I eyeballed the freezer, trying to decide what to cook for dinner that night. Such a decision was no mean feat, since a visiting stranger might assume that Martha Stewart not only lived with us but was preparing for the apocalypse. Frozen lasagnas, casseroles, pot pies, and the like filled our icebox nearly to the brim. Finally deciding on fish chowder, I took out some haddock and mussels. After a brief, internal struggle, I grabbed some salmon to make extra soup to, you guessed it, freeze. Yeah, the stockpiling was more than a little OCD, but it made me feel better. It also meant that when I actually had something to do for the entire evening, I could leave my dad by himself without feeling too guilty about it.

My dad wasn’t an invalid–not exactly. But he had a bad heart and needed help taking care of things, especially with my mother gone. So I took up the slack, which I was happy to do. It’s not like I had much else on my plate, what with being the village pariah and all.

It’s amazing how being a pariah gives you ample amounts of free time.

After putting in the laundry and cleaning the downstairs bathroom, I went upstairs to take a shower. I would have loved to walk around all day with the sea salt on my skin, but not even in Rockabill was Eau de Brine an acceptable perfume. Like many twentysomethings, I’d woken up early that day to go exercise. Unlike most twenty-somethings, however, my morning exercise took the form of an hour or so long swim in the freezing ocean. And in one of America’s deadliest whirlpools. Which is why I am so careful to keep the swimming on the DL. It might be a great cardio workout, but it probably would get me burned at the stake. This is New England, after all.

As I got dressed in my work clothes–khaki chinos and a long-sleeved pink polo-style shirt with Read It and Weep embroidered in navy blue over the breast pocket–I heard my father emerge from his bedroom and clomp down the stairs. His job in the morning was to make the coffee, so I took a moment to apply a little mascara, blush, and some lip gloss, before brushing out my damp black hair. I kept it cut in a much longer, and admittedly more unkempt, version of Cleopatra’s style because I liked to hide my dark eyes under my long bangs. Most recently, my nemesis, Stuart Gray, had referred to them as demon eyes. They’re not as Marilyn Manson as that, thank you very much, but even I had to admit to difficulty determining where my pupil ended and my iris began.

I went back downstairs to join my dad in the kitchen, and I felt that pang in my heart that I get sometimes when I’m struck by how he’s changed. He’d been a fisherman, but he’d had to retire about ten years ago, on disability, when his heart condition worsened. Once a handsome, confident, and brawny man whose presence filled any space he entered, his long illness and my mother’s disappearance had diminished him in every possible way. He looked so small and gray in his faded old bathrobe, his hands trembling from the anti-arrhythmics he takes for his screwed-up heart, that it took every ounce of self-control I had not to make him sit down and rest. Even if his body didn’t agree, he still felt himself to be the man he had been, and I knew I already walked a thin line between caring for him and treading on his dignity. So I put on my widest smile and bustled into the kitchen, as if we were a father and daughter in some sitcom set in the 1950s.

“Good morning, Daddy!” I beamed.

“Morning, honey. Want some coffee?” He asked me that question every morning, even though the answer had been yes since I was fifteen.

“Sure, thanks. Did you sleep all right?”

“Oh, yes. And you? How was your morning?” My dad never asked me directly about the swimming.

It’s a question that lay under the auspices of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that ruled our household. For example, he didn’t ask me about my swimming, I didn’t ask him about my mother. He didn’t ask me about Jason, I didn’t ask him about my mother. He didn’t ask me whether or not I was happy in Rockabill, I didn’t ask him about my mother.”

“Oh, I slept fine, Dad. Thanks.” Of course I hadn’t, really, as I only needed about four hours of sleep a night. But that’s another thing we never talked about.

He asked me about my plans for the day, while I made us a breakfast of scrambled eggs on whole wheat toast. I told him that I’d be working till six, then I’d go to the grocery store on the way home.

So, as usual for a Monday, I’d take the car to work. We performed pretty much the exact same routine every week, but it was nice of him to act like it was possible I might have new and exciting plans. On Mondays, I didn’t have to worry about him eating lunch, as Trevor McKinley picked him up to go play a few hours of cheeky lunchtime poker with George Varga, Louis Finch, and Joe Covelli. They’re all natives of Rockabill and friends since childhood, except for Joe, who moved here to Maine about twenty years ago to open up our local garage. That’s how things were around Rockabill. For the winter, when the tourists were mostly absent, the town was populated by natives who grew up together and were more intimately acquainted with each other’s dirty laundry than their own hampers. Some people enjoyed that intimacy. But when you were more usually the object of the whispers than the subject, intimacy had a tendency to feel like persecution.

We ate while we shared our local paper, The Light House News. But because the paper mostly functioned as a vehicle for advertising things to tourists, and the tourists were gone for the season, the pickings were scarce. Yet we went through the motions anyway. For all of our sins, no one could say that the True family wasn’t good at going through the motions. After breakfast, I doled out my father’s copious pills and set them next to his orange juice. He flashed me his charming smile, which was the only thing left unchanged after the ravages to his health and his heart.

“Thank you, Jane,” he said. And I knew he meant it, despite the fact that I’d set his pills down next to his orange juice every single morning for the past twelve years.

I gulped down a knot in my throat, since I knew that no small share of his worry and grief was due to me, and kissed him on the cheek. Then I bustled around clearing away breakfast, and bustled around getting my stuff together, and bustled out the door to get to work. In my experience, bustling is always a great way to keep from crying.

* * * * *

Tracy Gregory, the owner of Read It and Weep, was already hard at work when I walked in the front door. The Gregorys were an old fishing family from Rockabill, and Tracy was their prodigal daughter. She had left to work in Los Angeles, where she had apparently been a successful movie stylist. I say apparently because she never told us the names of any of the movies she’d worked on. She’d only moved back to Rockabill about five years ago to open Read It and Weep, which was our local bookstore, café, and all-around tourist trap. Since tourism replaced fishing as our major industry, Rockabill can just about support an all-year-round enterprise like Read It and Weep. But other things, like the nicer restaurant (rather unfortunately named The Pig Out Bar and Grill) close for the winter.
“Hey girl,” she said, gruffly, as I locked the door behind me. We didn’t open for another half hour.
“Hey Tracy. Grizelda back?”

Grizelda was Tracy’s girlfriend, and they’d caused quite a stir when they first appeared in Rockabill together. Not only were they lesbians, but they were as fabulously lesbionic as the inhabitants of a tiny village in Maine could ever imagine. Tracy carried herself like a rugby player, and dressed like one, too. But she had an easygoing charisma that got her through the initial gender panic triggered by her reentry into Rockabill society.

And if Tracy made heads turn, Grizelda practically made them spin Exorcist style. Grizelda was not Grizelda’s real name. Nor was Dusty Nethers, the name she used when she’d been a porn star. As Dusty Nethers, Grizelda had been fiery haired and as boobilicious as a Baywatch beauty. But in her current incarnation, as Grizelda Montague, she sported a sort of Gothic-hipster look–albeit one that was still very boobilicious. A few times a year Grizelda disappeared for weeks or a month, and upon her return home she and Tracy would complete some big project they’d been discussing, like redecorating the store or adding a sunroom onto their little house. Lord knows what she got up to on her profit-venture vacations. But whatever it was, it didn’t affect her relationship with Tracy. The pair were as close as any husband and wife in Rockabill, if not closer, and seeing how much they loved each other drove home to me my own loneliness.

“Yeah, Grizzie’s back. She’ll be here soon. She has something for you”¦ something scandalous, knowing my lady love.”

I grinned. “Awesome. I love her gifts.”

Because of Grizzie, I had a drawer full of naughty underwear, sex toys, and dirty books. Grizzie gave such presents for every occasion; it didn’t matter if it was your high school graduation, your fiftieth wedding anniversary, or your baby’s baptism. This particular predilection meant she was a prominent figure on wedding shower guest lists from Rockabill to Eastport, but made her dangerous for children’s parties. Most parents didn’t appreciate an “every day of the week” pack of thongs for their eleven-year-old daughter. Once she’d given me a gift certificate for a “Hollywood” bikini wax and I had to Google the term. What I discovered made me way too scared to use it, so it sat in my “dirty drawer,” as I called it, as a talking point. Not that anyone ever went into my dirty drawer with me, but I talked to myself a lot, and it certainly provided amusing fodder for my own conversations.
It was also rather handy–no pun intended–to have access to one’s own personal sex shop during long periods of enforced abstinence”¦ such as the last eight years of my life.

“And,” Tracy responded with a rueful shake of her head, “her gifts love you. Often quite literally.”

“That’s all right, somebody has to,” I answered back, horrified at the bitter inflection that had crept into my voice.

But Tracy, bless her, just stroked a gentle hand over my hair that turned into a tiny one-armed hug, saying nothing.

“Hands off my woman!” crowed a hard-edged voice from the front door. Grizelda!

“Oh, sorry,” I apologized, backing away from Tracy.

“I meant for Tracy to get off you,” Grizzie said, swooping toward me to pick me up in a bodily hug, my own well-endowed chest clashing with her enormous fake bosoms. I hated being short at times like these. Even though I loved all five feet and eleven inches of Grizzie, and had more than my fair share of affection for her ta-ta-riddled hugs, I loathed being manhandled.

She set me down and grasped my hands in hers, backing away to look me over appreciatively while holding my fingers at arm’s length. “Mmm, mmm,” she said, shaking her head. “Girl, I could sop you up with a biscuit.”

I laughed, as Tracy rolled her eyes.

“Quit sexually harassing the staff, Grizzly Bear,” was her only comment.

“I’ll get back to sexually harassing you in a minute, passion flower, but right now I want to appreciate our Jane.” Grizelda winked at me with her florid violet eyes (she wore colored lenses) and I couldn’t help but giggle like a schoolgirl.

“I’ve brought you a little something,” she said, her voice sly.

I clapped my hands in excitement and hopped up and down in a little happy dance.

I really did love Grizzie’s gifts, even if they challenged the tenuous grasp of human anatomy imparted to me by Mrs. Renault in her high school biology class.

“Happy belated birthday!” she cried as she handed me a beautifully wrapped package she pulled from her enormous handbag. I admired the shiny black paper and the sumptuous red velvet ribbon tied up into a decadent bow (Grizzie did everything with style) before tearing into it with glee. After slitting open the tape holding the box closed with my thumbnail, I was soon holding in my hands the most beautiful red satin nightgown I’d ever seen. It was a deep, bloody, blue-based red, the perfect red for my skin tone. And it was, of course, the perfect length, with a slit up the side that would rise almost to my hip. Grizzie had this magic ability to always buy people clothes that fit. The top was generously cut for its small dress size, the bodice gathered into a sort of clamshell-like tailoring that I knew would cup my boobs like those hands in that famous Janet Jackson picture. The straps were slightly thicker, to give support, and crossed over the very low-cut back. It was absolutely gorgeous–very adult and sophisticated–and I couldn’t stop stroking the deliciously watery satin.

“Grizzie,” I breathed. “It’s gorgeous”¦ but too much! This must have cost a fortune.”

“You are worth a fortune, little Jane. Besides, I figured you might need something nice”¦ since Mark’s “˜special deliveries’ should have culminated in a date by now.”

Grizzie’s words trailed off as my face fell and Tracy, behind her, made a noise like Xena, Warrior Princess, charging into battle.

Before Tracy could launch into just how many ways she wanted to eviscerate our new letter carrier, I said, very calmly, “I won’t be going on any dates with Mark.”

“What happened?” Grizzie asked, as Tracy made another grunting declaration of war behind us.

“Well,” I started, but where should I begin? Mark was new to Rockabill, a widowed employee of the U.S. Postal Service, who had recently moved to our little corner of Maine with his two young daughters. He’d kept forgetting to deliver letters and packages, necessitating second, and sometimes third, trips to our bookstore, daily. I’d thought he was sweet, but rather dumb, until Tracy had pointed out that he only forgot stuff when I was working.
So we’d flirted and flirted and flirted over the course of a month. Until, just a few days ago, he’d asked me out. I was thrilled. He was cute; he was new; he’d lost someone he was close to, as well. And he “obviously” didn’t judge me on my past.

You know what they say about assuming.”

“We had a date set up, but he cancelled. I guess he asked me out before he knew about everything. Then someone must have told him. He’s got kids, you know.”

“So?” Grizzie growled, her smoky voice already furious.

“So, he said that he didn’t think I’d be a good influence. On his girls.”

“That’s fucking ridiculous,” Grizzie snarled, just as Tracy made a series of inarticulate chittering noises behind us. She was normally the sedate, equable half of her and Grizzie’s partnership, but Tracy had nearly blown a gasket when I’d called her crying after Mark bailed on me. I think she would have torn off his head, but then we wouldn’t have gotten our inventory anymore.

I lowered my head and shrugged. Grizzie moved forward, having realized that Tracy already had the anger market cornered.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said, wrapping her long arms around me. “That’s such a shame.”

And it was a shame. My friends wanted me to move on, my dad wanted me to move on. Hell, except for that tiny sliver of me that was still frozen in guilt, I wanted to move on. But the rest of Rockabill, it seems, didn’t agree.

Grizzie brushed the bangs back from my eyes, and when she saw tears glittering she intervened, Grizelda-style. Dipping me like a tango dancer, she growled sexily, “Baby, I’m gonna butter yo’ bread,” before burying her face in my exposed belly and giving me a resounding zerbert.
That did just the trick. I was laughing again, thanking my stars for about the zillionth time that they had brought Grizzie and Tracy back to Rockabill because I didn’t know what I would have done without them. I gave Tracy her own hug for the present, and then took it to the back room with my stuff. I opened the box to give the red satin one last parting caress, and then closed it with a contented sigh.

It would look absolutely gorgeous in my dirty drawer.

We only had a few things to do to get the store ready for opening, which left much time for chitchat. About a half hour of intense gossip later, we had pretty much exhausted “what happened when you were gone” as a subject of conversation and had started in on plans for the coming week, when the little bell above the door tinkled. My heart sank when I saw it was Linda Allen, self-selected female delegate for my own personal persecution squad. She wasn’t quite as bad as Stuart Gray, who hated me even more than Linda did, but she did her best to keep up with him.

Speaking of the rest of Rockabill, I thought, as Linda headed toward romance.

She didn’t bother to speak to me, of course. She just gave me one of her loaded looks that she could fire off like a World War II gunship. The looks always said the same things. They spoke of the fact that I was the girl whose crazy mother had shown up in the center of town out of nowhere, naked, in the middle of a storm. The fact that she’d stolen one of the most eligible Rockabill bachelors and ruined him for life. The fact that she’d given birth to a baby without being married. The fact that I insisted on being that child and upping the ante by being just as weird as my mother. That was only the tip of the vituperative iceberg that Linda hauled into my presence whenever she had the chance.
Unfortunately, Linda read nearly as compulsively as I did, so I saw her at least twice a month when she’d come in for a new stack of romance novels. She liked a very particular kind of plot: the sort where the pirate kidnaps some virgin damsel, rapes her into loving him, and then dispatches lots of seamen while she polishes his cutlass. Or where the Highland clan leader kidnaps some virginal English Rose, rapes her into loving him, and then kills entire armies of Sassenachs while she stuffs his haggis. Or where the Native American warrior kidnaps a virginal white settler, rapes her into loving him, and then kills a bunch of colonists while she whets his tomahawk. I hated to get Freudian on Linda, but her reading patterns suggested some interesting insights into why she was such a complete bitch.

Tracy had received a phone call while Linda was picking out her books, and Grizelda was sitting on a stool far behind the counter in a way that clearly said “I’m not actually working, thanks.” But Linda pointedly ignored the fact that I was free to help her, choosing, instead, to stand in front of Tracy. Tracy gave that little eye gesture where she looked at Linda, then looked at me, as if to say, “She can help you,” but Linda insisted on being oblivious to my presence. Tracy sighed and cut her telephone conversation short. I knew that Tracy would love to tell Linda to stick her attitude where the sun don’t shine, but Read It and Weep couldn’t afford to lose a customer who was as good at buying books as she was at being a snarky snake face. So Tracy rang up Linda’s purchases and bagged them for her as politely as one can without actually being friendly and handed the bag over to Linda.

Who, right on cue, gave me her parting shot, the look I knew was coming but was never quite able to deflect.

The look that said, There’s the freak who killed her own boyfriend.

She was wrong, of course. I hadn’t actually killed Jason. I was just the reason he was dead.

Copyright 2009 by Nicole Peeler