At the Water's Edge - Deluxe Edition - Harper Bliss - E-Book

At the Water's Edge - Deluxe Edition E-Book

Harper Bliss

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Beschreibung

DELUXE EDITION WITH SEQUEL NOVELLA


Sometimes you need to go back to where you came from.


When Ella returns to her hometown to recover from trauma, she makes a connection with Kay, the owner of the local lake resort.


Ella thought she didn’t have time for love, but this extraordinary woman may just prove her wrong.


A deeply emotional read by best-selling lesbian romance author Harper Bliss.

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CONTENTS

At the Water’s Edge

It Takes Two

Acknowledgments

Message from the author

A Note from Harper

Another Note from Harper

Get Three Books For Free

About the Author

Also by Harper Bliss

For everyone who’s been there

AT THE WATER’S EDGE

1

Driving past the yellow sign for West Waters instantly takes me back to a time when I was happy. It’s not so much a single concrete memory as a tangled-up rush of them flooding my brain. My sister and I running barefoot in the grass around our cabin, dipping that first toe into the water on a carefree Saturday morning, bright-colored candy from the improvised shop by reception, the intoxicating smell of suntan lotion, Dad wearing the same pair of faded beige shorts for the entire weekend.

I pull into the parking lot and find a space close to the entrance. Even though the middle of August should be the peak of the vacation season, I count only two other cars in the lot. Everything looks satisfyingly familiar: the grassy curb, more neatly trimmed than I remember, the cabin roofs dotted against the mass of green surrounding the lake, a strip of water flickering under the midday sun in the distance. Yet as if belonging to another lifetime.

When I deposit my city-girl case on the uneven concrete, I realize I’ll look like a fool if I try to roll it down the rickety path to reception. I grab the handle and lift the case, which is not very heavy. I only brought a few sets of clothes. Some books and a laptop—not for work, only for self-improvement. And only one blazer.

There’s something about the air in this place. It takes me back to a simpler time, a time when it was a given that air was clean and pure, a time when I didn’t worry so much. It’s only a short walk to the wooden shack where I need to pick up the key. Through my parents, I know that both Mr. and Mrs. Brody are no longer with us, and that Kay is running things now.

I see her before she realizes I’m there. Crouched down, studying something on the ground, poking her finger into the soil. I clear my throat to announce my arrival.

I watch Kay shoot up, rubbing her hands on her shorts. “Hey.” Her eyes light up when she recognizes me. “Well, I’ll be damned. Little Ella Goodman.”

Growing up, I was always shorter than the other kids my age. Now, I stand just as tall as Kay, whose build is stocky and muscular.

“Mom should have notified you that our cabin will be occupied—” I stop mid-sentence. Unable to shake the sensation that, somehow, she knows. That the reason I came here is plastered across my face.

Kay tilts her head, regarding me with some sort of glint of expectation in her eyes. Of course, she doesn’t know. Hardly anyone does.

“Yep. Dee warned me.” Her voice is matter-of-fact, with the delivery of someone who never questions her self-confidence. “Let’s go in.”

I follow her inside the shack—or ‘the shop’ as my family called it when I came here as a child. From the outside, I hadn’t noticed the extension to the side.

“I spruced it up a bit.” Kay must have noticed the look of surprise on my face. “We even have a laundromat in the back these days.”

“Fancy.” I scan the neat aisles, all pleasantly lit and shiny, and what looks like a brand new fridge and freezer against the back wall.

“It isn’t the eighties anymore, Ella. We have Wi-Fi now.” Kay leans against a proper reception desk—laptop and all—and grins at me. “Let me get your key… card.” She taps a few times on the laptop’s keyboard, opens a drawer and produces a key card like in a hotel. “Have you liked our Facebook page?” she asks, a grin slipping across her face as she hands me the card.

“I will,” I stammer.

“Don’t worry, it’s not mandatory, but a check-in on Facebook is always appreciated.” She leans her elbows on the counter. “Unless you’re here on the down-low, of course.”

I don’t immediately know what to say, so unprepared am I by seeing Kay—whom I haven’t seen since I last visited West Waters many years ago—so quickly after arriving and the unexpected topic of conversation that’s making me feel uncomfortable.

“I’m just screwing with you.” She rests her almond-shaped eyes on me—again, that sensation that she is looking right through me and seeing all my scars. “Welcome to West Waters. I hope you enjoy your stay with us. It can get quite busy over the weekends, but you should be fine out there in the Goodman cabin. You should see what they’ve done to the place.”

I vaguely remember my mother mentioning remodeling the cabin a few years ago, but I was probably too busy to take in the details. Listening to her with one ear, while scheduling a lecture in New York and going over a research report.

“Can’t wait.” I flip the key card between my fingers a few times, desperate to make more small talk—not because I’m so eager but because it’s what expected in a situation like this. “Is it just you running the place?”

Kay shrugs. “Most cabins are privately owned, so not too much fuss for me.”

“What about the off season?” The next question comes easily because I’m genuinely interested in the answer.

“People come even when it rains. It’s only in the depths of winter that it goes really quiet. Then I take the time to think of ways of improving West Waters, usually over a few beers at The Attic.” Her chuckle comes from a deep place, like an old man’s laugh.

A bell that I hadn’t even noticed when I followed Kay in, goes off, as a man with wild white hair walks in. He tilts his chin when he spots me and, out of nowhere, winks at me.

“Uncle Pete,” Kay says in a loud, booming voice. “Here’s your reading material for today.”

As the man shuffles to the counter I make my way to the door. Kay presents him with The New York Times and The Northville Gazette.

“See you later, Ella,” she shouts.

I give her a quick wave and exit the shop. Once outside, I need to scan my surroundings to orientate myself. My family’s cabin is situated on the edge of the grounds, near the most western tip of the lake. I breathe in a large gulp of air, then another, enjoying the quiet, sun-drenched hum of a summer afternoon in Northville, Oregon.

Kay was right. From the outside, our cabin looks the same, but the inside could easily appear in Country Living, the ‘maximizing a tiny space in a semi-fashionable way edition’. The wooden boards lining the walls and ceilings are new and light-brown, giving the interior a shiny, but cozy feel.

The kitchenette—taking up half of the lounge area—boasts new appliances, but the true stunner is the bathroom. A dark-gray tiled walk-in shower, flanked by one of those modern water basins, the kind of which you can never be sure where the water comes from.

I remember an unanswered email from my mother containing pictures of this overhaul. If it weren’t for that, I’d be suspicious that, somehow, they did this all for me.

The second bedroom, too narrow for more furniture, still houses bunk-beds, but the old closet has been replaced by a built-in one, made with the same planks as the rest of the cabin.

I stopped joining my parents for weekends here as soon as they allowed me to stay home with Nina. She was seventeen—and up to no good—and I was fourteen, and already so at odds with the world. Today, I deposit my suitcase in the room where my parents always slept, and even though it doesn’t feel quite right, I don’t particularly feel like crashing on the bottom bunk in the room next door. For all the times I came here as a child, I never once slept in the master bedroom.

More than anything, I’m drawn to the lake. I kick off the sneakers I wore for driving and head to the porch running around both sides and rear of the cabin. From there, it’s easy to reach the landing that leads directly to the lake. I sit and let my feet dangle in the water, instantly transported back to the hours I spent here as a child. Observing the water creatures, watching the sun climb until it was almost perfectly on top of the lake, making the surface glimmer like a mirror broken in all the right places, waiting until it dipped behind the trees on the other side, in the early dusk of summer, and painted the lake orange.

Judging from where the sun now hangs in the clear blue sky, already having started its descent, I figure it must be around four. A beer would be nice. I’m sure I can pick some up in the shop, and some snacks that will have to do for dinner tonight.

Later, when the sun has completely disappeared behind the dense tree tops, and I sit overlooking the water with a cold beer in my hand, a rustling to the left of the porch startles me. I’m so used to city noises—a constant buzz of traffic, road works, and endless construction—that now, when all around me an unfamiliar sort of quiet reigns, I start at the slightest ripple of sound.

“Hey.” Kay materializes in front of me. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright.” She sports that smile again, the one that indicates a friendly but don’t-mess-with-me attitude. In high school, she was three years above me, leaving us in decidedly different social circles. But I saw her around at West Waters sometimes, running on the sandy track on the other side of the lake, or—a more distant memory—just once, canoodling with Jim Straw behind a tree only a few feet away from our cabin. “You left this in the shop.” She holds up my wallet. “Figured you might want it back.”

“Oh, shoot.” I hadn’t even noticed it was missing. “Thank you so much.” She climbs the two porch stairs and holds it out to me. Gratefully, I pocket it. “The least I can do is offer you a beer.” It’s my first night here and I’m not really in the mood for small talk, but politeness always wins.

“I won’t say no to that.” She winks and parks her behind unceremoniously in the wicker chair next to mine. “How’s that sister of yours doing?”

She doesn’t waste any time asking the hard questions. I grab her a beer from the cool box next to my chair and offer it to her, avoiding her piercing glance.

“Dee and John never really mention her when they come here, you know? While they can’t shut up about Little Ella, fancy professor at Boston U. What is it again? Chemistry?”

“Biology,” I’m quick to correct. “Plant and microbial ecosystem ecology, to be precise.”

“Damn, sounds complicated.” Kay brings the bottle to her lips and drops her head back. “Is that why you came here? To study our shrubbery?” She gives that deep, rumbling laugh again.

I shake my head. “I’ve taken a leave of absence.”

“Sounds like a fussy name for a vacation to me.” With a few quick draughts, Kay empties half her bottle. “So how about Nina? Where is she hanging out these days.”

“Last I heard, she was in New Zealand, but we’re not really in touch that much.”

Kay nods as if she understands, as if my evasive answer is more than enough explanation. She drains the last of her beer and plants the bottle on the wooden table in front of her. “I’ll leave you in peace. Thanks for the beverage.” She rises with unexpected elegance. “You know the drill, right? Dial 911 for emergencies.” She grins. “If you were to need me personally, I’m still in the lodge behind the shop.” She gives me a quick nod of the head. “Night, night, Little Ella.” The last I see of her face, before she spins on her heel and leaves, is a crooked smirk.

2

The next morning over breakfast—a muesli bar bought at the shop—I gaze out over the water again. The stillness helps with the exercises Dr. Hakim taught me to clear my mind of ‘everything that doesn’t belong’. But it’s hard to block out the impending visit to my parents’ house. The place where I grew up. The place where I learned to express my frustration through deadly, stone-cold silence. I learned from the best: my mother.

A ripple catches in the water, cracking the surface. It’s only seven a.m. but perhaps Uncle Pete likes an early morning swim. Regular splashing sounds approach the landing. It’s so quiet, I can hear rhythmic intakes of breath as Kay swims through my field of vision with strong freestyle strokes. After reaching the edge of the lake, she stops briefly, her eyes barely peeking over the surface of the water.

Physical exercise will help, Dr. Hakim said numerous times. I estimate I could possibly make it to the other, shorter end of the lake without too much difficulty.

“Early bird?” Kay shouts at me from the water, her voice shattering the calmness of the morning.

In response, I shrug and slant my head. I’ve been awake for hours, but, like a good girl, I tried to stay in bed as long as I could possibly stand it.

Kay tilts her chin and ducks back under, swimming back to her side of the lake—although, I guess every side of the lake is hers.

My mother opens her arms to greet me, as though she has suddenly turned into a person who displays her love through hugging. The embrace is awkward—all stiff limbs and not knowing what to say. My father keeps his distance, just plants an almost-air kiss on my cheek.

“Have you settled in well?” my mother asks. “Do you like the new decor?” In my head, I hear: Is it really so much better than staying here with us?

“It’s wonderful.” I haven’t set foot in my parents’ living room for years. Always too busy to book a flight. Always finding the perfect excuse not to make the trip.

“How’s the rental?” Dad looks out of the window to the driveway. “You could have used the—”

“I know, Dad. It’s fine, really.” I’m already staying in their cabin and the last thing I want is to feel as though I owe them anything for using objects that belong to them.

“Coffee?” Mom asks. Their initial invitation was for lunch, but I couldn’t bear the thought of having to sit through a meal with them. I’m not ready for that just yet.

“Black, please.” Perhaps it’s strange that my own mother doesn’t know how I take my coffee.

“She drinks more than she eats these days,” Dad says as he takes a seat at the kitchen table, not offering any more explanation. He looks like a man who drinks just as much as he eats himself.

Already, I can’t stop myself from glancing at the clock—the same one they’ve had for decades, with such a deep, loud tick-tock that sometimes, when I was upstairs in my room and the house was quiet, I could have sworn I could hear it all the way through the ceiling.

When Mom deposits the cups and an apple cake on the table, I notice how bony her arms have become—and I know it’s because of me. If not politeness, then at least guilt will keep me here for the next few hours.

“Are you not having any?” I ask her after she has served me and Dad.

“I’m sure your father will have my share.” With that, the topic of conversation is firmly closed. My Dad emits a barely audible sigh at her well-worn remark.

I’m not particularly hungry myself, my stomach having tightened the instant I pulled up in the driveway, but I eat the piece of cake anyway, lest they think I suffer from a lack of appetite—and all the associations they could make in their minds.

“Are you feeling better?” Mom asks after the silence has stretched into minutes, only interrupted by the clinking sounds of our forks against the plates, and, apparently, has become unbearable even for her.

“Much.” And I know I should say more, but the words don’t come. I suppose that the reason why my family is so bad at starting conversations is because we’re so skilled at killing them.

Think happy thoughts, I tell myself. I didn’t get that nugget of wisdom from Dr. Hakim, I read it on the internet. On one of those wellness websites that endlessly recycles the same articles. So, I think of West Waters, of the stillness of the lake this morning, because honestly, I don’t have that much else to think of in that department.

“What will you do with your time?” Dad asks. “Wouldn’t it be better to stay occupied?”

I asked myself that same question over and over again before deciding to come here. But work was part of the problem. How I completely buried myself in it. Took on more seats on more committees than any member of faculty—despite finding committee work the biggest waste of time ever invented. But anything was good enough to keep me from going home to my house and the blackness that awaited me there.

“I’m sure she knows best, John,” my mother comes to my defense, and it strangely touches me—tears at the ready behind my eyes and everything. But she’s wrong, because if I had truly known better, I wouldn’t have done what I did.

“I won’t be teaching the first term,” I state, as though I’m facing a class of students instead of my parents. “I’m only slated to return in the New Year.”

Then, out of nowhere, my mother’s hand lands on my wrist. I flinch because I hadn’t expected it, but it only makes her claw her fingers deeper into my flesh. “If there’s anything—” she starts to say, but chokes up.

I swallow the tightness out of my throat—images of the splendor of West Waters flooding my brain—and put my hand on hers. It’s all I’ve got for now.

“I—uh, I’d like to get a picture from my old room,” I stammer, uncomfortable in the moment as it drags on.

“Sure.” Mom removes her hand and stares into her empty coffee cup.

“You still know the way, I hope,” Dad says in an overly cheerful voice that doesn’t fit the mood at all.

“Sure.” I push my chair back, my eyes fixed on the stairwell, and I can’t get out of there fast enough.

Once upstairs, the bedroom where I spent my youth is still semi-intact. The bed I slept in is still there, but numerous other objects have found their way in. Toaster ovens Dad has won at card games, old electrical appliances Mom can’t bear to throw out, a worn, deflated lilo we used to take to West Waters.

The picture I’m looking for is one of Nina and me, taken outside the cabin. I find it face-down on the corner of my former desk. Nina’s at least two heads taller than me, her hair straw-blond and scraggly—and always that glint of trouble in her eyes. She must be ten, still young enough to wrap an arm around my shoulders for a picture, and I’m seven. I am smiling broadly, one tooth missing, my hair much darker than my sister’s, and, despite the toothless grin, my glance much more demure.

I look around the room but the anticipated wave of nostalgia doesn’t come. Too much time has passed, too many new memories have erased the ones I made here. I wonder what Nina’s old room looks like these days, but instead of walking across the landing to find out, I take the stairs down, and hide the picture in my purse.

“We’re having Aunt Mary over for dinner this weekend,” Mom says when I re-enter the living room. “Will you co—”

“Don’t pressure her, Dee,” Dad cuts her off.

“It’s fine,” I quickly jump in to avoid further arguing about me. “I’ll come, but I should go now. I want to get to the store before it closes.”

Their goodbye is casual and quick—the goodbye to someone they’ll see again soon. This time it’s true, despite it being the exact same type of farewell we always exchange.

Back at West Waters, the sun is already bleeding out its last rays of the day over the lake, and it all weighs heavy on me again. Before putting the groceries away, I lean against the kitchen counter and dig up the picture I snatched from my childhood bedroom.

You were always the easy one. I hear my mother’s voice in my head. You never caused us trouble like your sister did. Dr. Hakim has taught me that there is absolutely no use in trying to guess what someone else might be thinking. I used to sit in his office three times a week, motionless, detached, and impossible to read. I’d listen to his baritone full of wisdom, stare at the liver spots on his hands as he rubbed a finger over his thin beard. It reminded me of a social communications class I took in college.

Our teacher Mrs. Kissinger, on whom I had a raging, silent crush, filmed us while we talked about ourselves for a few minutes. When she went over the videos in class, teaching us about body language and what it revealed about a person, she basically skipped my segment, stating that, in all her years of conducting this experiment, she’d never come across someone as non-verbally uncommunicative, the way I sat stock-still, my hands slipped safely underneath my thighs.

Nobody ever noticed.

A whistling sound outside shakes me out of my reverie, followed by Kay’s deep voice. “Knock, knock.”

I step outside to find her on my porch, moist hair drawn into a tight ponytail.

“Tonight’s my weekly drinking night at The Attic. I was wondering if you felt like tagging along. Reconnect with some folks from way back when.” She’s wearing dungarees, split low at the sides, over nothing more than a tank top.

Flummoxed, I push a strand of hair behind my ear. “Thanks, but not tonight.” Or ever.

“Are you sure, Little Ella? You look as if you could do with letting your hair down a bit.”

I give her a well-practiced smile. The exact same one I used for years on everyone I knew. It even works on myself sometimes. “Maybe next week,” I lie. “Still settling in and all that.”

A scrunch of the lips and a dip of the head, and she’s gone, her hands tucked deep in the front pockets of her dungarees, like a farmer leaving his field after a good day.

3

The rain starts coming down hard around three in the morning. Loud pelts—like stones being thrown at high speed—coming down without mercy on the wooden roof above me. Having lain awake through many a rain storm in my youth, I know this one, just like any bout of summer rain, will pass by morning, leaving the lake and its surroundings aglow in a new, lighter clarity at dawn. Nevertheless, any hope of sleep soon escapes me. Which is fine, because I have all of the next day to do nothing.

Have you considered that, on top of everything else, you might be suffering from burn-out? Dr. Hakim asked in our first session. I thought he looked smart in a well-worn way. Brown tweed jacket with patches over the elbows. Intelligent, dark eyes behind rimless glasses. One slim leg slung over the other.

Doing nothing is the cure. Accepting emptiness. Learning to exist in the quietness between bursts of activity. It’s harder in the dark of night, nothing or no one around but memories I’m trying to erase. Out of nowhere, a shot of worry makes its way through me. I hope Kay made it back safely from the bar, before the rain came. She doesn’t strike me as the type to be foolish enough to drive after too many beers—but really, I have no way of knowing.

I grab my phone from the night stand and touch it so it lights up, more for illumination than anything else. I hold it in front of me and make my way to the kitchen, where I pick up a glass of water, before heading to the porch.

Clouds cover the moon, and the darkness, pierced by rapid, splashing sounds, is almost complete around me, making the screen of my phone glow brighter. Automatically, my thumb goes to the e-mail application, but I removed all work-related accounts before I left Boston. I only have one personal account installed on it, but there are no new e-mails since I last checked before going to bed.

To kill time, I go on Facebook and search for West Waters. A small smile tugs at my lips as I click ‘like’ on the page. I scroll through a few comments Kay has left in response to other people’s, and click on her profile. My thumb hovers over the ‘Add Friend’ button. Why not? As always, my brain comes up with many reasons not to, but I’m curious to see what hides behind the privacy settings Kay has enforced. A flick of the thumb is all it takes. Friend request sent.

Two seconds later, the red circle indicating a notification lights up at the top of my screen. Friend request accepted. I guess I’m not the only one who can’t sleep through the rain. I barely have a chance to check out her profile before I get a private message. I don’t know why, but my heart beats a little faster as I start reading it.

Still awake, Little Ella?

Instead of typing what I want to—Please, stop calling me that—I ask if she made it home safely.

I always do. Best get some sleep now. My day starts early.

Good night, I type back and click on her name. Her profile picture is one of just her head sticking out of the lake, eyes squinting against the sun, white teeth glinting in between curled up lips. Her relationship status says: It’s complicated. I can’t help but snicker. Kay seems like the most uncomplicated woman I’ve ever met, but I guess looks can be deceiving. Perhaps it’s a joke, or, for her, complicated means long-distance or something. I’ve only been here a day, but I haven’t noticed any signs of someone living with her in the lodge behind the shop.

And what do I care anyway?

The rain is easing on the surface of the lake. I decide to go back to bed and try to catch a few more hours of sleep. Not easy when medication is no longer allowed.

“Best enjoy the last few hours of quiet.”

I instantly recognize Kay’s gravelly voice. I open my eyes and stare into her smile.

“The weekend crowd will be arriving soon. It’s the last big one of the summer. After that, things should die down.” She chuckles. “I’m only informing you because you seem like someone who values her privacy.”

I push myself up a bit on my lounge chair, relieved I’m not wearing my bikini as I had initially planned, but shorts that reach the middle of my thighs and a halter top. Not that it makes my skin look any less milky white. Still, I feel less exposed this way.

“Oh shoot.” She crouches until her eyes are level with mine. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No, just trying to absorb some vitamin D.” I feel Kay’s gaze glide across my body.

“You’re probably too smart to forget, Professor, but I hope you applied sun screen.”

Was that a crack at the impossible paleness of my legs and arms? “SPF 50,” I say. “I’m hoping to go lower soon.” My top clings to my skin in the small of my back because of the sweat that has pooled there. “Full house this weekend?”

“Pretty much.” She looks over the lake, momentarily lost in thought. Her skin has the same tone as Dr. Hakim’s brown tweed jacket. I woke up to an e-mail from him this morning, phrased in the same unobtrusive way he used to treat me.

I hope you’re doing well, Ella. Call me any time.

“We’re having a bonfire on Sunday night. Just sayin’. Not invitin’. Everyone’s welcome.” A sassiness has seeped into her voice, giving it a higher pitch.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

She shoots me one of what I’ve already come to think of as her trademark winks before pushing herself up. “I’ll leave you to it. The water’s wonderful today, by the way.”

I watch her walk away. Her navy shorts barely cover her ass as she saunters away from the patch of lawn in front of our cabin. I recline back in my chair and ponder Dr. Hakim’s e-mail. Am I doing well? I certainly don’t feel the need to call him. I guess I’m doing as well as can be expected.

The days at West Waters are slow, so I’m actually quite happy to have the distraction of dinner with my parents and Aunt Mary on Saturday evening.

She grips me in a tight bear hug the instant she sees me. “Oh, Ella. Oh, Ella,” she keeps repeating. Aunt Mary is like a more filled-out, taller version of my mother. A quick-mouthed high school teacher who was promoted to principal the last fifteen years of her career. Unlike my mother, she likes to say things out loud. Not this, though. There are some things that no one wants to speak of out loud.

Aunt Mary has four highly successful children of her own, and all but one live close by. Between them, they’ve already given her seven grandchildren, with an eighth on the way. It’s only natural for her to talk about her offspring in a light tone, laughter in her voice, pride glittering in her eyes. As she does, it’s as if I can see a sheen of bitterness coat itself around my mother’s skin. It’s not as much envy, I think, as the loss of something she never even experienced. Something that could potentially brighten up her days.

And I know it’s not my fault—Dr. Hakim and I have covered this extensively—but the guilt still nags at me. It’s there, showing up faithfully, every time I walk into this house.

Every time Aunt Mary wants to ask me a question, she bites it back, her mouth opening and closing like a fish gulping for air on dry land. Just like everyone else who knows, she’s unsure of what is safe ground. What is allowed to be asked, to be said. Soon, the conversation dies a predictable, natural death.

But it’s not the silence that falls around us that makes me freeze up. It’s the un-spokenness of it all, of ‘the thing’ that hangs above all of our heads. The precise reason why I’ve come. But I’ve only just arrived and I’m nowhere near ready. Then, just as the tension becomes unbearable, Aunt Mary hammers the final nail into Mom’s coffin.

“Any news from Nina?” It’s not malice, I’m sure of that. It’s not exactly an innocent question either, more a desperate conversation starter.

“She’s in New Zealand. She was an extra in The Hobbit,” I’m quick to say, to give my mother time to regroup. Nina e-mailed me this nugget of news months ago, and I scoured the IMDb to verify her claim, but the list of extras was so long, I couldn’t find her in it.

“The what?” Aunt Mary asks.

“It’s a big movie franchise. A spin off of Lord of the Rings,” Dad says.

“I see.” Aunt Mary nods as if she’s reflecting deeply on this. From the set of her jaw, I easily deduct this visit will end soon, for which I’m grateful.

When she leaves, she hugs me tightly again. Neither Mom’s nor Dad’s side of the family—and least of all our own—are naturally tactile people, and learning to accept a family member’s arms around me is still so foreign that I find it hard to enjoy the offered comfort. Instead, I stand stiffly inside her embrace, my muscles automatically rejecting this sort of display of affection. But Aunt Mary’s hug is different from Mom’s, more matter-of-fact and less desperate. The quick, solid embrace of a woman who has gotten used to comforting grandchildren.

Only a few minutes after she’s out the door, I’m quick to say my goodbyes as well. On the way back to West Waters, I drive past The Attic, keeping my eyes peeled for Kay’s car. What does she do for entertainment in this town apart from having a beer with the same people every week?

By the time I drive up to what I’ve started to consider as my parking spot at West Waters, my head is overflowing with questions I’d like to ask Kay. To my dismay, one of the weekenders has parked in my spot, and I need to maneuver into another space. I can’t wait for the weekend to be over and have the lake to myself again.

4

On Sunday night, I find my own surprise in attending the bonfire reflected in the expression on Kay’s face when she spots me.

“You made it,” she says, and slaps me on the shoulder. The temperatures have dropped and Kay has wrapped herself in a dark-gray fleece hoodie and pants. I guess there’s not much use for decorum in a small town like Northville.

I wear the only blazer I packed—a reminder of my life in Boston, which, already, after only a few days here, where time seems to freeze, appears to belong to another lifetime. Or maybe I’m just eager to forget.

“Are you sure about that?” She scans my outfit with a scrutinizing glance. “You’ll have to take that to the dry-cleaners after tonight.”

First, I’m not sure what she’s getting at, but when she points her thumb in the direction of the fire, I understand she’s referring to the smell of smoke and ashes that will penetrate the fabric of my blazer.

“Oh, it’s fine.” I scan the people gathered around the fire, bottles of beers and plastic cups of wine in their hands, for familiar faces. In the pale-orange light of the flames, the only person I recognize is Uncle Pete.

“Here, take mine.” Kay starts unzipping her hoodie, revealing a powder-blue v-neck t-shirt clinging to her chest. “I’ll take your fancy jacket inside.”

Our eyes meet and in the instant of hesitation that comes next, as if following a command, I slip out of my blazer and hand it to her.

While she saunters to the lodge behind the shop, I let the cozy fleece—warmed up by Kay’s body heat—envelop me, and a faint whiff of her scent wafts up into my nostrils. It’s not perfume, but an unexpectedly flowery soap, an unmistakable summer smell that takes me back to way before all of this began.

Silently, I look around me again, at these strangers with their children, their own stories safely tucked away behind the masks of their—mostly—carefree faces.

When Kay returns, in a navy sweater with the West Waters logo displayed on her chest, I know the warm glow that spreads through me at the sight of her isn’t only due to the growing fire. But, this moment, too, will pass. This fleeting second of being at peace with things. It always does.

“Ella Goodman?” From behind me, a beer-drenched voice calls my name. “Is that you?”

I turn and stare straight into Drew Hester’s pudgy, red-nosed, loose-skinned face. I remember my mother’s glee when she found out I was dating one of the Hester boys. To this day, I’m still not sure if it was because Drew’s father, Bruce, owned half of the land in Northville, or because, even at sixteen—quite some time before I worked up the nerve to tell her—Mom had her suspicions about me.

“Drew. Wow,” I sputter.

Kay pushes a bottle of cold beer into my hand and I eagerly accept it, locking my eyes with hers for a moment.

“What brings you to these parts?” My teenage romance with Drew was short-lived, restricted to a few sloppy kisses and unsuccessful groping sessions behind the town hall.

“Family.” I say it in the tone I use when one of my students is acting up during a Friday late afternoon class.

“Hey.” He slants his long body in my direction, his beer breath slamming into my face. “Is it true what I hear? Is that why you dumped me all these years ago?” He narrows his eyes as though he just reached an important conclusion with the few remaining brain cells operating his mind. “Oh, I see.” He looks at me, then turns his head to Kay, and back. “Oh, yes.”

His bloodshot eyes rest on me. For all the battles I’ve fought with myself, my sexual identity has never been much of an issue. But the way he alludes to Kay’s stuns me into silence nonetheless.

“That’s enough, big guy.” Kay steps in—literally blocking my body with hers.

“Didn’t mean to offend.” Drew holds up his hands. “Let’s catch up before you leave, Ella.” With a drunken man’s swagger—ridiculous and wobbly—he turns and disappears into the darkness.

“Don’t mind him. He doesn’t get out much.” Kay’s voice is soothing and apologetic. “If and when he does,” she shrugs, “well…”

But I don’t care about Drew and his ignorant questions. I want to ask her, but don’t immediately know how without coming across just as rude as Drew.

Surely I would have heard about it if Kay were a lesbian like me. After I came out, despite my mother’s urging to keep ‘my news’ quiet—a wish I obeyed not because she wanted it that way, but because I wasn’t exactly keen on becoming the talk of the town either—rumors started cropping up almost immediately. Halted whispers when I went into the butcher’s. Hushed voices at The Attic, not just one of Kay’s favorite watering holes, but also my father’s preferred spot for relaxation.

“It’s fine,” I say, instead, but the discomfort has settled. Not because of the brief, almost silly interaction with Drew, but because of the same old question that keeps rearing its head: was it really a good idea to come here?

Kay bumps her shoulder into mine. “They’ll all be gone tomorrow. We’ll have the place to ourselves all week.”

I giggle and pull Kay’s fleece tightly around my body, resisting the urge to lean into her.

“Kay.” A vaguely familiar looking woman dressed in a linen pants suit walks up to us. Her grey hair is done up in a neat, tight bun. “That man in your shop says you’ve run out of diet coke, surely that can’t be the case.”

“I’m on it, Mrs. Innis. Come with me.” After Kay has addressed her by name, I realize the woman taught me in third grade.

I stare into the fire while emptying the rest of the beer Kay gave me. She’s fully engaged in chit-chat with Mrs. Innis and slowly, a circle of mostly elderly people forms around her, obstructing my view. I stand too far away to hear what she’s saying and, growing tired of the shrieking children playing tag and nearly bumping into me a dozen times, I retreat back to the privacy of my cabin.

I’ve built my own fire in the pit between the porch and the lake and, because of the cracking sparks and light whoosh of the flames, I don’t hear her footsteps as she approaches.

“Thought you might want this back.” Kay stands next to me, holding my blazer.

I’m still wrapped in her sweater, drinking more beer. “Thanks.” I look up at her. “Want one?” I present my half-empty bottle.

She nods and sits on the edge of the porch.

While I duck inside to stow away my jacket and fetch Kay a beer, I believe I know why she has come. Or perhaps I’ve had one beer too many.

“Don’t like crowds, huh?” Kay asks when I sit next to her, our feet dangling in the air, our thighs nearly touching.

“Depends.” I let my gaze rest on the flickering orange glow in front of us. “Can I ask you something?”

A loud, gurgling chuckle erupts from Kay’s mouth. “By all means, Little Ella. By all means.”

I turn my head to look at her. Her lips are drawn into a thin smirk, eyes brimming in the light of the fire.

“Are you gay?”

A short silence before she replies. “No.” She tilts her head a bit more. “Which doesn’t mean I’ve never fallen in love with a woman.”

“Oh.” I feel my face flush. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

The skin of my cheeks feels as though the flames have started licking it with broad, sweltering strokes across my face.

“So bloody ignorant,” I murmur. “I should know better.”

“I’m not that thin-skinned, and, living here, I’m used to worse.”

“But still.” I sip from my beer, hoping it will cool the flush on my cheeks.

“I’m truly not fussed with what people think about me. It’s my life and I do what I do.” Lightly, she jabs her elbow into my biceps. “You’re not like that. I can tell.”

I huff out some air. “Let’s just say I’m a work in progress.” My stomach tightens. I drink more beer.

“We all are.”

“You look pretty much complete to me.” My words come out as a whisper, disappearing instantly into the soft roar of the flames.

I don’t expect the loud cackle. When I look at Kay she’s shaking her head, an amused glint in her eyes.

“We all have our thing, Ella. All have our very own cross to bear.”

I wish I was the kind of person who could sit on the edge of that porch with Kay until the morning, continuing this line of conversation, but already I feel myself clamming up—my tongue and thoughts growing paralyzed.

Kay drains the rest of her beer with quick, quiet gulps. “Permission to go inside and get us another?”

“Yes.” I nod almost feverishly, before my anxious brain can take over and ruin everything.

When she returns, I watch her sit gracefully, her movements supported by strong muscles.

“To a quiet September,” she says as she clinks the neck of her bottle against mine.

In the silence that ensues I imagine telling her; I imagine her probing, kind eyes on me as I do.

“When Dee informed me about the occupancy of your family’s cabin she didn’t give a check-out date.”

It takes a few seconds before my brain registers her statement as a question. “Yeah, uh, no. I’m not sure yet when I’ll be leaving.”

“Rekindling your love affair with Northville?”

“Something like that.” I suck in a deep breath. “Bit of a burn-out situation in Boston. Buried myself in work a tad too much.”

“You could have gone to Hawaii, though. Or to Europe. Some place a bit more exotic than this sleepy old town.” Her voice is low, nonjudgmental, barely quizzing—just conversational.

“Sometimes, you need to go back to where you came from.”

“Not so easy for me.” She gives a light chuckle. “I was born and bred at this lake, and I’m still here.”

“Have you never felt the urge to leave?” I try to keep my tone level.

She shrugs. “Not really. This is what I know. I feel good here.” A wide, swooping gesture of her hand. “Look at this. Why would I want to leave this behind?”

Instead of letting my gaze drift across the lake, its surface glowing in the light of the flames, I stare at Kay’s hand: long fingers, trimmed nails, no rings.

“But what do you do for, uh, entertainment?”

“Entertainment?” The word rolls off her tongue like the punchline to a bad joke. “Can you be more specific?”

The blush that left me earlier is back. “Movies? Museums? Culture in general, I guess.”

“When I have a crushing, burning desire to see a painting or some wacko modern art installation I probably wouldn’t understand, I take my car and drive to the city.” An edge has crept into her voice—as if she has had to answer a question like this too many times in her life. “And when was the last time you saw a good movie in the theatre? A movie which you can truly say was worth paying twenty bucks for?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply—”

“That small town people have boring lives?” The friendliness is back in her voice, a smile breaking on her lips again. “Most people I know here, I’ve known all my life. That’s a strong connection. And trust me, they provide all the entertainment I need.”

Perhaps I should be jealous of Kay’s ties to Northville’s community—of the feelings of safety, of truly being known—that come with life-long acquaintance. But, apart from a few, very brittle, family ones, I have no ties here. Only nostalgia and a deep, deep melancholy that I know has sprouted here, that is rooted in the soil of this very town.