She walked. Tears stained her cheeks; she clutched her stomach, held her heart, as though her insides were going to fracture, as though her soul were going to break apart and spill onto the sidewalk.
She moved past shoppers, languid tourists wearing smiles and leather sandals. She kept moving, kept walking, not caring if anyone recognized her, for she didn't recognize herself.
By the time she reached the end of Water Street, Jill realized where she had come. The lighthouse stood before her. The lighthouse where she'd spent so many hours, months, years, with Rita, thinking, dreaming, hoping.
She climbed down the dunes and found the path that led to their special place. Perhaps she'd find an answer here, perhaps she'd find some understanding as to what she had just read.
On the rocks, under the pier, what she found, instead, was Rita.
Jill stared at the back of the curly red hair. On the ground beside Rita stood a half-empty bottle of scotch. The ache in Jill's heart began to quiet, soothed by the comforting presence of her best friend--her once, a long time ago, best friend. She brushed her tears away and took another step.
"Care to share that bottle with an old friend?" she asked.
Rita's head didn't turn toward Jill. Instead, she remained rigid, motionless, her face kept fixed toward the sea. "Did you follow me here?"
"No." The crunch of footsteps on shells made Jill look around. A group of tourists wandered near the lighthouse. She stepped closer to where Rita sat. "May I join you?"
Rita shrugged. "Last time I checked, it was still a free country."
Jill hesitated a moment. She didn't need Rita's caustic coldness right now. What she needed was a friend. She looked off across the harbor, at the small white sails that floated against the sky, at the soothing tide that gently licked the shore. Low tide,
Jill thought. Low tide. Best time for quahogs
She looked down at Rita. "Remember quahogging?" she asked. "You always got the best ones. I don't know how you did it."
"Survival," Rita answered. "They were dinner."
A pang of guilt resonated through Jill; guilt that she had always had so much more than Rita, guilt that she had been the lucky one. Or so it had seemed.
She hesitated a moment, then stooped beside her friend. "I thought maybe you'd be glad to see me."
Rita laughed. "Sorry. I was just too darned busy to roll out the red carpet."
Jill settled against a rock and faced Rita, noticing that her eyes were still bright and unlined, though Rita had always deplored sunglasses, unless, of course, they were used as a disguise. As if anything could hide that wild red hair.
"Are you still angry at me for leaving the island?" Jill asked.
Rita stared off toward Chappy. "If I remember correctly, I left before you did."
Summer memories returned. Jill thought about the loss of her friend, remembered the unanswered questions. Suddenly Jill's mother--and Robbie--seemed less important. They were gone. Rita was here. And Jill needed Rita more than ever.
"Where did you go, Rita? Why did you leave?"
Picking up the bottle of scotch, Rita took a swig. She held it a moment, then passed it to Jill without making eye contact, without changing the guarded expression on her face. "Why did it surprise you that I left? You were the one who always said what a shithole this place was. You were the one who couldn't wait to get out of here."
Jill looked down the long neck of the bottle, then raised it to her lips. The scotch burned her throat, cauterizing her pain. "But you were the one who wanted to stay."
Rita shrugged again. "Shit happens."
She handed the bottle back to Rita. "I've missed you."
A look of doubt bounced from Rita to Jill. "How long has it been? Twenty-five years?"
"Yeah, well, you missed me so much I never even got a Christmas card."
"My mother never told me you'd come back."
"That's no surprise. You should have guessed, though. You always thought I was destined to rot in this place."
Reaching out, Jill touched Rita's arm. Rita pulled away.
Jill took back her hand and rested it in her lap. "I was trying to make a new life for myself."
"And a fine job you did. So what is it now, Jill? Are you going to be another of the island's famous celebrities who graces us with your presence once a year?"
"No. I'm selling the house."
Rita laughed. "See what I mean? You don't care about it here. You don't care about any of us. You never did."
A small wave lapped the shore. "Is that what you think?"
"You always thought I'd wind up like my mother. Well, in a lot of ways I guess I did. That should make you happy."
"Rita. . . I never meant. . . "
Rita's voice was slow, deliberate. "Yes you did. You were smarter than me, Jill. Prettier. More ambitious. I guess that's not a crime."
"It is if I hurt you that badly."
"You didn't hurt me, Jill. Pissed me off, maybe. But, no, you didn't hurt me."
Jill remembered Rita's laughter, Rita's toughness, and that Rita had always used these defenses to hide her insecurities, to hide her feelings that she wasn't as good as the kids who lived in the houses with mothers and fathers, the kids with dinner waiting on the table and clean, pressed clothes in their closets.
The heat of the sun warmed her face. "Life doesn't always go the way we want," she said. "No matter how hard we try."
Rita pulled her knees to her chest. "No shit."
The sound of a motorboat approached. They both turned to watch as it shot through the water, white foam splashing, leaving a deep "V" of a wake.
"I can't believe you still come here," Jill said.
"Not many other places to think around here," Rita answered. "Especially in August." She hugged her knees and looked at Jill. "I was real sorry about your parents. Your dad. Your mother."
"I went to the service. For your mother."
Jill flicked her gaze back to the lighthouse, to the tourists. "I was in Russia," she said, aware that her words sounded weak, because Rita would know the real reason Jill hadn't returned had nothing to do with Russia. "Is your mother still. . . "
"Hazel?" Rita laughed. "Nothing's going to kill her. Found herself a man a few years ago. They live in Sarasota now."
Jill nodded. "That's nice. She's such a great person."
Rita plucked the bottle again and took another drink. "Yeah, well, she's different."
Closing her eyes, Jill let the sun soothe her skin, let herself find comfort in the sound of Rita's voice, in the way her words danced with a spirit all their own--a familiar, safe dance that Jill had missed for so long. "I've never had another best friend, Rita," she said, her eyes still closed to the sun, her heart opening to her friend.
Rita didn't reply.
Jill sat up and checked her watch. "I'd love to have you meet my kids," she said. "In fact, I have to pick up my daughter now." She hesitated a moment, then heard herself add, "Would you like to come?"
Rita paused for a heartbeat, or maybe it was two. "What time is it?"
"I've got to start work at six. I tried to quit, but Charlie wouldn't let me. I'm a waitress there. At the tavern. Like my mother was."
"Tell Charlie he can live without you for one night," Jill said. "Come with me, Rita. Please."
Rita seemed to think about it. "What the hell," she finally said. "Why not."
The sun seemed to smile; the world seemed to come back into focus. "Great," Jill said as she rose to her feet. "We've got so much to catch up on. First, though, we have to go back to my house and get the car. Amy's out at Gay Head."
"The car?" Rita asked.
Jill brushed off her shorts. "Hopefully, the workmen or any of their friends haven't boxed me in. I'm having some work done on the house and it's a power-saw nightmare."
"I'll tell you what," Rita said as she screwed the cap on the bottle. "You get the car. I'll wait here."
Jill didn't understand why Rita didn't want to come to the house, but, then, Rita was Rita, and she always was independent. "Don't go away," she said as she waved good-bye and headed toward the road, realizing then that she hadn't asked Rita if she had ever married, or if she had any kids.* * *
She was in the clear. At least about Kyle, Rita was in the clear.
She stared across the water and hugged her arms around herself. Jill had never known why Rita had left the Vineyard; she'd never known that Rita had been pregnant. Her secret was safe now, safe forever.
And Jesus, it felt good to have a friend again.
Excerpted from Places by the Sea by Jean Stone. Copyright © 1997 by Jean Stone. Excerpted by permission of Fanfare, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.