Authors: Tara McTiernan
“Keeley?” Amy said in her no-nonsense voice she used with her boys when they were out of line. “Answer my question, please.”
Keeley sighed loudly, still looking at her glass and not at her friends. “I will, I promise. But not right now. I’m just too angry and I know I won’t be fair to her.”
“Oh, come on-“ Zo said.
Pam waved her hand in the air. “Wait! I think we should call a truce. Keeley said she would talk to Hannah, and I’m sure she will very soon, so let’s talk about the letter and Daniel. I don’t know, but it just sounds like she’s getting cold feet. That’s all, right? Cold feet are pretty normal?”
“Very normal!” Amy said, “And it doesn’t mean things aren’t going to work out. In fact, I think it’s a good sign. Look at me and Gus! I was terrified, remember? Remember how I was going to drive to Mexico that night I freaked out? You were all going to have to visit me in my hacienda by the sea from then on. And I would have had to. After all that money my parents spent – they would have disowned me.”
“Ah, well,” Zooey said, “I had cold feet every time, and we all know how well those marriages worked out.” Thinking about it made her want a drink. It always did. She picked up her Mean Green and sipped it, the salt stinging her tongue, her mouth filling with the lime-laced tequila and shooting a torpedo down to her stomach.
Keeley finally looked up at them. “I didn’t have cold feet with Ben, and I’m happy as a clam. But I don’t think this is about cold feet. Zo?” Keeley said, looking at Zo, her face soft again, her eyes sparkling. Zo felt warmth spread through her. Every time, it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, like the first tender days of spring when everything felt good. And every time, she felt her heart respond, fill and brim over with love for Keeley. God, she loved her.
“Yes?” Zo said.
“Would you give me the letter? There was something she said in it.”
Zo plucked it off of her lap reluctantly, she had wanted to read it one more time, and handed it over.
Sipping her drink, Keeley quickly scanned the pale blue sheet of stationary. “Here it is. ‘Runs to the core of who I am.’ She really thinks something’s wrong with her. She’s said that to me about us, that she doesn’t have friends like us.”
Pam laughed and said, “Most everyone envies my friendship with you guys. Actually, my mom always talked about it. She was so majorly jealous.”
Zo said, “There’s nothing wrong with Hannah. She’s just a loner, that’s all. I understand that completely. That’s me. Well, before you guys hijacked my life.” She smiled at the last.
“But that’s it,” Keeley said. “No one’s hijacked her life. She always wanted friends, but didn’t, wouldn’t, try to make them. She was always jealous of us. It was unnatural after a while. That’s why I kept her out of our house once she got old enough. Too old, really. I wanted her to go and make friends with the other kids on the island, find her own gang of girlfriends. I thought if she wasn’t latched on to us all the time, it would just happen.”
Amy sighed deeply, and said, “But it didn’t. The only friend she made was that Mary Ellen dingleberry.”
“I don’t get it, either,” Pam said, shaking her head and reaching for the bowl of chips. “She’s the sweetest kid ever.”
“But it’s not about that,” Zo said. “She’s a loner. It’s just who she is.”
“That would be fine if she was okay with it herself,” Keeley said. “But she’s jealous. She wants in. She never forgave me for kicking her out of our house.”
“You meant well,” Pam said through a mouthful of tortilla chips and guacamole, shielding her mouth with her hand.
Zo remembered Hannah as a girl, always looking up at them with bright eyes, hope shining off of her. Her delight when they would grab her up and make her dance and sing with them. It was just like those first summers when the Barefooters were becoming friends, the way that Zo soaked up the other three girls, was buoyed along by their energy and enthusiasm. When Hannah turned moody and difficult at twelve, Zo had blamed it on hormones. But that was the same summer Keeley told Hannah that she was banned from their little clubhouse at the southern tip of the island.
“I know!” Zo said. “Keeley, Hannah asked for information about our friendship for her next book, right? In her other letter? What about the Barefooter house? Why not give her a key and invite her to go there now? And she could bring Daniel with her!”
Amy bolted upright in her seat. “Wait, that’s it! That’s perfect! Awesome, Zo!”
“Wow,” Pam said, leaning forward and putting her beefy arms on her knees. She nodded slowly. “That is. Daniel loved Captain’s. He’s a natural islander, you can tell. And, Keeley, you have to admit it would be a good intermediary step between now and when you two talk. Maybe you could go out to the island and talk to her in person when you’re ready.”
“Wait a second!” Keeley said, shaking her head violently as if trying to shake something out. “Wait! That’s our house. No one goes there but us. And Hannah, she’s gotten used to it now. That would mess everything up. Next thing we’d know our husbands would be hanging out there. No more Barefoot retreat! This is a terrible idea! Are you guys kidding?”
Zo said, “No! No! This would just be now, just for her next book. Just for her and Daniel. We could make it a condition about Daniel, too. He has to spend time on the island with her or no dice.”
Amy said, “Yes, but he probably won’t be able to be there the whole time. Maybe not even half. He told me he’s got a pretty heavy flight schedule.”
“Hello?” Keeley shouted and waved her hands in the air. “Can anyone hear me? This is all wrong. We’d be breaking our tradition and that’s a slippery slope, you know. I’m serious. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. And we wouldn’t be there, and that’s who she wants to be with: us.”
“Aha!” Zo said, seeing her chance and diving in. “It may be true that she wants to be with us, but she was looking for anything about us, and if there’s a place on this earth that is more about us than our little house on Captain’s, I don’t know where it is. All those photo albums and things we’ve collected over the years she could look at! And I could talk to her if she needs to ask any questions about the stuff there. Amy? Pam? Will you guys talk to her if she wants to ask questions?”
Pam smiled and nodded. “Of course, count me in!”
Amy’s smile faded. “I’m sorry you guys. But I’m a little mad at Hannah myself. I’m the one who co-signed on that lease of hers, and gave her my old Honda, and she never called me to explain what happened with the review. Well, not until Keeley had already ripped her a new one. I’m here for you guys and Hannah, but I really think Hannah’s got to learn to be a little more considerate of other people. And I’m going to tell her that. I promise. I’ll be calling her. But giving her the Barefoot history? No. Not right now. I’ve given her a lot lately and I’m worn out.”
worn out?” Keeley said, slapped down her drink on the table, and sat back in her chair, her arms folded over her chest. “I hear ya!” She paused and looked around at each of them, looking last into Zo’s eyes. She asked, her voice soft. “So this is what we should do? Is this the right thing?”
Zo looked into her friend’s eyes and said in an equally soft voice, “Yes, it’s the right thing.”
Pam leapt to her feet, holding her glass in the air. “To Hannah and Daniel and the Barefooter house!”
Amy jumped up, too, and stretched her arm high to touch her glass to Pam’s. Zooey unfolded herself from the low chair, hearing her knees crackle and pop, and stood. She grabbed her glass from the table, touched it to her friends’ glasses and looked down at Keeley, who was still seated with her arms folded. “Hear, hear!”
Keeley looked up at them and remained seated. “What about the weather? It’s going to be cold soon and there’s no heat. What about a bed? Where are they going to sleep?”
Pam said, “They can stay at my house, we’ve got all of that. It’s only six houses down.”
“Perfect!” Zo crowed. She looked down at Keeley. Please. Let this work. “Keeley? We need you on this. It’s going to have to come from you.”
Keeley looked down at her lap.
Zo felt her heart shoot down through her feet. No!
Keeley reached over, picked up her glass, and stood up. She looked directly at Zo and in her eyes was a plea. Then she smiled. “All right! Let’s do it!”
Relief swept through Zo. Thank you, God. Thank you, All that is Powerful.
“To love!” Zo said. She still believed in soul-mate love, even after everything, after all the disappointment and heartbreak. And their Hannah might get it, catch that shooting star.
“To love!” the others agreed, clinking their glasses together loudly and drinking. They smiled at each other, grins that were wide and expectant, their youthful hopes and dreams for Hannah still in their hearts, as relentless as the waves upon the beach below.
Keeley put down the book she was trying to read, a mystery from one of the many crowded built-in bookshelves that lined the walls of almost every room in Pam’s house, and lay back on the thick pillows plumped up behind her on the bed in Pam’s guest room. She couldn’t read novels; she could never focus that long on one thing. To have raised a daughter that not only read entire books in one sitting, but had even written one was incomprehensible to Keeley.
After Zo and Amy left later that afternoon, Keeley stayed on at Pam’s. Pam had been more than thrilled to have Keeley for the night plus Ben was away in Atlantic City working on a deal for a new casino on the boardwalk. Keeley hated being in that huge apartment with its high ceilings and glossy surfaces without him. She had redecorated it three times already and it still didn’t feel like home. It was too perfect and everything in it was too valuable and museum-quality. She liked to throw things around, ding up the furniture, leave piles. The fancy apartment with its ritzy Upper East Side address strongly discouraged that, its eyebrows raised in disdain.
Pam’s house felt more like home, more like the little cottage in Fairfield that she and Hannah had shared, more like Keeley’s house on Captain’s, the one before Ben, a bungalow that they’d moved into eventually after spending most of Hannah’s childhood summers staying in the cramped quarters of the Barefooter house. It was telling, their struggling along and making do while her mother still owned their old house on the island, a fairly spacious place with three bedrooms and a wrap-around porch. Instead, her mother rented it out to strangers up until her death, and even then she left it to her church, which sold it immediately. Her mother would have done anything to stop her daughter from staying there. Her mother never stayed there herself after Keeley’s father died, had never liked the island or island life. It was too rustic and sloppy-casual for her. She had hated the extra work the island required with its rainwater cisterns, its hand-pumped toilets you could only flush on a number two, and its seawater-damaged wood that required constant vigilance and basic carpentry skills.
Worse, her personality was all wrong for the island. She was snobbish and shy where most islanders were outspoken and easy-going. She disapproved of drinking alcohol, in spite of her husband’s love of whiskey, and the island’s social life revolved around each day’s five o’clock cocktail hour. She was also a painfully uncoordinated skinny little woman who avoided sports on an island where a person’s value was based on their athletic ability, fishing acumen, and the ability to out-sail your neighbor.
Thank God her mother had never known about the Barefooter house. That had been between her father and herself, a gift of enough money to help her and her friends buy it and fix it up. Her father had even helped them find out who owned the title to the derelict shack that she and her friends had turned into a playhouse as girls and later grew to think of as their own. The owners had inherited it from an uncle and sold it with just a little cajoling and assurances that it was worth nothing, that they were being overpaid for the wreck and it would be off their hands. And while it was true that the house was a wreck, the value of it was very high to the four young women. Keeley was grateful her mother had never known of the house, never known how important it was to her daughter. Margaret Lockwood O’Brien wasn’t about to let her useless excuse for a daughter have happiness when hers had been torn away from her.
Keeley thought of Hannah in the Barefooter house, sending her the key. She thought of the novel her daughter had written and that she had put down over and over again, never getting beyond the first two pages. The review. Those horrible words – lies.
“A neglected and often abandoned daughter of an alcoholic parent.” The words still pulsed and burned in her mind, inescapable.
A flash came to her of her daughter’s little frightened face when she was four or so. In the house. She had left Hannah alone in the house.
No, no, that never happened.
Keeley shook her head and sat up. Too many Mean Greens. The little cozy attic room that she loved to curl up in suddenly felt tiny and airless. It was hot up here. Too hot.
Keeley climbed out of bed and stood up, swimming in the large flowered yellow cotton pajamas Pam had loaned to her, pajamas that fit Pam’s burly frame perfectly. Keeley tied the drawstring on the bottoms tighter, rolled up the legs so the pants wouldn’t trip her, and carefully tiptoed barefoot down the stairs, gasping a little and feeling the old anxiety galloping back. As she reached the bottom of the stairs she heard a soft snoring coming from Pam’s room and the chatty sound of a late-night talk-show coming from Jacob’s room next door, a sliver of blue light wedged under his door. She gasped again at the cooler air on the first floor, but the pressure on her chest was only growing, and she ran on tip-toes down the hall and through the living area toward the back of the house.
Once she unlocked the sliding glass door to the deck and rolled it back, she took large gulps of cool salt air as if drinking it. Oh, good.
Flash – a little figure alone by the road, cars rushing by, a brown-haired girl who was crying. Was that Hannah?
Keeley pulled the sliding door shut behind her and ran across the deck to where the stairs went down to the sand. Then she was running on the beach that was studded with little rocks that hurt Keeley’s now-tender feet, feet that used to be like moccasins when she was young, they were so hard and leathery from being barefoot all the time. Even a full month of being barefoot in August every year never brought back that toughness.
She ran down to the waterline and let the small cool waves roll over her stinging feet, gasping back sobs. She had done something to Hannah.
Keeley looked up at the stars that were faded from encroaching light pollution, not brilliant like they were at Captain’s when she was a young woman lying in a rowboat padded with blankets in the arms of the only man she had loved with everything in her, without reserve. The stars were going away. What would she wish on now?
Sobbing softly, she spoke in the breaths she was able to fit in between the wrenching pains that gripped her chest, “God. Please help. Help us. Help Hannah. I’m sorry. I didn’t. Didn’t mean to. Hurt her. Did I? Did I hurt her? God, please. If I did. Please help us.”
Wiping at her eyes and wet face, she looked around. She didn’t see anyone. She would do what they always did back on Captain’s when things were horrible. “Blackest night, blackest water, wash it away,” she chanted in a wavering voice just as the Barefooters used to chant together, climbing naked one by one into the water of the Bay at midnight.
Midnight was part of the spell. It wasn’t midnight now, but it was dark and she couldn’t breathe all the way, her breath kept catching halfway and her chest felt like it was being crushed.
She took off her borrowed pajamas, dropped them on the beach, and walked into the dark water chanting, her sobs slowly abating. “Blackest night, blackest water, wash everything away.”
Waves washed over her muscular runner’s thighs, pushing back at her. Then the water washed over her pubic area before rising over her waist. At last, her head went under the waves of salt water still mildly warmed by the summer’s heat, ears filling. The gently moving water rinsed her tears from her face and the pressure on her chest finally eased. She heard the familiar high trilling sound she always heard under the water, the songs of mermaids - the mermaids the Barefoot Girls used to be.
Heading back to Manhattan the next day, her stomach swollen with the enormous and decadently rich waffles-and-whipped-cream breakfast Pam had fed her once she returned from driving Jacob to school, Keeley felt better. The morning sunshine banished the doubts and fears that had gripped her the night before and made her feel silly. Of course she had been the mother she had always dreamed of being, the best mother she could possibly be to Hannah. Much of that was thanks to her three friends who were like pillars to her, the structure she rested upon. Each summer on Captain’s had been the fuel she needed to get through the rest of the year. She had done it, raised Hannah well, in spite of everything. Raising Hannah without the benefit of a husband or even a supportive family was one of Keeley’s greatest accomplishments.
She would do the right thing, yet again. Send Hannah the keys to her heart: Captain’s. Let her get her head on straight there. Let some time pass and maybe, just maybe, Keeley could forgive her.
Keeley sent the packet of keys wrapped in tissue paper in a padded FedEx envelope to her daughter’s house with a hastily scribbled note that read:
Enclosed please find the keys to Captain’s. This was your Barefooter Aunts’ doing and you should be wildly grateful.
I’ve included the key to the gate, the one for the lock for our boat, a key for Pam’s house so you have a decent bed to sleep in, and one, most importantly, to the Barefooter house and all our treasures.
Pam and Zo are willing to talk to you if you want to call them. However, do not pester them to death! Amy is rightfully angry with you and you know how I feel. Do not think that this gift means that I’ve forgiven you.
This gift is from all of us because we will not idly stand by and watch you throw away true love. Daniel loves you and you love him. Do you understand how rare and special that is? How do we “know how to love” as you said? We don’t. We do the only thing we can: we do our best. You will love Daniel the only way you can and it will be great because it’s real, not because it’s perfect.
P.S. A condition of these keys is that Daniel must visit at least a quarter of the time you’re there on the island. This is not optional.
Hannah lay curled up on the couch, the television showing a commercial for some ridiculous exercise machine, excited voices screeching away about inches and pounds lost. She looked away as another testimonial began and stared out the window. She’d called in sick to work again. She just couldn’t get up off of the damn couch. A shower was out of the question; it was simply too much effort. Thank God Daniel couldn’t see, or smell, her now.
Her mother still wasn’t speaking to her. Her aunts also avoided her calls. She was a pariah on top of being useless and, currently, disgusting.
Her phone, which was sitting on the floor next to the couch, rang. It wasn’t anyone she knew – she’d given everyone their own ringtone and this was the jangly old-fashioned phone ringtone she’d selected as the default. She debated answering it. If it wasn’t anyone she wanted to talk to, then what was the point? But then, it could be someone calling from a different line, like a work phone. What if it was an emergency?
She finally reached for the phone on the last ring before it would’ve gone to voicemail.
“Where the hell are you?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Manny. What the hell is going on? Josephine just told me you called in sick again.”
Hannah let her head fall back against the arm of the couch. Her hair was probably going to leave a big grease stain. Oh, who cared? It was all so hopeless. “I am. I’m sick. Sorry about calling last minute like that, but I didn’t know. Just hit me.” Hannah fought the tears she could feel rising up. She couldn’t handle getting bawled out right now.
“Hey, I’m sorry you’re sick, but I got a restaurant to run here. It’s Saturday and I need a full staff. It’s not like I can just snap my fingers, you know. People have plans. And this place is fully booked tonight,” Manny said, his voice rising.
She forced herself to cough. Make it sound bad. “I’m sorry, I really am.” Her voice wavered.
Manny lowered his voice. “I know you are. But we can’t keep doing this. You haven’t been in for two weeks. I’m gonna have to let you go and hire someone else.”
“Oh, no! I just-“ A hot tear popped out of her eye and rolled down her cheek.
“I’m sorry, Hannah. You know I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to. Listen, when you’re better, come see me. We’ll see what we can work out. Okay?”
Hannah shook her head. What was she going to do? She didn’t even have any savings. Her advance for the book had been miniscule and spent paying off credit card bills. She had a little over two hundred dollars in the bank and her rent for October, which was over twice that, was due. She still hadn’t paid September’s rent, as it was pay that or replace her car’s brakes. At the time it hadn’t seemed like a big problem: the Harris’s knew she was good for it and she’d take some extra shifts in September. That was before the review came out. That was before Mr. Harris had brought up Ginny’s desire to live in her little cottage.