Authors: Starla Huchton
Edited by Jennifer Melzer
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover design by Starla Huchton, SH Productions, LLC
Editing by Jennifer Melzer
Cover photo © Maya Kruchenkova / Depositphotos.com
To all the mice of the world:
It gets better.
No matter how hard I fought them, my tears refused to stay in my eyes as I stared at the beheaded doll.
“Aw, the little pantry mouse is crying,” one of the boys laughed.
Another snickered. “Someone get some cheese. That’ll cheer up the mouse.”
All four of them erupted into laughter, the fifth looking bored. “Can we go now?” he asked. “I wanna watch my dad’s new ATV on the track.”
“Fine.” The first rolled his eyes. “I guess we can play with the mouse again later.”
I choked down my urge to scream at them and slap their smug, stupid faces. My embarrassment and anger boiled over into helpless frustration. Lashing out at spoiled rich kids would get me nothing but grounded.
I learned that lesson when I was six and tackled Zachary Robinson into a mud puddle for giving me the nickname that still haunted me. He mostly left me alone after that, which explained the bored look on his face, but he never actively discouraged any of his friends from tormenting me.
I hated them all. The destruction of my favorite doll only added to my pile of reasons.
As the boys left, one of them kicked the separated blonde head, sending it rolling under a bush. I didn’t make a move until they were out of sight, vanished to another part of the grounds to watch Mr. Robinson’s newest toy in action. Wiping my eyes with a sniffle, I crawled over and retrieved the plastic head, fighting off a shiver as my hand passed through a spider web. Once I had the piece and thoroughly shook the webs from me, I fixed my face into the I’m-not-upset expression I was trying to perfect for my parents. They had plenty of their own problems and would only tell me to let the matter of the doll go. It wasn’t like they could afford to replace it anyway.
With a resigned sigh, I hauled myself back to the main house to hide the toy in the trash. What difference did the newest insult make anyway?
Yawning, I tossed the car keys into the bowl on the entryway table. “Mom? You home?”
“In the kitchen, Margie!” my mother called from the other room.
The floorboards of the old house creaked as I walked through the hallway to the kitchen. Papers were strewn across the table, my parents huddled close over them, talking excitedly. I paused as I entered the harsh light of the overhead florescent bulbs, grimacing at the glare off of the yellow and white harlequin print wallpaper.
“What are you guys doing?”
My mother looked up at me, grinning. “How do you feel about spending your last summer in the States working in a restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef?”
My purse slid off my shoulder, hitting the tile floor with a smack. “What?”
She held out her hand to me, pulling me into a chair beside her. “Hear me out before you say no, okay?”
I stared at her, my mouth agape. “Say no? Why in the world would I—”
“It’s on Carrinaw Island.”
Instantly, I recoiled. “You’re joking.”
She shook her head, her brown bob swaying at her chin. “Last month, Terrence Robinson offered your father and I first dibs on running the restaurant he recently took over there. I know it’s not your favorite place in the world, but—”
“Not my favorite place?” I tried not to yell. “Do you remember how long it took me to get the stress migraines and stomach issues under control? I still can’t smell crab legs without feeling sick. And what do you mean last month? You’ve known for that long?”
My father stood and pulled up a chair beside me, taking my hand when he was seated again. “You were so worried about your GPA before graduation, your mother and I didn’t want to put any more on your plate. We understand what this means to you, sweetheart, believe me. But you’re headed for Paris in August anyway, and an opportunity like this may not come along for us again. It’s only three months for you, but this could change all of our lives. And there’s a chance you could earn a recommendation from the chef Terrence hired. It could make a difference in applying for scholarships for you, not to mention the money we’d make in taking this offer.”
“I already have scholarships.” I freed my hand from his grasp and crossed my arms. “Ones I earned without the help of Terrence Robinson’s money.”
“You have them for this year,” my father said, “but what about next year? Even if you don’t get a recommendation, we could easily afford to keep you in school without them. And your training at Le Cordon Bleu after your degree wouldn’t be an issue.”
“I was planning on spending the summer packing and perfecting my French. Can’t I just stay here and do that? Why do I have to go with you?”
After sharing a look with my father, my mother sighed. “Because we already have an offer on the house, Margie.”
My arms dropped to my sides, dangling as limply as wet noodles. “So… You’re not really asking me.”
“We were hoping you’d be on board,” my father said. “This opportunity—”
I pushed away from the table, my hands balled into fists as I tried to rein in my panic. “I get it. You have to think about your lives after I’m gone. You don’t have to explain that to me.”
“I’ll go stay with friends when you guys move. Nadine and Charlie are getting their own place in a few weeks, and I can probably offer to split rent if they let me crash on the couch until August. I can’t go back there, Dad. It’ll be the same thing all over again.”
“Don’t be silly,” my mother said. “You’re not a child anymore, and neither are any of the kids you knew back then. Most of them will be off to college or jobs.”
“Well, that changes everything,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’m sure my PTSD will be totally reasonable then.”
My mother stood and crossed to me, pulling my hands free and holding my gaze. “I know this won’t be easy for you, but it’s only three months. After that, you never have to think about any of them or that place ever again. Please, Margie. You’ll be overseas for years, maybe longer if you find work in Europe. Don’t make me give you up just yet.”
Staring at my mom, I could see how badly she wanted me to agree to it. We’d always been close, and I was going to miss her like crazy when I left. It was an amazing opportunity for them, and I really wanted to be there to help them get started, but the thought of returning to the hell I grew up in…
“How long do I have to think about it?”
“The movers are coming on Friday.”
“The… what?” I said, beyond stunned. “In two days?”
“Terrence needs us there immediately,” my dad said. “The tourist season is starting up and there’s a lot to be done. The previous owners made a complete mess of Le Beau Tournée. Terrence has faith in our abilities, and he’s put a great deal of trust in us to handle this.”
“And exactly how many years of indentured servitude will you owe him for this favor?” I said, unable to control my cynicism.
“It’s a four-year contract, pending everything goes well,” my mom answered, ignoring my sarcasm. “After that, we’ll see what happens.”
“And what about the
you wanted to open?”
My mom smiled sadly and returned to her seat. “It’s on hold for now. We don’t have the capital to start that business yet anyway. This contract will also give us a better means of making that happen. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, Margaret.”
I gave her a flat look.
She shook her head at me. “Even for you, if you let it be. Remember what Dr. Hooper always told you?”
It wasn’t the least bit surprising she’d throw that at me. Dr. Hooper was singlehandedly responsible for turning me from a practically catatonic kid in chronic pain, to a mostly functional human being with actual goals, dreams, and a sense of personal worth. “If I let other people dictate my happiness, I never will be,” I offered, throwing in one last contrary dig.
She frowned at me. “The other thing.”
I took a deep breath, releasing it in a slow exhale. “Embracing what was is the only way to make the most of now.”
She nodded, satisfied. “You should pack a suitcase tomorrow. It should only take a few days to get everything settled in Carrinaw with the movers packing and unpacking everything for us, but make sure you prepare for at least a week without access to your full wardrobe and hoarded makeup.”
My dad chuckled. “Leave her collection alone, Janet. I think she’s got enough to worry about already.”
“Oh,” my mom added. “Make sure you pack one or two nicer things. We’ll be having dinner with the Robinsons at least one night.”
I shuddered. “Gee, that sounds like so much fun. Should I take the Prada suit or the Vera Wang evening dress?”
“Your enthusiasm is duly noted, but not required,” she said, turning back to the papers on the table. “Your presence, however, is.”
“Awesome,” I said, when I’d rather slit my own wrists than spend an evening with the obscenely wealthy Robinsons and their horrible son. Maybe I’d get lucky and he’d have better things to do.
Desperately needing time to process, I stalked out of the kitchen, upstairs to my little closet of a bedroom. Curling up with one of my pillows, I let it sink in, trying to be okay with the sudden shift in my world.
Whether I liked it or not, in two days’ time I’d again be stuck in the one place I’d spent six years trying to forget. Carrinaw Island was sucking me back in.
And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Tomorrow?” Angela said, coughing as she choked on her latte.
I nodded, staring hopelessly into my smoothie.
“And they’re only just telling you now?” She brushed a tight, springy curl away from her forehead.
“That’s kinda what I said, too,” I muttered.
“Did you talk to Nadine yet? Maybe you can crash at her parents’ place until she moves in with Charlie in Oak Harbor.”
I lifted my eyes to my best friend of the last four years, taking in every inch of her beautiful round face, wondering for the millionth time how she managed to escape puberty without a single acne scar on her unblemished brown skin. I wanted to remember every detail about her, from her wild curls to her amber-colored eyes. I loved her eyes. She was always complaining about how they made her look like some sort of paranormal creature out of the books she read, but I didn’t think for a second she didn’t love it. If there was anything aside from my family I was going to miss when I left, she would be it. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. I thought we had more time.
“You know what’s going on with Nadine’s parents,” I said. “There’s no way I’d ask with World War III erupting over dinner every night. They don’t need any more stress right now.”