© 2018 Steve Markesich. 

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PROLOGUE     

 

The trouble started when he increased the treadmill’s speed past the warm-up stage. His right leg mysteriously stopped working. It couldn’t maintain the normal left-right, left-right rhythm one normally takes for granted, unexpectedly became dead weight, and couldn’t function independently. Unable to lift or control the limb,his foot, lower leg and ankle all had the strength of overcooked spaghetti. 

This was the first time in years Stone Summers had used his treadmill, and until that moment, he had felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. 

In what felt like a previous life, Stone exercised regularly, but the accident had robbed him of the desire to care about anything. This apathy faded with the passage of time however, and he eventually emerged from the emotional quicksand, ate more regularly, resumed a healthy diet, and took occasional walks. The notion of working out periodically resurfaced, and eventually became a goal. 

Every Sunday, Stone vowed this would be the week he’d hit the gym, but the subsequent days provided a reason to put it off, and he’d half-heartedly scold himself for procrastinating. A creature of habit, Stone knew from experience that committing to something was always his Achilles’ heel. Once the plunge was taken, however, it became part of his DNA and he was all in.

A few minutes earlier, Stone had seized upon the thought and marched down the cellar stairs. He was ten minutes into his workout, and with each passing minute he became more content, confident and invigorated. As he began to perspire, he felt as if he was finally purging the personal demons he had painstakingly nurtured since that fateful day, when his life had been turned inside-out. 

Now, Stone couldn’t keep pace with the machine. The weakness became worse with each step and, without warning, he lost his balance. Clumsily tumbling off the treadmill, he landed awkwardly on the side of his foot, and unceremoniously flopped onto a nearby sofa that fortuitously provided a soft landing. The rhythm of an escalating heartbeat pounded in his chest and thumped in his temples as he propped himself into a sitting position, alarmed and confused. 

“What the hell?” he muttered aloud. Pondering his predicament, the only audible sound in the room was his breathing, the treadmill, which was still running, and the tick, tick, tick of a wall clock. He calmed himself and, after a few moments, flexed the uncooperative leg without any impediment. He curled his toes and moved the foot in a circular motion, testing the ankle, then rose from the couch, stood upright, turned off the machine, and strode purposely back and forth across the room before running in place, lifting his knees high off the ground like a sprinter warming up for an event. Everything worked, and the leg that a few moments earlier felt like a lifeless piece of meat had complete sensation, strength and range of motion. 

“It only lasted a few minutes,” he rationalized, but Stone instinctively knew that whatever had just occurred, it wasn’t good. Climbing the stairs back to the main floor of his house without incident, Stone walked over to the refrigerator and grabbed a Sam Adams Lite, before settling onto the leather rocker-recliner, where he scratched his head, sighed, and wondered what he should do. 

“You’re going to pretend it never happened, aren’t you?” he heard Stella’s voice say. “Don’t ignore this, Stone. Please be smart about this.”

“Oh, Stella,” he wistfully answered to the empty room. “I wish you were here. I need you more than ever.”

 

 

 

 

PART 1

 

Death is not the greatest loss in life. 

The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.

Norman Cousins

 

 

Seeking to forget makes the exile all the longer. 

The secret of redemptions lies in remembrance.

Richard von Weizaecker

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Stone Summers bounded off the school bus looking typically disheveled. The laces of his once-pristine PF Flyers were undone, and his Beatles T-shirt was partially tucked into bell-bottom jeans. It was the last day of school and his desire to be home matched the urgency of a kid rushing down the stairs Christmas morning to see what Santa brought. The gym bag he clutched in his left hand swung back and forth in an exaggerated manner, occasionally thudding against his hip, as he half-walked, half-ran up Pine Lane. 

  

Stone’s face was aglow with the luminance of pure joy, but not because summer vacation had finally arrived. Equipped with above-average intelligence, an inquisitive nature, and a creative mind, Stone enjoyed school and received good grades. Furthermore, he was well-liked by teachers and most of the kids at Wilson Elementary. The reason for the young boy’s bliss was enclosed in a folder he seized in his other hand: a first place certificate for Wilson’s annual creative writing contest. 

Each year, the collective sixth grade classes were required to turn in a short story to assess their writing skills, as they prepared to enter junior high. Students placed their stories in one of two boxes on their teacher’s desk – one for those who wanted the story entered in the contest, and one for those who did not. All the school’s sixth grade teachers read each story and graded them in a variety of categories based on specific criteria. The top three entries of those who entered the contest were announced during the final assembly in the auditorium on the last day of school. 

Boys generally avoided the contest like the plague. Many of them, especially those involved in sports, felt writing was for girls, and that submitting their story would somehow lessen their pre-pubescent manhood. Stone didn’t suffer from this affliction, having won the previous year’s Athlete of the Year for the fifth grade class. It was widely assumed he would be the first boy in over a decade to be a repeat winner in the sixth grade, but a badly sprained ankle, courtesy of stepping on Frank Reese’s foot during a hotly contested game of one-on-one basketball, kept him out of the gym for more than a month, disqualifying him from consideration. 

Stone had the luxury of being an established jock, so entering a creative writing contest would not diminish his status. Not that it mattered. Stone had the gift of not letting other kids’ opinions influence what he liked to do, and he enjoyed the arts. Whether it was writing, acting in a play, pitching for his Little League baseball team or playing point guard for the local YMCA basketball team, Stone enjoyed being the center of attention. The Arts was simply a different path to scratch that itch.

The thrill of hearing his name called, getting out of his seat, walking down the aisle and up onto the stage to accept his award, listening to the adoring recognition from the audience, was a feeling beyond compare. It validated the time he spent writing and editing his work, not only for himself but for his biggest fan and harshest critic, his mom. But Stone had some uncertainty about the reaction he’d receive when he arrived home, because lately, he could never predict her moods. Nonetheless, he was confident she would be delighted, and the thought of her praise made him pick up the pace. 

Tara Warner was in a typical multi-tasking mode: cradling a phone between her head and neck as she talked with a girlfriend while feverishly mixing cake batter for her daughter’s upcoming birthday party. The cord extending from the wall outlet was stretched tautly, as she kept one eye on the oven that was baking her sixth and final sheet of chocolate chip cookies, while the other was monitoring Brooklyn, her precocious six-year-old, who was a whirlwind of constant motion. One moment Brooklyn was bounding from the living room sofa to the recliner to the hassock, and the next she was darting out of the house into the back yard only to return a nanosecond later, the slam of the screen door announcing her departure and arrival. As Brooklyn hurriedly exited the house to engage in an enthusiastic session on the swings, she bumped carelessly into her mother, coming dangerously close to upsetting the delicate balance that allowed Tara to control the phone and bowl of batter, not to mention staying upright.

“For the love of Pete, Brooklyn!” Tara yelled, trying with all her might to keep her frustration level below the boiling point, “Watch where you’re going!”

“Sorry, Mommy,” Brooklyn giggled as her voice trailed off in the distance. Reclaiming her composure, Tara looked at the clock and noticed that Stone would be arriving home any moment.

“Ellen, I need to go,” she said to her friend on the phone. “We’ll see you Saturday? Great. Talk to you soon.”

 Tara placed the batter on the kitchen counter, walked over to the foyer, hung up the phone, and wiped her brow with her forearm. It was shortly after one in the afternoon, and she was already spent. 

“Another day in paradise,” she thought grimly, knowing that she would soon rally and catch her second wind, followed by the third and fourth, later in the day. Feeling the genesis of a migraine lurking between her eyes, Tara dispensed two extra strength aspirin tablets out of the container she stashed in the cupboard above the kitchen sink, popped them into her mouth, and chewed before swallowing the mush with a glass of water. A subtle grimace appeared on her face at the bitterness of the medicine.  

Tara was a thirty-two-year-old Wellesley graduate who came from a privileged family. Raised in a gated community on a sprawling estate, she never wanted for anything except parental love and attention. Her father, chief executive officer of a multi-national bank and investment house who was rarely home, and her mother, who was self-absorbed and narcissistic to the core, were indifferent parents. Tara competed furiously with her two siblings for any available scrap of attention. As the middle child, she received the least.

Tara grew resentful of her parent’s indifference during her teens. Yearning to be noticed, she learned that the best way to get Mommy and Daddy’s attention was to anger them. She achieved her objective well, was consequently banished to the Westover School to complete her college preparatory education, and sent abroad during her school vacations. The only time Tara spent home was during Christmas, Thanksgiving, and a week or two during the summer, further cementing the insecurity and feeling of rejection that were her constant companions.

Matriculating to Wellesley, Tara thrived academically, majoring in English, and immersed herself in the arts. Unfortunately, she became pregnant her senior year following a torrid affair with an English professor who was her thesis advisor. She wanted to marry, but Johnathan Summers wasn’t interested, resigned immediately, and disappeared, leaving her devastated and afraid. Mommy and Daddy weren’t pleased.

 When she finally called home to break the news, her mother called her a selfish little tramp. Tara angrily responded by saying the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and the conversation went downhill from there. Her father called the following day. 

“Daddy, I’m in trouble,” she said.  

“Your mother informed me,” Charles Brophy III coldly explained. “How could you do this to us?”

“Please, I need your help.”

“Listen carefully,” he hissed. “I’ve made some calls and arranged a trip for you to Montreal. A physician named Dr. Gilbert is expecting you in five days. Make sure you arrive promptly at 9 a.m. on the 16th.”

“For what?”

“He’s going to terminate your pregnancy, and believe me when I tell you it wasn’t easy finding someone who was both competent and trustworthy.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Tara moaned.

“Not in Canada.”

“I’m not sure I can do that.”

“You don’t have any say in the matter!” her father admonished. “If you don’t have this taken care of, you are on your own. It’s your choice.”

“What does that mean?” Tara spat, trying to suppress her anger.

“It means we don’t want to see or hear from you again. You’ll be dead to us, and you can kiss your inheritance goodbye.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“You know better than that, young lady,” Charles Brophy declared. “I’m not going to let a bastard become part of this family!”

“You can both go to hell,” Tara wailed into the phone, tears streaming down her face. “I don’t need you or your fucking money!”

Tara moved to Connecticut after graduating, and survived a turbulent period and difficult pregnancy while adapting to the new reality of providing for herself and staying financially afloat. On more than one occasion, Tara’s situation felt so desperate, and her future felt so bleak, she considered throwing in the towel, beg her father’s forgiveness, and agree to place the baby for adoption. The memory of his arrogance and unfeeling attitude towards her renewed Tara’s determination during her bleakest moments, however. She refused to give in, and Stone Summers was born at Grace Hospital in early December. 

She met Marc Warner at a local Stop & Shop when, while balancing a wailing Stone in one arm, and attempting to close an egg carton she had just inspected with the other, an egg accidently fell from the carton. He was standing next to her in the dairy section when the egg plopped onto the laces of his black wing-tips, splattering them and the cuffs of his grey slacks with egg mucous. 

Tara, turning five shades of red, apologized profusely, but Marc minimized the incident with humor and grace. When she insisted on paying for his dry cleaning, he instead insisted on having her join him for dinner. Marc’s smile, easy demeanor, and handsome face disarmed Tara. He was persistent but not obnoxious, and she accepted his offer. A year and a half later, they were married in a private ceremony at Saint Rita’s Church and moved into a four bedroom colonial in Cheshire, where he practiced law. Their daughter, Brooklyn, was born shortly before their second anniversary. 

Tara’s old life faded into the prism of history, feeling like a bad dream that happened to a different person. She settled into the role of mother and housewife, sporadically editing and embellishing the novel she had haphazardly tried to finish during the crazed last few weeks of her senior year at Wellesley. She loved her new reality as wife and mother, because it gave her the roots she never had growing up. It was hard work, and while Stone was an easy child, Brooklyn was the antithesis. Her hyperkinetic energy, enthusiasm, and inability to listen or learn from her transgressions, infuriated and exhausted Tara. The truth was she didn’t know how to handle Brooklyn, and knew that her failure affected the entire family. When her frustration peaked, she would hear her father’s smug, condescending voice chide her about how different things would have been if she listened to him, and indict her as a terrible mother. Mental exhaustion became her constant companion. Migraines developed, and pills, primarily fiorinal with codeine, became her crutch.

After rinsing the batter from her hands and drying them on a dish towel, Tara rubbed her temples back and forth to keep the throbbing at bay, then sighed and refocused her attention on the batter.

“Mom,” Stone implored as he burst through the front door. “Hey Moooooooooom!” 

“In the kitchen, honey,” Tara replied.

Stone rushed into kitchen, haphazardly tossing his gym bag onto the floor. He marched up to her, his face beaming with pride, thrust the certificate in front of him with outstretched arms for inspection, and announced, “I won!”

“Won what, honey?”

“The writing contest!  My story. Remember?”

Tara thought for a moment, the message finally registering. The story Stone had slaved over all spring, the one where he resisted her repeated offers for help, took first prize in the school’s writing contest. She looked at her son with a smile, and mustering as much enthusiasm as possible, said, “That’s wonderful, Stone. I’m very proud of you.”

Stone lowered his hands, as his smile dimmed a few kilowatts.

“What’s the matter?” Tara asked.

“Well, I…uh, nothing,” Stone said, trying not to show his distress. He didn’t want to add to her sadness, since that appeared to be her prevailing emotion lately. Mom loved to write, and his love for it came from her. When his name was announced as the winner, he felt like he not only won for himself, but for her as well. The lukewarm response was a sobering splash of cold water.

“Are you okay?” he asked cautiously. “I mean, it kind of seems that you’ve been sad a lot lately. Is something wrong?”

“Oh, honey,” Tara said regretfully. “That’s so sweet of you to ask. I’m okay. I’m just tired and trying to ward off a headache. For some reason I’ve been getting a lot of them lately. I’m sorry you don’t think I’m happy for you. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I know you worked really hard on this, and I amvery proud of you. Why don’t you put the certificate on the table and I’ll get it framed next week.”

“Sure, Mom. Thanks. It’s not that big a deal,” Stone lied.

“Thank you, sweetheart.  Could you do me a big favor check on your sister once you put your stuff in the closet?”

“Okay.”

An awkward silence ensued as Storm dutifully followed Tara’s instructions, and headed out the back door to search for his sister.

“Stone,” Tara said as he was about to exit the kitchen. “I am proud of you. You’re a very talented boy.”

“Thanks Mom,” he replied with a half-smile.

As Stone left the kitchen the vestiges of his initial joy were in smoldering ruins. Tara’s reassurance that she was dealing with nothing worse than a bout of headaches provided temporary relief for his concern. But as he prowled the back yard in search of Brooklyn, the realization that he could not remember the last time he saw his mother laugh resurfaced, and didn’t go away for the rest of the day.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Frank Reese leaned against the Blue Goose Tavern’s brick façade, and took a long, deep drag from his cigarette. Letting the smoke linger a bit, Frank carefully produced several rings of smoke before releasing the rest of the noxious cloud into the outside air. Vacantly staring at the early evening sky, he was distracted by the voice of a young woman talking on her cell phone as she approached the bar’s entrance. She was a cute thing, and Frank liked her look. The strawberry blond wore tight blue jeans, high heels and a red leotard top with a plunging neckline that strained to contain its contents. Frank tried to catch her eyes with a charming smile, but the woman looked contemptuously at the cigarette and hurriedly brushed by him as he finished his smoke.

“Your loss,” Frank thought. He tossed the cigarette onto the sidewalk, crushed it under the toe of his Oxfords, re-entered the building, deposited himself onto the bar’s corner stool, saw that the bartender had refilled his mug, and surveyed the landscape. Business at the Goose wasn’t bad for a Tuesday. The Local 1199 guys were in full roar around the gaming area. Solo artists occupied some of the other stools, furiously texting between sips of whatever they were drinking, occasionally coming up for air to see if a target rich environment had yet developed. He looked from side to side to see if he could spy the woman who ignored him, and found her sitting on the lap of one of the 1199 boys, who was enjoying the view while she leaned forward to retrieve her drink, her arm curled around his shoulder. A middle aged couple sat in a booth opposite the bar, staring into each other’s eyes with unmistakable intent, while their lips moved silently. 

Finishing his Harpoon draft, Frank impatiently looked at his watch and frowned.  His best friend was late. Stone called the previous night and asked if they could meet at their old haunt. Bitching over beers on Tuesday nights was once an unbreakable ritual, but when Stone met Stella, the weekly soirees became once in a while events, before slowly dying of natural causes. 

Frank and Stone had known each other since they met in the first grade. Through their love of sports they had become inseparable. After graduating high school, they were roommates for three of their four years at Southern Connecticut State University, where they had lettered in baseball and basketball, majored in economics, and minored in partying. A keg was always on tap in their makeshift dorm refrigerator, and a bong was always within arm’s reach. The freshmen known as Stone and Frank had morphed into Frankenstoned. 

Upon graduation, they settled into the routine of becoming responsible young adults. Stone’s acclamation was more seamless than Frank’s. He got a job in the finance department at Thames Hospital and quickly moved up the corporate ladder. Frank bounced around from job to job before landing at a BMW dealership in North Haven, where his good looks, alluring chocolate-brown eyes, athletic body, breezy personality and roguish charm soon made him the dealership’s top salesman, especially among their female customers. Frank parlayed his success with the ladies at the dealership into his social life. Over time he developed an impressive stable of attractive women who were eager to get naked with him. 

Frank hadn’t seen his buddy in a while, and was pleasantly surprised at the invitation. It had been years since they last met at The Goose, and he looked forward to it. Giving his watch another irritated glance, Frank rose from his seat, and hurried to the men’s room with a bladder begging for attention. After washing and drying his hands, he studied his soon to be thirty-seven year old face in the mirror before returning to his stool, and noticed that the couple in the booth who were ogling each other had left.

“That didn’t take long,” he thought.  A pornographic snippet starring the couple began to flash in the silver screen of his mind’s eye, but vaporized when he saw the back of Stone’s lean figure sitting on the stool next to his. 

“Hey! You look familiar. Didn’t I see your picture on a milk carton?” Frank bellowed, approaching his friend. 

“Smart ass,” Stone said smiling, as he turned and reached over, gripping Frank’s hand in a firm handshake. Frank sat at his stool while Stone accepted his whiskey from the bartender. The two friends engaged in the kind of easy, safe, irrelevant small talk unique to men. Catching up on the newsworthy events that occurred since the last time they met, Frank did most of the talking, while Stone listened and nodded. 

“I’m still seeing Katie,” Frank mentioned anecdotally, trying to make it sound like an afterthought. 

“Exclusively?” Stone asked.

“Yeah,” Frank said reluctantly, then, after pausing several seconds sheepishly added, “I like her a lot. Think about her a lot, too.”

“Holeeeeee shit!” Stone said mockingly. “Don’t tell me that Frank Reese, hopeless womanizer and committed bachelor, is actually falling in love!”

“Yeah, yeah don’t break my balls,” Frank said. “This is new territory for me. I kind of like it but it also scares the shit out of me.”  

“I’m proud of you, son,” Stone replied, not wanting to let his pal wriggle off the hook just yet. “You’re finally letting go of your childish ways and growing up.”

“You’re one to talk about letting things go,” Frank shot back, annoyed. “Stella’s been gone now for how many years? When are you going to move on?”

Stone’s blue-grey eyes narrowed and he snapped his head away from Frank as if he’d been slapped. He stared across the bar, focusing on nothing, and ran a hand through his wavy brown hair. A minute of silence passed between the two friends before Frank broke the ice.

“Sorry, I know that’s a sensitive subject, so let’s move on. Why the hell should I care if you live your life free of nagging and ridicule? Besides, you can always buy it if you get desperate enough. That way you don’t have to worry about being disloyal or whatever the fuck it is that has turned you into a celibate.” 

Stone laughed and Frank joined him, slapping Stone on the back.

“I’m happy for you, Frank, really,” Stone admitted, “Just be yourself. If Kate feels the same and puts up with your bullshit, then you know you have something real. For the life of me though, I don’t see what a smart, sexy babe like her sees in a pig like you.”

“That’s because I’ve never let you see my soft, sensitive side,” Frank answered.  When Stone smiled and raised his glass in response, Frank knew that the storm had passed. They sat comfortably in silence for a moment or two. 

“So what’s the deal, bro?” Frank finally said. “You and I haven’t been here for what seems like forever, and as much as I’d like to think otherwise, I know we aren’t starting a new tradition.” 

Stone finished his drink, and slid the empty glass in the direction of the bartender, who dutifully replenished it.

“Something happened,” Stone finally muttered.

“You finally got laid?”

“I’m serious,” Stone said. “I’ve got a problem.”

“Does it have a name?” Frank asked.

“I don’t know what it is,” Stone said, as he sipped his drink and began telling the story about getting on the treadmill for the first time in years.

“Then, my leg stopped working and I fell off the damn thing!” Stone concluded, a few minutes later.

“What do you mean it stopped working?”

“It’s like I lost all control of it. It went limp, and felt dead. I couldn’t lift my toes, my foot or even bend my knee.”

“No shit? When did this happen?” Frank asked.

“Two weeks ago.” 

“So what did you wind up doing?”

“I sat for a while trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. After the shock wore off, I got up to move around, not knowing what to expect, and everything felt perfectly normal, like nothing had happened.”

“Is that a good thing?” 

“I thought so, and tried to forget about it,” Stone said. “But curiosity got the best of me, so several days ago I got back onto the treadmill, and the same thing occurred. Part of me still wants to pretend it didn’t happen, as if that will make it go away, but I’m really spooked about this.”

“Go see a doctor,” Frank said with conviction. “You’re a big shot at the hospital. You must know someone who can give you answers.”    

        

“I did. I went to the orthopedic group in New Haven.”

“How did that turn out?”

“He looked me over, had me bend, stretch, and go through the motions. You, know, the usual stuff. Then he told me I had tight hamstrings.”

“You’re fucking kidding me!” Frank croaked.  

“No,” Stone chuckled. “I wish I were. He went on to explain his rationale, but by that time I had tuned him out. He obviously didn’t know what was wrong, and I was embarrassed and pissed.”

“So what now?”

“Other than staying away from treadmills, I don’t have a clue.” 

“So why did you want to see me about this?” Frank asked. “Don’t get me wrong, I miss the old days, but you could have told me over the phone.”

“The phone was too impersonal,” Stone said, “I wanted to talk to somebody about it and you were the obvious choice.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Frank said. “I supposed you haven’t said anything to your Mom or Brook.”

“Since I don’t have any answers, I didn’t see the point in talking to Brook.”

“And your Mom?”

 “I‘m not ready to go there yet,” Stone sighed.

“How long are you going to stay mad at her?”  

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to go there, okay?” Stone said in a tone that didn’t invite further discussion. Frank said nothing and motioned the bartender to refill his mug, hoping the solemnity of the mood would evaporate. The blonde in the leotard top strolled by, heading back to the gaming area from the ladies room. Instinctively, Frank turned his head and locked his sights onto her like a cruise missile. His concentration shifted at the sound of Stone’s snigger, and he turned to look at his friend.

“In love or not, I see old habits die hard,” Stone observed.

“Looking ain’t cheating,” Frank rebutted. “You should try it sometime. Better yet, you should do more than look because you strike me as someone who is in desperate need of getting laid.”

 

 

CHAPTER 3

“Stone, Brooklyn, lunch is on the table,” Marc Warner called to his children. Ten-year-old Brooklyn came bounding down the stairs, launching herself three quarters of the way down. Landing firmly on both feet as they hit the floor with a loud thud, she scurried over to her chair at the kitchen table and plopped onto it. Stone quietly followed, dressed in the pinstriped pants of his baseball uniform, a white T-shirt with long blue sleeves, white socks with blue stirrups and a pair of untied Converse high tops. A freshman at Chatham High, Stone’s athletic prowess earned him a roster spot on the varsity baseball team. He was the starting pitcher for this afternoon’s game, and was typically silent, fighting to keep his anxiety at bay.

“Peanut butter and jelly again!” Brooklyn moaned. “Daddy, I’m tired of peanut butter and jelly. Can’t you make anything else?” The sound of Brooklyn’s whiny voice grated against Stone’s nerves. 

“Shut up, Brooklyn,” he scolded.

“Who died and made you boss?” she retorted.

“If you don’t shut up, I’ll show you who.”

“That’s enough” their dad interjected. “Can we please have a peaceful lunch? We need to be at the field by twelve-thirty.”

“I miss Mommy,” Brooklyn whined. “We wouldn’t be having peanut butter againif Mommy was here. When is she coming home, Daddy?”

“Soon, sweetheart, soon,” Marc calmly lied. 

Brooklyn looked at him skeptically for a moment, digested his words and found them satisfactory. The worried scowl left her face and she tore into the sandwich, humming as she ate. Marc glanced at Stone, who was nibbling at the edges of his sandwich, valiantly attempting to get some food into his churning stomach. He was preoccupied, thinking about the game. It was the first start of his varsity career, and as the only freshman on the team, he desperately wanted to do well and make a good first impression. At this point, however, he’d settle for not throwing up, and making it through the first inning without getting shelled.

Satisfied that peace was restored, Marc sipped his coffee, hoping this would be the day’s only crisis. His mind wandered in the temporary quiet, taking inventory of the current state of affairs, as he had done every day for the last four weeks, and arrived at the same refrain: Why hadn’t he seen it coming? 

Four weeks earlier, Marc had admitted Tara to the Carlin Center, an alcohol-drug rehab facility in Massachusetts. Tara had been an exemplary wife and doting mother until two years ago. The clues were subtle at first. She had difficulty sleeping, often waking up with red eyes and hands that trembled slightly, but cups of coffee seemed to remedy these morning funks. Punctual to a fault, she became tardy for school events, and took longer to get ready for social events she and Marc attended, making them arrive late. 

These episodes graduated from sporadic occurrences to commonplace, and Marc assumed their genesis was the stress of running the house and raising Brooklyn. Tara would frequently get calls from their daughter’sschool and summoned to meetings about her behavior or some rule she had broken. His law practice kept him busy with sixty plus hour work weeks, and he had offered little in the way of support at home other than words of encouragement and providing the income to live a comfortable life.

Stone tried to warn him, complaining that Tara had become undependable, and was constantly irritable, frequently snapping at himand Brooklyn for little or no reason. Marc, however, was either too busy or too entrenched in his routine to intercede. 

Then Marc received a frantic call from Stone, who had arrived home from school to find Brooklyn crying hysterically in his parent’s bedroom. Tara was on the bed, immobile and unresponsive, while Brooklyn was forcefully prodding her with both hands, pleading with her mother to say something. When Stone followed the wails into the bedroom, Brooklyn had turned to him with red, wet eyes and blubbered, “Mommy won’t wake up!”

Marc drove home like he was racing for the checkered flag at the Daytona 500, recklessly swerving between cars heading in both directions. Bringing the car to a screeching halt as he arrived home, he ran inside, called 911and hastily ushered the traumatized kids to his neighbor’s house. When Marc returned, he ransacked the bedroom and bathroom and discovered the prescription bottles in a cosmetic case Tara deftly stashed among her tampons and sanitary pads. Marc retrieved the containers, discovered they were empty, and groaned when he saw the labels that read Dexedrine and Valium. 

Tara was in respiratory distress when she arrived at the Grace Hospital emergency room and was immediately put on a ventilator. Pumping Tara’s stomach didn’t achieve the desired results, so dialysis was administered to flush the drugs from her system. Within the four hours it took to complete the procedure, her condition improved and was upgraded from serious to fair. Marc sat by her hospital bed for what felt like an eternity. His gaze shifted from her waxen face to the IV needles protruding from her ghostly skin. The ventilator had been removed before she left the emergency room, and Marc watched her chest rise and fall to the rhythm of her breathing. When Tara finally opened her eyes, Marc gratefully rose and kissed her gently on the forehead, grasping her hand in both of his, squeezing it tenderly. 

“You had an accident. Everything is going to be okay,” he whispered. Tara smiled weakly but didn’t say anything. Her eyes welled and a single tear dripped from each corner, leaving glistening streaks on her cheeks. They remained that way for several minutes before Tara removed her hand and rolled onto her side, her eyes never leaving Marc, who remained in her room overnight.

The next morning Tara was alert, her condition was good, and she told Marc the sordid story of her path into the rabbit hole, and her inability to extricate herself from the dependent cycle of uppers in the morning and downers at night.  

“I went to the Silversmith for lunch with the girls and had a few drinks,” she explained. “I didn’t think anything of it but when I got home the room began to spin, so I went upstairs to lie down. I don’t remember anything else until I woke up here and saw you.” 

“I was so scared that we lost you,” Marc said delicately. “Brooklyn was terrified, but I think she’s okay. Stone is the one I’m worried about. He’s been very quiet, and hasn’t shown any emotion. I think he’s in shock, but he doesn’t want to talk.”

“I’m so sorry and ashamed,” she cried, “I’ll never forgive myself for putting you and the kids through this. Can you ever forgive me? Can the kids?”  

Two days later she was transferred to Carlin. Marc took a leave of absence from the practice, making himself available during the evening for consultation with his staff. His reality changed from meeting with clients, preparing briefs and arguing in court, to preparing meals, chauffeuring the kids, and the routine drudgery of maintaining a house. In his moments of despair, he resented Tara for putting him in this position. He fretted about the ability of his staff to fill the void of his absence, and the financial burden of Tara’s care, which required him to dip into the nest egg he had so carefully nurtured.  

On the other hand, he appreciated the relentlessness of the demands that went with his new role, and understood how she faltered. The “nightcaps” he frequently imbibed to unwind from the stress of the day were a testament to that. Marc always considered himself emotionally stronger than Tara, given her family history, but the idea of getting blasted and escaping the quagmire his life had become was an enticing luxury he couldn’t afford. The sound of Stone’s voice extricated Marc from his thoughts.

“Dad, I need to be at the field in forty minutes, and I told Brooklyn she couldn’t go out until we got back, but she ignored me and ran outside anyway.”

“Okay, do me a favor and clear the table while I go corral her.” 

Marc ventured into the back yard to look for his daughter, calling her name as he navigated the grounds. He saw her backside in full gallop, running around the corner of the garage to the front of the house. Brooklyn was giggling and playing the chase game, and Marc understood he needed to nip this in the bud, or he’d have a hell of a time reeling her in and getting Stone to the game on time.

“Please Brooklyn, be a good girl and come to Daddy. We can’t have Stone miss his game.” As he turned a different corner of the garage he heard the sound of Brooklyn’s laughter and her backside rounding yet another corner.

“Dear Lord,” Marc grumbled to himself. “Just shoot me and get this over with.”

CHAPTER 4

 

Stone sat with closed eyes on the living room recliner, trying to focus on his breathing. When he opened them a moment later, his heart had stopped racing, his breath was steady, and his tornado of thoughts crystallized into a single refrain.

“I need to do something.”

Stone had awakened to a beautiful, late April morning with clear blue skies, bright sunshine, temperatures in the low 60s, and little or no wind. It was the kind of Saturday that trumpeted the arrival of spring to New England and the promise of summer.

The grass, lush and green, had returned from its long winter slumber, grown to ankle length, and needed to be mowed, so after a quick breakfast, Stone started his self-propelled mower and got to work. Twenty minutes into the job, to Stone’s bewildered surprise, that awful sensation reemerged, and his leg began to drag. To compensate, he lowered the speed to a pace he could maintain without losing his balance. But several minutes later his ankle turned as he swiveled the mower, and the full weight of his body bore down upon it. Stone yelped and leaned hard to the left, shifting his weight to his strong side before the ankle rolled over completely.

“Shit!” he yelled, letting go of the mower, disengaging the engine, and hopped frantically on his good leg. “Shit, shit, shit!” Bending over at the waist, Stone placed both palms flat on the ground, his suddenly useless leg dangling in the air. Once stabilized, he eased himself into a sitting position, and straightened both legs. A minute later he tried to bend the bad one, but it remained still, as if roots tethered it into the earth. Trying to lift it was pointless, so Stone unsuccessfully tried to wiggle his toes instead.

Feeling completely defeated, Stone laid flat on his back, staring vacantly into the endless sky. A few minutes passed before he sat up and tested the leg again. This time the knee bent slightly, but only when the ground supported it. Stone couldn’t bring it up to his chest unless he grabbed his knee with both hands and pulled the leg towards him. Gradually some of the strength came back, and he could easily wiggle his toes and, with great effort, lift the leg a few inches off the ground. 

 Like a newborn colt taking his first awkward steps, Stone rose to his feet, limped to the mower, grabbed the handle firmly with both hands for balance, and took inventory of the situation.  

 

“All systems go,” he thought, shaking the leg as if he were trying to recirculate blood in a limb that had fallen asleep. Stone restarted the mower and resumed his chore.  Under normal circumstances the task took forty-five minutes without any trimming. These weren’t ordinary circumstances, however, and the job took twice as long. Stone’s leg continued to misbehave and the ankle twisted three more times during the process, the last time so badly that Stone fell to the ground, fearing he’d torn something. When the job mercifully ended, he limped slowly back to garage, his leg dragging like Quasimodo in search of sanctuary.

Entering the house, Stone’s foot dangled at the ankle, as if it were unhinged. Any semblance of strength and control was gone. The limb felt detached and alien. After washing his hands, Stone half-walked half-hoppedto the recliner. Now, having calmed himself enough to think rationally, he tried to make sense of it all.

As Stone pondered, it occurred to him fifteen minutes later that the feeling had returned to his leg. Rising from the recliner, he walked around the room and noticed something was different. Stone couldn’t put his finger on it until he stumbled over the area rug in the center of the room. His foot was dragging, not badly as before, but there was no mistaking the right foot wasn’t lifting the same way as the left. Unlike previous episodes, something had permanently changed. Why this development occurred was another matter. Returning to the recliner, Stone digested this new reality.

“Who can help me?” he thought. “I have to figure this out quick or I’m going to be…….” he paused searching for the words. “I don’t know what I’m going to be but, it isn’t good.”

The Grandfather clock announced the ten o’clock hour, its chimes echoing in the emptiness of the room, reinforcing how alone Stone felt. 

“McCabe,” he heard Stella’s voice suggest. “Go see McCabe.”

Stone’s jaws unclenched, his body uncoiled, and the hands that were balled into tight fists opened and relaxed. He sat still for a while then leaned back on the recliner, stretching like a cat waking from a deep slumber, then leaned forward. Reaching into his pants pocket, Stone retrieved his cell phone, looked up the number, and made the call.

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Nancy Ryfka, a licensed clinical social worker, studied the seventeen-year-old boy sitting across from her with a trained look that subliminally portrayed empathy without judgment. No words had passed between the two since his mother hadleft the small, cozy office a few minutes earlier. Nancy let the silence permeate the room, knowing the boy found it as comfortable as a cold, wet shroud. Silence was her ally, so she patiently waited until he succumbed to the weight of its pressure and opened up.

Tara Warner had begun seeing Nancy two years earlier, starting shortly after her discharge from Carlin. They faithfully met once a week for the first three months, monthly for the next six, then periodically for what Tara called “tune-ups,” before she unexpectedly vanished. Nancy hadn’t heard from Tara for more than a year until she had called several weeks ago and resumed weekly sessions. Nancy circled some phrases from the notes that served as the foundation for today’s session, when Stone mumbled something, interrupting her thoughts.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “would you mind repeating that?”

“Why am I here?”  Stone was irritated and impatient.

“Why do you think you are here?”

“It’s Mom’s idea.”

“Why does she think this is important?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do,” Nancy said, smiling.

Stone slouched in the scooped-back chair as if he weretrying to disappear inside it, staring hatefully back at Nancy. She had a kind face and a soft voice, and although he didn’t feel threatened by her, he was very uncomfortable with the idea of spilling his guts to anyone, let alone his mother’s therapist.

“Don’t we have some kind of time limit or something?”

“We have sixty minutes and we’ve used ten of those. If you want to sit in silence for the remainder of our time, I’m okay with that. We’ll just relax here until then, in case you change your mind.”

Stone clenched his teeth. He wanted to appear like he didn’t care, but he felt naked sitting in front of Nancy, and the prospect of prolonging this agony was intolerable.

“Isn’t there a law or something about keeping minors against their will?” 

“Your mother is right outside, Stone, and she’s okay with this.”

“Then you should be talking with her,” he hissed. “She’s the one with the problem.”

“What makes you say that?”

Stone felt his face redden, and Nancy pressed the issue.

“Your mother is worried about you, Stone. It’s obvious you’re angry, but I think there is more to it than that. Enlighten me, please.”

“Worried?” Stone spat, letting the sensation erupt. “That’s rich! And yes I’m angry. I can’t begin to describe how pissed I am!”

“Why?”

“Gee, let’s see,” Stone replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “First, she practically croaks in front of me and my sister, scaring the shit out of us in the process. Then off to rehab she goes, and comes back a changed person, or so she says. You’d think that experience would scare her straight, but no. For an encore, she gets drunk and totals her car. I don’t know how she escaped that one with barely a scratch. Then she was gone again, some place out west for a longer period of time, leaving me and Dad to take care of Brooklyn.”

“I’m sure that was hard.”

“Fucking A, it was hard! Brook was wigging out and so was Dad. He was worrying about Mom and us, and was scared that his business was going under. He said he needed to spend more time in the office, so I had to quit the baseball team so I could be home with Brook after school.”  

“What makes you think his business was failing?”

“I’d listen to him on the phone when he didn’t think I was around. Paying for Mom’s care was creating problems. He used words like default. I didn’t really know what they meant so I looked them up and saw it was bad. He tried to pretend everything was fine, but I could tell he was really sad. He barely slept.” 

Stone swallowed hard, his eyes welling at the memory. 

“It’s her fault he’s dead. The doctor said he had a bad heart, but I know it’s because of the shit she put us through!” 

He paused, the tears streaming, and the words coming harder in choked fragments. “I didn’t know he was in trouble… If he told me I could have done more, or done something. That night when he was in his study… I heard him make some kind of gagging sound…. It didn’t sound right. Then there was a thump, like something heavy fell on the floor…. I ran into his office and he was…on the floor and his face was…. I called the 911…. I didn’t…. it was…”

“You couldn’t have done anything, Stone,” Nancy said. “Based on what I’ve heard, a cardiologist could have been in the room and wouldn’t have been able to save your dad. It was his time.”

“I was s-s-soscared,” Stone admitted after a brief pause. “And she wasn’t there. She’s never there.”

“How do you feel about her now?”

Stone shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, she’s been gone more than she’s been home, and when she was home, Dad said it was important not to upset her, so it was, I don’t know, fake? Even Brook had a hard time with it, and she never seems to care about anything.”

“What about recently? I mean since she’s been home?”

“It’s better, I guess. I mean, I haven’t had to miss any school, and I started playing sports again, so I guess she hasn’t screwed up. At least not yet.”

“It sounds like you expect her to.”

“Yeah, kind of. Wouldn’t you?”

“Do you think you can forgive her?” Nancy asked. 

“I don’t know, maybe…I guess.”

When they were done and Stone left Nancy’s office, Tara re-entered. She sat in the same chair Stone hadoccupied, and looked apprehensively at Nancy.

“He’s hurting, Tara, but you already knew that. He’s had to endure a lot. He’s traumatized by Marc’s death, and blames you for it. He feels abandoned, betrayed, vulnerable and alone. You’re his mother, and he still loves you, but he doesn’t trust you, which makes it hard.”

Tara sat stoically, and turned her gaze downward into her lap, fidgeting with her wedding ring as she digested Nancy’s words.

“This shouldn’t come as a shock. Face it. You let him down more than once, in a fundamental way. He’s had to replace you as the other adult in the family, and he’s having a hard time getting past that. You have a lot of work to do. The relationship can be repaired, although I’m not sure it will ever be what it once was.”

“Do you think he wants that?” Tara asked timidly.

“What child doesn’t?”

“Will he ever forgive me?”  

Nancy pondered the question before answering. “That depends on you. He wants to, but he’s afraid of being disappointed again. Forgiveness will take a lot of time, and hard work on your part. You’re going to have to earn it. I can assure you, however, that if you have another setback, the fallout could be irreparable. Just be there for him.Don’t force anything, be as consistent as possible, and don’t forsake Brooklyn in the process.”

“Brooklyn,” Tara sighed. “Brooklyn is a handful, Nancy. She wore both Marc and meout during the best of times. We misunderstood her and made a lot of mistakes.”

“Well, remember that Stone bore the brunt of that for a long time. Maybe collaborating with him on Brooklyn is a common ground you both can start from.”

A moment of silence passed between the two women. Nancy knew Stone and Tara needed time for this stew of emotions to simmer. Adding more to the mix wouldn’t serve either of them.

“I’d like to see you both in a couple of weeks,” Nancy finally said.  “Good luck.”

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

Stone was soaking in the mid-afternoon sun at Lucy Vincent Beach. Relaxing on his flat stomach, his head resting on his forearms, the warm sand under his blanket, and warmer sun on his back, helped him unwind. For most of the previous two years, his life had been dominated by a computer conversion at the hospital, one that replaced all clinical and financial systems. While the conversion was an overwhelming success, it was also a mentally draining experience. The endless meetings, relentless deadlines, and last minute glitches were now a fading memory, and Stone was treating himself to a long-planned Martha’s Vineyard vacation.

Having arrived at Chilmark several days earlier, he could finally uncoil from the unyielding grind. He turned over onto his back, folded his hands beneath his head and squinted into the bright summer sky. Closing his eyes, he listened to the sound of the surf and the cries of the gulls cruising overhead, and let his mind wander.

Life was good. He was more successful and better off financially than most thirty-two year olds, and the fractured relationship with his mother had long since mended. Tara didn’t smother him or overcompensate for her transgressions after that day in Nancy’s office. Instead, she let her actions do the talking. Forgiveness came quickly, but it took years for Stone to trust her again. Whatever lingering hurt that remained was a flicker compared to the raging bonfire it once was, and Stone was happy the hatchet was finally buried.

He and Brooklyn were fast friends, too. Through his teens, Stone resented his sister’s behavior, and the strain it placed on his parents, who always seemed to put her needs over his. Once he learned more about Autism Spectrum Disorder, understanding erupted like a super nova. Where he once thought of Brooklyn as selfish, irritating,  and self-absorbed, Stone learned that she instead was an intelligent, engaging, witty, and misunderstood soul, who was painfully aware of her shortcomings, and sad about her inability do anything about it, let alone make friends. From that point forward, Stone became her strongest ally, supporter and confidant, and enjoyed the big brother role he never bothered with earlier. Brooklyn survived high school, managed college, and was excelling in graduate school. Her goal of becoming a neuropsychologist was within her reach, and Stone didn’t doubt she would become very good in her chosen field. 

The only thing missing in his life was a relationship. Having focused on his career, and rehabilitating his familial relationships for as long as he could remember, it was never a priority. Perhaps now was the time to consider filling that void. 

His lips and throat were parched, and Stone thought about the beer in the ice-filled cooler, just beyond arm’s reach. As he turned to lift the cooler’s lid, a shower of sand sprayed his face and torso. Stone jerked upright into a sitting position, spitting sand from his mouth while he hurriedly brushed his face, chest and arms.

“Evan!” an anguished voice yelled in the distance. “How many times have I told you to watch where you are going?”

Stone looked to his left, and saw a five year old boy, approach, clad in Sponge Bob swimming trunks. The boy’s head was bowed, and Stone could only see his mop of wind-blown brown hair, as he sheepishly walked towards the blanket as if he were approaching the gallows. 

“I’m really sorry, mister,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to kick sand on you.”

Stone looked at the panicked sincerity of Evan’s magnetic brown eyes, and studied his handsome face. The boy knew he was in trouble. Stone smiled, thinking of his sister, who walked that walk more times than he cared to count. The boy smiled back, sensing that maybe this stranger wasn’t angry after all. That hope was quickly snuffed, as the voice of the woman who scolded him grew nearer.

“Evan Michael……stay right where you are!” 

Stone turned to his right, and saw an attractive woman in sunglasses and a red one-piece bathing suit, stride acrossthe sand towards them. Trim and curvy, her shoulder-length chestnuthair trailed behind her as she walked directly into the wind. Stone felt an immediate attraction and wanted the opportunity to chat, but from the look on her face, he could tell she wasn’t in the chatting mood. He looked back to the boy,who was dutifully planted where he stood, and gave him a wink before turning back to the woman he presumed was his mother, only few yards away.

“It’s okay,” Stone said to her. “He already apologized and I accepted, so everything’s good. I was about to get up anyway.” 

The woman stopped in front of his blanket, removed her sunglasses and gave the boy a death stare before looking down at Stone. 

“Well,” she said, “It’s nice of you to say that, but he needs to be more aware of what he’s doing. Not everyone is as forgiving at you.”

“Agreed,” Stone said, “but maybe you can grant a stay of execution until you get home?”

The woman smiled, put her sunglasses back on, and said, “Maybe.” Then turning to her son she added, “You aren’t completely off the hook, Evan. We’ll talk about this later.”

“Of course,” Stone said, “if you really want to make amends for your wild man, you can tell me your name.”

“Stella. Stella Angellini. If you were paying attention, you already know my son’s name.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Stella,” Stone replied. “I’m Stone. Stone Summers. And yes, Evan Michael, I believe.” The boy smiled, nodded and extended his hand, looking Stone directly in the eyes. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Summers.”

“What a polite lad!” Stone exclaimed, shaking Evan’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Evan. I guess you’re off the hook for now. If it’s okay with your mom, why don’t you continue your quest while we chat?” 

Evan looked at his mother for her approval.

“Stay close, Evan. I need to be able to see you, and don’t go in the water without me. I won’t be long.”

“I’ll tell you what, Evan,” Stone added. “Do what your mom says, and when we’re done I’ll go in the water with you. Deal?”

“Deal!” Thanks, Mr. Summers!” Evan said, and turned to his mother. “Can I get my pail and come right back, Mommy?”

“Go ahead, but I want you right there,” Stella said pointing towards the shore twenty feet in front of Stone’s blanket.  “I’ll be watching, so don’t wander off. Go to our blanket, and then right back here. Okay?”

“Okay Mommy,” Evan said, making a beeline back to his blanket, kicking up more sand, and spraying Stone again in the process.

“Jesus Christ!” Stella sputtered, then bellowed, “Evan Michael!” while Stone laughed.                                                                 

“Sorry,” Evan replied, his voice trailing in the distance.

“I’m glad to see you find this amusing,” Stella said, looking at Stone, whose guffaws were simmering into a staccato-type chuckle. 

“I’m sorry,” Stone said, “but Evan reminds me a lot of my sister when we were growing up. She used to constantly piss me and my parents off, doing stuff like that.”

“You should see him at home.”

“I know the drill,” Stone said, watching Evan flap his arms in excitement over some discovery. “Is he on the spectrum?”

“Yes,” Stella said after a studious pause.

“Well,” Stone said. “He’s well-mannered and polite. That’s a lost art these days. You’ve taught him well.”

“Thanks. I really should watch after him. I’m sorry if he disturbed you.”

“He’ll be all right,” Stone said with more urgency than he wanted. “We can see him from here. Sit and stay awhile.” He stood and offered Stella the blanket, as he moved to sit on his chair. “Could I interest you in a beer? They’re ice cold.”

Stella looked at Stone, pondering the offer as if she was taking a mental inventory of his character. “Don’t worry,” he said, “sex on the first date isn’t a prerequisite.” 

That broke the ice as Stella laughed heartily. It was a good, genuine belly laugh, the kind of laugh that makes other people laugh with you. 

“A beer sounds good,” she finally said, “and as far as your dating philosophy is concerned, what makes you think I’m not married?” 

“I don’t see a ring,” Stone said, holding up his left hand, wiggling the fingers. “If I were married to someone as beautiful as you, I’d make sure you had a rock on your hand that would scream she’s taken.” 

Stella smiled at the compliment. “Are you always this bold with strange women?”

“Actually no,” Stone answered sheepishly. “I’m usually quite shy and a little insecure around women, especially someone like you.”

“What do you mean someone like me?”

“Well,” Stone thought, choosing his words carefully, “believe it or not, beauty is intimidating as hell. Girls like you had plenty of guys chasing after them, so there was always a lot of competition. I had this fear of rejection when I was younger, and assumed the law of averages weren’t in my favor. So, I’d usually let the opportunity to pursue someone like you pass. I was nervous about that kind of stuff for a long time. Not as much now but…” Stone’s voice trailed off as he reached into the cooler, twisted off the bottle cap and handed the bottle to Stella. 

“Thanks. So, tell me,how did you conquer your fears and became so worldly?” she asked playfully. 

Stone shrugged his shoulders and looked out towardthe horizon.

“I’m not sure, but for some reason I think I’d regret not trying to get to know you a little, so what the hell. Chalk it up to fate,” he said. “If I was walking along the beach and saw you, I’m sure my head would turn, but I’m just as sure I’d keep walking, and that would be it. I guess I can thank Evan for intervening and help me avoid the awkward introduction thing.” 

Stella quietly sipped her beer and watched Evan dig for sand crabs near the surf. He had followed her instructions, for now, but Stella knew he would dart into the water without thinking if something captured his interest. He was a good swimmer for his age, but she didn’t want to lose sight of him. 

“I bet you’d be embarrassed as hell if I told you my husband will be joining us shortly,” she finally said.

”Please tell me you’re joking,” Stone said in a sudden panic.

“Yeah,” Stella said with a mischievous grin. “You’re safe. I’m a single mom.”

“Well,” Stone stammered clumsily, “I’m sorry about that.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Stella retorted. “I met a guy in college and we fell deeply in love,” she explained, emphasizing the last three words in a mockingly dramatic way. “We were going to spend the rest of our lives together. After graduation I got pregnant, which wasn’t part of the plan, and all of a sudden, the love of my life wanted no part of being a father. I wasn’t ready to be a Mom either, at least not that soon, but those were the cards I was dealt. When he realized I was going through with the pregnancy, the coward waited until I was out of our apartment, packed his things, and bolted. He left a short note on the kitchen table that said he was sorry and loved me and a bunch of other bullshit.”  

“He made a big mistake,” Stone said. “Evan seems like a really nice kid and you…well, all I can say is he’s an idiot.”

“It hasn’t been easy raising Evan. There were nights I’d cry myself to sleep. But things have worked out.”  

“I never knew my biological father either, and quite honestly I never thought about him or wondered what he was like,” Stone said.  “I’m sure when Evan gets older he will appreciate what you did for him.”

“So you and your Mom are tight?” 

Stone paused. “That’s a long story. We’ve had our moments. There was some stuff we had to deal with after my stepfather died. Our relationship wasn’t the best for a while, but we managed to get past it. We’re okay now.” 

Stella sipped her beer without comment, continuing to watch Evan, who had inched closer to the waves.

“So, what brings you to the Vineyard?” Stone asked.

“A writing workshop.”

“You’re a writer?”  

Stella chuckled. “I’d like to think so, but I don’t make a living off it. I’ve sold a handful of short stories and have been working on a novel for years. Someday I’ll finish it, sell it to publisher, rake in the big bucks and enjoy a pampered life. What about you?”

“I work at a hospital in Connecticut.”

“What do you do there?”

“I’m the CFO,” Stone said. “We just went through a pretty big computer conversion, so I came here to unwind.”

You’re a big shot,” Stella said. “That’s interesting. I thought you had to be older for that kind of job.”

“I got lucky,” Stone replied.

“Plus,” Stella added, “you don’t look like a stuffed shirt. You look like an Oak Bluffs kind of guy.”

“I spent a lot of time there during summer vacations, when I was a kid,” Stone laughed. “There’s definitely more action there, and I enjoyed the honky-tonk vibe, but we always stayed on this end of the island, which I hated. When I was looking for somewhere to unwind, the tranquility of this place appealed to me, so here I am.” 

Stella nodded knowingly, but said nothing. Evan had moved closer to the sand by now and was looking at the shells and rocks that the previous high tide haddeposited.

“A writing workshop,” Stone continued.  “Maybe you can email me the link for it. I used to write a lot in school, really enjoyed it, too. I wouldn’t mind scratching that itch again someday.”

“Why did you stop?” Stella asked, turning to look at Stone, who thought a few seconds before answering the question. 

“Life, I guess,” he finally said, then quickly changed the subject. “I should head out to the water. I did promise Evan I’d join him, and I’m a man of my word.”

“I’m sure he’d like that.”

“I also wouldn’t mind hanging out with both of you before you leave, if you don’t mind, that is.”

“I’m sure I’d like that,” Stella said, with a brilliantly white smile.

“I’ll escort him back to your blanket when we’re done,” Stone said. “Where are you guys sitting?” 

“No need to bring him anywhere. I’ll join you.” Stella downed the rest of her beer, placed the dead soldier on the blanket, got up quickly, andsaid, “Last one in the water buys dinner,” before running off to the surf, leaving Stone in her wake.

“Hey that’s cheating!” Stone said. When Stella didn’t respond he yelled, “I don’t get mad, I get even.”  

By then Stella was already ankle deep in water, holding Evan by the wrists and twirling him around in a circle above the water while he squealed with delight, his feet occasionally skimming the ocean surface.  Stella looked up at Stone and shouted, “What’s taking you so long?” 

Stone smiled, put both of their bottles into the cooler, rose from his chair and trotted towards the water to join them. On the drive up to the Woods Hole ferry terminal, he had been relishing having two weeks of solitude. Now it appeared that solitude wasn’t going to be the norm, and Stone, a broad grin plastered across his face as he raced into the water, couldn’t have been happier.