Read 28 Summers Online

Authors: Elin Hilderbrand

28 Summers (7 page)

BOOK: 28 Summers
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“I need to clear my head, Mal,” he says. “I’ll see you later, and thanks for having me and all that. You have a nice setup here. I’m happy for you.”

“Fray.”

“Mal, please.”

Fine. If that’s the way he wants it, fine!
Through her bedroom window, Mallory watches him head down the no-name road, which is still dusty from Leland’s departure. Mallory knew there was a chance the weekend would blow up this way, but even so, she feels stung: her brother and her best friend both failed her.

When she steps into the great room, she smells browned butter and coffee. Jake has used her new French press. “I made omelets with the leftover tomatoes and the Brie,” Jake says. “Come eat.”

Tears fill Mallory’s eyes as she sits at the table. “Are you leaving too?” she asks.

“No,” Jake says. “If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll stay.”

What are we talking about in 1994? O. J. Simpson, Al Cowlings, LAPD chasing a white Bronco down the 405, the bloody glove, Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, Kato Kaelin, Judge Ito; Tonya Harding; Kurt Cobain; Lillehammer; Jackie Onassis; the World Series canceled; Newt Gingrich; the internet; Rwanda; the IRA;
Pulp Fiction;
Nelson Mandela; the Channel Tunnel; Ace of Base; Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Ross, Joey, and Phoebe; Richard Nixon;
The Shawshank Redemption.

W
hether or not our boy Jake (and he is our boy, we’re with him here through the good, the bad, and the incredibly stressful) wants to admit it, his life has been changed by spending Labor Day weekend with Mallory.

He would like the record to show that he went to Nantucket as a free and single man. A week before Jake headed to the island, he and Ursula had a category 5 breakup that destroyed everything in its path—Jake’s self-esteem, Ursula’s promises, both of their hearts.

He hadn’t been looking for another romantic entanglement, not even an easy rebound. But by Saturday, after first Cooper, then Leland, then Frazier had left—bringing to mind the children’s song about the dog that chased the cat that chased the rat—he realized this was what he’d been hoping for since the moment he saw Mallory waiting on the dock of Straight Wharf.

Mallory’s eyes, he’d noticed, were bluish green or greenish blue; they changed, like the color of the ocean.

They were green when she stared at him across the harvest table with her empty breakfast plate in front of her. She had devoured every bit of her omelet, making little sandwich bites with her toast. Jake couldn’t believe how at ease he felt with her, almost as if she were
his
younger sister.

Nope,
Jake thought.
Scratch that
. His feelings were
not
brotherly. When he came around to clear Mallory’s plate, he saw a golden toast crumb on the pale pink skin of her upper lip. He brushed the crumb away with the pad of his thumb, gently, so gently, and then he kissed her and he experienced the most intense desire he had ever known. He wanted her so badly, it scared him.
Go slowly,
he’d thought. Jake had been with only a handful of women other than Ursula, most of them casual dates or one-night stands in college. He spent a long time kissing Mallory’s lips before he moved down to her throat and the tops of her shoulders. Her skin was salty, sweet, her mouth and tongue buttery. She made cooing noises and finally said,
Please. I can’t stand it.
This was how Jake felt as well; the want in him was building like a great wall of water against a dam, but he savored the nearly painful sensation of holding himself in check. Slowly, he moved his mouth over the innocent parts of her body. And then, finally, she cried out and led him by the hand to the bedroom. Somehow, he’d known that the experience would change his life, that he would never be the same again.

Mallory’s eyes were still green when she propped herself up on her elbow after they’d made love.

“Put your bathing suit on,” she said. “I want to show off my island.”

They headed out the back door and down a nearly hidden sandy path that led through the reeds and tall grass to Miacomet Pond. On the shore was a two-person kayak painted Big Bird yellow that Mallory dragged out to knee-deep water. She held it steady as Jake climbed on—he wanted to appear confident, though he hadn’t been in a kayak since he was twelve years old, back when his sister was still healthy enough to spend the day on Lake Michigan. Mallory handed Jake his paddle and effortlessly hopped up front.

Away they went, gliding over the mirror-flat surface of the water. Jake let Mallory set the pace for their paddling and he matched her strokes. She didn’t talk and although there were questions he wanted to ask her, he allowed himself to enjoy the silence. There was some birdsong, the music of their paddles dipping and skimming, and the occasional airplane overhead—people lucky enough to be arriving or, more likely, poor souls headed back to their real lives after an idyllic week or month or summer on Nantucket.

Jake tried to absorb the natural beauty of the pond—what an escape from the Metro stations and throngs of monument-seeking tourists in DC—but he was distracted by the stalk of Mallory’s neck, the silky peach strings of her bikini top tied in lopsided bows, the faint tan lines on her back left by other bathing suits. Her hair was swept up in a topknot and the color was darker underneath, sun-bleached on the ends. He examined her earlobes, pierced twice on the left, a tiny silver hoop in the second hole.

Suddenly, she leaned back, her paddle resting against her lap, her face to the sun, eyes closed beneath her Wayfarers.

“You paddle,” she said. “I’m going to lie here like Cleopatra.”

Yes, fine, he would paddle her for as long as she wanted. In twenty-four hours, she had become his queen.

Mallory’s eyes were blue when she gazed into the lobster tank at Sousa’s fish market later that afternoon. She was wearing cutoff jeans and a gray Gettysburg College T-shirt over her bikini. Her hair was in a ponytail; little wisps of hair framed her face. She had freckles on her nose and cheeks from the sun that afternoon. There was a tiny gap between her two bottom front teeth. Had she ever had braces? Jake knew every single thing about Ursula—they had been together since the eighth grade—but Mallory was a whole new person, undiscovered. Jake would get to know her
better
than he knew Ursula, he decided then and there. He would pay attention. He would learn her. He would treasure her. He would make a study of her eye color, the tendrils of her hair, the shape of her tanned legs, and the gap between her teeth.

When Mallory picked out two lobsters, her eyes misted up. The blue in her eyes then was sadness, maybe, or sympathy.

“You’re going to have to cook those buggers by yourself,” Mallory said. “I don’t have the heart.”

That night was their first date. Mallory melted two sticks of butter and quartered three lemons. She opened a bottle of champagne that had been in the cottage when she moved in, left by a long-ago houseguest of her aunt and uncle. They ate cross-legged out on the porch while the sun bathed them in a thick honeyed light. Once it was dark, they laid a blanket down in the sand and held hands, faces to the sky. Jake tried to identify the constellations and explain the corresponding mythology. Mallory corrected him.

She told Jake that her aunt Greta had moved in with a woman after Mallory’s uncle died. This had scandalized everyone in the Blessing family except Mallory.

How could it possibly matter if Aunt Greta chose to be with a man or a woman?
Mallory said.
Why wouldn’t everyone who cared about Greta just want her to be happy?

Jake had responded by telling Mallory about Jessica.
I had a twin sister,
he said.
Jessica. She died of cystic fibrosis when we were thirteen
.

That must have been so difficult for you,
Mallory said.

It was,
Jake said.
Survivor’s guilt and all that. Cystic fibrosis is genetic. Jessica inherited the genes and I didn’t.
He swallowed.
She never got angry or made me feel bad about it. She just sort of…accepted it as her albatross.

I’ve never lost anyone close to me like that,
Mallory said.
I can’t imagine life without…Cooper. How do you ever recover from something like that?

Well, the answer was that you didn’t recover. Losing Jessica was the central fact of Jake’s life, and yet he almost never talked about it. Everyone he grew up with in South Bend already knew, but once Jake got to Johns Hopkins, it became something like a secret. He remembered being at a fraternity event, beer and oysters, and mentioning his sister to Cooper without thinking. Cooper said, “I didn’t know you had a sister, man—how come you never told me?” Jake froze, unsure of what to say, then blurted out, “She’s dead.” It felt like the party stopped and everyone turned to stare at him; he was that uncomfortable. Cooper said, “Hey, man, I’m sorry.” Jake said, “Nah, man, it’s fine.” It wasn’t fine, it would never be fine, but Jake learned to keep Jessica out of casual conversation. He couldn’t believe he’d told Mallory about Jessica after knowing her for little more than twenty-four hours. But there was something about Mallory that made him feel safe. He could turn himself inside out and show her his wounds, and it would be okay.

Sunday morning, Jake woke early and again made omelets, this time using sautéed onions and leftover lobster meat. Mallory wandered out of the bedroom wearing only Jake’s shirt from the night before. Her hair hung in her face, and one eye was still half shut.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, then he nearly apologized because Ursula had found those very same words demeaning.
Women are more than just objects to be looked at,
she’d said.
We’re people. You want to give me a compliment? Tell me I’m smart. Tell me I’m strong.

“And also,” he said, “you’re smart and you seem very strong.”

Mallory tilted her head and grinned. “You feeling okay?” she said.

After breakfast, they climbed into the Blazer and Mallory drove down a long and winding road—the Polpis Road, she called it—to a gatehouse, where she hopped out of the car and let some air out of the tires using the point of her car key. Then they bounced over a slender crooked arm of sand where the landscape emptied—houses disappeared, trees disappeared, the road disappeared—until it was just beach, water, grassy dunes, and, in the distance, a white lighthouse with a black top hat. Mallory pulled into a private little “room” created by the natural curve of the dunes that she had discovered on another trip. Had she been with someone else there? He couldn’t help but wonder as they fell asleep in the sun.

When Jake opened his eyes, Mallory was holding a metal mixing bowl. “Come on,” she said. “Treasure hunt.”

They walked along the shore, eyes trained a few feet in front of them. Mallory showed him slipper shells, quahogs, and mermaid purses. She picked up a sand dollar.

“Perfectly intact,” she said. She held it up to the sun so that Jake could see the faint star pattern. “You should take this back to Washington to remember me by.”

“Do I need something to remember you by?” Jake asked. “I mean, I’m going to see you again, right?” He was half thinking that he might never leave Nantucket at all.

“Sure,” she said, but her tone was too casual for his liking.

They strolled all the way down to Great Point Light, collecting pieces of frosted beach glass, scallop shells, and driftwood until the bowl was filled, then they turned around.

“Why can’t this work?” Jake asked. “We like each other.”

“A lot,” Mallory said, and she squeezed his hand. “I haven’t been this happy with a guy in a long time. Maybe ever.”

“Okay, so…”

“So…you’re going back to Washington and I’m staying here.”

“Couldn’t we figure something out?” he said. “You visit me, I visit you, we meet someplace in the middle—Connecticut, maybe, or New York City? We rack up massive long-distance bills.”

Mallory shook her head. “I did the long-distance thing with my last boyfriend and it was agonizing,” she said. “Of course, he was in Borneo.”

Jake laughed. “DC is closer than Borneo.”

“The basic problem is the same,” Mallory said. “You have a job and a life in Washington and my life is here. I lived in New York for nearly two years and every single day I wished I were someplace else. I’m not doing that again.” She paused. “And in the spirit of full disclosure, the officer who was up at the house the other night asked me out.”

Jealousy, strong and swift, caused Jake to stutter-step. “What did you tell him?”

“I was vague,” Mallory said. “I said he should maybe call me next week.”

Jake didn’t like this answer, nope, not one bit. “Can’t we just pretend that we’re the only two people in the world and that this weekend is going to last forever?”

Mallory stopped in her tracks and turned to face him. The lighthouse floated over her right shoulder. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. “We’re the only two people in the world and this weekend is going to last forever.”

“Are you humoring me?” he said.

“Yes,” she said, and she grinned.

Back at the cottage, Mallory took the first shower. Jake was studying the books on the shelves of the great room when the phone rang. Jake’s first instinct was to answer it. He liked answering other people’s phones. He used to answer Coop’s phone all the time—which was how he’d gotten to know Mallory in the first place. But of course he shouldn’t answer Mallory’s phone—what was he thinking? It might be Cooper apologizing for his exit, and how would Coop feel about Jake staying to shack up with his sister? Then again, what if this was that officer calling to ask Mallory on a date? Maybe Jake should scare the guy off.

Mallory raced out of the bathroom, naked and dripping wet, to snatch up the phone before the machine picked up. Jake wondered if she, too, thought it might be the officer from the other night. Jake’s neck and shoulders tensed. His emotions were spiraling out of control. He was
gobsmacked
by this girl.

“Hello?” Mallory said. “Yes, this is she. Oh, yes. Yes!” There was a pause, and Jake imagined the officer asking if she was free the following night. Would he see her tan lines; would he have a chance to appreciate the shallow dip in her lower back? Would he cook eggs for her? Would he wipe the crumbs from Mallory’s lips?

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Mallory said. “Yes, yes, of course I’d be willing. Oh my, thank you so much. Seven thirty. Okay, I’ll see you Tuesday.” She hung up and said, “The English teacher at the high school is at Mass General in Boston getting some tests done and he won’t be in for the first week of school, so they’ve asked me to cover for him.”

The relief Jake felt made him light-headed. “That’s great!” he said. “That’s what you wanted, right?”

“I wanted someone to
retire,
” Mallory said. “I didn’t want anyone to get sick.”

Jake gathered Mallory up and kissed the top of her head. He was happy for her, but he didn’t want to think about Tuesday.

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