Robin Grover picked up the basket with the red-and-white checkered cloth, her tears filling her eyes and almost flowing down her face. She would not cry yet. As soon as she saw Kristen, she wouldn’t be able to hold back the tide. But she still had a fifteen-minute drive and a five-minute hike before she could release the emotions.
“Ready,” she said to herself, looking around the office where she ran events. The house sat empty during weekdays, with Duke off on his fishing boat until at least one or two in the afternoon. During peak fishing season, he didn’t come home until the fish dried up, sometimes for days at a time. He’d been gone for a few days, and Robin expected to hear from him by evening.
The boxes on her planning table could wait. For once, the anniversaries, birthdays, and family reunions of the rich and famous could simply wait.
Joel Shields had died, and surely even heaven had paused for a moment to welcome him home with open arms.
His wife, Kristen, was still here, and Robin had quickly collected all of the woman’s favorite things, tied them up in ribbons and cloths, as if that could erase the stunning pain of losing someone you loved.
Her emotions hitched again, and Robin laced them behind a brave smile and clenched her fingers around the handle of the basket. She moved, knowing that for her, doing something helped her tame the urge to scream and beg to know why. Yes, staying busy had often kept her mind off the more unpleasant things in life.
She made it behind the wheel of her SUV, and she managed to drive across Diamond Island on autopilot. She wasn’t sure if the lights she went through were green or not, but she didn’t get hit, so they must have been.
Kristen and Joel Shields had lived in and ran the lighthouse on Diamond Island, the largest of the five islands that made up Five Island Cove, for almost four decades. Located off the coast of Connecticut, north of Martha’s Vineyard yet west of Nantucket, Five Island Cove was the epitome of a quaint New England life. South of Cape Cod, the islands were nestled right in the center of the triangle made from some of the most popular vacation destinations for the rich and famous. Once the celebrities and ultra-rich had discovered the islands, vacation homes, weekend getaways, and tourism had soared.
Robin had lived on Diamond Island for her entire life, and while she often thought she would’ve liked to have seen more of the world, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere but on a mound of earth surrounded by water. She loved the sound of the waves as they washed ashore. She adored the way the sun glinted off the water. And once she’d married Duke Grover, she’d had all the lobster and soft-shell crab she could want.
Gratitude for the life she’d been given streamed through her, and Robin allowed a tiny trickle of tears to slip down her face. She sniffed and swiped them away as she pulled into the small parking lot at the lighthouse, somehow there already.
The water in front of her undulated as it usually did, and Robin watched it for a moment. The sun shone today, and it likely would for many more days to come, as they’d just come into spring and were well into April. The flowers had started to peek up from their winter naps, and Robin couldn’t wait for the rose bushes along the edge of this parking lot to bloom.
Joel had planted all of them, each a different color, until a few years ago. He’d planted a pink lemonade variety for her, and Robin tensed from head to toe. She exhaled and rolled her neck, trying to get some of the tightness to go. She felt suffocated with grief, as if someone was leaning against her windpipe and she couldn’t get enough air.
She found she couldn’t quite get out of the vehicle, and she peered up at the lighthouse through her window. She’d thrown an absolute bash the day Joel and Kristen had retired from their post here. Their son, Rueben, had taken over the job of making sure the glass was polished, the light beamed out into the darkness, and that ships and smaller craft navigated these waters safely.
Diamond Island was aptly named for its shape. It also sat at the head of the other island, with the cove they created on the opposite side from this lighthouse. This side contained more cliffs, more rocks, and more wind. Oh, the wind could steal a breath from a person before they could identify the thief.
The flag on top of the lighthouse didn’t seem to be flapping too hard, but Robin could see Alice climbing the ladder one cold day in November to replace it. The job had to be done from time to time, and all of the Seafaring Girls had had to do it at some point.
A shaky smile touched Robin’s mouth. Her friends in the Seafaring Girls had been Robin’s lifeline. They’d been as close as sisters, sharing clothes, shoes, and stories for so many years. She’d slept at Alice’s for a couple of weeks one summer when the fighting with her mother had become unbearable for both of them, and Alice had come to Robin’s the moment the funeral had ended.
Alice had replaced the flag with great triumph, and the other girls had clapped and whooped for her. She’d been the bravest of them back then, and Robin wished she hadn’t let so much time go by since talking to her.
Rueben lived in the lower two levels of the lighthouse now, but Robin could still see herself knocking on that deep, navy blue door around the back of the lighthouse. Kristen would always answer, and words didn’t even need to be said before Robin stepped inside. Sometimes she went alone, but usually, she came to the lighthouse with her sisterhood.
Memories of the four girls she’d been best friends with growing up streamed freely now, and she wondered if anyone had alerted them of Joel’s death.
“Probably not,” she said to herself, still looking at the clapboard white lighthouse. It looked like Rueben had painted it recently, though Robin knew he had not. She would’ve noticed such a chore, as it took scaffolding and time to get the entire lighthouse as gleaming as possible, and the job was done once a year.
She’d seen no scaffolding in her last few visits to Kristen and Joel, and come to think of it, she hadn’t seen Rueben or his wife either.
The roof of the lighthouse was the same navy blue as the door around the back, and the whole structure stood tall and proud, right on the edge of the island. Robin remembered the first time she’d come here, and she’d felt like she could see clear across the ocean to another continent.
She couldn’t, of course. But she’d felt both powerful and small in that moment, and then she’d met Alice Williams, also at the lighthouse for the first time. Then another girl came. And another. Kristen had led a sea adventure group for girls for years, and Robin couldn’t even imagine how many lives she’d touched through the Seafaring Girls.
In that very moment, she once again felt both powerful and small. What had she done with her life? Had her time on earth meant anything, to anyone?
Her chest tightened, and she hated the feeling of teetering on the edge of a steep cliff, about to fall off. She’d felt like this when it had been her turn to replace the flag on the top of the lighthouse, like one misstep and she’d go tumbling down. The stakes back then had been steep, sure. But now, they felt astronomical, like if she didn’t choose correctly, everything would shatter.
She drew a deep breath, reached for the basket, and got out of the car. Step one, and she’d done it.
When Rueben had taken over the lighthouse, Kristen and Joel had moved into the cottage up the hill a bit, and Robin glanced at the minivan parked as close to the path as a vehicle could get. She remembered the day she’d gone with Kristen to buy it. The day Joel hadn’t been able to get into a vehicle that stood higher off the ground, but he also couldn’t stoop down to get into a sedan.
Cancer was a cruel master, and Joel had suffered with it for five years before succumbing to its unrelenting grip.
She sniffled as she started up the path, keeping her eyes on the asphalt at her feet. Step two, get moving. Done.
“I was wondering when you were going to get out of that car.”
Robin looked up to find Kristen standing on the path, wearing a black sweat suit that seemed like it had been tailored just for her.
Their eyes met, and Robin wouldn’t have been able to hold back the tears then, even if she’d wanted to. “Kristen,” she said, her voice breaking. The woman was twenty-two years older than Robin, but age didn’t matter right now.
“I should’ve known you’d be the first to come. Joel’s been dead less than twenty-four hours.” Kristen’s smile shook on her mouth, and she looked out toward the ocean.
Robin stepped toward her, her vision blurry from the tears. “I’m so sorry. I won’t stay. I just brought you a few comfort items.” She reached Kristen and folded back the checkered cloth. “Those chewy Werther’s you like so much. A new visor, because I thought you might like to sit on the upper deck and watch the waves.” She glanced up at Kristen but didn’t want to make eye contact. “And of course, cookies.”
Always cookies. It had been the cookies that had first bonded the two women together, and Robin couldn’t look at a cookie of any variety without thinking of Kristen.
She practically shoved the gifts at Kristen and then latched onto her, the embrace awkward with the basket between them. “I’m so sorry. I loved Joel so much.” Her voice was little more than air and a squeak, but she didn’t know how to make it sound normal.
There was no more normal without Joel.
Kristen moved the basket and hugged Robin properly, both of them crying. For some reason, when Kristen wept that validated Robin’s feelings, and a sense of relief and belonging flowed through her.
A minute or two later, Kristen pulled back. “Okay.” She wiped at her eyes. “Let’s take this to the deck.”
Robin nodded, clearing the water from her own eyes and face. She looped her hand through Kristen’s arm as they turned and walked back toward the lighthouse. They went through the navy blue door and climbed up instead of down, emerging onto the upper deck and winding around to the side that faced the water.
A sigh moved through Robin’s body, and she asked, “What do you need help with?”
“Nothing,” Kristen said as she sat in one of the chairs on the deck. There were only two, and Robin had sat up here with Kristen countless times before. “Joel had everything planned, right down to the day the funeral should take place.” A small, fond smile sat on her face as she looked at the waves. “He wanted it on a Saturday so people wouldn’t have to take work off to come.”
Robin nodded as she sat. She leaned forward, keeping her elbows on her knees. “I can go to the funeral home with you, Kristen. You shouldn’t have to do that alone.”
“Jean is here,” Kristen said softly. “And Clara.”
“Oh, okay.” Surprise moved through Robin, and she couldn’t help asking, “You want to go with Jean or Clara?”
Jean was Rueben’s wife, and she’d thrown a literal fit about moving to Diamond Island and living in a lighthouse. She’d cried for a solid month after she’d arrived, and she’d gone to the doctor to get on anti-depressants after she’d gained thirty pounds in the first year they’d been here. She went back to Long Island where her parents lived for long stretches of time, and Robin would be surprised if Jean had the fortitude to go to the funeral home with her mother-in-law.
“No,” Kristen said. “I don’t want to go with either of them.” She looked at Robin, and a quick snort came from her, followed by a laugh. “Jean didn’t offer. And Clara’s still in shock.”
Clara was Joel and Kristen’s daughter, and she also lived off-island. Like a lot of people, she’d left Five Island Cove as soon as she could, and Robin hadn’t seen her in years.
She wasn’t sure what had driven Clara away. Robin loved the big, summer homes of the rich who only came in the warmest months. Robin participated—and sometimes planned—all the small-town traditions that made Five Island Cove the gem that it was.
Every island had its own charm and celebrations, and each was only a short ferry ride from the others. They created a crescent in the vast waters, with the cove coming ashore on the biggest of the islands, Diamond Island.
There was great seafood and other delicious restaurants, most of them family-owned for generations. The picturesque Main Street had picture-perfect shopping, which had only gotten better as people with more money helicoptered or sailed in for their retreats on the island. Why Clara hadn’t liked that, she wasn’t sure. People paid a lot of money to come to Five Island Cove, and yet some of the people who’d grown up here wanted to run from it.
“So I’ll go with you,” Robin said, smiling. She reached across the space between them and took Kristen’s papery hand in hers. “And I was thinking…”
“Here we go,” Kristen said, but she squeezed Robin’s fingers. “You and that brain of yours.”
Robin ducked her head, not quite brave enough to say what was on her mind while looking at Kristen. “I think I should call all the girls. Get them back here for the funeral.”
Kristen’s grip on Robin’s hand increased, and then she let go. “They won’t come.”
Robin looked up at the pain in the older woman’s voice. “Sure they will,” she said. “You and Joel meant a lot to us.”
“You might get Alice and Eloise,” Kristen conceded. “But if you can get Kelli back here, you’ll be lucky. And AJ? You’d have worked a miracle.”
Robin had always liked a good challenge. At the very least, she’d never shied away from one. “Well, I guess it’s time to work a miracle.”