Ayers, he thinks. Do this for Ayers. He hears three low resonant notes, like a foghorn. He raises his face to see an enormous water truck barreling down the hill toward him. He jumps aside.

That’s it, he thinks. He’s done. He turns around.

He gets lost walking back. How can he be lost when he’s only been on one road? His father’s driveway is hidden and unmarked, but Baker has been able to find it when he’s driving because it’s a few yards after the utility pole, which has two yellow stripes. Where is that pole? Baker can’t tell if it’s in front of him or behind him. He didn’t bring his phone; he has sweat in his eyes.

A small lizard-green pickup truck pulls up next to him.

“Are you lost?” a woman asks.

“Maybe?” Baker says. He wipes the sweat off his face with the bottom of his t-shirt and starts to laugh in a way that he knows makes him sound unhinged. But really, what is he even doing here? And then it hits him: his father is dead.

He starts to cry.

“Baker?” the woman says.

Baker’s head snaps up. He looks through the open passenger window to the driver’s side. It’s not some random woman in a funny truck. It’s Ayers.

No, he thinks. Not possible. But yes, it’s her, and she’s even lovelier than he remembers. Her hair is in a messy bun; she’s wearing a loose tank top and yoga pants and he can see she’s driving in bare feet. Bare, sandy feet.

“Hey,” he says, wiping at his eyes. “How are you?”

“Surviving,” she says. “Listen, can I give you a ride somewhere?”

“Oh… no,” Baker says. “I’m good. I was just heading back from a run and I seem to have gotten turned around, maybe. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. But I’ll figure it out.”

“You sure?” Ayers says. “I just took yoga on the beach at Maho and I don’t work until four. I have plenty of time to take you wherever.”

“I’m okay,” Baker says. “Thanks, though.”

“Was it you who came in to La Tapa last night?” Ayers says. “I must have just missed you. Skip said you’d been in.”

“Oh… yeah,” Baker says. “Yeah, that was me. Food was fantastic. Thanks for the recommendation.” He realizes he sounds like he’s trying to get rid of her—and he is trying to get rid of her. He can’t believe she caught him here, now, in his weakest moment. On top of everything else, his bowels are starting to rumble. He needs her to move on. Why her, of all people? Did he conjure her by saying her name so many times in his mind? Or are there really only five people on this island?

“You’re welcome,” Ayers says. “Hey, are you sure you’re okay?”

Baker straightens up against the troublesome clenching in his gut. He tries to look like the world conqueror he wants her to believe he is. “I’m great, thanks. Hey, listen, I may…” He wants to say he may come to the restaurant again that night with Cash, but at that moment a taxi pulls up behind Ayers and the driver lays on his horn.

“Okay, bye!” Ayers says, and she drives off.

It takes him a while but eventually he finds the pole with two yellow stripes and the nondescript dirt road that is his father’s. When Baker finally makes it home, he’s depleted, physically and emotionally. What must Ayers think of him? He’s going to have to roll into La Tapa that night and be his most impressive self.

He enters the kitchen to find his mother standing in front of the open refrigerator, sniffing the container of pasta salad, and he’s transported back a decade or so.

“Mom?” he says. He’s surprised to find her in this posture; his mother has expressed no interest in food the entire time they’ve been here.

Irene straightens up and closes the fridge. She has an inscrutable expression on her face. Baker almost feels like he caught her at something.

“I have to ask a favor,” she says.

He goes to the sink for water. “Anything,” he says. “What is it?”

“I need you and your brother to go out tonight,” she says. “I have a dinner guest coming at seven and I’d like privacy.”

Baker takes a second to process this. She has a dinner guest coming? It must be Todd Croft, he thinks. Who else could it possibly be? His mother doesn’t know anyone around here. He realizes her request is fortuitous. Now Baker and Cash can go to La Tapa by themselves without seeming like they’re ditching her.

“You got it,” Baker says.

His mother appears relieved, not only at his answer but also because he hasn’t asked any follow-up questions. She has a secret, he thinks. She knows something she isn’t telling them. Which leads him to the nagging guilt he feels because he hasn’t told his mother about what’s happening with Anna. It seems inconsequential after everything that’s happened.

His mother goes back to rummaging through the fridge, inspecting this and that.

“Oh, look,” she says. “Camembert.”

Baker handles the news of Irene’s surprise dinner guest far better than Cash. Cash barely manages to conceal his indignation. Baker has to admit that it is a little disconcerting to see his mother wearing a black gauzy sundress, her hair freshly washed and combed out long and loose (honestly, he can’t remember the last time he saw it out of its braid). The dress isn’t anything new, he doesn’t think, more like something she would wear when she and Russ used to entertain the Dunns and the Kinseys by the pool back in Iowa City.

Baker watches Irene bury a bottle of Cakebread chardonnay in an ice bucket. There’s no mention of how twisted it is that Russ kept Irene’s favorite wine—a case of it—in a house that she knew nothing about. She bids both boys good-bye with a kiss, seeming like a subdued version of her former self. But it’s clear she wants them to leave. It’s quarter to seven.

As soon as Baker and Cash get in the Jeep, Cash explodes. “What the hell is going on? Cheese and crackers? Wine? And did you see what she was wearing? And what’s with the secrecy? She won’t tell us who’s coming for dinner?”

“It must be Todd Croft,” Baker says. “Right? It has to be. Which is good, because he’s been unreachable and the Ascension website is down. Something weird is going on.”

“Then why not just tell us that?” Cash says. He’s on his way to a five-flavor freak-out, which is how their father used to describe Cash’s tantrums growing up. It makes no sense that Cash—who doesn’t have an ambitious or competitive bone in his body, who skis for a living—is so high-strung emotionally, while Baker, who thrives on pressure and tension, tends to be pretty sanguine no matter what. And yet that’s the way it is. Maybe Cash inherited more of their hotheaded Scottish ancestors’ blood and Baker the sangfroid of the Norwegians. Maybe Cash was treated differently growing up because he was the “baby.” Maybe it’s simply one of the unsolved mysteries of human nature: how two siblings, born of the same parents and raised in the same house, can be complete opposites. Cash is clearly bent out of shape by Irene’s behavior, whereas Baker doesn’t care. What he does care about—immensely—is seeing Ayers.

Maybe Baker is just painfully self-absorbed.

“Do you trust Mom?” Baker asks.

“Yes,” Cash says. “But then again, I trusted Dad…”

Baker cuts him off. “We’re talking about Mom. You trust her. Do you think she’s likely to do anything rash or self- destructive?”

“No,” Cash says.

“No,” Baker agrees. Irene Steele is the epitome of level-headed competence. Her behavior today harks back to her actions on Thanksgiving Day of his senior year at Northwestern, when he brought home his friend Donny Foley, from Skagway, Alaska. Baker and Donny had been in the front yard of the Steeles’ Victorian playing the traditional game of tackle football with Cash and a few of the neighbors. Donny took a hard hit and started screaming that his shoulder was dislocated. Irene had come flying out of the house in her apron—she was cooking a turkey with all the trimmings for twenty people—and with one strong twist, she had popped Donny’s shoulder back in place. The entire episode took all of thirty seconds, but his mother’s composure and swift act would be forever emblazoned in Baker’s mind.

His mother is, in today’s parlance, a badass.

If she wants privacy for dinner, it’s for a good reason.

“… but I trusted Dad not to do anything rash or self-destructive, and look what happened!” Cash shouts these last three words, and, as usual when confronted with Cash’s episodes, Baker shuts down. He won’t say a word until they get to dinner.

But Cash’s words echo in Baker’s mind. I trusted Dad not to do anything rash or self-destructive, and look what happened.

Look what happened.

At La Tapa, Baker and Cash take the seats at the corner of the bar that Skip has reserved for them. Skip lights up as though Baker is an old friend and offers a fist bump.

“Hey, man, back again, two nights in a row, now that’s an endorsement, if ever there were one.” He leans in. “And Ayers is here, man, you’re in luck.”

“Great,” Baker says, and he immediately breaks into a light sweat. There’s a guy with a guitar in the corner crooning Cat Stevens, and because of the live music, the restaurant is really crowded, much more crowded than the night before. Where is Ayers? Baker casts around, then sees her pulling a cork from a bottle of red wine for a middle-aged couple on the deck under the awning. Her hair is up and she’s wearing the black uniform shirt with the black apron over it. She is… breathtaking. There’s no other word for it.


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