Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
ALSO BY ELIN HILDERBRAND
The Beach Club
The Blue Bistro
The Love Season
For Heather Osteen Thorpe: in honor of the dollhouse, the roller-skating shows, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Theater, the Wawa parties, and now, six kids between us. You are the best sister-friend a woman could ask for.
hree women step off of a plane.
It sounded like the start of a joke.
Joshua Flynn, age twenty-two, native of Nantucket Island, senior at Middlebury College, summer employee of the Nantucket Memorial Airport, where his father was an air traffic controller, noticed the women immediately. They arrived on a US Airways flight from LaGuardia. Three women, two small children, nothing unusual about that, so what caught Josh’s eye? Josh Flynn was a creative-writing student at Middlebury, and his mentor, the writer-in-residence, Chas Gorda, liked to say that a writer smells a good story in the air like it’s an approaching storm.
The hair on your arms will stand up,
Chas Gorda promised. Josh checked his forearms—nothing—and tugged at his fluorescent orange vest. He approached the plane to help Carlo unload the luggage. Josh’s father, Tom Flynn, would be at a computer terminal five stories above Josh’s head, occasionally spying out the window to make sure Josh was doing what he called “a decent job.” Being under surveillance like this provided as unsettling a work situation as Josh could imagine, and so in the two weeks he’d been at it, he’d learned to sniff for stories without giving himself away.
Two of the women stood on the tarmac. Josh could tell they were sisters. Sister One was very thin with long light-brown hair that blew all over the place in the breeze; she had a pointy nose, blue eyes, and she was visibly unhappy. Her forehead was as scrunched and wrinkled as one of those funny Chinese dogs. Sister Two had the same blue eyes, the same sharp nose, but instead of scowling, Sister Two’s face conveyed baffled sadness. She blinked a lot, like she was about to cry. She was heavier than her sister, and her hair, cut bluntly to her shoulders, was a Scandinavian blond. She carried a floral-print bag bursting with diapers and a colorful set of plastic keys; she was taking deep, exaggerated breaths, as though the flight had just scared her to death.
The third woman teetered at the top of the steps with a baby in her arms and a little boy of about four peeking around her legs. She had a pretty, round face and corkscrew curls that peeked out from underneath a straw hat. She was wearing jeans with muddy knees and a pair of rubber clogs.
The sisters waited at the bottom of the stairs for this third woman to descend. Heavy-breathing Sister reached out for the baby, shaking the keys. “Come to Mama,” she said
“Here, Melanie, I’ll take him.” In addition to the baby, Straw Hat held a package of Cheez-Its, a green plastic cup, and an air-sickness bag. She was two steps from the ground when the little boy behind her shouted, “Auntie Brenda, here I come!”
He was aiming for Scowling Sister, but in his excitement, he hurtled his forty-some pound body into the back of Straw Hat, who went sprawling onto the tarmac with the baby. Josh bolted forward—though he knew he wouldn’t be quick enough to save anyone. Straw Hat covered the baby’s head with her hands and took the brunt of the fall on her knees and her left arm. Ouch.
“Melanie!” Heavy-breathing Sister cried. She dropped the diaper bag and raced toward Straw Hat. The baby wasn’t making any noise. Neck broken. Dead. Josh felt his spirit trickle onto the tarmac as though he’d wet his pants. But then—a cry! The baby had merely been sucking in air, released now in heroic tones. The baby was alive! Heavy-breathing Sister took the baby and studied him for obvious injury, then shushed him against her shoulder. Scowling Sister approached with the perpetrator of the crime, older brother, clinging to her legs.
“Is the baby okay?” Scowling Sister asked. Her expression shifted from impatient to impatient and concerned.
“He’s fine,” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “Just scared.” She reached out to Straw Hat. “Are you okay, Melanie? Are you okay? Do you feel okay?”
Melanie dusted the tarmac grit off her face; there was a scrape on her elbow, some blood. The Cheez-Its blew off down the runway; the plastic cup rolled to Josh’s feet. He picked it up, and the air-sickness bag as well.
“Would you like me to get a first-aid kit?” he asked Melanie.
She put a hand to her cheek, and the other hand massaged her stomach. “Oh, no. Thank you, though. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “What about . . . ?”
” Melanie said.
“Blaine will apologize,” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “Apologize, Blaine.”
“Sorry,” the boy mumbled.
“You could have hurt your brother. You could have hurt Melanie. You just can’t
things like that, sweetheart. You have to be
“He said he was sorry, Vick,” Scowling Sister said.
This was not joke material. The three women, collectively, were the most miserable-looking people Josh had ever seen.
“Welcome to Nantucket,” Josh said, hoping his words might cheer them, though Carlo was always reminding him that he was not an ambassador. He should just tend to the bags; his father would be watching.
Scowling Sister rolled her eyes. “Thanks a lot,” she said.
They should have driven to the island, Brenda thought as they climbed into a cab outside the terminal. She had been coming to Nantucket her entire life and they always drove, and then put the car on the ferry. This year, because of the kids and Vicki’s cancer and a desire to get to Nantucket as expediently as possible no matter what the cost, they had flown. They shouldn’t have broken with tradition in Brenda’s opinion, because look what happened—they were off to a horrible start already. Melanie had vomited the whole flight; then she fell, giving Vicki something else to worry about. The whole point of the summer was to help Vicki relax, to soothe her, to ease the sickness from her body.
That’s the point, Melanie!
Now, Melanie was sitting behind Brenda in the cab with her eyes closed. Vicki had invited Melanie to Nantucket for the summer because Melanie had “problems.” She was dealing with a “complicated situation” back in Connecticut. But it was also the case that Brenda’s company alone had never been enough for Vicki. All their lives, all through growing up—whether it was camping trips, nights at the summer carnival, or church on Sunday—Vicki had brought a friend.
This summer it was Melanie Patchen. The news that Melanie would be joining them was sprung on Brenda at the last minute, giving her no opportunity to protest. During the limousine ride from Darien to LaGuardia, Brenda had heard about the “complicated situation”: Melanie and her husband, Peter Patchen, had been trying “forever” to get pregnant; they had, in the past calendar year, endured seven failed rounds of in vitro fertilization. Then, a few weeks ago, Peter admitted he was having an affair with a young woman from his office named Frances Digitt. Melanie was devastated. She was so upset she made herself sick—she couldn’t keep food down, she took to her bed. Then she missed her period. She was
—and the “complicated” part of her “situation” was that she had left Connecticut without telling her husband that she was leaving, and without telling him she was pregnant. She was stealing away with Vicki and Brenda and the kids because she “needed time to think. Time away.”
Brenda had taken in this information silently but skeptically. The last thing she and Vicki needed this summer was a stowaway from a complicated situation. Vicki had lung cancer, and Brenda had problems of her own. Earlier that spring, she had been fired from her teaching job at Champion University for sleeping with her only male student—and, as if that weren’t catastrophic enough, there were “unrelated” criminal charges pending, concerning a valuable piece of university-owned art.
Sex scandal! Criminal charges!
Brenda had gone from being hot property—a celebrated young professor, the It girl of Champion University—to being the subject of rumor and gossip. Everyone on Champion’s campus had been talking about her: Dr. Brenda Lyndon, who earned top teaching marks in the English Department her
very first semester,
had conducted an illicit affair with one of her students. And then, for a reason nobody could discern, she had “vandalized” an original Jackson Pollock—a bequest from a gung-ho alumnus—that hung on the wall of the English Department’s Barrington Room. In addition to the mortifying shame of her relationship with John Walsh, Brenda had been forced to hire a lawyer she couldn’t afford to deal with the vandalism charges. Best-case scenario, Brian Delaney, Esquire, said, would be the university’s art restoration team deciding they could tinker with the painting, fill in the “divot,” make the painting as good as new. Worst-case scenario would be irrevocable damage. The university was still looking into the matter.
Brenda had ostensibly come to Nantucket because Vicki had cancer and needed help. But Brenda was also unemployed, unemployable, and in serious need of money. Melanie wasn’t the only one who needed “time away” or “time to think”—Brenda needed it, too. Desperately. She had devoted her entire career to one narrow subject: Fleming Trainor’s novel,
The Innocent Impostor
. This little-known volume, published in 1790, had been the topic of Brenda’s dissertation and of the surprisingly popular seminar she taught at Champion. Since Brenda would be forever ostracized from the world of academia, the only way
The Innocent Impostor
could make her any money now—at least the kind of money she needed to pay a lawyer and / or a “hefty fine”—was if she used it in some unconventional, and un-academic, way. It was Brian Delaney, Esquire, who suggested Brenda write a screenplay. At first Brenda scoffed, but as Brian Delaney, Esquire, eloquently pointed out:
Hollywood loves that old-time shit. Look at
, look at Jane Austen. The Innocent Impostor
was so obscure it wasn’t even available on Amazon.com, but Brenda was desperate, not only for money, but for a project, something to work on. She batted the idea around for a while, and the more she thought about it, the less outlandish it seemed. This summer, if anyone asked her what she did for a living, she would tell them she was writing a screenplay.
The other reason that Brenda had come to Nantucket was that John Walsh was in Manhattan, and even in a city of eight million people, Brenda felt his presence as acutely as if he lived on the other side of her exposed-brick wall. She had to sever ties with John Walsh no matter how strongly she felt about him, she had to flee the city of her disgrace, she had to help her sister. A summer on Nantucket was the answer all the way around, and the cottage that had belonged to Brenda and Vicki’s great-aunt Liv was, after three years, out of probate. The two sisters owned it now, officially.
The question wasn’t, why was she here? The question was, why wasn’t she happier she was here?
Brenda held the baby tightly on her lap and put an arm around her four-year-old nephew, Blaine, who was buckled in next to her. The cabbie said, “Where to?” And Brenda said, “Shell Street, ’Sconset.”
Shell Street, ’Sconset:
These were Brenda’s three favorite words in the English language. It had not slipped Brenda’s mind that one way to access a large sum of money was to sell out her half of Aunt Liv’s house to Vicki and Ted. But Brenda couldn’t bear to relinquish the piece of this island she now owned: half of a very small house. Brenda gazed out the window at the scrubby evergreens that bordered Milestone Road, at the acres of moors held in conservation. She inhaled the air, so rich and clean that it worked like an anesthetic; Blaine’s eyelids started to droop. Brenda couldn’t help thinking that Walsh would love it here. He was a man of the outdoors, being typically Australian; he liked beaches and waves, open space, clear sky. He was at a loss in Manhattan, all that manufactured civilization baffled him, the subway suffocated him, he preferred to walk,
thank you, mate
. How many times had he traversed Central Park in a snowstorm to get to Brenda’s apartment? How many times had they met secretly in Riverside Park after class? Too many, apparently, and not secretly enough. One person had harbored suspicions, the wrong person, and Brenda’s career in academia was over a semester and a half after it began. She had been branded with the scarlet letter despite the fact that Walsh was thirty-one years old and Brenda herself only thirty. The situation at Champion had been such a hideous mess, the cause of such powerful shame, that Brenda had no choice but to end everything with Walsh. He wanted to come visit her here. It would be different, he said, out of the city. Maybe, Brenda thought. But not different enough.
Brenda was relieved that Aunt Liv wasn’t alive to witness her fall from grace. Aunt Liv, a celebrated professor of Russian literature at Bryn Mawr College, had cultivated Brenda for a life in academia. She had served as a mentor and a role model. How many hours had they talked about Fleming Trainor—and Isaak Babel, Tolstoy, Solzhenitzyn, Dumas, Hugo, Whitman? How many times had they agreed there was no nobler pursuit than the study of literature, no better way to spend an evening than alone with Turgenev?
I was doing so well,
When Brenda thought of Aunt Liv now, the term “rolling over in her grave” came to mind. So in some way this summer on Nantucket was about seeking atonement. Brenda wanted others to forgive and, more saliently, forget; she wanted to find some peace for her roiling conscience.
Time to think. Time away.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, having Melanie around. Misery did love company.
Brenda checked behind her again. Now Vicki’s eyes were closed. She and Melanie were both asleep, and weirder still, they were holding hands, like they were lovers. Brenda tightened her grip on the warm, doughy baby in her lap. She felt like a six-year-old, jealous and left out.
Victoria Lyndon Stowe had been making lists all her life. She attributed this to the fact that she was the firstborn, a classic type-A personality, something her parents did nothing but reinforce.
Vicki is so organized, she never forgets a thing.
As early as the fifth grade, Vicki wrote down what she wore to school each day so that she didn’t repeat an outfit. She made lists of her favorite movies and books. She made a list of what each friend gave her for her birthday, and she always wrote the thank-you notes in order so that she could check them off, boom, boom, boom, just like that. At Duke, there had been myriad lists—she was president of the Tri-Delts, the head of the Drama Society, and a campus tour guide, so there were lists for each of those things, and a separate list for her studies. Then, out in the real world, the lists multiplied. There were “single girl living and working in the city” lists, lists for her wedding to Ted Stowe, and finally the endless lists of a mother of young children
. Schedule doctor’s appointment; return library books; save milk cartons for planting radishes; money for babysitter; playdate with Carson, Wheeler, Sam; call balloon man for birthday party; buy summer pajamas; oil the tricycle; have carpets cleaned in the playroom