Serene surveyed the bookstore, spotting Harry as he waddled toward the front row. Perfect. The rusty chairs spanning the room were mostly empty; turnout was even sparser than the reading she’d held at the tiny library on the island last week. That was okay. What mattered most was that Harry was there.
A few more stragglers sat down. She smiled at Harry and opened the hardcover book. “‘I was thirty years old, and I thought my life was over,’” she began. “‘The withdrawals were so horrendous, all I wanted was to die.’” A pause, followed by a tight smile. “‘But it was then I realized my life had just begun.’”
Harry beamed at her and began to clap. A few others applauded uncertainly. “And tonight, as I stand in front of you, my story is one of success.” She snapped the book shut. “Sure, I’ve had some setbacks. But if you’d told me five years ago that I’d be the author of a successful memoir, and on a book tour, I would have plunged the syringe in a vein, lain back, and laughed.”
She strolled away from the podium, limbs too long for her spindly body.
“Wait, that’s it?” A woman from the audience jumped up from her chair. “That’s all you’re gonna read? Can I at least get an autograph?” She pounded her book, accusatory.
Serene ignored the woman and walked toward Harry. He seemed shrunken, somehow, since she’d seen him yesterday.
“Let’s go, Serene.” He gripped her arm with a gnarled hand and propelled her toward the door. “I know this is hard for you.”
They walked to the motel together in the glittering silence of the mid-January evening. Harry checked them in with his credit card, and the clerk handed them each a key. Thank you, Jesus, Serene thought. Separate rooms.
It was kind of cute, she thought as she cleaned her apartment the next day, how Harry followed her around like a puppy dog. A shriveled, half-deaf puppy dog. He lived alone now on the island; his wife had died a few months ago. Serene passed his cottage on her way to the ferry each day, noting the overgrown bushes, the sagging front steps, the paint peeling from the clapboards in sheets. Her kids called him “the fossil,” but even so, he got around pretty well, slowly shuffling down to the café for his morning cup of tea.
She kicked a pile of Legos under the bed. Pop Tart wrappers littered the floor. In the living room, the boys yelled over the blare of the television. She stomped her foot loudly. Kids were the last thing she needed right now. “For Chrissake, shut the hell up! Both of you!”
She checked her watch, a gift from Harry. Last week, when they had combed through his late wife’s treasured jewelry and antiques, he’d plucked out a diamond-studded Cartier watch. “You’ll never be late for our coffee dates again,” he told Serene, and slid it on her wrist.
Less than a half hour until Harry arrived for dinner. Ample time to tidy the apartment and warm the frozen lasagna she’d bought earlier that day. She’d left her hair unbraided for the occasion, glossy red locks cascading down her back. Her tank top showed just the right amount of cleavage. And she’d skipped makeup entirely. Harry loved her freckles.
Serene had mastered reinvention, the chameleon skills she’d learned in boarding school polished to perfection over the years. Last night, she’d been Serene Steele, the former-addict-turned-writer, published writer, to be exact. Tonight, she’d be the caring neighbor, with just a touch of adoration thrown in. People were so naïve. She’d never been near a needle in her life. And Harry? As if she would ever be in love with someone fifty years older.
Humming softly, she gathered the stack of unopened mail from the coffee table. An envelope addressed to Diane Steele fell to the floor. She lit a vanilla candle and ripped the envelope into tiny pieces, its PAST DUE stamp and addressee a distant memory.
The following morning, Serene had the apartment and kids packed up in a record two hours. As she prepared to leave, she pulled a manuscript from the hand-tooled leather briefcase Harry had presented to her last night at dinner. “For your writing career,” he’d said. “Now, you’ll always remember me.”
Remembering Harry wasn’t going to be a problem. He was an easy mark, what her husband called a “rollover.” She opened the envelope paper-clipped to the manuscript. Twenty-five large. And a cashier’s check, just as she had instructed. He’d included a note, written in the shaky penmanship of an octogenarian: “Dearest Serene: My deepest thanks for agreeing to edit my memoir. I am sincerely honored by your belief in me. Much love, Harry.”
She dumped the manuscript—twenty-three handwritten legal pads—in the bulging garbage bag and headed toward the ferry. Finally, a way off this godforsaken rock.
Harry cradled his tea mug, staring out the café window as the ferry passengers walked down the hill to the island pier. “Any word from Serene?” he asked the woman behind the counter.
She placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “It’s been three weeks, Harry. She ain’t coming back.”
With shaking hands, he pulled a small velvet box from his backpack and carefully positioned it on the table. “But I bought—I thought…” He slumped in the chair; it swallowed his withered frame. Serene had been overjoyed when he’d asked her to marry him, her green eyes as radiant as the candles that accompanied the romantic lasagna dinner she’d made especially for him.
Harry collected his backpack and trudged outside toward the pier. The snow banks were melting now, sidewalks a dirty mix of snow and ice. “Harry!” the café lady yelled, clutching the jewelry box high in her hand, like Lady Liberty’s torch. “You forgot your ring!”
The sun had begun to sink below the pier. The tide was going out. And Harry kept walking.