When two lifelong friends reunite for one more summer in small-town Maine, they must bridge the gap caused by the dreams and secrets that tore them apart…
Ally Morris and Beth Abbott were beyond inseparable. From the very first time they met, the girls knew they’d found a once-in-a-lifetime friendship. But sometimes, life can’t help but get in the way.
As time goes by, disappointments and petty resentments begin to alter what they once thought was forever. Ally’s boho lifestyle leaves her drowning in confusion and cheap whisky, while a terrible secret threatens to shatter Beth’s carefully controlled world. By the time they need each other most, Ally and Beth are nearly strangers to each other.
When a family crisis prompts Beth to contact Ally for help out of the blue, the girls reunite in Maine. But the distance between them is overwhelming. To save their friendship, Ally and Beth will have to confront painful moments in their past and redefine who they are—before their incredible connection fades away for good…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Laura Hankin has been published in The Washington Post, has written regularly for numerous websites, and, since graduating from Princeton, has become all too familiar with the confusing experience of being a twenty-something in NYC, where she’s done everything from starring in an off-Broadway show to planning flash mob marriage proposals. The Summertime Girls is her debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
“Can we talk for a bit?”
Elizabeth Abbott and Allison Morris decided they’d be best friends forever on the day they met.
When Ally walked into her fifth-grade classroom, one week late for the start of school, she wondered if her classmates could see the anger rolling off her, the steam escaping her pores. In the wake of her parents’ divorce, she’d fought desperately against her mother’s decision to move from Baltimore to Wilmington. Upon losing that battle, she’d launched a new offensive: to get settled in time to start school with everyone else. When that too inevitably failed, she’d told herself that at least she’d get to school five minutes early on her first day. Naturally, her mother dropped her off five minutes late, spouting apologies and kissing the air centimeters away from her cheek.
Ally didn’t want to be the new kid. She’d seen transfer students at her old school, those midyear immigrants, panicky as they submitted to inspections that even the Ellis Island authorities would have considered too thorough. Sometimes, she hadn’t been able to stop herself from laughing at the desperate need for approval written all over their faces. So now, she kept her eyes fixed on the hangnail pestering her thumb while the principal introduced her and asked for a volunteer to be her “special buddy.”
“Elizabeth A.?” The principal sounded unsurprised. “Thank you for volunteering, sweetheart!”
And that was when Ally brought her head up, and she and Beth looked at each other for the first time. Ally thought she’d never seen a person her age who looked so serene or—what was the word she’d just learned?—benevolent. This girl was pale, with hair the color of roasted pumpkin that fell, unbroken as a bolt of fabric, down her back. While the other kids fidgeted and passed notes, she sat with her hands on her desk, two sharp pencils laid out parallel in front of her. She smiled at Ally, revealing gappy teeth that braces would soon force together, and Ally thought, Elizabeth A. is my angel.
• • •
WHEN the recess bell rang, Elizabeth A. led the new girl to a patch of grass at the edge of the schoolyard, looking over her shoulder to make sure she didn’t lose her way. As they settled themselves on the ground, Ally said, “You should tell people to call you Beth.”
“What?” Elizabeth A. asked.
“Have you ever read Little Women?”
Elizabeth A. had devoured it in two days that summer. “Oh my gosh, I love that book!” she said.
“Me too!” Ally said. They impulsively grabbed hands. “You’re totally Beth March,” she said. “She’s so good and nice.”
Elizabeth A. raised one eyebrow. She thought Beth from Little Women was kind of boring. Jo got to be the one with adventures, with the fire inside her. “Yeah, but then she dies,” she said.
Ally pondered this, then nodded vigorously, stray strands of fine brown hair escaping from her ponytail. “Okay, so you’re Beth minus the early sad death part. Ooh, plus if people called you Beth, then you wouldn’t have to be one of four Elizabeths anymore.” They looked over to where Elizabeth W. and Elizabeth K. were playing an ear-piercing game of capture the flag, then to where Elizabeth L.D. sat alone in the dirt, methodically ripping the legs off a daddy longlegs. Put that way, the prospect of a nickname had a certain appeal.
“Which March sister would you want to be?” Elizabeth A. asked.
“Meg, definitely. She’s the prettiest,” Ally said. “What about you? Beth, right?”
Ally smiled then, a smile far more radiant than any other smile Elizabeth A. had previously seen. It dimpled her round cheeks and lit up her dark brown eyes. It was a magic smile, a smile of confident, long-awaited recognition, and Elizabeth A. didn’t want to disappoint it.
“Um, I think you’re right. I’m a Beth,” she said. “I’m definitely gonna ask Ms. Applebaum to call me that from now on.”
Newly christened, Beth talked to Ally nonstop for the rest of that blissful recess, ignoring the chaos around them. They sat cross-legged facing each other in the September sun, squealing whenever they discovered their similarities—they were both only children, cruelly denied puppies because of parental allergies! Neither one of them understood the fuss their female classmates made over the color pink! And, sure, perhaps outwardly, they didn’t seem a perfect match, with Beth’s ironed jumper standing in stark contrast to the missing button on Ally’s sweater. But Beth sensed that somehow they finished each other. She imagined the two of them balancing on a seesaw. Together, one on either end, they could maintain a perfect equilibrium, a straight line parallel to the ground.
“Ugh, the lunch bell,” Beth said when it rang. “I don’t want to stop talking and go inside.”
“I know,” Ally said. “Can we just be friends forever?”
Beth could feel her cheeks reddening in pleasure. “That sounds good to me,” she said.
Check, check. Hi, I’m Ally Morris.” Ally breathed the words into the microphone and listened to them reverberate. They wended their way through the air of Looseleaf Music Hall, off the little stage on which she sat, bouncing against the exposed brick walls. Then they poured into the ears of her audience, whose members, she counted quickly in her head, numbered a grand total of six.
“Wooo, Ally!” cheered her roommate, Gabby. Her friend Lucy, from college, wolf-whistled, and Scott, who played drums in this terrible cover band she used to sing with, clapped politely. He’d been trying, in his Nice Guy way, to sleep with her ever since her breakup with Tom, but she couldn’t get past his tendency to shout when he talked, as if drumming so frequently had destroyed his ability to speak at a normal volume. She pictured him trying to whisper sweet nothings to her and accidentally bursting her eardrum. The two bartenders and the sound guy constituted the rest of her listeners.
She readjusted the microphone, which had been slightly too high for her five-foot-one frame, and began to pluck absentmindedly at her guitar strings. “Thanks for coming out tonight, guys,” she said, staring at the door, willing passersby to enter. All the people outside power-walked right by, bending into the late April rain drenching New York City’s Lower East Side. “Let’s give the latecomers a few more minutes to get here.”
The sound guy leaned out from his booth and said, “It’s 6:03. You should probably get started if you want your full set time.”
“Okay then!” She hoped her tone was bright enough to disguise the dismay she felt. “Lucky you all, you get an intimate concert experience.” She cleared her throat, strummed a C chord on her dark red acoustic Fender, and leaned toward the microphone.
I want a snowy day to come
I won’t settle for the sun.
I just want to stay with you in my bed.
The tune she sang was bouncy and sweet, like ersatz Ingrid Michaelson.
We’ll watch it pile up outside,
It’s a great excuse to hide,
And we’ll order in delivery instead.
She’d sung this song so many times before that the lyrics came out of her mouth automatically. She didn’t need to think about them—didn’t want to think about them, actually, given that she’d written them about Tom back when they’d been the kind of couple that did sometimes stay in bed all day, instead of not a couple at all. She sang mindlessly, but her mind kept busy. It detached itself from her body and leaned against the back wall, watching her. It said, Stop trying to wear sundresses all the time. It doesn’t make you look winsome, it makes you look like an idiot. It’s fifty degrees and pouring.
When the booking agent at Looseleaf had called to ask her if she wanted a last-minute concert slot, she’d very calmly accepted. Then she’d hung up the phone and shrieked, and danced around her Queens apartment in her flannel pajama pants. She’d twirled and shimmied and jumped until she ran out of breath. Looseleaf was a big deal. Okay sure, it was no Madison Square Garden, but occasionally when she walked by and looked at the list of upcoming concerts, she actually recognized the names of some of the singer-songwriters. She’d been sending Looseleaf her demo far more often than was proper ever since she’d moved to New York nine months prior, and she’d been on the verge of giving up on ever playing there when the phone call came.
After her impromptu solo dance party, she’d immediately taken to Facebook and written promotional statuses every day for the week leading up to the concert. She’d sent personalized e-mails to potential managers and harangued her friends until they told her they’d try to make it. Normally, she felt guilty inviting them to the tiny solo gigs she played, because the venues so clearly meant nothing. When she sent out those invitations, she always couched them in apologies or offers. It’s not going to be big, but you should come hang out with me. Listen to some music! she’d write. I’ll buy you a beer and be eternally grateful. Looseleaf’s smaller concert room, though, where she was playing, could fit up to seventy-five people, and regularly did. She’d been there before, at crowded shows, where people swayed and cheered, and she’d watched the performers with an envy so strong she nearly choked on it. This concert, she’d told herself, would be a turning point for her.
Except it wasn’t. Barely anyone had shown up. She played her whole forty-five-minute set feeling like a total fool, a smile affixed to her face. Her friends danced along in their seats, laughing at her banter. They pity me, she thought. A couple more friends trickled in as time went on, but the audience didn’t even break ten. Although the box of CDs she’d brought to sell after the show burned a hole in the bag at her feet, she left them unmentioned, and they remained zipped away, out of sight. Shame prevented her from shilling.
When she finished her last song and hopped off the stage, Gabby was waiting for her with a hug and a beer. “That was so fun!” she said, handing her the bottle. “This rain is insanity. It’s like absolutely biblical proportions. I bet that’s why more people didn’t come, ’cause everyone just wants to stay in bed when it’s like this.”
“Yeah, probably.” Ally put the beer bottle to her mouth and didn’t pull it away until the liquid inside was half gone.
“So, you want to head home?” Gabby asked. “Drink wine and watch a movie?”
“I think I’m going to hang out a bit and watch the next set. Be home soon.” She hugged Gabby and the rest of her friends as they headed out, thanking them for coming, committing to coffee dates the following week with a chipper smile. She turned down Scott’s deafening offer to buy her another drink as nicely as she could. Then she went and sat at the bar, watching the band with the seven o’clock slot start to set up. She didn’t normally act like a masochist but, she thought bitterly, tonight was different.
One of the bartenders, a skinny guy with a shaved head and long fingers, took her empty beer bottle away. “Cute set,” he said. “You sounded like a songbird.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Can I get you something else?”
“How about just an endless amount of whiskey?”
He laughed. “Ice?”
On the stage, a guy in suspenders pulled out a mandolin, while another with a bow tie picked on a banjo. The bartender brought her over a double. She tried to pay him, but he insisted that it was on the house.
“Tough luck, with the weather,” he said. “Otherwise I’m sure you would’ve had a better crowd.” Even as he said it, though, the door opened and a group of people poured in. Mr. Mandolin Suspenders waved at them casually.
She hated them all.
Whiskey, though, that was something she loved. She adored its charred flavor, its smoothness as it raced down her throat, its amber color in the glass. Most of all, she loved how effectively it dulled everything, so as the room continued to fill up, she drank it faster and faster. The two guys onstage started to sing a plaintive song with so many confusing metaphors, it made her head hurt.
When she’d drained the glass, the bartender brought her over another. He had knobby wrists, like Tom.
“What do you think of these guys?” she asked. She’d been too nervous to eat anything since breakfast, and the whiskey was hitting her faster than normal. She fought valiantly to keep the slur out of her words.
“Eh,” he said. “Derivative hipster crap. I liked your stuff better.”
“Compliments and free whiskey? I’m going to nominate you for bartender of the year.”
“I’ll accept your nomination if I can be president of your fan club,” he said.
“Deal.” She took another big sip of her drink and then said, “Hey, you wanna make out with me in the bathroom?”
He blinked, taken aback, and then the corners of his mouth tugged upward. “Uh, yeah. Let me just get Jack to cover for me.” She slipped off the bar stool while he said something to the other bartender, who shot an appraising glance her way. Then he came around the bar and led her through the crush of people to a black door with a handicapped sign on it.
As soon as the door swung shut behind them, he pushed her up against the wall. She twined her arms around him, and he stuck his tongue, with its leftover cigarette taste, in her mouth. The music from outside thumped gently through the door and the light above the cracked mirror cast an ineffectual glow on the ground. She floated in a whiskey bubble that separated her from the rest of the world, even as she pressed against the bartender’s body.
He ran his hand up her leg and under her dress, pushing her underwear to the side. She looked over his shoulder at the graffiti-covered walls, as he stuck his finger inside her. Fuck this misogynistic bullshit, someone had scribbled with a black Sharpie. Constipation happens, someone else had written in a loopy cursive. She could tell, as he moved his finger roughly, that whatever he was doing wasn’t going to work—none of the guys she’d drunkenly hooked up with since Tom had been able to make her come, and this bathroom didn’t particularly lend itself to romance. He kept going, dogged, although she was ready for him to stop, so she pulled away, dropped to her knees, and unzipped his pants instead.
On her subway ride home, she chewed two pieces of gum and tried not to fall asleep. She hated missing her stop and waking up at the end of the line in Flushing, but it had happened more than once recently when she’d taken the subway drunk. She balanced her guitar, in its soft dark case, against her knees.
When she’d daydreamed about her first year out of college, she’d pictured instant stardom, a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, a profile in the New York Times that began, “Ally Morris, radiant in jeans and no makeup . . .” Even when she’d tried to tether herself to reality, she’d still believed she would stand out. She knew that she didn’t necessarily have the best voice of anyone in the world, and she didn’t write the most deeply felt songs—but still, she thought she had something special, some extra sweetness in her smile that would make people want to smile back at her, some quality that she could diffuse into the atmosphere just by sitting on a stage and singing, until it affected all those watching.
So far, though, New York had crushed her soul with a concentrated glee. At first, when she didn’t hear back from any of the clubs or managers to whom she’d sent her demo, she told herself that maybe she’d accidentally given them the wrong contact information. She double-checked the way she’d written her phone number and her e-mail address, searching in vain for a misplaced digit or letter.
She’d auditioned for bands, for concert spots, for everything she could, and each time she’d spent entire weeks afterward with a constricted throat whenever an unknown number called her cell phone (it always turned out to be the pharmacy, reminding her to pick up her birth control, or someone asking her to babysit), and a shaky hand whenever she checked her e-mail. Finally a mutual friend introduced her to Scott, who paved the way for her to sing with Projected Trajectory. They performed in the corner of a different dingy bar every Saturday night for pitiful tips while twentysomethings screamed conversations above the music. She could tell as she sang her No Doubt and Journey covers that her audience would rather be dancing to a DJ.
No one in Projected Trajectory had seemed happy with what they were doing, with the possible exception of Stephen, the lead guitarist who’d started it all. He claimed a total monopoly on writing the band’s few original songs, which all seemed to be about how much he wanted to cheat on his girlfriend.
(The chorus to the song of which he was most proud:
Hey you! Wearing that white
Dress so tight—
Come on over tonight.
Nobody needs to know.
Everything got worse after she and Tom broke up and Beth, without explanation, stopped responding to her e-mails. Beth had always been supportive, engaged, the definitive example of what a best friend should be. Her sudden disappearance from Ally’s life was the last thing Ally had expected, and it threw her even further off-kilter. Those Saturday night bar gigs began to seem insurmountably depressing. So Ally quit. She tried to be as diplomatic as possible, even writing out a little speech and practicing it beforehand. “I just need to focus on my solo career right now. I’m so sorry,” she said to Stephen, under the fluorescent lights of their sixty-four-square-foot practice space. But he called her a flake and a deserter anyway. Then he’d said the thing that wormed its way into her mind and wouldn’t leave. “Whatever. We’ll find someone better than you.” Of the three insults he’d hurled at her, that one stuck because she was starting to believe it was true.
Most nights, self-loathing crawled into bed alongside her. It burrowed under the covers and wrapped itself around her body. It pried apart her eyelids and pinched the fat on her arms. You’re not pretty enough for this, it hissed into her defenseless ear. You’re delusional if you think your voice is exceptional.
Now she leaned her head against the subway seat, letting the train rattle her around. As she jolted, woozy, she thought, I don’t have to do this. Maybe I should just give up. The idea held such a strange fascination for her that she didn’t realize she’d reached her stop until the doors slid open. Quickly, she slung her guitar case over one shoulder and bolted up from her seat, power-walking toward the doors. She stepped out right before they shut with their bing-bing bell sound, and they closed on her guitar, grasping the neck of it in their dull silver grip.
“Shit,” she said. She wrenched the instrument free, and it came unstuck with a loud crack, a jangling of strings. “No, no, no!” She knelt on the platform and unzipped her case to assess the damage. The neck of the guitar had snapped in half. The top part of it bent jaggedly away from the bottom, and the strings poked up in a random tangle. “Fuck!” she exhaled, trying in vain to fit the parts of her instrument back together as late commuters walked around her, giving her a wide berth like she was a crazy person.
When she got back to her apartment, Gabby was sprawled on the couch, watching some reality show about wedding dresses, her hand in a bag of pita chips.
“How was the rest of your night?” she called.
“Well, I went down on the bartender in the handicapped bathroom, and I broke my guitar on the subway,” Ally said, and then immediately burst into tears. “I give up. I quit music.” She dropped her useless guitar on the ground, not even bothering to be gentle, and slid down next to it.
Gabby turned off the TV and knelt down beside her, wrapping her into a hug. “Ice cream?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Ally said, wiping an icicle of snot away from her nose with the back of her hand. “Ice cream.”
• • •
THEY ate an entire pint of Phish Food. Ally devoured most of it, dragging her spoon along the bottom to get every last bit of the melted chocolate. Then, hyped up on the sugar and starting to sober up, she ran into her bedroom. She pushed her mangled guitar under her bed, way back behind her winter boots, and grabbed her laptop. She plopped it down on the Ikea kitchen table, which wobbled a bit. (When she and Gabby had put it together, they must have forgotten some screw, or skipped some step in the instruction booklet, and they’d never bothered to fix it. Someday, in the middle of a dinner party, it would probably collapse completely, spilling Three-Buck Chuck all over the floor.)
“I’m going to edit my résumé,” she announced to Gabby, who’d turned the TV back on to a show about cats from hell. “And see what the fuck else I’m qualified to do, besides babysitting.”
She pulled up the neglected Word document and tried to make herself sound more impressive than she was. She changed Filed papers to Facilitated documentation organizational system. It barely made sense, even to her, and she couldn’t keep her mind on it. Every few minutes, her eyes flickered involuntarily toward the tab that told her if any new e-mails had reached her inbox.
She nurtured a tiny hope that, someday, she’d get an e-mail that would make everything clear and easy. On that glorious day, she would log in to Gmail and have a miraculous, unsolicited record deal or, she told herself now, a job offer for the career she was meant to pursue, instead of another advertisement from a store she didn’t shop at. As she deleted a swath of text about her music credentials, she saw the little Inbox (1) pop up, and clicked over to it. She warned herself, as always, that it was probably nothing exciting. But then she saw Beth’s name in her inbox, next to an e-mail titled Hey There!
“Oh my God,” she said aloud.
“What?” Gabby asked.
“Beth just e-mailed me.”
“What?” Gabby sat up and peered over the couch, primed for something juicy. “What did she say? Is she e-mailing to explain that every single Internet café in Haiti burned down, and that’s why she hasn’t responded to you in months?”
“Um, I don’t know. Hold on.” Ally opened the e-mail. There they were, words that Beth had written, and suddenly she felt that she needed to be alone to read them. “I’m actually going to go into my room. I’ll be right back.”
“Oh. Okay,” Gabby said, her eyes puzzled and a little hurt. She turned back to the TV, where a tabby cat was mauling its owner. Ally took her laptop and closed the door behind her, turning the television noise into a soft murmur. Then she got onto her bed and started to read.
How’s your life going? I’m sure you are just taking the city by storm. Has the mayor started sending you flowers yet, thanking you for bringing new light and joy to New York’s music scene? Sorry I’ve been a bit MIA—so much to do here. Sorry, too, to hear about Tom. You deserve better.
Anyways, Grandma Stella has decided to sell the house and move into a retirement community. I’m really sad to see the house go, but it’s the best thing for her now. She’s still herself—aka super-sharp and amazing—but an entire house is a lot for an 84-year-old to handle. Plus, last week she had a scary incident where she fell out in her yard gardening, and had trouble getting back up. Luckily one of her friends came by for, according to Grandma Stella, a “gossip session” (of course!), and found her just about 10-15 minutes after it happened. She drove her to the hospital, and they bandaged her up, and she’s okay, but everyone in my family is freaked out that it might happen again when no one’s nearby.
I offered to help her pack up all her stuff and get everything in order before the move. I’ll be going up to Maine pretty soon after I get back to Wilmington next month, for a week and a half around Memorial Day, and was wondering if you wanted to come with me? Grandma Stella really wants to see you. Plus it could be nice to have one last Britton Hills hurrah, a chance to say good-bye to the town. Let me know if you’re available. I completely understand though if you’ve got too many things going on and can’t make it. Seriously. No pressure at all.
This Internet café smells like damp goats,
When Ally finished reading the e-mail, her eyes were watering dangerously. She’d known that Beth’s grandma was getting into her mideighties, but still, she always thought of her as a constant, forever lording over her cozy home, waiting to welcome Ally inside.
The first time she met Grandma Stella, she was with Beth’s family, who had invited her on their annual weeklong summer trip to Maine after fifth grade ended. As they lugged suitcases toward a cream-colored bungalow, its window boxes filled with flowers, Beth ran ahead. She clambered up the three steps to the porch and rang the bell. After a minute, the fire-engine-red door swung open to reveal a tiny lady with a smile as wide as her head, practically about to combust with excitement and love.
“Hello, hello, hello!” she shouted, doing a remarkably spry little jig. Beth plowed straight into her arms, and Ally felt a sharp jab of jealousy. But then Grandma Stella turned to her.
“You must be Ally,” she said, and immediately smothered her in a hug. She smelled like lavender. “Oh, I have been waiting all year to meet you!”
That first vacation with the Abbotts had seemed to Ally like it took place in some parallel universe, where families cared about each other openly and consistently. She saw no shortage of affection, no rationing of love. After that first moment in Grandma Stella’s arms, Ally didn’t feel like an outsider at all. She’d been invited back every summer since, and for the occasional Christmas trip too. As the years wore on, she and Beth started staying in Britton Hills after Beth’s parents had used up their allotted vacation days and gone back to work. Once, they stayed there for two whole months and got summer jobs together in the town’s ice cream shop. Stella treated Ally like a surrogate granddaughter and, even now, although their monthly phone calls had started leaning toward the biannual, Ally knew to expect a package of cookies and a twenty-dollar bill from Britton Hills on her birthday.
This e-mail contained no real apologies from Beth. No explanations for her disappearance that actually made sense. Sitting on her bed in a cramped, windowless room that felt worlds away from small-town Maine, Ally thought about taking some time to make the decision. To go away for a week and a half and still be able to pay rent? She’d have to babysit like mad over the next month. But more than that, surely it was crazy to go on vacation with the girl who’d abandoned her when she’d needed her most, and whose halfhearted apology for it was almost more insulting than no apology at all.
Yet Ally’s fingers weren’t listening to her brain. They were already typing out a message and hitting send:
Beth stood in the train station, car keys in hand, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and waiting for Ally. The car keys jingled, hitting each other with a delicate clink, and she realized that her hand was shaking. Just a tiny tremble, but still. She clenched the keys tight in her palm, and the noise stopped.
They’d decided, via e-mail, that Ally would take the train from New York to Secaucus, right outside the city. She’d arrive at 11:35, Beth would pick her up, and from there they’d head north to Maine. So Beth waited as the train station loomed around her, all high windows and shiny floors, fancy ticket machines, and an odd titanium sculpture of a massive cattail that glowed the colors of the New Jersey Transit logo—purple, blue, and orange. She stared at the cattail, trying to get used to it. Since she’d gotten back to the States a week before, she felt like she’d been trying to get used to everything all over again. Open Arms, the mission clinic in Haiti where she’d spent the last year working, seemed to exist not only in an entirely different part of the world, but in an entirely different universe—light-years away from a place where people spent money commissioning sculptures of giant wetland plants.
At 11:35 on the dot, people started trickling up the escalator leading from the train platform. Beth scanned them as they appeared—a few men, a teenage couple stopping every few feet to smash their faces together, a visibly overwhelmed mom who cradled a baby in one arm and used her other hand to hold the end of her toddler’s leash. Trailing the others, a young woman came up the escalator, looking down at the phone in her hand. She seemed about the right height, and Beth started to smile, nervous, as she approached. As she got closer, though, Beth realized the woman’s face wasn’t Ally’s at all. She was surprised at the strength of the relief that washed through her.
The people stopped coming and Beth waited, looking through the passengers again to double-check. The overwhelmed mom sat on a bench, taking out a snack pack for her toddler and a bottle for her baby. The teenage couple continued on their merry, hormonal way. Finally Beth thought to check her phone. Having just spent a year without it, she kept accidentally leaving it on silent and forgetting about its existence. A text from Ally waited for her: Gahhhh missed the 11:35 but I’ll be on the 12:02. I’m really sorry! Of course. Ally was incapable of punctuality.
Maybe it had been a mistake inviting her. Everything would have been easier if Beth could’ve just gone up to Maine alone. But, no, Beth thought, Grandma Stella’s excitement over seeing the two girls together again trumped all else. For her grandmother’s sake, she could make nice for a week and a half. So she swallowed her frustration, typed back No worries, and put her phone away.
As she slipped it back into the pocket of her shorts, a yell pierced the air. She looked up, confused, her heart punching the walls of her chest, as the mother on the bench struggled to her feet.
“Grab him!” the mother screamed at no one in particular. Then, her eyes locked with Beth, and she directed the words toward her. Beth understood on some level that the toddler had wrenched his leash free, and that he was tottering wildly away, past her, headed for the escalators, where any number of terrible things could happen to injure him. She turned around, reaching out a slender arm that did nothing as it moved through air as dense as Jell-O, failing once again, and the toddler kept toddling until a security guard scooped him up, laughing.
“Whoa there, little guy,” the security guard said, and deposited him back with his mother. Everything went back to normal—the passengers who had stopped to watch, or who had made some cursory moves toward the boy, turned around and went on reading their papers and sipping their coffees. But Beth’s hands were so slick with sweat that she dropped the keys she’d been clenching. She picked them back up again and hooked her finger through the key ring, then leaned her head against the station’s cool wall, breathing from her belly until her heart rate slowed back down to normal. She tried to fit her guilt back into the compartment where she normally kept it, but it wasn’t working so well.
She decided she needed to move. She stepped out to the parking lot and double-checked that she’d locked the car, made herself go to the bathroom one extra time in anticipation of the hours ahead on the road and, with fifteen minutes still left to kill, sat down and attempted to read her book. She pulled it out of her bag, the copy of Mountains Beyond Mountains that Deirdre, the founder of the Open Arms Mission Clinic, had given her, but her normal focus and concentration eluded her. She ended up just staring at the Arrivals and Departures board until the clock turned to 12:02.
This time, Ally burst up the escalator ahead of the rest of the pack, trailing a big rolling suitcase and breathing heavily. Her round brown eyes darted around the large waiting area until they landed on Beth.
“Oh my God, I am so sorry!” she called as she got closer. “The subway is the worst ever. It kept doing this thing where it would jerk along for ten feet and then sit without moving for five minutes, so I ran into Penn Station just as the 11:35 was leaving.” She stopped in front of Beth and let go of her bag, which skidded to a halt next to her. “I swear the MTA gets off on making people late for their commitments. Anyways, hello.” Though her words were typical Ally, bright and fun, the smile she gave Beth was wary. Her dimples were nowhere in sight. She seemed somehow a little duller, less shiny than the girl Beth had hugged good-bye at the airport a year ago, before flying off to Haiti.
“Hi,” Beth said. “How are you?”
“Good,” Ally said, nodding. “I’m good. Well, a little hungover, but good. How are you?”
“Good.” Beth’s whole body felt uncertain. She didn’t know where to put her eyes, how to hold her hands. She folded her arms across her chest.
“You look nice,” Ally said. She tugged her sundress down from where it had ridden up. “Very . . . thin.”
“Thanks. You look nice too. Your hair’s different.”
“Oh yeah,” Ally said, moving her hand up to the side of her head. “I grew out my bangs.”
“It’s pretty.” They stared at each other while somehow, impressively, avoiding sustained eye contact. Beth tried to figure out whether she should move forward for a hug, and wondered if Ally was debating the same thing. Neither one of them held out their arms. “Thanks for taking the train out here,” Beth continued, to break the silence. “I just figured that you never know with New York traffic.”
“No, please, of course. If I can make it through my whole life without ever having to drive in New York, I will die happy.”
Beth tried to picture Ally, who was terrified of driving, lurching through NYC traffic. It was not a good image. “Yeah, totally.” She paused, awkwardly. “Anyway, ready to head out?” She grabbed Ally’s suitcase, despite Ally’s protestations that she’d happily carry it herself, and rolled it out into the sunlight. They climbed into the car, and Beth put the key in the ignition, checking her rearview mirror.
“All set?” she asked.
“Yup,” Ally answered.
“All right then. GPS says seven and a half hours to Grandma Stella’s house. Let’s go.” Beth turned the key and the car started up.
“Wow, I haven’t seen your grandma in forever,” Ally said.
“I know. It’s been, what, three years since we went to Maine together?”
But Beth knew exactly how long it had been. Last year, she’d flown off to Haiti just days after arcing her graduation cap into the sky. The year before, Ally had chosen to spend her free summer time with Tom instead. “She’s very excited that you’re coming with me,” she continued, in the understatement of the year. When Beth had made a rare long-distance call from Haiti to offer her help in packing up the house before the big move, Grandma Stella had erupted in the declarations of love and gratitude that accompanied every conversation they had.
“You are the sweetest girl! You know, I ask God every night why he didn’t give me more grandchildren. But I did get the best only-grandchild in the world.” Beth smiled at the familiar gushing. Then Grandma Stella had gotten right down to business. “And Ally will be coming with you, of course.”
“Oh, well, I don’t know. She’s probably very busy,” Beth had hedged.
“Oh, for crying out loud, darling. I love you, but did you pour bleach all over your brain? Ally has to come with you. This house is almost as special to the two of you as it is to me, and I’ve lived here for fifty-three years. Plus, I’d like to see my surrogate granddaughter at least once more before I croak. So, you’ll ask her and she’ll say yes, and I’ll see the two of you at the end of May.” Beth had reminded herself that the purpose of her trip was to help Grandma Stella, in any way possible. Then she’d broken the months of radio silence and sent Ally an e-mail.
Interrupting Beth’s reverie, Ally suddenly ventured, “Hey, do you think your grandma would mind if I interviewed her?”
“Interviewed her? For what?”
Ally looked sheepish. “I’m not sure exactly, yet. I’ve just been thinking a lot about your grandma’s town, and part of me thought it could be really interesting to talk to some people about how it’s been changing. It would be a good subject for a documentary about”—here, without fully seeming to realize it, she put on a newscaster’s smooth voice—“the homogenization of small-town America, or one town’s struggle to resist suburban sprawl, or something like that. You know?”
Beth did know. The town toward which they were steadily heading, Britton Hills, was quintessentially New England, with a population squeaking in at barely five thousand. Whenever Beth thought about Britton Hills, she felt an uncontrollable longing to dig up clams and attend services at a white clapboard church. In trying to describe it to new acquaintances, words like quaint and sleepy kept spilling out of her mouth as if she had Tourette’s.
Britton Hills had once sustained itself almost entirely through the fishing industry. But after years of overharvesting, most people couldn’t count on the fishing trade anymore. Now most residents either commuted nearly an hour to Bangor, the closest city, or floated from one temporary job to another with long periods of unemployment in between. Five years ago, a Walmart opened up a twenty-minute drive away, and it seemed like every time Beth visited, she saw another mom-and-pop store boarded up along the town’s main street. It wasn’t a big story, the way the town’s economy was dwindling, and its character slowly and irrevocably shifting, but the change seemed to live in the bones of all the town’s inhabitants.
“Anyway,” Ally continued, “I brought a camera, ’cause I thought it could be useful to have some interview footage, and some footage of the town in general, for when I apply to production companies.”
Beth could almost hear the rewind sound in her head. “Wait, wait, wait. Production companies? Are you not doing singing and songwriting anymore?”
Ally’s face snapped shut. “Um, yeah. I don’t know. It’s just—it’s really hard.” She looked down at her hands, picking at her fingernails. “Like, there’s no certainty to it at all. Not that film is that much better, but with the singer-songwriter stuff I was doing, you never know where your next gig is going to be, or if you’ll get paid anything for it, or whether anyone actually likes what you do.”
“I’m sure people like what you do. And you’ve only been doing it for a year. It takes time, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t really get better. It’s not like there’s this goal you have to reach, and then you’re set. You never get any measure of stability unless you become a big star, which, let’s be realistic, what are the odds of that happening for me?”
“Oh come on, you’re really good!” Beth protested, even as she thought to herself that her words were only half true. Ally’s voice was like a little pot of honey, steeped in sweetness to its core. But sometimes Beth felt that she could eat up Ally’s voice in a couple of sittings, and then there would be nothing left. The songs Ally wrote were also cute and sweet and fun, just like Ally herself seemed to be if you didn’t know her too well. Beth used to smile along to Ally’s songs, but they never made her cry. They lacked pathos, or maybe it was just weirdness, something that could make them memorable. Still, whenever Beth tried to picture her doing anything else, the most she could see was a business suit and Ally’s brown hair. The face it framed was a hazy Picasso of nose, eyes, and mouth.
“Well, thanks. That’s sweet of you to say,” Ally said. “I think I just picked the hardest career out there.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When a friendship goes bad who is to blame? Of course, each person blames the other. That is the story of Ally and Beth. Best friends since grade school, these girls have a falling out. They then come back together to support Beth’s grandmother in Maine, which is the place of their summer vacations. Memories come back, feelings come to the fore front, and they each realize that they need each other. Beyond the falling out and the blame, I believe this is a story of Beth and Ally finding themselves. They come to Maine with hurt feelings and not understanding why their best friend was not there for them in their time of need. As they discover that the other was in need at the same time they take looks back and open their eyes to what their friendship really means to each them. They have to decide if their friendship is worth saving or if they should just do what they came to do in Maine and go their separate ways. I loved Beth’s grandmother. She was the quiet and calm voice for both the girls. The understanding of their life was amazing. The fact that she was okay with where her life was heading with a grace that not all do made me love her even more. As she went through her house, the memories that she shared with Beth and Ally made her extremely real. She is the grandmother that everyone wants to have.
Ally Morris and Beth Abbott have been best friends since they were children. They pictured each other as sisters from the well-known and beloved novel, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. But sometimes expectations about how these novelistic characters will fulfill their destinies can’t account for what is missed about these stereotypes. And sometimes via the circumstances that suddenly arise call for each young woman to dig deep and allow what may emerge. When we meet Ally and Beth, they have not seen each other in several years as Beth has been working in Haiti. Ally is hurt that their regular communication just seemed to decrease and then disappear. In their several meetings, in between reminiscing about their past and filling in that time between then and now, some harsh comments are dropped but just as quickly apologized for. Ally wants to be a great singer, songwriter and musician but feels like she’s lacking the “sparkling” touch that would wow producers and people who deal with individual and group musicians on a daily basis. Her lack of confidence has history we learn as we keep reading and hope as we continue to an unexpected meeting. Secrets will be revealed about both young women. Readers will be tempted to think that Beth’s painful memories about Haiti are worse than anything Ally or any American could experience. But we come to realize it was pain that drove Beth there, within a story that you will never forget once you read about it. The nice thing about this novel is that a fine balance exists between light-hearted and very funny moments and the intense, heavy scenes that are inserted in just the right places and always at the right time. Characters don’t have to travel far to be a healing presence for friends and acquaintances and more than that, their own selves. The past and present are magically interwoven in this unique novel about truly growing and loving life no matter where it leads! Delight read which this reviewer recommends highly.