The Invisible Husband of Frick Island

The Invisible Husband of Frick Island

by Colleen Oakley


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“This is the hopeful book we all need right now. I loved it!”—Emily Giffin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lies That Bind

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A Southern Living Best Beach Read * A PopSugar Best Book of May * An Us Weekly Summer Beach Staple * A Frolic Under-the-Radar Book of May * An OK Magazine Best Summer Beach Read * An Best Book of Spring * A Country Living Can't Miss Beach Read * A LibraryReads Pick for May * An Emily Giffin Book Club pick

Sometimes all you need is one person to really see you.

Piper Parrish's life on Frick Island—a tiny, remote town smack in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay—is nearly perfect. Well, aside from one pesky detail: Her darling husband, Tom, is dead. When Tom's crab boat capsized and his body wasn't recovered, Piper, rocked to the core, did a most peculiar thing: carried on as if her husband was not only still alive, but right there beside her, cooking him breakfast, walking him to the docks each morning, meeting him for their standard Friday night dinner date at the One-Eyed Crab. And what were the townspeople to do but go along with their beloved widowed Piper?
Anders Caldwell’s career is not going well. A young ambitious journalist, he’d rather hoped he’d be a national award-winning podcaster by now, rather than writing fluff pieces for a small town newspaper. But when he gets an assignment to travel to the remote Frick Island and cover their boring annual Cake Walk fundraiser, he stumbles upon a much more fascinating tale: an entire town pretending to see and interact with a man who does not actually exist. Determined it’s the career-making story he’s been needing for his podcast, Anders returns to the island to begin covert research and spend more time with the enigmatic Piper—but he has no idea out of all the lives he’s about to upend, it’s his that will change the most.

USA Today bestselling author Colleen Oakley delivers an unforgettable love story about an eccentric community, a grieving widow, and an outsider who slowly learns that sometimes faith is more important than the facts.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984806482
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 10,871
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Colleen Oakley is the USA Today bestselling author of You Were There Too, Close Enough to Touch and Before I Go. Her books have been named best books by People, Us Weekly, Library Journal and Real Simple, and have been long-listed for the Southern Book Prize. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, four kids and the world’s biggest lapdog.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Storm

At first, when Piper scanned the docks and didn’t see the familiar rickety white-­pine-­and-­fir fisherman’s trawler, she thought nothing of it. Tom, like most Chesapeake Bay watermen, tried to beat the sun’s rays onto the water every morning during crab season, squeezing in every minute of the government-­allotted eight hours of crabbing per day. That put him back in the harbor just after lunch most afternoons, with plenty of time for his onshore duties—­icing his catch, checking his floats, tending to the boat. But inevitably some mornings there was a delay—­a net needing mending, the buy boat running late. On those days, Tom’s deadrise would come puffing into the harbor later than the others, when the sun was halfway down the other side of the sky. But whether it was two, three, or four in the afternoon, it didn’t much matter. Time on Frick Island had always been more of a theoretical concept measured in jiffies or awhiles or later ons.

Still, even though there was no telling on any given day when Tom would return, every afternoon when the Blue Point market closed at three, Piper flew through her closing responsibilities moving the packaged deli meats, cheeses, and any unsold fresh crab cakes from the display cooler to the back refrigerator, mopping the cracked linoleum floors, hanging up her apron on the hook in the office, and slipping her card in the punch time clock (even though she had never seen Mr. Garrison so much as look at them)—­and rushed over to the docks.

Most days Tom was already there, helping tie off boats or diagnosing an outboard engine problem or simply standing around with other watermen, grumbling about the day’s haul or the sharp drop in the market price of oysters.

And sometimes, on those days, the breath would catch in Piper’s throat. And she’d stop and stare at him for a beat in wide wonder that of all the places in the world, God had found it fitting to put Tom Parrish on the same tiny spit of land that she, too, inhabited. And even more miraculous, that though he could have had his pick of mainland girls at the high school they once ferried over to before the sun woke every weekday, Tom chose her.

Fire. That was what Piper remembered when she thought of those early days on the ferry with Tom. There was a heat to those mornings, even in the dead of winter, when they could see their breath float out into the cold air in great big puffs, as if they were exhaling cigarette smoke. She’d never forget the way the clouds would suddenly blush pink at the first kiss of sunlight and how her face followed suit whenever she caught Tom looking at her. Or the way when Tom, two years her senior, first sat next to her on the boat when there were at least ten other empty spots he could have chosen, and his thigh burned so hot against hers, even through their jeans, that it warmed her entire body from the inside out. And she thought she might die from the sheer pleasure of it.

And she’d been dying a thousand tiny pleasurable deaths every day, ever since. Like the first time he clumsily kissed her, behind his dad’s crab shack sophomore year, catching just the corner of her mouth and a few locks of her hair. And the second time, a week later, when he didn’t miss at all. Or when he would leave notes for her in the pocket of her jacket, tucked in schoolbooks, or affixed to the outside corner of her bedroom window, and she wouldn’t find them until hours later, running her thumb over the tiny block letters of his handwriting, her heart fit to burst. Or when, just a year earlier, they had been lying in the bottom of the very boat she was now scanning the horizon for, and—­looking at the moon—­he had whispered the words she realized she’d been waiting to hear from him since she was fourteen: We should get married.

She agreed immediately, because after seven years, she still felt the same way she did those mornings on the ferry—­ that when he looked at her, she was alive. And when she was away from him, she counted down the seconds until he would be near again.

But on this breezy April afternoon, Piper would have to count for a little while longer, it seemed. She slunk over to the bench, swiping the beads of water off of it with her bare hand. There had a been a storm that morning when they woke, a spring squall angering the seas, creating choppy waters that slowed even the most experienced boat captains. But watermen didn’t stop for weather. As BobDan Gibbons, the official Frick Island ferry boat captain, often explained to the boatloads of tourists visiting from the mainland: The crabs don’t know it’s rainin’.

So Piper sat on the wooden bench, the dampness seeping through the back of her khaki slacks, and pulled a book out of her satchel, cracking the worn spine. Piper and Tom both loved to read, but whereas Piper enjoyed mostly mass-­market mysteries, bodice-­ripping romances, and even heart-­pumping horror, Tom preferred higher-­brow literature. For years, Tom tried giving her some of his favorite classics as gifts: Moby-­Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein. And to please him, she would try to muddle through, even if it meant reading the same paragraph over and over, while her mind drifted to other things. It wasn’t that Piper wasn’t smart—­she was. (Science-­minded like her mother, though she was drawn to entomology over ecology. Could tell you the species, genus, family, all the way up to the domain of a number of insects that crawled the earth.) It was just that when it came to reading, she liked what she liked.

And so far, she only liked one of the books Tom had given her, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and she was currently rereading it for the ninth time. The first time she read it, it drew her in from the very first paragraph: the idea that for some men, their dreams sail forever on the horizon, resigned that they will never reach them. She thought that perfectly described Tom in a way she might never have put into words. Literally, at times, when she would catch him staring out into the ocean, as if he were looking at another life he could have lived. But Tom was a Parrish. And while some island watermen’s families saw the writing on the wall—­the marine life in the bay was dying off from pollution and overfishing, and the sea levels were rising, swallowing up their island with it, inch by inch—­and encouraged their kids to leave for government jobs on the mainland, join the military, go to college even, Tom’s family were stalwarts of the community. Tom’s daddy and his granddaddy and his granddaddy before him were water­men. And even though Tom’s father was no longer around to see if his son kept up the tradition, or maybe because he was no longer around to see it, Tom felt duty bound to take his place at the helm of the trawler when his time came.

It wasn’t just that sentiment in the book that reminded her of Tom, though, or really why she loved the book as much as she did. It was, of course, the love story. Maybe she was too young, or didn’t have enough life experience, to truly appreciate the deeper themes of independence and feminism, but she wasn’t too young to understand the burning desires of love. And she believed with her entire being, the way maybe only young people can, that she was the earth and Tom, her sun, moon, and stars. Tom was her Tea Cake and she loved him in the same way she breathed—­effortlessly and as if it were the only thing that kept her alive.

So that was what Piper was doing—­sitting on a bench, lost in the love story of Janie and Tea Cake, when a shadow fell over her pages. She looked up with her well-­known smile, ready to greet whomever it was standing over her.

“Hey there, Pipes,” BobDan Gibbons said. His face was weathered, in the way boat captains’ faces are, as if their skin were competing to match the wood on the decks of their ships.

“BobDan,” Piper said, the dimples in both her cheeks still on display.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said, taking his baseball cap off his head and curving the worn bill in the palm of his hand. “I’m sure everything will be fine, of course, but Tom . . . well, he’s gone missing.”

Even though the words didn’t immediately register with Piper, they did pull the corners of her lips back into a straight line. She cocked her head. “What do you mean, missing?”

He cleared his throat, a sound like a race car engine gunning on the starter block. “Apparently he radioed out for help this morning, during that little rain shower we had. Old Mr. Waverly got the call. Said he was taking on water, but the connection was bad and it went out ’fore Waverly could get the coordinates. Coast Guard’s been looking for him since, and we’ve got some of the guys out there, too. Like I said, I’m sure we’ll find him ’fore long and everything’ll be fine.” He twisted the bill of his cap one more time, and Piper wasn’t sure if it was that movement or the grim look in BobDan’s eyes that caused her stomach to go hollow.

And then Piper remembered the Teredo navalis. Three months earlier, Tom had spotted damaged wood on the hull of his trawler—­a few drill-­size holes, as if someone had shot a BB gun clear through the wood. Upon further inspection, he discovered he had shipworms, a parasite that fed on docks and boats and had been wreaking havoc at marinas for centuries— ­there was even a mention of them in Moby-­Dick. To kill them, Tom had the boat pulled out of the water and sprayed it down with a hose, and after a few days without saltwater, the worms curled up and died, their carcasses like little circles of copper wire. (Piper, of course, took one home to study under her micro­scope.) The boards needed replacing, but by that time, they had already run through most of their winter savings—­and the little bit they had left needed to go to new crab traps for the season. Tom hoped, until he could scrape the money together, that any water that came in through the tiny holes could be handled by the bilge pump.

Piper wasn’t sure why she was thinking of the worms, except that Tom was an experienced boater and maybe she was searching for what could have possibly gone wrong. But she quickly dismissed the thought, because speculation wasn’t going to get her anywhere, not to mention it ran counter to the only thing BobDan said that she wanted to believe—­that everything was going to be fine.

“I believe I might join the search effort, if you want to tag along,” he said. “Shirlene is gonna man the marina, in case anyone calls with news.”

Piper considered this offer, but decided she wanted to be there, on the dock, when Tom’s boat came chugging into the harbor, his mouth bursting to tell the wild story of his day’s adventure on the sea. And so she waited, on the bench, not noticing the growl of her stomach when suppertime came and went, and trying not to notice the other watermen that came in to dock one by one, their hats in their hands like BobDan’s, their heads bent toward the ground, their eyes avoiding Piper’s at all costs.

Four days later, the boat was recovered by a diver at the bottom of the sea.

Tom’s body was not.

While the rest of the town knew the worst had happened, Piper held out hope. Maybe Tom got disoriented and swam in the wrong direction, washed up on a deserted island, and was currently eating coconuts and writing messages in palm fronds for passing airplanes. Or maybe a ship of Somali pirates picked him up and he was being held against his will, unable to negotiate his release due to the language barrier. Or a whale swallowed him whole and he was contemplating his escape from the depths of its belly. Each of her theories was more outlandish than the next, but to Piper, none were as ridiculous as what the rest of the town believed—­that Tom was gone. That she would never lay eyes on him again.

In the days following the Coast Guard’s announcement that they were calling off the search for Tom, Piper found herself growing increasingly intolerant. And not just with the rescue teams who were, in her view, prematurely giving up. She couldn’t stand the way people started looking at her, their eyes filled with pity. She couldn’t abide the way they began referring to Tom in past tense. But the final straw was when the members of the island’s Methodist (and only) church—­where the Parrish family had been attending for as long as the church had been on the island, and where Tom and Piper had exchanged vows and thin gold bands—­started planning a memorial service for Tom. Upon receiving that news, Piper locked herself in her one-­bedroom carriage house behind the Oleckis’ bed-­and-­breakfast. She didn’t answer the phone, or the door, not even when Lady Judy stopped by with enough smoked ham and beaten biscuits and peach cobbler to feed half the island. She left the food on Piper’s stoop and it sat there all afternoon until the sun set. Until Mrs. Olecki retrieved it and set it out in the main house’s toile-­covered living room for her current boarders to enjoy for supper.

Piper missed the memorial service altogether, where Tom’s mother, glassy-­eyed and catatonic, stood propped up by her brother Frank on one side and her nephew Steve on the other and the Valium that had been pumping through her veins daily since her husband’s aptly named heart attack—­the Widow Maker—­had made good on its promise. Where Tom’s cousin Steve’s newborn interrupted the reverend with her insistent squalls, eyes screwed shut tight, giving voice to the pain the watermen were too stoic to show. Everyone asked after Piper, murmuring their condolences to every Parrish in attendance. Poor girl, they said, shaking their heads, offering various superlatives: too young, most in love, the worst.

But Piper couldn’t hear them. She was in her bedroom, staring at the dent Tom’s head had left on his pillow when his alarm clock prompted him to get up at 4:30 a.m. two weeks earlier. Piper didn’t dare touch it—­not even to try to inhale his scent that surely remained on the floral cover. Nor did she touch Tom’s near-­empty mug of coffee sitting in the sink, a film of mold growing on the top layer of liquid still left in the cup. Or the book—­Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides—­splayed open, pages facedown, on top of the two wooden crates they stacked in the corner to use as a side table in their tiny den. It was as if all of these things, Tom’s things, suddenly sprouted magical properties, transformed into talismans beckoning Tom back to where he belonged—­to his bed to sleep, to the kitchen to wash out his coffee mug and hang it on the hook next to the sink, to the threadbare easy chair in the den to find out what happens to the characters of his current novel. They weren’t just reminders of Tom, they were promises. He was going to come home. Of that one thing, Piper was sure.

And then one morning, just like that, he did.

Reading Group Guide

Reader's Guide:
The Invisible Husband of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley

Discussion Questions

1. Frick Island is certainly an unusual place. Why do you think the author chose to set the book on this island? Have you ever been to a remote island like Frick? What was it like?

2. At the end of chapter 1, Tom returns home—or at least seems to: “He was going to come home. Of that one thing, Piper was sure. And then one morning, just like that, he did.” What did you think when you read that last line? Did you think he had actually returned or something else?

3. When we first meet Anders, he appears to be single-mindedly driven by his career and success, as many young twentysomethings can be. What does success mean to him at the start of the story? Do you think his viewpoint changes over the course of the book?

4. At one point, Pearl muses that the different ways people grieve are “as varied as the waves that lapped up on Graver’s Beach at the far end of the island.” Do you think that’s true? Has grief ever surprised you in the way it’s manifested itself in your life?

5. The author uses flashbacks every few chapters to offer a glimpse into Piper and Tom’s relationship. Do you feel like you got to know them as a couple? What do you think of their relationship?

6. Within the community of Frick Island, there are lots of distinctive personalities: BobDan, Pearl and Harold Olecki, Lady Judy, Mr. Gimby, Dr. Khari, Jeffrey. How are they similar and different? Did Anders’s feelings toward them change over time as he got to know them? Did yours?

7. Anders returns to Frick Island hoping to do a story on climate change and its effects on the island. How does climate change—and whether people believe in it or not—fit into the bigger themes of the novel?

8. In his research on Piper’s “condition,” Anders learns about post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences, or PBHEs. Have you ever heard or seen a loved one after they passed?

9. In chapter 11, Anders realizes that between “climate change, mental health issues, maybe even drug trafficking . . . Frick Island was a microcosm for so many issues people faced all across the country.” Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

10. When Anders first “encounters” Tom face-to-face at the marina, he has to decide whether he will go along with the charade and speak to a man who doesn’t exist. What do you think would have happened if he had chosen not to greet Tom? What would you have done?

11. At one point, Anders asks Piper what she misses about living on the mainland. What do you think you would miss? What would you enjoy about living somewhere like Frick Island?

12. When Anders realizes that the nearing completion of the cell tower will allow the islanders to hear his podcast easily at any time, he panics. Do you think he was deceptive about the content of his podcast on purpose? How could he have handled it differently?

13. When Pearl finally tells Anders how and when the town decided to go along with Piper’s delusion, she says: “It’s amazing what people will do for the ones they love.” Have you experienced any examples in your own life that exemplify this idea?

14. Why do you think it takes Anders so long to realize he’s in love with Piper?

15. This book explores the theme of faith, how it can sometimes be hard to understand why another person believes something so different from your own beliefs. In Anders’s final podcast, what does he conclude about those differences? How have his thoughts on faith and belief changed over the course of the novel?

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