Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance
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To my North, my South, my East, and my West:
And ever the needle on the compass:
abney couldn’t believe it. She blinked twice, thinking she no longer had the eyes of a girl or even a young woman, thinking she hadn’t been feeling well lately, and was this a
trick of her mind?
Twenty-seven years later? Subject line:
Dabney Kimball Beech, who had served as the director of the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce for twenty-two years, was in her second-floor office, overlooking historic, cobblestoned Main Street. It was late April, the Friday morning of Daffodil Weekend, Dabney’s second-most-important weekend of the year, and the forecast was a springtime fantasy. It was sixty degrees and sunny today and would be sixty-four and sunny on Saturday and Sunday.
Dabney had just checked the weather for the fifth time that day, the five thousandth time that week (the year before, Daffodil Weekend had been ruined by a late-season snowstorm), when the e-mail from Clendenin Hughes appeared in her in-box.
“Oh my God,” Dabney said.
Dabney never swore, and rarely took the Lord’s name in vain (thanks to cayenne pepper administered to her ten-year-old tongue by her devoutly Catholic grandmother for saying the word
). That she did so now was enough to get the attention of Nina Mobley, Dabney’s assistant for eighteen of the past twenty-two years.
“What?” Nina said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Dabney said quickly. Nina Mobley was Dabney’s closest friend, but Dabney could never tell her that an e-mail from Clendenin Hughes had just popped onto her screen.
Dabney gnawed on one of her pearls, as was her habit when she was deeply concentrating, and now she nearly bit clear through it. She was aware that millions of people across the world were receiving e-mails at that moment, a good percentage of them probably upsetting, a smaller but still substantial percentage probably shocking. But she wondered if anyone anywhere on the planet was receiving an e-mail as upsetting and shocking as this one.
She stared at the screen, blinked, clenched the pearl between her teeth. It was grainy, which was how one judged authenticity.
Not a word for twenty-seven years—and then this. An e-mail at work.
When Clen had left for Thailand, e-mail hadn’t existed. How had he gotten her address? Dabney laughed. He was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist; finding her e-mail address wouldn’t have presented much of a challenge.
Dabney’s finger tapped the mouse lightly, a tease. Would she open the e-mail? What would it say? What could it
say after twenty-seven years of silence?
Dabney could not open the e-mail. She, who never smoked and rarely drank hard liquor, wanted a cigarette and a shot of bourbon. The only thing that would have stunned her more than this was an e-mail from her mother.
Her mother was dead.
Dabney felt like she was being electrocuted right down to her bone marrow.
Nina was at her own computer, sucking on her gold cross, a bad habit that had traveled by osmosis across the four feet between their desks.
Nina said, “Dabney, really, what is it?”
Dabney let her pearls fall from her mouth; they thumped against her chest like they were made of lead. She had not been feeling right for weeks, maybe as long as a month, and now her body was really going haywire. The e-mail from Clendenin Hughes.
Dabney forced a smile at Nina. “The weather this weekend is going to be perfect!” she said. “We are going to have
“After last year,” Nina said, “we deserve it.”
Dabney said, “I’m going to run to the pharmacy for a frappe. Do you want anything?”
Nina furrowed her brow. “Frappe?” She glanced at the wall calendar, theirs each year courtesy of Nantucket Auto Body. “Is it that time of the month again already?”
Dabney wished she weren’t so predictable, but of course predictability was her trademark. She got a frappe only once a month, the day before her period was due, which was still ten days off.
“I just feel like it today for some reason,” Dabney said. “Do you want anything?”
“No, thank you,” Nina said. She gave Dabney an extra beat of her attention. “You okay?”
Dabney swallowed. “I’m fine,” she said.
Outside, the atmosphere was festive. After four cold, punishing months, spring had arrived on Nantucket. Main Street was teeming with people wearing yellow. Dabney spied the Levinsons (Couple #28), whom she had introduced ten years earlier. Larry had been a widower with twins at Yale and Stanford, Marguerite a never-married headmistress at a prestigious girls’ boarding school. Larry wore a yellow cashmere sweater and a pair of kelly-green corduroy pants, and Marguerite was in a yellow poplin blazer; she held the leash of their golden retriever, Uncle Frank. Dabney adored all dogs, and especially Uncle Frank, and Larry and Marguerite were one of “her couples,” married only because she had introduced them. Dabney knew she should stop and talk; she should rub Uncle Frank under the muzzle until he sang for her. But she couldn’t fake it right now. She crossed the street to Nantucket Pharmacy, but did not go inside. She headed down Main Street, through the A&P parking lot, to the Straight Wharf. At the end of the Straight Wharf, she gazed at the harbor. There was Jack Copper, working on his charter fishing boat; in another few weeks, summer would arrive in all its crazy glory. Jack waved, and Dabney, of course, waved back. She knew everyone on this island, but there was no one in the world she could tell about this e-mail. It was Dabney’s to grapple with alone.
Dabney could see the Steamship, low in the water, rounding Brant Point. In the next hour, the Chamber office would be inundated with visitors, and Dabney had left Nina all alone. Furthermore, she had left the office without “signing out” on the “log,” which was the one thing Vaughan Oglethorpe, president of the board of directors of the Chamber, absolutely required. Dabney needed to turn around right this second and go back to the office and do the job that she had been doing perfectly for the past two decades.
Three hours later, she opened it. She hadn’t planned on opening it at all, but the urge to do so mounted until it was physically painful. Dabney’s back and lower abdomen ached; knowledge of this e-mail was tearing her up inside.
I wanted to let you know that I am on my way back to Nantucket for an indefinite period of time. I suffered a pretty serious loss about six months ago, and I’ve been slow recovering from it. Furthermore, it’s monsoon season, and my enthusiasm for writing about this part of the world has dwindled. I’ve given the Times my notice. I never did get assigned to the Singapore desk. I was close several years ago, but—as ever—I pissed off the wrong person simply by speaking my mind. Singapore will remain a dream deferred. (Big sigh.) I’ve decided that the best thing is for me to come home.
I have respected your long-ago mandate to “never contact
again.” More than a quarter century has passed, Cupe. I hope that “never” has an expiration date and that you will forgive me this e-mail. I didn’t want to show up on the island without giving you advance warning, and I didn’t want you to hear the news from anyone else. I will be caretaking the house of Trevor and Anna Jones, 436 Polpis Road, living in their guest cottage.
I am afraid of both saying too much and not saying enough. First and foremost, I want you to know how sorry I am for the way things ended. They didn’t have to be that way, but I categorized it a long time ago as an IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: I could not stay, and you could not go. Not a day has gone by—honestly, Cupe, not an hour—when I have not thought of you. When I left, I took a part of you with me, and I have treasured that part these many years.
I am not the same person you knew—not physically, not mentally, not emotionally. But, of course, I am ever the same.
I would very much like to see you, although I realize this is almost too much to hope for.
I am writing this from my layover at LAX. If all goes well, I should be back on Nantucket tomorrow morning.
436 Polpis Road, cottage in the back.
Ever yours, Clen
Dabney read the e-mail again, to make sure her addled brain had understood.
It would have been presumptuous of me to call myself Dabney’s best friend, because even in 1981, freshman year, Dabney was the most popular girl in the school. When I say “popular,” you might be thinking she was blond, or a cheerleader, or that she lived in a big house on Centre Street. No, no, no—she had straight thick brown hair cut into a bob, and she always, always wore a headband. She had big brown eyes, a few freckles, and a smile like the sun coming out. She was about five-three and she had a cute little body, but she never showed it off. She wore either cable-knit sweaters and kilts or a beat-up pair of Levi’s and an oversize men’s oxford shirt. She had the shirt in four colors: white, blue, pink, and peach. She always wore penny loafers, and she always wore a strand of pearls and pearl earrings. That was Dabney.
Dabney Kimball was the most popular girl in the school because she was genuinely kind to everyone. She was kind to Jeffrey Jackson, who had a port-wine stain on his face; she was kind to Henry Granger, who started wearing wingtips and carrying a briefcase in second grade. She included everyone in planning events like Homecoming floats and December Delight. She had grown up an only child raised by her father, Lieutenant Kimball, who was a police officer. Her mother was…well, no one knew exactly what had happened to her mother. A couple of different stories had circulated, as gossip does, but all we knew for sure was that Dabney no longer had a mother, which made us love her even more.
Dabney was also smarter than everyone else at Nantucket High School, except for Clendenin Hughes, who was what our English teacher, Mr. Kane, called a “hundred-year genius.” Dabney was probably a ninety-nine-year genius.
Freshman year, Dabney and I were fledglings on the yearbook committee. The committee was mostly upperclassmen—it was, actually, all upperclassmen, except for the two of us. Dabney felt that, despite our lowly status, freshmen should be represented just like the other three classes, and that no one was going to look out for us if we didn’t look out for ourselves. So that winter, Dabney and I hung out a lot. We would go to yearbook meetings every Tuesday and Thursday after school, and when we were finished, we would watch the boys’ varsity basketball team.
I had a huge, horrible crush on Phil Bruschelli. Phil was a sophomore, and in the varsity games he mostly sat on the bench. If the team was ahead by more than twenty points, Phil would go in for a few minutes. One such time when this happened, I grabbed Dabney’s arm in excitement.
I’ll never forget the look on her face. It was what I’ll now call amused recognition. She said, “You like him. You like Phil.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. Because even though Dabney and I were practically best friends, my crush on Phil wasn’t a secret I was willing to share.
“Yes,” she said. “You do. I can see it. You’re all…pink.”
“Of course I’m pink,” I said. “It’s a hundred degrees in here and I’m Irish.”
“Not your face, silly,” Dabney said. “Your, I don’t know, your aura is rosy.”
“My aura?” I said. “Rosy?”
After the game, Dabney insisted that I wait with her in the hallway outside the boys’ locker room. Her father was coming to pick her up, she said.
“Why aren’t you walking?” I asked. Dabney lived right across the street from the school.
“Just wait with me,” Dabney said. And then she pushed my hair back off my shoulders and flipped up the collar of my IZOD shirt. She was so close to me I could have counted her freckles.
I said, “How come you don’t have a boyfriend? You’re so pretty and everyone likes you.”
She said, “I do have a boyfriend. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
I wanted to ask her whom she meant, but at that instant Phil Bruschelli walked out of the locker room, all six foot three of him. His dark hair was still damp from the shower and he was wearing a dark-brown shearling jacket. I nearly fainted away, he was so cute.
Dabney stepped into his path. “Hey there, Phil.”
Phil stopped. “Hey, Dabney.”
Dabney said, “Nice that you got a little playing time today. Varsity game, you must be psyched.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, whatever. Coach says I have to pay my dues. Wait until next year.”
Dabney pulled me close to her side. “You know Ginger, right, Phil? Ginger O’Brien? We’re doing yearbook together.”
Phil smiled at me. My vision blurred. I teetered.
But it felt like I was going to cry instead.
Phil said, “You serve at church, right? You’re an altar girl?”
I felt flames of embarrassment licking my cheeks. Rosy indeed. I nodded, and then made a chirping noise like a sparrow. Who wanted to be recognized as an altar girl? And yet, I was an altar girl, and I had been since I was ten years old. It wasn’t exactly a secret.
Phil said, “My mother makes me go to Mass once a month, and I see you there whenever I go.”
“I’m not surprised you noticed Ginger,” Dabney said. “She’s gorgeous.” With that, Dabney hooked her arm around my neck and kissed my scorching-hot cheek. “See ya, gotta go! My dad is here!”
She bounded out the door to the back parking lot, but her father wasn’t waiting. Lieutenant Kimball drove a squad car, which I would have noticed. There were no cars waiting. Dabney was walking home, abandoning me at a time when I needed her to prop me up. I decided I would never forgive her.
But then Phil asked if I liked basketball and I said yes, and he asked if I wanted to come watch him play for the JV team the following afternoon, and I said sure. He said he would have a lot more playing time in that game, and I said,
. And he said,
Well, I’ll see
you tomorrow, don’t forget me!
And I felt like a flock of birds had startled in my chest.
Phil and I have been married for twenty-nine years and we have four beautiful sons, the youngest of whom plays power forward for Villanova University.