Distant Shores Page 18


Sharon turned into the kitchen, exclaimed over the beautiful white cabinetry and granite countertops. She loved the old-fashioned stove. In the dining room, she raved over the beautiful view.

Elizabeth managed to keep up a steady stream of inane conversation as they walked through the kitchen, past the guest bathroom, and up the stairs. She tossed out bits and pieces of her life--My husband has been transferred. . . . We've lived in this house for a little over two years. . . . It was a wreck when we moved in. . . . The previous owners had really let it go. . . . I never got around to finishing the bedrooms, but I picked out the colors. . . . I started planting the garden last spring. . . .

It wasn't until the end of the tour that she cracked. She should have seen it coming, but she'd missed the signs. Instead, she blundered into her bedroom and saw that view.

The room's French doors--the very first addition she'd made to the house--were flanked on either side by floor-to-ceiling windows. Pretty pine molding framed the expansive view.

The ocean stretched from one end of the room to the other in a kaleidoscope of blues. Today, the sky looked gray, but Elizabeth knew that if you looked closely, you'd see a dozen other colors. On the balcony beyond, a pair of white Adirondack chairs glistened with rainwater. A huge, intricate spiderweb connected the chairs. Beaded by raindrops, it looked like a Swarovski crystal necklace.

"It's beautiful," Sharon said, walking over to the window. "It must be magical to wake up to that view."

Last year, Elizabeth had injured her shoulder, and that was how she felt now, as if some muscle in her body was tearing away from the bone. She smiled--too brightly perhaps, but Sharon couldn't know that. "Yes, it was. Well, I'll let you alone for a while. I told you all the terms on the phone, and I have your credit application filled out. I'll be downstairs if you have any questions."

"Thanks."

Elizabeth went downstairs. She was in the living room, trying to remember if she'd packed the aspirin, when the doorbell rang. Before she'd even reached the door, it swung open.

Meghann stood there, grinning, holding a pizza box in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. "I sensed your cry for help and brought the preferred tranquilizer for the suburban housewife set."

Elizabeth had never been so happy to see a friend. "I love you, Meg."

Footsteps pattered down the stairs.

"Potential renter," Elizabeth said, turning just as Sharon came into the room.

Sharon smiled nervously. "I'd like my husband to see it, if that's all right. He really wanted to buy something, but we can't afford much. I'd rather rent a wonderful place like this than own a dump."

"Certainly. I'll be here for two more days. Give me a call and we'll set up a time for him to do a walk-through."

"I wouldn't want to lose it, but I know he'll want to see it for himself."

Elizabeth understood perfectly; it was exactly the kind of thing she would have said. She had a sudden urge to warn Sharon, to let her know how easy it was to get lost in marriage. It started simply, too, in a decision that couldn't be made alone. "Don't worry. I haven't gotten a ton of calls. There aren't a lot of people who want to live this far out of the way."

Sharon moved forward. "It must be difficult to leave this home. You've obviously loved it."

Elizabeth's composure wavered. "Thank you for coming by. I'll look forward to hearing from you." She led Sharon to the door and said good-bye.

"My God," Meg said when she was gone, "she's a child. Is that what's happening out there now--children are renting oceanfront houses?"

"Careful--you sound like a senior citizen. Now, open that wine before I scream."

"That's why I'm here, Birdie. So you can scream."

"Open the wine."

Meghann went into the kitchen, grabbed two glasses, and poured the wine. She handed a glass to Elizabeth. "Did you and Jack ever have that talk?"

Elizabeth sat down cross-legged on the hardwood floor in front of the cold fireplace. Scooting backward, she leaned against a packing box. She didn't see the point in talking about this, but that was the problem with confession. Once you shared a problem with a friend, you had to keep talking about it forever. And if your best friend was a lawyer, well, in the immortal words of Tony Soprano, fuggedaboudit. She nodded. "In our way."

"He's unhappy, too?"

"Not since he got this job. He's like a parolee with money in his pocket. Supposedly, this job--and New York--will change everything for us."

"Maybe it will."

"Yeah, maybe."

Meg stared at Elizabeth over the rim of her glass. "Did the support group help?"

"They think I should try painting again."

"I've been saying the same thing for years."

Elizabeth sighed. She really didn't want to have this conversation now, with boxes all around them and the move looming overhead. "It's not like riding a bike, Meg. You can't just jump on and ride away. Art needs . . . fire, and I'm cold."

Meghann studied her. "Maybe Jack is right. Maybe New York is a good answer. You're sure as hell stuck in a mud-rut here."

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"Let's talk about something fun. Tell me about your life. Who's the new guy?"

"What makes you think there's a new one?"

"Every year you make a New Year's resolution to quit dating children, so for a few months, you date men without hair."

Meghann laughed. "Jesus, that's pathetic. But as it happens, I'm dating a very nice accountant. It can't last, of course. You know I never date a successful man for long. It jeopardizes my professional standing as a loser magnet."

"I hate it when you talk about yourself that way."

"We're a fine pair, aren't we? One has no guts; the other has no hope. No wonder we're best friends." Meghann lifted her glass in a silent toast. "I'm going to miss you, Birdie."

"I guess we'll have to go back to the Thursday night phone call. We did that for a lot of years."

"Yeah."

"It'll be fine. We'll still talk all the time."

But they both knew it wouldn't be the same.

ELEVEN

In the last week of January, the weather turned bitterly cold. The sky gave up all trace of blue and hunkered down as if for battle. Trees shivered along the shoreline, waited for the freezing rain to turn to snow.

Elizabeth made her last trip to town. The two-lane coastal highway curled lazily along the rim of the cliff. To her left lay the mighty Pacific, on the right, a wall of old-growth forest whose trees were among the biggest in the world. Locals claimed that herds of mighty elk lived in those woods, and when you looked into all that black and green darkness, it was easy to believe.

The road took its last hairpin curve, then rolled down to the ocean.

welcome to echo beach, where god answers back, read the sign on her left.

Downtown ran for exactly four blocks. There were no stoplights to slow you down, no sprawling resorts or chain restaurants. The nearest four-star hotel was the Stephanie Inn, miles down the coast.

Old-fashioned streetlamps stood at regular intervals along the cobblestone sidewalks. The storefronts had beautiful leaded windows and arched doorways. Shingles were on every exterior wall, their wooden surfaces aged to the color of ash. The only signs were handwrought, of wood or iron, and they hung discreetly beside the closed doors.

Even the names were different here. The Tee-it-up Sportswear Shop; the Take a Hike Shoe Store; the Hair We Are Beauty Salon. There were countless gift shops and restaurants and ice cream parlors. Brown, leafless vines of sleeping clematis and wisteria climbed along the fence that separated town from the old-fashioned beach promenade.

Elizabeth parked on the street in front of the Beachcomber restaurant (all you can eat on Thursday nights!) and ran her last few errands. She dropped off a box of clothes and paperback novels at the local Helpline House, alerted the post office to her change of address, picked up her airline tickets, and reminded the local sheriff that the house would be empty until renters were found (John Solin had been too busy to schedule a viewing, but Sharon was still hopeful).

Her last stop was the library. She dropped off a box of canned goods for the local food drive, then headed back to her car. She was halfway across the street when the rain stopped.

The clouds parted suddenly; a shaft of pure yellow sunlight spilled over the street. Rainwater glistened on the pavement. The misty fog lifted itself, revealing the ocean.

A breeze fluttered through town, kicking up wet leaves. In it, she smelled the salty tang of the water and the barest hint of beach grass.

She crossed the empty street and came to the promenade. The wide path was paved in pink-colored stone; on either side of it, evergreen boxwood had been trimmed to a perfectly square hedge. Every few feet there was a lovely iron bench. The one beside her had a plaque that read: in memory of esther hayes. Old-fashioned ironwork streetlamps had been carefully placed at regular intervals along the walkway. It was easy to imagine Gatsby and Daisy strolling along this promenade in their white finery while children in oversized bathing suits ran giggling across the sand.

Elizabeth stepped down onto the sand. Seagulls circled over-head, cawing out at her, diving in close every now and then to see if she was a tourist with food to spare.

The beach stretched out in front of her, miles of gray, wind-sculpted sand. Gigantic black rocks rose from the shallow water like leviathan shark fins. Waves tumbled lazily forward, licking playfully along the shore.

She walked along the beach, enjoying the feel of the breeze on her face. In a secluded cove, she sat down on a flat black rock. Behind her, beach grass swayed in the breeze.

Just looking at it soothed her nerves.

She was no one out here; maybe that was the attraction. Not Mrs. Jackson Shore, not Jamie and Stephanie's mother, not Edward Rhodes's little girl.

She drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. The air smelled of sand and kelp and sea. For the first time in weeks, maybe longer, she could breathe.

She hadn't understood until just now, this very moment, that she'd been breathing badly lately. Holding her breath. Sighing heavily. Tension and unhappiness had stolen this simple gift.

But the clock was ticking. Tomorrow morning, she'd have to board a plane and fly east toward a city that had frightened her in the best of times--and these were far from the best of times in New York.

Once there, she'd have to move into an apartment she hadn't chosen and sleep beside a husband she'd forgotten how to love.

Her last day in echo beach dawned surprisingly bright and clear. The ever-present clouds had scraped clean the sky, left it a tender, hesitant blue.

She woke early--she'd hardly gone to sleep, it seemed, when the alarm rang--took a shower and got ready to go. She called the local taxicab and made arrangements to be picked up in an hour, then dragged her luggage out onto the porch.

She slipped off her loafers and put on the gardening clogs that were always by the door, then walked across her yard toward the cliff.

On the beach below, frothy white foam coughed onto the sand, then drew back, leaving its faded impression behind. Nothing--and no one--made a lasting mark on the beach.

She should have remembered that.

Crossing her arms at the cold, she turned and looked back at the house. Her house.

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