom was at work, saying he had to use their Wi-Fi because his was down. Tom opened his laptop on the kitchen table and started “working the numbers,” he said after kissing Mom good-bye. “We’ll have our own place soon, a real house,” he’d said to Mom. “We’ll be a family. You, me, and Willow.”
Willow hadn’t said anything, just stayed in the living room doing her homework in front of the TV and planning how to run away if he actually did move in.
She tried to forget Tom was in the kitchen. Then he called her in there. “Willow, honey, can you help me with something on the computer? Just for a sec?”
Willow was good on the computer. Most adults were hopeless. She sighed and went into the kitchen. “What?”
“Here. Look at this,” Tom said.
She couldn’t tell what she was looking at right off, then realized it was a man and a woman. The man’s penis was in the woman’s mouth. The woman was skinny and wore bright red lipstick, but she wasn’t really a woman. More like a girl her own age. No hair anywhere.
“That’s disgusting,” Willow said.
“Oh, no, it feels real good, doing that.” Tom hooked his arm between Willow’s thighs before she could move away. “I could show you how to do it. I’d pay you twenty dollars, too. I know you and your mom could use the money, right?”
After a moment of frozen panic, Willow had felt his fingers moving like worms into her underpants. She kicked his chair so hard he almost tipped over; then she ran out of the apartment and down the street to her friend Morgan’s house. Morgan made her tell Mom, and they’d moved out of the apartment the next day to some crap house with, like, eighteen people sleeping everywhere, even on the floor. They’d never seen Mr. Real Deal again.
After that, of course, everything happened the way Willow had thought it would: Mom crying for days, saying she was sorry, then getting high and sleeping a lot.
The one thing Willow had never predicted was Mom giving up. Not just on her, but on life. She had, though, saying, “You’re better off without me, sweet pea,” when Willow cried at the bus station and begged her not to leave.
Now, as Willow walked down Mass Ave toward Harvard Square, she wondered why it felt so bad, having Catherine and Russell stay out all night. It wasn’t like she’d been abandoned in a bus station. Catherine had assured them she’d be home today, that she just needed a little break.
“Work was really getting to me,” she’d explained to Willow on the phone after talking to Nana. “You don’t mind, do you? I know it’s probably good for Nana to have some company, too. She’s lonely since Grandpa died.”
Catherine would come home, Willow told herself. She wasn’t Zoe. Catherine would never run away and leave her. Russell, either.
At Cambridge Common, she stopped to watch a bunch of people playing Frisbee. Another group was setting up some kind of tightrope between two trees. Harvard students, probably.
She sank down onto the silky grass and took out her sketch pad and pencils. Really, what would happen to her if Catherine and Russell decided to split up? Would they even want to keep her? Catherine always talked about how Willow made them a family, but what if there was no husband? Would she spend part of the time with Catherine and the rest of the time with Russell, like her friend Kendrick did with her divorced parents?
Willow felt a tear sliding down her cheek and scrubbed at her face with one hand just as someone called her name.
She turned around so fast that she got a cramp in her neck and said, “Ow.”
“Well, ‘ow’ to you, too.” It was Henry. He trotted over like a redheaded giraffe and collapsed next to her. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” Willow said, pointing toward Davis Square. “Down that way.”
“That’s weird. Me, too. I didn’t think anyone from school lived in Cambridge.”
“I didn’t either. Especially not a rich third!” When he looked confused, Willow added, “You know: named after your grandfather and dad.”
“Oh!” Henry reddened and tugged out a blade of grass, flattened it between his thumbs, and blew on it. The grass shrieked like a dying cat. “Being named after your father doesn’t exactly make you rich,” he said. “It just means your parents were probably too scared of making their own parents mad to give you an original name. We’re poor as dirt.”
“Good,” she said.
“Thanks a lot.”
“Hey. I don’t want to be the only pauper at Beacon Hill School. So if you live in Cambridge, why do you go there?”
“Better education, tonier colleges accepting our fine graduates,” Henry said. “Or so goes the lingo at home. My parents are both professors and I’m the youngest kid in our family, so they’ve been thinking about my college choice pretty much since I blew out the candle on my first birthday cake. Why are you there?”
“Because it’s free,” she said.
“Whoa. Presidential merit scholar?”
“No. My dad teaches there.” When she saw Henry frown, Willow added, “Russell Standish, history? He’s really my uncle. That’s why we have different last names. But he and my aunt have been raising me since my mom took off when I was ten.”
“Shit. That must have sucked.”
Henry’s brown eyes were so sympathetic that Willow turned away. “Yeah, well. Mom couldn’t keep things together. She’s probably dead now.”
“So you’re saying you’re better off? That’s good, I guess.”
Willow felt disappointed by his response. But what was he supposed to say? Gee, you must be resilient and wonderful, going through hell like that? She’d like to hear somebody say that just once. Though what Henry said was still better than that shrink Catherine made her see for a while, the one who said, It would be normal for you to have trouble forming attachments, Willow. Like she was some kind of Lego brick with the wrong number of holes.
“What are you not drawing today?” Henry was looking at her notebook.
“The trees,” Willow said. “Did you know that George Washington stood under that elm tree over there when he first took charge of the Continental Army?”
“I did, actually,” Henry said. “My dad teaches history at Simmons. Did you know that one of Washington’s favorite dishes was cream of peanut soup? Or that he had all his teeth pulled?”
Willow laughed. “I didn’t know about the soup, but I knew about his teeth. Russell says George Washington had a set of ivory teeth made.”
“Yeah. Ivory from hippos, set in silver.”
They high-fived. “So, where are you going now?” Willow asked.
“Anywhere but home, where my sister’s practicing her flute. Talk about ‘ow.’ Want to hang out?”
Willow nodded and gathered her things. Any distraction was a welcome one. By the time she got home, Catherine and Russell would be there.
• • •
The tomatoes had taken over. That was always the way with vegetables in September, Eve thought as she contemplated Catherine’s garden: some plants thrived, bullying their way through the August heat and September’s chilly nights while others rotted away, leaves tattered into lace by insects.
Why did Catherine even bother growing her own vegetables? So impractical. There were grocery stores and produce stands on practically every corner in Cambridge.
She’d probably put in a garden thinking this would be a good activity for Willow, something healthy and outdoorsy. A mother-daughter bonding activity. Catherine had always treated motherhood like a graduate school project, studying every aspect of parenting. Right now there were four books on her bedside table about teaching your child to be ethical, independent, happy, and unplugged. As if working mothers didn’t already feel guilty enough.
Gardening was an admirable impulse, but Eve hated to see food wasted. She got to work picking tomatoes, laying them gently in the basket she’d brought out from the kitchen. At least she could boil them down and freeze the tomato sauce for Catherine to use this winter.
As she picked them, Eve thought about that strange phone call on Friday night. Why had Catherine suddenly needed a weekend away? Was it really because she was exhausted from a tough week at work? Eve didn’t buy it, yet it was true that Catherine hadn’t sounded at all like her usual brisk, competent self.
“Please, Mommy, can you stay with Willow for the weekend?” she’d begged. Catherine had never called her “Mommy.” Only Zoe did that.
When she’d picked the tomatoes, Eve started weeding, uncovering a few squash, eggplants, and even runner beans that were still firm and edible.
Of course, she had no right to be critical of Catherine’s garden. Her own had gone wild after Andrew died. Eve knew she should be doing a fall cleanup, but still couldn’t face the jobs around the house that had always been Andrew’s.
Whenever she went out to the garden, she imagined her husband there in one of his floppy-brimmed hats. This should have made her feel closer to him. Instead, Eve’s eyes would sting like someone had thrown sand in them and she’d have to dash back inside to the safety of her kitchen.
Too much time on her hands. That was the problem. All her life Eve had prided herself on being useful. A necessary person. She had always enjoyed being busy, even during those precious years when the girls were young and she was exhausted from juggling motherhood with her job as a public relations director at the hospital.
Then, in a blink of an eye, she was alone, with more empty hours than she cared to count. Directionless. Lost.
She had clung to her job after the girls moved out, missing them so much that she’d had to keep their bedroom doors closed for weeks after each of them left for college. Work had gotten her through that, and then, later, through Zoe’s disappearance. She’d been only the assistant director back then, so she could afford to take time off during those first terrifying months they were searching for Zoe.
For a while she’d coped after Zoe disappeared. Convinced her daughter was alive, Eve had thrown herself into looking for her. She’d embraced the early casseroles and candlelight vigils by neighbors, made posters, and put up ads long after Andrew agreed with the cops that Zoe was most likely dead. At the same time, Eve had nightmares for years: Zoe falling off the top of a building. Drowning. Trapped in a fire.
Nothing to do with reality. Odds were better that Zoe had followed another druggie boyfriend to live in yet another tenement building where the windows were always open, sheets tacked across the windows and flapping in the breeze.
Eve had been to many of those apartments through the years. She’d brought Zoe and Willow food and clothes, even money, though Andrew knew nothing about that. The last place she’d visited had red velvet wallpaper, raised and soft to the touch. The floor was carpeted red, too, and stained in places; there was a fish-shaped design by the sink, a bird shape in the bedroom. The door to the apartment was painted black with a silver metal knob as bright as a tooth filling. Pots and pans coated with food were stacked in the sink and on the counter. Yet, when Eve had opened the cabinet doors, she’d found nothing to eat but a few tins of tuna.
For years after Zoe disappeared, she had searched: driving through small towns and showing her daughter’s picture to anyone who would look, canvassing bus stations and homeless encampments, calling hospitals and shelters. Occasionally she would read about a body found and worry that it was Zoe’s. That maybe one day her daughter had taken too much of something and stumbled in front of a car. No ID, a Jane Doe in a different state.
Or another, more likely scenario: Zoe murdered, maybe by accident, as an afterthought, by warring drug dealers or another addict. Her daughter’s broken body tossed into a Dumpster or an empty building, or into the woods like those deer and raccoon carcasses, the roadkill they saw in New Brunswick on the way up to their house on Prince Edward Island every summer.
Yet Eve had kept looking for Zoe through the years. She had even gone on national television to plead for Zoe’s return and had made Andrew go with her on air. She’d done local television before, was comfortable in front of cameras, but the studio in New York was still a surprise. So small, crowded with people and equipment.
Eve had let them do her makeup and hair at the studio, sitting in a row with other guests waiting for their three minutes of fame as the crew applied eye concealer, combed and sprayed her hair, brushed lint off her jacket. Meanwhile, she’d been thinking, Why? What does it matter how I look, when my daughter’s missing?
Then she and Andrew were seated in orange swivel chairs with the cameras on. The news anchor, a woman in a red dress so bright it hurt, wound her spray-tanned legs together as if they were made of rubber and asked Eve questions about Zoe. At the end of the interview, she’d asked, “Is there something you’d like to say to your daughter if she’s listening?”
“Don’t lose hope, Zoe,” Eve had said, staring directly into the camera. “Wherever you are, know that we’re using every resource to find you. And we will find you, honey. Help is on its way.”
Nothing had come of the interview. Years of investigating by the police and two different private detectives they’d hired at great expense turned up very little as well.
Eve was promoted to director of public relations at the hospital shortly after her television appearance. A pity promotion. Two years later, the hospital offered her a golden parachute—a forced retirement, no other way to look at it.
She’d worked at the hospital for twenty-five years. Her career was her identity; she felt lost without it. More important, after Zoe disappeared, her job was the lifeline that had kept Eve tethered to earth. It gave her something to do besides obsessively search for Zoe on her own after Andrew refused to pay for a third private investigator.
“I’m as sorry about this outcome as you are, honey,” Andrew had said. “But we give our kids wings so they can fly out of the nest. Zoe followed her own compass. The consequences were tragic, but at least she’s at peace now.”
“But what about me? I’m not at peace!” Eve had shouted at him.
That was the last time they’d dared speak about Zoe. The memory of their daughter had the power to tear them apart, just as her tumultuous existence had nearly destroyed their marriage and their faith in themselves as parents when Zoe lived with them.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Holly Robinson’s Novels
“[An] absorbing, big-hearted novel.”—Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point
“A triumphant family saga filled with heart and hope. I couldn't put it down!”—Amy Sue Nathan, Author of The Glass Wives
“Sparkles with warmth and wit while tackling the prickly sides of a mother-daughter relationship...With deeply emotional passages tempered by humor and some surprising romance, Robinson's portrayal of family members striving to forge deeper connections after self-imposed absences is compelling. [A] full-hearted tale of quiet triumphs, mended fences, and new connections.”—Booklist
“[A] luminous novel of buried secrets.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow