Barefoot: A Novel Read online
Barefoot: A Novel
ALSO BY ELIN HILDERBRAND
The Beach Club
The Blue Bistro
The Love Season
For Heather Osteen Thorpe: in honor of the dollhouse, the roller-skating shows, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Theater, the Wawa parties, and now, six kids between us. You are the best sister-friend a woman could ask for.
T hree women step off of a plane. It sounded like the start of a joke.
Joshua Flynn, age twenty-two, native of Nantucket Island, senior at Middlebury Col ege, summer employee of the Nantucket Memorial Airport, where his father was an air traffic control er, noticed the women immediately. They arrived on a US Airways flight from LaGuardia. Three women, two smal children, nothing unusual about that, so what caught Josh’s eye? Josh Flynn was a creative-writing student at Middlebury, and his mentor, the writer-in-residence, Chas Gorda, liked to say that a writer smel s a good story in the air like it’s an approaching storm. The hair on your arms will stand up, Chas Gorda promised. Josh checked his forearms—nothing—and tugged at his fluorescent orange vest. He approached the plane to help Carlo unload the luggage. Josh’s father, Tom Flynn, would be at a computer terminal five stories above Josh’s head, occasional y spying out the window to make sure Josh was doing what he cal ed “a decent job.” Being under surveil ance like this provided as unsettling a work situation as Josh could imagine, and so in the two weeks he’d been at it, he’d learned to sniff for stories without giving himself away.
Two of the women stood on the tarmac. Josh could tel they were sisters. Sister One was very thin with long light-brown hair that blew al over the place in the breeze; she had a pointy nose, blue eyes, and she was visibly unhappy. Her forehead was as scrunched and wrinkled as one of those funny Chinese dogs. Sister Two had the same blue eyes, the same sharp nose, but instead of scowling, Sister Two’s face conveyed baffled sadness. She blinked a lot, like she was about to cry. She was heavier than her sister, and her hair, cut bluntly to her shoulders, was a Scandinavian blond. She carried a floral-print bag bursting with diapers and a colorful set of plastic keys; she was taking deep, exaggerated breaths, as though the flight had just scared her to death.
The third woman teetered at the top of the steps with a baby in her arms and a little boy of about four peeking around her legs. She had a pretty, round face and corkscrew curls that peeked out from underneath a straw hat. She was wearing jeans with muddy knees and a pair of rubber clogs.
The sisters waited at the bottom of the stairs for this third woman to descend. Heavy-breathing Sister reached out for the baby, shaking the keys.
“Come to Mama,” she said . “Here, Melanie, I’l take him.” In addition to the baby, Straw Hat held a package of Cheez-Its, a green plastic cup, and an air-sickness bag. She was two steps from the ground when the little boy behind her shouted, “Auntie Brenda, here I come!”
He was aiming for Scowling Sister, but in his excitement, he hurtled his forty-some pound body into the back of Straw Hat, who went sprawling onto the tarmac with the baby. Josh bolted forward—though he knew he wouldn’t be quick enough to save anyone. Straw Hat covered the baby’s head with her hands and took the brunt of the fal on her knees and her left arm. Ouch.
“Melanie!” Heavy-breathing Sister cried. She dropped the diaper bag and raced toward Straw Hat. The baby wasn’t making any noise. Neck broken. Dead. Josh felt his spirit trickle onto the tarmac as though he’d wet his pants. But then—a cry! The baby had merely been sucking in air, released now in heroic tones. The baby was alive! Heavy-breathing Sister took the baby and studied him for obvious injury, then shushed him against her shoulder. Scowling Sister approached with the perpetrator of the crime, older brother, clinging to her legs.
“Is the baby okay?” Scowling Sister asked. Her expression shifted from impatient to impatient and concerned.
“He’s fine,” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “Just scared.” She reached out to Straw Hat. “Are you okay, Melanie? Are you okay? Do you feel okay?”
Melanie dusted the tarmac grit off her face; there was a scrape on her elbow, some blood. The Cheez-Its blew off down the runway; the plastic cup rol ed to Josh’s feet. He picked it up, and the air-sickness bag as wel .
“Would you like me to get a first-aid kit?” he asked Melanie.
She put a hand to her cheek, and the other hand massaged her stomach. “Oh, no. Thank you, though. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “What about . . . ?”
“I’m fine, ” Melanie said.
“Blaine wil apologize,” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “Apologize, Blaine.”
“Sorry,” the boy mumbled.
“You could have hurt your brother. You could have hurt Melanie. You just can’t do things like that, sweetheart. You have to be careful.”
“He said he was sorry, Vick,” Scowling Sister said.
This was not joke material. The three women, col ectively, were the most miserable-looking people Josh had ever seen.
“Welcome to Nantucket,” Josh said, hoping his words might cheer them, though Carlo was always reminding him that he was not an ambassador. He should just tend to the bags; his father would be watching.
Scowling Sister rol ed her eyes. “Thanks a lot,” she said.
They should have driven to the island, Brenda thought as they climbed into a cab outside the terminal. She had been coming to Nantucket her entire life and they always drove, and then put the car on the ferry. This year, because of the kids and Vicki’s cancer and a desire to get to Nantucket as expediently as possible no matter what the cost, they had flown. They shouldn’t have broken with tradition in Brenda’s opinion, because look what happened—they were off to a horrible start already. Melanie had vomited the whole flight; then she fel , giving Vicki something else to worry about.
The whole point of the summer was to help Vicki relax, to soothe her, to ease the sickness from her body. That’s the point, Melanie! Now, Melanie was sitting behind Brenda in the cab with her eyes closed. Vicki had invited Melanie to Nantucket for the summer because Melanie had “problems.”
She was dealing with a “complicated situation” back in Connecticut. But it was also the case that Brenda’s company alone had never been enough for Vicki. Al their lives, al through growing up—whether it was camping trips, nights at the summer carnival, or church on Sunday—Vicki had brought a friend.
This summer it was Melanie Patchen. The news that Melanie would be joining them was sprung on Brenda at the last minute, giving her no opportunity to protest. During the limousine ride from Darien to LaGuardia, Brenda had heard about the “complicated situation”: Melanie and her husband, Peter Patchen, had been trying “forever” to get pregnant; they had, in the past calendar year, endured seven failed rounds of in vitro fertilization. Then, a few weeks ago, Peter admitted he was having an affair with a young woman from his office named Frances Digitt. Melanie was devastated. She was so upset she made herself sick—she couldn’t keep food down, she took to her bed. Then she missed her period. She was pregnant—and the “complicated” part of her “situation” was that she had left Connecticut without tel ing her husband that she was leaving, and without tel ing him she was pregnant. She was stealing away with Vicki and Brenda and the kids because she “needed time to think. Time away.”
Brenda had taken in this information silently but skeptical y. The last thing she and Vicki needed this summer was a stowaway from a complicated situation. Vicki had lung cancer, and Brenda had problems of her own. Earlier that spring, she had been fire