A Novel In Progress

This is a work of fiction in progress. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner, unless otherwise noted. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.  Please respect my work, as you would your own. The entire work is ©Roni Delmonico and The Photographer's Palette.

As long as I have breath, I will never give up on Isabel. She first entered my life two decades ago, with the passing of my brother, Cory.  She continues to live and breathe in new ways within my imagination every day. I am in awe of where she takes me.  I will add chapters in meaningful blocks when the spirit moves. I don't ever intend to publish it anywhere but here. The complete novel may very well take me a lifetime.    - Roni

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
— J.R.R Tolkien

Prologue

There were colorful lights ahead of her, but she couldn't remember how she got there. Everything was out of focus and she felt herself spinning in all directions, dangerously tilting sideways as her brain frantically searched for a way to catch up with her body. Her mind grasped at the distant notes of music playing in the background, but to no avail. She closed her eyes tight and blinked - once, twice, and then again.. squeezing hard, willing it all into focus. When he laid a hand on her arm, she nearly jumped out of her skin and the startled way she looked at him wide eyed and full of fear, broke his heart. She clearly didn't recognize him but there wasn't time to worry about it right now. In one swift movement, he yanked her to her feet. She lost her balance and almost toppled them both but he stood his ground as the old man stepped out of the shadows. He was carrying the ornate box carefully in both hands, heading straight for her.

"Over my dead body, old man!!" 

He glanced briefly at the water churning behind her, already hating what he had to do but knowing it was their only chance. Turning quickly toward her, he held her face in both of his hands. Forcing her eyes to meet his, he whispered with more urgency than he'd ever felt in his life... Trust me! Grabbing her around the waist, he threw them both into the water and yelled.. 

SWIM!!

Part 1: Song of the Stars

Jack wasn’t the least bit sentimental anymore but he smiled anyway.  The years had slowly hardened him but he had to admit, standing there alone with his thoughts, surrounded by pink flowering trees in every imaginable shade, that she sure had a knack for choosing her atmosphere.  He hadn’t understood back then, why Annie would drive fifteen miles up the winding back road that ran parallel to the highway, just to go to the library across the street from the park.. when there was a perfectly good library right here in town.  He could walk to it from their home and it had recently become a regular part of his routine again.  He’d gone there often as a boy.  His mother would drop him off in front of the old one-story brick building while she did her grocery shopping for the week.  As he grew older he’d trudge up the crumbling concrete steps feigning an attitude, when in reality he loved those quiet hours and his mother knew it. She’d open the car door and shoo him out impatiently, promising to return for him in under an hour.  But it was always two, because she understood that lettuce and ground beef and apples, weren’t the only thing that a boy needed in order to grow.

At sixteen, Jack made friends with the librarian who treated him like he was an adult and let him drink coffee and read the newspaper she kept behind the desk. Her name was Marianne and she had a friendly face, punctuated by rosy cheeks and curly silver hair.  She wore her eyeglasses on a thin silver chain around her neck and when he’d ask her a question, she’d perch them on the end of her nose and look down at whatever he brought to her attention, glancing sideways at him and telling him how interesting it all was, and actually meaning it.  If he had a question about something, she’d stand beside the card catalogue, pulling out the old wooden drawers in each cabinet and patiently showing him how to search for the answers he needed, for himself.  He loved the tidy information station where she worked, with the small chalkboard she kept on the counter, the day’s events all listed chronologically according to the times they were offered.  When each one was over, she’d erase its line until, at the end of the day, the blackboard was nothing but a white smudge representing the past.

“Ironic… the things we remember”, he thought to himself.  

He shifted to the other foot, trying to decide how long he’d allow himself this reverie into his past, wondering whether he could really bring himself to sit down on that bench.  He could still hear her laughing…see the way she threw her head back with abandon when she did, feel the sunlight glinting off the water and sparkling in waves over her hair and in her eyes. She was always burning cinnamon in the house and it clung to her, infusing those around her with a feeling of comfort and warmth.  But it was cold today and the clouds were shrouding the lake in the same gray mist with which they touched the sky. And Annie was gone.  

In his memory she wore a white dress and several thin gold bangles around her wrist, that clinked cheerfully every time she gestured with her hands.  He loved how when she’d play the piano, he could always tell if she was wearing them, by the gentle sound of her bracelets against the keys.  They reminded him of wind chimes.  He counted them one night when he was holding her hand and when he asked why she wore five of them, she said simply, “One for every year that I have loved you.”  

Her ghost seemed to beckon to him then and though he never was able to say no to her, he stopped for a moment with both hands on the back of the bench, leaning… steadying himself, before moving in front of it and finally giving in.  The wood shifted under his weight, and he put his head in his hands, losing his grip as the memory of her washed over him.  Her words came back to him so clearly.  She had a tendency to overthink everything and it drove him crazy at times, even as she taught him to look at the world differently than he ever had before.  

“Do you have any regrets?”  she had asked him quietly.  He looked at her for a long time before answering her.  “No, Annie… I don’t. Do you?”

She fiddled with her bracelets like she did when she was nervous and I could see she was choosing her words carefully.  She didn’t speak for a long time but when she did, she raised her eyes to mine, tears sparkling in her eyelashes; a universe threatening to spill over and drown me in a sea of a thousand stars.  

"Yes, Jack, I do."

It was in that moment that I realized I knew her better than anyone else ever had, but that I had only traveled to the closest planet in a swirling galaxy of them. Where she existed then, was far beyond where I had yet ventured, and I feared… far beyond my reach.  

The old man watched him quietly from across the street in front of the library. He stood against the bricks to the left of the windows wearing a tattered gray tweed coat and a pair of worn black leather gloves with a hole in one thumb, tapping a gentle rhythm on the ancient ornate box he carried with him everywhere. He knew intimately what each carving meant, and the pad of his thumb followed every line, memorizing anew, their perfect placement.  His task was a burden to him…even though his load was light.  No one ever guessed at the weight he carried.  He looked so dapper and serene standing there, that everyone who passed his way, gave him a smile… one that he returned warmly and with utter sincerity.  Most of them had lived their whole lives here without ever locking their doors. They never gave a second thought to who he was or why he was there.  Nor did they care.  But they would.  They surely would.  In time, everyone in this sleepy little village would be looking to him for answers he knew they could only find within themselves.  And they would be as sorry as he was, that they passed right by him without so much as a backward glance.

The First Slow Dance

The wind was picking up, and Jack leaned back, draping his arm across the back of the bench.  A storm was moving in.  It didn’t bother him though… he had always liked a good raucous thunderstorm and in late spring and early summer, they were plentiful.  Warm air flowed in from the west and went to battle with the cold air streaming in from northern Canada, pushing it up and out for another year. Eventually, it always won. He loved the change of seasons. They were beautiful in this part of the country and just when you were getting tired of one, another would surface, bringing a welcome change of scenery and a renewed sense of wonder. It made him feel alive… born again each spring. There was comfort in that metaphor.  He supposed that’s why spring was his favorite season. He couldn’t imagine living in a place where temperatures were constant and he didn’t understand at all why anyone would even want to. 

There were little whitecaps forming on the lake and it was churning up, slapping against the shore wall in front of him.  The spray from the water made it all the way to the bench and he didn’t relish the idea of getting soaked before the storm even got here, so he stood up and walked the short distance to the gazebo at the entrance to the pier.  He leaned against the railing, grateful to have a roof over his head for the moment, watching how the waves continued to grow and the color of the water changed from a murky gray to a light aqua that looked like it had chalk dust sprinkled into it, stirred up with a giant invisible spoon.  He knew it had something to do with the minerals in the rock.  This lake was one of the cleanest in all of America and most of the time you could see clear down to the bottom with crystal clarity.  It was a great place for sailing, but not quite yet.  Soon…

He folded his arms across his chest and turned his back to the lake, seeking shelter from the wind. There, across the street, was the library where Annie had spent so much of her time.  It was relatively small, but it was a gorgeous work of architecture and it had a little porch in front, studded with columns of multicolored stone, muted by time and the laying on of many hands.  He could still see her running up the steps on warm summer evenings. On the days he’d meet her down here, he’d often find her picking the dead flowers out of the window boxes and watering them, making sure they stayed healthy and tidy.  She knew that it was really someone else’s job to do that but she liked to imagine the look of surprise on the caretaker’s face when he scratched his head the next morning, puzzling over how the petunias seemed to magically absorb their own dead flowers overnight, several times a week.  Jack saw him catch her red-handed one day.  The man had come around the side of the building, pulling his gloves off, lost in his own thoughts.  When he saw what Annie was doing he stopped and backed into the shadows where she couldn’t see him, delighted by her thoughtfulness.  He adored her.  She often took the time to stop and chat with him out back when he was working and he began to look for her on the days she usually came.  Funny how he never made the connection between Annie and the window boxes before that, but once he did, he kept it to himself, just as Jack had done, when he had watched the whole exchange.  Truth was, it saved him a fair amount of time, and her antics allowed him to attend to some smaller things he hadn’t had energy for at the end of the day before she took it upon herself to help him.. like hanging up the small bulletin board the librarian had been asking him to do for weeks. It was covered in a flowery fabric that felt odd in his rough hands and he had been avoiding it, worried that he’d get it all dirty or tear it somehow. But the day after he’d hung it, he walked in and found it covered with pictures of her life and the people she loved, and his heart felt glad.  Jack ran his hand through his hair absentmindedly, trying to remember the old man’s name but it alluded him.  If Annie was here, she would remember…

Turning to his right, his gaze rested on the pier that jutted out into the water.   She liked to walk there at the end of the day… all the way to the very end.  The floor of the pier where it stopped, was laid with a circle of stones in a repeating pattern. Standing there, you could see the lake from all directions.  She had taken to putting her toes at the very center and pulling him close so his boots touched hers. “Toe to toe, Jack,” she’d laugh. And she made good on that over the years. Even though her nose only made it to his shoulder, she could argue with the best of them.  She had a thing about facing the church on the east bank and he would face the old mansions that lined the west bank.  She would recite the Psalm inscribed on the plaque inside the church: As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.  He had grown to love that little routine, and looked for ways to slow her down so their time together would last longer.  He liked listening to her talk about the latest books she was reading (she always had three or four going at one time) or the funny antics of the children who came in for story time.  As a teenager, she’d had a job at the library reading to them, and sometimes she’d still go in and do that, just for the sheer joy of it.  She loved kids and had an easy way with them, and they with her. 

Life had a special rhythm back then and he really missed it.  He missed the free fall feeling of being newly in love. God, they were so young and idealistic at the time.  It was raining hard now, so he moved to the table in the center of the gazebo, sinking further into his thoughts.

Sometimes they would stay out late and eat by candlelight at her favorite restaurant over at the inn. It sat beside a beautiful flower garden fashioned after a Monet painting Annie favored.  She had a cheap museum print of it taped over her bed as a little girl. Her father had given it to her for her seventh birthday.  By the time she was seventeen, the edges of the tape were worn and a little yellow but she refused to take it down.  He always wondered how the stuff still stuck to the wall.  He liked staring up at it when they’d lie side by side on her little twin bed, his feet hanging off the edge.  They weren’t supposed to, but like most teenagers, they did it anyway, whenever they could.  He would lay there and imagine her walking over the footbridge in another time period, her dad beside her wearing a big, formal top hat, a wooden cane in his hand, the gorgeous grain polished to a sheen.  The inn had installed a bridge just like the one in her poster and it spanned the lily pond with a soft green handrail.  He never told her then how he had seen it all in his head, but many times since, he wished he had. She would have enjoyed it.  

He realized with a start, that the same man who tended the gardens at the library, had also taken over the care of the one at the inn. He had completely forgotten that! He paused again, searching his memory for the man’s name.  It seemed important to remember it somehow.  It was an unusual name…that much, he remembered. Come on Jack, think!  He knew it would come to him if he gave it enough time.  His mind’s eye kept focusing on the gloves.  They always seemed too tight for him and they had a hole in the thumb. Annie used to say she’d buy him a new pair, but he stubbornly insisted that he liked his old ones just fine. “That’s it! he thought suddenly. Tight gloves ...  Titus!  His name was Titus.. how fitting. He chuckled under his breath, feeling rather smug.  

The rain was coming down sideways now and the floor of the gazebo was soaked, but he wasn’t ready to leave.  She’d grown up here… about eighteen miles from where he had.  This quaint little village meant everything to her.  It’s why he kept coming back.  He had taken her away from it eventually, to live in a small mill town to the north.  His father had left him the house and it just made sense.  Once, on a spring day much like this one, they’d gone out for a walk after a heavy rain. It was a Friday night and the air was moist and fragrant. He remembered that because she used to say it was the best night of the week; the start of a weekend that always held another adventure and would see them completely inseparable. He could still recall so many details about that night.  He thought at first that she might grow to resent him for the move, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.  Annie found everything about the neighborhood charming and she saw things he never had in all the years he had lived there. He would complain about how the old electrical wires and poles obstructed their view and she listened patiently to his grumbling until his mood was spent.  When he finally shut up about it, she had done something totally amazing... she taught him to see their world the way she did.  

She wound the green scarf she had knitted for him around his neck and linked her arm in his and they walked awhile in total silence, listening to the chatter of birds that were slowly returning from the south.  He could feel her breathing it all in, slowly, deliberately.  About a quarter mile from the house, she grabbed his hand and pulled him out into the middle of the street, wrapping her arms around his neck, swaying to her own inner music, ignoring him when he looked around to see if any of the neighbors were watching.  

Then he saw it too.  The sun was setting in a brilliance of fire and where the wires were strung from pole to pole, it looked as if they were made of molten lava. The light was reflecting on their surface and on the little lanterns in the grass beside the mailbox.  There were places up and down the street that had been repaired over the years and were worn smooth.  They meandered like glassy rivers of silver and they were reflecting the kaleidoscope of colors off the flowering trees all around them before running into the distance, disappearing out of sight.  

She laughed and pointed across from them and said, “Oh no, look! Someone’s going to get grounded when his mom comes home and sees that he failed to put the trash out again until after the garbage truck made its rounds. Poor kid.  I wonder if he’ll ever get that right.”

The following week, she’d gone out for a jog while he was getting ready for work. She’d made him late again, but he sure wasn’t complaining and when he pulled out of the driveway and looked up the road, he saw her dragging those trash cans out to the street herself. Driving slowly to meet her, he rolled the window down and yanked on her ponytail.

“You smell like tuna fish,” he said and drove off laughing after she smacked him hard.  

When he looked back at her reflection in the rearview mirror, hands on both hips, feet planted wide in the middle of the blacktop, blowing him a kiss, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he really didn't care how late he was. He made it up to her in spades later.. and in return, she made him understand in equal measure, that he need never question moving her here.

Running his hand roughly over his face, he turned his collar up to his ears, and stepped out into the storm.  No one but Titus noticed that the water making tracks down his cheeks… wasn’t rain.   

Rain

Jack pushed the button twice, impatient and hoping to get the light to change quickly.  It seemed ridiculous to stand there waiting when there were no cars in sight, much less people.  But he did it anyway.  He should be proud of that - living his life by the book… but sometimes he thought it just made him seem weak.  He pretty much believed that a leopard didn’t change its spots though, so he made little effort to change.  He thought it was his nature.  He saw things simply; black and white, right and wrong, worth his time.. or not.  

Maybe it was the rain that was making him so grumpy.  It was running down his neck in rivulets by now and his shoes were soaked.  It was irritating because he had at least a half hour’s drive home and he was determined to stop at the library first, even if only to peer in through the windows.  It was probably closed by now, but he crossed at the crosswalk and turned right at the corner.  When he got closer, he saw a light on in the front window and breathed a sigh of relief.  At least he could warm up a bit.  Titus probably had a fire going in the old fireplace on a day like this and he could dry out a bit.  He ran up the block and dashed up the stairs, smack into Isabel Wolfe.  

“Izzy, my god!  What are you doing here?”  

He hadn’t seen her in years, not since John had died in that wretched forest fire out west near the California border.  They’d attended his memorial service at the church across from the library a month later and he still remembered how Annie sobbed for days after.  She and Isabel had been friends since childhood, but had lost touch, when Izzy moved out to that cabin in the Adirondacks, after her husband died.  He tried to remember how many years it had been since then, but it escaped him.  She had a few more wrinkles around her eyes now, but then so did he.  There was a sadness in her that mirrored his own.  And also a grim determination.

“Jack, wow, it’s so good to see you! How’s Annie, where is she, can I see her?” she smiled.

She hadn’t heard then.  He couldn’t imagine how that was possible. It had been the talk of the town forever and he wasn’t able to go anywhere without someone offering their well meaning sympathy and a casserole.  He hated it.  

"She’s out there somewhere and I will find her!” he repeated again and again, refusing to give up hope.  Eventually, folks just left him alone.

He guessed she didn’t know yet because although she was well regarded, most people remained distant, not knowing what to say to her.  Some found her celebrity intimidating, others avoided her because her loss made them sad and uncomfortable.  She kept to herself most of the time and when she was working on a project, she didn’t read the news.  He remembered reading that in the paper, finding that somewhat ironic and thinking it was a strange way for her to exist. Annie always seemed to understand her though, accepting her need for frequent solitude as something totally normal.   

She reached out and touched his arm.  “Hey, where did you go, just now?” she asked gently.

He almost lost it then, and she decided it best not to question him further. Instead, she followed him back inside the library and they settled into some comfortable chairs next to the fireplace.  Jack was right.  Titus had a roaring fire blazing strong and the heat drifted over the hearth, warming him in spite of his wet clothes.  He looked so disheveled and out of place, curly hair dripping on the rug.  She was rather amazed at how moments of amusement would sneak up on her like this unexpectedly and offer the gift of laughter as a salve for the dull never-ending ache John had left in his wake. Looking at her, Jack felt sorry again for her loss, and understood better than ever now.. what it had cost her.

Isabel had made quite a name for herself as an author.  It was funny though, he knew her best through her artwork, some of which hung in this very library. His favorite, was a beautiful sunrise painting of a woman standing at water's edge, her hand resting on the head of the wolf sitting beside her.  He had seen it many times and when he asked her about it she smiled and said, "That's Maya..she's mine."  

The village was proud of her, she was one of their own and could visit here and remain relatively anonymous as the town closed in around her protectively.  In recent years she had become something of a recluse, living up in the mountains with her lone wolf-dog, but he had heard that she occasionally came here for months at a time to write, staying way down on the east side of the lake, in an impressive Lodge built by the offensive line coach to the Cincinnati Bengals.  The road to get down there was steep and full of crazy switchbacks.  Most people never even knew it was there; it was unpaved dirt and gravel for most of the way and unless you had a four wheel drive vehicle, you could forget about reaching your destination.  He worked in construction and had bid on that job many years ago, but it had gone to someone else and he ended up being thankful for it.

The Lodge was an astonishing feat that took years of hard work and sweat to complete.  It had been a nightmare to get the building materials down in there. He’d done some work for the company that took on the project and was friendly with several of their contractors.  In this business, it paid to have connections and he had garnered an invitation to view it when it was almost complete but hadn’t yet been occupied.  His truck took on the challenge with ease. The diesel engine was pretty useful out in these parts.  

He was really surprised by how beautiful the scenery was on the way down, dotted by babbling brooks and waterfalls and only one or two other homes built by rich owners who counted them as second homes and mostly came to visit for a few weeks in the summertime. He felt like he’d somehow fallen into a Tolkien novel… it was a world away from the village, even though it only took thirty minutes to get down there.  He knew there were some famous people who had made this trek and stayed in the Lodge, most of them big name ball players escorted by the caretaker of the property who owned a pickup truck with some power behind it himself. He thought it pretty special that Isabel was among them. She preferred being there in the winter as it was quieter and people, even in the village, kept largely to themselves.  She was extremely private and he hadn’t gotten to know her very well as a result.  Still, he liked her, and Annie had read every one of her books. There was one whole shelf in her office lined with them; there must have been more than a dozen.  He hadn’t touched them, preferring to leave everything exactly the way she had left it. He was ashamed to admit, sitting across from Isabel, that he hadn’t opened a single one.  Maybe he would now.  

They chatted easily in front of the fire and he found her well spoken and thoughtful. She talked about a recent trip to Hawaii and told a funny story about a gallery owner from Russia who regaled her with his conspiracy theories about 9/11 for an entire morning, while she waited out a passing tropical shower in the little cowboy town.  She told him about the restaurant across the street from the gallery and how she liked to sit at the counter bar that looked over Main Street and watch the old men who retired on Maui. They bought cowboy hats and boots and declared themselves Paniolos in the old tradition, strutting up and down the sidewalk proudly in their "authentic" garb right along with the real ones.  The locals rolled their eyes good-naturedly and accepted it, leaving each to his own.  She spoke of the Farmer’s Market that happened around the corner every Wednesday afternoon, guitar music played by a Hawaiian with a silky smooth voice, the girl who sold necklaces she made from beads and fishing twine and wore dreadlocks so she didn’t have to brush her hair, and the old woman who made little bird whistles by whittling them out of local wood.  

She talked about how Oprah liked it in town, coming down from her ranch high on the slopes of Haleakala in shorts and a t-shirt and big giant sunglasses and a hat, and how everyone just left her alone. And she told him every detail about the tiny Star Lookout she rented when she visited… vividly recalling everything about the coffee house at the end of the road that made her cornbread waffles and eggs benedict with the absolute best hollandaise sauce she had ever tasted anywhere, even if it wasn’t Saturday.

She had a gift for putting her listener right into whatever scene she was setting and it was easy to see why she had chosen writing as a profession.  He could picture it all easily in his mind and she made him wish he could see it with his own two eyes. She was a born storyteller and for the first time in a really long time, he realized that he hadn’t thought of his troubles once, since he’d sat down.

The fire was reduced to embers now, glowing red in the waning light.  He couldn’t imagine how that much time had passed.  The rain had stopped but the wind still howled, playing with the new leaves on the tree outside the window, making the branches bang against the pane, beating haphazardly.  The sun was coming in, stopping just behind her chair, making dappled light dance in waves over the floorboards at their feet.  The dust of a few ancient books was lit up and drifting silently in the air around her head and he wondered suddenly, if he’d ever find this particular scene in one of her novels, sincerely hoping that he would.  

Though he felt conflicted and strangely disloyal, he stuffed his feelings down, like he so often did, and asked her to dinner, with his heart in his throat.  Being here with her felt like clinging to a bit of Annie.. and he didn't want it to end.  When she looked at him he was certain that she understood that, and she accepted, with one caveat. She wanted him to come with her back to the Lodge. It took only seconds for him to grab his coat and say yes, and as he stood up, he was pleased to note that his clothes were now dry.  They decided that he would follow her in his truck, so that he could leave without her having to drive the winding road in the dark to bring him back into the village.      

Jack admitted to himself easily that he was curious about what the place looked like now that it was furnished.  However, he did not admit to himself, that he was intrigued by this woman and was avoiding his own empty house.. stalling for as long as possible.  That would come in time.  For now, he decided he’d live only in this moment and let tomorrow take care of itself.  

Both of them were quiet on the ride down, she in her own car, he in the truck.  She had the radio on and he could see her tapping absentmindedly on the steering wheel, head bobbing ever so slightly.  He wondered, as they made their way down to the lake, if he was making her nervous, but if he was, she didn’t show it.  He wished they were in the same car so they could keep talking. She was clearly comfortable on this road, having driven it many times, but he found the further down they went, the more he needed to concentrate.  He was surprised then, when they rounded the last corner and came around the bend, the Lodge suddenly directly in front of him. The driveway was steep so she signaled to him to park at the top, motioning that they would walk the rest of the way down.  

It was quiet when she opened the door and stepped inside, the only sound a gentle hum coming from the refrigerator in the kitchen. She laid the keys on the window ledge, beside a vase full of pussy willows she had cut out in the yard earlier in the day.  She ran her palm gently over the soft little mounds just once and he swallowed hard, thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. She smiled at him affectionately but there was distance in her eyes and he relaxed as it registered with him.  She wasn't interested in any romantic entanglements which was good, because neither was he.  

She led him into a beautiful room, one he had noticed from the outside because it had floor to ceiling windows and the lights were already on.  It was a turret and it gave the Lodge a chalet like feel without a lot of drama.  He liked that. Understated elegance was so rare these days.  A baby grand piano stood in the center of the room and a fine collection of wines were displayed on the wall behind it, the cooler below, fully stocked from one of the nearby wineries. She asked him to open a bottle and he poured them each a glass.  She sat down to play, and his heart almost stopped when her bracelet clinked against the keys and her smoky voice sang the first few notes of the song, tearing a path across his heart. She couldn't possibly know, but it was the song in his heart... the one he'd danced to for the very first time with Annie in the middle of the street.. surrounded by pink trees and fire.

Time

The clock on the wall behind him softly chimed the hour. Jack counted them off in his head and could hardly believe it was ten o’clock. He didn’t move to leave and she didn’t ask him to. With only a brief reprieve on their separate drive down, they had been talking continuously now, for almost seven hours. The only other person he’d ever done that with was Annie, and the first time they had, was a disaster. He thought her parents were going to kill him. He brought her home at four in the morning and her dad opened the door looking so disappointed, he actually felt a flash of remorse. It was short lived though. They’d had a fight and he was still simmering. He had spent hours trying to make Annie see his point that night, but she had dug in her heels and he had quickly learned, she was as stubborn as he was. Neither one was willing to bend until they finally just gave up in exhaustion and drove home in silence. Her eyes were puffy and her hair was a mess and he realized too late that he had never even given a thought to what her father might think about depositing her on her doorstep like that in the wee hours of the morning. Her dad was so gentle hearted, Jack had underestimated how protective he was of his daughter. It was a week before he’d let him anywhere near her again. He would make that mistake many times in the early years… but, that was not something he cared to think about right now.
 
Isabel got up and went to the window, grabbing a blanket off the back of the chair on her way and wrapping it around her shoulders. She noticed it had begun to rain again, watching the drops slowly make their way down the window pane like little tears. She’d fought this kind of weather fiercely as a younger woman, viewing the darkness outside as disdainfully as she saw it inwardly and doing everything she could to escape it. It had cost her a lot; in wasted days, missed opportunities, financial hardship, and perhaps most painful of all… that piece of herself she spoke of, to no one. Some things cannot be fixed, no matter how badly you’d like them to be.
 
Rubbing her temples gingerly with one hand, she thought about how people often say time heals all wounds, reciting it mechanically as if doing so, might actually render it true. She’d wanted to scream at a thousand decibels if she heard it one more time after John died, but instead, she smiled at everyone, hugged them, and made allowances. People meant well. She knew they did. She didn’t actually believe them, but she was willing to concede that time would inevitably change the way she felt those wounds. It had a way of reducing the roar that threatened to overwhelm her with its bite in the beginning.. to a sting that buzzed incessantly in the background, demanding her attention occasionally, but deftly muted. She had learned in time, that sometimes the best way to fight, was to lay down the sword and get down on your knees. That humble perspective had changed the way she saw things and was a good reminder that sometimes, she just needed help. She sighed heavily, temporarily forgetting she wasn’t alone.
 
Jack had been watching the emotions pass over her face like clouds boiling over the sun. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, feeling almost as if he was intruding. He wished he could read what she was thinking. Although she was incredibly expressive, she had somehow mastered the art of revealing very little of what she truly felt. He cleared his throat softly, feeling sorry about that, wanting to spare her and bring her back to the present.
 
She walked into the kitchen and pulled a small plate out of the cabinet, opening the fridge and dumping most of its contents onto the counter next to her. She looked back at him and smiled, shrugging. She made some excuse about not having time to go grocery shopping today, but he had the distinct impression that an empty refrigerator was not an unusual occurrence and that it was a subject she preferred not to talk about, so he let it go. He nodded easily when she held up a box of crackers and a brick of some exotic kind of cheese the owner had left for her in the fridge, realizing that they had been so engaged in conversation all night, that they passed the dinner hour long ago. He was starving.

He worked beside her silently, slicing the pepper crusted salami and adding a small bunch of grapes to the plate. He found a little tangerine in the wooden bowl on the table and he picked it up, peeling the wrinkly skin and breaking it in half. It looked a bit worse for the wear but the grumble in his stomach assured him it wouldn’t matter. She put a kettle on to make some tea and arranged the cheese and crackers in a circle around his meager offering, adding two paper napkins and a small dish of olives. When he turned around, she was digging in her purse for something and made a small squeal of delight when she found it - a lone chocolate bar, flavored with little pieces of bacon. She peeled off the wrapper, broke it in half and added it to their dinner plate. Jack was skeptical but she convinced him to try it in the end and he laughed out loud when he actually enjoyed it.
 
Since they were both tired of talking, she put on some music and they ate as they listened. It was easy and comfortable, and he was grateful. He wondered, as they finished, why he had never paid attention to this woman when they were younger and she and Annie had been friends. But when he really thought about it, he supposed it made sense. Annie was larger than life even though she was tiny in stature. She had piercing green eyes and a shock of long curly black hair that framed her face in constant disarray. It somehow only added to her appeal. She was beautiful in a captivating way that made every man in a room turn to look at her when she walked in. He’d thrown one or two punches over that in the past. She was the kind of extraordinary beauty that made a woman like her, the subject of many a poem and love song.
 
Isabel was different, but no less compelling. As he looked thoughtfully around the Lodge, taking in the warm glow and the rich wood, the beautiful paintings on the walls and the towering stone fireplace, he realized that her choice of accommodations actually reflected that rather well. It was quieter and less obvious, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might actually miss it altogether. He puzzled it over in his mind, wondering why he was comparing the two women in his head.  He was still thinking about it when she got up and carried the dishes to the sink.

When she came back to the living room, he expected her to say she was tired and ask him to leave, but instead she smiled and said, “If we could close our eyes right now and jump, and land on any day in your past… what day would it be… and why?” She handed him a hot cup of tea and sat down in the chair across from him, folding her legs under her and looking at him expectantly. He grinned and settled back into his chair, knowing immediately how he’d answer that. Pulling his wallet from his pocket, he opened it wide, fishing around for the photograph that he’d kept there for thirty five years. It was faded and worn at the edges and he gazed at it for some time before laying it on the table and pushing it toward her. It had been a long time since he’d thought about it. 

“Annie told everyone it was my first love and her only real competition.”

She saw him wince slightly when he said it, but didn’t comment. He was good at hiding his feelings too. Picking it up to examine it curiously, she smiled in spite of herself.

“You know… she just might have been right.” he winked, and he settled in, to tell the story.

King of the Road

Folding his hands behind his head, Jack leaned back in his chair, swiveling absentmindedly side to side as he talked, trying to recount all the details.

When you’re young and stupid, there can be a fine line between a woman and your car as to who might truly be considered your first love.  There are also a lot of reckless mistakes that come before you finally figure it all out. My personal lesson began one autumn night in the early 80s, after I flipped my dad’s Honda Civic over on its roof. I learned to drive on that thing, stick and all.  It looked like a bright white slice of Wonder Bread on tires and when I went to take my road test, the driving inspector frowned when he got in, barely fitting into the seat.  He yelled at me the whole time, accusing me of riding the clutch, but it was just my muddy work boots, blocking his view of those tiny Japanese pedals!  

She laughed at that, and he hoped it would happen again.

Anyway, I was going too fast around a corner that night and I hit a patch of wet leaves. The car went up the curb but those little tires and the puny suspension weren’t enough to absorb a mere 4 inches of concrete, so I bottomed out and launched the car over on its roof. My mom always said it was a miracle I didn’t die that day and that my guardian angel was definitely working overtime.  My parents insisted after the accident, that if I was ever going to own my own car as a teenager, then I would have to buy it with my own money. Their theory was that I’d be a lot less reckless if I paid for it myself rather than driving around in one of their cars, for which I had no skin in the game.  That’s what started my quest for a car of my own and I wanted it to be something far cooler than a tiny little Honda Civic that couldn’t even handle a fast curve. 

She shifted and sat cross legged in the chair, covering her legs with the blanket and picking up her tea.

“You sure you’re up for this?” he asked.  She shook her head no but her grin said yes, so he continued.

I had been working two jobs like a dog for three dollars and thirty-seven cents an hour at a garden center and an old Radio Shack store, (and I counted every dime) saving up my money week after week, clinging to the dream.  My mom dropped me off at the little library in town on my night off.  It wasn’t as nice as the one you love here in the village, but I had developed a friendship with the librarian named Marianne and I enjoyed my visits with her.  There was a weekly newspaper that came out at the time and it was something like the Penny Saver except that you had to buy it. I didn’t want to spend the money so she would save it for me behind the desk and when I came in every week I’d sit at the table across from her and look at all the ads for cars.  Because I was in high school in the 80s a lot of the classic muscle cars from the late 60s and 70s were being sold at a really good price for a high school student with limited funds. They needed a lot of work since they were between ten and fifteen years old, but I was good with cars, so that didn't bother me. Week after week I’d spend an hour or two, drooling over the ads, imagining owning one myself.  Several of the guys at school had typical muscle cars like, Camaros, or Mustangs and GTOs but I wanted no part of that mold.  I hated the idea of being glommed in with a bunch of guys I felt were just strutting their feathers, each one trying to look better than the next.  I was looking for something different.. something that exuded my idea of freedom.  

I was obsessed for weeks and I called so many different people about so many different cars that my head was spinning. I went out and looked at some of them in person, but didn’t like a single one.  They were all pretty unimpressive up close, sometimes way less interesting than the ad described or too expensive for what was being offered. I’d sit in each car with my hands on the wheel and it just didn’t feel like me.  I kept moving on in disgust and my parents were beginning to wonder if I’d just give up on the whole idea.  When you’re seventeen years old and the only phone in the house is hanging on the wall with a very short cord and you had to sit at the kitchen table and call all these strangers with everyone around you listening, it was easy to understand how they might think so.  I wasn’t very good at hiding my frustration, but I was a bull dog when I’d made up my mind about something,  and I wouldn’t let it go.  

"Still am," he interjected with a grin.

Finally, one ordinary summer night, I walked in the front door of the brick building and Marianne handed me the paper in our usual weekly ritual. I took it to a quiet corner of the library with a cup of coffee from the thermos on her desk but stopped just a minute first to joke with her.  She laughed easily and asked if she’d get a phone call from my parents after I’d been up all night.  I said, “Sure, yeah, you will and it will be a thank you because I finally finished my homework for a change.”  I laid the paper on the table and opened it up to the classifieds but I had been looking for so many months, that I was scanning only half-heartedly. The night was beautiful, crickets chirping, fireflies dancing around in the dark and I wasn’t really in the mood to be inside.  But I didn’t like the thought that I might be missing something in that paper either.

I found an ad for a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that night.  It was a convertible with manual transmission and I remember thinking, “Wow.. now, that looks interesting!” Since, I was at the library anyway, I immediately went to the card catalogue and tried to find references for the Olds, in some car books. As luck would have it, there were several.  I pulled them off the shelves and brought them back to the table, rifling through them looking for pictures and information, and after poring over them for some time, I thought, Hmm… I wonder…

My heart started to race but I was definitely playing it cool. I would usually go to the library at the end of the week, a day or two before the new issue of the paper was coming out which was good because Marianne never minded if I tore ads out of it, but also bad, because, a lot of times, all the good cars were unavailable.  I’d get my hopes up and call, feeling all excited about one of them, and it would already be gone, having sold early in the week.  I wasn’t willing to get too excited about this just yet.  I asked Marianne if I could use the phone and I called the owner and discovered that he was way out in the middle of nowhere in an area I knew little about. But he told me that car was still available and I could come out and look at it if I wanted to. NOW I was excited.  I tore up to the desk to show it to Marianne and she hugged me and wished me luck, calling out and shaking her head as I ran out the door with a wave, forgetting my bag on the chair.

I was quiet on the way home that night, working up my argument. Every night we had dinner together as a family and that one day a week after looking through the paper I’d come home from the library and I would bring up the car thing. In the beginning, I was all excited and animated about whatever new car I found in the newspaper that week and talked incessantly about it, begging them to take me to see it.  There would be a lot of rolling of the eyes, and exasperated questioning: Are you sure about this one, son?  Is it really something worth seeing?  We went through the whole ritual again at the table, until I finally convinced my dad to take me.  

I knew it was 40 minutes from our house and that the roads out there were poorly marked with no house numbers. Back then, we didn't have GPS or cell phones so I had to rely on the assumption that the person on the other end was giving me decent directions or at least some easily recognizable landmarks. After a few times getting seriously lost,  I learned to get all my maps out beforehand and trace the whole route out carefully.  We planned a trip for that Saturday morning and I brought a pocket full of cash because that’s just the way things were done.  If you were smart, you took your dad or your best friend with you to cover your back. With a thousand dollars in your pocket, you didn’t want to be alone with an axe murderer who was planning to mug you, take all your money and leave you for dead.

The car was at a farm with a barn out back and a dilapidated old farmhouse close to the road. You could tell they worked on the farm, not the house, and when we pulled in, sure enough there was this metallic gold Oldsmobile sitting there, right out front.  From a distance it looked fantastic and I was jumpin’ out of my seat yelling at my dad, “Come on let’s go, this is gonna be awesome!” But as we drove closer and pulled up beside it, dad's face grew more concerned.  You could see up close what you couldn’t see from afar.. it was definitely a fixer upper.  The top was shaggy and falling apart and it was leaking. The body had some rust on it in places but it was in relatively good shape. On the inside, the seats were okay but the stitching was coming out. It was like an old favorite pair of jeans where the denim was worn, but intact.  The seams were beginning to tear and needed to be re-sewn.  The carpet was a mess and it smelled nasty.  It needed a whole new set of tires.  But I got in that thing, and started it up and put the top down, and when I looked up, I could see blue sky and clouds and feel the breeze on my face.

After that, it was all over. I was already mentally ticking off everything this car needed from me and deciding whether or not I could give it to her. I looked over at my father and when he saw the expression on my face, he just shook his head and smiled.  I think he knew right then, that this was it… this was my car.  It didn’t even matter what the negotiations were as long as they ended up with me behind the wheel, driving toward home.  The guy could have every dollar in my pocket. I paid cash on the spot for it and that was the start of the long journey to fix her up right.

On the drive home that day, I felt it all, every bit of it; the sky over my head and the sleek lines of her body became a part of me forever.  I didn’t care too much about her color.  I knew I could change that.  She had to be red.  She had two bucket seats and you sat down low, especially for a big car like that and you looked out over her long hood that just came up like a runway at an airport. It had a couple of lines in it.. creases in the metal that went the full length of the hood so it seemed like a runway.. like you could launch it off a carrier or something.  This heavy chrome Hurst shifter came up out of the floorboards between the two bucket seats and because it sat a little far forward, it was curved like a boomerang. It came out of the floor straight, had a gentle curve to it and then came out straight again into this metal T-shifter that you wrapped your hand around.  The cold, sturdy metal made you feel like you were in command of the space shuttle or something.  It was amazing! It had a huge amount of power because it had a rocket 350 V-8 and it made a low burbling sound.. a deep rumbling grumble.   

He paused then, wondering if she was bored. She was leaning forward in her chair, hands cupping her mug of tea, steam curling into the air invitingly.  She was listening intently without a word, seeming to enjoy the details.. so he went on with his thoughts.

In my teenage brain I likened it to dating a supermodel, I guess. The car itself got a lot of attention when I was out, which I loved. She was fun to be in.. and to be around, but she had temper tantrums and was moody and high maintenance. And the only thing that tempered all that, was the fact that she was just so damn beautiful.  I worked on her that long hot summer and it took up all my free time. By the time school came around again, I was raring to go.  Our bus stop had a couple of guys and a few cute girls who waited at the corner and I decided to show off a little. I pulled up with a grin, sunglasses on, top down, full of attitude and they begged me to give them a ride.  After that, we followed the same routine almost every morning.  I’d pull up, a bunch of kids would pile in the car, we’d blast some music and off we’d go, headed for high school. If I missed a day, I never heard the end of it.  I was king of the road!  It was a great senior year and I never wanted it to end.

“I guess I’d pick that day, Izzy.  The day I picked up that car.”

Isabel was quiet for some time, staring at the photograph before finally admitting she couldn’t decide either.. Annie… or the sexy metallic gold ’71 Olds Cutlass Supreme.  Handing it back, she promised with a wink that she would sleep on it and get back to him in the morning. By now it was well after midnight and they both yawned in sync.  She stood up, thanking him for sharing such a wonderful part of his past with her and because it was so late, she offered to let him stay in the cabin next door, which was also owned by the man she was renting from.  There was an acre between the two properties and she explained that she usually just paid for both of them so that she had complete privacy and could invite friends up to visit for the weekend if she wished.  

He felt rather glad as he walked slowly up the road to the cabin by himself, that he had unwittingly managed to become one of them. And she stood at the window watching him go, already knowing her answer.

It would always be Annie.

Gone Without A Trace

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.  

The Images I've Painted

If a woman wasn’t careful, she could lose so many little pieces of herself through the years that she’d wake up and look in the mirror one day, and no longer recognize herself as the one staring back at her.  All those little slivers were whittled away one curl at a time, landing on the floor and piling up softly at her feet, ignored and unseen. Later they would be swept away and forgotten, as if they had never at all, been part of the original. It was the sudden, stunning realization that she might have been party to that herself, had even been the one that did much of the carving that eventually changed the face of who she was, that kept Isabel up all night. She stood in front of the mirror studying her reflection, dark shadows under her eyes.  She wondered how it was even possible that someone she once loved so much, could have just disappeared without her ever even knowing about it.

She dressed quickly and without much thought.  The sun was just coming up behind the trees and she needed to be out there.  Gathering her smallest easel and a blank canvas, along with the brown wooden case she carried her brushes and paints in when she was heading outdoors, she tossed them into a basket at the bottom of the stairs and turned the coffee pot on.  She stood at the sink wearily, waiting for it to brew and the rich smell of it made her stomach growl.  She found a muffin wrapped in plastic and wondered only briefly how old it was before putting a few pieces in her mouth and brushing the crumbs off the counter and onto the floor.  She’d deal with it later.  She could see the clouds already beginning to light up in the sky and right now, she just wanted to get out there before it was too late.  It always surprised her how quickly a sunrise was gone.  More than once, she had pulled the covers over her head and  slept “just a little bit longer” and missed it altogether.

Outside, the sounds of the morning were just beginning.  Water was lapping gently on the shore and she thought she heard an owl in the distance.  It was still mostly dark, but there were lights on the stairs that led down to the water.  It was a long, steep walk from the house to the dock and it was pretty slippery, so she gripped her things in one hand and held onto the handrail going down.  The smell of pine surrounded her and the air was cool on her face. She felt her muscles already relaxing, with the exception of that one spot on her left shoulder blade that had been plagueing her of late.  She supposed she really should have the doctor take a look at that, but she dreaded the physical therapy that would likely result so she kept putting it off for another day.  It was amazing how many things could just keep getting shoved into the background of a life, like that.  Thankfully it was her left shoulder and it didn’t effect her ability to paint.  

She set her easel up on the dock, grateful that the air was still, so it wasn’t bobbing too much.  Painting always cleared her head and she sorely needed it this morning. She would have hated to put it all away after dragging it down here. Placing the canvas gently in front of her, she pulled the small table from between the two chairs over beside her, and laid everything out, just so.  

For as long as she could remember, she had organized her life like this.  When she was writing, everything had its place on the table: the pretty zen garden to her left, with the four tealights that signaled she should get up and stretch, by winking out one at a time... the vase of fresh flowers to her right, including tiny fragrant rosebuds because she loved the smell of them... her lamp, with the bronze meandering leaves curving upward as if seeking light too...  And her headphones.  There was always her music.  She had tried working in silence a few times when she was first learning to put pen to paper, but it quickly became obvious, that when she did, the end result wasn’t as special.  Something about lyrics and music and even simple pure sounds like the ocean waves and seagull tracks she always listened to...lulled her to a space where time was irrelevant and place was only what was in front of you.  

It was the same when she painted.  All the paints were lined up neatly in rows, caps carefully closed, arranged in the order she liked.  Each one had a space in the box, like the silverware that lined the drawers in the kitchen.  Order was important to her. It made it easier for her to concentrate.  The ironic thing was, when she was busy creating something, the rest of the house was a total disaster.  The dust was an inch thick and there were little fuzzy things all over the carpet.  Books were in stacks on her desk and there were bowls full of unknown substances on the coffee table.  (It was usually chocolate ice cream, for which she had a major weakness.)  Her clothes were laying on the bed, on the floor, and on the backs of chairs all over the house.  She never even noticed... until she was done.  And then she looked around in shock at the hurricane that had apparently destroyed her house.  She giggled then, remembering the first time John had visited her at home.  The look on his face had been priceless and he told her once that his only thought was that he better hire a housekeeper.  

She put her music in her ears then, and took out a paintbrush.  Jack was watching her from the upper deck of the cabin, but he didn’t let on. He thought how she looked like a conductor stepping up to begin a symphony.  She tapped on her canvas, hands up, quietly surveying her surroundings. Drawing in a deep breath of the spring scented air she called the stillness of the morning to her and then began.  Her long hair was lifting up at the bottom corners and moving softly in the breeze. The only sound was the  swish of her brush lifting the paint and filling her canvas with color and the gentle lapping of the water against the dock.  A blue heron squawked in the distance and then silently flew low over the water, toward her.  Slowly, the pink and blue began to dance in the foreground and a small rowboat that was anchored just a few feet out, appeared like magic out of the darkness to her right.  She was lost in her own world and he sat down on the old rocker behind him to watch.  She began to sing and her voice was clear and strong.  He could hear every word across the water.

Have the images I've painted
So distorted who you are
That even if the world was looking
They could not see you...the real you

Have I changed the true reflection
To fulfill my own design
Making you what I want
Not showing you for divine

Would I miss you now if you left and closed the door
Would my flesh cry out "I don't need you anymore!”
Or would I follow you...could I be restored?
I wonder, I wonder
Will I ever learn
I wonder, would I know you, now....

It made his heart ache.

Somewhere far on the opposite side of the lake, Titus stood on the pier looking south toward them both and whispered... yes.

Free To Fly

God, he loved mornings like this.  He’d almost forgotten what it felt like.  Lately he’d chosen to work seven days a week, getting up before dawn and staying long past the time everyone else had gone home.  The light out here seemed to come from some other world. He honestly believed he could sit in this rocking chair all day long, wiling away an afternoon with nothing more than his own thoughts and a good cup of coffee to occupy him.  When was the last time he’d felt that way?  He knew.  He knew exactly when.  He passed a hand over the scruff on his face and decided he’d just leave it.  Annie had always liked it and for years he’d kept a goatee, rubbing it against the softness of her cheek whenever possible.  She’d complain about it, but there were so many mornings he’d wake up to her running her hand over his scratchy face, tenderly.. that  he knew her grumbling was only for show.  He scratched his chin.  Maybe he’d let it grow out a little.

The sun was scattering diamonds across the water as it made its way into the sky. He guessed it was around eleven o’clock and he had already been sitting there for several hours, watching the geese swoop in for a landing on the surface of the lake.  There was a peace here that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.  It was quiet, sure.  He had spent plenty of time in the woods and he preferred that kind of silence, but this was somehow different.  It was pervasive, as if the rest of the world had frozen for a brief moment in time, allowing him to sort out his thoughts in a way that might actually enable him to organize them permanently, without leaving him behind in the dust.  He took a sip from the mug at his side, thinking of the old Henry David Thoreau quote.  

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, find that I had not lived." 

It made so much sense to him in this moment, tucked away from the rest of the world, and he could see easily why Isabel liked to write out here. The surroundings with their myriad scents and sounds were inspiring, without being intrusive. He thought he might stay the weekend and explore the woods a bit, if she wouldn’t mind.  He’d ask her later.  She had finished her painting but was still sitting on the dock far below him, knees drawn up under her chin, one hand splashing back and forth in the water, making little ripples as she moved. She was staring off into space and he wouldn’t disturb her right now.  It was interesting sitting up here in the shade of the porch, watching from a distance.  He paid attention to the quieter details, like the way she cocked her head to the side when a seagull passed over her head, squinting into the sun, or the way she giggled to herself when a fish mistook her finger for its breakfast. She was deeply connected to her surroundings, respecting them even more out here than she did in the house.  She was at ease, blending naturally with the landscape, and somehow it made him feel that way too.  It surprised him that she spent so much time alone.  He thought that people must be rather drawn to her.

Jack looked around him at the log cabin where he was staying, appreciating the quality of the build, in the daylight.  He hadn’t had much of a feel for his surroundings when he’d gone inside last night in the dark. It resembled the Lincoln Logs he used to play with as a boy, right down to its green metal roof.  Looking through the woods to his right, he could clearly see the Lodge at this time of year. Isabel was packing up her things and heading back to the house, and he stood up to wave at her from the porch.  Shielding her eyes from the sun, she waved back, shouting to ask if he’d had any breakfast.  When he shook his head no, she smiled and motioned that she’d be right there.  He went inside and rinsed his coffee cup, leaving it in the sink.  Drying his hands on the towel hanging on a hook next to the oven, he heard her footprints crunching on the gravel outside the back door. Opening it, he tried to hide his smile over what she was wearing, but he just couldn’t do it.  His face must have given him away because she looked down at herself and laughed.

“Yeah, well… I’m no fashion diva, that’s for sure,” she grinned.  

She stuck her finger in the hole in her sweatshirt, mumbling something about how all her sweatshirts looked like that because the sharp edge on her laptop rested against her torso causing friction between it, and the fabric. It drove her crazy for a time looking for anything that might be causing the small tears, but she had finally figured out that the repeated rubbing motion that happened when her computer was resting on her lap, had worn through most of her wardrobe as she wrote.  

"One of the hazards of the profession," she teased.

There was a smear of blue paint on one leg and she covered it with a hand, feeling embarrassed all of a sudden that she hadn’t thought of that before dashing over here.  She should have at least changed first! She asked him if he’d like to go down to the village to get something to eat, since her refrigerator was sadly lacking.  He agreed, remembering the sorry little tangerine he had politely swallowed last night and they decided to meet at the car in an hour.  

“Hey, how would you feel about my staying the weekend up here and spending some time in the woods?” he asked.  “I’ll stay out of your way and won’t be a bother.  I know you’re writing.”

She looked at him for a long moment and then nodded her head before walking slowly back up to the Lodge.  He was determined to make her smile today and went inside to shower and contemplate the best way to do that.  She didn’t seem unhappy really.  He just felt like she hadn’t laughed much in awhile and, when he stopped to think about it, neither had he.  He felt a sudden wild desire to change that for both of them and he knew exactly how to pull it off.  He took out his phone and made a quick phone call to the shop in the village.  He had an arrangement with a guy he’d done some work for before Christmas, and he was more than happy to help.  Showering quickly he ran up the road and sat down on the bench by the door, impatiently waiting for her to come out.  

He hadn’t taken it out in almost a year, but it was a perfect day for it.  When she opened the door, she found him standing there, a huge grin on his face.  Grabbing her hand, he yanked her outside and said, “Come on!  I have an idea! Get in the truck!”  He was already running up the driveway.

If it had been anyone else, she would have dug her heels in and demanded an explanation before going anywhere, but his enthusiasm was contagious and she found herself running after him. They made it to the village in record time, stopping briefly to pick up a few things at the deli.  When he drove in to the gas station on route 20, she leaned forward in her seat raising an eyebrow but settled back in when he pulled up to the gas pump.

“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”  

He left the keys in the ignition so she could listen to the radio.  She fiddled with the knobs until she found one she liked and closed her eyes to listen.  The sun was warm on her face and it was just nice to feel the air again.  She heard the grumble of a Harley pulling up to the pump next to them but she was so relaxed, she didn’t even bother to open her eyes.

Jack stood on his side of the truck smiling at her through the window.  She was mouthing the words and drumming the air and he took it as a good sign that she’d go for this, like he thought she would.  Opening the door, he dumped a helmet in her lap and pointed to the bike.

The next thing she knew, she was tearing off down the road, burning like wildfire and laughing into the wind.