It was not an auspicious beginning for a vacation, let alone for a new life. The rain chased her all the way down the East Coast, slashing at the windshield, pounding her car from every angle. Between the backwash from a continuous stream of eighteen-wheelers blowing past her at eighty miles an hour (in contrast to her own sedate fifty-five mph) and violent gusts of wind from the storm, it was all she could do to stay on the roadway.
It was her own fault, Ellis decided. She should have stuck to her original plan. She should have gotten up at a sensible hour, at least waiting until daylight to start the drive from Philadelphia to North Carolina. Instead, on some insane impulse, she'd simply locked up the town house and driven off shortly after midnight.
It was a most un-Ellis-like decision. But then, her old life, back there in Philly, was gone. And somewhere, on that long drive south, she had subconsciously decided that the seeds of a new life must be waiting, at the beach. In August.
Ellis took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders, first forward, and then backwards, trying to work out the kinks from six hours of driving. She reached for the commuter mug of coffee in the Accord's cup holder and took a long sip, hoping it would clear the fatigue fog.
An hour later, she saw the sign: Nags Head, 132 miles. She smiled. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle. She should arrive at the house, which was called Ebbtide, by around seven.
Her smile faded. What had she been thinking? Check-in was at 2 P.M., according to the renter's agreement she'd signed.
She composed a mental e-mail to herself: To: EllisSullivan@hotmail.com. From: EllisSullivan@hotmail.com. Subject: Failure to plan = plan to fail.
But the memo would have to wait. The highway rose and she found herself on a long, gently arching bridge. One more damned bridge. Surely it was the last. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge had nearly done her in. She felt her jaw clench tightly. Her fingertips clamped the steering wheel, and her heart raced. A bead of sweat trickled down her back.
Nags Head was on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She'd studied her guidebooks, maps, and AAA Triptik for weeks now. She knew the island's geography, even its topography, intimately. But she'd refused to allow herself to focus on the bridge issue. Because the fact was, as the girls knew all too well, bridges—even wimpy little bridges like the Sam Varnedoe that separated Whitemarsh and Wilmington islands back home in Savannah --- scared the living bejeezus out of Ellis Sullivan.
She kept her eyes straight ahead, not daring to look right or left at the water flowing under the bridge. When she'd finally crossed the bridge, her hands were clammy, her T-shirt sweat-soaked.
Now she was on the Outer Banks proper. Signs for the little towns flashed by: Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Avalon Beach. The sun rose, and she was somehow shocked at how densely developed the beachfront was here. She'd expected to see clumps of sea oats silhouetted against sparkling blue water; sailboats bobbing at anchor; great, gray shingled houses staring moodily out to sea; the occasional lighthouse. The reality was that, so far, what she'd seen of the storied Outer Banks could just as well have been the Jersey shore, Myrtle Beach, Fort Lauderdale, or any other East Coast tourist resort --- meaning miles and miles of hotels and motels, restaurants, and strip shopping centers lining both sides of the road, and a shoreline packed with cheek-to-jowl condo complexes and huge, pastel-painted beach houses.
She followed Route 12 south, and when the GPS computerized voice instructed her to turn left and then right, she knew she was getting close. Virginia Dare Trail was the beach road. Here, at least, there was a little bit of elbow room between the houses. Once or twice she actually caught a glimpse of sand dunes and sea oat plumes. Finally, the well-modulated woman's voice announced cheerily, "Arrive at destination, on left."
Ellis slowed the car and stared. A long crushed-shell drive led through a weedy patch of sand. There was a mailbox at the curb, with a sun-bleached cedar sign in the cutout shape of a whale. EBBTIDE was painted on the sign in faded white letters. The driveway ended at what looked like a two-story garage. The wood-shingled structure was a weathered grayish-brownish affair. Through a set of open wooden garage doors, she spotted a beat-up tan Bronco with a red surfboard strapped to the rooftop rack.
To the side of the garage, a rambling three-story wood-frame house arose from a set of wooden stairs. Stretched across the front of the house was a long, open porch. A row of rocking chairs marched across the porch, and a gaudy striped beach towel was draped carelessly across a railing. From the sandy side yard, a wooden walkway led up and over a towering sand dune.
On an impulse, she pulled the car into the next driveway. Here, there was no house at all, only the charred remains of a concrete-block foundation, along with some blackened timbers. A black-and-orange NO TRESPASSING sign was posted on a block wall. Ellis put the Accord in park and got out of the car, her cramped legs and back screaming in protest. The air was already hot and muggy. She did a couple of deep knee bends, scanning the yard next door for any signs of life. Had the earlier renters already checked out? Or did the Bronco in the garage belong to somebody who was still enjoying a last hour or two on the beach before it was time to head home?
She strolled over to the mailbox and peered up at the house. Their house, at least for the month of August. Ellis intended to make every hour of this month count.
"Ebbtide," she said aloud, satisfied that the exterior of the house, at least, seemed to match the photo she'd spotted in the Vacation Rentals by Owner listing. Of course, that photo had also shown an inviting green lawn dotted with billowing blue hydrangeas and a hot-pink bicycle built for two with a charming wicker basket leaning up against a rose-covered picket fence. None of these were in evidence now. In fact, the only thing in evidence in what passed for a yard, besides a bumper crop of weeds, was a busted-up Styrofoam cooler full of empty malt liquor cans and a sodden heap of yellowing newspapers, still in their plastic wrappers.
She glanced down at her watch. She had half a day to kill until check-in. Being Ellis, she'd already planned to arrive hours before the others. The extra time would give her a chance to go to the grocery store, prepare their first night's dinner, get the house situated. Linens were not included in the house rental, so she'd brought enough sheets and towels for everybody, just in case. And yes, she would have first crack at choosing her bedroom, but since she had done all the legwork finding the house and planning this trip, would anybody really mind?
Well, maybe Willa would mind. She was only older than the others by twenty months, but really, she could be so pushy and bossy. It would be just like Willa to accuse Ellis of hogging the best bedroom. Which she had no intention of doing. She just didn't want a bedroom facing the street and a lot of noise. She was a light sleeper --- and she had a lot of thinking to do. And anyway, as the only single woman in the group, she was used to her own space. Too used to it, she thought wryly.
She was dying to see Ebbtide up close. She glanced up and down the road. There was no sign of traffic. Just another sleepy summer morning at the beach. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to walk up the driveway of the burnt-out house to see what she could see. Technically, she knew, it was trespassing. But it wasn't like she was looting the place. What was left to loot?
Quickly, before she lost her nerve, Ellis trotted up the crushed oyster-shell drive. Another wooden boardwalk and a set of stairs leading up and over the sand dune, just like the one at Ebbtide, seemed to have survived the fire that had taken this house. She trod the steps quickly, not wanting to be seen from the road.
There was a shed-roofed deck at the top of the dunes. At one time it would have been an amazing place to sit and sip a cocktail and enjoy the ocean breezes. But not now. Some of the decking had rotted out, and the railings missed pickets in several places. A couple of broken plastic lawn chairs lay sprawled on their side, but it was the view that captured Ellis's attention. From here she could see the Nags Head she'd imagined. The dunes, covered with sea oats, beach plums, and shrubs whose names she didn't know, sloped down to meet a wide, white beach. The tide was out, and the Atlantic Ocean sparkled gray-blue below. Here and there, people walked along the shore, stooping to pick up shells.
"Perfect!" Ellis exclaimed. Just then, she heard the slap of a wooden screen door. Turning, she saw movement from the second-floor apartment over the garage at Ebbtide. That apartment had a small wooden deck wrapping around the sides and back of it. As she watched, a man walked out onto the deck. She could see him clearly --- good Lord --- he was in his underwear.
The man was barefoot, deeply tanned, with unkempt sun-bleached brownish hair. A pair of baggy white boxer briefs hung low on his slim hips. He turned, faced the water, yawned and stretched. And then, while Ellis watched, slack-jawed with amazement and disgust, he quite casually proceeded to pee off the edge of the deck.
He took his own good time about it too. Ellis was rooted to the spot where she stood, her face crimson with embarrassment. When he was finally finished, he stretched and turned. And that's when he spotted her, a lone figure in hot pink capris and a white T-shirt, her long dark hair blowing in the breeze coming off the beach.
The man gave her a nonchalant smile. His teeth were white and even, and from here she could see the golden stubble of a days-old beard. He waved casually.
"Hey," he called. "How ya doin'?"
Ellis managed a strangled "Hey." And then she fled down the stairs as fast as her flip-flop-shod feet would take her.
Ellis jumped in the Accord and backed onto the roadway so quickly she nearly mowed over the Ebbtide mailbox. That's what she got for trespassing, she thought. A bird's-eye view of a pervert. She checked over her shoulder, back towards that garage apartment, to see if the man would reemerge from the deck to see where she'd gone. But there was no sign of him now.
Hopefully, she thought, he was the owner of that Bronco parked in the garage. Hopefully, he would be checking out of Ebbtide any time now, and he would be long gone by her check-in. Hopefully.
But what was she going to do with herself until then? There was an outlet mall down the road, but it probably didn't open until ten. And she needed to get groceries, but she didn't want her refrigerated goods to sit in her hot car for the hours until check-in.
She drove aimlessly down the road until she came to a restaurant whose marquee promised BREAKFAST SERVED ALL DAY --- EVERY DAY. The parking lot was full. She even spotted a couple of UPS trucks, which, her father had told her years ago, meant the joint must be half decent.
The hostess showed her to a table near a window, and Ellis ordered scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, and an English muffin. Unbuttered. No coffee. She was wide awake now. Instead, she asked for ice water and grapefruit juice.
When the food came, she ate slowly, willing the time to pass quickly. The restaurant was noisy with small children laughing and running between the tables and the excited chatter of vacationing families and friends. When she'd finished eating, Ellis took out her iPhone to check her e-mails.
The iPhone was new. All those years she'd worked at the bank, the Black- Berry clipped securely to the outside of her pocketbook had been her lifeline to her workday world. It was the first thing she touched every morning, week- ends included --- even before she brushed her teeth and showered --- and it was the last thing she checked at night, before drifting off to sleep.
But two weeks ago, an e-mail on that BlackBerry had summoned her to a meeting with Phyllis K. Stone in human resources. Around the company, Ms. Stone was known as "the grim reaper" or "Stonehenge." But she'd always been perfectly nice to Ellis on the rare occasions they'd had dealings. On that particular day, Ellis had assumed she was going to be given her new health- care packet. But the packet which Ms. Stone silently slid across her desk to Ellis had nothing to do with deductibles or co-pays. BancAtlantic, her employer for the past eleven years, was, Ms. Stone said blandly, being swallowed up --- no, acquired was the exact word --- by CityGroup, Inc.
"Obviously, CityGroup has its own marketing department," Ms. Stone went on. "And because their concern at this time is in cost savings and maxi- mum efficiency as well as financial stability for our stockholders, the executive committee has decided that BancAtlantic's marketing group will be extraneous."