Kat licked the last of the marshmallow from her fingers and debated making one more s’more. Already starting to buzz from the sugar high, she decided against it. Truth be told, she really should have stopped at two.
The bonfire had mellowed to a warm glow. Firelight flickered on the split log benches surrounding the fire pit, while the rest of the commons had faded into semidarkness. Teenagers clustered together, caught up in the end of summer and the imminent return to school. Younger children raced around in the dark, flashlights bobbing wildly. Adults stood around in groups of two or three or five. Looking out across the grass toward the lake, the pinpricks of light on the far side of the water felt awfully far away. It was easy to imagine herself at a camp in the remote north woods.
In reality, though, they were all too close to civilization. The twenty or so houses that comprised The Gardens circled the edge of the commons. This swath of lakefront property served as a haven for summer people up from Chicago. A handful of families lived here full time, but most were weekenders, and most of these families had been coming up to the lake for generations. The tight-knit community reflected those bonds.
Kat had never felt more like an outsider.
Her lawyer brain did not let her get away with a sweeping statement like that, even in the privacy of her own mind. Technically, she had felt like more of an outsider on multiple occasions, including the first time she had come to a barbecue at The Gardens, not even three months ago. Or her first day of kindergarten, when she had understood that she belonged to no group—not the milk-pale farm girls, or the already-friends town girls, or even the Spanish-speaking Mexican girls, daughters of immigrant farm workers, who puzzled over the girl who looked like them but couldn’t understand them.
Mentally scrolling through the years between kindergarten and today, Kat concluded that she had spent more of her life as an outsider than an insider. No wonder she was so comfortable in the role. She had trained for it her whole life.
So why had she accepted another invitation to a gathering here in The Gardens, knowing that she would always be on the outside looking in? She didn’t even socialize in her own neighborhood, not that the tidy row of townhomes where she lived could really be considered a neighborhood. She wrinkled her forehead, considering the possibility. Maybe, if you used the term loosely. They certainly didn’t have barbecues. They exchanged friendly waves as they passed each other going in and out. She knew the names of the people in the next townhome. Did that add up to a neighborhood?
One stark contrast between her tidy group of townhomes and this sprawling neighborhood was the trees. A spindly sapling accented the front “lawn” of each townhome, each the same size and species, although Kat couldn’t put a name to them. Perhaps one day they would be as majestic as the trees here on the commons, but Kat suspected they had been chosen for their modest size and good behavior. The trees here in The Gardens were neither modest nor well-behaved. Scattered randomly across the otherwise open expanse of grass, these trees anchored the neighborhood, bearing witness to generation after generation of tradition.
Kat drained the last of her beer and contemplated heading home. Better to think deep thoughts in the privacy of her own living room. But before she could come to a decision, a girl approached the picnic tables on the edges of the firelight. She was so intent on her goal that she didn’t seem to notice Kat sitting quietly in the shadows. Kat watched with interest as the girl filched something from the buffet and began to back away slowly, moving toward Kat and the bonfire. As she inched closer, Kat realized three things. First, she couldn’t be older than fifteen. Second, that was a bottle of vodka clutched behind her back. And third, she was about to trip on one of the split log benches surrounding the bonfire.
“Look out,” called Kat. The girl jumped, dropping the vodka as she whipped around to see who had caught her. Luckily it landed in the dirt and not on the log. Kat gave her a brisk nod. “Have a seat.”
The girl promptly sat down on the bench that had nearly tripped her. Kat didn’t recognize her, but then, she really knew only two families here.
“Why don’t you pick up the vodka before someone trips over it?”
The girl picked the bottle up gingerly, as if it were a Molotov cocktail about to blow, and set it beside her on the very end of the bench. Both the girl and the bottle were poised for a quick getaway.
Kat waited while a pack of smaller kids ran past, playing some kind of tag in the dark, then she continued. “So, was this your idea, or did your friends put you up to it?”
The girl looked startled before she put her bland talk-to-the-adults face back on. “It’s on me,” she answered.
The lie was convincing nobody.
“If it was your idea, you wouldn’t be so nervous.”
“I’m not…. Nobody. It was my idea.”
Kat studied the girl for a long minute, but it looked like she wasn’t going to give up her friends, and Kat didn’t really have jurisdiction here. She was just a guest. She also admired the girl’s willingness to stick up for her friends, even if they were being idiots.
“Leave the vodka. You’re free to go.”
The girl was gone before Kat could say another word, leaving behind the bottle of vodka teetering on the bench. Kat sighed. She hated playing bad cop.
Thank God it was the last night of the summer. Even without kids of her own, the summer wreaked havoc on her schedule. She was looking forward to fall, and to a return to “normal.” She made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. Normal wasn’t that great these days. She’d been working crazy hours these past few years building her practice. It was work she loved, but she didn’t have anything outside of work that could be called a life.
She had done much better in those first couple of years after law school. There had been an entire cohort of newly minted lawyers all working for the big firms in Milwaukee. Sure, they had worked crazy hours then, too, but they had done it together. She had great memories of late-night after-work drinks, concerts, and comedy clubs—even the occasional weekend away. Not anymore. Ever since she had ditched the big money and the big firm to come home, her world had grown smaller and smaller. Sure, she kept up with friends on Facebook, but on a day-to-day basis, she had no social life. No dates. Nothing but work.
Kat had been so absorbed in her own thoughts, staring into the fire, that she hadn’t heard Mel approach. It was weird how she could tell the triplets apart so easily now. Maybe it was because they were all older, or maybe it was just repeated exposure. She didn’t expect they would be close friends anytime soon, but over the summer, she and Mel had reached a tentative truce, leaving their high school animosity behind.
“Hey, yourself,” she answered.
Mel took a seat beside Kat on the bench and stuck a marshmallow into the fire. They sat in an oddly easy silence while the marshmallow toasted. Only when it was done—a little overdone, in Kat’s opinion—did Mel break the silence again.
“This is definitely my last one,” she said as she clamped the skewer between two graham crackers (and the chocolate, of course) and slid the pointy end out from the s’more. She leaned her skewer against the bench and took a giant bite.
“That’s what I said after my third, but I can feel the fourth one calling my name.”
Mel choked on a laugh, then swallowed. “I hear you.” She gestured toward the bottle of vodka still sitting on the opposite side of the fire. “Vodka keeping you company tonight?”
“Confiscated,” said Kat. “Pretty sure we don’t want a bunch of teenagers puking their guts out later.”
Mel snorted, her mouth full of the next bite of s’more.
“Are there fewer people than usual tonight?” Kat had been to only two other events here at The Gardens. The group tonight fell far short of the Memorial Day weekend or Fourth of July crowds.
“Illinois kids are already back to school. Not all the families make it back up for Labor Day weekend.”
That made sense. “It must be exhausting, living your life in two different places, running back and forth all the time.”
“I don’t mind. The city revs you up, and then the lake calms you down. It’s actually a nice balance.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes until Mel asked, “Do you ever think about taking off and exploring the world?”
An unexpected question—one that must be on Mel’s mind because it certainly had nothing to do with their conversation so far. It also felt strangely intimate, at least for their fledgling friendship. Maybe Mel had drunk enough wine to be feeling philosophical?
Kat considered her answer, and realized to her surprise that the idea didn’t interest her at all.
“I’ve never had itchy feet,” she said. “I guess my mother did, or she never would have left Colombia to come here to school.” One of the logs shifted, sending a flurry of tiny sparks into the air. Kat watched them float and fade away as she continued speaking. “I’ve been on a few vacations—Florida, up north, Canada, even—but I haven’t found anywhere else that feels like home.” The expression on Mel’s face made Kat curious to know what had prompted the question. “I was away for long enough. This is where I want to be right now. It’s where I need to be.” Her personal life would sort itself out eventually. “What about you?”
A brief silence before Mel answered. “Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with me. Chicago is amazing, and Hidden Springs is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. The fact that I get to split my time between the two makes me very lucky. I shouldn’t be daydreaming about someplace else.”
“Why not? Dreams make the world go ’round.”
Mel grimaced. “Dreams make me fight with my mother.”
“She doesn’t want you to travel?” That was a surprise. Mel’s mother, Dora, seemed like the kind of person who would be up for any kind of adventure.
“She’s been pretty clear about wanting me to settle down here and make some babies.”
“You do know that you’re an adult, right? You don’t have to do what your mother says.” Kat delivered the observation with an arched eyebrow and got a dirty look in return.
“You try saying no to my mother and see what happens.”
Mel shoved the last of the s’more in her mouth. Kat turned back to the fire to hide her smile. Everyone in town knew Dora, and to her knowledge, nobody had ever successfully told her “no.”
This was nice, Kat decided. She and Mel were having an actual conversation, one that wasn’t tense or heavy with unspoken baggage. It made her feel less like an outsider and more like a human with a social life. It also made her miss her friends from law school a little less.
It occurred to her that Mel might be lonely, too. With her two sisters neatly paired off and in the throes of “true love,” she seemed a bit lost.
Mel stood abruptly. “I need to head home before I eat another ten s’mores.”
Kat stood, too, realizing this could be her chance for a graceful exit. “Me, too.”
“What should we do with the vodka?”
Kat had completely forgotten about it, but Mel was right. If they left it unattended, the teens would reclaim it in about two seconds.
“Do you want to take it home?” asked Kat.
With a shrug, Mel said, “I could stick it in the liquor cabinet, but I doubt anyone will drink it. You?”
“Same. Why don’t you take it?”
Mel grabbed the bottle, and they started walking up the hill, Mel heading home and Kat toward RJ’s house, where she had parked her car. They had almost made it to the edge of the firelight when a voice rang out behind them.
“There you are!”
There was too much satisfaction in that declaration for Kat’s peace of mind. She turned to face Dora with a tiny sigh. So much for a quiet fade from the party. Beside her, Mel did the same, although she might have hesitated a second longer and turned more slowly.
“Here I am,” said Kat.
Mel crossed her arms, the vodka bottle dangling against one hip. “Mother.”
Dora was about the same age as Kat’s mother would have been, if she were still alive. Maybe a few years older. Kat remembered her own mother as quiet, at least around other people. Dora, in contrast, was never quiet. She was a force of nature. You always knew where you stood with her. No hidden agenda. No games. She was like a giant beating heart that never stopped talking.
“Come with me.” Dora claimed Kat with one hand and Mel with the other and led (some might call it dragged) the girls back downhill, veering off toward one of the clusters of adults. “Mary Evelyn and I were just talking about the library project. You remember Mary Evelyn, don’t you? The librarian?” Dora paused only long enough to take a breath and hear Mel’s and Kat’s murmured affirmations that they did indeed remember Mary Evelyn. “Of course you do. Everyone knows Mary Evelyn. Anyway, this mural project at the library is very exciting. They’ve won a grant to fund an artist from Chicago. He’s going to do a mural on the side of the library building, and there’s going to be a new garden put in. It will be beautiful.” They arrived at a small knot of people, and Dora announced, “I found them.”
The group included Mary Evelyn Bennett, the librarian, as well as several other retired ladies who were quite active in the community. Kat began to wonder if she should be nervous.
“Just the women we needed,” said Mary Evelyn. “Kat, we’re hoping that you know the right person to talk to up at the county. We’re wondering if there are any teenagers in need of community service hours who could help on the library project. We thought you would know the right person to call.”
Kat breathed a sigh of relief. Dora and her friends weren’t trying to rope her into some huge volunteer project. They just needed help making connections. This she could handle.
“I’m not sure exactly who’s running the juvenile programs right now, but I’d be happy to make a few calls. Connect you to the right person.”
“That would be wonderful!” said Mary Evelyn.
“See, I knew she would know what to do,” crowed Dora. “Thank you so much, honey. There’s no way we can do this without some volunteer labor, and kids these days are just so busy. I think the community service angle will be much better than an open call for helping hands.”
“Happy to help,” said Kat.
“And now you, sweetheart,” began Dora, but Mel quickly interrupted.
“Mom, you know I’m swamped—”
Dora interrupted her right back. “I know you’re between apartments right now—” She packed a lot of disapproval into that short phrase. Kat was exceedingly happy not to be on the receiving end. “And that you’re planning to spend the next few weekends up here.”
Mel had the look of a trapped rabbit, and she was making some kind of growling noise in the back of her throat.
“It will be so nice to have your helping hands on Saturday mornings.”
They had a brief staring contest. Mel lost, and Kat bit back a smile.
“I’m afraid I have to head out,” said Kat, “but I’ll make some calls first thing in the morning and let you know what I learn.”
She escaped as quickly as she could, their calls of “thank you” following her as she tromped back up the hill toward her car.
Rob was finishing up his breakfast at Lucy’s Diner the following morning when Dora breezed in. Everyone knew Lucy, in much the same way that everyone knew Dora. They were always in the thick of things, always up to something. Rob was sitting at the middle of the counter, so he could overhear very clearly as Dora ordered doughnuts to go and the two women started chatting.
His ears perked up when he heard them mention Kat. As far as he knew, there was only one Kat in town, and that was Katherine Rodriguez, attorney-at-law, whose offices happened to be right next door to this very diner. Kitty Rodriguez, back in town as if she’d never dropped off the face of the earth in the middle of their senior year of high school, leaving behind dead parents and a lot of unanswered questions. She had opened that office a few years ago, just after he had launched his business, and only the intense pressure and long hours of that startup year had kept him from stopping by to welcome her back to town. Well, that and possibly nerves.
The pressure had eventually eased off, but not the hours, leaving him little opportunity to casually drop by and reconnect. You’d think, living in a small town, that they would have crossed paths at some point, but the universe appeared to be working against him on this one. His least favorite people he saw all the time, but not once had he seen Kat around town. Not at the grocery store. Not at the post office. Not even at the gas station. He didn’t really go anywhere else.
Clearly, he needed to get out more.
Last week, as his company marked its three-year anniversary, he had realized that if he wanted to see Kitty sometime this century, he was going to need to get creative and make it happen. Today’s breakfast was a first attempt at reconnaissance. His workday started at seven, and he was unlikely to catch Kat in her office this early, but he was hoping that Lucy might drop a hint as to her habits. He didn’t dare ask, though, without drawing attention. He would need to play this just right.
“That girl works too hard.” This comment was from Dora.
“All the young people do these days. They’ve lost the ability to have fun. Did you have any luck?” asked Lucy.
“Yes!” crowed Dora. “She’s going to make a few phone calls, put us in touch with the right person up at county.”
“But is she going to help?”
“Small steps,” said Dora. “Small steps.”
Dora headed out with her doughnuts, and Rob pondered their conversation. Clearly, they were trying to rope Kat into one of their schemes, and so far she was managing to stay clear. If Dora and Lucy had joined forces, however, chances were that she would end up doing whatever they needed her to do. It was just the way things worked.
Lucy came over to freshen up his coffee and give him his check. When she came back with his change, she paused. He did not like the gleam in her eye.
“You’re Rob Murray, aren’t you? Peggy’s son?”
At his nod, she continued. “And you have a landscaping business, isn’t that right?”
“Yes…?” He shifted on the rotating stool, realizing that he was about to be roped into something as well.
“You know my mother, don’t you? Mary Evelyn Bennett, the librarian?”
He nodded slowly. It seemed safe enough to confirm this fact.
“Of course you do. I remember seeing you there when you were small. My girls are older than you, but I always chatted with the other mothers while my girls looked for books to check out.”
Rob set down some of the change to leave a tip, putting the rest in his wallet and standing to slide the wallet into his back pocket. As he has hoped, this prompted Lucy to get to the point.
“Mom just won a grant to put in a mural on the side of the library building, the side that faces the empty lot that’s all full of scrub brush, between the library and the church. You know where I’m talking about?”
He considered saying he had no idea, but he just couldn’t bring himself to lie to her. He nodded again despite the sense of impending doom.
“There’s some money available in the budget for new plantings, but she doesn’t even know where to begin, that lot is such a mess. Do you think you might be able to swing by and give her some advice? She really needs to talk to an expert.”
Rob breathed an internal sigh of relief. Advice he could do. He didn’t have time to take on a big project—particularly a free one—but he could offer a little advice, especially for Ms. Bennett.
“Why don’t I swing by there after work today and see what she’s dealing with?”
“That’s wonderful of you, sweetheart. I really appreciate it. I’ll give her a call and let her know you’re coming.”
Another customer called for Lucy’s attention, and Rob took the opportunity to escape. As he walked out to his truck, he wondered if Kat would be helping with this same project. He had no intention of getting sucked into something big, but if she were involved, maybe he could volunteer a few hours here and there after work. If they happened to cross paths, well, then that was just good luck. He slid into the truck with a smile, started the motor, and turned up the volume on the radio. Today was going to be a good day.