Summer Island Page 14

Ruby got out of the car and went upstairs. After buying a latte at the lunch counter; she walked out onto the deck.

No one was out here now. The rain had diminished to little more than a heavy mist. Moisture beaded the handrails and slickened the decks.

A long, single blast of the boat's horn announced their departure.

Ruby slid her fingers along the wet handrail, holding on, shivering at a sudden burst of cold. A few brave seagulls hung in the air in front of her, wings stretched, motionless, riding a current of air. They cawed loudly, begging for scraps.

Lush green islands dotted the tinfoil sea, their carved granite coastlines a stark contrast to the flat silver water. Polished red madrona trees slanted out from the shore, their roots clinging tenaciously to a thin layer of topsoil. Houses were scattered here and there but, for the most part, the islands looked empty.

She closed her eyes, breathing in the salty, familiar sea air. In eighth grade, she'd started taking the ferry to school at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island; memories of high school were inextricably linked with this boat ...

She and Dean had always stood together at just this spot, right at the bow, even when it was raining.


It was strange that she hadn't thought of him right away.

Well, perhaps not so strange. It had been more than a decade since she'd seen him, and still it hurt to remember him.

After her mother had left, Ruby hadn't thought it was possible to hurt more. Dean had taught her that the human heart always made room for pain.

She still thought of him now and then. Sometimes, when she woke in the middle of a hot, lonely night and found that her cheeks were slicked and wet, she knew she'd been dreaming of him. She knew from Caroline (who knew from Nora) that he'd followed in his mother's footsteps after all, that he was running the empire now. Ruby had always known that he would.

At last, the ferry turned toward Summer Island. The horn sounded, and the captain came on the loudspeaker; urging passengers to return to their vehicles.

Ruby raced downstairs and jumped into the minivan.

The captain cut the engine and the boat drifted toward the rickety black dock. A weather beaten sign--it had been old when Ruby was a child-hung at a cockeyed angle from the nearest piling. It read SUMMER ISLAND WELCOMES You.

A woman walked out of the closet-size terminal building and stood watching the ferry float toward her. She was wearing a floor-length brown dress with neither collar nor cuffs. An ornate silver crucifix hung from a thick chain around her neck. Waving at the few walk-on passengers clustered at the bow's railing, she dragged a tattered, wrist-thick length of rope across the dock and tied the boat down.

“Oh, Lord,” Nora said, blinking awake, “is that Sister Helen?”

Ruby couldn't believe it herself. The nuns had always run the ferry traffic on Summer Island, but it was still a shock to see that nothing had changed. “Amazing, isn't it?”

Nora sighed. It was a tired sound, as if maybe she wondered if changelessness were a good thing. Or maybe, like Ruby, she had just realized how it would feel to be here again, at the site of so much heartache.

Ruby drove off the ferry, past the post office and general store. What struck her first was the total lack of meaningful change. She felt as if she'd just taken a boat ride back in time. Here, on Summer Island, it was still 1985. If she turned on the radio, it would probably be Cyndi Lauper or Rick Springfield ...

This was why she'd stayed away.

The road turned, climbed up a short hill, then flowed down into a rolling green valley.

To her left, the land was a Monet painting, all golden grass and green trees and washed-out silvery skies. To her right lay Bottleneck Bay, and beyond that was the forested green hump of Shaw Island. Weathered gray fishing boats sat keeled on the pebbly beach, forgotten by their owners more than a generation ago. A few sleek sailboats--mostly owned by the few Californians brave enough to purchase a summer home on this too-quiet island where drinking water was never guaranteed and power came and went with the wind--bobbed idly in the gently swelling sea.

There were only a few farmhouses visible from the road. The island boasted five thousand acres, but only one hundred year-round residents. Even in the Summer; when mainlanders swarmed to their island vacation homes, Summer Island had fewer than three hundred residents.

It was as different from California as a place could be. Here, hip-hop was the way a rabbit moved, and a drive-by meant stopping to say hello to your neighbor on your way to town.

Nora looked out the rain-dappled window. Her head made a thumping sound as she rested it against the glass. The lines around her mouth were deeply etched, heavy enough to weigh her lips into a frown. When I first came here . . . no, that doesn't matter now . . .”

Ruby approached the beach road. Instead of turning, she eased her foot off the gas and coasted to a Stop. Her mother's half sentence had implied ...secrets ... things unspoken, and Ruby didn't like it.

Fifteen years, Dr. Allbright had said. He'd been treating Nora for fifteen years ... yet none of them had known it.

“What were you going to say?”

Nora's laughter was a fluttery thing, a bit of spun stigar “Nothing.”

Ruby rolled her eyes. Why had she even bothered? Whatever."

She eased her foot back onto the accelerator; flicked the signal on, and turned toward the beach. The narrow, one-lane road wound snakelike through the towering trees. Though it was afternoon, you wouldn't have known it. The tree limbs were heavy with rain; their drooping branches darkened the road. Here and there, small turnouts, overgrown with weeds, made space for parking when another car was coming from the opposite direction.

At last, they came to the driveway. A pair of dogwood trees stood guard on either side of the needle-strewn lane. Any gravel that had once been dumped here had long ago burrowed into the dirt.

Ruby turned down the driveway. The knee-high grass that grew in a wild strip down the center of the road thumped and scraped the undercarriage.

At the end of the tree-lined road, Ruby hit the brakes.

And stared through the rain-beaded windshield at her childhood.

The farmhouse was layered in thick white clapboards with red trim around the casement windows. One side jutted out like an old woman's bad hip—that was the addition her grandparents had built for their grandchildren. A porch wrapped around three sides of the house. It sat in the midst of a pie-shaped clearing that jutted toward the sea. In this, the middle of June, the lawn was lush and lime green; in the dog days of summer; Ruby knew it would grow tall and take on the rich hue of burnished gold. Madrona marked the perimeter.

“Oh, God,” she whispered, soaking it all in.

A white picket fence created a nicely squared yard around the farmhouse. Inside it, the garden was in full, riotous bloom.

Obviously Caroline had paid a gardener to keep the place up. It looked as if the Bridge family had been gone a season instead of more than a decade.

With a tired sigh, Ruby got out of the car.

The tide made a low, snoring sound. Birds overhead, surprised and dismayed by their unexpected guests. But no city sounds lived this far north, no horns or squealing tires or jets flying overhead.

There was now, as there had always been, a quiet otherworldliness to Summer Island, and as much as she hated to admit it, Ruby felt the island's familiar welcome. Time here was measured in eons, not lifetimes. In how long it took the sea to smooth the rough edges off a bit of broken glass, in how long it took the tide to shape and reshape the shoreline.

She went around to the back of the van and pulled out the wheelchair; then wheeled it around to the passenger side and helped Nora into the seat.

Taking hold of the rubber-coated grips, she cautiously pushed her mother down the path. At the gate, Ruby stopped and walked ahead, unlatching it. The metal piece clanked, the gate swung creakily open.

When Ruby turned back around, she noticed how pale her mother was. Nora touched the fence's sagging slat. A heart-shaped patch of paint fell away at he contact, lay in the grass like a bit of confetti.

Nora looked up, her eyes shiny and moist. “Remember the summer you and Caro painted every slat a different color? You guys looked like a pair of rainbow Popsicles when you were finished.”

“I don't remember that,” Ruby said, but for a split second, when she looked down, her tennis shoes were Keds, speckled with a dozen different colors of paint. It pissed her off, how easy it was to remember things in this place, to feel them. Nothing seemed to have changed here except Ruby, and the new Ruby sure as hell didn't belong in this fairy-tale house.

She walked back up the slope and took her place behind the wheelchair. She cautiously moved down the rutted path, guiding the chair in front of her. They had just reached the edge of the porch when her mother suddenly spoke.

“Let me sit here for a minute, will you? Go on in. Nora fished the key out of her pocket and handed it to Ruby. ”You can come back and tell me how it looks."

“You'd rather sit in the rain than go into the house?”

"That pretty much sums up my feelings right now.

Ruby stepped around her and walked onto the porch. The wide-planked floor wobbled beneath her feet like piano keys, releasing a melody of creaks and groans.

At the front door; she slipped the key into the lock.


“Wait!” her mother cried out.

Ruby turned. Nora was smiling, but it was grim, that smile. More like gritted teeth.

“I ... think we should go in together.”

“Jesus, let's not make an opera out of it. We're going into an old house. That's all.” Ruby shoved the door open, caught a fleeting glimpse of shadows stacked on top of each other; then she went back for Nora.

She maneuvered the wheelchair up onto the porch, bumped it over the wooden threshold, and wheeled her mother inside.

The furniture huddled ghostlike in the middle of the room, draped in old sheets. Ruby could remember spreading those sheets every autumn, snapping them in the air above furniture. It had been a family ritual, closing up this house for winter.

The house may not have been lived in in a while, but it had been well cared for. There couldn't have been more than a few weeks' worth of dust on those white sheets.

“Caroline has taken good care of the place ... I'm surprised she left everything exactly as it was.” There was a note of wonder in Nora's voice, and maybe a touch of regret. As if, like Ruby, she'd hoped that Caroline had painted over the past.

“You know Caro,” Ruby said, “she likes to keep everything pretty on the surface.”

“That's not fair. Caro-”

Ruby spun around. “Tell me you aren't going to explain my sister to me.”

Nora's mouth snapped shut. Then she sneezed. Arid again. Her eyes were watering as she said, “I'm allergic to dust. I know there's not much, but I'm really sensitive. You'll need to dust right away.”

Ruby looked at her. “Your leg's broken; not your hand.”

“I can't handle it. Allergies.”

It was the best reason for not cleaning Ruby had ever heard. “Fine. I'll dust.”

“And vacuum-remember; there's dust in the carpets.”

“Oh, really? That comes as a complete surprise to me.”

Nora had the grace to blush. “I'm sorry. I forgot for a minute that you're not ... never mind.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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