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The Wish / (by Nicholas Sparks, 2021) -

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The Wish /  (by Nicholas Sparks, 2021) -

The Wish / (by Nicholas Sparks, 2021) -

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The Wish / (by Nicholas Sparks, 2021) -
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2021
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Nicholas Sparks
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Mela Lee, Will Collyer
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/ / / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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11:42:34
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Wish / :

.doc (Word) nicholas_sparks_-_the_wish.doc [3.25 Mb] (c: 73) .
.pdf nicholas_sparks_-_the_wish.pdf [2.31 Mb] (c: 76) .


: The Wish

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Dear Reader, Id like to thank you for downloading the ebook version of my latest novel, The Wish. Its a very special book to me, as it combines two deep-seated passions of mine: a fascination with travel (Ive actually included some of the photos from my travels in this ebook edition), and my profound attachment to North Carolina, where all of my novels have been set. In the past eighteen years, beginning with the around-the-world trip documented in my memoir, Three Weeks with My Brother, Ive had the privilege of traveling to some of the most remarkable places in the world, each unforgettable for its natural geography, rare cultural history, or astounding wildlife. However, the best part of any trip is coming homeand small-town North Carolina has been my beloved home for decades now. I never tire of its slow rhythms, easygoing charm, and varied landscapes. On the first page of The Wish, you will meet Maggie Dawes, a New Yorkbased travel photographer who has made a career of capturing images from every corner of the globe. But the origins of her extraordinary career lie in a summer when she was just sixteen years old and found herself exiled to a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina in the off-season. Ocracoke Island is a tiny resort destination, windswept and beautiful, but quite isolated during the winterNonetheless it is there, among the hardy island folk, that she finds not only a first love that marks her forever, but also family and a passion that will become her career. I am attached to all of the books Ive written for different reasons, but I do think this might be one of my very best. You will cry, but hopefully youll also laugh, and come away deeply satisfied from this story of a woman trying to reconcile what might have been with the way things turned out for her. Its a challenge we all face as humansto find and express love, in the time and in the ways that our often-unpredictable lives allow. Thank you again, and happy reading, Nicholas Sparks Tis the Season Manhattan December 2019 Whenever December rolled around, Manhattan transformed itself into a city that Maggie didnt always recognize. Tourists thronged the shows on Broadway and flooded the sidewalks outside department stores in Midtown, forming a slow-moving river of pedestrians. Boutiques and restaurants overflowed with shoppers clutching bags, Christmas music filtered from hidden speakers, and hotel lobbies sparkled with decorations. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was lit by multicolored bulbs and the flashes of thousands of iPhones, and crosstown traffic, never speedy in the best of times, became so jammed up that it was often quicker to walk than to take a cab. But walking had its own challenges; frigid wind frequently whipped between the buildings, necessitating thermal underwear, plentiful fleece, and jackets zipped to the collars. Maggie Dawes, who considered herself a free spirit consumed by wanderlust, had always loved the idea of a New York Christmas, albeit in a look how pretty postcard kind of way. In reality, like a lot of New Yorkers, she did her best to avoid Midtown during the holidays. Instead, she either stayed close to her home in Chelsea or, more commonly, fled to warmer climes. As a travel photographer, she sometimes thought of herself less as a New Yorker and more as a nomad who happened to have a permanent address in the city. In a notebook she kept in the drawer of her nightstand, shed compiled a list of more than a hundred places she still wanted to visit, some of them so obscure or remote that even reaching them would be a challenge. Since dropping out of college twenty years ago, shed been adding to the list, noting places that sparked her imagination for one reason or another even as her travels enabled her to cross out other destinations. With a camera slung over her shoulder, shed visited every continent, more than eighty-two countries, and forty-three of the fifty states. Shed taken tens of thousands of photographs, from images of wildlife in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to shots of the aurora borealis in Lapland. There were photographs taken as shed hiked the Inca Trail, others from the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, still more among the ruins of Timbuktu. Twelve years ago, shed learned to scuba dive and had spent ten days documenting marine life in Raja Ampat; four years ago, shed hiked to the famous Paro Taktsang, or Tigers Nest, a Buddhist monastery built into a cliffside in Bhutan with panoramic views of the Himalayas. Others had often marveled at her adventures, but shed learned that adventure is a word with many connotations, not all of them good. A case in point was the adventure she was on nowthats how she sometimes described it to her Instagram followers and YouTube subscribersthe one that kept her largely confined to either her gallery or her small two-bedroom apartment on West Nineteenth Street, instead of venturing to more exotic locales. The same adventure that led to occasional thoughts of suicide. Oh, shed never actually do it. The thought terrified her, and shed admitted as much in one of the many videos shed created for YouTube. For almost ten years, her videos had been rather ordinary as far as photographers posts went; shed described her decision-making process when taking pictures, offered numerous Photoshop tutorials, and reviewed new cameras and their many accessories, usually posting two or three times a month. Those YouTube videos, in addition to her Instagram posts and Facebook pages and the blog on her website, had always been popular with photography geeks while also burnishing her professional reputation. Three and a half years ago, however, on a whim, shed posted a video to her YouTube channel about her recent diagnosis, one that had nothing to do with photography. The video, a rambling, unfiltered description of the fear and uncertainty she suddenly felt when she learned she had stage IV melanoma, probably shouldnt have been posted at all. But what she imagined would be a lonely voice echoing back at her from the empty reaches of the internet somehow managed to catch the attention of others. She wasnt sure why or how, but that videoof all the ones shed ever postedhad attracted a trickle, then a steady stream, and finally a deluge of views, comments, questions, and upvotes from people who had never heard of her or her work as a photographer. Feeling as though she had to respond to those whod been moved by her plight, shed posted another video regarding her diagnosis that became even more popular. Since then, about once a month, shed continued to post videos in the same vein, mainly because she felt she had no choice but to continue. In the past three years, shed discussed various treatments and how theyd made her feel, sometimes even displaying the scars from her surgery. She talked about radiation burns and nausea and hair loss and wondered openly about the meaning of life. She mused about her fear of dying and speculated on the possibility of an afterlife. They were serious issues, but maybe to stave off her own depression when discussing such a miserable subject, she did her best to keep the videos as light in tone as possible. She supposed that was part of the reason for their popularity, but who really knew? The only certainty was that somehow, almost reluctantly, shed become the star of her own reality web series, one that had begun with hope but had slowly narrowed to focus on a single inevitable ending. Andperhaps unsurprisinglyas the grand finale approached, her viewership exploded even more. * * * In the first Cancer Videothats how she mentally referred to them, as opposed to her Real Videosshe stared into the camera with a wry grin and said, Right off the bat, I hated it. Then it started growing on me. She knew it was probably in poor taste to joke about her illness, but the whole thing struck her as absurd. Why her? At the time, she was thirty-six years old, she exercised regularly, and she followed a reasonably healthy diet. There was no history of cancer in her family. Shed grown up in cloudy Seattle and lived in Manhattan, which ruled out a history of sunbathing. Shed never visited a tanning salon. None of it made any sense, but that was the point about cancer, wasnt it? Cancer didnt discriminate; it just happened to the unlucky, and after a while shed finally accepted that the better question was really Why NOT her? She wasnt special; to that point in her life, thered been times when she considered herself interesting or intelligent or even pretty, but the word special had never entered her mind. When shed received her diagnosis, she would have sworn she was in perfect health. A month earlier, shed visited Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives, on a photo shoot for Cond? Nast. Shed traveled there hoping to capture the bioluminescence just offshore that made ocean waves glow like starlight, as if lit from within. Sea plankton was responsible for the spectral, spectacular light, and shed allotted extra time to shoot some images for personal use, perhaps for eventual sale in her gallery. She was scouting a mostly empty beach near her hotel in midafternoon with a camera in hand, trying to envision the shot she aimed to take once evening descended. She wanted to capture a hint of the shorelinewith perhaps a boulder in the foregroundthe sky, and, of course, the waves just as they were cresting. Shed spent more than an hour taking different shots from different angles and various locations on the beach when a couple strolled past her, holding hands. Lost in her work, she barely registered their presence. A few moments later, while scanning the line where the waves were breaking offshore through her viewfinder, she heard the womans voice behind her. She spoke English, but with a distinctly German accent. Excuse me, the woman said. I can see that youre busy and I am sorry to bother you. Maggie lowered her camera. Yes? Its a little difficult to say this, but have you had that dark spot on the back of your shoulder examined? Maggie frowned, trying without success to see the spot between the straps of her bathing suit that the woman was referring to. I didnt know I had a dark spot there She squinted at the woman in confusion. And why are you so interested? The woman, fiftyish with short gray hair, nodded. I should perhaps introduce myself. Im Dr. Sabine Kessel, she said. Im a dermatologist in Munich. The spot looks abnormal. Maggie blinked. You mean like cancer? I dont know, the woman said, her expression cautious. But if I were you, Id have it examined as soon as possible. It could be nothing, of course. Or it could be serious, Dr. Kessel didnt have to add. Though it took five nights to achieve what she wanted from the shoot, Maggie was pleased with the raw files. She would work on them extensively in digital postproductionthe real art in photography these days almost always emerged in postbut she already knew the results would be spectacular. In the meantime, and though she tried not to worry about it, she also made an appointment with Dr. Snehal Khatri, a dermatologist on the Upper East Side, four days after her return to the city. The spot was biopsied in early July 2016, and afterward she was sent for additional testing. She had MRI and PET scans done at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital later that same month. After the results had come in, Dr. Khatri sat her down in the examination room, where he quietly and seriously informed her that she had stage IV melanoma. Later that day, she was introduced to an oncologist named Leslie Brodigan, who would oversee her care. In the aftermath of these meetings, Maggie did her own research on the internet. Though Dr. Brodigan had told her that general statistics meant very little when it came to predicting outcomes for a particular individual, Maggie couldnt help fixating on the numbers. The survival rate after five years for those diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, she learned, was less than fifteen percent. In stunned disbelief, Maggie made her first Cancer Video the following day. * * * At her second appointment, Dr. Brodigana vibrant blue-eyed blonde who seemed to personify the term good healthexplained everything about her condition again, since the whole process had been so overwhelming that Maggie could remember only bits and pieces of their first meeting. Essentially, having stage IV melanoma meant that the cancer had metastasized not only to distant lymph nodes but to some of her other organs as well, in her case both her liver and her stomach. The MRI and PET scans had found the cancerous growths invading healthier parts of her body like an army of ants devouring food laid out on a picnic table. Long story short: The next three and a half years were a blur of treatment and recovery, with occasional flashes of hope illuminating dark tunnels of anxiety. She had surgery to remove her infected lymph nodes and the metastases in her liver and stomach. The surgery was followed by radiation, which was excruciating, turning her skin black in places and leaving behind nasty scars to go with the ones shed collected in the operating room. She also learned there were different kinds of melanoma, even for those with stage IV, which led to different treatment options. In her case, that meant immunotherapy, which seemed to work for a couple of years, until it finally didnt. Then, last April, she had begun chemotherapy and continued it for months, hating how it made her feel but convinced that it had to be effective. How could it not work, she wondered, since it seemed to be killing every other part of her? These days, she barely recognized herself in the mirror. Food nearly always tasted too bitter or too salty, which made it hard to eat, and shed dropped more than twenty pounds from her already petite frame. Her oval-shaped brown eyes now appeared sunken and oversize above her protruding cheekbones, her face more like skin stretched over a skull. She was always cold and wore thick sweaters even in her overheated apartment. Shed lost all her dark brown hair, only to see it slowly grow back in patches, lighter in color and as fine as a babys; shed taken to wearing a kerchief or hat almost all the time. Her neck had become so spindly and fragile-looking that she wrapped it in a scarf to avoid glimpsing it in mirrors. A little more than a month ago, at the beginning of November, she had undergone another round of CAT and PET scans, and in December, shed met again with Dr. Brodigan. The doctor had been more subdued than usual, although her eyes brimmed with compassion. There, shed told Maggie that while more than three years of treatment had slowed the disease at times, its progression had never quite stopped. When Maggie asked what other treatment options were available, the doctor had gently turned her attention to the quality of the life Maggie had remaining. It was her way of telling Maggie that she was going to die. * * * Maggie had opened the gallery more than nine years ago with another artist named Trinity, who used most of the space for his giant and eclectic sculptures. Trinitys real name was Fred Marshburn and theyd met at an opening for another artists show, the kind of event Maggie seldom attended. Trinity was already wildly successful at that point and had long toyed with the idea of opening his own gallery; he didnt, however, have any desire to actually manage the gallery, nor did he want to spend any time there. Because theyd hit it off, and because her photographs in no way competed with his work, theyd eventually made a deal. In exchange for her managing the business of the gallery, she would earn a modest salary and could also display a selection of her own work. At the time, it was more about prestigeshe could tell people she had her own gallery!than it was about the money Trinity paid her. In the first year or two, she sold only a few prints of her own. Because Maggie was still traveling extensively at the timemore than a hundred days a year, on averagethe actual day-to-day running of the gallery fell to a woman named Luanne Sommers. When Maggie hired her, Luanne was a wealthy divorc?e with grown children. Her experience was limited to an amateurs passion for collecting and an experts eye for finding bargains at Neiman Marcus. On the plus side, she dressed well; she was responsible, conscientious, and willing to learn; and she had no qualms about the fact that shed earn little more than minimum wage. As she put it, her alimony was enough to allow her to retire in luxury, but there were only so many lunches a woman could do without going crazy. Luanne turned out to be a natural at sales. In the beginning, Maggie had briefed her on the technical elements of all of her prints, as well as the story behind each particular shot, which was often as interesting to buyers as the image itself. Trinitys sculptures, which utilized assorted materialscanvas, metal, plastic, glue, and paint, in addition to items collected from junkyards, deer antlers, pickle jars, and canswere original enough to inspire spirited discussion. He was already an established critical darling, and his pieces moved regularly despite their staggering prices. But the gallery didnt advertise or feature many guest artists, so the work itself was fairly low-key. There were days when only a handful of people entered the premises, and they were able to close the gallery the last three weeks of the year. It wasfor Maggie, Trinity, and Luannean arrangement that worked well for a long time. But two things happened to change all that. First, Maggies Cancer Videos lured new people to the gallery. Not the usual seasoned contemporary art or photography enthusiasts, but tourists from places like Tennessee and Ohio, people whod begun to follow Maggie on Instagram and YouTube because they felt a connection to her. Some of them had become actual fans of her photography, but a lot of them simply wanted to meet her or buy one of her signed prints as a keepsake. The phone began to ring off the hook with orders from random locations around the country, and additional orders poured in through the website. It was all Maggie and Luanne could do to keep up, and last year, theyd made the decision to keep the gallery open through the holidays because the crowds kept coming. Then Maggie learned shed soon have to begin chemotherapy, which meant she wouldnt be able to help at the gallery for months. It was clear that they needed to hire an additional employee, and when Maggie broached the subject with Trinity, he agreed on the spot. As fate would have it, the following day, a young man named Mark Price walked into the gallery and asked to speak with her, an event that at the time struck her as almost too good to be true. * * * Mark Price was a recent college graduate who could have passed for a high schooler. Maggie initially assumed he was another cancer groupie, but she was only partially correct. He admitted he had become familiar with her work through her popular online presencehe was especially fond of her videos, he volunteeredbut hed also come in with a r?sum?. He explained that he was looking for employment and the idea of working in the art world strongly appealed to him. Art and photography, hed added, allowed for the communication of new ideas, often in ways that words did not. Despite her misgivings about hiring a fan, Maggie sat down with him the same day, and it became clear that hed done his homework. He knew a great deal about Trinity and his work; he mentioned a specific installation that was currently on display at MoMA and another at the New School, drawing comparisons to some of Robert Rauschenbergs later work in a knowledgeable but unpretentious way. Though it didnt surprise her, he also had a deep and impressive familiarity with her own body of work. And yet, though hed answered all her questions satisfactorily, she remained a little uneasy; she couldnt quite figure out whether he was serious about his desire to work in a gallery, or just another person who wanted to witness her own tragedy up close. As their meeting drew to a close, she told him that they werent currently interviewingthough technically true, it was only a matter of timeto which he responded by asking politely whether she would nonetheless be willing to receive his r?sum?. It was, she thought in retrospect, the way hed phrased his request that charmed her. Would you nonetheless be willing to receive my r?sum?? It struck her as old-fashioned and courtly and she couldnt help smiling as she held out her hand for the document. Later that same week, Maggie had uploaded a job posting to some art-related industry sites and called several contacts at other galleries, letting them know she was hiring. R?sum?s and inquiries flooded the inbox and Luanne met with six candidates while Maggie, either nauseated or vomiting from her first infusion, recuperated at home. Only one candidate made it past the first interview, but when she didnt show up for the second, she was scratched as well. Frustrated, Luanne visited Maggie at home to update her. Maggie hadnt left her apartment in days and was lying on the couch, sipping the fruit-and-ice-cream smoothie Luanne had brought with her, one of the few things Maggie could still force down. Its hard to believe we cant find anyone qualified to work in the gallery. Maggie shook her head. They have no experience and dont know anything about art, Luanne huffed. Neither did you, Maggie could have pointed out, but she remained silent, fully aware that Luanne had turned out to be a treasure as both a friend and an employee, the luckiest of breaks. Warm and unflappable, Luanne had long ago ceased being a mere colleague. I trust your judgment, Luanne. Well just start over. Are you sure there wasnt anyone else in the pool worth meeting? Luannes tone was plaintive. For whatever reason, Maggies mind flashed to Mark Price, inquiring ever so politely whether she would be willing to receive his r?sum?. Youre smiling, Luanne said. No, Im not. I know a smile when I see one. What were you just thinking about? Maggie took another sip of the smoothie, buying time, until finally deciding to come out with it. A young man came in before we listed the position, she admitted, before proceeding to describe the meeting. Im still not sure about him, she concluded, but his r?sum? is probably somewhere on my desk in the office. She shrugged. I dont know if hes even available at this point. When Luanne probed the origins of Marks interest in the job, she frowned. Luanne understood the makeup of the gallery crowds better than anyone and recognized that people whod seen Maggies videos often viewed her as their confidante, someone who would both empathize and sympathize. They frequently longed to share their own stories, the suffering they had endured, and the losses. And as much as Maggie wanted to offer them comfort, it was often too much to support them emotionally when she felt like she was barely holding it together herself. Luanne did her best to shield her from the more aggressive contact seekers. Let me review his r?sum? and Ill speak with him, she said. After that, well take it one step at a time. Luanne contacted Mark the following week. Their first conversation led to two more formal interviews, including one with Trinity. When she later spoke with Maggie, her praise for Mark was effusive, but Maggie insisted on meeting with him again, just to be certain. It took four more days before she had the energy to make it to the gallery. Mark Price was on time, dressed in a suit and holding a slim binder as he stepped into her office. She felt sick as a dog as she studied his r?sum?, noting that he was from Elkhart, Indiana, and when she saw his graduation date from Northwestern, she did a quick mental calculation. Youre twenty-two years old? Yes. With his neatly parted hair, blue eyes, and baby face, he looked like a well-groomed teenager, ready for the prom. And you majored in theology? I did, he said. Why theology? My father is a pastor, he said. Eventually I want to get a masters in divinity as well. To follow in his footsteps. As soon as he said it, she realized it didnt surprise her in the slightest. Then why the interest in art if you intend to go into the ministry? He brought his fingertips together, as though wanting to choose his words with care. Ive always believed that art and faith have much in common. Both allow people to explore the subtlety of their own emotions and to find their own answers as to what the art represents to them. Your work and Trinitys always make me think, and more importantly, they make me feel in ways that often lead to a sense of wonder. Just like faith. It was a good answer, but she nonetheless suspected that Mark was leaving something out. Setting those thoughts aside, Maggie continued with the interview, asking more standard questions about his work history and knowledge of photography and contemporary sculpture before finally leaning back in her chair. Why do you think youd be a good fit for the gallery? He seemed unfazed by her grilling. For starters, having met Ms. Sommers, I have the sense that she and I would work well together. With her permission, I spent some time in the gallery after our interview, and after a bit of additional research, I put together some of my thoughts about the work currently on display. He leaned forward, offering her the binder. Ive left a copy with Ms. Sommers as well. Maggie thumbed through the binder. Stopping on a random page, she perused a couple of paragraphs hed written concerning a photograph shed taken in Djibouti in 2011, when the country was mired in one of the worst droughts in decades. In the foreground were the skeletal remains of a camel; in the background were three families dressed in brilliantly colorful garb, all of whom were laughing and smiling as they walked along a dried riverbed. Gathering storm clouds clotted a sky that had turned orange and red in the setting sun, a vivid contrast to the bleached bones of the skeleton and deep desiccation cracks that illustrated the lack of any recent rainfall. Marks comments showed a surprising technical sophistication and a mature appreciation for her artistic intentions; shed been trying to show an improbable joy amid despair, to illustrate mans insignificance when faced with the capricious power of nature, and Mark had articulated those intentions well. She closed the binder, knowing there was no need to look through the rest of it. You clearly prepared, and considering your age, you seem surprisingly well qualified. But those arent my major concerns. I still want to know the real reason you want to work here. His brow furrowed. I think your photographs are extraordinary. As are Trinitys sculptures. Is that all? Im not sure what you mean. Ill be frank, Maggie said, exhaling. She was too tired and too sick, with too little time, to be anything but frank. You brought in your r?sum? before wed even posted that we were hiring, and you admitted youre a fan of my videos. Those things concern me because sometimes people who have watched my videos about my illness feel a false sense of intimacy with me. I cant have someone like that working here. She raised her eyebrows. Are you imagining that well become friends and have deep and meaningful conversations? Because thats unlikely. I doubt Ill be spending much time at the gallery. I understand, he said, pleasant and unflustered. If I were you, Id likely feel the same way. All I can do is assure you that my intention is to be an excellent employee. She didnt make her decision right away. Instead, she slept on it and conferred with Luanne and Trinity the following day. Despite Maggies continuing uncertainty, they wanted to take a chance on him, and Mark started at the beginning of May. Fortunately, since then, Mark had given Maggie no reason to second-guess herself. With chemotherapy continuing to wipe her out all summer, shed spent only a few hours a week at the gallery, but in the rare moments when she was there, Mark had been the consummate professional. He greeted her cheerfully, smiled easily, and always referred to her as Ms. Dawes. He was never late for work, had never called in sick, and seldom disturbed her, knocking gently on her office door only when a bona fide buyer or collector had specifically asked for her and he deemed it important enough to intrude. Perhaps because hed taken the interview to heart, he never referred to her recent video posts, nor did he ask her personal questions. Occasionally he expressed the hope that she was feeling well, but that was okay with her, because he didnt actually inquire about it, leaving it up to her to say anything more if she wanted to. Moreover and most importantly, he excelled at the job. He treated customers with courtesy and charm, moved the cancer groupies gracefully toward the exits, and excelled at sales, probably because he wasnt pushy in the slightest. He answered the phone, usually by the second or third ring, and carefully wrapped the prints before shipping those ordered by mail. Usually, to complete all of his tasks, he would stay for an hour or more after the gallery had closed its doors. Luanne was so impressed by him that she had no worries about her monthlong holiday in Maui with her daughter and grandchildren in December, a trip shed taken almost every year since shes started at the gallery. None of that, Maggie realized, had been much of a surprise. What did surprise her was that in the last few months, her reservations about Mark had slowly given way to a growing sense of trust. * * * Maggie couldnt pinpoint exactly when that had happened. Like apartment neighbors regularly riding the same elevator, their cordial relationship settled into a comfortable familiarity. In September, once she began to feel better after her last infusion, she had started spending more time at work. Simple greetings with Mark gave way to small talk before segueing to more personal subjects. Sometimes those conversations took place in the small break room down the hall from her office, other times in the gallery when it was devoid of visitors. Mostly they occurred after the doors had been locked, while the three of them processed and packaged the prints that had been ordered by phone or through the website. Usually Luanne dominated the conversation, chattering about her ex-husbands poor dating choices or her kids and grandkids. Maggie and Mark were content to listenLuanne was entertaining. Every now and then, one of them would roll their eyes at something Luanne had said (Im sure my ex is paying for all the plastic surgery on that tacky gold-digger) and the other would smile slightly, a private communication meant just for the two of them. Sometimes, though, Luanne had to leave immediately after closing. Mark and Maggie would work together alone, and little by little, Maggie came to learn quite a bit about Mark, even as he refrained from asking personal questions of her. He told her about his parents and his childhood, which often struck her as something akin to an upbringing imagined by Norman Rockwell, complete with bedtime stories, hockey and baseball games, and his parents attendance at every school event he could remember. He also spoke frequently about his girlfriend, Abigail, whod just started working toward a masters degree in economics at the University of Chicago. Like Mark, shed grown up in a small townin her case, Waterloo, Iowaand he had countless photographs of the two of them on his iPhone. The photos showed a pretty young redhead with a sunny, midwestern affect, and Mark mentioned that he planned to propose after she received her degree. Maggie could remember laughing when he said it. Why get married when youre still so young? shed asked. Why not wait a few years? Because, Mark had answered, shes the one with whom Id like to spend the rest of my life. How can you know that? Sometimes you just know. The more she learned about him, the more she came to believe that his parents had been as lucky with him as hed been with them. He was an exemplary young man, responsible and kinddisproving the stereotype that millennials were lazy and entitled. Still, her growing fondness for him sometimes surprised her, if only because they shared so little in common. Her early life had beenunusual, at least for a time, and her relationship with her parents had often been strained. She herself had been nothing like Mark. While hed been studious and had graduated with highest honors from a top university, shed generally struggled in school and had finished less than three semesters at a community college. At his age, she had been content to live in the moment and figure things out on the fly, whereas he seemed to have a plan for everything. Had she met him when she was younger, she suspected that she wouldnt have given him the time of day; when shed been in her twenties, shed had a habit of choosing exactly the wrong kinds of men. Nonetheless, he sometimes reminded her of someone shed known long ago, someone who had once meant everything to her. * * * By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Maggie considered Mark a definite member of the gallery family. She wasnt as close to him as she was to either Luanne or Trinitytheyd spent years together, after allbut hed become something akin to a friend nonetheless, and two days after that holiday, all four of them had stayed late in the gallery after closing. It was Saturday night, and because Luanne planned to fly to Maui the following morning while Trinity left for the Caribbean, they opened a bottle of wine to go with the cheese and fruit tray Luanne had ordered. Maggie accepted a glass, even though she couldnt fathom the thought of either drinking or eating anything. They toasted the galleryit had been far and away their most successful year everand settled into easy conversation for another hour. Toward the end, Luanne offered Maggie a card. Theres a gift inside, Luanne said. Open it after Im gone. I havent had a chance to get yours yet. Thats fine, Luanne said. Seeing you back to your old self these past few months has been more than enough gift for me. Just make sure you open it well before Christmas, though. After Maggie assured her that she would, Luanne stepped toward the platter and grabbed a couple of strawberries. A few feet away, Trinity was speaking to Mark. Because he visited the gallery even less frequently than Maggie did, she heard Trinity asking the same kinds of personal questions that she had over the last few months. I didnt know you played hockey, Trinity offered. Im a huge Islanders fan, even if they havent won the Stanley Cup in what seems like forever. Its a great sport. I played every year until I got to Northwestern. Dont they have a team? I wasnt good enough to play at the collegiate level, Mark admitted. Not that it seemed to matter to my parents. I dont think either of them ever missed a game. Will they come out to see you for Christmas? No, Mark said. My dad set up a tour of the Holy Land with a couple dozen members of our church for the holidays. Nazareth, Bethlehem, the whole works. And you didnt want to go? Its their dream, not mine. Besides, I have to be here. Maggie saw Trinity glance in her direction before he turned his attention back to Mark. He leaned in, whispering something, and though Maggie couldnt hear him, she knew exactly what Trinity had said, because hed expressed his own concerns to her a few minutes earlier. Make sure you keep an eye on Maggie while Luanne and I are gone. Were both a little worried about her. In response, Mark simply nodded. * * * Trinity was more prescient than he probably realized, but then again, both Trinity and Luanne had known that Maggie had another appointment with Dr. Brodigan scheduled on December 10. And sure enough, at that appointment, Dr. Brodigan had urged Maggie to focus on her quality of life. Now it was December 18. More than a week had passed since that awful day and Maggie still felt almost numb. Nor had she told anyone about her prognosis. Her parents had always believed that if they prayed hard enough, God would somehow heal her, and telling them the truth would take more energy than she could summon. Same thing in a different way with her sister; long story short, she didnt have the energy. Mark had texted a couple of times to check in on her, but saying anything about her situation via text struck her as absurd and she hadnt been ready to face anyone just yet. As for Luanne or even Trinity, she supposed she could call them, but what would be the point? Luanne deserved to enjoy the time she was spending with her own family without worrying about Maggie, and Trinity had his own life as well. Besides, there was nothing that either of them could really do. Instead, dazed by her new reality, shed spent much of the last eight days either in her apartment or on short, slow walks through her neighborhood. Sometimes she simply stared out the window, absently fondling the small pendant on the necklace she always wore; other times, she found herself people-watching. When shed first moved to New York, she had been enthralled by the ceaseless activity around her, by seeing people rushing down into the subway or peering up into office towers at midnight with the knowledge that people were still at their desks. Following the hectic movements of pedestrians below her window brought back memories of her early adulthood in the city and the younger, healthier woman she once had been. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since then; it also felt as though the years had passed in the blink of an eye, and her inability to grasp that contradiction made her more self-reflective than usual. Time, she thought, would always be elusive. She hadnt expected the miraculousdeep down, shed always known a cure was out of the questionbut wouldnt it have been great to learn that the chemotherapy had slowed the cancer a little and bought her an extra year or two? Or that some experimental treatment had become available? Would that have been too much to ask? To have been given one last intermission before the final act began? That was the thing about battling cancer. The waiting. So much of the last few years had been about waiting. Waiting for the appointment with the doctor, waiting for treatment, waiting to feel better after the treatment, waiting to see whether the treatment had worked, waiting until she was well enough to try something new. Until her diagnosis, shed viewed waiting for anything as an irritation, but waiting had slowly but surely become the defining reality of her life. Even now, she suddenly thought. Here I am, waiting to die. On the sidewalk, beyond the glass, she saw people bundled up in winter gear, their breath making clouds of steam as they hurried to unknown destinations; on the street, a long line of cars with glowing taillights crawled through narrow lanes lined by pretty brick town houses. They were people going about their daily lives, as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. But nothing felt ordinary now, and she doubted things would ever feel ordinary again. She envied them, these strangers she would never meet. They were living their lives without counting the days they had left, something she would never do again. And, as always, there were so many of them. Shed grown used to the fact that everything in the city was always crowded, no matter the time or the season, which added inconvenience to even the simplest things. If she needed ibuprofen from Duane Reade, there was a line to check out; if she was in the mood to see a movie, there was a line at the box office, too. When it came time to cross the street, she was inevitably surrounded by others, people rushing and jostling at the curb. But why the rush? She wondered about that now, just as she wondered about so many things. Like everyone, she had regrets, and now that time was running out, she couldnt help dwelling on them. There were actions shed taken that she wished she could undo; there were opportunities shed missed and now would never have the time to do. Shed spoken honestly about some of her regrets in one of her videos, admitting to feeling unreconciled to them, and no closer to answers than when shed initially been diagnosed. Nor had she cried since her last meeting with Dr. Brodigan. Instead, when she wasnt staring out the window or taking her walks, shed focused on the mundane. Shed slept and sleptaveraging fourteen hours a nightand had ordered Christmas gifts online. Shed recorded but hadnt yet posted another Cancer Video concerning her last appointment with Dr. Brodigan. Shed had smoothies delivered and tried to finish them as she sat in the living room. Recently shed even tried to have lunch at Union Square Cafe. It had always been one of her favorite places to grab a delicious meal at the bar, but the visit ended up being a waste, since everything that crossed her lips still tasted wrong. Cancer, taking yet another joy from her life. Now it was a week until Christmas, and with the afternoon sun beginning to wane, she felt the need to get out of the apartment. She dressed in multiple layers, assuming she would stroll aimlessly for a bit, but once she stepped outside, the mood to simply wander passed as quickly as it had come. Instead, she started toward the gallery. Though she wouldnt do much work, it would be comforting to know that all was in order. The gallery was several blocks away and she moved slowly, trying to avoid anyone who might bump into her. The wind was icy and by the time she pushed through the doors of the gallery a half hour before closing, she was shivering. It was unusually crowded; shed expected that the holidays would diminish the number of visitors, but clearly shed been wrong about that. Luckily, Mark seemed to have things under control. As always when she entered, heads turned in her direction and she noted dawning looks of recognition on some faces. Sorry. Not today, folks, she suddenly thought, offering a quick wave before hurrying to her office. She shut the door behind her. Inside, there was a desk and an office chair, and one of the walls featured built-in bookcases piled high with photography books and keepsakes from her far-flung travels. Across from the desk was a small gray love seat, just big enough to curl up on if she needed to lie down. In the corner stood an ornately carved rocker with flowered cushions that Luanne had brought from her country house, lending a touch of warmth to the modern office. After piling her gloves, hat, and jacket on the desk, Maggie readjusted her kerchief and collapsed into her office chair. Turning on the computer, she automatically checked the weekly sales figures, noting the spike in volume, but realized she wasnt in the mood to study the numbers in detail. Instead, she opened another folder and began clicking through her favorite photos, finally pausing at a series of images shed taken in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, last January. At the time shed had no idea it would be the last international trip she would ever take. The temperature had been well below zero the entire time she was there, with biting winds that could freeze exposed skin in less than a minute; it had been an effort to keep her camera working because the components grew finicky in temperatures that low. She could remember repeatedly tucking the camera inside her jacket to warm it against her body, but the photographs were so important to her, shed braved the elements for almost two hours. Shed wanted to find ways to document the poisonous levels of air pollution and its visible effects on the population. In a city of a million and a half people, nearly every home and business burned coal throughout the winter, darkening the sky even in brightest daylight. It was a health crisis as well as an environmental one, and shed wanted her images to spur people to action. Shed logged countless photographs of children covered in grime as a result of stepping outside to play. Shed caught an amazing black-and-white image of filthy cloth that had been used as drapery for an open window, dramatizing what was happening inside otherwise healthy lungs. Shed also sought out a stark panorama of the city and finally nailed the image she wanted: a brilliant blue sky that suddenly, immediately gave way to a pale, almost sickly yellow haze, as though God himself had drawn a perfectly straight line, dividing the sky in two. The effect was utterly arresting, especially after the hours shed spent refining it in post. As she stared at the image in the solace of her office, she knew she would never be able to do something like that again. She would likely never travel for work again; she might never even leave Manhattan, unless she gave in to her parents and returned to Seattle. Nor had anything in Mongolia changed. In addition to the photo essay that shed contributed to the New Yorker, a number of media outlets, including Scientific American and the Atlantic, had also tried to raise awareness regarding the dangerous levels of pollution in Ulan Bator, but the air, if anything, had grown even worse in the last eleven months. It was, she thought, yet another failure in her life, just like her battle with cancer. The thoughts shouldnt have been connected, but in that instant, they were, and all at once she felt tears begin to form. She was dying, she was actually dying, and it dawned on her suddenly that she was about to experience her very last Christmas. What should she be doing with these last precious weeks? And what did quality of life even mean when it came to the actuality of day-to-day living? She was already sleeping more than ever, but did quality mean getting more sleep to feel better, or less sleep so the days seemed longer? And what about her routines? Should she bother making an appointment to have her teeth cleaned? Should she pay off the minimum balance on her credit cards or go on a spending spree? Because what did it matter? What did anything really matter? A hundred random thoughts and questions overran her; lost in all of it, she felt herself choke before letting go completely. She didnt know how long the outburst lasted; time slipped away. When she was finally spent, she stood and swiped at her eyes. Glancing through the one-way window above her desk, she noticed that the gallery floor was empty, and that the front door had been locked. Strangely, she didnt see Mark, even though the lights were still on. She wondered where he was until she heard a knock at the door. Even his knock was gentle. She considered making an excuse until the evidence of her breakdown had subsided, but why bother? Shed long since stopped caring about her appearance; she knew she looked awful even at the best of times. Come on in, she said. Pulling a Kleenex from the box on her desk, she blew her nose as Mark stepped through the door. Hey, he said, his voice quiet. Hi. Bad time? Its all right. I thought you might like this, he said, holding out a to-go cup. Its a banana-and-strawberry smoothie with vanilla ice cream. Maybe itll help. She recognized the label on the cupthe eatery was two doors down from the galleryand wondered how hed known how she was feeling. Perhaps hed divined something when shed made a beeline for her office, or maybe hed simply remembered what Trinity had told him. Thank you, she said, taking it. Are you okay? Ive been better. She took a sip, thankful it was sweet enough to override her messed-up taste buds. How was it today? Busy, but not as bad as last Friday. We sold eight prints, including a number three of Rush. Each of her photographs was limited to twenty-five numbered prints; the lower the number, the higher the price. The photo Mark mentioned had been taken at rush hour in the Tokyo subway, the platform jammed with thousands of men dressed in what seemed to be identical black suits. Anything by Trinity? Not today, but I think theres a good possibility of that in the near future. Jackie Bernstein came in with her consultant earlier. Maggie nodded. Jackie had bought two other Trinity pieces in the past, and Trinity would be pleased to know she was interested in another. How about on the website and phone-ins? Six confirmed, two people wanted more information. It shouldnt take long to get the sales ready for shipment. If you want to head on home, I can handle it. As soon as he said it, her mind floated additional questions: Do I truly want to go home? To an otherwise empty apartment? To wallow in solitude? No, Ill stay, she demurred, shaking her head. For a while, anyway. She sensed his curiosity but knew he wouldnt ask more. Again, she understood the interviews had left a lingering mark. Im sure youve been following my social posts and videos, she began, so you probably have a general sense of whats going on with my illness. Not really. I havent watched any of your videos since I began working here. She hadnt expected that. Even Luanne watched her videos. Why not? I assumed you would prefer that I didnt. And when I considered your initial concerns about my working here, it seemed like the right thing to do. But you did know I underwent chemotherapy, right? Luanne mentioned it, but I dont know the details. And, of course, in the rare times you were at the gallery, you looked When he trailed off, she finished for him. Like death? I was going to say you looked a bit tired. Sure I did. If gaunt, green, shrinking, and balding could be explained by waking up too early. But she knew he was trying to be kind. Do you have a few minutes? Before you start getting the shipments ready? Of course. I dont have anything planned for tonight. On an impulse, she moved to the rocker, motioning for him to get comfortable on the love seat. No going out with friends? Its kind of expensive, he said. And going out usually means drinking, but I dont drink. Ever? No. Wow, she said. I dont think Ive ever met a twenty-two-year-old whos never had a drink. Actually, Im twenty-three now. You had a birthday? It wasnt a big deal. Probably not, she thought. Did Luanne know? She didnt say anything to me. I didnt mention it to her. She leaned forward and raised her cup. Happy belated birthday, then. Thank you. Did you do anything fun? For your birthday, I mean? Abigail flew out for the weekend and we saw Hamilton. Have you seen it? A while ago. But I wont ever see it again, she didnt bother to add. Which was another reason not to be alone. So that thoughts like those didnt precipitate yet another breakdown. With Mark here, it was somehow easier to keep herself together. Id never seen a show on Broadway before, Mark went on. The music was amazing and I loved the historical element and the dancing andeverything about it. Abigail was electrifiedshe swore shed never experienced anything like it. How is Abigail? Shes doing well. Her break just started, so shes probably on her way to Waterloo right now to see her family. She didnt want to come out here to see you? Its sort of a mini family reunion. Unlike me, she has a big family. Five older brothers and sisters who live all over the country. Christmas is the only time of year they can all get together. And you didnt want to go out there? Im working. She understands that. Besides, shes coming out here on the twenty-eighth. Well spend some time together, watch the ball drop on New Years Eve, things like that. Will I get to meet her? If youd like. If you need time off, let me know. Im sure I can manage on my own for a couple of days. She wasnt sure she could, but it felt like she needed to offer. Ill let you know. Maggie took another sip of her smoothie. I dont know if Ive mentioned it lately, but youre doing really well here. I enjoy it, he said. He waited, and she knew again that hed made a choice not to ask personal questions. Which meant she would have to volunteer the information or keep it to herself. I met with my oncologist last week, she stated in what she hoped was an even voice. She thinks another round of chemotherapy will do more harm than good. His expression softened. Can I ask what that means? It means no more treatment and the clock is ticking. He paled, registering what she hadnt said. OhMs. Dawes. Thats terrible. Im so sorry. I dont know what to say. Is there anything I can do? I dont think theres anything anyone can do. But please, call me Maggie. I think youve worked here long enough for the two of us to use first names. Is the doctor certain? The scans werent good, she said. Lots of spread, everywhere. Stomach. Pancreas. Kidneys. Lungs. And though you wont ask, I have less than six months. Most likely, its somewhere around three to four, maybe even less. Surprising her, his eyes began to well with tears. OhLord he said, his expression suddenly softening. Would you mind if I pray for you? Not now, but when I get home, I mean. She couldnt help smiling. Of course he would want to pray for her, future pastor that he was. She suspected hed never uttered a profanity in his life. He was, she thought, a very sweet kid. Well, technically he was a young man, but Id like that. For a few seconds, neither of them said anything. Then, with a soft shake of his head, he pressed his lips together. It isnt fair, he said. When is life ever fair? Can I ask how youre doing? I hope youll forgive me if Im overstepping Its okay, she said. I guess Ive been in a bit of a daze since I found out. It has to feel unbearable. At times it does. But then, other times, it doesnt. The strange thing is that physically, I feel better than I did earlier in the year, during the chemo. Back then, there were times when I was sure dying would be easier. But now She let her gaze wander over the shelves, noting the trinkets shed collected, each one imbued with memories of a trip shed taken. To Greece and Egypt, Rwanda and Nova Scotia, Patagonia and Easter Island, Vietnam and the Ivory Coast. So many places, so many adventures. Its a strange thing to know the end is so imminent, she admitted. It gives rise to a lot of questions. Makes a person wonder what its all about. Sometimes I feel that Ive led a charmed life, but then, in the next instant, I find myself obsessing over the things I missed out on. Like what? Marriage, for starters, she said. You know Ive never been married, right? When he nodded, she went on. Growing up, I couldnt imagine that Id still be single at my age. It just wasnt the way I was raised. My parents were very traditional and I assumed Id end up like them. She felt her thoughts drifting to the past, memories bubbling to the surface. Of course, I didnt make it easy for them. Not like you, anyway. I wasnt always a perfect child, he protested. I got in trouble. For what? Anything serious? Was it because you didnt clean your room or because you were a minute late for your curfew? Oh, wait. You were never late for your curfew, right? He opened his mouth, but when no words came out, she knew she was right. He must have been the kind of teenager who made things harder for the rest of his generation, simply because he was wired to be easy. The point is, Ive been wondering how things would have turned out had I chosen a different path. Not just marriage, though. What if Id worked harder in school, or graduated from college, or had a job in an office, or moved to Miami or Los Angeles instead of New York? Things like that. You obviously didnt need college. Your career as a photographer has been remarkable, and your videos and posts about your illness have inspired a lot of people. Thats very kind, but they dont really know me. And in the end, isnt that the most important thing in life? To be truly known and loved by someone youve chosen? Maybe, he conceded. But that doesnt negate what youve given people through your experience. Its a powerful act, even life-changing for some. Perhaps it was his sincerity or his old-fashioned mannerisms, but she was struck again by how much he reminded her of someone shed once known long ago. She hadnt thought about Bryce in years, not consciously anyway. For most of her adult life, shed tried to keep her memories of him at a safe distance. But there was no reason to do that any longer. Would you mind if I asked you a personal question? she said, mirroring his curiously formal style of speech. Not at all. When did you first know that you were in love with Abigail? As soon as she said Abigails name, a tenderness came over him. Last year, he said, leaning back into the cushions of the love seat. Not long after I graduated. Wed gone out four or five times, and she wanted me to meet her parents. Anyway, we were driving to Waterloo, just the two of us. Wed stopped for something to eat, and on the way out, she decided she wanted an ice cream cone. It was scorching outside and unfortunately, the air-conditioning in the car wasnt working that well, so of course it started to melt all over her. A lot of people might have been upset by that, but she just started giggling like it was the funniest thing ever as she tried to eat it faster than it could melt. There was ice cream everywhereon her nose and fingers, in her lap, even in her hairand I remember thinking that I wanted to be around someone like that forever. Someone who could laugh at the inconveniences of life and find joy in any occasion. Thats when I knew she was the one. Did you tell her then? Oh, no. I wasnt brave enough. It took me until last fall before I could finally work up the courage to tell her. Did she say that she loved you, too? She did. That was a relief. She sounds like a wonderful person. She is. Im very lucky. Though he smiled, she knew he was still troubled. I wish there was something I could do for you, he said, his voice soft. Working here is enough. Well, that and staying late. Im glad to be here. I wonder, though Go ahead, she said, gesturing with the smoothie. You can ask whatever question youd like. Ive got nothing to hide anymore. Why didnt you ever get married? If you thought you would, I mean? There were a lot of reasons. When I was just starting out in my career, I wanted to concentrate on that until I established a foothold. Then I started traveling a lot, and then came the gallery andI guess I was just too busy. And you never met someone who made you question all that? In the silence that followed, she unconsciously reached for the necklace, feeling for the small shell-shaped pendant, making sure it was still there. I thought I did. I know I loved him, but the timing wasnt right. Because of work? No, she said. It happened long before then. But Im pretty sure I wouldnt have been good for him. Not back then, anyway. I cant believe that. You dont know who I used to be. She put down her cup and folded her hands in her lap. Do you want to hear the story? Id be honored. Its kind of long. Those are usually the best kind of stories. Maggie bent her head, feeling the images begin to surface at the edge of her mind. With the images, the words would eventually come, she knew. In 1995, when I was sixteen years old, I began to lead a secret life, she started. Marooned Ocracoke 1995 Actually, when Im being honest, my secret life really began when I was fifteen and my mom found me on the bathroom floor, green in the gills, with my arms wrapped around the toilet bowl. Id been barfing every morning for the past week and a half, and my mom, more knowledgeable about such things than I was, raced to the drugstore and made me pee on a stick as soon as she got home. When the blue plus sign appeared, she stared at the stick for a long time without saying a single word, then retreated to the kitchen, where she cried on and off for the rest of the day. That was in early October, and I was a little more than nine weeks along by then. I probably cried as much as my mom that day. I stayed in my room clutching my favorite teddy bearIm not sure my mom even noticed that I hadnt gone to schooland stared out the window with swollen eyes, watching buckets of rain pour onto foggy streets. It was typical Seattle weather, and even now, I doubt theres a more depressing place to be in the entire world, especially when youre fifteen and pregnant and certain your life is over before it even had a chance to begin. It went without saying that I had no idea what I was going to do. Thats what I remember most of all. I mean, what did I know about being a parent? Or even being a grown-up? Oh, sure, there were times when I felt older than my age, like when Zeke Watkinsthe star player of the varsity basketball teamspoke to me in the school parking lot, but part of me still felt like a kid. I loved Disney movies and celebrating with strawberry ice cream cake at the roller rink on my birthday; I always slept with a teddy bear and I couldnt even drive. Frankly, I wasnt even all that experienced when it came to the opposite sex. Id only kissed four boys in my entire life, but one time, the kissing went too far, and a little more than three weeks after that awful barfing-and-tear-filled day, my parents shipped me off to Ocracoke in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place I didnt even know existed. It was supposedly a picturesque beach town adored by tourists. There, I would live with my aunt Linda Dawes, my fathers much older sister, a woman Id met only once in my life. Theyd also made arrangements with my teachers so I wouldnt fall behind in my studies. My parents had a long discussion with the headmasterand after the headmaster spoke to my aunt, he decided to trust her to proctor my exams, making sure I didnt cheat and that all my assignments were turned in. And just like that, I suddenly became the family secret. My parents didnt come with me to North Carolina, which made leaving that much harder. Instead, we said our goodbyes at the airport on a chilly November morning, a few days after Halloween. Id just turned sixteen, I was thirteen weeks along and terrified, but I didnt cry on the plane, thank God. Nor did I cry when my aunt picked me up at a rinky-dink airport in the middle of nowhere, or even when we checked into a dumpy motel near the beach, since we had to wait to catch the ferry to Ocracoke the following morning. By then, Id almost convinced myself that I wasnt going to cry at all. Boy, was I ever wrong. After we disembarked from the ferry, my aunt gave me a quick tour of the village before bringing me to her house, and to my dismay, Ocracoke was nothing like Id imagined. I guess Id been picturing pretty pastel cottages nestled in the sand dunes, with tropical views of the ocean stretching to the horizon; a boardwalk complete with burger joints and ice cream shops and crowded with teens, maybe even a Ferris wheel or a carousel. But Ocracoke was nothing like that. Once you got past the fishing boats in the tiny harbor where the ferry dropped us off, it lookedugly. The houses were old and weather-beaten; there wasnt a beach, boardwalk, or palm tree in sight; and the villagethats what my aunt called it, a villageseemed utterly deserted. My aunt mentioned that Ocracoke was essentially a fishing village and that less than eight hundred people lived there year-round, but I could only wonder why anyone would want to live there at all. Aunt Lindas place was right on the water, sandwiched between homes that were equally run-down. It was set on stilts with a view of the Pamlico Sound, with a compact front porch, and another larger porch off the living room that faced the water. It was also smallliving room with a fireplace and a window near the front door, dining area and kitchen, two bedrooms, and a single bath. There wasnt a television in sight, which left me feeling suddenly panicked, though I dont think she realized it. She showed me around and eventually pointed out where I would be sleeping, across the hall from her room in what usually served as her reading room. My first thought was that it was nothing like my bedroom back home. It wasnt even like half my bedroom back home. There was a twin bed wedged beneath a window along with a padded rocking chair, a reading lamp, and a shelf crammed with books by Betty Friedan, Sylvia Plath, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Elizabeth Berg, in addition to tomes on Catholicism, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Mother Teresa. Again, no television, but there was a radio, even if it looked a hundred years old, and an old-fashioned clock. The closet, if you could call it that, was barely a foot deep, and the only way I would be able to store my clothes was to fold and stack them in vertical piles on the floor. There was no nightstand or chest of drawers, all of which made me suddenly feel like I was visiting unexpectedly for a single night, rather than the six months intended. I love this room, my aunt said with a sigh, setting my suitcase on the floor. Its so comfortable. Its nice, I forced out. After she left me alone to unpack, I plopped down on the bed, still in disbelief that I was actually here. At this house, in this place, with this relative. I stared out the windownoting the rust-colored wooden planking on the neighbors housewishing with every blink that Id be able to see Puget Sound or the snow-capped Cascade Mountains, or even the rocky and rugged coast Id known all my life. I thought about the Douglas fir and red cedar trees, and even the fog and rain. I thought about my family and friends who might as well have been on another planet, and the lump in my throat grew even bigger. I was pregnant and alone, marooned in a terrible place, and all I wanted was to turn back the clock and change what had happened. All of itthe oops, the barfing, the withdrawal from school, the trip here. I wanted to be a regular teenager againhell, I would have taken being just a kid again instead of thisbut I suddenly remembered the blue plus sign on the pregnancy test, and the pressure began to build behind my eyes. I may have been strong on the journey, and maybe even up until then, but when I squeezed my teddy bear to my chest and inhaled her familiar scent, the dam simply burst. It wasnt a pretty cry like you see in Hallmark movies; it was a raging sob, complete with snorts and wails and quivering shoulders, and it seemed to go on forever. * * * About my teddy bear: she was neither cute nor expensive, but Id slept with her for as long as I could remember. The thin coffee-colored fur had worn away in patches, and Frankenstein stitches held one of her arms in place. Id had my mom sew on a button when one of her eyes had popped off, but the damage made her seem even more special to me, because sometimes I felt damaged, too. In third grade, Id used a Sharpie to write my name on the bottom of her foot, marking her as mine forever. When I was younger, I used to bring her with me everywhere, my own version of a security blanket. Once, Id accidentally left her at Chuck E. Cheese when Id gone to a friends birthday party, and when I got home, I cried so hard I actually puked. My dad had to drive back across town to retrieve her, and Im pretty sure I held on to her for almost a week straight after that. Over the years, she had been dropped in mud, splashed with spaghetti sauce, and soaked with sleep drool; whenever my mom decided it was finally time to wash her, shed throw her in the laundry along with my clothes. Id sit on the floor, watching the washer and dryer, imagining her tumbling among the jeans and towels and hoping she wouldnt be destroyed in the process. But Maggie-bearshort for Maggies bearwould eventually emerge clean and warm. My mom would hand her back to me and Id suddenly feel complete again, like all was right in the world. When I went to Ocracoke, Maggie-bear was the only thing I knew I couldnt leave behind. * * * Aunt Linda checked on me during my breakdown but didnt seem to know what to say or do, and apparently she decided it was probably best to let me sort through things on my own. I was glad about that, but kind of sad, too, because it made me feel even more isolated than I already did. Somehow, I survived that first day, then the next. She showed me a bicycle shed bought at a garage sale, which looked older than I was, with a cushy seat big enough for someone twice my size and a basket on the front hanging from massive handlebars. I hadnt ridden a bike in years. I had a young man in town fix it up, so it should work fine. Great was all I could muster. On the third day, my aunt went back to work and was out of the house long before I finally woke. On the table, shed left a folder filled with my homework, and I realized that I was already falling behind. I hadnt been a great student even in the best of timesI was middle-of-the-pack and hated when my report cards came outand if I hadnt cared much about acing my classes before, I was even more apathetic now. Shed also written me a note to remind me that I had two quizzes the following day. Even though I tried to study, I couldnt concentrate and already knew I was going to bomb them, which I promptly did. Afterward, maybe because she was feeling even more sorry for me than usual, my aunt thought it might be a good idea to get me out of the house and drove me to her shop. It was a small eatery and coffee bar that offered a lot more than just food. It specialized in biscuits that were baked fresh every morning and served either with sausage gravy or as some sort of sandwich or dessert. Beyond breakfast, the shop also sold used books and rented out video cassettes; shipped UPS packages; had mailboxes for rent; offered faxes, scanning, and copies; and provided Western Union services. My aunt owned the place with her friend Gwen and it opened at five in the morning so the fishermen could grab a bite before heading out, which meant she was usually there by four to start baking. She introduced me to Gwen, who wore an apron over jeans and a flannel shirt and kept her graying blond hair in a messy ponytail. She seemed nice enough, and though I only spent about an hour in the shop, my impression was that they treated each other like an old married couple. They could communicate with a single glance, predicted each others requests, and moved around each other behind the counter like dancers. Business was steady but not booming, and I spent most of my time thumbing through the used books. There were Agatha Christie mysteries and westerns by Louis LAmour, along with a good-sized selection of books by best-selling authors. There was also a donation box, and while I was there, a woman whod come in for coffee and a biscuit dropped off a small crate of books, almost all of them romance novels. As I riffled through them, I thought to myself that if Id had less romance in August, I wouldnt be in the mess I was in right now. The shop closed at three during the week, and after Gwen and Aunt Linda locked the doors, my aunt took me on a longer, more extensive tour of the village. It took all of fifteen minutes and didnt change my initial impression in the slightest. After that, we went home, where I hid out in my room for the rest of the day. As weird as the room was, it was the only place I had some privacy when Aunt Linda was home. When I wasnt half-assing my way through my schoolwork, I could listen to music, brood, and spend way too much time contemplating death and my growing belief that the worldand especially my familywould be better off without me. I wasnt quite sure what to make of my aunt either. She had short gray hair and warm hazel eyes, set in a face deeply lined with wrinkles. Her gait was always hurried. Shed never been married, never had children, and sometimes came across as a little bit bossy. She also used to be a nun, and even though shed left the Sisters of Mercy almost ten years ago, she still believed in the whole cleanliness is next to godliness thing. I had to straighten up my room daily, do my own laundry, and clean the kitchen before she got home in midafternoon as well as after dinner. Fair enough, I suppose, since I was living there, but no matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to do it right. Our conversations about it were usually short, a statement followed by an apology. Like this: The cups were still damp when you put them back in the cupboard. Sorry. There are still crumbs on the table. Sorry. You forgot to use 409 when you cleaned the stovetop. Sorry. You need to straighten the covers on your bed. Sorry. I must have said sorry a hundred times the first week I was there, and the second week was even worse. I bombed yet another test and grew bored by the view when I sat on the porch. I eventually came to believe that even if you stuck someone on a fabulous tropical island, the sight would get old after a while. I mean, the ocean never seems to change. Whenever you see it, the water is just there. Sure, the clouds might shift around, and right before sunset the sky might glow orange and red and yellowbut what fun is watching a sunset if theres no one to share it with? My aunt wasnt the kind of woman who seemed to appreciate such things. And by the way? Pregnancy sucks. I was still sick every morning and sometimes it was hard to make it to the bathroom in time. Id read that some women never got sick at all, but not me. Id barfed forty-nine mornings in a row and I had the sense that my body seemed to be going for some kind of record. If there was a plus side to the barfing, it was that I hadnt gained much weight, maybe only a pound or two by mid-November. Frankly, I didnt want to get fat, but my mom had bought me the book What to Expect When Youre Expecting, and as I reluctantly thumbed through it one evening, I learned that a lot of women put on only a pound or two in the first trimester, which made me nothing special. After that, though, the average weight gain was about a pound a week, right up until delivery. When I did the mathwhich would add twenty-seven more pounds to my smallish frameI realized that my six-pack abs would probably be replaced by a keg. Not, of course, that I had six-pack abs in the first place. Even worse than the barfing were the crazy hormones, which in my case meant acne. No matter how much I cleaned my face, pimples erupted on my cheeks and forehead like constellations in the nighttime sky. Morgan, my perfect older sister, never had a pimple in her life, and when I stared in the mirror, I thought that I could give her a dozen of mine and still have skin that looked worse than hers did. Even then, shed probably still be beautiful, smart, and popular. We got along okay at homewe were closer when we were youngerbut at school she kept her distance, preferring the company of her own friends. She got straight As, played the violin, and had appeared in not one but two television commercials for a local department store. If you think it was easy being compared to her while I was growing up, think again. Toss in my pregnancy, and it was pretty clear why she was far and away my parents favorite. Frankly, she would have been my favorite, too. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was officially depressed. That occurs in approximately seven percent of pregnancies, by the way. Between barfing, zits, and depression, Id hit the trifecta. Lucky me, right? I was falling further behind in school and the music on my Walkman grew noticeably gloomier. Even Gwen tried and failed to cheer me up. Id gotten to know her a little since our first introductionshe came to dinner twice a weekand shed asked me whether I wanted to watch the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade. Shed brought over a small television and set it up in the kitchen, but even though Id practically forgotten what a TV looked like by then, it wasnt enough to entice me from my room. Instead, I sat alone and tried not to cry while imagining my mom and Morgan making stuffing or baking pies in the kitchen and my dad in the recliner, enjoying a football game. Even though my aunt and Gwen served a meal similar to what my family usually had, it just wasnt the same, and I barely had any appetite. I also thought a lot about my best friends, Madison and Jodie. I hadnt been allowed to tell them the truth about why Id left; instead, my parents had told peopleincluding Madisons and Jodies parentsthat Id gone to live with my aunt in some remote place because of an urgent medical situation, with limited telephone availability. No doubt theyd made it sound like Id volunteered to help Aunt Linda, being that I was such a responsible do-gooder. Lest the lie be discovered, however, I wasnt supposed to speak with my friends while I was gone. I had no cellular phonefew kids did back thenand when my aunt went to work, she would bring the cord from the home phone with her, which I guess made the limited telephone availability part as true as the urgent medical situation part. My parents, I realized, could be just as sneaky as I, which was a revelation of sorts. It was around that time, I think, that my aunt began to worry about me, though she tried to downplay her concerns. As we were eating Thanksgiving leftovers, she casually mentioned that I hadnt seemed particularly chipper lately. That was the word she used: chipper. Shed also eased up a little on the tidiness thingor maybe I was doing a better job of cleaning, but for whatever reason, she hadnt been complaining as much recently. I could tell she was making an effort to engage me in conversation. Are you taking your prenatal vitamin? Yes, I answered. Its yummy. In a couple of weeks, youll see the OB-GYN in Morehead City. I set up the appointment this morning. Swell, I said. I moved the food around my plate, hoping she wouldnt notice that I wasnt really eating. The food has to actually go in your mouth, she said. And then you have to swallow it. I think she was trying to be funny, but I wasnt in the mood, so I simply shrugged. Can I make you something else? Im not that hungry. She brought her lips together before scanning the room, as if searching for magic words that would make me chipper again. Oh, I almost forgot to ask. Did you call your parents? No. I was going to call them earlier, but you took the phone cord with you. You could call them after dinner. I guess. She used her fork to cut a bite of turkey. How are your studies going? she asked. Youre behind in your homework and you havent been doing that well on your quizzes lately. Im trying, I answered, even though I really wasnt. How about math? Remember that you have some pretty big tests coming up before Christmas break. I hate math and geometry is stupid. Why does it matter whether I know how to measure the area of a trapezoid? Its not like Im ever going to need to use that in my real life. I heard her sigh. Watched her cast about again. Did you write your history paper? I think thats also due next week. Its almost done, I lied. Id been assigned to do a report on Thurgood Marshall, but I hadnt even started it. I could feel her eyes on me, wondering whether to believe me. * * * Later that night, she tried again. I was lying in bed with Maggie-bear. Id retreated to my room after dinner, and she was standing in the doorway, dressed in her pajamas. Have you thought about getting some fresh air? my aunt asked. Like maybe going for a walk or bike ride before you start doing your homework tomorrow? There isnt anywhere to go. Almost everything is closed for the winter. How about the beach? Its peaceful this time of year. Its too cold to go to the beach. How would you know? You havent been outside in days. Thats because I have too much homework and too many chores. Have you thought about trying to meet someone closer to your own age? Maybe make some friends? At first, I wasnt sure Id heard her right. Make friends? Why not? Because no one my age lives here. Of course they do, she said. I showed you the school. The village had a single school that served children from kindergarten through high school; wed ridden past it during the tour of the island. It wasnt quite the single-room schoolhouse Id seen in reruns of Little House on the Prairie, but it wasnt much more than that, either. I guess I could head to the boardwalk, or maybe hit the clubs. Oh wait, Ocracoke doesnt have either of those things. Im just saying that it might be good for you to talk to someone besides me or Gwen. Its not healthy to stay so isolated. No doubt about it. But the simple fact was that I hadnt seen a single teenager in Ocracoke since Id arrived, andoh yeahI was pregnant, which was supposed to be a secret, so what would be the point anyway? Being here isnt good for me, either, but no one seems to care about that. She adjusted her pajamas, as though searching for words in the fabric, and decided to change the subject. Ive been thinking that it might be a good idea to get you a tutor, she said. Definitely for geometry, but maybe for your other classes, too. To review your paper, for instance. A tutor? I believe I know someone whod be perfect. I suddenly had visions of sitting beside some ancient geezer who smelled of Old Spice and mothballs and liked to talk about the good old days. I dont want a tutor. Your finals are in January, and there are multiple exams in the next three weeks, including some big ones. I promised your parents that Id do my best to make sure you dont have to repeat your sophomore year. I hated when adults did the logic-and-guilt thing, so I retreated into the obvious. Whatever. She raised an eyebrow, remaining silent. Then, finally, Dont forget that we have church on Sunday. How could I forget that? I remember, I finally muttered. Perhaps we could pick out a Christmas tree afterward. Super, I said, but all I really wanted was to pull the covers over my head in the hope of making her leave. But it wasnt necessary; Aunt Linda turned away. A moment later, I heard her bedroom door close, and I knew that Id be alone the rest of the night, with only my own dark thoughts to keep me company. * * * As miserable as the rest of the week was, Sundays were the absolute worst. Back in Seattle, I didnt really mind going to church because there was a family there named the Taylors with four boys, all of them from one to a few years older than me. They were boy-band perfect, with white teeth and hair that always looked blow-dried. Like us, they sat in the front rowthey were always on the left while we were on the rightand Id sneak peeks at them even when I was supposed to be praying. I couldnt help it. Id had a massive crush on one or the other pretty much as long as I could remember, even though I never actually spoke to any of them. Morgan had better luck; Danny Taylor, one of the middle ones, who at the time was also a pretty good soccer player, took her out for ice cream one Sunday after church. I was in eighth grade at the time and desperately jealous that hed asked her, not me. I remember sitting in my room and staring at the clock, watching the minutes pass; when Morgan finally got home, I begged her to tell me what Danny was like. Morgan, being Morgan, simply shrugged and said that he wasnt her type, which made me want to strangle her. Morgan had guys practically drooling if she so much as walked down the sidewalk or sipped a Diet Coke in the food court at the local mall. The point is, back home there was something interesting to see at churchmore specifically, four very cute somethingsand that made the hour pass quickly. Here, though, church was not only a chore but an all-day event. There was no Catholic church in Ocracoke; the nearest one was St. Egberts in Morehead City, and that meant catching the ferry at seven in the morning. The ferry generally took two and a half hours to reach Cedar Island, and from there, it was another forty minutes to the church itself. The service was at eleven, which meant we had to wait yet another hour for it to begin, and the mass lasted until noon. If that wasnt bad enough, the ferry back to Ocracoke didnt leave until four in the afternoon, which meant killing even more time. Oh, wed have lunch with Gwen afterward, since she always came with us. Like my aunt, she also used to be a nun, and she considered attending services on Sundays the highlight of her week. She was nice and all, but ask any teenager how much they enjoy eating lunch with a couple of fifty-odd-year-old former nuns, and you can probably guess what it was like. After that, wed go shopping, but it wasnt fun shopping like at the mall or the Seattle waterfront. Instead, theyd drag me to Wal-Mart for suppliesthink flour, shortening, eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese, buttermilk, various flavored coffees, and other baking stuff in bulkand after that, wed visit garage sales, where they would search for inexpensive books by best-selling authors and movies on videocassette that they could rent to people on Ocracoke. Added to the late-afternoon ferry ride, all of that meant that we wouldnt get back to the house until almost seven, when the sun had long since set. Twelve hours. Twelve long hours. Just so we could go to church. There are, by the way, about a million better ways to spend a Sunday, but lo and behold, as Sunday morning dawned, I found myself standing at the dock in a jacket zipped to my chin, stamping one foot and then the other while the frigid air made it appear as though I were smoking invisible cigarettes. Meanwhile, my aunt and Gwen were whispering to each other and laughing and looking happy, probably because they werent slinging biscuits and serving coffee before the crack of dawn. When it was time, my aunt pulled her car onto the ferry, where it crammed alongside about a dozen others. I wish I could say that the ride was either pleasant or interesting, but it wasnt, especially in winter. Unless you enjoyed staring at gray skies and even grayer water, there was nothing to see, and if the dock had been freezing, riding on the ferry was fifty times worse. The wind seemed to blow right through me and after less than five minutes outside, my nose started running and my ears turned bright red. There was, thank God, a large central cabin on the ferry where you could escape the weather, complete with a couple of vending machines offering snacks and places to sit, which was where Gwen and my aunt hung out. As for me, I crawled into the car and stretched out on the back seat, wishing I were anywhere else and thinking about the mess Id gotten myself into. The day after my mom had me pee on a stick, she brought me to see Dr. Bobbi, who was maybe ten years older than my mom, and the first nonpediatrician Id ever seen. Dr. Bobbis real name was Roberta, and she was an OB-GYN. Shed delivered both my sister and me, so she and my mom went way back, and Im pretty sure my mom was mortified by the reason for our visit. After Dr. Bobbi confirmed the pregnancy, she set me up with an ultrasound, to make sure the baby was healthy. I pulled up my shirt, one of the technicians put some goop on my tummy, and I was able to hear the heartbeat. It was both cool and utterly terrifying, but what I remember most was how surreal it felt and how much I wished that all of it was just a bad dream. But it wasnt a dream. Because I was Catholic, abortion wasnt even an option, and once we learned the baby was healthy, Dr. Bobbi gave us the talk. She assured both of us that I was more than mature enough physically to carry the baby to term, but emotions were a different story. She said I was going to need a lot of support, partly because the pregnancy was unexpected, but mainly because I was still a teenager. In addition to feeling depressed, I might feel angry and disappointed as well. Dr. Bobbi warned that I was also likely to feel alienated from friends, making everything harder. Had I been able to check in with Dr. Bobbi now, I would have told her, check, check, check, and check. With the talk ringing in her ears, my mom brought me to a support group for pregnant teenagers in Portland, Oregon. Im sure there were the same kinds of support groups in Seattle, but I didnt want anyone I knew to accidentally find out, and my parents didnt want that, either. So, after almost three hours in the car, I found myself in a back room at a YMCA, where I sat in one of the fold-out chairs that had been arranged in a circle. There were nine other girls there, and some of them looked like they were attempting to smuggle watermelons by hiding them under their shirts. The lady in charge, Mrs. Walker, was a social worker, and one by one, we introduced ourselves. After that, we were all supposed to talk about our feelings and our experiences. What actually happened was that the other girls talked about their feelings and experiences, while I simply listened. Really, it was just about the most depressing thing ever. One of the girls, who was even younger than me, talked about how bad her hemorrhoids had gotten, while another one droned on about how sore her nipples were before lifting her shirt to show us her stretch marks. Most but not all of them continued to attend their various high schools, and they talked about how embarrassed they were when they had to ask their teacher for a hall pass to go to the bathroom, sometimes two or three times during the same class period. All of them complained how their acne had gotten worse. Two of them had dropped out, and though both said they planned to go back to school, Im not sure anyone believed them. All had lost friends, and another had been kicked out of her house and was living with her grandparents. Only one of thema pretty Mexican girl named Seretastill spoke with the father of the child, and aside from her, none intended to marry. Except for me, all of them planned to raise their babies with the help of their parents. When it was over, as we were walking toward the car, I told my mom that I never wanted to do something like that again. It was supposed to be helpful and make me feel less alone, but it left me feeling exactly the opposite. What I wanted was to simply get through this so I could return to the life I had before, which was the same thing my parents wanted. That, of course, led to them making the decision to send me here, and though they assured me that it was for my own goodnot theirsI wasnt sure I believed them. * * * After church, Aunt Linda and Gwen dragged me through the lunch/shop-for-supplies/garage-sales routine before heading to a graveled lot near a hardware store, which held so many Christmas trees for sale that it resembled a miniature forest. My aunt and Gwen tried to make the experience fun for me and kept asking my opinion; for my part, I did a lot of shrugging and told them to pick whatever they wanted, since no one seemed to care what I thought anyway, at least when it came to decisions about my life. Somewhere around the sixth or seventh tree, Aunt Linda stopped asking, and they eventually made the selection without me. Once it was paid for, I watched as two guys wearing overalls tied the tree to the roof of the car, and we climbed back in. For whatever reason, the ride back to the ferry reminded me of the ride to the airport on my last morning in Seattle. Both my mom and my dad had seen me off, which was kind of a surprise, since my dad had barely been able to look at me since hed learned I was pregnant. They walked me to the gate and waited with me until it was time to board. Both of them were really quiet, and I wasnt saying much, either. But as time inched forward toward the departure, I remember telling my mom that I was afraid. In truth, I was terrified to the point that my hands had begun to shake. There were a lot of people around us and she must have noticed the trembling, because she took my hands and squeezed them. Then she led me to a less crowded gate, where we could have some privacy. Im afraid, too. Why are you afraid? I asked. Because youre my daughter. All I do is worry about you. And what happened isunfortunate. Unfortunate. Shed been using that word a lot lately. Next, shed remind me that leaving was for my own good. I dont want to go, I said. Weve talked about this, she said. You know its for your own good. Bingo. I dont want to leave my friends. By that point, it was all I could do to choke out the words. What if Aunt Linda hates me? What if I get sick and I have to go to the hospital? They dont even have a hospital there. Your friends will still be here when you get back, she assured me. And I know it seems like a long time, but May will come more quickly than you realize. As for Linda, she used to help pregnant girls just like you when she was at the convent. You remember when I told you that? Shell take care of you. I promise. I dont even know her. She has a good heart, my mom said, or you wouldnt be going there. As for the hospital, shell know what to do. But even in the worst-case scenario, her friend Gwen is a trained midwife. Shes delivered lots of babies. I wasnt sure that made me feel any better. What if I hate it there? How bad can it be? Its right on the beach. And besides, you remember our discussion, right? That it might be easier in the short run if you stay, but in the long run, it will surely make things harder for you. She meant gossip, not only about me but about my family as well. It might not be the 1950s, but there was still a stigma attached to unwed teenage pregnancies, and even I had to admit that sixteen was way too young to be a mom. If word got out, I would always be that girl to neighbors, other students at school, the people at church. To them, Id always be that girl who got knocked up after her freshman year. I would have to endure their judgmental stares and condescension; Id have to ignore their whispers as I walked past them in the hallways. The rumor mill would churn with questions about who adopted the baby, about whether I ever wanted to see the child again. Though they might not say it to me, they would wonder why I hadnt bothered to use birth control or insist that he wear a condom; I knew that many parentsincluding friends of the familywould use me as an example to their own children as that girl, the one whod made poor decisions. And all this while waddling the school hallways and having to pee every ten minutes. Oh yeah, my parents had spoken with me about all of it more than a few times. My mom could tell, though, that I didnt want to revisit it, so she changed the subject. She did that a lot when she didnt want to argue, especially when we were in public. Did you enjoy your birthday? It was okay. Just okay? I barfed all morning. It was kind of hard for me to get excited. My mom brought her hands together. Im still glad you had a chance to visit with your friends. Because its the last time youll see them for a long, long time, she didnt have to add. I cant believe Im not going to be home for Christmas. Im sure Aunt Linda will make it special. It still wont be the same, I whined. No, my mom admitted. It probably wont be. But well have a nice visit when I see you in January. Will Daddy come? She swallowed. Maybe, she said. Which also means maybe not, I thought. Id heard them talking about it, but my dad hadnt committed to anything. If he could barely look at me now, how would he feel when I was doing my best to impersonate a female Buddha? I wish I didnt have to go. Me too, she said. Do you want to visit with your dad for a while? Shouldnt you be asking him if he wants to visit with me? But again, I kept quiet. I mean, what was the point? Its okay, I said. I just When I trailed off, my mom offered a sympathetic expression. And, strangely, despite the fact that she and my dad were shipping me off, I had the sense she actually felt bad about it. I know theres nothing easy about any of this, she whispered. Surprising me, she reached into her purse and handed me an envelope. It was filled with cash, and I wondered whether my dad knew what she was doing. Its not as though my family had extra money lying around, but she didnt try to explain. Instead, we sat together for another few minutes until we heard the boarding announcement. When it was my turn, both my parents hugged me, but even then, my father glanced away. That was almost a month ago, but it already felt like a different life entirely. * * * It wasnt nearly as cold on the ferry back as it had been in the morning, and the gray skies had given way to an almost shiny blue. Id chosen to stay in the car for a while despite the fact that the supplies wed picked up made stretching out on the back seat impossible. I was trying to play the martyr as neither Aunt Linda nor Gwen seemed to understand that Christmas tree shopping notwithstanding, Sundays were still the worst. Suit yourself, my aunt had said with a shrug after Id declined their offer to join them in the cabin. She and Gwen had hopped out of the car, climbed the steps that led to the upper level, and quickly vanished from sight. Somehow, even though I was uncomfortable, I was able to fall asleep, finally waking after an hour. Turning on my Walkman, I listened to music for another hour until my batteries finally went dead and the sky turned to black, and after that, it wasnt long before I grew cramped and bored. Through the window, beneath the glowing ferry lights, I could see a few older men congregated outside their cars, looking exactly like the fishermen they probably were. Like my aunt and Gwen, they eventually made their way to the cabin. I shifted in the seat and realized that nature was calling. Again. For the sixth or seventh time that day, even though Id barely had anything to drink. Ive forgotten to mention that my bladder had suddenly transformed from something I hardly ever thought about into a hypersensitive and highly inconvenient organ, one that made knowing exactly where to find a bathroom imperative at all times. Without warning, the cells in my bladder would suddenly start vibrating hysterically with the message Youve got to empty me right this very second or else!, and Id learned that I didnt have a choice in the matter. Or else! If Shakespeare had tried to describe the urgency of the situation, he probably would have written, To pee or not to peethat is NEVER the question. I scrambled out of the car, hurried up the steps and into the cabin, where I vaguely noticed my aunt and Gwen chatting with someone at one of the booths. I quickly found the bathroomthankfully, it was unoccupiedand on my way back out, Aunt Linda motioned for me to join them. Instead, I ducked my head and exited the cabin. The last thing I wanted was another conversation with adults. My first instinct after descending the steps was to head back to the car. But the martyrdom wasnt working and the batteries in my Walkman had died, so what was the point? Instead, I decided to explore, thinking it would kill some time. I figured I had probably half an hour to go until the ferry dockedI could already see the lights of Ocracoke in the distancebut unfortunately, the tour wasnt much more interesting than the Pamlico Sound. There was the aforementioned cabin in the center, cars parked on the deck below, and what I guessed was the control room where the captain sat above the cabin, which was off-limits. I did notice, however, a few empty benches toward the front of the boat, and with nothing better to do I made my way there. It didnt take long to figure out why they were empty. The air was icy, the wind felt like it was stabbing my skin with little needles, and even though I buried my hands in the pockets of my jacket, I could still feel them tingling. On either side, I noticed small breakers in the dark ocean water, little flashes that seemed to sparkle, but the sight of those tiny waves made me think about him, even though I didnt want to. J. The boy who got me into this mess. What can I tell you about him? He was a seventeen-year-old surfer from Southern California with beachy good looks, whod spent the summer in Seattle with a cousin who happened to be a friend of one of my friends. I first saw him at a little get-together in late June, but dont start thinking it was one of those kinds of parties with absent parents and rivers of booze and marijuana smoke drifting from beneath bedroom doors. My parents would have killed me. It wasnt even at a houseit was at Lake Sammamishand my friend Jodie was a friend of the cousin, who brought J along. Jodie convinced me to go, even though I wasnt sure I wanted to, but once I arrived, it took me all of about two seconds to notice him. He had longish blond hair, broad shoulders, and a deep tan, which was almost impossible for me to attain; my skin preferred to mimic a bright red apple when exposed to the sun. Even from a distance, I could see every single muscle in his stomach, like he was some sort of living human anatomy display. He was also hanging out with Chloe, a senior from one of the public high schools I vaguely recognized but didnt know, who was equally gorgeous. It was clear they were together; Nancy Drew that I was, I couldnt help but notice, since they were making out and basically hanging all over each other. Even so, that didnt stop me from checking him out as I sat on my towel the rest of the afternoon, in much the same way I ogled the Taylor boys at church. I admit, Id gone a little boy-crazy in recent years. It should have ended there, but strangely, it didnt. Because of Jodie, I saw him on the Fourth of Julythat one was a nighttime party because of the fireworks, but there were a lot of parents thereand then again a couple of weeks later at the mall. Each time, he was with Chloe and he didnt seem to notice me at all. Then came Saturday, August 19. What can I say? Id just seen Die Hard: With a Vengeance with Jodie, even though Id already seen it once before, and afterward, we went to her house. This time, her parents werent home. The cousin was there, along with J, but Chloe wasnt. Somehow, J and I ended up talking on the back porch, and miraculously, he seemed interested in me. He was also friendlier than Id expected. He told me about California, asked me about my life in Seattle, and he finally mentioned in passing that he and Chloe had broken up. Not long after that, he kissed me, and he was so gorgeous, things just got away from me. Long story short, I ended up in the back seat of his cousins car. I didnt set out to have sex with him, but probably like everyone my age, I was curious about the whole thing, you know? I wanted to know what the big deal was. Nor did he force me. It just kind of happened, and the whole thing was over in less than five minutes. Afterward, he was nice about it. When I had to leave to meet my eleven p.m. curfew, he walked me to the car and kissed me again. He promised to call me, but he didnt. Three days later I saw him with his arm around Chloe, and when they kissed, I turned around before he could see me, my throat feeling as though Id just swallowed sandpaper. Later, when I learned I was pregnant, I called him in California. Jodie got his number from the cousin, since J hadnt given it to me, and when I told him who I was, he didnt seem to remember me. It was only when I reminded him about what happened that he recalled our time together, but even then, I had the sense that he didnt have the slightest clue what wed talked about or even what I looked like. He also asked why I was calling with a kind of irritated tone, and you didnt need a perfect SAT score to know he had no interest in me at all. Though Id intended to tell him that I was pregnant, I hung up the phone before the words could come out, and Ive never spoken to him again. My parents know none of this, by the way. I refused to tell them anything about the father, or how nice hed seemed at first or even that hed forgotten me entirely. It wouldnt have changed anything, and by then I already knew Id be giving the baby up for adoption. You know what else I havent told them? That after that phone call with J, I felt stupid, and as disappointed and angry as my parents were with me, I felt even worse about myself. * * * While I was seated on the bench, with ears already red and my nose beginning to run, I saw a flash of movement from the corner of my eye. Turning, I spotted a dog trotting by with a Snickers wrapper in its mouth. It looked almost exactly like Sandy, my dog back home, only a little bit smaller. Sandy was a cross between a golden and a Labrador retriever, with a tail that never seemed to stop wagging. Her eyes were a soft, dark caramel, full of expression; had Sandy tried to play poker, she would have lost all her money because she couldnt bluff. I could always tell exactly what she was feeling. If I praised her, her gentle eyes would shine with happiness; if I was upset, they were full of sympathy. Shed been in our family for nine yearswe got her when I was in the first gradeand for most of her life shed slept at the foot of my bed. Now she usually slept in the living room because her hips werent so good and the stairs were hard for her. But even though she was getting white in the muzzle, her eyes hadnt changed at all. They were still as sweet as ever, especially when I cradled her furry head in my hands. I wondered if she would remember me when I moved back home. Silly, of course. There was no way that Sandy would forget me. She would always love me. Right? Right? Homesickness made my eyes moisten and I swiped at them, but then my hormones surged again, insisting that I MISSED SANDY SOOO MUCH! Without thinking, I rose from the bench. I saw Imitation Sandy trotting toward a guy seated near the edge of the deck in a lawn chair, his legs stretched out in front of him. He wore an olive-green jacket and beside him, I noticed, was a camera mounted on a tripod. I stopped. As much as I wanted to seeand yes, petthe dog, I wasnt sure whether I wanted to engage in stilted conversation with the owner, especially once he noticed Id been crying. I was about to turn away when the guy whispered something to the dog. I watched as the dog turned and trotted to a nearby garbage can, where it popped onto its rear legs and carefully deposited the Snickers wrapper. I blinked, thinking, Wow. Thats kind of cool. The dog returned to the guys side, settled, and was just about to close its eyes when the man dropped an empty paper cup onto the deck. The dog quickly rose, grabbed the cup, and put it into the garbage before returning. When another cup was dropped about a minute later, I couldnt help myself. What are you doing? I finally asked. The man turned in his seat and it was only then that I realized my mistake. He wasnt a man, but rather a teenager, maybe a year or two older than I was, with hair the color of chocolate and dark eyes flickering with amusement. His jacket, made out of olive-colored canvas with intricate stitching, was strangely stylish, especially for this part of the world. When he raised an eyebrow, I had the uneasy feeling that hed been expecting me. In the silence, I felt a burst of surprise at the thought that my aunt had been right. There actually was someone my age around here, or at the very least, someone my age who was on his way to Ocracoke. The island wasnt entirely composed of fishermen and former nuns, or older women who ate biscuits and read romance novels. The dog, too, seemed to evaluate me. Its ears perked up and it wagged its tail hard enough to thump the guys leg, but unlike Sandy, who loved everyone immediately and intensely and would have trotted over to greet me, this dog turned its attention back to the cup, quickly repeating its earlier performance, once more putting it into the garbage can. Meanwhile, the guy continued to watch me. Even though he was seated, I could tell he was lean, muscular, and definitely cute, but my whole boy-crazy phase had pretty much died the moment Dr. Bobbi spread that goop on my tummy and I heard the heartbeat. I let my gaze fall, wishing that Id just gone back to the car and regretting Id said anything at all. Id never been good at eye contact except at slumber parties when I was having a staring contest with my friends, and the last thing I needed was another boy in my life. Especially on a day like today; not only had I been crying, but I hadnt worn any makeup, and I was dressed in baggy jeans, Converse high-tops, and a down jacket that probably made me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Hi, he finally ventured, breaking into my thoughts. Im just enjoying the fresh air. I didnt answer. Instead, I continued to focus on the water, pretending that I hadnt heard him and hoping he wouldnt ask if Id been crying. Are you okay? You look like youve been crying. Great, I thought. Even though I didnt want to talk to him, I didnt want him to think I was an emotional wreck, either. Im fine, I asserted. I was at the front of the boat and the wind made my eyes water. I wasnt sure he believed me, but he was nice enough to act like he did. Its pretty up there. Theres not much to see once the sun goes down. Youre right, he agreed. The whole ride has been pretty quiet so far. No reason to even reach for the camera. Im Bryce Trickett, by the way. His voice was soft and melodic, not that I cared one way or the other. Meanwhile, the dog had begun to stare at me, its tail thumping. Which reminded me of the reason Id spoken up in the first place. Did you train your dog to throw out garbage? Im trying to, he said before breaking into a smile, dimples flashing. But shes young and still working on it. She ran off a few minutes ago, so we had to practice again. My attention was fixed on those dimples and it took me a second to retrieve my train of thought. Why? Why what? Why train your dog to throw out the garbage? I dont like litter, and I didnt want any of it blowing into the ocean. Its not good for the environment. I meant why dont you just throw it out? Because I was sitting down. Thats mean. Sometimes the mean justifies the end, right? Ha ha, I thought. But actually, Id walked right into the stupid pun, grudgingly acknowledging that it was kind of original as far as puns went. Besides, Daisy doesnt mind, he went on. She thinks its a game. Do you want to meet her? Even before I could respond, he said, Break, and Daisy quickly rose to her feet. Walking over, she curled around my legs, whining, her tongue lapping at my fingers. Not only did she look like Sandy, she felt like her, and while I stroked her fur, I was transported back to a simpler, happier life in Seattle, before everything went sour. But just as quickly, reality came rushing back and I realized that I had no desire to linger. I offered Daisy a couple of final pats and put my hands in my pockets while trying to think of an excuse to leave. Bryce was not deterred. I dont think I caught your name. I didnt tell you my name. Thats true, he said. But I can probably figure it out. You think you can guess my name? Im usually pretty good, he said. I can read palms, too. Are you serious? Would you like a demonstration? Before I could answer, he gracefully rose from his chair and started toward me. He was a little taller than Id expected, and lanky, like a basketball player. Not a center or forward like Zeke Watkins, but maybe a shooting guard. When he was close, I could see flecks of hazel in his brown eyes, and again I noticed the trace of amusement in his expression that Id seen earlier. He seemed to scan my face, and when he was satisfied, he motioned to my hands, which were still buried in my pockets. Can I see your hands now? Just hold them faceup. Its cold. It wont take long. This was weird and getting weirder, but whatever. After I showed him my palms, he leaned closer to them, concentrating. He held a finger up. Do you mind? he asked. Go ahead. He traced his finger lightly over the lines in my palms, one after the other. It struck me as strangely intimate, and I felt a little unsettled. Youre definitely not from Ocracoke, he intoned. Wow, I said, trying to keep him from knowing how I felt. Amazing. And your guess probably has nothing to do with the fact that youve never seen me around here before. I meant that youre not from North Carolina. Youre not even from the South. You might have also noticed I dont have a Southern accent. Nor did he, I suddenly realized, which was strange, since I thought everyone in the South was supposed to sound like Andy Griffith. He continued to trace for another few seconds before pulling his finger back. Okay, I think Ive got it now. You can put your hands back in your pockets. I did. I waited but he said nothing. And? And what? Do you have all your answers? Not all of them. But enough. And Im pretty sure I know your name. No, you dont. If you say so. Whether he was cute or not, I was done with the game and it was time for me to go. I think Im going to go sit in the car for a while, I said. Its getting cold. Nice meeting you. Turning around, I took a couple of steps before I heard him clear his throat. Youre from the West Coast, he called out. But not California. Im thinkingWashington? Maybe Seattle? His words stopped me in my tracks and when I turned, I knew I couldnt hide my shock. Im right, arent I? How did you know? The same way I know youre sixteen and a sophomore. Youve also got an older sibling and Im guessing itsa sister? And your name starts with an Mnot Molly or Mary or Marie, but something even more formal. LikeMargaret? Only you probably call yourself Maggie or something like that. I felt my jaw drop slightly, too stunned to say anything at all. And you didnt move to Ocracoke permanently. Youre only staying a few months or so, right? He shook his head, breaking into that smile again. But enough. Like I said earlier, Im Bryce and its nice to meet you, Maggie. It took a few seconds before I was finally able to croak out, You could tell all that from looking at my face and my palms? No. I learned most of it from Linda. It took me a second to figure it out. My aunt? I visited with her for a little while when I was in the cabin. She pointed you out when you walked past our table and she told me a little about you. Im the one who fixed your bike, by the way. As I peered at him, I vaguely remembered my aunt and Gwen talking to someone in the booth. Then what was all that stuff about my face and my palms? Nothing. Just having fun. That wasnt very nice. Maybe not. But you should have seen your expression. Youre very pretty when you have no idea what to say. I almost wasnt sure Id heard him right. Pretty? Did he just say that Im very pretty? Again, I reminded myself that it didnt matter one way or the other. I could have done without the magic trick. Youre right. It wont happen again. Why would my aunt tell you about me? And, I wondered, what else had she told him? She wanted to know if I was interested in tutoring you. I do that sometimes. Youve got to be kidding me. Youre going to be my tutor? I havent committed to it. I wanted to meet you first. I dont need a tutor. My mistake, then. My aunt just worries a lot. I understand. Then why doesnt it sound like you believe me? I have no idea. I was just going on what your aunt told me. But if you dont need a tutor, thats fine with me. His grin was relaxed, his dimples still in place. How do you like it so far? Like what? Ocracoke, he said. Youve been here a few weeks now, right? Its kind of small. For sure. He laughed. It took me a while to get used to it, too. You werent raised here? No, he said. Like you, Im a dingbatter. Whats a dingbatter? Anyone who isnt originally from here. Thats not a real thing. It is around here, he said. My father and my brothers are dingbatters, too. Not my mom, though. She was born and raised here. Weve only been back for a few years. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward an older-model truck with fading red paint and large wide tires. Ive got an extra chair in the car if you want to sit. Its a lot more comfortable than the benches. I should probably get going. I dont want to bother you. Youre not bothering me at all. Until you showed up, the ride was fairly boring. I couldnt exactly tell if he was flirting, but uncertain, I said nothing at all. Bryce seemed to take my lack of an answer as a yes and went on. Great, he said. Ill get the chair. Before I knew what was happening, the chair was angled toward the ocean beside his, and I watched as he took his seat. Suddenly feeling a bit trapped, I made my way toward the other chair and seated myself gingerly alongside him. He stretched his legs out in front of him. Better than the bench, right? I was still trying to digest how good-looking he was and that my auntthe former nunhad set all this up. Or maybe not. The last thing my parents probably wanted was for me to meet anyone of the opposite sex ever again, and theyd probably told her that, too. I guess. Its still kind of cold. As I spoke, Daisy moseyed over and lay down between us. I reached toward her, giving her a quick pat. Be careful, he said. Once you start petting her, she can get kind of insistent that you never stop. Its okay. She reminds me of my dog. Back home, I mean. Yeah? Sandys older and a little bigger, though. I miss her. How old is Daisy? She turned one in October. So I guess shes almost fourteen months now. She seems very well trained for being so young. She should be. Ive been training her since she was a puppy. To throw garbage away? And other things. Like not running off. He turned his attention to the dog, speaking in a more excited tone. But shes still got a ways to go, dont you, good girl? Daisy whined, her tail thumping. If youre not from Ocracoke, how long have you lived there? Itll be four years in April. What could have possibly brought your family to Ocracoke? My dad was in the military and after he retired, my mom wanted to be closer to her parents. And because wed had to move a lot for his job, my dad figured it was only fair to let my mom decide where to settle down for a while. He told us it would be an adventure. Has it been an adventure? At times, he said. In the summers its a lot of fun. It can get pretty crowded on the island, especially around the Fourth of July. And the beach is really beautiful. Daisy loves to run out there. Can I ask what the camera is for? Anything interesting, I guess. There wasnt much today, even before it got dark. Is there ever? Last year, a fishing boat caught on fire. The ferry diverted to help rescue the crew since the Coast Guard hadnt arrived yet. It was very sad, but the crew was unharmed and I got some amazing photos. There are dolphins, too, and if theyre breaching, I can sometimes get a nice shot. But today I really brought it for my project. Whats your project? To become an Eagle Scout. Im training Daisy, and I wanted to get some good shots of her. I frowned. I dont get it. You can become an Eagle Scout for training a dog? Im getting her ready for more advanced training later, he said. Shes learning to be a mobility assistance dog. As if anticipating my next question, he explained, For people in wheelchairs. You mean like a seeing-eye dog? Sort of. She needs different skills, but its the same principle. Like throwing out the garbage? Exactly. Or retrieving the remote control or the telephone handset. Or opening drawers or cabinets or doors. How can she open doors? You need a handle on the door, not a knob, of course. But she stands on her hind legs and uses her paws, then nudges the door the rest of the way open with her nose. Shes pretty good at it. She can open drawers, too, as long as theres a cord on the handle. The main thing I have to work on is her concentration, but I think part of that is probably her age. I hope shes accepted into the official program, but Im pretty sure she will be. She isnt required to have any advanced skillsthats what the formal trainers are forbut I wanted to give her a head start. And when shes ready, shell go to her new home. You have to give her away? In April. If it were me, Id keep the dog and forget the Eagle Scout project. Its more about helping someone who needs it. But youre right. Its not going to be easy. Weve been inseparable since I got her. Except when youre at school, you mean. Even then, he said. Ive already graduated, but I was homeschooled by my mom. My brothers are homeschooled, too. Back in Seattle, I only knew one family who homeschooled their children, and they were religious fundamentalists. I didnt know them very well; all I knew was that the daughters had to wear long dresses all the time and the family put up a huge nativity scene in their front yard every Christmas. Did you like it? Being homeschooled, I mean? Loved it, he said. I thought about the social aspect of school, which was far and away my favorite part of it. I couldnt imagine not seeing my friends. Why? Because I could learn at my own pace. My moms a teacher and since we moved around so much, my parents thought wed get a better education that way. Do you have desks in one of the spare rooms? With a chalkboard and a projector? No, he said. We work at the kitchen table when we need a lesson. But we do a lot of studying on our own, too. And that works? I couldnt keep the skepticism out of my voice. I think so, he said. With my brothers, I know so. Theyre very smart. Scary smart, in fact. Theyre twins, by the way. Roberts into aeronautics and Richards into computer programming. Theyll probably start college when theyre fifteen or sixteen, but academically, theyre already prepared. How old are they? Theyre only twelve. Before you get too impressed, theyre also immature and do stupid things and they drive me crazy. And if you meet them, theyll drive you crazy, too. I feel I have to warn you about that in advance so you wont think poorly of me. Or them, so you know how smart they really are, even when they dont act like it. For the first time since Id spoken to him, I couldnt help smiling. Over his shoulder, Ocracoke was looming ever nearer. All around us, people had begun to wander back toward their cars. Ill keep that in mind. And you? Are you scary smart? Not like they are. But thats one of the great things about being homeschooled. Usually you can get your work done in two or three hours, so you have time to learn about other things. Theyre into the sciences, but I like photography, so I had a lot of time to practice. And college? Ive already been accepted, he said. I start next fall. Youre eighteen? Seventeen, he said. Ill be eighteen in July. I couldnt help thinking he seemed a lot older than I was and more mature than anyone at my high school. More confident, somehow, more comfortable with the world and his role in it. How that could happen in a place like Ocracoke was beyond me. Where are you going to college? West Point, he said. My dad went there, so its kind of a family thing. But how about you? Whats Washington like? Ive never been there, but Ive heard its beautiful. It is. The mountains are amazing and theres a lot of great hiking, and Seattle is definitely fun. My friends and I see movies and hang out at the mall, things like that. My neighborhood is kind of quiet, though. A lot of older people live there. There are whales in the Puget Sound, right? Humpback whales? Of course. Have you ever seen one? Lots of times. I shrugged. In sixth grade, my class took a field trip on a boat and we were able to get pretty close. It was cool. Ive been hoping to see one before I leave for school. Supposedly they can be spotted off the coast here sometimes, but Ive never been that lucky. Two people walked past on either side of us; I heard a car door slam behind me. The boat engine groaned and I felt the ferry begin to slow. I guess were almost there, I observed, thinking the trip seemed shorter than usual. That we are, he said. I should probably get Daisy in the truck. And I think your aunt is looking for you. When he waved behind me, I turned and saw my aunt approaching. I prayed that she wouldnt wave or make a scene, letting everyone on the ferry know that Id met the guy shed wanted to be my tutor. She waved. There you are! she called out. I felt myself sink lower in my chair as she drew near. I looked for you in the car but couldnt find you, she went on. I see youve met Bryce. Hi, Ms. Dawes, Bryce said. He rose from his chair and folded it up. Yeah, we had the chance to get to know each other a little. Thats good to hear. In the pause, I had the sense that both of them were waiting for me to say something. Hi, Aunt Linda. I watched Bryce put his chair in the bed of his pickup, and I took it as my cue to stand. After folding mine, I handed it over, watching as Bryce placed it in the truck before lowering the tailgate. Hop up, Daisy, he said. Daisy rose and leaped into the back of the truck. I could feel my aunt watching him, then me, then both of us at the same time, unsure what to do, before she must have remembered her pre-nun years, when she was probably closer to normal, with regular feelings. Ill just wait in the car for you, she said. Nice visiting with you, Bryce. Im glad we had a chance to catch up. Take care, Bryce responded. Im sure Ill be in for more biscuits this week, by the way, so Ill see you then. Aunt Linda eyed both of us before finally turning to leave. When she was out of hearing range, Bryce faced me again. I really like Linda and Gwen. Their biscuits are the best Ive ever had, but Im sure you already know that. Ive been trying to get them to share their secret recipe, but no dice. My dad and grandfather grab a few every time they head to the boat. The boat? My grandfathers a fisherman. When my dad isnt consulting with the DOD, he helps out my grandfather. Repairing the boat and equipment, or actually going out on the water with him. Whats DOD? Department of Defense. Oh, I said, unsure what else to add. It was hard to reconcile the idea that a consultant with the DOD actually chose to live in Ocracoke. By then, however, the ferry had stopped and I heard car doors slamming and engines rumbling to life. I guess I should be going. Probably. But hey, it was great talking to you, Maggie. Usually theres no one even close to my age on the ferry, so you made the trip that much more enjoyable. Thanks, I said, trying not to stare at his dimples. I turned away and, surprising myself, I suddenly felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment that our time together had come to an end. * * * I waited until the last minute before getting into the car because I didnt want to be confronted by questions, which was something I was used to from my mom and dad. What did you talk about? Did you like him? Can you imagine him teaching you geometry and editing your papers if needed? Did I make the right choice? My parents would have been all over me. On almost every school day right up until barf-dayor pee-on-a-stick day, whateverthey always asked me how school went, like attending classes was some sort of magical, mysterious production that everyone would find fascinating. No matter how many times I simply said that it was finewhich really meant Stop asking me such a dumb questionthey continued to ask. And honestly, aside from fine, what was I supposed to say? Theyd been to school. They knew what it was like. A teacher stood up front and taught stuff that I was supposed to learn in order to do well on tests, none of which were ever any fun. Now lunch, that could sometimes be interesting. Or when I was younger, recess might have been something to talk about. But school? School was justschool. Thankfully, my aunt and Gwen were chatting about the sermon wed heard in church, which I barely remembered, and obviously, the ride took only a few minutes. We drove to the shop first, where I helped them unload their supplies, but instead of dropping Gwen off, we brought her with us to my aunts house so she could help us haul the Christmas tree inside. Despite my pregnancy, and despite them being older ladies, we were somehow able to muscle it up the steps and prop it in a stand that Aunt Linda retrieved from the back of the hall closet. By then, I was kind of tired and I think they were, too. Instead of decorating right away, my aunt and Gwen got busy in the kitchen. Aunt Linda made fresh biscuits while Gwen heated up yet more Thanksgiving leftovers. I hadnt realized how hungry I was, and I cleared my plate for the first time in a while. And, maybe because Bryce had said something about them, I realized the biscuits were tastier than usual. As I reached for a second one, I saw Aunt Linda smile. What? I asked. Im just glad youre eating, my aunt said. Whats in these biscuits? The basicsflour, buttermilk, shortening. Anything secret in the recipe? If she wondered why I cared, she didnt let on. She cast a conspiratorial glance at Gwen before facing me again. Of course. What is it? Its a secret, she said with a wink. We didnt talk more after that, and once I finished doing the dishes, I retreated to my room. Outside my window, the sky was filled with stars and I could see the moon hovering over the water, making the ocean glow almost silver. I slipped into my pajamas and was about to crawl in bed when I suddenly remembered that I still had to do the paper on Thurgood Marshall. Grabbing my notesId at least gotten that farI started the actual writing. Id always been okay at writingnot great, but definitely better than I was at mathand had gotten through a page and a half when I heard a knock at the door. Glancing up, I saw Aunt Linda poke her head in. When she noticed I was doing homework, she lifted an eyebrow, but Im sure she immediately thought it was better not to say anything lest my progress come to a screeching halt. The kitchen looks great, she said. Thank you. Youre welcome. Thanks for dinner. It was just leftovers. She shrugged. Except for the biscuits. You should call your parents tonight. Its still early there. I eyed the clock. Theyre probably eating dinner. Ill call them in a little bit. She quietly cleared her throat. I wanted to let you know that when I spoke with Bryce, I didnt tell him aboutwell, your situation. I just said that my niece had come to stay with me for a few months and left it at that. I hadnt known Id been concerned about that but felt myself expel a breath of relief. Didnt he ask why? He might have, but I stuck to the subject of whether hed be willing to tutor you. But you told him about me. Only because he said he needed to know something about you. If I want him to be my tutor, you mean. Yes, she agreed. And not that it matters, but hes the same young man who fixed your bicycle. I already knew that, but I was still pondering the prospect of seeing him day after day. What if I promised to catch up on my own? Without his help? Can you? Because you know I cant help you. Its been a long time since I was in school. I hesitated. What should I say if he asks me why Im here? She considered it. Its important to remember that none of us is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. All we can do is try to be the best version of ourselves as we move forward. In this case, if he asks, you can tell the truth, or you can lie. I suppose it comes down to the kind of person you want to see when you look in the mirror. I winced, knowing I never should have asked a former nun a question that dealt with morality. With no possible comeback to that, I returned to the obvious. I dont want anyone to know. Including him. She offered a sad smile. I know you dont. But bear in mind that pregnancy is a hard secret to keep, especially in a village like Ocracoke. And once you start showing She didnt have to finish. I knew what she meant. What if I dont leave the house? Even as I said it, I knew how unrealistic that idea was. I rode the ferry with others from Ocracoke to go to church on Sundays; I would have to see a doctor in Morehead City, which meant yet more ferry rides. Id been in my aunts shop. People already knew I was on the island, and no doubt some of them were wondering about the reason. For all I knew, Bryce was doing the same thing. They might not be thinking pregnancy, but they would suspect that I was in some sort of trouble. With my family, with drugs, with the law, withsomething. Why else would I have shown up out of the blue in the middle of winter? You think I should tell him, dont you? I think, she said, drawing out the words, that hes going to learn the truth, whether you want him to or not. Its just a matter of when, and who tells him. I think it would be best if it came from you. I stared out the window, unseeing. Hes going to think Im a terrible person. I doubt that. I swallowed, hating this, hating all of it. My aunt remained silent, allowing me to think. In that way, I had to admit, she was way better than my parents. I guess Bryce can be my tutor. Ill let him know, she said, her voice quiet. Then, clearing her throat, she asked, What are you working on? Im hoping to be done with the first draft of my paper tonight. Im sure itll be great. Youre an intelligent young lady. Tell my parents that, I thought. Thanks. Is there anything you need before I turn in? A glass of milk, maybe? I have an early day tomorrow. Im okay, thanks. Dont forget to call your parents. I wont. She turned to leave before coming to a stop again. Oh, another thingI was thinking we could decorate the tree tomorrow night after dinner. Okay. Sleep well, Maggie. I love you. Love you, too, I said. The phrase came automatically, like it did with my friends, and later, when I was talking to my parents and they asked how I was getting along with Linda, I realized it was the first time wed ever said the words to each other. The Nutcracker Manhattan December 2019 Mark was sitting with his fingertips pressed together when Maggie finally trailed off, his expression unreadable. He said nothing right away but finally shook his head, as though suddenly realizing it was his turn to speak. Im sorry, he said. I guess Im still trying to absorb what you just told me. My story so far isnt quite what you expected, is it? Im not sure what I expected, he admitted. What happened next? Im a bit too tired to go into the rest of it just now. Mark raised a hand. I get it. But stillwow. When I was sixteen, I doubt I could have handled a crisis like that. I didnt have a choice in the matter. Still He absently scratched an ear. Your aunt Linda seems interesting. Maggie couldnt help smiling. For sure. Do you still keep in touch? We used to. She and Gwen visited me in New York a few times and I saw her in Ocracoke once, but mainly we wrote letters and chatted on the phone. She passed away six years ago. Im sorry to hear that. I still miss her. Did you keep the letters? Every single one. He gazed off to the side before coming back to Maggie. Why did your aunt stop being a nun? Did you ever ask? Not back then. I would have been uncomfortable asking her, and besides, I was too wrapped up in my own problems for the question to have even crossed my mind. It took me years to broach the subject, but when I did, I didnt get an answer that I really understood. I think I was hoping for more of a smoking gun or something. What did she say? She said that life was about seasons, and that the season had changed. Huh. That is a bit mysterious. Im guessing she got tired of dealing with all those pregnant teens. Speaking from experience, we can be a moody bunch. He chuckled before growing contemplative. Do convents still take in pregnant teenagers? I have no idea, but I sort of doubt it. Times change. A few years ago, when I caught the I wonder bug, I searched for the Sisters of Mercy on the internet and learned that theyd closed more than a decade earlier. Where was her convent? Before she left, I mean. Illinois, I think. Or maybe it was Ohio. Somewhere in the Midwest, anyway. And dont ask me how she ended up there in the first place. Like my dad, she was from the West Coast. How long was she a nun? Twenty-five years or so? Maybe a little less or more, Im not really sure. Gwen too. I think Gwen took her orders even before my aunt did. Do you think they were? When he paused, Maggie lifted an eyebrow. Lovers? I honestly dont know that either. As I got older, I sort of thought they might be, since they were always together, but I never saw them kiss or hold hands or anything like that. One thing I know for certain, though: they loved each other deeply. Gwen was at my aunt Lindas bedside when she passed away. Do you keep in touch with her, too? I was closer to my aunt, of course, but after she passed, I made sure to call Gwen a few times a year. But not so much lately. She has Alzheimers and Im not sure she even remembers who I am anymore. She does remember my aunt, though, and that makes me happy. Its hard to believe that youve never told Luanne any of this. Its a habit. Even my parents still pretend that it never happened. Morgan too. Have you heard from Luanne? Since she left for Hawaii? I havent told her what the doctor said, if thats what youre asking. He swallowed. I hate that this is happening to you, he said. I really do. You and me both. Do yourself a favor and never get cancer, especially when youre supposed to be in the prime of life. He bowed his head and she knew he was at a loss for words. If joking about death helped her keep other, darker feelings at bay, the downside was that no one ever knew exactly how to respond. Finally, he looked up. I got a text from Luanne today. She said shed texted you but that you didnt get back to her. I havent checked my phone today. What did it say? It said to remind you to open your card if you havent already. Oh yeah. Because theres a gift inside. Its probably still on the desk somewhere if you want to help me find it. He got up and started going through her inbox while Maggie rummaged in the top drawer of the desk. As she sorted, Mark pulled an envelope from a stack of invoices and handed it over. Is this it? It is, she said, taking a second to examine it. I hope shes not giving me a sexy Polaroid of herself. Marks eyes widened. That doesnt sound like her She laughed. Im teasing. I just wanted to see how youd react. She opened the envelope; inside was an elegant card with a standard greeting, along with a short note from Luanne thanking Maggie for being a pleasure with whom to work. Luanne was always a stickler when it came to correct grammar and verbiage. Enclosed were two tickets to the New York City Ballets Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. The show was on Friday evening, two nights away. She removed the tickets, showing them to Mark. Its a good thing you reminded me. Theyre about to expire. What a great gift. Have you seen it? Ive always talked about going but never quite made it. How about you? Cant say that I have. Would you like to join me? Me? Why not? It can be a reward since youve had to work late. Id like that. Great. I also enjoyed your story, even if you left it with a cliff-hanger. What cliff-hanger? About you, the rest of your pregnancy. The fact that you were beginning to forge a relationship with your aunt. Bryce. I know you agreed that he could be your tutor, but how did it go? Did he help? Or did he let you down? As soon as Mark said the name, she felt a stab of disbelief that nearly a quarter century had passed since the months shed spent in Ocracoke. Are you really interested in the rest of it? I am, he admitted. Why? Because it helps me understand a bit more about you. She took another drink of her melting smoothie, and suddenly flashed on her most recent discussion with Dr. Brodigan. One moment, she observed cynically, youre having a pleasant conversation with someone, and the next, all you can think about is the fact that youre dying. She tried and failed to push the realization away before suddenly wondering if Mark was mirroring her thoughts. I know you speak with Abigail every day. Youre welcome to tell her about my prognosis. I wouldnt do that. Thatsyour business. Does she watch the videos? Yes. Then shell find out anyway. I was planning on posting about this latest development after I tell my parents and my sister. You havent told them yet? Ive decided to wait until after Christmas. Why? If I told them now, theyd probably either want me to immediately fly back to Seattlewhich I dont want to door theyd insist on coming out here, and I dont want that, either. Theyd stress and need to wrestle with their grief, and it would be harder for all of us. As an added bonus, it would ruin all their future Christmases. Id rather not do that. Its going to be hard no matter when you tell them. I know. But my family and I have aunique relationship. How so? I havent exactly lived the kind of life my parents anticipated. I always had the feeling that I was born into the wrong family somehow, and I learned a long time ago that our relationship works best when we maintain some distance between us. They havent understood my choices. As for my sister, shes more like my parents. She did the whole marriage, kids, suburbs thing, and shes still as beautiful as ever. Its hard to compete with someone like that. But look at all youve done. In my family, Im not sure that matters. Im sorry to hear that. In the silence that followed, Maggie suddenly yawned and Mark cleared his throat. Why dont you go ahead and take off if youre tired, he said. Ill make sure everything is logged properly and handle all the shipments. In the past, she would have insisted on staying. Now she knew it wouldnt serve any purpose. Are you sure? Youre taking me to the ballet. Its the least I can do. After she bundled up, Mark followed her to the door and pulled it open, ready to lock up behind her. The wind was harsh, biting her cheeks. Thanks again for the smoothie. Do you want me to get you an Uber or a cab? Its cold out there. Its not that far. Ill be fine. See you tomorrow? She didnt want to lie; who knew how she would feel? Maybe, she said. When he nodded, his lips a grim line, she could see he understood. * * * By the time she reached the corner, Maggie knew shed made a mistake. It wasnt just biting outside; it felt arctic, and she was shivering hard even after entering her apartment. Feeling as if a block of ice were lodged in her chest, she huddled on the couch beneath a blanket for nearly half an hour before she summoned the energy to move again. In the kitchen, she made chamomile tea. She thought about taking a warm bath as well, but it was too much effort. Instead, she went to her bedroom, slipped into a pair of thick flannel pajamas, a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks, and a nightcap to keep her head warm, and crawled under the covers. After finishing half a cup of the tea, she dozed off and slept for sixteen hours. * * * She woke feeling awful, as though shed just pulled an all-nighter. Worse, pain seemed to radiate from various organs, sharpening with every beat of her heart. Steeling herself, she was somehow able to rise from bed and make it to the bathroom, where she kept the painkillers Dr. Brodigan had prescribed. She washed two of the pills down with water, then sat on the edge of the bed, still and concentrating, until she was sure she would keep them down. Only then was she ready to start her day. Drawing a bath because showering now felt like being stabbed, she soaked in the warm, soapy water for nearly an hour. Afterward she texted Mark, letting him know that she wouldnt make it to the gallery today but would touch base tomorrow regarding the time and place to meet for the ballet. After dressing in comfy clothing, she made breakfast, even though it was already afternoon. She forced down an egg and half a piece of toast, both of which tasted like salted cardboard, and thenas had become a habit in the last week and a halfshe settled onto the couch to watch the world outside her window. There were snow flurries, the tiny flakes flickering against the glass, the movements hypnotic. Catching a glimpse of poinsettias in an apartment window across the street, she recalled her first Christmas back in Seattle after shed returned from Ocracoke. Though shed wanted to be excited for the holiday, shed spent much of December simply going through the motions. Even on Christmas morning, she remembered opening her gifts with feigned enthusiasm. She knew that part of that had to do with getting older. Gone were the beliefs from her childhood, and shed reached the stage where even smelling a cookie meant calculating calories. But it was more than that. Her months in Ocracoke had turned her into someone she no longer recognized, and there were times when Seattle no longer felt like home. In retrospect, she understood that even back then, shed been counting the days until she could finally leave for good. Then again, shed been feeling that way for months by that point. Not long after returning to Seattle, once she began to feel vaguely back to normal, Madison and Jodie had been eager to pick up where they had left off. On the surface, not much had changed. Yet the more time she spent with them, the more she felt like shed grown up while theyd stayed exactly the same. They had the same interests and insecurities theyd always had, the same sorts of crushes on boys, felt the same thrill at hanging out in the food court at the mall on Saturday afternoons. They were familiar and comfortable, and yet, little by little, Maggie began to understand they would eventually drift from her life entirely, in the same way Maggie sometimes felt as though she were drifting through her own. Shed also spent much of those first few months back at home thinking about Ocracoke and missing it more than shed imagined. Shed thought about her aunt and the desolate, windswept beach, the ferry rides and garage sales. It amazed her when she reflected on all that had happened while she was there, so much so that even now it sometimes took her breath away. * * * Maggie watched a drama on Netflixsomething starring Nicole Kidman, though she couldnt remember the titletook a late-afternoon nap, and then ordered two smoothies for delivery. She knew she wouldnt be able to finish both, but she felt bad ordering only one, since the check was so small. And really, what did it matter if she threw one away? She also debated whether to have a glass of wine. Not now, but later, maybe before bedtime. She hadnt had a drink in months, even counting the little get-together at the gallery in late November, when shed pretty much simply held the glass for show. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, the thought of alcohol had been nauseating, and after that, she simply hadnt been in the mood. She knew there was a bottle in the refrigerator, something from Napa Valley shed purchased on a whim, and though it sounded like a good idea now, she suspected that later, the desire would fade and all shed want to do would be to sleep. Which might, she admitted, be for the best. Who knew how the wine would affect her? She was taking painkillers and ate so little that even a couple of sips might leave her either passed out or rushing to the bathroom to make an offering to the porcelain gods. Call it a quirk, but Maggie never wanted anyone to see or hear her vomit, including the nurses whod watched over her during chemotherapy. They would help her to the bathroom, where shed shut the door and try to be as quiet as possible. Aside from the morning her mom had found her in the bathroom, as far as she could remember, thered only been one other instance when someone had seen her throw up. That had been when shed gotten seasick while photographing from a catamaran off Martinique. The nausea had come on fast, like a tidal wave; shed felt her stomach immediately beginning to turn, and she barely made it to the railing in time. She retched nonstop for the next two hours. It was the most miserable experience shed ever had while working, so over-the-top that she hadnt cared in the slightest whether anyone was watching. It had been all she could do to take any photographs that eveningonly three out of more than a hundred were any good at alland in between shots, shed done her best to remain as still as possible. Morning sicknesshell, even chemotherapy sicknesscouldnt compare, and shed wondered why shed whined so much back when she was sixteen. Who had she really been back then? Shed tried to re-create the story for Mark, especially how terrible those first weeks in Ocracoke had been for a lonely, pregnant sixteen-year-old. At the time, her exile had seemed eternal; in retrospect, all she could think was that her months there had passed too quickly. Though shed never said as much to her parents, shed longed to return to Ocracoke. The feeling was especially strong in those first two months she was back in Seattle; in certain moments, the desire was almost overwhelming. While the passage of time diminished her longing, it never completely went away. Years ago, in the travel section of the New York Times, someone had written an account of their journeys in the Outer Banks. The writer had been hoping to see the islands wild horses and had finally spotted them near Corolla, but it was her description of the austere beauty of those low-slung barrier islands that struck a chord in Maggie. The article summoned the smell of Aunt Linda and Gwen making biscuits for fishermen early in the mornings, and the quiet solitude of the village on blustery winter days. She remembered clipping the article and sending it to her aunt, along with a few prints of some recent photographs shed taken. As always, Aunt Linda had responded by mail, thanking Maggie for the article and raving about the photographs. She ended the letter by telling Maggie how proud she was of her and how much she loved her. Shed told Mark that she and Aunt Linda had grown closer over the years, but she hadnt elaborated fully. With her endless letters, Aunt Linda became a more constant presence in Maggies life than the rest of Maggies family combined. There was something comforting in the knowledge that someone out there loved and accepted her for the person she was; to Maggie it was the months theyd spent together that taught her the meaning of unconditional love. A few months before Aunt Linda died, Maggie had confessed to her that she had always wanted to be more like her. It was on her first and only visit to Ocracoke since the day shed departed as a teenager. The village hadnt changed much and her aunts house triggered a flood of bittersweet memories. The furniture was the same, the smells were the same, but the passage of time had slowly taken its toll. Everything was a bit more worn, faded, and tired, including Aunt Linda. By then, the lines on her face had deepened into wrinkles and her white hair had thinned to reveal her scalp in places. Only her eyes had remained the same, with that forever recognizable gleam. At the time, the two women were seated at the same kitchen table where Maggie had once done her homework. Why would you want to be more like me? Aunt Linda had asked, taken aback. Because yourewonderful. Oh, honey. Aunt Linda had reached over with a hand so birdlike and frail that it nearly broke Maggies heart. She gently squeezed Maggies fingers. Dont you realize that I could say exactly the same thing about you? * * * On Friday, after waking from her coma-like sleep and puttering around the apartment, Maggie swallowed some flavorless instant oatmeal while texting Mark her plans to meet him later at the gallery. She also made a reservation at the Atlantic Grill and arranged for a car pickup after dinner, since finding an Uber or cab in that neighborhood in the evening was often impossible. With all that accomplished, she went back to bed. Since a later-than-usual night was on tap, Maggie needed to be rested enough not to fall face-first into her dinner plate. She didnt set the alarm and slept another three hours. Only then did she start getting ready. The thing is, Maggie thought, when a face is as gaunt as a skeletons, with skin as fragile as tissue paper, theres only so much you can do to appear presentable. One glimpse of her baby-fuzz hair and anyone would know she was knocking at deaths door. But she had to make an attempt, and after her bath, she took her time with her makeup, trying to add color (life) to her cheeks; next, she applied three different shades of lipstick before she found one that seemed remotely natural. She had a choice about the hairscarf or hatand finally decided on a red wool beret. She thought about wearing a dress but knew shed freeze, so she opted for pants with a thick, nubbly sweater that added substance to her frame. As always, her necklace was in place, and she donned a lovely bright cashmere scarf to keep her neck warm. When she stepped back to appraise herself in the mirror, she felt she looked almost as good as she had before chemotherapy started. Collecting her purse, she took a couple more pillsthe pain wasnt as bad as yesterday, but no reason to risk itand called an Uber. Pulling up to the gallery a few minutes after closing time, she saw Mark through the window, discussing one of her photographs with a couple in their fifties. Mark offered the slightest of waves when Maggie stepped inside and hurried to her office. On her desk was a small stack of mail; she was quickly sorting through it when Mark suddenly tapped on her open door. Hey, sorry. I thought theyd make a decision before you arrived, but they had a lot of questions. And? They bought two of your prints. Amazing, she thought. Early in the life of the gallery, weeks could go by without the sale of even a single print of hers. And while the sales did increase with the growth of her career, the real renown came with her Cancer Videos. Fame did indeed change everything, even if the fame was for a reason she wouldnt wish upon anyone. Mark walked into the office before suddenly pulling up short. Wow, he said. You look fantastic. Im trying. How do you feel? Ive been more tired than usual, so Ive been sleeping a lot. Are you sure youre still up for this? She could see the worry in his expression. Its Luannes gift, so I have to go. And besides, itll help me get into the Christmas spirit. Ive been looking forward to it ever since you invited me. Are you ready? Traffic is going to be terrible tonight, especially in this weather. Im ready. After turning out the lights and locking the door, they stepped into the frigid night. Mark raised a hand, flagging down a cab, and held Maggies elbow as she crawled in. On the ride to Midtown, Mark filled her in on the customers and let her know that Jackie Bernstein had returned to purchase the Trinity sculpture shed been admiring. It was an expensive pieceand worth it, in Maggies opinion, if only as an investment. In the past five years, the value of Trinitys art had skyrocketed. Nine of Maggies photos had sold as wellincluding those last twoand Mark assured her that he had been able to get all the shipments out before shed arrived. I was ducking into the back whenever I had a spare minute, but I wanted to make sure to get them out today. A lot of them are intended as gifts. What would I ever do without you? Probably hire someone else. You dont give yourself enough credit. You forget that a lot of people applied forand didnt getthe position. Did they? You didnt know that? How would I? He had a point, she realized. I also want to thank you for shouldering the whole load without Luanne, especially over the holidays. Youre welcome. I enjoy talking with people about your work. And Trinitys work. Of course, he added. But his are a little intimidating. Ive learned that with them, its usually better to listen more and speak less. People who are interested in his work generally know more than I do. You have a knack for it, though. Did you ever think about being a curator or running your own gallery? Maybe getting a masters degree in art history instead of divinity? No, he said. His tone was good-natured but determined. I know the path Im supposed to take in life. Im sure you do, she thought. When does that start? Your path, I mean? Classes begin next September. Have you already been accepted? Yes, he said. Ill be attending the University of Chicago. With Abigail? Of course. Good for you, she said. Sometimes I wonder what the college experience would have been like. You went to community college. I mean a four-year school, with dorm life and parties and listening to music while playing Frisbee in the quad. He lifted an eyebrow. And going to classes and studying and writing papers. Oh yeah. That too. She grinned. Did you tell Abigail we were going to the ballet tonight? Yeah, and shes a little jealous about it. She made me promise to bring her one day. Hows the family reunion going? The house is chaotic and noisy all the time. But she loves it. One of her brothers is in the air force and he came in from Italy. She hasnt seen him since last year. Ill bet her parents are thrilled to have everyone around. They are. I guess theyve been building a gingerbread house. A massive one. They do it every year. And had your boss not needed you, you could have helped them. It would definitely be a learning experience. Im not very handy in the kitchen. And your parents? I heard you mention to Trinity that theyre abroad now? Theyre in Jerusalem today and tomorrow. Theyll be in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. They texted some pictures from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He pulled out his phone to show her. This trip is something my parents have wanted to do for years, but they waited until I finished college. So that Id be able to come home during school breaks. Mark put his phone back into his pocket. Where did you go? The first time you left the country, I mean? Vancouver, Canada, Maggie answered. Mainly because it was driving distance. I spent a weekend taking photos in Whistler after a major ice storm had rolled through. I still havent ever been out of the country. You have to experience it, she said. Visiting other places changes your perspective. It helps you understand that no matter where you are, or what country youre in, people are pretty much the same everywhere. Traffic began to slow as they exited the West Side Highway, then slowed even more as they made their way east on the cross streets. Despite the cold, the sidewalks were jammed; she saw people carrying shopping bags and lining up near corner food vendors; others hurried home from work. Eventually they reached the point where they could see the lighted windows of Lincoln Center, which left them with the option of either sitting in an idling cab for another ten or fifteen minutes or getting out and walking. They decided to walk and slowly made their way through a throng that extended beyond the front doors. Maggie kept her arms crossed and shifted from one foot to the other in hopes of staying warm, but thankfully the line moved quickly, and they entered the lobby after only a few minutes. Directed by the ushers, they found their seats in the first tier of the balcony of the David H. Koch Theater. They continued to chat quietly before the show, taking in their surroundings and watching the seats fill with a mix of adults and children. In time, the lights dimmed, the music came up, and the audience was introduced to Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. As the tale unfolded, Maggie was transfixed by the dancers grace and beauty, their soaring, delicate movements animating the dreamlike notes of Tchaikovskys score. Occasionally Maggie peeked over at Mark, noting his rapt attention. He couldnt seem to tear his eyes from the stage, reminding her that he was a midwestern boy whod probably never seen anything like it. When the ballet was over, they joined the festive crowds as they poured onto Broadway. She was grateful that the Atlantic Grill was just across the street. Feeling cold and wobblymaybe because of the pills, or because shed eaten almost nothing all dayshe looped her arm through Marks as they approached the crosswalk. He slowed his pace, allowing her to use him for support. It wasnt until they were seated at their table that she began to feel a bit better. Are you sure youd rather not just call it a night? Ill be okay, she said, not altogether convinced herself. And I really need to eat. When he didnt seem reassured, she went on. Im your boss. Think of this as a business dinner. Its not a business dinner. Personal business, she said. I thought you wanted to hear more about my time in Ocracoke. I do, he said. But only if you feel up to it. I really do have to eat. Im not kidding about that. Reluctantly, he nodded just as the waitress arrived and handed them the menus. Surprising herself, Maggie decided she would like a glass of wine, settling on a French burgundy. Mark ordered an iced tea. As the waitress walked away, Mark took in the restaurant. Have you ever been here before? On a date, maybe five years ago? I couldnt believe they had a spot for us tonight, but I guess someone must have canceled. What was he like? The guy who brought you here? She tilted her head, trying to remember. Tall, great salt-and-pepper hair, worked for Accenture as a management consultant. Divorced, a couple of kids, and very smart. He wandered into the gallery one day. We had coffee and then ended up going out a few times. But it didnt work out? Sometimes the chemistry just isnt there. With him, I figured it out when I went to Key Largo for a shoot and realized when I got back that I hadnt missed him at all. Thats pretty much the story of my entire dating life, no matter who I dated. Im afraid to ask what that means. In my twenties, when I first moved out here, I frequented the club scene for a few yearsgoing out at midnight, staying out until almost dawn, even on weeknights. None of the guys I met there were the kind I could bring home to my family. Frankly, it probably wasnt a good idea to bring them back to my place. No? Thinka lot of tattoos and dreams of being rappers or DJs. I definitely had a type back then. He made a face, which made her laugh. The waitress returned with her glass of wine and she reached for it with a confidence she didnt quite feel. She took a small taste, waiting to see if her stomach rebelled, but it seemed okay. By then, theyd both decided on what they wantedshe ordered the Atlantic cod, he opted for the filetand when the waitress asked if they wanted to start with appetizers or a salad, both of them declined. When the waitress walked away, she leaned over the table. You could have ordered more food, she chided. Just because I cant eat much, you dont have to follow my lead. I had a couple of slices of pizza before you got to the gallery. Why would you do that? I didnt want to run up the bill. Places like this are expensive. Are you serious? Thats silly. Thats what Abigail and I do. Youre one of a kind, you know that? Ive been meaning to ask youHow did you start with travel photography? Sheer persistence. And lunacy. Thats all? She shrugged. I also got lucky, since salaried gigs for magazines dont really exist anymore. The first photographer I worked for in Seattle already had a reputation as a travel photographer because hed worked a lot for National Geographic back in the day. He had a pretty good list of contacts with magazines, tour companies, and ad agencies, and hed sometimes bring me along to assist him. After a couple years, I went a bit crazy and ended up moving here. I roomed with some flight attendants, got discount flights and took pics in whatever place I could afford to visit. I also found work with a cutting-edge photographer here. He was an early adopter of digital photography and was always investing whatever fees he earned in more gear and software, which meant I had to as well. I started my own website, with tips and reviews and Photoshop lessons, and one of the photo editors at Cond? Nast stumbled across it. He hired me to shoot in Monaco, and that led to a second job and then another. Meanwhile, my old boss in Seattle retired and he pretty much offered me his client list as well as a recommendation, so I took over a lot of the work hed been doing. What allowed you to become fully independent? My reputation grew to the point where I was able to book my own local gigs. My fee, which I purposely kept low for international work, always enticed editors. And the popularity of my website and blog, which led to my first online sales, made bills easier to pay. I was also an early user of Facebook, Instagram, and especially YouTube, which helped with name recognition. And then, of course, there was the gallery, which cemented things for me. For years, it was a scramble to get any paid travel work, and then, like a switch had been thrown, I suddenly had all the work I could handle. How old were you when you landed that shoot in Monaco? Twenty-seven. She could see the gleam in his eyes. Thats a great story. Like I said, I was lucky. Maybe at first. After that, it was all you. Maggie took in the restaurant; like so many spots in New York, it was decorated for the holidays, featuring both an ornamented Christmas tree and a glowing menorah in the bar area. There were, by her estimation, more than the average number of red dresses and red sweaters, and as she studied the patrons, she wondered what they would be doing on Christmas, or even what she would be doing. She took another sip of her wine, already feeling its effects. Speaking of stories, do you want me to pick up where we left off now or wait until the food arrives? If youre ready now, Id love to hear it. Do you remember where I stopped? Youd agreed to let Bryce tutor you and youd just told your aunt Linda that you loved her. She reached toward her glass, staring into its purplish depths. On Monday, she began, the day after we bought the Christmas tree Beginnings Ocracoke 1995 I woke to sunlight streaming through my window. I knew my aunt was long gone, though in my haze, I imagined I heard someone rummaging in the kitchen. Still groggy and dreading the barf because its morning thing, I gently pulled the pillow over my head and kept my eyes closed until I felt like it was safe to move. I waited for the nausea to take over while I slowly came back to life; by then, it was as predictable as the sunrise, but strangely, I continued to feel okay. I slowly sat up, waited another minute, and still nothing. Finally, putting my feet to the floor, I stood, certain that my stomach would start doing cartwheels any second, but still there was nothing. Holy cow and hallelujah! Because the house was chilly, I threw on a sweatshirt over my pajamas, then slid into some fuzzy slippers. In the kitchen, my aunt had thoughtfully stacked all my textbooks and various manila folders on the table, probably to get me kick-started first thing in the morning. I pointedly ignored the pile because I wasnt just not sick; I was actually hungry again. I fried an egg and reheated a biscuit for breakfast, yawning the whole time. I was more tired than usual because Id stayed up late to finish the first draft of my paper on Thurgood Marshall. It was four and a half pages, not quite the five pages required but good enough, and feeling sort of proud of my diligence, I decided to reward myself by blowing off the rest of my homework until I felt more awake. Instead, I grabbed the Sylvia Plath book from my aunts shelf, bundled up in a jacket, and took a seat on the porch to read for a while. The thing is, though, Id never really liked reading for pleasure. That was Morgans thing. Id always preferred skimming bits here and there to get the general concept, and after opening the book to a random page, I saw a few lines that my aunt had underlined: The silence depressed me. It wasnt the silence of silence. It was my own silence. I frowned and read it again, trying to figure out what Plath had meant by that. I thought I understood the first part; I suspected she was talking about loneliness, albeit in a vague way. The second part wasnt so hard, either; to my mind, she was just making it clear that she was talking about loneliness specifically, not the fact that being in a quiet place is depressing. But the third sentence was trickier. I guessed she was referring to her own apathy, perhaps a product of her loneliness. So why hadnt she just written, Being lonely sucks? I wondered why some people had to make things so complicated. And, frankly, why was that insight even profound? Didnt everyone know that loneliness could be a bummer? I could have told them that and I was just a teenager. Hell, Id been living it since Id been marooned in Ocracoke. Then again, maybe Id misinterpreted the whole passage. I was no English scholar. The real question was why my aunt had underlined it. It obviously had meant something to her, but what? Was my aunt lonely? She didnt seem lonely and she spent a lot of time with Gwen, but then again, what did I really know about her? It wasnt as though wed had any deeply personal conversations since Id been here. I was still thinking about it when I heard an engine and the sound of tires crunching gravel out front. After that, the thumping of a car door. Rising from my seat, I opened the slider and listened, waiting. Sure enough, I eventually heard someone knocking. I had no idea who it could possibly be. It was the first time Id heard a knock at the door since Id been there. Maybe I should have been nervous, but Ocracoke wasnt exactly a hotbed of criminal activity, and I doubted a criminal would knock in the first place. Without a care, I went to the front door and swung it open only to see Bryce standing before me, which pretty much made my brain freeze in confusion. I knew Id agreed to let him tutor me, but somehow Id thought I had a few days before wed begin. Hi, Maggie, he said. Your aunt said I should come by so we can get started. Huh? Tutoring, he said. Uh She mentioned that you might need some help preparing for your tests. And maybe catching up on your homework. I hadnt showered, hadnt brushed my hair, hadnt put on makeup. In my pajamas and slippers and jacket, I probably looked homeless. I just got out of bed, I finally blurted out. He tilted his head. You sleep in your jacket? It was cold last night. When he continued to stare, I went on. I get cold easy. Oh, he said. My mom does, too. Butare you ready? Your aunt said to be here at nine. Nine? I talked to her this morning after I finished working out. She said shed come back to the house and leave you a note. I guess I had heard someone in the kitchen earlier. Oops. Oh, I said, trying to buy time. There wasnt a chance Id let him come in with the way I was looking now. I thought the note said ten. Do you want me to come back at ten? That might be better, I agreed, trying not to breathe on him. For his part, he lookedwell, a lot like he had the day before. Hair slightly windblown, dimples flashing. He was wearing jeans and that cool olive jacket again. No problem, he said. Until then, can you get me the stuff that your aunt Linda set out? She said it might help me get a handle on things. What stuff? She told me it was on the kitchen table. Oh yeah, I suddenly thought. That thoughtful stack on the table, for the morning kick-start. Hold on, I said. Let me check. I left him waiting on the porch and retreated to the kitchen. Sure enough, on top of the stack was a note from my aunt. Good morning, Maggie, I just spoke to Bryce and hell be coming by at nine to get started with you. I also photocopied the list of assignments and homework, as well as quiz and test dates. Im hopeful hell be able to explain the subjects that I cant. Have a wonderful day and Ill see you this afternoon. Love you. Blessings, Aunt Linda I reminded myself to keep my eye out for notes in the future. I was about to grab the stack when I remembered the paper Id written. I went to the bedroom and retrieved it before scooping everything else into my arms and carrying it all to the front door, where I quickly realized my mistake. Bryce? Are you still here? Yeah, Im here. Can you open the door? My hands are full. When the door swung open, I handed him the stack. I think this is what she set out for you. I also wrote a paper last night, so I put that on top. If he was surprised by the size of the pile, he didnt show it. Great, he said, reaching for it. He took the stack, bobbling it slightly before rebalancing. Do you mind if I figure this out here on the porch? Instead of going home and coming back? Not at all, I said. I really, really wished Id brushed my teeth. I need a little time to get ready, okay? Sounds good, he said. Ill see you whenever. Take your time. After closing the door, I went straight to my bedroom to find something to wear. Quickly undressing, I pulled out my favorite jeans from the pile in the closet, but when I buttoned the top, it dug into my skin and hurt. Same thing with my second-favorite pair. Which meant Id probably have to wear the same baggy ones Id worn on the ferry. I sorted through my tops, but thankfully they still fit. I picked something maroon with long sleeves. For shoes, though, I didnt have much. Sneakers, slippers, rubber boots, and Uggs. Uggs it would be. With that decided, I showered, brushed my teeth, and dried my hair. After dabbing on some makeup, I slipped into the clothes Id picked out. Because my aunt had been so insistent about the cleanliness thing, my room was all set, so all I really had to do was straighten the sheet, pull up the comforter, and prop Maggie-bear against the pillow. Not, of course, that I had any intention of showing him my bedroom, but if he needed to use the bathroom and peeked in, he might notice that I kept things tidy. Not that it mattered. I washed and dried the plate, glass, and utensils Id used for breakfast, but other than that, the kitchen was all set. I pulled open the drapes, letting more light into the house, and taking a deep breath, went to the door. Opening it, I saw him sitting on the front porch, legs perched on the steps. Oh, hey, he said, no doubt hearing me behind him. He realigned the pile and got to his feet, then suddenly froze. He stared as though seeing me for the first time. Wow. You look really nice. Thanks, I answered, thinking that maybe I looked all right, even if I would never be as pretty as Morgan. But even so, I felt my cheeks redden slightly. I just threw on whatever was lying around. You ready? Let me grab this stuff. He gathered up the stack and I stepped back so he could squeeze through the door. He stopped, no doubt wondering where to go. The kitchen table is fine, I said, motioning. Thats where I usually work. In those rare instances I do work, I thought. And when I wasnt doing it in bed, which I wasnt about to tell him. Perfect, he said. In the kitchen, he set the stack on the table, pulled out the manila folder at the top, and settled in the chair Id used for breakfast. Meanwhile, I was still thinking about what hed said to me on the porch, and even though Id invited him inside, the fact that he was actually at the kitchen table felt bizarre, like something you might see on television or at the movies but never expected to experience in real life. I shook my head, thinking, I need to get hold of myself. Starting toward the kitchen, I veered to the cupboards near the sink. Would you like some water? Im going to get a glass. That would be great, thanks. I filled two glasses and brought them to the table, then sat in the spot that was usually my aunts. I was struck by the thought that the house looked entirely different from this angle, which made me wonder how it appeared to Bryce. Did you see the paper I wrote? I read it, he said. Hes one of the most prominent justices ever to serve. Did you choose him, or did the teacher assign it? The teacher picked it. You got lucky there because theres so much to write about. He folded his hands in front of him. Lets start with this. How do you think youre doing in your classes? I hadnt expected the question and it took me a second to answer. Im doing okay, I guess. Especially considering that Im supposed to learn all this on my own without having a teacher. I didnt do all that great on my recent quizzes or tests, but theres still time to get my grades up. Do you want to get your grades up? What do you mean? I grew up hearing my mom say There is no teaching, there is only learning over and over. I must have heard it more than a hundred times, and for a long time, I didnt know what she meant. Because she was my teacher, right? Was she telling me that she wasnt a teacher? But as I got a little older, I finally understood that she was telling me that teaching is impossible unless a student wants to learn. I guess thats another way I could have phrased it. Do you want to learn? Really and truly? Or do you simply want to do enough to get by? Just like on the ferry, he came across as more mature than other people his age, but maybe because his tone was so nice, it made me reflect on what he was really asking. WellI dont want to have to repeat my sophomore year. I get that. But it still doesnt really answer my question. What grades would you like? What would make you happy? Straight As without having to do the work, I knew, but I didnt think it would do me any good to say it out loud. The fact was, I was normally a B or C student, with more Cs than Bs. Sometimes I got an A in the easier classes like Music or Art, but Id had a couple of Ds, too. I knew Id never compare with Morgan, but part of me still wanted to please my parents. I think that if I averaged Bs Id be happy with that. Okay, he said. He smiled again, dimples and all. Now I know. Thats it? Not exactly. Where you are and where you would like to be arent aligned right now. Youre at least eight assignments behind in your math homework, and your test scores are pretty low. Youre going to need to do outstanding work the rest of the semester to get a B in Geometry. Oh. Youre way behind in Biology, too. Oh. Same situation in American History. And English and Spanish, too. By then, I couldnt meet his eyes, knowing he probably thought I was an idiot. I understood enough to know that West Point was almost as hard to get into as Stanford. What did you think about my paper? I asked, almost afraid of the answer. His gaze flickered over it; it wasnt in the folderhed placed it on top of the stack of textbooks. I wanted to discuss that with you, too. * * * Because Id never had a tutor before, I wasnt sure what to expect. Add in the tutor is WAY cute and I was even more clueless. I guess I imagined wed work and then take a break and get to know each other, maybe even flirt a little, but the day was nothing like that, other than the first part. We worked. I went to the bathroom. We worked some more. Yet another bathroom break. Repeat for hours. Aside from going over my paperhe wanted me to make it more chronological as opposed to jumping back and forth in timewe spent most of the day on geometry, catching up on homework. There was no way I could get through everything, because he made me do every single problem by myself. Whenever I asked for help, hed go through my textbook and find the section that explained the concept. Hed have me read through it and if I didnt understand, hed try to break it down for me. When that still didnt helpwhich was most of the timehed examine the homework question that had me stumped and would then create an original question that was similar. After that, hed patiently show me how to answer that sample question step by step. Only then would I go back to the original homework problem, which I had to do myself. All of which was seriously frustrating because it made the whole process slower while simultaneously increasing the amount of work I had to do. My aunt came home just as Bryce was about to leave and they ended up speaking in the doorway. I have no idea what they discussed, but their voices sounded cheery; as for me, I hadnt moved from my chair and my forehead was on the table. Right before my aunt had walked in the door, and even after all Id done, Bryce had given me additional homework, or rather, homework I was already supposed to have completed. In addition to reworking my paper, he wanted me to read chapters in both my biology and history textbooks. Though hed smiled when hed said itas though his request were entirely reasonable after hours of brain-frying strainhis dimples meant absolutely nothing to me. Except The thing is, he was really good at explaining things in a way that made intuitive sense, and he was patient the whole time. By the end, I kind of felt like I understood a bit more about what was going on and felt less intimidated by the sight of shapes and numbers and equals signs. But dont be misled: I hadnt suddenly turned into some sort of geometry whiz. I made big mistakes and little mistakes all day long, and by the end, I was pretty down on myself. Morgan, I knew, wouldnt have struggled at all. As soon as he left, I took a nap. Dinner was ready when I finally woke, and after eating and cleaning the kitchen, I returned to my room and read from the textbooks. I still had more work to do on my paper, so I cranked up the Walkman and began scribbling. My aunt poked her head through my doorway a few minutes later and said something to me; I pretended Id heard her, even though I hadnt. If it was important, I figured that shed come back and tell me again later. After Id been writing for a while, I made the mistake of forgetting that I was pregnant. I shifted to a more comfortable position and all at once, nature called. Again. When I opened the door to the hallway, I was surprised to hear conversation drifting from the living room. Peeking around the corner to see who it was, I noticed Gwen placing a cardboard box full of ornaments and lights in front of the Christmas tree and vaguely remembered my aunt telling me that we were going to decorate it tonight after work. What I hadnt expected was to see Bryce chatting with my aunt as she tuned the radio, finally settling on a station that was playing Christmas music. I felt my stomach do a little flip at the sight of him, but at least I wasnt wearing pajamas and slippers and looking generally like I rode the rails, hobo style. There you are, Aunt Linda said. I was about to come get you. Bryce just arrived. Hi, Maggie, Bryce said. He was still wearing the same jeans and T-shirt, and I couldnt help noticing the pleasing silhouette his shoulders and hips made. Linda invited me over to help with the tree. I hope thats okay. I was momentarily speechless, but I dont think any of them noticed. Aunt Linda was already slipping into her jacket on her way out the door. Gwen and I are going to make a quick run to the store to get some eggnog, she said. If you two want to get started on the lights, feel free. Well be back in a few minutes. I remained in the doorway before remembering with painful urgency why Id left my room in the first place. I went to the bathroom and washed my hands afterward. Peering into the mirror above the sink, even I could tell I was tired, but there wasnt anything I could do about it. I ran a brush through my hair, took a breath, and went out, wondering why I suddenly felt nervous. Bryce and I had been alone in the house already for hours; why was this any different? Because, a voice inside me whispered, hes not here to tutor me. Hes here because clearly Aunt Linda wanted him to come over, not for her, but because she thought I might like that. By the time I walked out of the bathroom, Aunt Linda and Gwen were gone and Bryce had pulled a strand of lights from the box. I watched him struggle to untangle them, and playing it cool, I fished out a different strand and started untangling, too. I finished my reading, I said. Some of my paper, too. Without sunlight streaming through the windows, his hair and eyes seemed darker than usual. Good for you, he said. I took Daisy for a walk on the beach and then my parents had me chop firewood. Thanks for having me over. Of course, I said, even though Id had no say in the matter. He finished with his strand and scanned the room. I need to check to make sure the lights are working. Is there an outlet handy? I had no idea. Id never needed to know where the outlets were, but I think he was mostly talking to himself, because he bent lower, peering under the table next to the couch. There it is. He squatted down, his movements fluid, and reached underneath to plug in the strand. I watched as the multicolored lights blinked on. I love decorating Christmas trees, he offered, heading to the box again. It gets me into the spirit of things. He reached for another strand just as I finished untangling mine. I plugged it into the strand on the floor, watching as it blinked on as well, then reached for another strand. Ive never decorated a tree. Really? My mom usually does it, I said. She likes it to look a certain way. Oh, he said, and I could tell he was puzzled. Its the opposite in our house. My mom sort of directs while the rest of us do it. She doesnt like to decorate? She does, but youd have to meet her to understand. The eggnog was my idea, by the way. Thats part of our tradition and as soon as I mentioned it, your aunt Linda thought we should have some here, too. I was telling her how well I thought you did today. Especially at the end. I barely had to help you at all. Im still pretty far behind. Im not worried, he said. If you keep going like you did today, youll catch up in no time. I wasnt so sure. He clearly had more confidence in me than I did. Thanks for all your help. Im not sure that I told you before you left. I was kind of out of it by then. No worries, he said. He took my strand and checked those lights as well. How long have you lived in Seattle? Since I was born, I said. Same house. Same bedroom, in fact. I cant imagine what that would be like. Until we got here, I moved pretty much every other year. Idaho, Virginia, Germany, Italy, Georgia, even North Carolina. My dad was at Fort Bragg for a while. I dont know where that is. Its in Fayetteville. South of Raleigh, about three hours from the coast. Still doesnt help. My knowledge of North Carolina is pretty much limited to Ocracoke and Morehead City. He smiled. Tell me about your family. What do your mom and dad do? My dad works on the line at Boeing. I think he does riveting, but Im not really sure. He doesnt talk about it much, but I get the sense its the same every day. My mom works part-time as a secretary at our church. And you have a sister, right? Yeah. I nodded. Morgan. Shes two years older than me. Do you two look alike? I wish, I said. Im sure she says the same thing about you. His compliment caught me off guard, the same way it had in the morning when hed told me I looked really nice. Meanwhile, Bryce retrieved an extension cord from the box. I guess were ready, he said. He plugged in the extension cord and attached the first strand of lights. Do you want to lead or adjust? I wasnt sure what he was talking about. Adjust, I guess. Okay, he said. Gripping the tree, he gently scooted it away from the front window, making more space. Its easier to get around the tree this way. We can move it back when were finished. Making sure the cord had enough slack, he began stringing the lights at the back of the tree, then circled to the front. Just make sure there are no gaps or places where the lights are too close together. Adjusting. Got it. I did as he asked; it wasnt long before the first strand was at an end, and he plugged in the next one. We repeated the process, working together. He cleared his throat. Ive been meaning to ask what brought you to Ocracoke. And there it was. The question. Actually, I was surprised it hadnt come up earlier, and I thought back to the conversation Id had with my aunt and the impossibility of secrets in Ocracoke. And that, as she noted, it would be best if the answer came from me. I took a deep breath, feeling a flutter of fear. Im pregnant. He was still bent over as he glanced up to face me. I know. I meant why are you here in Ocracoke and not with your family? I felt my mouth fall open. You knew I was pregnant? Did my aunt tell you? Linda didnt say anything. I just sort of put the pieces together. What pieces? The fact that youre here but still enrolled in a school in Seattle? Because youre leaving in May? Because your aunt was vague about the reason for your sudden visit? Because she asked for an extra cushy seat on your bike? Because you used the bathroom a lot today? Pregnancy was the only explanation that made sense. I wasnt sure whether I was more surprised by the idea that hed figured it out so easily or the fact that there was no judgment in his tone or his expression as he said it. It was a mistake, I said in a rush. I did something stupid last August with a guy I barely knew, and now Im here until I have the baby because my parents didnt want anyone to find out what happened to me. And Id rather you not tell anyone, either. He started wrapping the tree again. Im not going to say anything. But wont people learn what happened when they see you walking around with a baby? Im giving her up for adoption. My parents have it all figured out. Its a her? I have no idea. My mom thinks itll be a girl because she says my family only makes girls. I meanmy mom has four sisters, my dad has three sisters. I have twelve female cousins and no males. My parents had girls. Thats cool, he offered. Aside from my mom, its all boys in our family. Can you hand me another strand? The change in subject threw me. Waitdont you have more questions? Like what? I dont know. How it happened or whatever? I understand the mechanics, he said, his tone neutral. You already mentioned that it was a guy you barely knew and a mistake, and youre giving her up for adoption, so what else is there to say? My parents certainly had a lot more to say, but to his point, what did the details matter? In my confusion, I reached for another strand and handed it to him. Im not a bad person I never thought you were. He started going around the tree again; by then, the lights were halfway to the top. Why doesnt any of this bother you? Because, he answered, still placing the lights, the same thing happened to my mom. She was a teenager when she became pregnant. I guess the only difference was that my dad married her, and I eventually came along. Your parents told you that? They didnt have to. I know their anniversary, and I know my birthday. The math isnt hard. Wow, I thought. I wondered if my aunt knew all this. How old was your mom? Nineteen. It didnt seem like a significant age difference but it was, even if he didnt say so. After all, at nineteen youre a legal adult and not in high school anymore. Instead, once he finished with the next strand, he said, Lets step back and see how were doing. From a distance, it was easier to see the gaps and other places where the lights were too close together. At the tree, we both adjusted the strands, stepped back, then adjusted some more, the scent of pine filling the room as the branches moved. Strains of Bing Crosby played in the background as flickering light fell across Bryces features. In the silence, I wondered what he was really thinking and whether he was as accepting as he seemed. Once we finished, we strung the lights on the top half of the tree. Because he was taller, he did pretty much everything while I stood and watched. When he was done, we both stepped farther away again and studied our accomplishment. What do you think? Its pretty, I answered, even though my mind was still a million miles away. Do you know if your aunt has a star or an angel for the top? I have no idea. Andthanks. For what? For not asking questions. For being so nice about the reason Im in Ocracoke. For agreeing to tutor me. You dont have to thank me, he said. Believe it or not, Im glad youre here. Ocracoke can get kind of boring in the winter. You dont say. He laughed. I guess youve noticed that, huh? For the first time since hed arrived, I smiled. Its not all bad. * * * Aunt Linda and Gwen showed up about a minute later and oohed and aahed over the lights before pouring glasses of eggnog. The four of us sipped while adding tinsel to the tree along with the ornaments and the angel for the top, which had been stored in the hall closet. It didnt take long until the tree was finished. Bryce slid it back into place before adding more water to the base. Afterward, Aunt Linda plied us with cinnamon rolls shed bought at the store, and though they werent as fresh as her biscuits, we ate them with gusto at the table. Even if it wasnt terribly late, it was probably time for Bryce to go, since Aunt Linda and Gwen had to wake up so early. Thankfully, he seemed to realize it and brought his plate to the sink, then said goodbye before we started toward the door. Thanks again for having me over, he said, reaching for the knob. That was a lot of fun. I wasnt sure if he meant decorating the tree or spending time with me was fun, but I felt a surge of relief that Id told him the truth about myself. And that hed been more than kind about all of it. Im glad you came. Ill see you tomorrow, he said, his voice quiet, the words strangely sounding like both a promise and an opportunity. * * * I told him, I said to Aunt Linda later, after Gwen had left. We were in the living room, moving the empty boxes to the hall closet. And? He already knew. Hed figured it out. Hesvery bright. The whole family is. When I set the box on the floor, my jeans pinched my waist and I already knew my other pants were even tighter. I think Im going to need some bigger clothes. I was going to suggest that we do some shopping after church on Sunday for just that reason. You could tell? No. But its about that time. I brought a lot of young pregnant girls shopping when I was a nun. Is it possible to buy pants that dont make my situation so obvious? I mean, I know everyones going to know, but Its fairly easy to hide in winter because sweaters and jackets can cover a lot. I doubt anyone will see your baby bump until March. Maybe even April, and once it does show, you can always keep a lower profile then, if thats what you want. Do you think other people have figured it out? Like Bryce did? And that theyre talking about me? My aunt seemed to choose her words carefully. I think theres some curiosity about why youre here, but no one has asked me directly. If they do, Ill just tell them that its personal. Theyll know not to press. I liked the way she was watching out for me. Gazing toward the open door of my room, I thought about what Id read earlier in the Sylvia Plath book. Can I ask you something? Of course. Do you ever feel like youre all alone? She lowered her gaze, an odd expression on her face. All the time, she said, her voice barely above a whisper. * * * Im not going to bore you with the details of that first week, because they were pretty much the same, varying only by subject. I finished rewriting my paper and Bryce had me rewrite it a second time before he was finally satisfied. I slowly but steadily began to catch up on my homework, and on Thursday, we spent most of the day studying for Fridays geometry test. By then, I knew my brain would be too tired to take it after my aunt got back from work, so she came home from the shop to proctor the exam at eight the next morning, before Bryce arrived. I was pretty nervous. As much as Id studied, I was terrified of making stupid mistakes or seeing a problem that might as well have been written in Chinese. Right before my aunt handed me the test, I said a little prayer, even though I didnt think it would do any good. Fortunately, I thought I understood what most of the questions were asking and then worked through them step by step the way Bryce had shown me. Even so, when I finally handed it over, I still felt like I swallowed a tennis ball. Id scored in the fifties or sixties on the previous tests and quizzes and couldnt bear to watch my aunt as she graded it. I didnt want to see her using the red pencil to cross things out, so I pointedly stared out the window. When Aunt Linda eventually brought the test back to me, she was smiling, but I couldnt tell whether it was out of pity or because Id done well. She put the test on the table in front of me, and after taking a deep breath, I finally had the courage to check. I hadnt aced it. Didnt even get an A. But the B I got was closer to an A than a C, and when I instinctively squealed with joy and disbelief, Aunt Linda held out her arms and I fell into them, the two of us hugging in the kitchen for a long time, and I realized how much Id needed that. * * * When Bryce arrived, he reviewed the exam before handing it back to my aunt. Ill do better the next time, he said, even though I was the one who had taken it. Im thrilled, I said. And dont bother trying to feel bad, because Im not going to accept it. Fair enough, he responded, but I could still see it was bothering him. After Aunt Linda gathered up all my workshe shipped everything to my school on Fridaysand started toward the door, Bryce glanced at me, his expression uneasy. I wanted to ask you something, he said. I know its kind of last-minute and that I have to ask your aunt, too, but I didnt want to do that until I talked to you first. Because if you dont want to, then theres no reason to ask her, right? And, obviously, if shes not okay with the idea, then no worries. I have no idea what youre talking about. You know about the New Bern flotilla, right? Ive never heard of it. Oh, he said. I should have guessed that. New Bern is a small town inland from Morehead City, and every year, the town hosts a Christmas flotilla. Its basically a bunch of boats decorated in Christmas lights that float down the river like a parade. Afterwards, my family has dinner and then we visit this amazing decorated property in Vanceboro. Anyway, its an annual family tradition and its all happening tomorrow. Why are you telling me this? I was wondering if youd like to come with us. It took a couple of seconds before it dawned on me that he was asking me on something like a date. It wasnt a real date since his parents and younger brothers would be with usit would be more of a family outingbut because of the bungling, circuitous way hed broached the subject, I suspected it was the first time hed ever asked a girl to join him in anything. It surprised me because hed always seemed so much older than I was. In Seattle, boys would just ask, Do you want to hang out? and be done with it. J hadnt even done that much; hed just sat down beside me on the porch and started talking. But I kind of liked the bungling overcomplexity, even if I couldnt imagine anything romantic between us. Whether he was cute or not, the romance thing inside me had shriveled up like a raisin on a hot sidewalk, and I doubted whether Id ever experience the feeling of desire again. Still, it wassweet. If my aunt says its okay, that sounds fun. Theres something else you need to know first, he said. We stay overnight in New Bern because the ferries dont run that late. My family rents a house, but youd have your own room, of course. Maybe youd better ask her before she leaves. By then, my aunt was already out the door and heading down the steps. Bryce chased after her, and all I could think was that hed just asked me on a date. Noscratch that. A family outing. I wondered what my aunt would say; it didnt take long before I heard Bryce coming back. He was grinning as he walked through the door. She wants to talk to my parents and said shed let us know this afternoon. Sounds good. I guess we should get started, then. With tutoring, I mean. Im ready whenever you are. Great, he said, taking a seat at the table, his shoulders suddenly relaxing. Lets start with Spanish today. You have a quiz on Tuesday. And like a switch had been thrown, he went back to being my tutor, a role that clearly made him more comfortable. * * * Aunt Linda returned to the house a few minutes after three. Though I had the sense she was tired, she smiled as she walked in and shrugged off her jacket. It struck me that she always smiled when she walked in the door. Hi there, she said. How did it go today? It went well, Bryce answered as he gathered up his things. How was it at the shop? Busy, she said. She hung her coat on the rack. I spoke to your parents and its fine if Maggie wants to join you tomorrow. They said theyd meet us at the church on Sunday. Thank you for speaking with them. And for agreeing. My pleasure, she said. Then, to me, she added, And after church on Sunday, well go shopping, okay? Shopping? Bryce asked automatically. My aunt caught my eye for only a split second, but she knew what I was thinking. Christmas gifts, she said. And just like that, I had a date. Kind of. * * * The following morning I slept late and for the sixth day in a row, my stomach felt fine. That was definitely a plus, which was followed by another surprise when I undressed before getting into the shower. Mybust was definitely larger. Ill admit I used the word bust instead of the one that had originally popped into my head, because of the crucifix hanging on the bathroom wall. It was, I figured, the word my aunt would have used. Id read that would happen, but not like this. Not overnight. Okay, maybe I hadnt been paying close attention and theyd been growing without my being aware of it, but as I stood in front of the mirror, I thought I suddenly looked like a miniature Dolly Parton. On the downside, I noticed that my once-small waist was already beginning to go the way of Atlantis. Examining myself from the side, I was both bigger and wider in the mirror. Though there was a scale in the bathroom, I couldnt work up the courage to check how much weight Id gained. For the first time since Bryce had started tutoring me, I had the house to myself for most of the day. I probably should have used the quiet to catch up on homework, but I decided to go to the beach instead. After bundling up, I found the bike beneath the house. I was a little wobbly as I got goingit had been a whilebut got the hang of it within a few minutes. I pedaled slowly in the cold wind and when I reached the sand, I propped the bike against a post that indicated a walking path through the dunes. It was pretty at the beach, even if it was entirely different from the coast in Washington. Where I was used to rocks and cliffs and angry waves shooting plumes of water, there was nothing but gentle swells and sand and sawgrass. No people, no palm trees, no shuttered lifeguard stands or homes with oceanfront views. As I walked the empty stretch of shoreline, it was easy to imagine that I was the first to have ever been there. Alone with my thoughts, I tried to picture what my parents were doing. Or would be doing later, because it was still early there. I wondered whether Morgan would be practicing the violinshe did that a lot on Saturdaysor whether shed go shopping at the mall for gifts. I wondered if theyd gotten the tree yet or if that was something they would do later today or tomorrow or even next weekend. I wondered what Madison and Jodie were up to, whether either of them had met a new guy, what movies theyd gone to see lately, or whereif anywherethey were going for the holidays. Yet, for the first time since Id left Seattle, the thoughts didnt make me ache with a sadness that felt overwhelming. Instead, I realized that it had been the right decision to come here. Dont get me wrongI still wished none of this had ever happenedbut somehow I knew that my aunt Linda was exactly what I needed at this time in my life. She seemed to understand me in a way that my parents never had. Maybe because, just like me, she always felt alone. * * * After I returned to the house, I showered and stuffed the things I would need for church in one of the duffel bags Id brought from Seattle, then spent the rest of the day reading various chapters in my textbooks, still trying to catch up and hoping that some of the information would stick in my head long enough for me to be able to complete the homework without having to do the extra problems that Bryce would no doubt concoct. Aunt Linda returned at twoSaturdays were shorter days at the shopand made sure that Id packed everything else I needed but had forgotten, from toothpaste to shampoo. Afterward, I helped her set up the nativity scene on the fireplace mantel. As we worked, I noticed for the first time that her eyes were the same as my dads. What are your plans tonight? I asked. Since youll have the place to yourself? Gwen and I are going to have dinner, she said. Well play gin rummy afterwards. That sounds relaxing. Im sure youll have a pleasant evening with Bryce and his family as well. Its no big deal. Well see. The way she said it while also averting her eyes made my next question automatic. Do you not want me to go? You two have spent a lot of time together already this week. Tutoring, I said. Because you thought I needed it. I know, she said. And while I agreed that you could go, I do have concerns. Why? She adjusted the figurines of Mary and Joseph before answering. Its sometimes easy for young people tolose themselves in feelings of the heart. The words shed usedboth old-fashioned and nunliketook me a few seconds to process, but I felt my eyes widen. You think Im going to fall for him? When she didnt answer, I almost laughed. You dont have to worry about that, I went on. Im pregnant, remember? I have no interest in him at all. She sighed. I wasnt worried about you. * * * Bryce showed up a few minutes after wed finished decorating the mantel. Still a bit off-balance from my aunts comment but kissing her on the cheek anyway, I stepped out the door with my duffel bag while he was still ascending the steps. Hey there, he said. Like me, he was dressed for a wintry night. The cool olive jacket had been replaced by a thick down coat like my own. You ready? Can I take that for you? Its not heavy, but sure. After he grabbed the duffel, we waved goodbye to my aunt and made for his truck, the same one Id seen on the ferry. Up close, it was bigger and taller than I remembered. He opened the passenger door for me, but it felt a bit like I was scaling a small mountain before I could finally crawl inside. He closed the door behind me and then got in from the other side, setting the duffel between us. Though the sky was clear, the temperature was already dropping. From the corner of my eye, I could see my aunt turn on the lights of the Christmas tree, which shone in the window, and for whatever reason, I suddenly thought back to the moment Id first seen him and his dog on the ferry. I forgot to ask but is Daisy coming with us? Bryce shook his head. No. I just dropped her off at my grandparents. They didnt want to come? Your grandparents, I mean? They dont like leaving the island unless they have to. He smiled. And by the way, my parents cant wait to meet you. Me too, I said, hoping they wouldnt ask the question, but I didnt have time to dwell on it. The ride only took a few minutes; their house was in the same general area as my aunts shop, near the hotels and the ferry. Bryce pulled the truck into the drive, stopping next to a large white van, and I found myself peering at a home that initially struck me as the same as every other home in the village, except maybe a little larger and better maintained. As I was taking it in, the front door suddenly flew open and two young boys raced down the steps, jostling each other. I found my eyes flashing between them, thinking they were mirror images of each other. Richard and Robert, if youve forgotten, he said. Ill never be able to tell them apart. Theyre used to it. And theyll mess with you because of it. Mess with me how? Roberts in the red jacket. Richard is in the blue jacket. For now, anyway. But they might switch, so be prepared. Just remember that Richard has a tiny mole below his left eye. By then, the two of them had stopped near Bryces truck and were staring at us. Bryce grabbed my duffel and opened his door before climbing down. I did the same, feeling like I was falling before my feet finally hit the gravel. We met at the front of the truck. Richard, Robert? Bryce said. This is Maggie. Hi, Maggie, they said in unison, their voices sounding both robotic and forced, machine-generated. Then, also in unison, they both tilted their heads to the left and when they went on, I knew it was an act. It is a pleasure to meet you and to have the honor of your company this evening. Playing along, I gave the Star Trek salute. Live long and prosper. They both giggled, and even though they were standing close and it was daytime, I couldnt detect the mole. But (blue jacket) Richard leaned into (red jacket) Robert, who pushed Richard, who then punched Robert, and after that, Robert was chasing Richard, finally vanishing behind the house. From the corner of my eye, I saw movement to my right, at ground level beneath the house. When I turned, I saw a youngish-looking woman in a wheelchair emerge, followed by a tall man with a crew cut who I assumed was Bryces father. Id seen people in wheelchairs, of course. There was a girl named Audrey in my third and fourth grade classes who was in a wheelchair, and Mr. Petrielike my dad, a deacon at the churchused one, too. But I hadnt expected his mom to be in one, if only because Bryce hadnt said anything about it. He could mention that shed been a pregnant teen but forget to tell me this? Somehow, I was able to keep my expression friendly but neutral. The two of them approached as his mom called out, R and Rin the van! Or well leave without you! Seconds later, the brothers came roaring around the opposite side of the house from where Id last seen them. Now (blue jacket) Richard was chasing (red jacket) Robert Or were they messing with me? There was no way to tell. In the van! Bryces dad shouted, and circling it once, the twins opened the side door and jumped inside, the van bouncing slightly. Smart or not, they definitely had energy. By then, Bryces parents had drawn closer and I could see the welcome on their faces. His moms jacket was even puffier than mine, and her auburn hair was offset by green eyes. His father, I noticed, stood ramrod straight, his black hair threaded with silver near his ears. Bryces mom held out her hand. Hi, Maggie, she said with an easy grin. Im Janet Trickett, and this is my husband, Porter. Im so glad you can join us. Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Trickett, I said. Thanks for having me. I shook Porters hand as well. Pleasure, he added. Its nice to see a new face around here. I hear youre staying with your aunt Linda. For a few months, I said. Then, Bryce has really been helpful with my studies. Thats good to know, Porter said. Are you both ready to go? We are, Bryce said. Is there anything still in the house that I need to grab? Ive already loaded the bags. We should probably head out, since you never know how crowded the ferry will be. As I was about to head to the van, Bryce gently took hold of my arm, signaling for me to wait. I watched as his parents made their way to the side opposite the door his brothers had used. His father reached inside and I heard the hum of hydraulics and watched a small platform extend from the van, then lower to the ground. I helped my dad and grandfather modify the van, he said, so that my mom can drive it, too. Why didnt you just buy one? Theyre expensive, he said. And they didnt have a model that would work for us. My parents wanted one where either of them could drive, so the front seat had to be easily interchangeable. It basically slides from one side to the other, then locks down. The three of you figured that out? My dads pretty smart about those kinds of things. What did he do in the army? Intelligence, he answered. But hes also a genius with anything mechanical. Why was I not surprised? By then, Bryces mom had vanished into the interior and the platform was rising again. Bryce took it as his cue to start walking. Opening the door on the opposite side, we got in, squeezing in beside the twins in the back seat. After the van backed out, we started toward the ferry and I eyed the twin next to me. He was wearing a blue jacket, and peering closely, I thought I could see the mole. Youre Richard, right? And youre Maggie. Are you the one into computers or aeronautical engineering? Computers. Engineering is for geeks. Better than being a nerd, Robert added quickly. He leaned forward in his seat, turning his head to peer at me. What? I finally asked him. You dont look sixteen, he said. You look older. I wasnt sure whether it was a compliment or not. Thanks? I offered. His expression was steady on mine. Why did you move here? Personal reasons. Do you like ultralights? Excuse me? Theyre small, slow, very light planes that only need a short runway to land. Im building one in the backyard. Like the Wright brothers did. Richard cut in: I make video games. I turned toward him. Im not sure what you mean. A video game uses electronically manipulated images on a computer or other display device that allow a user to engage in quests, missions, or journeys, perform duties, or perform other tasks, either alone or with others as part of a competition or as a team. I know what a video game is. I didnt know what you meant by make. It means, Bryce said, that he conceives games, writes the code, and then designs them. And Im sure shell want to hear all about itand the planelater, but how about the two of you let us ride to the ferry in peace? Why? Richard asked. Im just trying to talk to her. Richard! Let it be! I heard Mr. Trickett call out. Your fathers right, Mrs. Trickett added, glaring at them over her shoulder as well. And you need to apologize. For what? For being rude. How am I being rude? Im not debating with you, she said. Apologize. Both of you. Robert piped up. Why do I have to apologize? Because, his mom answered, you were both showing off. And Im not going to ask you again. From the corner of my eye, I noticed both of them sink lower in their seats. Sorry, they said in unison. Bryce leaned closer, his breath warm on my ear as he spoke. I tried to warn you. I stifled a giggle, thinking, And I thought my family was weird. * * * We waited in a longish line of cars for the ferry, but there was plenty of room on the deck, and we departed on schedule. Richard and Robert scrambled out of the van almost immediately, and we followed, watching as they raced toward the railing. Behind us, as I put on my hat and gloves, I heard the hydraulic lift. I gestured toward the upper enclosed seating area. Will your mom be able to go inside? I mean, is there an elevator? Usually they spend most of the time in the van, Bryce answered. But she enjoys the fresh air for a little while. Would you like to get a soda? I saw the crowd moving in that direction and shook my head. Lets go up front for a while. We walked toward the bow along with a few other people, but were able to find a place where we werent sandwiched next to others. Despite the chilly air, the water was calm in all directions. Is Robert really building an airplane? I asked. Hes been working on it for almost a year now. My father helps, but its his design. And your parents will let him fly it? Hed need his pilots license first. Hes mainly doing it as an entry into some national student science competition, and knowing him, Im sure it will fly. My dad will make sure its safe, though. Your dad can fly, too? He can do a lot of things. But your mom homeschools? Not your dad? He always worked. How can your mom possibly teach any of you anything? Shes pretty smart, too. He shrugged. She started at MIT when she was sixteen. Then how did she become pregnant as a teenager? I wondered. Oh, yeah. Sometimes its just an oops. But stillwhat a family. Id never even heard of another one like it. How did your parents meet? They were both interning in Washington, D.C., but I dont know much more than that. They dont really share those kinds of stories with us. Was your mom in a wheelchair then? Im sorry, I know I probably shouldnt ask Its okay. Im sure a lot of people wonder about it. She was in a car accident eight years ago. Two-lane highway, a car passing another car from the opposite direction. To avoid a head-on crash, my mom veered off the road, but she hit a telephone pole. She almost died; its actually kind of a wonder that she didnt. She spent almost two weeks in the ICU, had multiple surgeries and a ton of rehab. But her spinal cord was damaged. She was fully paralyzed from the waist down for over a year, but eventually she recovered some feeling in her legs. Now she can move them a littleenough to make dressing easierbut thats it. She cant stand. Thats awful. Its sad. Before the accident, she was very active. Played tennis, jogged every day. But she doesnt complain. Why didnt you tell me about her? I guess I didnt think about it. I know that sounds strange, but I dont really notice it anymore. She still teaches the twins, makes dinner, goes shopping, takes photographs, whatever. But youre right. I should have thought to mention it. Is that why your family moved to Ocracoke? So her parents could help out? Its actually the opposite. Like I told you, after my dad retired from the military and started consulting, we could have gone anywhere, but my grandmother had had a stroke the year before. Not a bad one, but the doctor indicated that she might have more in the future. As for my grandfather, his arthritis is getting worse, which is another reason why my dad helps him whenever hes in town. The point is, my mom thought she could help her parents more than they could help her, so she wanted to live near them. Believe it or not, shes fairly independent. And shes the reason youre raising Daisy? To help someone like your mom who needs it? That was part of it. My dad also thought Id enjoy having a dog for a while since he travels so much. How much does he travel? It varies, but its usually four or five months a year. Hell be taking off again sometime after the holidays. But now its your turn. Weve been talking about me and my family and it feels like I dont know anything about you. I could feel the wind in my hair, could taste the salt in the chilly air. Ive told you about my parents and my sister. What about you, then? What else do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies? I used to dance when I was little, and I played sports in middle school. But no real hobbies. What do you do after school or on the weekends? Hang out with my friends, talk on the phone, watch TV. Even as I said it, I understood how lame that sounded and knew I needed to get off the subject of me as quickly as possible. You forgot to bring your camera. For the flotilla, you mean? I thought about it, but I figured it would be a waste of time. I tried last year, and I couldnt get the photos to turn out right. The colored lights all came out white. Did you try using the automatic setting? I tried everything, but I still couldnt make it work. At the time, I didnt realize I should have used a tripod and adjusted the ISO, but even then, the images probably wouldnt have come out. I think the boats were too far offshore, and obviously they were moving. I had no idea what any of that meant. Seems complicated. It is and it isnt. Its like learning anything in that it takes time and practice. And even if I think I know exactly what to do for a shot, I still find myself changing the aperture constantly. When I shoot in black and whitewhich I normally doI also really have to watch the timer in the darkroom to get the shading just right. And now, with Photoshop, theres even more I can do in post. You have your own darkroom? My dad built it for my mom, but I use it, too. You must be an expert. My moms the expert, not me. When I have a problem with a print, either she helps or Richard does. Sometimes both of them. Richard? With Photoshop, I mean. He automatically understands anything computer related, so if its a Photoshop issue, he can figure it out. Its irritating. I smiled. I take it that your mom taught you photography, right? She did. Shes taken some incredible shots over the years. Id like to see them. The darkroom, too. Ill be happy to show you. How did your mom get into photography? She said she just picked up a camera one day in high school, took some photos, and got hooked. After I was born, neither my mom nor my dad wanted to put me in daycare, so she began to freelance with a local photographer on weekends, when my dad could stay with me. Then, whenever we moved, shed find work assisting a new photographer. She did that up until the twins came along. By then, shed started homeschooling meand taking care of themso photography became more of a hobby. But she still goes out with her camera whenever she can. I thought about my own parents, trying to figure out their passions, but aside from work, family, and church, I couldnt come up with anything. My mom didnt play tennis or bridge or anything like that; my dad had never played poker or whatever it was guys did when they hung out together. They both worked; he took care of the yard and the garage and emptied the garbage, while she cooked, did laundry, and cleaned the house. Aside from going out to dinner every other Friday, my parents were pretty much homebodies. Which probably explained why I didnt do much, either. Then again, Morgan had the violin, so maybe I was just making excuses. Will you keep up the photography once you get to West Point? I doubt Ill have the time. Its a fairly regimented schedule. What do you want to do in the army? Maybe intelligence, like my dad? But part of me wonders what it would be like to go the special forces route and become a Green Beret or get selected for Delta. Like Rambo? I asked, referring to the Sylvester Stallone character. Exactly, but hopefully without the PTSD afterward. And again, were back to talking about me. Id like to hear about you. Theres not much to say. Whats it been like? Moving to Ocracoke, I mean? I hesitated, wondering whether I wanted to talk about it or how much I would tell him, but that feeling lasted only a few seconds and evolved to Why not? After that, the words just began to spill out. While I didnt tell him about Jwhat was there really to say, other than that I was stupid?I told him about my mom finding me puking in the bathroom and picked up from there, talking about everything right up until the moment hed shown up to tutor me. I thought it would be harder, but he didnt interrupt me often, allowing me the space I needed to tell the story. By the time I finished, there was only half an hour left before the ferry was going to dock, and I was saying a silent prayer of thanks that Id bundled up. It was freezing and we retreated to the van, where Bryce pulled out a thermos and poured two cups of hot chocolate. His parents were chatting up front and we said a quick hello before they went back to their conversation. We sipped the hot chocolate as my face slowly returned to its normal color. Through it all, we continued to chat about regular teenage thingsfavorite movies and television shows, music, what kind of pizza we liked (thin crust with double cheese for me, sausage and pepperoni for him), and anything else that came to mind. Robert and Richard clambered back into the van just as Bryces dad was starting the engine and the ferry was about to dock. We drove along dark and quiet roads, past farmhouses and mobile homes decked out in Christmas lights. One small town gave way to the next. I could feel Bryces leg pressed against my own, and when he laughed at something one of the twins had said, I thought about the easy way he seemed to relate to his family. His mom, probably thinking that I might be feeling left out, asked the kinds of questions that parents always asked, and even though I was happy to answer in a general way, I still wondered how much Bryce had told them about me beforehand. When we reached New Bern, I was taken with how quaint it was. Historic homes fronted the river, the downtown area was lined with small shops, and lampposts at every intersection were decorated with illuminated wreaths. The sidewalks were crowded with people making their way to Union Point Park, and after parking, we fell in alongside them. By then, the temperature was even colder, my breath coming out in little puffs. At the park, more hot chocolate was proffered, along with peanut butter cookies. It wasnt until I took the first bite that I realized how hungry I was. Bryces mom, seeming to read my mind, handed me another as soon as I finished the first, but when the twins asked for seconds, she told them theyd have to wait until after dinner. The conspiratorial wink she gave me immediately made me feel like I belonged. While I was still nibbling, the flotilla began. Broadcasting live from beneath a tent, the local radio station announced via loudspeaker the owner and type of each boat as one by one they slowly floated past. For some reason I guess I was expecting yachts, but aside from a handful of sailboats, they were either similar in size or smaller than the fishing boats I saw in the docks at Ocracoke. Some were festooned with lights; some sported characters like Winnie the Pooh or the Grinch, and still others had simply placed decorated trees along the decking. The whole affair had a sort of Mayberry vibe to it, and though I thought it might arouse a feeling of homesickness, it didnt. Instead, I found myself focusing on how close Bryce was standing next to me, and watching his dad point and grin with the twins. His mom merely sipped the hot chocolate, her expression content. A short while later, when Bryces dad leaned over and tenderly kissed his wife, I found myself trying to remember the last time Id seen my father kiss my mother in the same way. Afterward, we had dinner at the Chelsea, a restaurant not far from the park. We werent the only ones who headed over there after the flotilla ended; the place was bustling. Nonetheless, the service was quick and the food satisfying. At the table, I found myself mainly listening while Richard and Robert debated their mom and dad on heady scientific topics. Bryce sat back, remaining as quiet as I was. When dinner was over, we returned to the van and drove to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, eventually parking alongside the highway with our hazard lights flashing. Climbing out, I could only stare in wonder as I tried to take it all in. While houses decked out in Christmas lights were common in Seattle and the malls were decorated professionally, this was on an entirely different scale, with the holiday display spread over at least three acres. Off to my left sat a small house at the edge of the property with lights framing the windows and lining the roof; a Santa and sleigh perched near the chimney. But it was the remainder of the grounds that amazed me. Even from the highway, I could see scores of illuminated Christmas trees, a giant American flag glowing high in the treetops, tall teepee-like cones assembled only with lights, a frozen pond with a clear plastic surface lit from below by tiny brilliant bulbs, a decorated train, and synchronized lights making it appear as if reindeer were flying through the sky. In the middle of the property, a miniature glowing Ferris wheel rotated slowly, stuffed animals seated in the cars. Here and there, I could make out comic and cartoon characters painted on plywood, cut to exacting standards. The twins ran off in one direction while Bryces parents moved slowly in another, leaving Bryce and me alone. Winding among the decorations, I felt my gaze drifting here and there. Dew was moistening the toes of my shoes and I pushed my hands deeper in my pockets. All around us, families wandered the property, children racing from one display to the next. Who does all this? The family who lives in the house, Bryce answered. They set it up every year. They must really love Christmas. No doubt, he agreed. I always find myself wondering how long it takes them to set all of this up. And how they pack it up, so they can do it again the following year. And they dont care that people are basically walking through their yard? I guess not. I cocked my head. Im not sure Id like strangers traipsing through my yard all month. I think Id always be wary of someone peeking in the windows. I think most people understand thats a no-no. For the next half hour, we meandered among the decorations, chatting easily. In the background, I could hear Christmas music drifting from hidden loudspeakers, along with the joyful squealing of children. A lot of people were taking photographs, and for the first time, I found myself getting into the spirit of the season, something I couldnt have imagined before Id met Bryce. He seemed to know what I was thinking, and when he caught my eye, I thought again about our recent conversations and how much Id already shared with him. Bryce, I suddenly realized, probably knew the real me better than anyone else in my life. * * * That night we stayed in New Berns historic district, not far from the park where wed seen the flotilla. Grabbing my duffel bag, I followed the family inside the house, and Bryces dad showed me to my room. After putting on my pajamas, I fell asleep within minutes. In the morning, Bryces dad made pancakes for breakfast. I sat beside Bryce, listening as the rest of them figured out their own shopping plans for the day. But the clock was tickingno one wanted my aunt to have to wait in the church parking lot. After a quick shower, I repacked my things and we made the drive back to Morehead City while my hair was still air-drying. Aunt Linda and Gwen were waiting, and after saying goodbye to the TrickettsBryces mom offered a hugwe did the church thing. Lunch and the supply run followed, and while I knew Id mentioned that I needed bigger clothes, my aunt casually reminded me of something Id forgotten. You might want to pick up gifts for your parents and Morgan while were out and about. Oh yeah. And while I was at it, I figured I should probably get something for my aunt, too. Seeing as I was living with her, I mean. We ventured to a nearby department store and split up. I bought a scarf for my mom, a sweatshirt for my dad, a bracelet for Morgan, and a pair of gloves for my aunt. On our way out, my aunt promised to box and ship out my familys gifts the following week. We next visited a store that specialized in maternity clothing. How she knew about the place, I had no ideaits not like shed ever needed itbut I was able to find a couple of pairs of jeans with elastic waistbands, one for now and one for when I was watermelon-sized. In all honesty, I hadnt even known that such things existed. I dreaded the idea of having to check outI knew the cashier would give me that lookbut thankfully, my aunt seemed to sense my concerns. If you want to head to the car and wait, she said casually, Ill pay for these and Gwen and I will meet you there. I felt my shoulders suddenly relax. Thanks, I murmured, and as I pushed through the door, I was struck by the revelation that a nunor former nun, whateverwas actually one of the coolest people I knew. * * * We met up with Bryce and his family on the ferry and saw that their van had a large Christmas tree strapped to the roof. Bryce and I hung out for most of the ride until my aunt strode over to let Bryce know that on Tuesday, she and I were going to take a personal day, so Bryce wouldnt have to tutor. I had no idea what she meant but knew enough to stay quiet; Bryce took her comment in stride, and it wasnt until I was back at the house that I asked my aunt about it. I had an appointment with the OB-GYN, Aunt Linda explained, and Gwen would be joining us. But strangely, even though wed bought the maternity jeans, it struck me that in the last couple of days, I hadnt thought about my pregnancy much at all. * * * Unlike Dr. Bobbi, my new OB-GYN, Dr. Chinowith, was male and older, with white hair and hands so huge he could have palmed a basketball twice the normal size. I was eighteen weeks along, and by his demeanor, I was pretty certain I wasnt the first teenage unwed mother-to-be hed come across. It was also clear that hed worked with Gwen numerous times in the past and they were comfortable with each other. We did the whole checkup thing, he renewed the prescription for prenatal vitamins that Dr. Bobbi had originally written, and afterward, we spoke briefly about how Id likely be feeling over the next few months. He told me that he usually saw his pregnant patients once a month, but because Gwen was an experienced midwifeand getting to appointments was an all-day, inconvenient thinghe was comfortable with seeing me less often unless there was an emergency and that I should speak to Gwen if I had any questions or concerns. He also reminded me that Gwen would be monitoring my health extra closely during the third trimester, so there was nothing to worry about on that end, either. Once Gwen and my aunt left the room, he mentioned the adoption and asked me whether I wanted to hold the baby after delivery. When I didnt answer right away, he asked me to think about it, assuring me that I still had time to figure it out. The whole time he was talking, I couldnt take my eyes from his hands, which actually frightened me. When I was shown into an adjoining room for the ultrasound, the technician asked whether I wanted to know the sex of the baby. I shook my head. Later, though, as I was putting my jacket back on, I overheard her murmuring to my aunt, It was hard to get a good angle, but Im almost certain its a girl, which confirmed my moms earlier suspicion. As the next days and weeks unfolded, my life settled into a regular routine. The December weather brought even chillier days; I completed homework assignments, reviewed chapters, wrote papers, and studied for exams. By the time I took the last round of tests before my winter break began, I felt like my brain was going to explode. On the plus side, my grades were definitely improving, and when I spoke with my parents, I couldnt help bragging a little. While my scores werent at Morgans levelId never be at Morgans levelthey were a lot higher than theyd been when I left Seattle. Though my parents didnt say it, I could almost hear them wondering why studying suddenly seemed so important to me. Even more surprising, I was slowly but surely getting used to life in Ocracoke. Yeah, it was small and boring and I still missed my family and wondered what my friends were up to, but the regular schedule made things easier. Sometimes, after I finished my studies, Bryce and I would walk the neighborhood; twice, he brought his camera and the light meter along. Hed take photos of random thingshouses, trees, boatsfrom interesting angles, explaining what he was trying to achieve with each photo, his enthusiasm evident. Three times, we ended the walk at Bryces house. The kitchen featured a lowered prep area that Bryces mom could easily access, their Christmas tree looked a lot like the one wed decorated, and his home always smelled like cookies. His mom made a small batch almost every day, and as soon as we entered, shed pour two glasses of milk and join us at the table. Through these snack-time chats, we gradually got to know each other. She told stories about growing up in Ocracokeapparently it had been quieter back then than it was now, which I found almost impossible to believeand when I asked how shed been accepted to MIT at such a young age, she merely shrugged, saying that shed always had a knack for science and math, as if that explained it all. I knew there was a lot more to the storythere had to bebut because the topic seemed to bore her, we usually spoke about other things: what Bryce and the twins had been like when they were younger, what it was like to move every few years, life as a military wife, homeschooling, and even her struggles after the accident. She asked me lots of questions as well, but unlike my parents, she didnt ask what I intended to do with my life. I think shed picked up on the fact that I had absolutely no idea. Nor did she ask why Id come to Ocracoke in the first place, but I suspected that she already knew. Not because Bryce had said anythingit was more like a teen-pregnancy radarbut she always insisted that I have a seat while we chatted and never asked why I wore the same stretchy jeans and baggy sweatshirts. We also spoke about photography. They showed me the darkroom, which kind of reminded me of my high school science lab. There was a machine called an enlarger and plastic tubs used for chemicals, along with a clothesline where prints were hung to dry. There was a sink and counters lining the walls, half of which were low enough for Bryces mom to access, and a cool red light that made it seem like wed traveled to Mars. Photos lined the walls of their home, and Mrs. Trickett sometimes mentioned the stories behind them. My favorite was one that Bryce had takenan impossibly large full moon casting light over the Ocracoke lighthouse; even though it was in black and white, it looked almost like a painting. How did you get that shot? I set up a tripod on the beach and used a special cable release because the exposure time had to be super long, he answered. Obviously, my mom coached me a lot when it came to developing the print. Because I was curious, Robert showed me the ultralight he was building with his dad. Staring at it, I knew I wouldnt ride in the thing for a million dollars, even if it did fly. In turn, Richard showed me the video game he was creating, which was set in a world complete with dragons and knights in armor packing every weapon imaginable. The graphics werent greateven he conceded thatbut the game itself seemed interesting, which was saying something, since Id never seen the appeal of parking myself in front of a computer for hours on end. But hey, what did I know? Especially when compared to a kidor a familylike that? * * * Have you figured out what you want to get Bryce? Aunt Linda asked. It was Friday evening, and Christmas was three days away. I was washing dishes at the sink and she was drying, even though she didnt have to. Not yet. I thought about getting him something for his camera, but I wouldnt know where to start. Do you think we could run by a store after church on Sunday? I know itll be Christmas Eve, but itll be my last chance. Maybe I can figure something out. Of course we can go, she said. Well have more than enough time. Itll be a long day. Sundays are always long. She smiled. Extra-long, then, because Christmas is on Monday. We have regular Sunday mass in the morning like always, and then midnight mass for the Christmas celebration. And a couple of other things in between, too. Well stay overnight in Morehead City and catch the ferry back in the morning. Oh. If she heard the unhappiness in my tone, she ignored it. I washed and rinsed a plate and handed it to her, knowing it would be pointless to try to talk her out of it. What did you get for Gwen? A pair of sweaters and an antique music box. She collects those. Should I buy something for Gwen, too? No, she said. I added your name on the music box. Itll be from both of us. Thanks, I said. What do you think I should get Bryce? You know him better than I do. Have you asked his mom what he might want? I forgot, I said. I guess I could go over tomorrow and ask. I just hope it wont be too expensive. I have to get his family something, too, and I was thinking Id get them a nice picture frame. She put a plate into the cupboard. Keep in mind that you dont have to buy Bryce anything. Sometimes the best gifts are free. Like what? An experience, or maybe you can make something, or teach him something. I dont think theres anything I can teach him. Unless hes interested in makeup or painting his nails. She rolled her eyes, but I could see the mirth in them. I have faith youll figure something out. I thought about it while we finished up in the kitchen, but it wasnt until we moved to the living room that inspiration finally struck. The only problem was that I was going to need my aunts help in more ways than one. She beamed as soon as I explained. I can do that, she said. And Im sure hes going to love it. * * * An hour later, the phone rang. I guessed it was probably my parents and was surprised when Aunt Linda handed me the phone, telling me that Bryce was on the other end. Which was, to my knowledge, the first time hed called the house. Hi, Bryce, I said. Whats up? I was wondering if it would be possible for me to stop by on Christmas Eve. I want to give you your gift. Im not going to be here, I said. I explained about the double mass on Sunday. I wont be back until Christmas Day. Oh, he said. Okay. Well, my mom also wanted me to ask if youd like to come by for our Christmas meal. Itll be around two. His mom wanted me to come? Or did he want me to come? Covering the receiver, I asked my aunt and she agreed, but only if he would join us later for our Christmas dinner. Perfect, he said. Ive got something for your aunt Linda and Gwen, too, so we can do the gift thing then. It was only after I hung up that the reality of the situation hit me. It was one thing to see the flotilla with his family or drop by his house after walking the beach, but spending time at both our houses on Christmas Day felt like something more, almost like we were taking a step in a direction I was pretty sure I didnt want to go. And yet I couldnt deny that I was happy about it. * * * Christmas Eve on Sunday was different than it was at my house in Seattle, and not just due to the ferry ride and two services. I guess I should have expected that for a pair of former nuns, it was important to find a way to honor the true meaning of the holiday, which is exactly what we did. After church, we did our normal run to Wal-Mart, where I found a pretty frame for Bryces parents and a card for Bryce, but instead of the usual garage sale circuit, we visited a place called Hope Mission, where we spent a few hours prepping meals in the kitchen for the poor and homeless. My job was peeling potatoes, and though I wasnt that fast in the beginning, I felt like an expert by the end. On the way out, after Aunt Linda and Gwen had hugged at least ten peopleI had the sense they volunteered there every now and thenI watched as my aunt surreptitiously slipped the shelter coordinator an envelope, no doubt a financial donation. At sunset, we attended a living nativity program at one of the Protestant churches (my mom would have made the sign of the cross had she found out about that). We watched Joseph and Mary being turned away from the inn and ending up in the stable, the birth of Christ, and the appearance of the three wise men. It took place outside, chilly temperatures making the play seem more real somehow. When that part of the program ended, the choir began, and my aunt held my hand as we joined in on the carols. Dinner came next, and then, because we still had hours until the midnight service, we went to the same motel wed stayed at when Id flown in from Seattle. I roomed with Aunt Linda, and after setting the alarm, we all took evening naps. At eleven, we were awake again, and if I was concerned about still being tired at the service, the priest used enough incense to keep anyone awake; my eyes couldnt stop watering. It was also kind of eerie, but in a spiritual way. There were candles glowing throughout the church, an organ adding depth and resonance to the solemn music. When I glanced at my aunt, I noticed her lips moving with silent prayers. Then it was back to the motel, and onto the ferry first thing in the morning. It didnt feel much like Christmas at all, but my aunt tried to make up for it. In the seating area, she and Gwen shared stories of their favorite Christmases. Gwen, whod grown up on a farm in Vermont, told us about the time shed received an Australian shepherd puppy. She was nine years old, and shed wanted a dog for as long as she could remember. In the morning, after unwrapping all of her packages, shed been crestfallen, not realizing that her dad had slipped out the back door. He reappeared a minute later holding the puppy, who was wearing a red bow for a collarand even almost half a century later, she could still recall the joy shed felt when the puppy bounded over and began playing with her. On a quieter note, Aunt Linda recounted how she had baked cookies with her mother on Christmas Eve; it was the first time her mom had allowed her not only to help but to do most of the measuring and mixing. She remembered how proud shed been when everyone in the family raved about the cookies, and in the morning, she received her own apron with her name stitched on it, as well as her own baking utensils. There were more stories like thatand as I sat with them, I remember thinking how normal the stories sounded. It had never occurred to me that future nuns had ordinary childhood experiences; I just assumed that they grew up praying all the time and finding Bibles and rosaries beneath the tree. Back home, I chatted with my parents and Morgan on the phone, wrote the card for Bryce, then started getting ready. I showered and did the hair-and-makeup thing. On went the stretchy jeansGod bless them, by the wayand a red sweater. Outside the window, darker clouds had filled the sky, so just in case, I put on my rubber boots. Evaluating myself in the mirror, except for my ever-expanding bust, I thought I barely looked pregnant. Perfect. Tucking the gift under my arm, I started toward the Trickett house. In the Pamlico Sound, I could see small whitecaps in the swells and the wind had picked up, playing havoc with my hair, which made me wonder why Id bothered to style it in the first place. Bryce opened the door as I was climbing the steps. In the distance, I heard a deep rumble echoing in the sky. The storm, I knew, would be coming soon. Hey there. Merry Christmas! You look amazing. Thanks. You too, I said, eyeing his dark wool slacks and button-up shirt, as well as his shiny loafers. Inside, the house was a picture-perfect version of Christmas Day. The remains of wrapping paper had been crumpled up and packed into a cardboard box beneath the tree; the aromas of ham and apple pie and corn simmering in butter filled the air. The table was set, some side dishes already in place. Richard and Robert were on the couch in their pajamas and fuzzy slippers reading comic books, reminding me that as smart as they were, they were still kids. Daisy, whod been nestled at their feet, rose and wandered toward me, tail wagging. In the meantime, Bryce introduced me to his grandparents. While they were perfectly friendly, I barely understood a word they said. I nodded and smiled, and after Bryce finally maneuvered me away, he whispered in my ear. Hoi Toider, he said. Its an island brogue. Theres maybe a few hundred people in the world who speak it. People on the islands didnt have much contact with the mainland for hundreds of years, so they developed their own dialect. But dont feel bad; half the time, I cant understand them, either. Bryces parents were in the kitchen and after hugs and greetings, his mom handed him the mashed potatoes to bring to the table. Richard and Robert? she called out. Foods almost ready, so wash up and come find your seats. Over dinner, I asked the twins what theyd received for Christmas and they asked me. When I explained that my aunt and I planned to open our gifts later, Robert or RichardI still couldnt tell them apartswiveled his gaze to his parents. I like opening the gifts on Christmas morning. Me too, the other one said. Why are you telling me this? their mom asked. Because I dont want you to get any crazy ideas in the future. He sounded so serious that his mom burst out laughing. When everyone was finished eating, Bryces mom opened the gift Id brought, for which she and her husband thanked me graciouslyand everyone pitched in to clean the kitchen. Leftovers went in Tupperware and then into the fridge, and when the table was cleared, Bryces mom brought out a jigsaw puzzle. After dumping out the contents of the box, Bryces parents, brothers, and even the grandparents began flipping the pieces, turning them right-side up. We always do a puzzle on Christmas, Bryce whispered to me. Dont ask me why. As I sat beside him, trying to find matching pieces along with the rest of the family, I wondered what my own family was doing. It was easy to imagine Morgan putting her new clothes away while my mom cooked in the kitchen and my dad caught a game on television. It occurred to me that after the morning frenzy of opening gifts, aside from the meal, everyone in my family did their own thing. I knew that families had their own holiday traditions, but ours seemed to keep us dispersed while Bryces gathered them together. Outside, it began to rain, then pour. As lightning flickered and thunder boomed, we worked steadily on the puzzle. There were a thousand pieces but the family were absolute puzzle wizardsespecially Bryces dadand we finished it in about an hour. Had it been me putting it together alone, I was pretty sure Id still be working on it until next Christmas. His family put on Scroogea musical version of Dickenss classicand not long after it ended, it was time for Bryce and me to go. After fishing out a couple unopened gifts from under the tree, Bryce grabbed umbrellas and his truck keys while I hugged every member of his family goodbye. It felt darker than usual as we drove the quiet roads. Heavy clouds blocked the starlight while the wipers pushed the rain aside. The storm had abated to a drizzle by the time we got to my aunts, where we found her and Gwen in the kitchen. I savored another round of delicious aromas, even though I wasnt hungry in the slightest. Merry Christmas, Bryce, Gwen called out. Dinner should be ready in twenty minutes, Aunt Linda informed us. Bryce put his gifts beneath the tree with the others and greeted both women with hugs. The house had been transformed in the hours Id been gone. The tree was glowing, and candles flickered on the table, the mantel, and the end table near the sofa. Faint strains of holiday music drifted from the radio, reminding me of my childhood, when Id be the first to sneak downstairs on Christmas morning. Id wander to the tree and check out the gifts, noting which ones were for me and which ones were for Morgan before taking a seat on the steps. Sandy would usually join me and Id stroke her head, letting the anticipation build until it was finally time to get everyone up. As I recalled those mornings, I could feel Bryces curious gaze on me. Good memories, I said simply. It must be hard being away from your family today. I met his eyes, feeling warm in a way I hadnt expected. Actually, I said, Im doing okay. We took a seat on the couch and chatted in the glow of the lights from the Christmas tree until dinner was ready. My aunt had made turkey, and despite eating only small portions, I felt like I was going to pop when I finally put my fork down. By the time we cleaned the kitchen and retreated to the living room, the storm had passed; though lightning still flickered on the horizon, the rain had stopped and a light fog had begun to roll in. Aunt Linda had poured herself and Gwen a glass of wineit was the first time Id ever seen either of them drink anything with alcoholand we began opening gifts. My aunt loved the gloves; Gwen exclaimed over the music box, and I opened the gifts that my parents and Morgan had sent. I found a nice pair of shoes and some cute tops and sweaters that were one size larger than I usually wore, which I supposed made sense considering my situation. When it was Bryces turn, I handed him the envelope. Id picked a fairly generic card, with room to write my own message. Because the light was so dim in the living room, he had to turn on the reading lamp to see what Id written. Merry Christmas, Bryce! Thank you for all your help, and in the spirit of the holidays, I wanted to get you something I knew you would love, a gift that just might keep on giving for the rest of your life. This card entitles you to the following: 1.My aunts super-secret biscuit recipe; and 2.A baking lesson for the two of us, so that you can learn how to make them on your own. Obviously, this gift is from both my aunt and me, but it was my idea. Maggie P.S. My aunt would like you to keep the recipe secret! As he read the card, I stole a peek at Aunt Linda, whose eyes were glittering. When he finished, he turned first toward me, then toward her before finally breaking into a grin. This is great! he declared. Thank you! I cant believe you remembered. I wasnt sure what else to get you. Its the perfect gift, he said. Turning to my aunt, he said, I dont want you to go to a lot of trouble, so if its easier, we can go to your shop early and watch you prepare them like you always do. In the middle of the night? I said, my eyes widening. I dont think so. Both Aunt Linda and Gwen laughed. Well figure it out, my aunt said. Next were the gifts from Bryce. As my aunt carefully unwrapped the gift hed given both of them, I caught a glimpse of the frame and knew immediately hed given them a photograph. Curiously, my aunt and Gwen both stared at it without speaking, causing me to rise from my spot on the couch and peek over their shoulders. I suddenly understood why they couldnt stop staring. It was a color image of the shop taken early in the morning, and from the angle, I suspected that Bryce had to lie in the road to take it. A customerI guessed he fished for a living based on his attirewas leaving with a small bag in hand just as a woman was entering. Both were bundled up and you could actually see their breath frozen in space. In the window, I spotted the reflection of clouds, and beyond the glass, I could see my aunts profile and Gwen placing a cup of coffee on the counter. Above the roof, the sky was slate gray, accentuating the faded painted siding and the weather-beaten eaves. Though Id seen the shop countless times, Id never seen it appear so arrestingbeautiful, even. Thisis incredible, Gwen managed to say. I cant believe we didnt see you taking this. I was hiding. I actually went out there three mornings in a row to get just the shot I wanted. It took two rolls of film. Are you going to hang it in the living room? I asked. Are you kidding? my aunt replied. This will be front and center at the shop. Everyone should see this. Because my gift came in a box similar in shape and size, I knew that Id been given a photograph as well. As I unwrapped it, I silently prayed that it wasnt a picture of me, something hed sneakily taken when I hadnt been paying attention. As a general rule, I disliked photos of myself, let alone a photo taken while I was in baggy sweats or ugly pants with my hair being blown in every direction. But it wasnt a photo of me; instead, it was the photograph Id loved, the one of the lighthouse and the giant moon. Like me, Aunt Linda and Gwen were stunned by the image; they both agreed it should hang in my room where I could see it while lying in bed. With the gifts opened, we visited for a little while, until Gwen announced that she wanted to go for a short walk. Aunt Linda joined her at the door and we watched while they bundled up. Are you sure you dont want to join us? my aunt asked. To help digest dinner before the rain comes back? Im okay, I said. I think Id just like to sit for a while, if thats all right. She finished wrapping the scarf around her neck. We wont be gone long. After they left, I looked from the photograph to the glowing tree, to the candles, and then to Bryce. He was beside me on the couch, not wedged against me but close enough that if I leaned, our shoulders would brush against each other. Music continued to play on the radio and beneath that, barely detectable, was the sound of gentle swells lapping against the shoreline. Bryce was quiet; like me, he seemed content. I thought back to my first few weeks in Ocracokethe fear and sadness and the ache of loneliness as I lay in my room, the notion that my friends would forget me, and the conviction that being away from home for the holidays was a wrong that could never be righted. And yet as I sat beside Bryce with the photograph in my lap, I knew already that this had become a Christmas I would never forget. I thought about Aunt Linda and Gwen and Bryces family and the ease and kindness Id found here, but mostly I thought about Bryce. I wondered what he was thinking, and when his eyes suddenly flashed toward me, I wanted to tell him that hed inspired me in ways he probably couldnt imagine. Youre thinking about something, Bryce stated, and I felt my thoughts drift away like vapor, leaving only a single idea. Yeah, I said. I was. Care to share? I glanced down at the photograph hed given me before finally turning to meet his gaze. Do you think you could teach me photography? The Christmas Tree Manhattan December 2019 When the waitress came by with the dessert menu and an offer of coffee, Maggie used the opportunity to catch her breath. Shed related her story throughout their meal, barely noticing as her mostly untouched plate was cleared. Mark ordered a decaf while Maggie declined, still nursing her original glass of wine. There were only a handful of occupied tables left and conversations had dropped to a low murmur. Bryce taught you how to take pictures? Mark exclaimed. Maggie nodded. And he introduced me to the rudimentary basics of Photoshop, which was relatively new back then. His mom taught me a lot of darkroom techniquedodging and burning and cropping, the importance of timing in the development processessentially, the now-lost art of making prints the old-fashioned way. Between the two of them, it was like a crash course. He also predicted that digital photography was going to replace film and that the internet was going to change the worldlessons I took to heart. Mark raised an eyebrow. Impressive. He was a smart guy. Did you start taking pictures right away? No. Bryce being Bryce, he wanted me to learn the way he had, so he came by the day after Christmas with a photography book, a thirty-five-millimeter Leica camera, the manual, and a light meter, she said. I was still technically on break, so I only had to finish the assignments I hadnt yet completed. In any case, by then, I had actually begun to pull ahead in my classes, which left more time to learn photography. He showed me how to load film, the way various settings altered the photo, and how to work the light meter. He walked me through the manual, and the book he brought touched on composition, framing, and what to think about when attempting to take a photograph. It was overwhelming, obviously, but he went through it all step by step. After which hed quiz me, of course. Mark smiled. When did you take your first real photo? Right before the new year. They were all black and whiteit was much easier to develop negatives into contact sheets and make prints ourselves in Bryces darkroom. We didnt need to send film to Raleigh for processing, which was good because I didnt have a ton of money. Just what my mom had given me at the airport. What did you shoot that first day? Some images of the ocean, a few old fishing boats tied up at the dock. Bryce had me make adjustments to the aperture and shutter speed, and when I got the contact sheets back, I was She searched for the right word, remembering. Awestruck. The differences in effect just floored me, and that was when I first and truly began to understand what Bryce meant when he said photography was all about capturing the light. After that, I was hooked. That fast? You had to be there, she said. And the funny thing is, the more I got into photography over the next few months, the easier my schoolwork became and the faster I completed it. Not because I was suddenly smarter, but because finishing early meant more time with the camera. I even started doing extra homework at night, and when hed show up the next day, Id hand over two or three assignments first thing. How crazy is that? I dont think its crazy at all. Youd found your passion. Sometimes I wonder if Ill ever find mine. Youre going to be a pastor. If that doesnt require passion, I dont know what does. I suppose. Its definitely a calling, but it doesnt seem like the same feeling you had when you saw the contact sheet. Theres never been a Eureka! moment for me. The feeling has just always been there, simmering in my bones, ever since I was young. That doesnt make it less real. How does Abigail feel about it? Shes supportive. Of course, she also pointed out that it means shell have to be the principal breadwinner in the family. What? No dreams of being a televangelist or building a megachurch? I think were all called in different ways. Neither of those appeals to me. Maggie was pleased by his answer, convinced that many television preachers were hypocritical salesmen, more interested in their celebrity lifestyles than in helping others become closer to God. At the same time, she admitted, her knowledge of such people was limited to what shed read in the newspapers. Shed never actually met a televangelist or a megachurch pastor. The waitress came by with an offer to refill Marks cup and he waved it off. When she left, he leaned over the table. Can I pick up the dinner tab? Not a chance, Maggie said. I invited you. And besides, I know exactly how much you earn, Mr. Have a Slice of Pizza Before You Go to Dinner. He laughed. Thank you, he said. This was fun. What a terrific evening, especially at this time of year. She couldnt help flashing on her long-ago Christmas in Ocracoke, knowing there had been beauty in its simplicity, in spending time with people she cared about rather than being alone. She didnt want to be alone on her last Christmas, and taking a few seconds to study Mark, she knew she suddenly didnt want him to be alone, either. The next words came almost automatically. I think we need more to get into the spirit of the season. What did you have in mind? What the gallery needs this year is a Christmas tree, dont you think? How about I make arrangements to have a tree and decorations delivered? And then well trim it together after we close tomorrow? That sounds like a fantastic idea. * * * The late dinner left Maggie feeling both exhilarated and exhausted, and she didnt wake until almost noon the next day. Her pain level was tolerable, but she swallowed the pills anyway, washing them down with a cup of tea. She forced herself to have a piece of toast, puzzled that even with butter and gobs of jelly, it still tasted salty. She took a bath and dressed, then spent some time on the computer. She ordered a tree, paying triple for expedited delivery so it would arrive at the gallery by five. For the decorations, she went with a complete set called Winter Wonderland, which included white lights, silver silk strands, and white and silver ornaments. Again, to have it expedited cost a small fortune, but what did the cost really matter at this point? She wanted a memorable Christmas, and that was that. She then texted Mark, letting him know to take delivery and that shed be there later. Once that was done, she settled into the couch and wrapped herself in a blanket. She thought about calling her parents but decided to wait until tomorrow. On Sundays, she knew theyd both be around the house. She knew she should probably call Morgan, too, but she put that off as well. Morgan wasnt the easiest person to talk to lately; really, when Maggie was being honest with herself, aside from a few rare exceptions, talking to her sister had never been all that easy. Why was that the case, though, she wondered again, even aside from their obvious differences? Maggie supposed that when shed returned from Ocracoke, it had been even more evident that Morgan was the preferred daughter. She had maintained her 4.0 average, was homecoming queen, and eventually went off to Gonzaga University, where she joined just the right sorority. Their parents couldnt have been prouder and made sure Maggie always knew it. After graduating from college, Morgan began teaching music at a local school and dated guys who worked in banks or for insurance companies, the kind who wore suits to work every day. She eventually met Jim, who worked for Merrill Lynch, and after theyd dated for two years, he proposed. Theyd had a smallishbut perfectly orchestratedwedding, immediately moving into the house Jim and Morgan bought, complete with a grill in the backyard. A few years later, Morgan gave birth to Tia. Three years after that, Bella came along, giving rise to family photos so perfect they could have been used to sell frames. Meanwhile, Maggie had abandoned the family and spent those years struggling to launch her career and living the wild life, which meant their relative positions as siblings hadnt changed. Both Maggie and Morgan knew their familiar rolesthe star and the strugglerwhich informed their regular, if not frequent, phone conversations. But then Maggie got her break and slowly earned a reputation that allowed her to regularly travel the world; after that her stewardship of the gallery. Over time even her social life stabilized. Morgan seemed discomfited by these developments, and thered been times when Maggie had even sensed a bit of jealousy. It was never overt while Maggie was in her twenties; most often, it took the form of passive-aggressive digs. Im sure the new guy youre dating is a big step up from the last one, or Can you believe your luck?, or Have you seen the photographs in National Geographic this month? Theyre really incredible. The more successful Maggie became, the harder Morgan tried to keep the focus on herself. Usually, shed describe one challenge after anotherwith the kids, with the house, with her jobbefore proceeding to explain how shed solved the problems using both intelligence and perseverance. In those conversations, Morgan was simultaneously a victim and a hero, while Maggie was always just lucky. For a long time, Maggie did her best to ignore thosequirks. Deep down, she knew Morgan loved her, and that having two young kids and taking care of a house while working a full-time job was stressful for anyone. Morgans self-involvement wasnt unexpected, and besides, Maggie knew that, jealous or not, Morgan was proud of her. It wasnt until Maggie got sick that she began to question her most basic assumptions. Not long after the initial diagnosisback when Maggie still had hopeMorgans marriage took a turn for the worse and those troubles became the focus of nearly every conversation. Instead of offering Maggie a chance to vent or express her worries about her cancer, Morgan would listen for only a short while before changing the subject. Shed complain that Jim seemed to regard her as a servant, or that Jim had closed down emotionally and wouldnt consider counseling because hed said that Morgan was the one who needed counseling. Or shed admit that they hadnt had sex in months, or that Jim had started working late at the office three or four days a week. It was one thing after another and whenever Maggie tried to clarify something Morgan had said, her sister would grow irritated and accuse Maggie of taking Jims side. Even now, Maggie still wasnt sure exactly what had gone wrong in the marriage other than the old clich? that Morgan and Jim had simply drifted apart. Because Morgan was so unhappythe word divorce had begun creeping into the conversationsMaggie was caught off guard by Morgans fury when Jim packed his bags and moved out. She was even more taken aback when the anger and bitterness intensified. While Maggie knew that going through a divorce was often a miserable experience, she couldnt understand why Morgan seemed intent on making things worse. Why couldnt they figure something out on their own, without adversarial attorneys throwing gasoline on the fire, all the while running up the bills and slowing the process to a crawl? Maggie knew she was probably being naive. Shed never gone through a divorce, but even so, Morgans sense of betrayal and absolute righteousness reflected her conviction that Jim deserved to be punished. For his part, Jim probably felt victimized as well, all of which meant a long and nasty divorce that took seventeen exhausting months to finally sort out. But even that wasnt the end of it. Last summer, whenever they touched base, Morgan had still complained about Jim and his new, younger girlfriend, or shed wax on about the fact that Jim wasnt measuring up as a parent. She would tell Maggie that Jim had been late to the parent-teacher conferences, or that hed tried to take the kids hiking in the Cascades even though it was technically Morgans weekend to have them. Or that Jim had forgotten to bring an EpiPen when hed taken the girls to an apple farm, even though Bella was allergic to bees. To all of those things, Maggie had wanted to add, Chemotherapy sucks, by the way. My hair is falling out and Im puking all the time. Thanks for asking. In all fairness, Morgan did ask how Maggie was feeling; Maggie simply had the sense that no matter how awful she felt, Morgan viewed her own situation as worse. All of that meant fewer and fewer phone calls, especially in the last month and a half. Their last call had taken place on Maggies birthday, before Halloween, and aside from a quick text and an equally quick response, they hadnt even touched base on Thanksgiving. She hadnt mentioned those things to Mark when talking about her reasons for wanting to stay quiet about her diagnosis for now. And it was also true that she didnt want to cast a pall over Morgans Christmas, especially because of Tia and Bella. But for Christmas to remain peaceful, Maggie figured shed be better off without her. * * * Maggie caught a cab to the gallery and arrived half an hour after closing. Despite the languid day and another dose of painkillers, she still felt thumped, like shed been accidentally tossed into the dryer with the rest of the laundry. Her joints and muscles ached as though shed exercised way too much, and her stomach was churning. When she caught sight of the Christmas tree just to the right of the door, however, her spirits lifted slightly. It was full and straight; since she hadnt chosen it, part of her had feared that shed end up with the kind of tree Charlie Brown had picked in the old cartoon Christmas special. After unlocking the door, she stepped into the gallery just as Mark was emerging from the back offices. Hi, he said, his face brightening. You made it. For a few minutes there, I wasnt sure you would. Time slipped away from me. It was more like not having enough steam to make the kettle whistle, but why start with the doom and gloom? How was it today? Moderately busy. There were a lot of groupies, but only a couple of photographs sold. We received a bunch of online orders, though. Anything for Trinity? Just some online inquiries. Ive already sent the information, so well see how that goes. There was also an email from a gallery in Newport Beach wondering if Trinity would be open to doing a show out there. He wont, Maggie said. But I assume you passed the information along to his publicist? I did. I also got all your online orders shipped. Youve been busy. When did the tree arrive? Around four or so? The decorations actually arrived earlier. Im guessing they were really expensive. The tree is pretty, too. Im sort of amazed they had a good one left. I would have thought theyd all be sold by now. Small miracles, he agreed. I already added water in the base and I popped over to Duane Reade to get an extension cord in case we need it. Thanks. She sighed. Even standing, she realized, was taking more effort than shed imagined it would. Would you mind bringing my office chair out here? So I can sit? Of course, he said. He turned and vanished into the back; a moment later, he was rolling the chair across the floor, finally adjusting it to face the tree. When Maggie sat, she winced and Mark frowned with concern. Are you feeling all right? No, but Im pretty sure Im not supposed to be. What with the cancer eating my insides and all. His gaze fell, making her regret that she hadnt come up with a gentler response, but cancer was anything but gentle. Can I get you anything else? Im all right for now, she said. Thank you. She studied the tree, thinking that it needed to be rotated slightly. Mark followed her eyes. Youre not happy about the gap toward the bottom, right? I didnt notice it when I saw the tree from outside. He walked toward the tree. Hmmm He gripped and lifted, rotating it half a turn. Better? Perfect, she said. I have a surprise, he added. I hope you wont mind. I love surprises. Give me a minute, okay? He vanished into the back again, returning with a small portable speaker and candles tucked beneath his arm, along with two glasses filled with a creamy liquid. She assumed it was a smoothie, but as he drew near, she realized she was mistaken. Eggnog? I thought it seemed appropriate. He handed her a glass and she took a sip, hoping her stomach wouldnt sour. Thankfully, it didnt, nor was there much of an aftertaste. She took another drink, realizing how hungry she was. Theres plenty in the back for refills, he said. He took a sip as well, then set his glass on a low wooden pedestal. He put the speaker next to the glass and pulled his phone from his pocket. A few seconds later, she was listening to Mariah Carey singing All I Want for Christmas Is You, the volume low. He lit the candles, then went over and turned off most of the lights, leaving only the ones near the rear of the gallery illuminated. He took a seat on the pedestal. My story really got to you, huh? she asked. I told Abigail all about it when we FaceTimed last night. She suggested that if we were going to decorate the tree, I might as well try to re-create parts of your Ocracoke Christmas as well. She helped me with the playlist, and I picked up the eggnog and candles when I grabbed the extension cord. Maggie smiled as she removed her gloves, but still chilled, she decided to keep her jacket and scarf on. Im not sure Im going to have enough energy to help you with the tree, she confessed. Thats fine. You can direct, like Bryces mom did. Unless youd like to try again tomorrow Not tomorrow. Lets do it now. She swallowed another mouthful of eggnog. I wonder when people started putting up Christmas trees in the first place. Im pretty sure it was the mid- to late sixteenth century in whats now Germany. For a long time, it was regarded as a Protestant custom. The first tree wasnt displayed at the Vatican until 1982. And you just happened to know that off the top of your head? I did a report on it when I was in high school. I cant remember anything from the reports I did in high school. Even Thurgood Marshall? Even him. And just so you know, even though my family was Catholic, we had Christmas trees growing up. Dont blame the messenger, he teased. You ready to do some directing while I get to work? Only if youre sure you dont mind. Are you kidding? This is great. I dont have a tree in my apartment, so this is the only chance Ill have this year. He found the box, freed the lights from their plastic packaging, then plugged in the extension cord. Like Bryce long ago, he moved the tree out from the corner to string the lights, making adjustments as Maggie suggested. The silk ribbons came next, then finally a large matching bow, which he placed on top in lieu of a star. He finished by dispersing the ornaments throughout the tree, following Maggies instructions. After scooting it back into place, he retreated to Maggies side, the two of them evaluating it. Good? he asked. Its perfect, she said. Mark continued to stare at the tree before finally reaching for his phone. He took a series of pictures, then began tapping the screen. Abigail? She watched him actually blush. She wanted to see the tree as soon as it was finished. Im not sure she trusted me to do a good job. Im sending it to my parents, too. Did you hear from your folks today? They texted some photos from Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Youve been to Israel, right? Its an incredible country. When I visited, I kept thinking to myself that I might be following in Christs footsteps. Literally, I mean. What were you photographing? Tel Megiddo, the Qumran cliffs, and a few other archeology digs. I was there for about a week, and Ive always wanted to go back but there were too many other places to see for the first time. Mark leaned forward, his elbows on his knees as he stared up at her. If I could visit one place in the world, what do you think that should be? Light flickered in his eyes, making him appear almost childlike. A lot of people have asked me that question, but theres no single answer. It depends on where you are in life. Im not sure I follow. If youve been stressed and working a zillion hours for months, maybe the best place to go would be a tropical beach somewhere. If youre in search of the meaning of life, maybe go hiking in Bhutan or visit Machu Picchu or attend mass in St. Peters Basilica. Or maybe you just want to see animals, so you travel to Botswana or northern Canada. I can say that I see all those places differentlyand I photographed them differentlybased partly on my own life experiences at the time. I get that, he said. Or at least I think I do. Where would you want to go? If you could only see one place? He reached for his eggnog and took a sip. I like your Botswana idea. Id love to go on safari, see the wild animals. I might even be convinced to bring a camera, though Id stick with the automatic setting. I can give you a few photography pointers if youd like. And who knows? Maybe youll have your own gallery, too, one day. He laughed. Not a chance. Going on safari is a good choice. Maybe think about it for your honeymoon? I hear its kind of expensive. But Im confident well get there one day. Where theres a will, theres a way and all that. Like your parents and their trip to Israel? Exactly, he said. She leaned back in her chair, finally beginning to feel closer to normal again. She wasnt yet warm enough to take off her jacket, but the bone-deep chill had passed. I know your dad is a pastor, but I dont think Ive ever asked about your mom. Shes a child psychologist. She and my dad met when they were both getting their PhDs at Indiana. Does she teach or practice? Shes done a bit of both in the past, but now she mainly practices. She also assists the police when necessary. Shes an on-call specialist if theres a child in trouble, and because she often serves as an expert witness, she testifies in court quite a bit. She sounds smart. And very busy. She is. Though it took some effort, Maggie tucked her leg up, trying to get more comfortable. Im guessing that in your house, there wasnt a lot of shouting when emotions were high. Since your dads a pastor and your mom is a psychologist? Never, he agreed. I dont think Ive ever heard either of them raise their voice. Unless they were cheering for me in hockey or baseball, I mean. They prefer talking things out, which sounds great, but it can also be frustrating. Its no fun to be the only one shouting. I cant imagine that you ever shouted. I didnt do it much, but when I did, theyd ask me to lower the volume so we could have a reasonable discussion, or theyd tell me to go to my room until I calmed down, after which wed have the reasonable discussion anyway. It didnt take long before I understood that shouting doesnt work. How long have your parents been married? Thirty-one years, he said. She did the mental calculation. Theyre a little older, then, right? Since they met when they were getting their PhDs? Theyll both turn sixty next year. My mom and dad sometimes talk about retiring, but Im not sure that day will ever come. They both love what they do too much. She recalled her earlier reflections about Morgan. Did you ever wish you had siblings? Not until recently, he said. Being an only child was all I knew. I think my parents wanted more kids, but it just didnt work out. And being an only child sometimes has its advantages. Its not like I had to make compromises when it came to what movie to see, or what to ride first at Disney World. But now that Im with Abigail, and I see how close she is to her siblings, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like. After Mark trailed off, neither of them said anything for a short spell. She had the sense that he wanted to hear more about her time in Ocracoke, but realized she wasnt quite ready to start just yet. Instead: What was it like growing up in Indiana? she asked. Its one of the states Ive never visited. Do you know anything about Elkhart? Not a single thing. Its in the northern part of the state, with a population of about fifty thousand, and like a lot of towns in the Midwest, it still has a small-town vibe. Most stores close at six, most of the restaurants are done serving at nine, and agriculturein our case, dairyplays a big part in the economy. I do think people there are genuinely kind. Theyll help out a sick neighbor, and churches are central to the community. But when youre a kid, you dont really think about any of those things. What was important to me was that there were parks and fields to play on, baseball diamonds, basketball courts, a hockey rink. Growing up, as soon as Id get home from school, Id head straight back out to play with my friends. There was always a game going on somewhere. Thats what I remember most about growing up there. Justplaying basketball or baseball or soccer or hockey every afternoon. And here I thought everyone in your generation was glued to their iPads, she said in mock wonder. My parents wouldnt let me have one. They didnt even allow me to get an iPhone until I was seventeen, and then they made me buy it. I had to work all summer to afford it. Were they anti-technology? Not at all. I had a computer at home and they had cell phones. I think they wanted me to grow up the same way they had. Old-fashioned values? I suppose. Im beginning to like your parents more and more. Theyre good people. Sometimes I dont know how they do it. What do you mean? He stared into his eggnog, as though searching for words in the glass. In her job, my mom can hear some pretty awful things, especially when she works with the police. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abandonmentAnd my dadbecause hes a pastor, he does a lot of counseling, too. People come to him for guidance when theyre having marital troubles, or struggling with addiction, or having problems on the job, or their kids are acting up, or even if theyre having a crisis of faith. He also spends a lot of time at the hospital, as hardly a week goes by when someone in the church isnt sick, or in an accident, or needs comfort in their grief. Its draining for both of them. When I was growing up, thered be times when one or the other of them would be really quiet while we were having dinner and I came to recognize the signs of a particularly hard day. But they still love it? They do. And I think part of them feels a real sense of responsibility when it comes to helping others. Its obviously rubbed off on you. Here you are, staying late yet again. This is a pleasure, he said. Not a sacrifice in the slightest. She liked that. Id like to meet your parents one day. If they ever make it to New York, I mean. Im sure theyd like to meet you, too. How about you? What are your parents like? Theyre just parents. Have they ever come to New York? Twice. Once in my twenties, and once when I was in my thirties. Then, as if realizing how that sounded, she added, Its a long flight and theyre not big fans of the city, so it was usually easier if I saw them in Seattle. Depending on where I was shooting, sometimes I would just route my return flight through Seattle and stay for a weekend. Until recently, that usually happened once or twice a year. Is your dad still working? She shook her head. He retired a few years back. Now he plays with model trains. Seriously? He had them when he was a kid, and after he retired, he got back into it. He built a big layout in the garageold western town, canyon, hills covered in treesand hes continually adding new buildings or shrubbery or signs, or laying a new track. Its actually pretty impressive. The newspaper did an article on it last year, complete with pictures. And it keeps him busy and out of the house. Otherwise, I think my parents would drive each other crazy. And your mom? She volunteers at the church a few mornings a week, but mainly she helps my sister, Morgan, with the kids. My mom picks them up from school, watches them during the summer, brings them to their events if Morgan is working late, whatever. What does Morgan do? Shes a music teacher, but shes also in charge of the drama club. There are always after-school rehearsals for concerts or shows. Ill bet your mom loves having the grandkids around. She does. And without her, Im not sure what Morgan would do. She got divorced and its been hard. Mark nodded before lowering his eyes. Both of them were quiet for a moment before Mark finally motioned toward the tree. Im glad you decided to put up a tree in here. Im sure the customers will appreciate it. The tree was for me, honestly. Can I ask you something? Sure. He turned to face her. Was that Christmas in Ocracoke your favorite? In the background, she could still hear the music Mark had selected drifting from the speaker. In Ocracoke, as you know, I was in the middle of a very hard time. And of course all the childhood wonder about the holiday was gone. ButChristmas that year felt so real to me. The flotilla, decorating the tree with Bryce, volunteering on Christmas Eve, and going to midnight mass, and then, of course, Christmas itself. I loved it then, but over time, the memory has become even more special. Its the one Christmas I wish I could experience again. Mark smiled. I like that you have that memory. Me too. And I still have that print of the lighthouse, by the way. Its hanging on the wall of the bedroom I use as a studio. Did the two of you ever end up making the biscuits? I suppose thats your way of asking what comes next in the story. Or am I wrong? Im dying to know what happened next. I suppose I could tell you a bit more. But only on one condition. Whats that? Im going to need some more eggnog. You got it, he said. Grabbing both glasses, he went to the back, returning with the eggnog. Remarkably, the thick, sweet concoction was proving to be both easy on her stomach and strangely filling, something she hadnt felt in weeks. She took another swallow. Did I tell you about the storm? You mean the one on Christmas? When it was raining? No, she said. A different storm. The one in January. Mark shook his head. You told me about the week after Christmas, when you powered through your schoolwork and Bryce began teaching you the basics of photography. Oh, yeah, she said. Thats right. She studied the ceiling as if scanning the exposed pipes for her lost memories. When she returned her gaze to Mark, she commented, My grades were actually pretty good by the end of that first semester, by the way. For me, anyway. A couple of As and the rest were Bs. It ended up being my best semester in high school. Even better than the spring semester? Yes, she said. Why? Because photography took over? No, she said. It wasnt that. I think She adjusted her scarf, buying time to figure out how best to pick up the thread where shed left off. For Bryce and me, I think everything began to change right around the time that the noreaster smashed into Ocracoke
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