logo
Share this:

Page 6

He didn’t know what to make of her. She was all of five foot two, with wild red curls that squiggled and zigzagged like hieroglyphs. Her figure was slender, dressed neatly in a white tee and jeans.

The face, half-hidden by those rampant curls, was pretty and fine-featured, her skin pale except for the fever-colored flush on her cheeks. And her eyes—dark and heavy-lashed, the color of bittersweet chocolate. She reminded him a little of the girls he used to know in college, the funny, interesting ones he would stay up half the night and talk with, but never date. He had dated the trophies instead, the ones that other guys had envied him for. It was only later that he had wondered what he might have missed out on.

“Can I talk to you sometime?” he asked, sounding more abrupt than he’d intended.

“I’m always here,” Maggie said lightly. “Stop by whenever.” She nudged the shell across the counter. “Why don’t you take this home with you, Holly? Just in case you need it again.”

“Hey, you guys!” A smooth, sunny voice came from behind Mark.

It was Shelby Daniels, Mark’s girlfriend from Seattle. She was smart, beautiful, and one of the nicest people Mark had ever known. You could take Shelby anywhere, in any kind of company, and she would find a way to fit in.

Shelby approached them, tucking a swing of gleaming blond hair behind one ear. She was dressed in khaki capris, a neat white shirt, and ballet flats, with no adornment other than single pearl earrings. “Sorry I was a few minutes late, you two. I had to try on something in the shop a couple doors down, but it didn’t work out. I see you got some things, Holly.”

The girl nodded, silent as usual.

With a mixture of worry and wry amusement, Mark realized Holly wasn’t going to talk in front of Shelby. Should he say anything about what had just happened? No, that might put pressure on Holly. Best to leave it alone, stay loose.

Glancing at their surroundings, Shelby said, “What a great little shop. Next time I’m here, I’ll have to pick up some things for my nephews. Christmas is going to be here before we know it.” She curled her hand around Mark’s arm and smiled up at him. “If I’m going to make the flight, we should probably go now.”

“Sure thing.” Mark took the bag from the counter, and reached for the shell in Holly’s hand. “Want me to take that, Holls?”

She clutched it more tightly, wanting to carry it herself.

“Okay,” Mark said, “but try not to drop it.” Looking back at the little redhead behind the counter, he saw that she was reorganizing the pens in the cup by the register, straightening a row of tiny stuffed animals, busying herself with unnecessary tasks. Low-slanting light came through the windows and struck the brilliant red in her curls.

“Bye,” he said. “And thanks.”

Maggie Conroy gave him a cursory wave without really looking in his direction. Which was how he knew that she’d been set as thoroughly off balance as he had.

After dropping Shelby off at the airport, with its single strip of runway, Mark took Holly back home to Rainshadow Vineyard. It was about five and a half miles from Friday Harbor, on the southwest part of the island at False Bay. You had to drive with care on Sunday to avoid people on bicycles or horses. Black-tailed deer, tame as dogs, emerged from meadows of tall summer grass and blackberry bramble to saunter across the roads at their leisure.

Mark left the windows of his pickup open, letting the ocean-softened air flow into the vehicle. “Do you see that?” He pointed to a bald eagle soaring overhead.

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you see what he’s carrying in his talons?”

“A fish?”

“Probably. Either he pulled it from the water, or stole it from another bird.”

“Where’s he taking it?” Holly’s voice was hesitant, as if she, too, was surprised to be hearing herself talk.

“Maybe to the nest. Male eagles take care of the chicks, just like the females do.”

Holly received this information with a prosaic nod. From what she knew of the world, this was entirely plausible.

Mark had to force his hands to unclench from the steering wheel. Delight had filled him from head to toe. It had been so long since Holly had spoken, he’d actually forgotten the sound of her voice.

The child psychologist had said to start with non-verbal interactions, such as asking Holly to point to what she wanted on the menu, with the eventual goal of saying an actual word.

Until today, the only time Mark had ever gotten Holly to make a sound had been on a recent drive along Roche Harbor Road, when they had seen Mona the camel in her pasture. The camel, a well-known resident of the island, had been purchased from an exotic-animal dealer in Mill Creek, and brought to the island around eight or nine years ago. Feeling like an idiot, Mark had entertained Holly with imitation camel noises, and had been rewarded when Holly had briefly joined in.

“What helped you to find your voice, sweetheart? Did it have something to do with Maggie? The red-haired woman?”

“It was the magic shell.” Holly looked down at the conch, cradled tenderly in her small hands.

“But it’s not—” Mark broke off. The point wasn’t whether or not the conch was magic. The point was that the idea had connected with Holly, that it had been offered at just the right moment to help her find a way out of her silence. Magic, fairies…it was all part of some childhood lexicon he didn’t know, some territory of imagination he had abandoned long ago. But Maggie Conroy hadn’t.

He had never seen Holly connect with any woman like that, not Victoria’s old friends, not her teacher, not even Shelby, with whom she’d spent a fair amount of time. Who was this Maggie Conroy? Why would a single young woman, still in her twenties, voluntarily move to an island where more than half the residents were over the age of forty-five? And why a toy store, for God’s sake?

He wanted to see her again. He wanted to know everything about her.

The late Sunday afternoon light was honey colored and heavy, glazing the tidepools and shallow channels of False Bay. The habitat, about two hundred acres of sand flats, looked like an ordinary bay until it emptied completely at low tide. Gulls, herons, and eagles browsed amid the buffet of marine life on the sand flats: shore crabs, worms, mud shrimp, bent-nose clams. You could walk out for at least a half mile in the rich silt before the tide came in.

The pickup turned onto the private graveled drive of Rainshadow Vineyard and approached the house. Outwardly, the place still looked worn and ramshackle, but inside they had been making structural repairs. The first thing Mark had done was fix Holly’s bedroom, painting the walls robin’s-egg blue and the trim creamy white. He’d brought over the furniture from her old bedroom, and had reattached the fabric butterflies to the poster bed.

The biggest project so far had been to create a bathroom decent enough for Holly. He and Sam had taken the walls down to the studs, installed new pipes, leveled out the floor, and put in a new bathtub, a high-tank toilet, and a marble-topped vanity. They let Holly choose the paint color once the walls had been Sheetrocked and plastered. Naturally she had chosen pink.

“It’s period-appropriate,” Mark said, reminding Sam that the color swatches had all come from a Victorian palette grouping.

“It’s godawful girly,” Sam had said. “Every time I walk into that pink bathroom, I feel the need to do something manly afterward.”

“Whatever that is, do it outside so we don’t have to see you.”

The next undertaking had been the kitchen, where Mark had installed a brand-new stove with six burners, and a new refrigerator. He had proceeded to strip at least six coats of paint from the window and door framework, using an infrared paint remover and sander borrowed from Alex.

Alex had been unexpectedly generous with tools, supplies, and advice. In fact, he had started dropping by at least once a week, possibly because renovation and construction were his area of experience and his help was so obviously needed. In Alex’s hands, scraps of useless wood could be turned into something clever and marvelous.

The second time he’d come to visit, Alex had built a set of cubbyholes in Holly’s bedroom closet for her to store her shoes. To the little girl’s delight, some of the cubbies had been set on a hidden hinge, swinging out to reveal a secret compartment. On another occasion, Alex brought over one of his construction crews when Mark and Sam discovered that some of the header beams on the front porch were buckling and crumbling like Styrofoam. Alex and the crew spent a day installing new supports, fixing damaged joists, and putting in new rain gutters. The job had been more than Mark and Sam could handle on their own, so they had sincerely appreciated the help. But knowing Alex…

“What do you think he wants?” Sam had asked Mark.

“For his niece not to be flattened by a collapsing house?”

“No, that would be attributing human motivations to him, and we agreed never to do that.”

Mark tried, without success, to hold back a grin. Alex was so cool and emotionally distant that on occasion you had to question the existence of a pulse.

“Maybe he feels guilty for not having more to do with Vick before she died.”

Leave a comment

We will not publish your email address. Required fields are marked*

Related Novels