“To the dolphin alone nature has given that which the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage.”
Greek Philosopher and Moralist, Plutarch (47-120)
The horizon became Annabelle Murphy’s touchstone, her confirmation of love and her memorial to joy. When her husband, Knox, had first died she’d wished she could disappear into that place of marked beauty. Later, she’d believed she could find comfort and meaning where the earth met the sky, where she’d imagined Knox’s plane had vanished.
Knox had been gone for two years now, but as the sailboat sliced through twilight-tinted water, she found herself once again staring into the horizon, his name unspoken on her lips. Blessedly, she was surrounded by the best kind of friends, those she’d loved the longest, with whom she’d shared the most tender moments of loss and joy: Cooper and Christine, who had been married since the year they graduated from college; Mae and Frank, who had been together since he’d moved to Marsh Cove in tenth grade; and Shawn, whose sailboat this was.
There were once eight of them, but Shawn had lost his wife, Maria, to divorce and Annabelle had lost Knox to death. When the thirty-foot sloop moved through the water, Annabelle felt Knox as surely as if he were poking his head around the mast and asking her if she’d like another glass of wine. Death had taken the man, but never her love for him.
As the boat reached the mouth of the harbor, Shawn at the wheel hollered across to Cooper, “Why don’t you throw out the anchor and we’ll hang here until sunset.”
Annabelle stepped back from the railing to allow Cooper to grab the anchor. She reached into the cooler, pulled a beer from the ice and threw it to Shawn. He caught the can and mouthed, “Thank you.” Annabelle often marveled at the fact that of them all Shawn was the least changed in appearance, yet the most transformed in his approach to life. He had been the wild one, the winner of the most detentions and voted most athletic all four years of high school. Now he worked for an insurance company, although he did keep his sailboat and escaped as often as possible to the water he loved.
Only Shawn’s blond curls remained as unruly as his behavior had once been. He’d been Knox’s very best friend, but hers first. He’d defended her on the playground, told her lunch was stuck between her teeth; he’d treated her like a regular person even though she was a girl. When Knox had moved to Marsh Cove, he’d stolen Shawn from Annabelle. She’d threatened to beat up Knox under the monkey bars, but Shawn had diplomatically assured them that they could all be friends, and he’d been right.
This group had remained woven together with the threads of childhood, adolescence, marriage, parenthood, divorce and death. Now they kept the fabric strong with once-a-month dinner parties in each others homes. When it was Shawn’s turn, he always offered a sunset cruise and a cookout at the dock upon return. Annabelle would never let slip that this was her favorite way to get together. She wouldn’t want to hurt Mae’s or Christine’s feelings as they always made a large production of the parties.
Cooper startled Annabelle as he came up behind her, pressed his hand to her back. “You okay? You look a million miles away.”
“I’m great. Look at this night – it’s magic.”
“Yes,” he said, “it is.”
Annabelle tore her vision from the horizon to look at Cooper. “I swear, on nights like this I think he’s going to pop up from below deck with a tray of his famous crab cakes and tell us all a very bad joke.”
Cooper leaned down and kissed the top of Annabelle’s head, and she reached up to grab Cooper’s hand.
Mae’s laughter rang out, abrupt and crisp; Cooper and Annabelle turned to see her try to drag Frank back as he walked toward the bow and spread his arms. “No way,” Mae hollered. “Old man, get away from the front of the boat.”
Frank lifted his wine glass. “Who you calling an old man?”
Annabelle jumped back when Frank went up on the bow, handed Mae his wine glass.
“Go ahead,” Shawn hollered. “You don’t have it in you any more, do you?”
Annabelle laughed. This was a regular and dogged fight – who would resume the night swims of their youth? Now that they were all in their forties, there was much threatening, but no one had jumped in years. A Knox-shaped emptiness overcame Annabelle, an intense longing followed by the impulse to be in the water, nearer the horizon. She stepped past Cooper, tapped Frank on the shoulder and motioned for him to move aside. He laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Out of my way,” she said with a grin. “Girls first.” She climbed over the railing to the tip of the boat. She spread her arms wide as she’d done in their younger days, when the eight of them ate, drank and loved each other without the memory of loss. Why had they stopped diving into the water? Why had Knox died? Why had Maria left Shawn? Why did life move on without the permission of those it carried in its current?
Annabelle stood on her tip-toes and felt her pale blue skirt billow upwards as she executed a sleek dive, and entered the water with a splash. Silken warmth surrounded her as she closed her eyes and let herself sink. She remained still for a brief moment before opening her eyes under the water where the setting sun no longer sent light. Pure darkness surrounded her, yet the laughter above reached her ears.
She rose above the surface, smoothed back her hair. Shawn leaned over the railing. “You are insane, Annabelle Murphy.”
“You don’t have it in you anymore, do you?” She pushed her palm against the sea to send a spray of water toward Shawn. She tread water in a memory of her stronger swimming days. Her skirt tangled around her legs and she grabbed the anchor line; her white linen shirt clung to her skin and her hair curled around her face.
“Who you talking to?” Shawn laughed, yanked off his shirt and jumped over the railing in his khaki shorts. The water remained dark and warm around Annabelle. Shawn rose beside her as Cooper, too, jumped in, and Frank did a lopsided flip from the bow. In the encroaching night, their laughter traveled across the water, across time and space, until Annabelle half-believed Knox was with them.
Christine dropped the ladder over the side of the boat, shone a flashlight toward the four of them. “There is absolutely no way I am jumping into that dark water. There is something wrong with all of you. Now get out of there. I’m starving and the crabs are going bad back at the dock.”
Mae joined Christine, sat down and dangled her legs over the side. “If I hadn’t just paid for these brand new capris…”
Annabelle bunched her skirt into her left hand and swam toward the ladder, inhaled with long, deep breaths and remembered a time, long ago, when she and Knox took his Sunfish out into the bay and accidentally tipped it over. They held onto the upside down boat, enjoying the touch of their legs floating in the water below them, brushing up against each other. She doubted she would ever find a moment that didn’t bring Knox to mind and heart. Even now she could barely swim five feet without thinking of him. No matter how or where she redirected her attention, Knox was there.
They clambered back aboard, raised anchor and passed towels around. They laughed, held up wine glasses and toasted to friendship. Shawn navigated toward the dock as they asked for updates on each other’s children and jobs. They teased Mae and Frank about having named their only child Thornton, the most “country club” name possible, and now he was off in Africa doing mission work.
They agreed with Cooper and Christine that having kids in high school involved a constant battle of wills. Shawn stood at the wheel and laughed at their stories without contributing his own, since he’d never had children. His wife had left him in their second year of marriage, and he’d never remarried, despite his best friends’ many efforts to set him up. “How’s Jake doing at USC?” he asked Annabelle. “Is he hanging in there?”
She nodded. “He seems to be doing great. I miss him insanely. The echoes like an empty cave without him and his music. But he calls every day. He doesn’t like his roommate, but he has so many friends I don’t think it matters. Classes are kicking his butt. I think he wishes he’d backed off on the advanced courses.”
Cooper shuffled his feet. “If he needs…anything, you know I can help.”
“We all can,” Shawn said.
“He’s fine,” Annabelle said. “Really fine. Keeley is the one who’s killing me right now with her cocky attitude and newly acquired driver’s license.”
“There’s no worse combination,” Christine agreed. “It’s like that ‘hunch punch’ ya’ll made in college – remember? You guys threw anything you could think of in a trashcan and then added grain alcohol.”
A collective groan came from everyone.
Christine laughed. “The same dangerous combination as a sixteen-year-old girl going through adolescence and driving a car. We just pray they don’t do anything truly stupid.”
Shawn adjusted the direction of the boat. “Wow, you’re really making me wish I had teenagers.” He smiled, and then hollered at Cooper, “Grab the bow line, will you?”
Once they’d piled out of the boat and settled onto the dock for fresh crab, the familiar motions, words and feelings of friendship surrounded Annabelle. Shawn stepped up behind her. “I’m glad you came. For a while there I thought you’d never come back out on the boat.”
“Me, too,” Annabelle said, touched Shawn’s arm. She spent the rest of the evening grateful for what remained constant: her love for her friends and her children.
Spring had settled quietly into the Lowcountry, bringing soft breezes and a green haze. A shower had passed through earlier that morning, but now sunlight sifted between the leaves and fell onto a lawn sparkling with raindrops, onto pavement varnished by rainwater. From the front porch of Annabelle’s home – her and Knox’s home – on Main Street, Marsh Cove, South Carolina, she could see across the street to the park that bordered Marsh Cove Bay, running wild and full as the tide rushed in.
A large Magnolia tree stood in the side yard, its thick roots pushing up the earth in all directions and sprouting off-shoots that had long since merged with the original tree. Annabelle suspected that by now the smaller trees actually supported the main, ancient trunk, that without them the entire tree would topple.
Annabelle’s son, Jake, who loved myths and legends, had once told her about Tristan and Isolde, ill-fated Irish lovers from whose graves, side by side, there rose two willows that over the years grew together as one. The story made Annabelle think of her own family, her and Knox, their son, Jake, and their daughter, Keeley, all entwined. When the tree expert came and told her that the main tree was being strangled and would need to be cut down, Belle told him to take his chainsaw and his expert advice and climb right back into his dented truck and go home. She knew the Magnolia tree and its off-shoots would support each other until they all fell together.
Even now, with Knox gone, Annabelle still believed that.
She balanced her laptop on her knees, her feet propped up on the wicker ottoman, and fingered the keys, lifted her face to a shaft of sunlight and closed her eyes, allowing the warmth to wash over her. She needed to find an answer to the bridesmaid question in her advice column “Southern Belle Says.”
Dear Southern Belle, I have been in thirteen weddings and now I’m getting married. Do I need to ask all thirteen of these girls to be in my wedding? I only want two of them, but don’t want to lose friends and make them all mad at me. Confused in Corinth
Annabelle wanted to tell Confused in Corinth that it really didn’t matter who was in the wedding – all that mattered was who she was marrying and if she loved him. But that wasn’t what old Mrs. Thurgood, the Marsh Cove Gazette publisher, wanted for this column – no, Annabelle needed to give the precisely correct etiquette.
The Emily Post book lay on the wicker table at her side, but Annabelle liked to answer the question before comparing it to her ultimate source. In the past year or so, her advice hadn’t differed once.
Dear Confused in Corinth,
Click, click, her tongue went on the top of her mouth while she thought. She watched the left-over rain clouds move from left to right, clearing the way for a long-distance view of a sailboat headed south, only its sail visible against the pale blue sky. She smiled at the memory of the previous night and her swim with old friends.
A movement at the corner of the house caught Annabelle’s eye and she turned to see a man standing near the bottom step of the porch. His hands were in his pockets, and he leaned back on his heels, watching her. She stood so quickly she almost dropped her laptop, but she grabbed it in time, snapped it shut, placed it on the side table.
“May I help you?” she asked. Often tourists thought her home was on the historical tour and she had to tell them it was a private residence. Then she smiled: the man was Wade Gunther, the local sheriff. Just as abruptly her smile faded with a razor-edged thought, Not Jake….
“Hey, Annabelle,” he said, took one step onto the stairs.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, digging around in her mind for a reason, any reason, why Wade would visit her. Nausea rose as she attempted with no success to force down the memory of the last time she had said those words to a man in uniform.
He cleared his throat. “I need to talk to you and I thought it would be best in person.” He pinched his lips together and Annabelle knew this was not a facial expression one made when delivering good news. He continued, “Some mountain climbers in western Colorado were lost for a few days…freak snowstorm. Anyway, they were experienced outdoors men and survived just fine…”
Thank God it had nothing to do with Jake, but Annabelle couldn’t wrap her mind around any other cause; Keeley was in the house doing her homework…. “And?”
“They stumbled across the wreckage of a plane…a small plane that had been consumed by fire…”
Annabelle’s knees gave way beneath her and she sat in a childlike cross-legged pose on the white-painted floorboards, looked up at Wade and attempted to speak. Nothing came out.
He took three steps up onto the porch and squatted next to her. “The FAA--the Federal Aviation Administration--contacted me and asked me to come talk to you. I know this must be a shock. I’m sorry to tell you so bluntly. I just never know how else to say it.”
“It’s him,” Annabelle said. “Knox, right?” And some seed of hope she hadn’t known existed sprouted anew; maybe, just maybe he was alive. Maybe.
“Yes, we found his body…and whomever he was traveling with,” Wade said.
“Oh, oh, then it’s not him.” Annabelle stood and Wade rose with her. “He was traveling alone to go hunting.”
Wade looked up at the porch ceiling, as if the sight could help him. “There was… another person inside the burned-out plane. As you’d guess, there’s not much left after a gutting fire and two years in the woods. But it is Knox’s plane.”
Her question rose of its own accord, like a shoot of grass through a cracked sidewalk. “Man or woman?” she asked, believing she knew the answer before it came.
“A woman.” He paced the porch. “The FAA is hoping you can tell them who it is...”
A tempest of warring emotions battled inside Annabelle, and stunning to her, embarrassment won. Not grief or anger, but shame. Her dead husband caught with another woman. For the briefest moment she imagined she could hear the gossip and speculation.
Annabelle bit her lower lip and spoke in a stuttered sentence. “I don’t know.” Simple words. “I thought he was alone.” Embarrassing words.
Wade turned away.
Annabelle sat down on a wicker divan and pointed to the chair across from her. “Please, sit. I don’t want us to go inside – I don’t want Keeley to hear any of this.”
“I understand,” he said, and sat.
“Now,” she said, “what will you need from me?”
“We have to discuss where to send his remains…the FAA will need to know.” His voice droned on and Annabelle pretended to listen, but her mind spun. She pictured her thoughts like cotton candy whirling around inside the machine, waiting to be gathered around a single cardboard cone.
She remembered the day they’d come to tell her about the crash – how even then they knew there was no chance of survival. That time after Knox’s death rushed in again all the way to her core; the places she had thought healed after years of therapy and grieving were now open. She remembered how she couldn’t feel things, as if the world had lost all sensory meaning in the weeks and even months after the news. Now, as she stared at Wade, she saw her spirit broken, grief coming again in a way she’d hoped it never would.
And she understood: you can never completely heal. You can ignore, cover up, scar over, but never heal, because if she had been cured of this grief, it wouldn’t return now with its grappling need to take her to that dark place again, that space where she wanted to disappear into the horizon and meet Knox.
She often imagined that the horizon was the last thing he saw on that plane. She saw him trying to restrain the fuselage, wrestling with the knobs and buttons, fighting to right the nose, then losing control.
Now her imaginings of his last minutes changed completely, from solo to two. Not a huge difference, but one that was as wide and deep as infinity – a number too large to count.
“Belle?” Wade said, leaned forward.
“Yes?” Annabelle asked.
“Did you hear any of what I just said?”
“I think so,” she answered, trying to focus on his face, on the lines around his mouth, on the blue of his eyes, anything but his words.
“Well…” He stood, looked down at her. “I am very sorry for your loss. We’ll be in touch about…the remains, and if you…”
Annabelle squinted up at him. “If I what?”
“If you know who was on the plane. For now, they will just have to search the missing person files, and eventually try to match dental records and DNA. So, if you have any more information about who it was, it would help tremendously.”
Annabelle felt the familiar blanket of hopelessness spread over her as it had when they’d asked her a million questions after the initial accident. She smiled up at him. “Well, I’ll certainly ask around to see if anyone knows whom my husband might have snuck away with on that particular weekend.”
He stared at her, and then looked away. “Thank you.”
Then he was gone down the stairs, Annabelle watched him until he rounded the corner to the public parking lot next to Marsh Cove Bay. She sat down.
Wade couldn’t have been on her porch for more than ten minutes. Fifteen at the most. And yet everything, absolutely everything had been altered. The air shifted, lifted the hanging ferns and swirled leaves across the bottom porch steps. She understood that at that moment she couldn’t comprehend or absorb all that was different.
A thought came in a dull throb like a headache: Isn’t that curious? A woman in Knox’s plane.
Annabelle had never wanted to contemplate the facts of Knox’s plane crash again. She had spent too many nights going over and over every What if?, searching for the impossible: a way to change the end of the story.
Now her mind raced through the details one more time: He filed a flight plan to stop in Newboro, North Carolina, refueled and flew straight toward Durango, Colorado. Fifty miles from Durango he called in a mayday message that his engine was on fire. An explosion was heard on the radio. The story made national news for a full twenty-four hours as they searched for the plane and its sole occupant, Knox Murphy, the lawyer from South Carolina who often traveled to do pro-bono work for underprivileged clients in small Carolina towns. Annabelle had watched the news with the detachment of a numb observer. And then the story had disappeared from the national news. But not from their lives.
People from the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center explained that there were well over 150 missing planes in that remote and inaccessible area of the country. They often found planes years later while searching for something or someone else. They kept a registry of wreck sites and would add Knox’s. But the plane hadn’t been found…until now.
She’d answered so many questions at that time: Did he help a client in Newboro? No, she’d told them, he always told her when he was doing work on the way to another location. Had he taken any explosives with him? No, only his guns, which he never brought loaded inside a plane.
Annabelle stood on the porch and dropped her forehead onto the closed screen door. “Oh, Knox. No, please no.” She wasn’t sure what she was begging for, but she understood, the same way she understood she was pregnant before the test showed positive, that something new had just been born with this discovery brought to her on a quiet afternoon.
She stepped back, knocked her hip against the Emily Post Book, lifted it and tossed it onto the chair. What was the proper etiquette here? What would Emily Post say now? Maybe in that book of perfect behavior there were answers to cheating husbands, but what did one do when the culprits were found together long after the fact – dead and gone? Irrational laughter at the situation—that she made a profession of giving advice and now had none for herself--began low in her belly and died before it reached her mouth. She dropped into the chair.
Nothing, at that moment and for a long time afterward, seemed as important as finding out who this woman was and why she was with Knox Murphy when he died.
Excerpted from THE ART OF KEEPING SECRETS © Copyright 2011 by Patti Callahan Henry. Reprinted with permission by NAL Trade. All rights reserved.
The Art Of Keeping Secrets