After supper, Currie went out on the back balcony to sit with her sisters and several guests before the evening activities started.
“Hey, over here!” Saffron called, motioning Currie to an empty lounge chair across from her. Her sister was flanked by Russ Smith and Della Engles, both recently widowed. Price sat on the stone wall nearby, sipping a beer. He watched the woods. Hoping for a glimpse of Emeralda? Currie wondered.
The sun dipped beneath the treetops, forming long shadows across the lawn. A gentle breeze blew from the shore, adding a salty tang to the air. Birds of every shape and color darted to the feeders for their evening meal.
“Look!” Russ pointed a finger, bent with arthritis, to a ball of suet that he and Della had made that afternoon, following Saffron’s instructions. “I haven’t seen that bird before. He’s going for the orange pieces you had us put in there. A bird with bright orange that likes oranges. Odd, huh?”
“That’s a Baltimore oriole,” Saffron said.
“And those?” Della, a tiny woman with snow white hair and clear blue eyes, pointed to a flock of birds with red patches near their throats.
“I never thought I’d enjoy birds so much,” Della said. “I owned a canary once, and I loved to hear it sing, but I never paid attention to the birds outdoors.”
“We lived in the city. Pigeons and squirrels,” Russ said. “I thought they were a bother. Greedy, little things. Always into something. But Martha loved to watch them.” The breeze whipped his few strands of thinning hair up on end, and he raised a wrinkled hand to smooth them. Satisfied, he glanced at his watch. “Time for the evening news--if we had a TV. Wonder what the world’s gotten itself into lately. Probably nothing good.”
Della shook her head. “The world can get along without us. It will have to sooner or later. At our age, it’s all about coasting to the end and enjoying the ride.”
Russ was quiet a moment, watching the birds. “Sooner would have been better. I wanted to die before my Martha did, but the damned woman beat me to it.”
Della brushed a hand across her eyes. “I always knew Charlie wasn’t going to outlive me. He had a whole family with heart problems, but he made it longer than most of them. Still, when he died last year, it changed everything.”
Listening to them, Currie thought of her mother. She’d lost one mortal male after another, and she missed them for a while, but she always moved on.
Della smiled. “Charlie used to tell me that he WANTED to die first. Said it was harder for the one left behind.”
“It is, damn it.”
Mandy Yorke leaned forward in her lawn chair to join the conversation. “You make dying sound easy. Aren’t you afraid? When they told me I had breast cancer, all I could think about was that I wanted to live, I wanted to beat it.”
“How old are you?” Russ asked.
“No wonder, you’re just a young whippersnapper. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“Part of it was that,” Mandy said. “And part of it was fear. I was afraid of dying. I’m still afraid of dying.”
“Why?” Currie asked. Death was something she’d never experience.
Price answered her question. “Because when you die, that’s it. End of story. Game over.”
“I have friends who believe that,” Della said. “Or worse, that they haven’t done things right and they’ll go to hell, worried about what’s on the other side. Not me. I can swear that my Charlie comes to visit me once in a while, and he’s happy where he is, I can tell.”
“Whatever makes you feel good,” Price said.
But Russ gave him a cold glare. “My Martha came to say goodbye to me, whatever anyone thinks. She died in the middle of the night, and I woke up at three in the morning, and I swear to God, she was standing next to our bed. She smiled when I saw her, and then she faded away.”
Mandy rubbed her arms. “That’s creepy.”
“That’s old age,” Price said. “The Grim Reaper’s breathing down your necks, so you find some way to make peace with it.” His voice went bitter. “When my Lyssa opted out, all she wanted was oblivion, and that’s what she got.”
Della shook her head. “The poor girl was too confused to comfort you. But a lot of loved ones come to say goodbye. It’s their way of letting you know that they’re all right, the pain and disease have passed.”
“But losing your partner isn’t the end of YOUR life,” Mandy said.
Russ sighed. “I was married to my Martha for forty-eight years. When you lose something like that, it leaves a big hole, believe me.”
Mandy nodded. “I understand that, but you can plug into other things. Maybe your kids and grandkids?”
Della smiled. “They have lives of their own. They stop by and they call, but it still gets pretty lonely. Too many hours in a day.”
Russ nodded agreement. “I have five grandkids. When they stay very long, they wear me out.”
“Lord almighty!” Della fussed. “Listen to you. If your glass overflowed, you’d think it was half-empty.”
“Do you see your grandkids? Don’t they get on your nerves, ask a lot of stupid questions?”
“That’s what kids do,” Della said. “But let me tell you, they enrich our lives more than we enrich theirs.”
“I think kids are wonderful,” Mandy said. “I love teaching.”
“They’re not your own.” Price tossed his empty beer bottle in the trash. “You’re not stuck with them for the rest of your life.”
“Do you mean that?” Mandy asked.
“Hell, yes. My sister Gina had three husbands and a kid with each one of them. They’re all worthless brats.”
“They could change with the right teacher, the right…”
“Get real!” Price waved Mandy’s comments away and stalked off toward the woods.
Della watched a bluebird flit to the feeder for mealy worms. “I think that I’m supposed to do more. Coasting’s not good enough. I need to volunteer, go out and meet people, or sign up for classes.”
“Classes?” Russ stared.
“I love learning the card games that Brie shows us each night. Maybe I’ll join a bridge club.”
Russ looked at the lush foliage and flowers that surrounded the lawn. “My grandsons would love this. Maybe I should take them on a short trip when I get back.”
Mandy grinned and leaned back in her lounge chair to enjoy the evening.
Della nodded and picked up the Agatha Christie novel she’d laid in her lap. “I’ve read this before, but I can’t remember the ending. My memory’s not what it used to be.”
“How old were you when you read it?” Russ asked.
“Maybe in my thirties.”
“Phooey, woman! You’re lucky you can remember that you read it.”
Currie smiled, enjoying their banter, but Brie, who’d remained silent, listening, through the various conversations, cleared her throat and nodded toward the sky. The sun had disappeared beneath the tree line, and pinks and oranges rimmed the horizon by the shore. Time to start their classes. Currie was pushing herself to her feet when she saw Emeralda step out of the woods, a basket of raspberries tucked under her arm.
The sisters rose and went to her.
“You just missed Price. He went into the woods to find you,” Saffron teased.
Emeralda shook her head. “He’s not interested in me. I’m just a distraction.”
“How can you tell? Did you meld with a tree and he didn’t see you?”
“Didn’t need to. Price doesn’t really listen to me. It’s all about him,” Emeralda said.
Currie was disappointed and was immediately ashamed of the way she felt. She realized she’d been hoping that Price would attract Emeralda and knock Ward out of the running. But with Price out of the picture, Ward would look even better.
Brie shook her head. “People in need are selfish. They can’t help it. It’s part of the condition.”
“I know, and I’ll listen to him,” Emeralda said, “but I’m not interested in him.”
Currie waited for Brie’s famous words and wasn’t disappointed.
“We shouldn’t encourage romance on this island. These people need to be healed. They’re not whole right now and won’t make good decisions.”
Brie was right, Currie decided. Ward was vulnerable. Even if she could attract him, it wouldn’t mean anything. He was a client. Period. Maybe she should start leaving the island on their two-week breaks. If she wanted to meet someone, she needed to go to their world. No one available came to hers.
Ward didn’t come to the woodworking class after supper, and Currie was disappointed. Avery came and annoyed her as usual. He was a nice man, but he asked too many questions. He was such a fuss budget that it took him half an hour to chisel a design that most people would finish in ten minutes. She was relieved when the clock finally reached nine and she could call it quits.
She climbed the stairs to the three suites on the building’s second floor. Saffron had already opened a bottle of wine and poured glasses for Brie, Thora, and Emeralda.
“Here she is!” Thora called as Currie joined them. “And she looks like she could use a drink.”
Currie sighed. “Avery wanted to make a carved wooden jewelry box for his daughter, but he made one leaf deeper than the other ones, so he’s redoing the whole design--AGAIN--tomorrow night.”
“He wants it to be right,” Brie said.
“No one would ever notice the difference.”
“He did. That’s what matters.”
“He’s a perfectionist, just like you.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Saffron burst out laughing. “It can be for the rest of us. We’re not always so fastidious.”
Brie smiled. She’d heard their complaints before. “It’s a good thing there are a few of us who take the time to do things right.”
“That’s for sure,” Saffron agreed. “Then we lesser beings can slide.”
“Like you wouldn’t anyway.”
They spent an hour, talking about their day and relaxing, before Thora sighed and patted her stomach. “I fizzle a lot faster since I’m pregnant. Time for me to get some sleep.”
Emeralda poured the last of the wine into her own glass. “Lucky for us you can only have an inch or two of vino. It leaves more for me.”
“Any more and you’d have to roll me to my cabin. I’d fall asleep.”
The rest of them didn’t stay long after Thora left. Currie felt more relaxed than she was after her woodworking class, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to go to sleep right away, so she headed back down to the kitchen to get a few things ready for breakfast.
She was mixing eggs and milk for baked caramel French toast when Ward knocked at the French doors and stepped inside. He glanced at Thumper, who was hopping around the kitchen while Currie worked.
“The Board of Health wouldn’t approve, you know.”
She smiled. “He lost his mother. He’s too little to make it on his own. I’m training him to use a litter box. He’s a smart rabbit.”
“He must be if he came to you for help.”
She felt her neck and cheeks go red. She couldn’t remember the last person who’d made her blush. “Can’t you sleep?”
“The truth is, I’m hungry. I was hoping I could beg for a bedtime snack.”
Each cabin was stocked with summer sausage, an assortment of crackers, and mixed nuts, and there was always fresh fruit available. But Ward shrugged and glanced at the bread Currie was slicing. “You wouldn’t have any peanut butter and jelly handy, would you?”
She laughed. “In the third cupboard. Help yourself.”
When he finished his sandwich, he helped her thread chunks of ham and pineapple on kebabs. He even browned sausage while she mixed hash browns with seasonings for another overnight breakfast casserole. And then he stayed for the cleanup. Currie was surprised by their easy camaraderie. When he first came, her nerves were all fluttery and her heart beat overtime. But they soon fell into a rhythm, and she simply enjoyed his company.
When they finished, he said, “Is the rabbit going to the nursery, or does he stay here?”
“I like having him around. I’m going to keep him as a pet. He’s staying with me.”
“What happened to his mom?”
She took a deep breath. Should she tell a guest? But for some reason, she wanted to see his reaction, so she told him the whole story.
“They were all stabbed to death? With a knife?”
“That’s what it looked like.”
“Then they died fast. They’re lucky.” His eyes took on their haunted look again. Currie knew he was thinking of the little girl in the window.
“Want to go for a walk?” she asked quickly, before she could change her mind.
“Do you think it’s safe?”
She frowned. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“You see? You girls are way too trusting. Someone killed the rabbits, butchered them really. And what do you do? You invite me for a walk--the two of us alone, in the dark.”
“You didn’t kill the rabbits, did you?” It couldn’t be Ward. Her heart would know. Wouldn’t it?
His dark brows furrowed in frustration. “No, but how do you know that? You don’t know me. You don’t know any of us.”
“You seem like a decent person.”
He made a strangled sound of disgust.
“And if someone jumps us, it will be two against one,” she added in a hurry. Not that she was worried. She could blend with the dirt under her feet or the air around her. Ward would be the one in more danger.
“Either you’re just plain dim-witted, or you don’t value your life very much.” He knotted his fingers into fists, he was so aggravated with her.
“I’m smart enough, and I don’t have a death wish. My parents taught us how to defend ourselves pretty well. I know how to handle myself in an emergency.”
He relaxed a little. “That makes sense. They taught you self-defense skills.”
“Drilled them into us.” A tiny stretch, but true enough.
“And you’re good at them?”
“Don’t make me hurt you to prove it.”
He laughed. “Okay then.”
They didn’t go far, just to the path around the lake. She told him about her father, and he told her about his family. “You’d like my mom,” he said. “She loves to cook. My dad calls her the queen of minestrone.”
When they completed their circle and came close to Ward’s cottage, he shrugged. “I’d better call it a night. Thanks for putting up with me when you finally had some down time.”
“I enjoyed it.” She had a strong desire to kiss him, to stand on her tiptoes and press her lips against his. He bent forward a little, as if he had the same urge. Then they both pulled apart at the same time. “I’d better go,” she said.
“I’ll stay here and watch until you reach the lodge.” He nodded. “Things don’t feel real here, do they? I keep forgetting that I have to go back to the real world.”
His world, Currie thought, as she went to her room and got ready for bed. What would happen if she followed him there? Would he see her, or would he be too busy with his own life? She put Thumper in the animal playpen she’d set up near the balcony. She couldn’t stay in Ward’s world, and he wouldn’t want to stay here. There was no future for them. Why did she have such a hard time remembering that?