Knowing and seeing were not the same thing. Michelle stared at the front of the inn and knew the hits were going to keep on coming.
“It’s so good to have you back,” Damaris said, giving her another bone-crushing hug.
At least that was familiar, as was the other woman’s scent of cinnamon and vanilla from the pastries she made each morning. But everything else was wrong. From the roof—a hideous green color—to the matching shutters. Even the shape of the structure had changed. The lines of the building where she’d grown up had shifted, growing out in a way that made the inn look stubby. As if it had a muffin top and needed to lay off the blackberry scones and go find a Zumba class.
To the left, where the restaurant had been, an extra room jutted out, slicing through the side lawn and razing the slope she’d rolled down as a kid. To the right, a garish, wartlike growth was stuck on the side—all bright colors and windows displaying the usual island crap. Dolls and lighthouses, wind chimes and dangling stained glass.
“There’s a gift shop?” she asked, her voice more growl than question.
Damaris rolled her eyes. “Your mother’s idea. Or maybe Carly’s. I never listened when the two of them talked. They’re like the birds. Making noise and not saying much.”
Damaris’s small, strong hands gripped her arms. “Don’t worry about them. You’re home now and that’s all that matters.” Her mouth tightened in concern. “You’re too thin. Look at you. All bones.”
“From being in the hospital,” Michelle admitted. There was nothing like a painful rifle shot to kill the appetite.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the flutter of wings. They were there—the ever-present Puget Sound cranes circling the gray water of the Sound. The birds brought visitors and scientists. For some reason people found them interesting. Michelle had never been a fan. When she’d been eight, she’d spent a whole summer getting pooped on by the cranes. She wasn’t sure if it was just bad luck or an avian conspiracy. Either way, she’d gone from a fairly neutral opinion to hating them. Time away hadn’t lessened her desire to have them gone.
She returned her gaze to the inn and felt her gut lurch with disappointment. How could anyone have done this to the once-beautiful building? Even her mother should have known better.
She probably had, Michelle told herself. This was Carly’s doing, she was sure of it.
“Come inside,” Damaris said, moving toward the porch. “It’s going to rain and I want to feed you.”
The unrelated thoughts made Michelle slightly less uneasy. At least Damaris was the same—welcoming and loving, always needing to feed those around her. Michelle would hang on to that.
She walked haltingly next to the much shorter woman, knowing she should probably be using her cane but refusing to show weakness. Not when the situation felt so strange. And in her world, not knowing what came next meant she was in danger.
One of the thrilling results of multiple posts in Iraq and Afghanistan, she thought grimly. Along with nightmares, a hair-trigger temper and an attractive little tic that showed up under her left eye from time to time.
She’d foolishly allowed herself to believe that the second she saw the inn, she would be okay. That being home was enough. She’d known better, but still, the hope had lived. Now it shriveled up and died, leaving her with little more than the pain in her hip and a desperate longing to be ten years old again. Back when crawling onto her dad’s lap and feeling his strong arms holding her tight made everything all right.
“Michelle?” Damaris’s voice held concern.
“I’m okay,” she lied, then smiled at the other woman. “Or if you don’t believe that, how about I plan to be okay eventually? Can you live with that?”
“Only if you promise to eat.”
“Until I burst.”
Damaris’s hair had gone a little gray and there were more wrinkles around her eyes, but other than that, she was as she had been. At least that was something. Michelle was still searching for a piece of her home that was recognizable. Even the gardens were different, she thought as she stopped to look at the yards of happy daisies waving in the slight breeze.
Their color exploded in a cheerful pattern, edging the lawn, creeping up toward the main building, sliding around the side. They were all different, as if someone had sought out the obscure, the most bold. Their brightness seemed like a scream to her bruised senses and she wanted to shield both her ears and her eyes.
The front-porch stairs brought her attention back to the inn. She braced herself for the fire that would sear her and the subsequent nausea and sweat.
She put her right foot on the first stair, then lifted her left. Preparing for the flames didn’t make them any less hot. Pain tore through her, making her want to beg for mercy or, at the very least, stop. With all the changes they couldn’t have put in a ramp?
By the time she made it to the top, she was coated in cold, clammy sweat and her legs trembled. If she’d eaten that morning, she would have vomited—an elegant homecoming. Damaris watched her surreptitiously, worry darkening her brown eyes.
“Is it your mother?” she asked, her voice quiet, as if she didn’t want to hear the answer. “I know the two of you never got along, but still, she’s dead. You can’t blame yourself for not making it back to the funeral.”
“I don’t,” Michelle managed, the words forced out through clenched teeth. Being shot was one of the best excuses around.
A few more breaths and the pain faded enough to be bearable. She was able to straighten without gasping. Which allowed her to notice that the furniture on the porch was new, as was the railing. Her mother had certainly been free with whatever profits the inn brought in.
“Hello, Michelle. Welcome home.”
She swung her gaze to the wide double doors and saw Carly standing on the threshold.
There were changes there, too. Short hair instead of long. The same color of blond, the same dark blue eyes, but now they were edged in subtle makeup. Less Goth, more ladies-who-lunch.
The simple black skirt and flats, the long-sleeved, pink shirt with a tiny ruffle on the cuffs, were perfectly professional for the inn. They made Michelle feel rough by comparison. She was aware of her baggy cargo pants—still the easiest things to pull on that weren’t sweats. Her long-sleeved T-shirt had been to war and back and looked like it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d used mascara or moisturizer. Or had her hair cut by someone who’d actually studied to be a stylist.
By contrast Carly was pretty. Prettier than she remembered. Feminine.
Growing up, Michelle had been the beauty—with her long dark hair and big green eyes. Carly had been cute. The sidekick in the “who has the best smile” contest. Resentful of yet another change, Michelle wanted to turn away. To go back to…
Which was the issue. The inn was all she had and leaving wasn’t an option.
Carly continued to smile, looking calm and in control. “We’re so excited you’re back.” The smile faded. “I’m sorry about Brenda. She was a wonderful woman.”
Michelle raised her eyebrows. There were many words to describe her late mother. Wonderful wasn’t one of them.
More worrying, however, was the other woman’s attitude. As if it were her place to welcome anyone. As if she belonged here.
“It’s been a long time,” Carly added. “I haven’t seen you since…” She paused. “It’s been a long time,” she repeated.
The words, possibly impulsive, possibly planned, reminded Michelle of her last hours in this place. She supposed she should be embarrassed or guilty, that Carly expected an apology. Yet despite what she had done, Michelle found herself wanting Carly to apologize. As if Carly was the one who had done wrong.
They stared at each other for a long minute. Michelle fought memories. Good ones, she thought resentfully. She and Carly had spent thousands of hours together, had grown up together.
Screw that, she thought, pushing them away. She walked purposefully toward the door. As expected, Carly stepped aside to let her pass.
The inside was as changed as the outside. The cheerful curtains were new, as was the fireplace surround. The hardwood floor had been refinished, the walls painted, and there was a god-awful daisy mural in the hallway leading to the restaurant.
But the reception desk was the same, and that was what Michelle hung on to, mentally if not physically. As the room seemed to dip and swirl and shift, she understood that expecting nothing to change had been foolish. She had thought she would return to exactly what she’d left—minus her mother. That when she stepped into her home, it would be as if she’d never left. Never been to war.
“Are you all right?”
Carly reached for her as she spoke. As her arm moved, the light caught the gold charm bracelet on her wrist.
Michelle knew it intimately. As a child, she’d been mesmerized by the sparkly, moving bits of gold. As she grew, she’d learned the history behind each charm, had made up stories about the delicate starfish, the tiny high heel. The bracelet had been her mother’s and it was one of the few good memories she had about the woman.
Now Carly wore it.
Michelle didn’t want it but she sure as hell didn’t want Carly to have it.
Anger bubbled and boiled like water spilled into a hot skillet. She wanted to grab Carly’s delicate arm and rip off the chains of gold. She wanted to smash and take and hurt.
She drew in a breath like she’d been taught. While she wasn’t a big believer in PTSD, she’d been told she suffered from it. So she’d listened to the counselors when they’d talked about avoiding stress and staying rested and eating well. She’d listened, then she’d picked and chosen what she thought would work for her.
She did the breathing because she couldn’t pick an action and every part of her hurt.
“You’re fired,” she said, speaking clearly, despite the burning sensation in her hip.
Carly went pale. “What? You can’t do that.”
“I can. This inn is mine, remember? You’re fired. Pack up and get out. I never want to see you again.”
She passed Damaris, stumbled more than walked down the stairs and made her way to her truck. She nearly passed out from the pain of dragging her left leg inside, but made it, then started the engine and drove away.
Two sharp right turns later, she pulled to the side of the road and put the truck in Park. Harsh sobs squeezed out of her throat. Her hands shook and cold invaded down to her bones.
There were no tears—only the sounds and knowledge that just because she’d come home didn’t mean she had anywhere to go.
Barefoot Season: A Blackberry Island Novel