Chapter One, Summer 2002
The bright rays of afternoon sun refracted through Sarah’s windshield, making it hard to see. Squinting, she could just make out the Bourne Bridge in the distance.
The sight of it had always stirred something in her. As a kid, it meant the official start to a week or two of pure, unadulterated fun. It meant collecting sand crabs on the beach with her brother Jason, meandering through the aisles of used book stores with Aunt Claire. It meant picking up a dozen donuts on Saturday mornings with Mom. It meant mini-golf with Dad at Shipwreck Shore, the dorky happy dance he’d do whenever one of them got a hole-in-one.
As she sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic now, surrounded by pickup trucks towing Jet Skis and minivans packed to the brim with luggage all inching closer to the bridge, she felt that familiar stirring—the innocent excitement of a girl about to embark on a family vacation, about to spend a week in the sunshine surrounded by people who love her.
Only, it wouldn’t be like that this time. It would never be like that again.
She felt this revelation somewhere in her chest—a deep, existential ache. Cape Cod had always been untouchable, the one place she could count on to be exactly the same no matter how much her life changed, no matter how much she grew up.
But there were some things even the magic of the Cape couldn’t fix.
As she crossed over the bridge, the first whiffs of tangy ocean breeze wafting in through her slightly rolled down windows, she repeated the words in her head like a mantra against the creeping nostalgia.
It won’t be like that this time. It will never be like that again.
After a long hour stuck in traffic on Route 6, Sarah finally pulled up to Aunt Claire’s house in South Orleans, greeted by the familiar sound of her tires on the crushed seashell driveway and the sight of the little gray cedar shingled cottage surrounded by flowers.
Claire was sitting on the front steps drawing in a sketch pad on her lap, which she promptly tossed to the side, leaping up to meet Sarah at the car.
The minute Sarah opened the car door and stepped out, Claire pulled her into a hug, enveloping her in the scent of her rose perfume, a smell Sarah had come to associate with this place almost as much as the briny sea air.
“My favorite niece,” Claire said, still squeezing Sarah so tight she could hardly breathe. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
There was something about being here, about Claire’s soothing voice and the tight hug and the sound of the waves in the near distance that made Sarah feel like she might cry. Her lip wobbled the slightest bit, and she caught it between her teeth, willing it to stop. She’d somehow managed to make it through the past year with hardly any tears, and she wasn’t about to start now.
“I’m glad I’m here, too,” she said, infusing her voice with cheer.
She pulled away, looking at her aunt—her willowy frame draped in a flowy floral dress and crocheted vest, her long silver hair, her ocean blue eyes, lined yet somehow so youthful. It was hard to believe this easygoing, bohemian woman could have possibly been raised in the same house as Anne, Sarah’s conservative, uptight mother. Granted, Claire was thirteen years older than Anne, separated by over a decade of their parents’ infertility. But still—how had they turned out so different?
“You and me for a whole three months,” Claire mused, retrieving one of the two suitcases from the trunk. “How did I get so lucky?”
Sarah grabbed the other suitcase and they hefted them up the stone path toward the front door. “It’ll be great,” she agreed.
She knew it probably couldn’t be great, no matter how much she wanted it to be. This past year had turned her life completely upside down, and being in her favorite place in the world with one of her favorite people in the world wouldn’t be enough to turn everything right side up again. But maybe she could pretend, at least for a little while.
She followed Claire through the front door, past the cozy living room with its stone fireplace and yellowed antique map of Cape Cod, past Claire’s first floor bedroom. They climbed the narrow oak staircase to the second floor, where there was a bedroom on either side, a shared bathroom in the middle.
“I made up the bigger room for you,” Claire said, gesturing at the room to the left, the one with the queen-sized four-poster bed and the big window that overlooked Pleasant Bay.
This had been her parents’ room when she’d stayed here as a kid. She and Jason always had the smaller room across the hall, the one with two twin beds and low, sloping ceilings.
She knew it made sense to stay in this room, the bigger room with the bigger bed, but the significance of taking over the room that had always been designated for her parents was not lost on her.
“If you’re comfortable with it, that is.” Claire was studying Sarah’s face, her brow furrowed. “I just figured since you’ll be here all summer, and since your parents won’t be able to make it here this year…”
Sarah felt the acknowledgment of the elephant in the room as a twist in her stomach. Subtle, but impossible to ignore. She plastered on another smile. “Thanks, Aunt Claire. It’ll be nice to have the extra space.”
Claire nodded, but she was shooting her a worried look that made it clear she wasn’t buying the fake cheer act. Claire always was exceptionally good at seeing through stuff like that—Sarah made a mental note that she’d have to try harder if she was going to survive this summer without having a complete breakdown.
“I was just going to go down to the beach for a bit before dinner—it’s too beautiful a day not to. Do you want to join me? Or would you rather have some time to unpack and get settled?”
Sarah scanned the room. She could almost see her dad in the threadbare armchair, reading glasses on and a well-loved copy of a Vonnegut novel in his lap, or sprawled out on the bed, sunburned and watching the evening news on the little TV that sat on top of the dresser. She could almost see him standing at the window, turning to her and saying, “Race you to the beach, Buttercup.”
Even if they did find a way to get him back to the Cape one last time, he’d never step foot in this room again. He couldn’t even climb the stairs anymore. Maybe she’d eventually be able to be in this room without thinking about that, but right now, it felt impossible. Right now, she didn’t want to spend any more time in this room than she needed to.
“I’ll come with you,” Sarah said.
Claire owned the little private beach directly across the street from the cottage, right on Pleasant Bay, a peaceful little inlet sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean just beyond. Her late husband Edward had inherited both the house and the beach from his grandparents decades ago, and Claire had been living here year-round for as long as Sarah could remember.
There was a charmingly dilapidated boathouse toward the rear of the property. They climbed up onto its deck and Claire pulled open the doors, which scraped loudly against the weather-warped floorboards.
“I suppose I should hire someone to fix this up soon,” Claire said, retrieving a couple beach chairs from inside.
“Yeah,” Sarah said, the only response she could seem to muster.
It had been tradition every summer they’d come here, ever since Uncle Edward died suddenly of a heart attack eight years ago: Tom, Sarah’s dad, would bring tools, and he and Jason and Sarah would spend a day doing whatever repairs the boathouse needed. They’d replace rotted-out floorboards, reattach the stairs that inevitably washed away in a storm each winter. Sarah’s favorite job was scraping chipped paint from the trim, prepping for a new coat. She liked watching the little flecks of white blow away on the breeze.
Claire settled into her beach chair and motioned for Sarah to do the same. “So, how are you doing—really?”
Sarah’s head snapped in the direction of her aunt, who was looking at her with disarming earnestness. Coming here, she knew she’d have to face this conversation eventually, but she’d hoped it would at least be preceded by small talk.
Then again, Aunt Claire never was one to beat around the bush. Sarah had always liked that about her. Until now.
“I’m doing fine,” Sarah mumbled, hoping it would suffice but knowing it wouldn’t.
“Look—I can appreciate that you feel like you need to put on a brave face for your parents. But you don’t have to do that here. Not with me.” She patted her on the knee. “There’s no way you’re doing fine. You broke up with your high school sweetheart, your dad is dying, and your little brother is fighting in Afghanistan.”
Sarah felt it again—that twist in her gut. “You don’t need to remind me what a mess my life is right now. Trust me—it’s impossible to forget.”
Claire was giving her that concerned side-eyed look again, and Sarah avoided her gaze, instead watching an old man digging for clams on a neighboring beach, his pants rolled up to his knees.
“You’re going through a lot, Sarah. It’s okay to not be okay right now.”
She dared to look up at Claire, and the expression of maternal concern on her face made her wish she hadn’t.
Once, when Sarah was in third grade, she’d scraped her knee badly on the blacktop at recess. She’d covered it up with a paper towel and went on with her day, hoping no one would notice. But her teacher had seen the blood seeping through and sent her to the nurse. The moment the school nurse peeled back the blood-soaked paper towel, she made this sound, this sharp intake of breath, and then cooed, “Why didn’t you come sooner, sweetheart? This must hurt.”
All these years later, Sarah remembered being filled with shame. Not shame for avoiding the nurse’s office, but shame for not being better at keeping her pain under wraps.
That’s what this felt like now. Like Claire was peeling back the metaphorical blood-soaked paper towel, seeing something Sarah didn’t want anyone to see.
“It would have been easier if it didn’t happen all at once,” Sarah said. “It all just happened so fast, you know?”
She had to admit that there was some relief in finally saying this out loud. She hadn’t really talked about it with anyone. Her college friendships, which had apparently been more superficial than she’d realized, had all basically dissolved as soon as shit hit the fan and she started pulling away, so she really didn’t have a single person to confide in about any of this. She certainly couldn’t talk about it with her mom, who always seemed to be on the verge of unraveling these days.
“It was just, like, one thing after another,” she continued, unable to stop the deluge now that she’d started it. “Brett broke up with me through instant message—instant message—after almost four years together. Like a week later, September 11 happened, and Jason decided to enlist. And then, right before Jason was about to ship out for basic training, Dad sat us both down and told us about his ALS diagnosis.”
It had been nearly nine months, but it all still felt so fresh. That feeling of having every pillar of stability in her life topple over, one after the next, until the only constant left was school. She’d tethered herself to her academic life the way the little dinghies and sailboats here in Pleasant Bay did to their moorings—because if she didn’t, she’d be set adrift on an endless ocean of self-pity and despair. Getting good grades was the only thing stopping that from happening.
And she’d done it well. She’d sequestered herself in the campus library for hours on end, burying herself in work, and had managed to make Dean’s list both semesters of her junior year.
It had gotten a lot harder once she started having to make the two hour drive from campus in Providence back home to Connecticut every weekend, but it had been necessary. Her dad owned a restaurant, The Sunday Times, and given the rapid progression of his symptoms, he’d needed all the help he could get keeping the place afloat.
Her life had become class—study—work—repeat. No time for friends or parties or dating or even, if she was being honest, for fully feeling her feelings.
“It was all so much,” Claire agreed. “More than anyone should ever have to deal with, especially all at once, and especially at only twenty-one.” She was giving her that look again, that school nurse peeling back the paper towel look, making her feel unbearably exposed. “And the sale of the restaurant. I’m sure that couldn’t have been easy.”
Sarah nodded. Unlike the other heartbreaks, that one was still a raw, open wound that hadn’t yet scabbed over. Her parents had just sold the restaurant last month. It was why she was here for the summer: The Sunday Times was the only job she’d ever had, the place she’d worked since the minute she was old enough to have a job. Now that it was gone, she’d needed to find a new summer waitressing job. And because Cape Cod was rife with seasonal waitressing jobs that paid well, spending the summer here made the most sense.
With the sale of the restaurant, her parents had lost their main source of income. Sarah’s mom had already dropped down to part time at her job as an ER nurse to take care of her dad, and soon, she’d have to take a leave of absence to care for him full time. Between that and the medical bills that were already mounting, there was no way Sarah was going to ask for any help from her parents for her senior year tuition. If anything, she needed to start making enough money to help them make ends meet.
So she’d be spending the summer here, trying to pick up as many hours as possible waitressing at The Bayview Inn, a swanky golf resort nearby. It was a job Claire had helped her find, something she’d found out about from a friend of a friend.
“You’ve come to the right place,” Claire said, patting Sarah on the knee again. She gestured at the clear blue sky, the sand, the waves rolling up gently on shore. “The sea is a healing place. Good for the soul. You’ll see.”