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NELL KILVERT LAY BACK ON THE GRASS, HEARING THE breeze rustle the leaves overhead. Her bikini was salt-and sun-faded, a pretty shade of rose; around her waist she wore a beach towel, still damp from her last swim. Around her ankle she wore a strip of cloth, so ragged it looked ready to fall off. Charlie had tied it there three hundred and fifty-something days ago, just before leaving Hubbard's Point for college, at the end of last summer.
Her long hair was dark brown. She had cat eyes: green, almond-shaped, unblinking. Right now there were tears pouring down out of them, into her ears, as she stared up at the gorgeous blue sky.
"It's so beautiful," she whispered.
"I know. So why are you crying?"
"Because he can't feel it . . . he'll never feel summer again."
"Why do you come here?"
"So I can be near him."
The boy—his name was Tyler—stared at her. She knew he was there, kneeling beside her, but she blocked him out. She focused completely on Charlie. Closing her eyes, she could imagine him right here with her.
The cemetery was quiet. Located behind Foley's Store, right in the middle of Hubbard's Point—between the train bridge that separated the beach from the rest of the world, and the Sound—it was filled with tall trees. And it was filled with graves. One of them was Charlie's.
Nell lay on the ground by Charlie's headstone. She came here often, at least once a day, before or after work at Foley's, carefully timing her visits to avoid seeing his mother. Not that she didn't like Charlie's mother—Nell visited Sheridan often. They would sit quietly in the dark house, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Nell would look at the silent guitars and remember how when Charlie was young, his mother had filled their house with music. Nell craved those times with Charlie's mother, her companion in grief. But here at the grave, Nell knew Sheridan needed her own time with her son.
"Don't you ever get spooked here?" Tyler asked, so close she could feel his breath on her forehead.
"Why would I?" Nell asked.
"Well, because it's a graveyard."
"Once someone you love dies, you're not scared of graveyards," she said.
"Huh," he said, sounding unconvinced. An old tree creaked in the breeze, making him jump. She knew he'd like to book out of there, head down to the sun and fun on the beach, but he wouldn't leave her.
Nell had an effect on boys. It mystified her. It had started with Charlie, of course. She'd loved him as long as she'd known him. They'd spent the last few summers together, right here at Hubbard's Point. He was the wildest boy at the beach, like a mustang running free. No one had been able to tame him, no one but Nell. That's why he'd called her the Boy Whisperer. . . .
It still fit. Even though the beach boys all knew she was still in love with Charlie, they wanted to be with her. They wanted to tell her their secrets. She thought maybe it was the whisper of tragedy that surrounded her. Her mother had died when she was young. Her father had lost it big-time, until Nell had brought him together with Stevie Moore, the artist most people considered a witch. Now Stevie was virtually Nell's stepmother, and the beach boys probably thought her witchiness had rubbed off on Nell. They dreamed of sex spells. And after Charlie's murder, the boys had come flocking even more.
But Charlie had had the magic, too. He was the great-grandson of Aphrodite, the doyenne of Hubbard's Point beach magic. Her magic book had been the source of many of Charlie's mother's best songs, but not the inspiration for the film Charlie had wanted to make. As much as he disavowed it, Charlie had inherited his family magic; Nell used to tease him, that he had it in his kiss. The other beach boys wanted to make Nell forget Charlie's kisses. . . .
Nell lay beside his headstone, staring down her right leg at the strip of beach towel he'd tied around her ankle last summer. It was all she had left of him. She wondered how he'd feel to know about the other boys. He'd never been the jealous type in life. He hadn't needed to be, and he still didn't now. He was her only one.
She closed her eyes, and even with Tyler beside her, she let herself dream of Charlie. He'd been so comfortable in his own skin, in his own life. He'd wear jeans and a T-shirt, even when they were supposed to get dressed up for candlelit beach dinners at their parents' houses. Well, his mother's. His father was a no-show.
That's what Charlie had called him. Just one of those dads who bailed on their kids, no real explanation other than the fact they didn't feel like showing up to raise their children—the opposite of Nell's dad. Charlie was casual, tough, a little hardened by growing up without a dad. He'd had to figure things out by himself.
But oh . . . he'd figured them out so well.
He was competent. Nell found it sexy as hell, too—the way he could do anything he set his mind to. He could fix her car, catch huge stripers, identify raptors, film equally well using digital or Super 8. He had an artist's eye but a rugged soul. His mom had gently steered him into therapy, to deal with his father's absence, and Nell knew he'd gotten into the habit of figuring himself out. He was rigorous with himself.
He'd been so practical, while his mother and her family had been so driven by magic. His mother was in touch with the spiritual, but Charlie had insisted on staying real, right in the world as it is. It was how he'd survived the disappointment of missing a father he never really knew. His mother had made up for it the best she could, trying to heal Charlie's deep scars. And they were deep, Nell knew—but he'd learned to take care of himself.
He'd think about things. That might sound so normal, so regular, but what eighteen-year-old boys do that? He'd really consider his choices, and if he did something he was sorry for, he'd always make it right. He was introspective while at the same time being tough. He was very physical, ran cross-country in school. He'd been captain his senior year, and he was known for taking the team on adventures.
He'd run the team into Cockaponset State Forest, straight into the sixteen thousand acres of woods, made them find their way out. Another time he'd led them across the Connecticut River, over the catwalk beneath the Baldwin Bridge, one hundred feet up above the water.
He'd loved the woods, he'd loved rivers, he'd loved running. And he'd loved Nell.
They'd kiss. He'd make her tell him what felt good to her. She liked having her hair brushed, and he'd done that for her. Her big, muscular boyfriend had sat next to her, on the mattress in the attic, brushing her hair. She could almost feel it now, the way he'd kiss her neck while he was doing it. The memory made her tremble, because it felt so real and she knew it wasn't, and she knew she'd never feel it again.
"Oh," she whispered.
Tyler leaned over, touched her lightly. He stroked the inside of her left arm, but that's not what gave her goose bumps.
"What are you thinking?" he asked.
"I can't talk about it," she said.
"Charlie, right?" he asked, sounding disappointed.
"Of course. . . . And about where I have to be," she said, sitting up.
Grabbing Tyler's wrist, she checked the time on his watch. Nearly four. That gave her an hour to get to her appointment—five o'clock, an hour from right now. She'd timed it for her day off from waitressing at Foley's. She'd seen the big boat come in last night. Partying at Little Beach with the other kids, she'd watched it round the Point and drop anchor off the breakwater.
She stood up, brushing dry grass from her sweaty skin. Tyler put his arm around her, but she gave him a look and he dropped it. He stepped back, giving her a moment. She stared at Charlie's headstone, at the name and dates. It seemed impossible in ways too huge to grasp, that last summer he had been her boyfriend and so alive and so strong, and that this summer he was buried in the ground, and all that remained were words carved in stone. The breeze made her shiver.
The shiver went deep, into her bones. She backed away, then headed toward the gravel path with Tyler, toward the beach and the boat and what she hoped would turn out to be the answer.
SHERIDAN WORE HER OLD straw hat and yellow gloves, kneeling in the garden and digging in the earth. The soil was stony, but things grew anyway. It amazed her, the way the most beautiful flowers could take hold of so little, bloom all summer long. She grew roses and morning glories, clematis and delphinium. Day lilies, orange and yellow, bloomed along the privet hedge.
Her favorite patch was the least showy: the herb garden. A raised stone circle, no bigger than a beach umbrella, was filled with rosemary, sage, wild thyme, mint, lemon verbena, lavender, and burnet. Her grandmother had used these herbs to make magic. Blind and unable to read, she had gotten Sheridan and her sisters to read the spells from her magic book. So many of the spells had involved plants right here in the round garden.
Some of the herbs came back year after year: reseeded themselves, survived the harsh winter and salt wind. Others Sheridan would replant—she'd take trips to the farm stand, buy flats of herbs, and bring them home.
Long ago, Charlie had helped her in the garden. Those times were engraved in her memory—even now, she could feel him right here with her—four years old, digging in the soil with his little spade. She could see him so clearly, laughing and pretending he was a pirate burying his treasure.
No, sweetheart, she'd say, watching him empty his pocket, pour pennies into the hole he'd just dug. Don't bury your ice cream money. Plant the herbs instead.
But, Mom, he'd say, pirates always bury their treasure.
Then what will they do when they want a Good Humor?
They'll ask their mothers to get them one!
He'd thrown his arms around her, streaking her with mud. She hadn't minded at all. She could say that for sure—getting dirty in the garden was part of the fun. Letting him plant his spare change—it had been so adorable. They'd dig and plant and water, wedge his nickels and dimes and pennies into the soil, and then they'd head down to the beach, dive into the waves, let the salt water wash them clean.
Or was that true? Hadn't she gotten the tiniest bit impatient with him? Maybe more than a tiny bit? Had she spoken sharply about the value of everything, wanting him to appreciate what he was given? And most of all, to grow up to be different from his absent father? She'd wanted him to know, to really understand, that people worked hard for their wages. She'd wanted him to learn to value what was important—and certainly not just money.
Once when he was a teenager, he'd accused her of turning everything into a lesson. Why can't things just be? he'd asked. Why does everything have to add up to some big message? Does every story have to have a moral?
"Every story doesn't have to have a moral," she said out loud now, pulling up weeds. A seagull perched on the peak of the roof, letting out a raucous cry. She ignored it, focusing on the garden.
If anyone should know about stories not needing morals, it was Sheridan. Her songs, inspired so much by her grandmother's bright arts—love magic, the opposite of the dark arts—were about moments in time. Today, yesterday, this second, last night: specific moments of love and connection. Aphrodite's book of spells had been about lightning bolts of love: not about the whys or what-ifs.
Her cottage overlooked the beach and bay; she had her back to the blue water. It was a bright summer day, but she couldn't wait for nightfall. Days were hard. Her son should be home for the summer, having completed his freshman year of college.
They had loved their summers here at Hubbard's Point, and her body was still on Charlie-time. She couldn't help it; mornings, she'd wake up thinking she had to get him up for his summer job as lifeguard. He'd taken his responsibility seriously—keeping his eyes on all the swimmers. He'd especially watched all the little kids, and once an old man had needed reviving, and Charlie had resuscitated him.
Sheridan had known what a huge heart Charlie had, and how much he wanted to help. It was almost as if his father's inattention—his abandonment—had brought out every bit of kindness and care in Charlie's being. Sheridan worked overtime to make him feel loved, trying to make up for the fact his father had never been there. She'd poured all her love into her son, so badly wanting him to turn out well adjusted, happy, self-confident, and kind. She knew how kids with absent fathers fought an uphill climb in life; the hole in their hearts where their fathers' love should have been was almost impossible to fill. She knew that such kids were at risk for bad relationships, for not being able to bond.
But that wasn't Charlie.
Noontime, on his break from lifeguarding, she would head for the kitchen to make him a sandwich; now, instead, she'd pour herself a drink. Afternoons, she'd think about heading down for a swim, figuring she'd see him sitting on the lifeguard chair, watching out for the swimmers. Or taking a break, racing Nell out to the raft. More drinking, less thinking.
Looking over her shoulder, Sheridan saw Stevie Moore coming up the hill, carrying a cloth-covered wicker basket. She wore a paint-streaked smock, which, as voluminous as it was, couldn't quite cover her pregnant belly.
"What are you doing out on such a hot day?" Sheridan called.
"All I want to do is walk," Stevie said. "It's the strangest thing."
"Maybe that means it's almost time . . ."
"I'm not due for another four weeks, but have you ever seen anyone so huge?"
Sheridan tried to smile, moving her trowel and watering can, giving Stevie a hand so she could settle herself onto the herb garden's low stone wall. Reaching into the wicker basket, Stevie pulled out an old-fashioned jar.
"Beach plum jelly," she said, handing it to Sheridan. "I've been putting up preserves."