Excerpt for In the Direction of the Sun by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Summary


“The emotions flying between the two women who tell their story here is as dramatic as the Appalachian Trail and as tumultuous as the Atlantic Ocean. These natural elements are a perfect backdrop for the revelations of love which both repel and engage them.”


Jewelle Gomez, author, The Gilda Stories


Steady and smart, Alex McKenzie is settled into a comfortable life in her beloved hometown of Stockbridge, MA. Everything Alex thought she knew about life and about herself changes the moment Cate Conrad blows into town like a warm breeze. Alex falls head over heels in love with the free-spirited artist and sailor but there’s one problem: Cate’s complicated past makes it impossible for her to open her heart completely and so she does what she’s always done—she runs away. Devastated, Alex tries to heal her heart by literally walking away from her life to hike the famed Appalachian Trail while Cate takes to the water. The unexpected turn of events shows Cate and Alex how fragile life is and how love is the all that really matters.








in the direction of the sun










in the direction of the sun




Lucy J. madison







Sapphire Books

Salinas, california



In the Direction of the Sun

Copyright © 2017 by Lucy J. Madison. All rights reserved.


ISBN EPUB - 978-1-943353-66-8

This is a work of fiction - names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without written permission of the publisher.



Editor - Nikki Busch

Book Design - LJ Reynolds

Cover Design - Michelle Brodeur



Sapphire Books Publishing, LLC

P.O. Box 8142

Salinas, CA 93912

www.sapphirebooks.com


Released in the United States of America

First Edition – March 2017


Find out how you can get a FREE ebook at the end of this book!


This and other Sapphire Books titles can be found at

www.sapphirebooks.com



Dedication


This book is affectionately dedicated to my best friends Deb, Nella, Missy, and Carla. We’ve been friends thirty years and counting and not once have you ever gone hiking with me.

Just saying.



Acknowledgment


Part of In The Direction of the Sun was written during several section hikes of the Appalachian Trail in multiple states. I am grateful to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Potomac Appalachian Mountain Club, Shenandoah Park Ranger Patressa Kearns, and everyone at the Rapidan Mountain Retreat including Mike Robison and all the fine fly-fishing gentlemen from cabin three who welcomed me, fed me steak, and told me some fantastic stories. Thank you to all the hikers I’ve met along the Trail and to Billy Goat for hiking with me here and there.

I’m indebted to Judy Long for her patient answers to my fumbling questions on sailing and navigation, as well as to the Women Who Sail Group for their input and information about circumnavigation, sailboats, and sailing life in general.

Sincere thanks to Dallas Greene of City and Colour (www.cityandcolour.com) and Tricia Ricciuto of Bedlam Music Management for your generosity and assistance. Dallas, your lyrics and your music rock.

Thank you to my supportive and talented editor, Nikki Busch for working so hard to bring out the best in me and in this manuscript. Special thanks to the entire staff at Sapphire Books Publishing, including Christine Svendsen and Schileen Potter. Michelle Brodeur, thank you for your artistic expertise with the cover design. Lori Reynolds, you make layout look like a breeze!

Finally, thank you to all my generous readers and fans. I.V. now and always.



“So bright the flames burned in our hearts

that we found each other in the dark.”


- City and Colour



Part One


Chapter One


Alex

August 2014–Appalachian Trail at Sage’s Ravine, Massachusetts

Alex McKenzie wasn’t at all the person she thought she was. She hadn’t showered in over a week and all she could think of was a cold beer, a hot shower, and a double cheeseburger—in that order. Alex shivered as she unrolled her sleeping bag on the wooden platform of the sparse, three-sided lean-to. The rain had been falling steadily on the Appalachian Trail near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, making for an uncomfortable mid-August evening. Sleeping on a thin air mattress in the middle of the woods alone was miraculously never on her bucket list. Yet, here she was, a thirty-three-year-old woman taking her first official leap of faith.

Alex zipped up her sleeping bag, trying to rid her tall, slender body of the chill from being wet for hours on an unseasonably cool August day. She wrapped her shoulder-length dark hair in a bandana since it was still pretty damp and she could never sleep with wet hair plastered against the back of her neck. She went through her nighttime checklist: Toilet paper was positioned on her platform for easy reach in case she had to go during the night. Her pack hung from a hook a few feet off the ground on the other end of her sleeping platform to keep the mice away. So did her boots. Somewhere in New Hampshire, she’d learned that mice loved the salt from her dried sweat and would happily chew through bootlaces if given the opportunity. Her food and few toiletries hung safely from a tree about 150 feet away from the shelter in an Ursak bag specially designed to keep bear, mice, and anything else out.

She slid down inside the dry sleeping bag and was once again thankful she’d splurged on the Big Agnes Double Z Air Pad that was about a pound heavier than most other inflatable sleeping pads. When you carried everything on your back to survive, a pound was a lot of weight. But the added two inches of cushion and insulation was manna from the gods after a long and wet day hiking. Her stomach growled, a common occurrence after burning off over 5,000 calories and eating only beef jerky, ramen noodles, and a Snickers bar for dinner. The rain poured down outside creating a comforting wall of sound Alex had grown to love when she was snug inside a dry shelter for the night.

She reminded herself of the date, as she did each and every night before she fell asleep. It was August 13, 2014. She had no idea what day of the week it was, but she knew she had been hiking for seventy-five days.

The beam from her headlamp illuminated various initials and carvings in the wooden wall of the Sage’s Ravine lean-to, which stood in a large gully surrounded by lush green and rocks. One could easily walk right by the shelter from above and never even know it was there at all. One phrase inside the darkened lean-to that was most likely carved by a previous hiker with a simple pocket knife caught her eye: “Only Love” it read. She stopped for a moment to soak in those two words. She was exhausted, but she wasn’t too exhausted from a slippery and dangerous nine-mile hike in driving rain with a thirty-pound bag strapped to her back to ignore the inner workings of her mind. She repositioned her head on her lumpy, dry bag of dirty and smelly clothes and could do nothing but laugh at the irony of those words. Maybe it was just a coincidence or perhaps it was the universe sending her a sign. Either way, it bugged her. She clicked off her headlamp and hung it from a nail on the sidewall of the shelter for easy access. Those two words swirled around her mind like red wine in a crystal glass.

Most people labeled themselves by who they were to other people. Alex was a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a friend, and a lover. Her two best friends, Marcie and Emma, had known her since she was six years old. They knew all of her secrets and all of her hopes and dreams. Of course both tried to talk Alex out of what she was about to do, but both also admitted they knew that once Alex set her mind to something, she would do it.

“You are so damned stubborn it’s astonishing,” said Marcie one evening when she came by to help Alex pack.

“I know I am,” Alex said. “This is just something I feel I have to do. I can’t explain it.”

“Well you know Emma and I are here for you. We’ll help your sister keep an eye on the house but we talked and neither one of us is remotely interested in hiking with you.”

Alex laughed. She loved her friends for their honesty and knew that if she needed them, they’d hike to the end of the earth for her. Her friends always had her back and she had theirs.

That last part about being a lover—that one was tricky. Yes. She knew love, deep and true, albeit one-sided. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get that love out of her head. And apparently, no amount of miles on craggy trails would erase it. She knew that for certain after hiking exactly 681.8 miles through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and now Massachusetts over seventy-five days. Try as she might, she just couldn’t make the pain in her heart fade away. She thought she could. She imagined that hiking the Appalachian Trail would be this magical, mystical ride where she could pack up her past heartbreak and leave it all behind her as the miles stretched out like a big yawn in front of her. Books like A Walk in The Woods and Wild only fueled her misshapen belief that hiking any trail, let alone the famed Appalachian Trail, would be this spiritual healing journey. She recalled the wisdom her grandfather told her one afternoon when he had taken her out for an ice cream cone. She was about fourteen years old. He said in his inimitable Yogi Berra way, “It doesn’t matter where you go. You take you with you no matter what.” She never fully understood the meaning of those words until now. She carried that past with her—every step, every mile, every stream crossed, and every rainy day. Her past was added weight and her wounded heart beat all the same, no matter where she found herself laying her head for the night.

The only bonus she found was being so tired after hiking all day that she rarely remained awake more than ten minutes before she was sacked out in a near coma for the remainder of the night. On the flip side, it meant she now had the entire day of hiking in solitude to turn every memory and daydream over and over in her mind like a piece of sea glass in her hands.

Most already slightly insane Appalachian Trail hikers began their journeys at Springer Mountain, Georgia in February or March where the weather was warmer so they could hopefully end their epic 2,180-mile journeys in Maine at the summit of Mount Katahdin in September. She was the exception to the rule, as usual.

Alex chose a southbound route, starting May 30, 2014, specifically to avoid as many people as possible. She didn’t want company. In 2013, only a mere 336 people reported completing a southbound thru-hike to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. She knew the odds were stacked against her from the beginning and she was well aware of the extreme physical challenge she was throwing herself headlong into, alone, to start the hike. Her only goal was to get away from her life as fast as possible and oddly enough, this was the only way that made sense to her.

Alex thought about her first three weeks on the Appalachian Trail. She climbed Mount Katahdin, the highest and most difficult mountain on the entire Trail. Just the memory of her burning legs and muscle soreness made her cringe. She survived the one-hundred-mile wilderness in Maine with black fly season in full swing. One night the flies were so bad she screamed at them for three hours until her voice went hoarse. Hypothermia was a real threat on more than one occasion when she fell into icy streams during several crossings. Even with all of the physical and mental challenges of the first few months, she survived Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts and even learned to thrive through arguably the most difficult section of the Trail. She’d wanted to make things as challenging as possible from the beginning to get her mind off her heartbreak. That was her one motivating reason for attempting a solo southbound thru-hike. So far, however, it wasn’t working. Her mind still found a way to work overtime despite the physical challenges.

When Alex told her mother and sister that she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail alone, they thought she’d completely lost her mind. “Why on earth would you do that?” her mother asked, eyes wide, mouth hanging open in disbelief. For weeks Alex worked to convince them that not only did she have a plan, she had been researching and testing gear for months (a slight white lie). She showed them detailed maps and route plans, her organized mail drop system to ensure supplies were readily available. She even went on a solo shakedown hike to make sure the gear she carried was the gear she actually needed since most thru-hikers end up ditching a third of their packs in the first two weeks anyway. She learned quickly that only those items she could not live without were worth carrying every step of the way. When she set her mind to something, there was no stopping her. She made the decision to hike the whole of the Appalachian Trail and she would do it, no matter how difficult the journey ahead. Stubborn. She had been told she was stubborn more times than she could count.

Alex knew her mother only wanted the best for her, but she also knew full well that her mother didn’t really know her. Her dear mother, Sally McKenzie, believed her daughter was a single woman in her early thirties with a respectable job as an English teacher in Stockbridge, a small, quaint, Massachusetts town. Alex never doubted her mother’s fierce love but she also never felt as though her mother saw the real her. Of all her mother’s skills, one of her worst flaws was only seeing what she wanted to see when she wanted to see it. She simply ignored anything that fell outside that rule. Like the part about Alex being a lesbian. She was on a constant merry-go-round of denial when it came to that subject even though Alex had told her years ago. Her mother never mentioned it again and pretended as though she’d never heard it. Not that Alex cared. She was past the point in her life when she needed her mother’s acceptance. She was fine with who she was and she had come to terms long ago with the understanding that her mother loved her but would never know the real her.

Her sister Sara, on the other hand, knew Alex like the back of her own hand. One thing Alex loved about her older sister was how fiercely protective she was. It had always been just the two of them—Alex and Sara—taking on the world together. They survived their beloved father’s death in a training mission at Hanscom Air Force Base when Sara was twelve years old and Alex was two years younger and held hands as the honor guard at Arlington National Cemetery fired blanks into the air at his military funeral. They survived their first heartbreaks, acne, algebra, and high school side by side. They even chose to attend Amherst College together and roomed together for two years, remaining best friends and inseparable every step of the way. Sure they had their knock-down, drag-out fights, but they never went to bed angry at one another and they always had each other’s backs.

A few days before Sara dropped Alex off in Maine, she’d stopped by to help her pack and go over the details for mail drops and taking care of the house one more time. Four years ago, Alex had bought the small Cape on Interlaken-Lake Drive—a quaint, historic, and quiet area that had great walkability and charm. The house needed work, but over the years Alex transformed it doing just about every DIY project imaginable, from renovating the kitchen and bathrooms to knocking down walls to open up the living space. After several years and a seemingly endless cycle of projects, Alex finally had the house she’d envisioned ever since bidding on the place. It was truly her home and she was apprehensive about leaving it for such a long period. The house had become a part of her. Every wall, every nail, every hardwood plank was personal to her. Leaving her home for such a prolonged period made her stomach bottom out, yet she had no choice but to ask her sister to help out in her absence.

Although Sara had her own career as a dental hygienist and a new husband (she and David had been dating since college), she promised to take care of Alex’s house and check in on it every few days. Alex knew Sara was trying desperately to keep an open mind about her baby sister walking into the wilderness alone for six months, maybe more. But the look on Sara’s face told Alex she was unsuccessful in that attempt.

“I just don’t understand why you are doing this,” Sara said as the two sat outside on the porch, their feet dangling from the swinging bench. “You’re cutting out almost a month before the school year ends and using the last of your sick time. Not to mention the leave of absence you’re taking until December.”

“I know, Sara. I’ve considered all of this,” Alex responded. Actually, Alex had thought of nothing else for the last two weeks. Her bouts of worry and sleeplessness rotated between leaving her precious students before the school year ended to taking a leave of absence during the start of the next year.

Sara continued on as if she had prepared this speech and would say it all no matter what. “That job was so difficult for you to land. What if they don’t want you back afterward? Do you have to leave everyone behind and go off alone like this? I’m trying, Alex, but I just don’t understand it. You’re giving up all your stability to go on a long walk.”

“Are you done?” asked Alex.

“Yes, I think so.”

Alex was silent for a moment. She leaned up against her sister and took a deep breath before speaking. “We’ve always done things together and it must be hard knowing you won’t be there to look out for me. I can’t explain it. It’s something I have to do. I’m no good to my students. I’m all out of focus. I need to clear my head and this is the only way I can think to do it. You know how much I’ve loved to hike ever since Daddy took us to Bear Mountain. Being in the woods does something to me. It clears my head and my soul. Please try to understand I’m not walking away from you or from Mom.”

Sara raised an eyebrow at Alex.

“Okay, maybe I am walking away from Mom. Can you blame me?” Alex quickly added, “But not you. Never you. Please believe me, Sara. I need to take a leap. I need to live a little. I can’t just stay here in Stockbridge and stagnate.” Alex wrapped her arms around Sara’s waist and leaned in, comforted by her sister’s protectiveness.

“What if something happens to you?” Sara’s voice cracked.

“You know I have the satellite communicator. You’ll be able to track my location every ten minutes.” Alex patted her leg, trying to make Sara believe she had thought of every detail. “I’m carrying extra battery chargers just to make sure I always have it powered up. And we can text with it even if I don’t have cell service. Nothing is going to happen, or if it does, I can handle it.”

“I just hate the idea of you being out there all alone.”

“See, that’s the part I am most thrilled about.”

“Is this about her?”

“What do you mean?” asked Alex with feigned cluelessness.

Again Sara arched an eyebrow at her younger sister.

“It might be. A little bit.” Alex shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe more than a little bit.”

“Oh, babe. If I could take away that heartbreak for you, I’d do it in a second.” Sara hugged her tighter.

“I know,” Alex sighed. “I wish you could too.” She was silent for a time. It had only been a month since she’d last spoken to Cate. A long, hard month. “I just can’t get past it,” she finally admitted, her voice wavering. “Cate took something from me and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get it back. All the love I had to give wasn’t enough for her.” Alex roughly brushed away the tears that slid down her face. She would not cry, not in front of her sister.


****

Alex thought about her mother and her sister as the rain fell outside the shelter. Her stomach lurched at the twinges of homesickness she still felt whenever she thought about her sister or her little house. She wondered if Sara was watering the roses in the backyard enough. Her thoughts floated around on wafer-thin ribbons of emotion. Part of her nightly ritual included writing a letter to Cate in her mind. The words formed shapes in the darkness and gave meaning to her days even though she had carried a journal with the expectation of writing about her journey. Somehow writing her thoughts on paper seemed too final, too permanent, but her imaginary nightly letters to Cate formed then floated away into the darkness never to be repeated again. That was oddly comforting to her, and she continued her ritual, night after night for seventy-five days, speaking to Cate in her mind, holding tightly to that secret place in her own heart that no longer held solace.

Dear Cate: Today was a good day even though it rained. Whenever I walk in the rain, I am amazed at how quiet everything is around me. I can’t even hear my own boots hit the ground. Everything is muffled except for the raindrops hitting the summer leaves. As I walked today, I remembered the time you kissed me that night in your loft after you showed me all your art. You took me by surprise. You kept whispering, “This is for you.” At first I didn’t know what you meant by that but now I do. You said you never felt the way I did. Now, after I’ve been able to think about things, I realize you pitied me. You thought you were giving me a gift that day—a gift of the love I wanted so badly from you. But all you did was make things worse.

There was so much she wanted to say to Cate but after their last conversation, it was as if everything froze except Alex. Her heart froze. Her mind froze. Nothing else mattered as days went flying by. Again her mind returned to the words carved into the wood not three feet from her head. “Only Love.” But love wasn’t enough. Not this time.

Alex tried to sleep and couldn’t. She put on her headlamp and scooted like an inchworm in her sleeping bag across the worn wooden plank platform until she could reach her backpack hanging on a hook. She rummaged around and found her waterproof journal and pen. Leaning up against the wall of the shelter, she turned to the first blank page of her journal and began to write. The pen felt foreign in her hand. It had been many days since she’d last held one. She stared at the blank pages and considered writing a memoir about her trip but no words came forth. She sat back against the wall and listened to the ta-ta-ta of the rain hitting the tin roof. When her father died, Alex coped by ignoring the pain. She kept herself busy and involved in a million activities so that she never had to wonder or think about him. This was infinitely harder. Now she was allowing herself the space to think, to grieve, and to heal and it was proving far more difficult. So she did the only thing she could think of. She wrote a letter to Cate to help bridge the gap between them.

Chapter Two


August 13, 2014 9:58 p.m.

Somewhere in Massachusetts


Dear Cate:

I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the courage to send you this letter. It has been many months since I’ve written anything, let alone a letter to you. Tomorrow will be my seventy-sixth day on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve covered almost 700 miles on foot all by myself, including the hundred-mile wilderness in Maine and tackling New Hampshire without killing myself. In all those months, I carried around a journal and never wrote a word. Tonight is the first time I’ve written and it’s no surprise that my first words are for you.

When I was in college I used to write all the time. As an English major at Amherst, I dreamed of writing the next great American novel. I faithfully wrote down my hopes and dreams. Then somewhere along the line, I met you and everything I wrote from that point on was for you and no one else.

Do you remember the journal I created for you with my poems and letters and deepest desires? I gave it to you almost four months ago to show you how I felt about you and about all I thought we could become. As I recall, we met for dinner at Once Upon A Table in Stockbridge on a day in April when springtime stretched its sticky green fingers skyward. We ordered vegetable dumplings to share that we never touched. We sat at the little table by the window. You handed the journal back as the waitress delivered our appetizer. You told me you just didn’t feel the same. You told me you were nothing special and I should just move on. You told me you loved me as a friend. This, after everything we shared together. The next day, I tore that journal to shreds, page by page, and dumped everything unceremoniously into the garbage. That’s when I decided to leave my life and hike the Appalachian Trail. You’re not the only one who knows how to pick up and leave a place.

Today is a different day and a good deal of time has passed since then although my feelings have not lessened. Here I am sitting in a shelter and leaning against the wooden wall as I listen to the rain dance on the tin roof. For just a moment, you are here with me. But then a cool breeze pushes in raindrops from outside and I shut it down. I have learned to bury the part of me that loves you. I have found a way to survive without you in my life the way I dreamed. I realize now that I am not happy and that these months have passed slowly.

You should know something: you are still the last thing I think of before I fall asleep and the first thought on my mind when I wake each morning. That has never stopped as much as I have tried and no matter how many miles I walk each day.

I took out the photo of you I carry in my backpack and I spent a long time looking at it—at you and your golden curly hair that seems to radiate light from within. I realized yesterday how good I have become at blocking my own instincts and feelings. The thought occurred to me that I no longer trust myself. That is a problem I need to figure out how to fix, but God knows I miss you.

Today was rainy and cool here in my home state of Massachusetts. As I write, the heavy summer rain grows louder and more insistent on the tin roof of the shelter, drowning out almost all other sound in the woods. I know that if you were here with me, we’d lie together and just listen to the sound and the patterns between the raindrops. We are such similar creatures you and I. In so many ways we see the world the same, and in so many ways we are different. I wonder if you are painting now. I wish you could see some of the views I’ve seen. You’d want to make art after seeing them all.

I try to take each day in the present now. I try not to dream too much of kissing you. It hurts too much.

At the end of my life when I am asked about my regrets, I hope that I don’t say your name. I hope that time will change things and one day we will be together. I am forever yours even if I never see your face again.

Perhaps one day I will begin to trust myself again, but right now, I don’t. My heart led me to you and that caused me incredible suffering like I have never known in my life. I’ve always been a certain person, assured, sure of my direction. Then I met you and everything turned on its side. You blew into my life like a warm summer breeze, then you disappeared. Now I no longer trust my instincts. I felt something real and I had to bury it. I hope one day I find the strength to let you go.

I told you the truth and I let it out and you ran. Someday I hope you see what kind of love it took for me to do this. I hope you see that in letting you go, I gave you the greatest gift I had to give. I gave you my heart and let you break it.

Cate, you may wonder why I continue to think about us in this way. I don’t know the answer. I truly don’t. I wish I didn’t. In so many ways, I wish I had never met you. But in so many other ways, I know that my life has been forever changed because you came into it.

Always,

Alex



Chapter Three


Cate

August 2014–Provincetown, Massachusetts


Two hundred and sixty miles away at the same time, Cate sat on a driftwood tripod bench bleached white and smooth by the sun. Surrounded by art supplies on the small porch of a cabin in the bluffs of Race Point in Provincetown, she stared at a blank canvas. Her canvas, white and unblinking stared back at her as if to say, “Listen you’re the painter, I’m just the blank slate.” The sun was incredibly hot already and it was only seven in the morning. The light had been perfect at sunrise across the wide swath of sand stretching far off into the distance but all Cate could do was stare out as the tide rolled in with its heavy undercurrent tugging at the sharp blue sky of the midsummer horizon.

She had begun her residency stay through the Provincetown Community Compact at one of the famed rustic dune shacks in Provincetown a week ago at the beginning of August. The Compact was a nonprofit organization that maintained and stewarded two dune shacks and offered them by lottery to artists and writers for creative solitude in the pristine environment of the dunes. She’d been lucky enough to receive a three-week artist residency at the C-Scape Dune Shack, a one-and-a-half story, three-room structure that included a separate studio. She had two weeks remaining in her residency and all she had to show for it was a few sketches and one ridiculously amateurish painting. Even though the ocean was a wide expanse in front of her, she felt landlocked because she could not sail away into the great blue beyond. These were the moments she missed her parents and the gypsy sailing life they once shared.

Cate always had the uncanny ability to make any place feel like home in a matter of minutes. She had only two personal belongings that meant something to her: one was a photo of her parents and her seafaring cat Magellan hanging utterly content in her arms as they all stood smiling and laughing from atop their beloved thirty-nine-foot Southern Cross named Cobalt Blue. She was thirteen years old in the photo with white-blond curly hair and piercing blue eyes. A Greek sailor had taken the photo for them. The second was a simple linen scarf her mother had bought for her when they were stopped for a few weeks in Portofino, Italy. It was a gift for her fifteenth birthday and they had splurged for dinner at a fancy restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where lemon trees entwined across the entire ceiling of the terraced restaurant.

Cate took the paints, blank canvas, and easel inside the house to a little room that was used as a studio for the artists in residence. Well, house was a generous term. It was a shack. With no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing, the shack was a rustic cabin perched atop a bluff in the wide expanse of the Cape Cod National Seashore dunes. Brothers Albert and Edward Noones of Cape End Motors began the dwelling in 1937. The painter Jean Cohen owned it until 1979 and moved it to a more protected location within the dunes during his ownership. Many other notable artists used it over the years adding to the energy and charm of the place. Running water came from the spring pump just down the sand dune and was carted up in big plastic canisters. The surprisingly clean and comfortable outhouse with the half-moon-shaped cutout on the door stood just thirty or so feet away. She brought camping gear like a sun shower bag and sleeping bag as well as a lot of nonperishable food and a few bottles of wine. If she needed something, she could walk through the dunes into downtown Provincetown before the sun rose high on the horizon. The walk took about an hour and she could usually manage a ride back with one of the Art’s Dune Tours guides, but she enjoyed the peace and solitude of the shack compared to the partying summer bustle of town.

The austere surroundings of the shack weren’t new to her. Living on a sailboat all those years was similar: confining spaces, little technology, and only the essentials. She had her paints and her view of the ocean. At night, kerosene lanterns illuminated the whitewashed walls and worn wooden floors, casting a comforting glow that felt otherworldly and reminded Cate of nights aboard a sailboat. In fact, every time Cate looked around the cabin day or night, she was struck by how the simple, mismatched surroundings of a random chair or table fit together so perfectly with the sea and sand and sun outside. A constant breeze puffed through every window so the air was always fresh and salty. She didn’t even have much cell phone reception here. In the past this kind of life worked fine for her but not any longer. Something heavy had shifted within her altering her ability to easily move from place to place. No matter how much she wanted to love where she was because it was so tranquil and perfect, she couldn’t. The hole in her heart wouldn’t allow it.

Cate flopped down on the flimsy mattress covered by her light sleeping bag. It was too hot to paint outside right now anyway. If she felt productive she could go into the studio room and finish any number of things she had half-started. Or, she could take a nap or go for a swim. Unable to make a decision, she just lay in bed, staring up at the rustic wooden ceiling of the shack and feeling the cool ocean breeze flow through the window just above her head. She closed her eyes and was immediately transported back to a moment with Alex when they first kissed.

Both of them were tipsy from tequila. It was the first time Alex visited her in her rented loft apartment a couple of weeks after they first met at school. Cate invited her there after running out on her when they first met for drinks. She hadn’t meant to simply take off and leave Alex but her head had buzzed with the faint pressure of something tiny and barely noticeable tying and binding her to Alex with little silken spider web threads. The feeling made her queasy and uncertain and so she ran away. But after taking a week to mull over her sudden departure, she was tired of getting the cold shoulder from Alex at school. It was clear she had hurt and confused Alex and she wanted desperately to make it right. So she put on her big girl pants and invited Alex to her apartment.

Cate needed to be alone with her to determine if the pull she felt toward Alex deep inside was real or imaginary. She’d had plenty of lovers before but she always held them in a space of her own creation that was one step away from commitment and one step away from departure. There, in that in-between zone, was the only place where she felt comfortable with another person because she always had one foot out the door, and above all, she always had control. Allowing someone to truly care for her held her back and kept her from moving on to the next place or the next experience and that was never acceptable. Freedom was her only true and permanent lover by choice.

She remembered smelling Alex’s perfume when she walked into her apartment and the way Alex’s long dark hair had shone in the light of her doorway. Alex was hesitant and on guard after Cate’s great disappearing act at Webster’s. Even the way Alex moved was sensual before Cate was even fully aware of it. The pull was immediate and every little tilt of Alex’s head or fleeting change in expression intoxicated Cate.

When Alex arrived, she saw Cate’s artwork all over the loft and was curious to see it. At first Cate was shy to show her work to Alex because she did not want to feel judged or appraised by any of it. She was not the sum of the brushstrokes surely as a writer was not the sum of the words she put on a page. But on the other hand, she wanted desperately for Alex to see her artwork because it provided a window to deep inside her soul and she needed Alex to see that part of her.

Alex took her time looking carefully at all of her paintings that either hung on the exposed brick walls of the loft or were stacked on the floor. She took great care to observe them individually and asked Cate several questions like what she was thinking when she painted something or where she felt her creativity for a specific piece came from. All of Alex’s questions showed a caring and unique ability to cut to the heart of a piece of art and see it for what it really was each and every time. Her innate ability to see beyond the paint on canvas to the ultimate meaning behind the pieces only made her more appealing.

Cate found herself watching Alex closely: the way she crossed a leg or the way she leaned forward when Cate said something she found intriguing. All of it ignited something within Cate that had been dormant for a long, long time.

Hours later, exhausted by all the conversation, they had lain on Cate’s mattress in the middle of the floor drinking tequila as soft jazz played in the background. Cate remembered how Alex was sprawled on her bed with one arm over her head, propped up on pillows facing her. She wore a black T-shirt and jeans and was barefoot with her toes painted a shimmery pink.

Cate still didn’t know why she did it, but she had rolled up one of Alex’s pant legs to the midcalf and poured a little tequila on her bare skin. She remembered how smooth and strong Alex’s leg was as her wet hand ran up and down Alex’s calf. Alex laughed and sat up. Cate bent toward her and saw how the light shone in Alex’s long dark hair. The energy between them had buzzed all night and now as they moved closer together, Cate felt the electricity passing back and forth between them like a secret, hidden stream of white lightning. One of Alex’s hands rested on Cate’s thigh and the other moved up to brush away stray curls from Cate’s face. The sheer act was so gentle, Cate shuddered at the memory of it. Of all the things they shared together over the following months, there was something magical and intensely personal about the way Alex always reverently moved Cate’s hair away before she kissed her. It was, perhaps, the one thing Cate missed the most amidst a wide variety of memories to choose from.

Moments before their lips touched for the first time, Cate remembered saying over and over again, “This is for you.” To this day she had no idea why she said that. At first she chalked it up to being drunk but the more she thought back to that night, the more she wondered why she felt like kissing Alex was an incredibly beautiful and gentle gift she could give her. Their kiss was like a homecoming for Cate. It started out soft and delicate then shifted into a heated, passionate embrace within a few moments.

The sheer craving inside the memory overwhelmed Cate so much that she jolted upright in her tiny dune shack bed, beads of sweat sliding between her breasts down to her navel. Cate yanked off her tank top and caressed her own body, trying to remember Alex’s touch. Try as she might, she couldn’t replicate the singular feeling of Alex’s hands upon her so she stopped. There wasn’t any use trying to masturbate when nothing came close to the feeling of Alex’s body or hands on her. She thought about finding a lover even for a one-night stand, but the mere thought of someone else’s hands upon her made her cringe. She was perfectly clear about who she wanted touching her, but the problem was that woman was nowhere in sight and might never be again.

Cate rose from the bed and began pacing around the shack. She had no need to put her shirt back on. It wasn’t like anyone would bother her here. As she paced back and forth, she tried to stop the thoughts from racing around inside her head. She knew there was something wrong with her. No one had ever gotten into her head like this. She couldn’t take a step without thinking of Alex in one way or another and it infuriated her. She felt weak. She felt as though she’d lost control. She was in the middle of a full-blown mutiny with her own mind and her own heart. It was as if her thoughts were no longer her own and neither was her body. How could she let things go this far? How could she have been so stupid to think she could just shut off the spigot and walk away? Feeling as though she might explode, she ran, still topless, from the shack, out the green door, down the few steps of the deck, and onto the sand path. She half slid, half walked with wide gaping steps down the face of the huge dune to the ocean where she ran to the water and dove in.

Race Point sat on the Atlantic side of Provincetown and as such, the water even in the heat of summer was always chilly. The cold water sent shockwaves through her body but it made her feel alive. She looked up and saw several seals with their heads bobbing up and down from wave to wave watching her swim. While the water was cold on one side, the hot summer sun warmed her on the other. After a few minutes of floating effortlessly, careful not to be dragged too far by the undertow, she swam to shore and rested in the hot sand to dry off. Her sun-bleached hair was so long it covered her breasts completely and she laughed at what she must look like—half mermaid, half human.

She decided to begin writing Alex letters. She couldn’t bring herself to call her yet or see her, but she could write to Alex about what she thought and why she made the decisions she had in the hopes she could make Alex see she was trying to open herself up. Alex had opened her heart to Cate and poured out her feelings in a beautifully written journal. The depth of feelings terrified Cate as she leafed through the journal while they sat inside one of Alex’s favorite restaurants. Cate’s knee-jerk response was to run as fast as she could in the other direction. She told Alex she wasn’t in love with her. She told her they should be friends and she handed the journal back to Alex even though every cell in her body wanted to embrace Alex and thank her for creating such an exquisite gift. And as she dropped the journal with a thud on the table, she saw the light go out in Alex’s eyes. It was almost more than she could bear. She packed that night. She dropped all her artwork off at a local consignment shop, quit her job as art teacher at Burr Elementary as suddenly as she took it, and drove back to the only home she’d ever known. She ended up back in New Haven, crashing with an acquaintance from Yale and working as a barista at a gourmet coffee shop until her residency started. Now as she lay on the beach at what felt like the end of the earth, all she had to settle her were memories. If she wasn’t in the right mind-set to paint, she would write. Maybe then Alex could feel the love she had in her heart. Maybe then she could retake control of her own self again and begin to feel like something more than an empty shell strewn ashore by the incoming tide.



Chapter Four


August 17, 2014 1:14 p.m.

Provincetown, Massachusetts



Dear Alex:

You told me once that I didn’t bare my soul to you. You said I kept my heart locked up in a box and was unwilling to share it with you or anyone. You said I loved my freedom more than I would ever love you. I’m in Provincetown inside a rustic little dune shack. It’s too bright and hot outside to paint. I hate writing letters but I am trying. God knows I am trying to make you understand leaving will always keep me coming back.

It’s been exactly 104 days since we stopped talking. I know this because every day has been a test of wills for me, so much so that I’ve kept track. I broke your heart on May 5. It was a Monday and we met at that cute little restaurant you loved so much. It was there I told you I didn’t love you. I lied of course. You are normally so astute. How you didn’t see that I was lying is still a mystery to me.

I wish I were on a boat watching the clouds slide across the sky as the wind fills my sails and the cold salt spray hits my face reminding me I’m alive. The sea is constant and flowing. No mistake ever seems permanent or too big to fix when you’re on the water. Everything has a solution. Time will make it so, but not this time.

Alex, I’m afraid of loving you. What if I love you too much and you leave? What if you make me stay in one place and my soul turns all gray and brittle and disintegrates? What would I do if you asked me to choose between loving you and feeling carefree? I couldn’t take that chance so I did what I always did: I shut things down before you asked.

How can I possibly explain to you the love I have for you? Maybe I could paint it in the orange-red-stained hue of a sunset on Race Point when even the seagulls are joyous in the spectrum of light and air and sand. Maybe I could show you that inside, the shifting of blue to green on a palette is merely a reflection of what I feel for you inside.

Mercury is in retrograde. Apparently this means I might be haunted by my past. I’m not sure haunted is the right word. And I’d like to think I’ve changed in the 104 days since I’ve heard your voice but I’m not sure I have. I’d like to think I am beyond that awful time when you hurled hurtful words at me with venom. I may be beyond it, but the scar hurts—especially on days like this when I am particularly at your mercy and the heat of the sun turns all my scars pink and tender anyway.

Don’t give up on me. I’m trying to find my way back to you.

Love,

Cate



Chapter Five


Alex

January 2014, seven months earlier–Stockbridge, Massachusetts


Seven months before hiking the Appalachian Trail was even on Alex’s radar, she had just returned to work after the extended holiday break. Late in the afternoon when she had a free period, she heard laughter down a wing that was usually eerily silent. Curious, she decided to check it out. She had a period to kill before lunch anyway. Her steps echoed down the empty tiled hallway toward the art studio where ancient Mrs. Critchley taught for thirty years before retiring at the end of the calendar year due to her husband’s ailing health. Mrs. Critchley was a fixture in the elementary school Alex taught in. Alex never could understand how someone who looked so imposing and stern and seemed to be 400 years old taught an activity as fun as art. All the teachers stayed away from the old, crabby woman. She was tough as nails with her fellow staff as well as with her students. Hence the perennial lack of laughter down this particular wing of the school.

Today was different. A new substitute teacher had just taken over for the remaining five months of the school year. After that, the Board would vote in a permanent replacement. The laughter coming from the art room was infectious and Alex smiled before she even peeked into the room. As she walked down the hall, her eyes wandered to the windows and a postcard view of light snow falling. While they hadn’t had many snow day setbacks thus far this winter, several snowstorms had blown through during the recent holiday break, covering everything in white. Alex wrapped her cardigan tighter around herself as she walked down the hall.

A few moments later, Alex looked into art room 504 to see a drop-dead beautiful woman with flowing blond curly hair and flashing blue eyes wielding a paintbrush. Alex was so used to seeing Mrs. Critchley in her starched collars and drab dresses that the sight of this young, vibrant woman was jarring. The woman stood at the front of the class barefoot, wearing paint-stained cargo pants rolled midcalf and a Def Leppard tank top, despite the winter chill in the air. She was tall and athletic and even a little tan for this early January day. The kids watched their new teacher with rapt fascination. They were all working together on a giant sheet of paper that stretched the entire length of the classroom. The desks and worktables were stacked in the back of the room and the kids had stretched out on the floor with paints, legs, and elbows everywhere.

“Don’t look at me to tell you what to create. Close your eyes and make whatever you see in your mind!”

“Anything?” a little boy named Artis said incredulously.

“Anything!”

“But I see a fuzzy monster eating a chocolate-chip cookie!” yelled Rachel, a cute little girl with fiery-red hair.

“Then paint that!” said the new teacher who lit up the room with her ridiculously bright smile.

Alex felt herself being pulled into the room by the woman’s energy and that megawatt smile. A moment later, the woman turned and saw her. Alex stood there staring at the most incredible blue eyes she had ever seen: it was as if they reflected an early summer sky and the rays of the sun. Suddenly one of Alex’s students, Jessica, yelled, “Ms. McKenzie! What are you doing here?”

Alex was shaken from her reverie and for a moment, she couldn’t speak. Finally the woman turned her head back to the little girl and the spell was broken. “Hi, Rachel. I thought I’d check up to see how you were all liking your new art teacher.”

“OMG, Ms. McKenzie, she is like the most awesome teacher ever in the whole world. Um, I mean after you,” said David, waving a paint-soaked brush in the air, spattering paint in all directions.

Alex laughed. The woman laughed and all Alex could think of was sleigh bells at Christmas.

“Well, thanks for checking up on us,” the woman said kindly to Alex. “I think we’ve managed to go through most of the paint left in storage.” She shifted her attention back to the kids. “Time to clean up, my little artists. Go rinse your brushes and bring all the paints up to me, please. We’ll continue working on this masterpiece tomorrow.” The kids jumped up in a flurry of activity, giving Alex a moment to make an introduction.

“Hi there. I’m…”

“Ms. McKenzie,” said the woman, wiping paint off her hands with a rag.

“Right. Alex actually.”

“Hi, Alex. I’m Ms. Conrad, but you can call me Cate.” Cate held up her paint-covered hands. “I’d shake your hand but I’m a little messy right about now.”

Again, Cate threw Alex that smile. Alex’s mouth was suddenly Mojave Desert dry. She tried to talk but no sound came out. She nodded and smiled awkwardly. A few moments passed and Alex became acutely embarrassed and aware Cate was watching her. She knew she was making a total idiot of herself. Alex waved and bolted off down the hallway. She made a beeline for the teacher’s bathroom and locked the door behind her. Her palms were sweaty. She stared at herself in the mirror and saw her face deep red in a full-on blush. Alex splashed water on her face and drank a few sips from her hand. She steadied her body against the sink for a couple of moments. The last time she’d blushed like this was sophomore year of college when Isabel Feliciano kissed her in front of everyone at the soccer house party. Back then, she’d had a visceral, potent, physical reaction to a new person in the most unlikely of places. Once again, Alex was thrown totally off kilter, here of all places, too. School was always a haven for her, a place where she was in total control. She unlocked the door to the bathroom and peered down the hallway to make sure the coast was clear. Then she rushed back to the relative safety of her classroom and wondered when she would see Cate again and what her story was. It was as if a bright light had been turned on in the darkness and all Alex wanted to do was walk toward the light.



Chapter Six


Alex


A few days after that embarrassing initial meeting with Cate, Alex’s head remained buried in stories her fifth-grade class wrote after reading Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Not Good, Very Bad Day aloud. She had asked them to use their imaginations and create a day like Alexander’s but pretend it happened to them. They were tasked with including what happened, how they felt, and how their families reacted. This was one of her favorite lessons, especially since Alexander was one of her favorite books. But it also gave her insights about her students. Oftentimes they wrote about things really happening at home, like divorce or family illness, and these details helped her gain a better understanding of their lives and any issues they were dealing with outside the classroom.

Alex was reading Kellie DiLauro’s story about how her dog died, which she knew had recently happened in the little girl’s life. The girl’s mother Angela—one of Alex’s favorites—had sent her a note alerting her to the family’s loss and how devastated Kellie was to lose her best friend. As Alex read the little girl’s description of her dog Bowser leaving them for heaven, tears streamed down her face. She didn’t hear the light knock at her doorway and she never heard anyone enter her classroom. Since the school day and week were over, the hallways were quiet.

“You’re crying,” a gentle woman’s voice said, startling Alex out of the sad story and into the present. She looked up to see the mass of curly blond hair and Cate’s kind eyes looking down at her. Alex quickly wiped the tears away and began cleaning up her cluttered desk.

“Oh, hi. I never heard you come in. I was so engrossed in Kellie’s terrible day story. Her dog Bowser died.”


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