Part 24 (1/2)

aItas been lovely, gals, but Iam going to take that walk now,a she said.

aIt was nice to meet you,a Linda said. aWeall see you later.a Unless you get washed out to sea, Ann Marie thought. She gave Kathleen her biggest fake smile, because she knew Linda was watching.

When their husbands returned in the early afternoon, they gathered up the beach gear and headed inside. Ann Marie washed the sand off her legs and hands in the outdoor shower. It was finally warm enough for it. In the stall made of weathered wood, built on a raised platform, she ran the soap over her arms, looking upward. There was not a cloud in sight. She pulled off her wet bathing suit, slung it over the top of the wall. Afterward, she left it there to dry.

They decided to take a drive along the coast and maybe get a bite to eat. Linda wanted to photograph a lighthouse, so they got out of the car in York, and she snapped away at Nubble Light. It was a beautiful spot atop a gra.s.sy cliffa”all white, with a white Victorian keeperas house attached. The house had a red roof and gingerbread trim. Perhaps Ann Marieas next project would be a replica of it. She imagined a battery-powered light that flashed every minute or so. But how would she do the water?

Her eyes met Steveas and they smiled warmly at each other. She wanted to tell him her idea. She thought of how he had remembered the big compet.i.tion and mentioned it as a sort of nod to their secret e-mail exchange. She felt grateful. Their flirtation might be the only thing keeping her afloat right now.

aHow long has it been here?a Linda asked, still looking at the lighthouse through the cameraas viewfinder.

Ann Marie shrugged, but Patrick said, aIt was built in 1879.a Now how on earth did he know that? She had married such a smart and capable man. She reached for Patas hand and said, aWhere shall we take these two for lunch, hon?a They ended up at a new lobster shack on the beach in Kittery, where Alice and Maggie had gone with that schemer priest a few weeks back. Ann Marie felt uneasy just thinking about it, but once they started eating, she calmed down a bit.

After lunch, Pat went to get them a couple of milkshakes for dessert, and Linda headed to the ladiesa room. Ann Marie was alone with Steve for the first time.

aThanks again for inviting us,a he said. aWeare having a blast so far.a She smiled, but wished he wouldnat speak for them both.

aWeare happy you came,a she said.

aPat told me his mother and sister have been giving you a tough time,a he said. aHow anyone could be mean to a sweetheart like you, I have no idea.a He reached across the table and squeezed her hand.

Ann Marieas entire body tingled in a way it hadnat in G.o.d knows how long. She would do anything right now to have an hour alone with him. But she could already see Linda coming out from inside.

a a a The next two days pa.s.sed uneventfully enough, though Ann Marie felt tense. She could tell that Pat felt the same way. As they went to the Cove Caf for breakfast; as they pointed out the house that looked like a wedding cake, and the Bush compound with its Secret Service agents stationed out front; as she brought Linda to her favorite antiques shop and snagged an armoire that perfectly matched the desk in Pattyas old room, there was a constant undertone of waitinga”waiting for the Brewers to leave, waiting to see what Alice would do once Pat spoke to her about the property. And waiting for Kathleen to pull something.

But on the Fourth, Ann Marie tried to put all of that from her head because, other than Christmas, it was her favorite day of the year. From the time she and Pat were dating, they hadnat missed a single Independence Day fireworks display in Portsmouth. When her children were small, she dressed them in red, white, and blue and gave them American flags to wave. She always prepared a great big picnic, and they made a point of arriving early so they could stake out the best possible spot. By seven oaclock, the entire field behind the high school would be full of blankets, their edges pressed up against one another so that it looked like an enormous quilt.

Ann Marie, Pat, Steve, and Linda spent the first part of the day sunning themselves and taking quick dips in the ocean when they got hot enough, though the water was too frigid to stay in for long. Around four, Ann Marie left the others on the beach and went up to the house to prepare. She felt almost drunk from the sunlight, calm and sleepy and a bit light-headed. In the cottage kitchen, she poured herself a tall gla.s.s of water and drank it down as she looked out the window.

She fixed a shortcake with strawberries, blueberries, and homemade whipped cream on top, arranged to resemble the Stars and Stripes. She had bought fried chicken drumsticks at the market, and made potato salad, pasta salad, and hummus early that morning. She placed it all in a picnic basket, along with bug spray, binoculars, utensils, and a big bag of potato chips.

She wanted to look nice for Steve. Beach attire was clearly not her strong suit, but now she had the chance to s.h.i.+ne. She put on a new red s.h.i.+rtwaist and the blue sandals she had chosen to go along with it. And then she dabbed on a bit of makeup, though not enough to make her husband ask why shead gone to the trouble.

After a while, the rest of them trickled inside to get ready.

aShould we bring two bottles of champagne, or three?a she asked Pat before they left.

aBring four,a he said. aMy motheras coming.a aOh? How did that happen?a aI went over and invited her.a He paused, looking guilty. aShe comes every year.a His tone said that he was trying to explain himself, which made Ann Marie feel like a terrible wife. Alice was his mother. Of course he had to invite her.

aItas fine,a she said. aI was just surprised she accepted, since sheas sort of been hiding from us.a aI think she figures weall be less likely to off her in a really crowded public place,a Pat said, a comment Ann Marie would have expected from one of his sisters, maybe, but not from him. It made her sad that it had come to this.

aWeall make the best of it,a she said.

After he left the room, she removed an open bottle of chardonnay from the fridge and filled a big gla.s.s, drinking it down quickly before anyone could see.

The five of them took one car, since they knew it would be tough to find parking. Alice, Linda, and Ann Marie sat shoulder to shoulder in the backseat of Patas Mercedes.

aI told Maggie and Kathleen to meet us there after dinner,a Alice said. aIall bet they donat have fireworks like this in California.a Oh, so now she was using Kathleen for backup? That was rich.

But Ann Marie just answered, aGreat.a She was already feeling the effects of the wine, which, mixed with a long day in the sun, had gone straight to her head. She rolled the window down a bit to try to get some air. She lost herself in the sound of cars whizzing past, not paying attention to the conversation.

When they arrived, they moved slowly through Market Square with the crowd all around, and Ann Marie tried to feel happy. She reminded herself that nothing terrible had happened yet, and who knewa”maybe Alice would change her mind after all. But she felt weighted down all the same, like this might be the last time they would ever come here. Everything seemed temporary now.

As if intuiting her thoughts, Alice whispered, aPerk up, darling! Youare acting like a real party p.o.o.per.a She was in one of her moods, which usually scared Ann Marie into being sweet and obedient, but now, for the very first time, she couldnat care less.

aNo one likes a droopy hostess,a Alice continued, clearly looking for a fight.

Ann Marie ignored her. They reached the edge of the field and she said in her most upbeat voice, aThis spot looks perfect.a They spread the blanket out and she wondered if Alice was righta”was it clear to the Brewers that her family was a mess, that she herself was floundering? Perhaps, but then again Steve had told her she looked great, and they had both been complimenting her cooking since they walked in the door.

She popped open a bottle of champagne as they got settled.

aBubbly?a she said to Linda and Steve.

Ann Marie could hardly pour fast enough, she wanted a drink so badly. After she had filled everyone elseas gla.s.ses, she filled one for herself, drinking it down in under a minute and refilling it right away. She had meant to place a raspberry and a blackberry in each gla.s.s, but it had slipped her mind. Rats.

By the time darkness fell an hour later and the band in the gazebo began to play, three bottles were empty. Ann Marie hoped she was the only one keeping track, because she herself had had a bottle and a half. She closed her eyes, feeling faint, but in an almost pleasant way. She opened up the Tupperware that contained her homemade hummus and dipped a big hunk of pita bread right in, hardly even caring when a dollop of it fell onto the blanket.

Her eyes met Steveas as she looked up from the spot.

aWhoops,a he said. He gave her a bright smile. aHey, everything tastes great.a Pat was typing away on his cell phoneas keyboard, either frantically tying up loose ends on a business deal or just trying to avoid his mother. Alice was droning on about some local newscaster who had taken up with the married head of the station, and Linda was trapped, listening and nodding along as if it were the most fascinating story in the world. Maybe she even was fascinated. Alice had a way of captivating people. She had captivated Ann Marie once too.

Ann Marie thought back to a time before the Kellehers. She had been a different girl completely. What would her life have been if she had married someone else? Of all possible paths, she had taken this one, and now she wondered how she had ever been brave or stupid or something enough to choose.

The fire station bell rang to signal there were only thirty more minutes before the fireworks began.

Steve got to his feet. aExcuse me a minute,a he said, looking straight at Ann Marie, giving her a wink. No one else was paying attention. aSave my spot?a He walked off into the crowd and she was seized with a realization. That wink. He wanted her to follow him.

aIad better run to the ladiesa before the festivities get going,a she said to no one in particular. She felt giddy beyond belief, like a high school girl before a big date.

She stood up on wobbly legs, only now noticing just how drunk she was. She pushed past families and young couples and old ones, unsteady on her feet. Ann Marie anch.o.r.ed herself on the shoulders of strangers as they pa.s.sed by.

She found Steve in the long Porta-Potty line in the parking lot, standing behind a group of teenagers who were cramming glow sticks into their mouths, their cheeks lighting up in a sickly green hue.

He saw her and grinned. aAh, thank G.o.d. Some adult company.a Her heart was actually thumping. She needed to calm her nerves. She wished she had brought the champagne. She noticed a flag pin on his lapel and raised a finger to touch it.

aI like this,a she said, taking a step closer so that when he spoke she could feel his breath on her cheek.

aThanks. I got it when we took the kids to D.C. Gotta show your American pride, right? But look who Iam talking to.a He gestured toward her outfit. aYouare basically Miss America tonight.a That was her cue. Ann Marie placed her hands on his face. She leaned forward and kissed him, feeling the warmth of his lips, gently pus.h.i.+ng her tongue between them. For a moment, it was everything she had imagined. But then he pulled back hard.

aAnn Marie,a he said. aWhat are you doing?a He turned his head quickly to the left and the right, as if looking for an escape.

aI thoughta”a she said. And suddenly, it all crashed down around her. The house was gone and her children were disappointments. She would never be rid of her mother-in-law, or of Kathleen. There was only one person in her life who brought her any excitement anymore, and now she had ruined that too. She wanted to be able to wake up and discover that it was all a bad dream; she wanted not to exist.

aPlease,a she said softly, not even sure what she was asking him for.

aYouave had too much to drink,a he said, his face turning hard in an instant. aIam going back to the others, okay? Will you be all right here on your own?a She nodded, her belly filling up with dread as he rushed off. And then, at the moment when it seemed like her life could not sink any lower, she looked up and saw Kathleen standing maybe fifteen feet away, staring at her. It was clear that she had seen the kiss. Her mouth was actually hanging open.

Ann Marie wanted to run. Had she ruined her marriage in an instant? Would she live out the rest of her days in some sad one-bedroom apartment, or would she get to keep the house?

She walked toward Kathleen. She spoke quickly, almost unable to breathe. aOh G.o.d, please, Kathleen, donat tell Patrick what you just saw.a Kathleen straightened up. Her expression changed, and she looked genuinely warm for perhaps the first time Ann Marie could remember. She said slowly, purposefully, aI didnat see anything. Iam just waiting for Maggie to get out of that disgusting bathroom. Sheas been in there for ages.a Ann Marie wasnat sure whether to believe her.