Isabel lay on her back for a long time listening to the rain and thinking about Annie. She got up briefly to grab her laptop off the table and on her way back she opened the window so she could smell the scent of dirt and pine needles floating in on the wind. The breeze was wonderful and it made the sheer white curtain flutter in the soft air next to the bed. She climbed back under the covers and stretched out her hand, letting the fabric sweep over her palm rhythmically. It was mesmerizing and she drifted, dozing comfortably... laptop still closed beside her, its little green light winking into the night like a tiny lighthouse on a forgotten shore. The wind whispered in the trees and gently rattled the screen against the window frame, tapping as if to wake her and remind her of her task. She stirred for a moment, responding to the beauty around her... but while her spirit was willing, her body was weak, and she sank only further.
She woke an hour later and ran a tired hand over her eyes. She was still sitting straight up against the bed frame and her neck was stiff and sore. She rubbed it for a few minutes, willing herself to wake up and focus. Opening her laptop, she grabbed her reading glasses from the nightstand and did a search for the online version of the village newspaper. She wasn’t even sure they had one.
Long ago, she had decided to stop looking for news of the people she had lost touch with over the years. It gave her a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, watching from a distance how old friends had formed lifelong bonds of connection. She was a widow, and she had always been a wanderer. Hand in hand, those two things ensured that deep roots had never taken hold with her. She didn’t stay in one place for very long but she had her favorite places, preferring to spend a few months at each one and then move on. Over the years she had formed a small circle of acquaintances in each place who were always glad to see her when she returned, and would miss her when she was gone. Some would stay in her life for an extended period of time and others only briefly. She was content to let them drift into or out of her life at will, loving them when they were with her, but letting go easily when they were not. She saw it like the ebb and flow of the tide. It never went deeper than that and she didn’t question why. She just didn’t form permanent attachments like some people did, not with people, or with material things. Most of the time, she didn’t give it a second thought, but she had always felt a little sad about Annie. She would have liked to have kept her close. She had tried... but she just didn’t know how.
When they were young, they had been inseparable, but eventually time and circumstance had pulled them apart. Month after month would go by, with each of them thinking... I really should call, but when months turned to years, the thought slowly faded away. The desire never did though. She always wondered why with her, some things burned steadily forever, and some things blazed hot at first, dying slowly to soft embers and then ultimately cooling to an empty stillness. John had always said that embers retained their warmth for a long time after the visible fire had gone out and that the magic could be rekindled with just a little effort, but it was one of the few things he said that she quietly dismissed without telling him. He knew anyway and chose to let it go. His words often spoke peace to her deeply cautious heart, but her reality had always been this - cold was cold and when it was over it was over. Her walls were built for a reason: to contain, to protect, to keep a fire from spreading, to keep hurt out. “Isn’t that why we build a sturdy circle of stones around a campfire after all?” she’d argue.
He’d proven her point so painfully when he left her that night, forfeiting his life to a raging wildfire that knew no borders. It would take many years for her to understand what he’d been trying to say to her that day, and many more beyond that, to forgive him.
She typed Annie’s name into the search box and a long list of entries came up on the first page. It wasn’t surprising. She knew everyone in this town and they loved her, stopping her on the street to talk for minutes that would often turn into an hour or more. When they were girls, Izzy would stand back and just watch her, preferring shadows to the limelight, marveling at the way she could talk to strangers as if she had known them forever. It was like listening to a brook tumbling over rocks in the middle of the woods, somehow peaceful and energetic at the same time. They spent hours on the phone, and Annie usually did most of the talking, but it wasn’t until they took sailing lessons together at the marina when they were fifteen that their friendship took off, spanning a decade. They’d stayed close even through college, drifting apart only after Annie bought the Patisserie in the village and Isabel met John, started writing, and set off for other shores. Occasionally one of them would pick up the phone, but their conversations grew shorter and less intimate and in time, stopped altogether. She felt an ache just then, realizing that this was a loss she had never properly mourned.
Isabel paused on an old archived photo taken on the day Annie had almost drowned. Having grown up on the lake, both of them knew their way around sailboats, but they were required like everyone else, to pay their dues at the marina. One of the girls who was new to the sailing club had been falling behind the rest, struggling to remember even the simplest steps and often slipping on the deck, toppling herself and anyone standing near enough for her to grab onto. She was shy and quiet and she had a birthmark on her forehead that made her feel really self-conscious. She didn’t make friends easily, and she was often the subject of ridicule, drawing far more attention than she ever desired. That only made Annie want to know her more. She took her under her wing that summer, drilling her over and over again, teaching her water safety, and going over every inch of their sailboat from front to back, until she understood everything thoroughly. But the one thing she could never cure her of, was her clumsiness.
Sometimes the wind came up and a storm would blow in out of nowhere, even when it was sunny. On that particular day, we made a last minute call to come in off the lake early. It was getting choppy and it just didn’t feel right, but before we had even gotten our bearings and turned around, the sail swung backward in the wind, knocking into Annie and tossing her overboard. It all happened so fast no one even had time to grab her.
It’s funny how heroes are born. That poor clumsy girl jumped in after her without thinking twice. She held onto Annie for dear life, treading water and keeping her head as still as possible until help arrived. Afterward, Annie hugged her and told her every day, that she had saved her life and told anyone in their vicinity that her friend was a hero. That girl later joined Search and Rescue with the Coast Guard and went on to save many lives in the ensuing years. Isabel heard that she and Annie had remained close all these years and felt that old twinge of sorrow, that the two of them, had not.
Scanning the rest of the page, she dismissed the remaining articles but opened up the most recent one at the top. Apparently it had been a sensational story when it first came out and they had reported on it for weeks, but it had died off into anonymity when too many months passed and there wasn’t anything new to report. Isabel sighed looking at the pictures of Jack that were associated with the story. He looked haunted and very thin and he clearly wished to avoid the cameras. Several of the images were of his hand as he passed another reporter and signaled that he wasn’t talking. One even showed him grabbing the camera and throwing it into the lake. She guessed that hadn’t gone over very well, but she read the caption and saw the lawsuit had been quickly swept under the rug when the whole village came to his defense and settled the matter by replacing the camera. He’d been through enough, they argued, and the photographer eventually gave in. A little further down the page there was a gorgeous picture of Annie, smiling at Jack on their wedding day. The caption read:
Gone Without A Trace.