Excerpt from Whisper Beach

Chapter One

Vanessa Moran was wearing black. Of course she always wore black, she was a New Yorker . . . and it was a funeral. She’d dressed meticulously (she always did), fashionable but respectful, chic but not different enough to call attention to herself.

Still, for a betraying instant, standing beneath the sweltering August sun, the gulls wheeling overhead and promising cool salt water nearly within reach, she longed for a pair of faded cutoffs and a T shirt with some tacky slogan printed across the front.

She shifted her weight and her heels sank a little lower in the soil.  The sweat began to trickle down her back. She could feel her hair beginning to curl. She should have left after mass, sneaked out of the church before anyone recognized her.

But what would be the point of that? 

When she saw Gigi sitting bolt upright in that front pew, Van suddenly felt the weight of the years, the guilt, the sadness, the—and by the time she’d roused herself, the pall bearers were already moving the casket down the aisle.

She bowed her head while her cousin and at one time best friend passed by, but couldn’t resist glancing up for just a second.  Gigi looked older than she should, she’d gained weight.  And now she was  a widow.

Her cousin, Gigi.  Practically the same age, and best friends from the first time Gigi  poured the contents of her sippy cup over Vanessa’s curly hair.  Vanessa didn’t remember the incident, but that’s what they told her.  Of course you could hardly trust anything the Moran side of her family said.

And Van knew she couldn’t leave without at least paying her condolences. Wasn’t that really why she’d come? To make her peace with the past.  Then let it go.

So she followed the others across the street to the cemetery, stood on the fringes of the group, looking across the flower-covered casket to where her cousin stood between her parents. Gigi leaned against her father, Van’s Uncle Nate, the best of the Moran clan. On her other side, Aunt Amelia, stood stiffly upright.  Strong enough for two—or three.

Behind them the Morans, the Gilpatricks, the Dalys and the Kirks stood clumped together, the women looking properly sad in summer dresses, the men in various versions of upright—nursing hangovers from the two day wake—wilting inside their suit jackets.

The one person Van didn’t see was her father. And that was fine by her.

Gigi, whose real name was Jennifer, was the good girl of the family.  Except for the sippy cup incident, she’d always done the right thing.  Boring but loyal, which Vanessa had reason to know and appreciate.  Now a widow at thirty-one.  It hardly seemed fair.

Then again, what in life was fair?

Van passed a hand over her throat. It came away wet with sweat. This was miserable for everyone, including the priest who was fully robed and standing in the sun in the middle of a New Jersey heat wave.

He opened his hands.  It was a gesture all priests used and Vanessa had never understood.  Benediction or surrender?  In this case it could go either way.

“In Sanctus spiritus . . .”

Vanessa lowered her head but watched the mourners through her lashes.  In the glare of the sun it was hard to distinguish faces. But she knew them.  Most of them.

“I wondered if you’d show.”

Vanessa’s head snapped around.

“Shh. No squealing or kissing and hugging.”

“Suze? What are you doing here?”

Suzanne Turner was the only person she had kept in touch with since leaving Whisper Beach.  And that had been sporadic at best. Van hadn’t actually seen her in years.  But she was the same Suze, tall and big-boned, expensively but haphazardly dressed in a sleeveless gray sheath and a voile kimono.  A college professor, she looked fit enough to wrestle any recalcitrant student into appreciating Chaucer.

Suze leaned closer and whispered, “Same reason you’re here.  Dorie called me.”

“And where is she?”

“Probably over at the pub setting up the reception.  She demands your presence.”

Vanessa closed her eyes. “I suppose I have to go.”

“Damn straight.  Dorie said if you sneaked out again without saying goodbye, she’d—and I quote—follow your skinny ass to where ever and give you what for.”

Vanessa snorted. Covered it over with a cough when several disgruntled mourners turned to give her the evil eye.

“Let us pray.”

Suze pulled her back a little ways from the group. She was trying not to laugh.  Which would be a disaster.  Suze had a deep belly laugh that could attract crowds.

Vanessa lowered her voice.  “How does she know I have a skinny ass?  For all she knows I could have gained fifty pounds in the last twelve years.”

Suze glanced down at Vanessa’s butt.  “But you didn’t.  Did you ever think that maybe Dorie is clairvoyant?”

Vanessa rolled her eyes.  She certainly hoped not.  She moved closer to Suze, gingerly lifting her heels out of the soil.

“A bitch on shoes these outdoor funerals,” Suze said. “You look great by the way.  You’re bound to wow whoever might be here and interested.”

Van narrowed her eyes at Suze. “How long have you been here?  Who else is here?”

“I don’t know. I just got a cab from the station.  The train was late and I was afraid I’d miss the whole thing. Changed clothes in the parish office.  Nice guy, this Father Murphy.”

Another snort from Vanessa.  She couldn’t help it. “You’re kidding. His name is Murphy?  Really?” Every Sunday her father would drop her mother and her off at the church with a “Going over to Father Murphy’s for services.  I’ll pick you up afterwards.”  Mike Murphy owned the pub two blocks from the church.  Mike was short on sermons but his bar was well stocked and all his parishioners left happy.

Seemed nothing much had changed in Whisper Beach.  They’d be going to the other Father Murphy’s as soon as Clay Daly was laid to rest.

“In the name of  . . .”

It was inevitable that some one would recognize her.  As the Amen died away and eyes opened, one pair rested on hers. Van stood a little straighter, lifted her chin. Pretended that her confidence wasn’t slipping.

There was a moment of question, then startled recognition, a turn to his neighbor and the news rippled through the circle of mourners like a breeze off the river.

Van helplessly watched it make its way all the way to the family until it  hit Gigi full force.  Van could see her startle from where she was standing.  The jerk of her head, the searching eyes. Van stepped farther back from the crowd and wedged herself between Suze and the Farley Mausoleum.

It was a desperate but futile attempt.  Gigi found her and almost as one the entire family, the Morans, the Gilpatricks, the Dalys and the Kirks, turned in her direction.

“Busted,” Suze whispered.

“This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen,” Van whispered.

“Then you should have come earlier and made your condolences . . . before the public arrived. You can’t expect them not to be curious.  It’s been twelve years and a half of them thought you were dead.”

Suze was right. She could have called.  Warned them she was coming.  Ask if she would even be welcome.  She hadn’t.

She wasn’t even sure why she had come, except that everything had coalesced at once.  Her staff had been urging her to take a vacation. Dorie’s letter had arrived at the same time.  And Van thought what the hell, she blocked out two weeks of her schedule, made reservations at a four star hotel in Rehoboth beach and got out her funeral dress.

Even once she’d packed, dressed and picked up the rental car, she was still deliberating.  She almost drove straight past the parkway exit to Whisper Beach.  But in the end she’d come.

She’d known Gigi had gotten married. She’d even sent a gift. But without a return address. Maybe Gigi was relieved not to have to write a thank you note.

Van had called her once after she left, just to let Gigi know she was alright. Gigi begged her to come home, but Van couldn’t, even if she’d wanted to. And couldn’t explain why.

How could she tell Gigi that she was living in an apartment with way too many people, most of them strangers.  That she was afraid.  Hurt. Angry.  Sick. For  a long time.  That she’d nearly died before she caved and called Suze—not Gigi—for help.

Gigi had already done enough. Cleaned out her bank account to help Van get away. Almost two thousand dollars, her college savings—all stolen while Van slept on the train ride to Manhattan.

“I’m beginning to think I shouldn’t have come at all.”

“Don’t worry. The worst is over.”

Oh no it wasn’t.  Van only hoped that she would be gone before the worst reared his ugly head.

“Well, you can’t leave now.  Everyone has seen you. Besides I didn’t have time for breakfast and I’m starving.”

Gigi passed by, still supported by her father on one side and her mother on the other.  Amelia was the only one who looked toward Van and Suze. And Van knew in that instant that regardless of the twelve years that had passed, she hadn’t been forgiven.

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

“You can and you will.”  Suze took her by the elbow and force-marched her toward the street. “We’re both going.  We’re going to say our condolences to Gigi.  Say hello to Dorie, eat, and then we can leave.”

“I thought it would feel great to come back successful, independent, and well-dressed.  But now I’m thinking they’ll hate me for it.  I’m out of place here.  What was I thinking? I won’t be welcome. I know Aunt Amelia wishes I hadn’t come.”

“She’s one person.  And quite frankly, do you really care? You’ve come to pay your respects and if they get the added benefit of seeing the success you’ve made of your life, well, good for you.” Suze grinned.

Van couldn’t help giving her an answering smile. It would be nice for everyone to know she’d survived. That she’d made something of herself.  And  maybe she did have a few things to answer for.  To some people. Not all.  There were some people she would never forgive.

She’d left a lot of unfinished business here.  She’d begun to think it could stay unfinished, but standing here, being back even for an hour drove home how impossible that was. Maybe it was time she just got it done.

She turned abruptly and started around the back of the church.

“Hold up, where are you going?”

“I’m staying out of sight until the last possible moment.”

“And make a grand entrance?”

“God no.  We’re going in the back way.”

 

Joe Enthorpe sat at the bar in Mike’s Pub, nursing a beer he didn’t want and would be too early to drink if he was just getting out of bed instead of finishing up a long ten hours of night fishing.

He knew he was stupid to come to Mike’s knowing that Clay Daly’s funeral repast would be in the party room down the hall.  He hadn’t gone to the funeral. Wouldn’t have gone even if he hadn’t been out all night. Still he couldn’t stay away.

The door opened and the first of the mourners came in. He probably should say his condolences, but he smelled like sweat, beer and fish.  Better he just went home.

He ordered another beer.

Mike just slowly shook his head and slid a mug of Guinness in his direction. Seems like today everybody remembered the summer he crashed and burned. Most of it took place right here at Mike’s, before Mike kicked Van out for being under age

The trouble with living in a place all your life.  People didn’t forget shit. 

He plunked down a twenty and headed for the door.

“I’m guessing this ain’t a big tip,” Mike called after him. “I’ll keep your change till you come back for it.” Mike’s laugh was the last thing Joe heard before he stepped out into the blinding sun.

 

Dorie Lister was in the caterer’s kitchen when she heard the first mourners arrive.  They’d left their sadness at the door and were ready to eat, drink, and if not be totally merry, at least have a good time.  Best way to mourn your dead was to send them off with a party. 

Rumor was, Gigi didn’t have a penny to her name. Nate and Amelia had to pay the funeral expenses including the wake and repast. So Dorie had offered the catering services of the Blue Claw, free of charge.  It was the least she could do. So what if she had to scrimp.

She dismissed the two girls who’d helped with the set up and sent them back to the restaurant to set up for dinner.  It was the last Saturday of the season and there would be a handful of tourists to be fed.

She pulled her cell phone out of her apron pocket.  Something she had been doing all day.  She’d gotten the message from Suze that she was on her way.  Nothing from Van.  She wasn’t surprised, but she was disappointed.  Fool that she was, even after all these years, she’d expected Van to come.

Things had begun to unravel for Whisper Beach all those years ago. And it hadn’t stopped.  Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe she’d just have to sit back and watch all those young lives swirl right down the drain.

It was already too late for the likes of her, but she’d made her bed a long time ago.  And all in all, it wasn’t such a bad place to sleep.

Dorie dropped the phone back in her pocket, grabbed a hot pad and pulled a tray of freshly browned Italian bread slices out of the oven. She placed the pan on a trivet and was just reaching for the bowl of tomato bruschetta when the door to the hall opened and Kippie Fuller slipped in and closed the door behind her.

“What?  Out of shrimp bites already?”

Kippie shook her head.  “You’ll never guess who I think I saw at the funeral.”

Kippie was big and moved slow but she had a quick eye for gossip.

“Who?”

“I’m pretty sure it was her.”

Dorie began to feel a glimmer of—not hope—exactly, but interest.  Yes, interest, nothing more. She waited for Kippie to expound on the subject.  She would, she always did.

“I didn’t get a good look, but Pete Daly said it was her.”

“Huh.” Dorie untied her apron and threw it on the counter. Patted her hair, freshly blonde from Lucille over at Sea Breeze Beauty.

“Well, don’t you want to know?”

“Sure.”  Dorie checked her lipstick in the coffee urn. Smacked her lips a couple of time.

“Robbie Moran’s daughter.  What’s her name.”

“You mean Vanessa?”

“Yes, that’s the one.  The one that ran off and left her daddy alone, poor man.”

Short memories, Dorie thought.

“Poor soul, I hear he’s pretty bad off.”

“Kippie, Robbie Moran was born bad off and went downhill from there.  And he brought it all on himself.”

“The idea of her coming back after letting everybody think she was dead all these years.”

Nobody who bothered to look for her, thought Dorie.

“Whole family’s a little whacko if you ask me. Including that daughter of his. She’s got her nerve showing up like this. There’ll be trouble.  You mark my words.”

 

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