Read The First Chapter


Dr. Charlie Morrison had always held the opinion that some stones were best left unturned, but that was before he’d spilled it all to his great-granddaughter, Carla.

Several weeks ago, she arrived at his place for her usual Sunday afternoon visit, but instead of staying at his apartment she’d bundled him into her car, and they’d gone on a picnic. This unexpected change of plans was quite exciting compared to his usual social schedule at the Foxwater Manor Retirement Residence. Overall, there was nothing wrong with Wii bowling, shuffleboard, and the well-attended happy hour, held each day at four in the afternoon, but the prospect of a picnic on this fine spring day quite literally filled his heart with joy.

Carla had driven him from his home to the park bordering the Fox River that flowed, not only past his residence, but through the center of Hope’s Mill. Helping him out of the car, she pointed to a picnic table where they could eat near the water. Carla trusted his ninety-four-year-old hands to carry a white cardboard bakery box, which he hoped might contain gooey butter tarts, while she schlepped a full wicker basket toward the table. He could see a thermos, two mugs, plates, bright cloth napkins — it was going to be a lovely afternoon.

He was finishing his post-lunch butter tart, and Carla had just topped up their mugs of tea, when it happened. The elixir of fresh air and sunshine seemed to untie his tongue, and the secret came tumbling out. By the time he finished talking, there was nothing left to tell, so he stopped short, bashfully picking at the pastry crumbs on his plate. To his great surprise though, what he confessed didn’t seem to horrify Carla. Instead, even as she packed up the remnants of their picnic, she was helping him work out a plan.

Now, several busy weeks later, he watched for Carla’s arrival while standing at the window of his third-floor suite, hands thrust deep into his pockets. From there he had a good view of the historic area of Hope’s Mill, and the Fox River. He could also see the stone walls of the old gristmill, after which the town was named. A large corporate entity, banking on the area’s rapid growth, had sunk millions into restoring the mill, and it was playing a starring role in the town’s upcoming anniversary gala.

He ran the fingers of one hand through his full head of white hair. He’d love to go to the gala. He felt he still cut a fine figure, never going to a meal in the communal dining room without first examining his appearance in the mirror on the back of his bedroom door. Energy was the big problem right now, and he seemed to have a dwindling supply lately.

Shrugging, he focused again on the parking lot, peering through black wire-rim glasses while watching for Carla’s little blue car. It was amazing to realize what all they’d accomplished since the day of the picnic. With her help and Internet savvy, they had already tracked down several of his former patients. Using the addresses she’d found, he sat at his old typewriter and composed letters to each of them, expressing his deepest apologies. Though the words he wrote sprang from genuine remorse, they seemed so inadequate when he thought of the poor advice he’d once given.

But one of those patients burdened his conscience more than the others combined. He’d seen the signature of this child’s mother, scrawled on a set of forms beneath her husband’s bold inscription, and he somehow knew she had no idea what she was signing away. Despite his suspicions though, he had tried to believe he was imagining things, and he’d said nothing.

Beyond the window where he stood waiting, large clouds, tinged an ominous grey, drew his attention from the parking lot, and he watched them pile high in the sky. In a matter of minutes, the bright summer sun was hidden, and his room grew dim. As if in response to the shadows, familiar palpitations fluttered, then raced, in his chest, and a burning pressure made breathing difficult. Even while recognizing his denial, he chose to ride out the symptoms without seeking help. At his age, it was only a matter of time either way.

Wednesday July 18

Accelerating hard, Isla pulled into the fast lane of Hwy. 407 and passed a grey hatchback poking along at only ten over the limit. A lead-footed woman with silver hair, driving a lime-green Beetle with the top down, might catch the attention of a radar cop, but she didn’t care. The last time she’d been nailed for speeding was thirty years before.

On that long-ago day, nearly drunk on nerves and excitement, she had hit her car’s accelerator and gone flying out of town, eager to leave Hope’s Mill in her dust. She hadn’t noticed the cruiser until it peeled out of the parking lot at Tommy’s Drive-In, and while the cop wrote up the ticket, the moving van, holding everything she owned, roared past. She’d stuffed the ticket into her purse, then slunk back onto the road, keeping a sedate pace for a mile or two, but her good spirits soon returned. With head held high and a big grin on her face, she had rolled down the window, shoved a cassette tape into the player, and never looked back. And now she was returning, not dragged by wild horses like she’d once predicted, but by her own choice.

She tried not to feel bad about planning her trip to Hope’s Mill alone, without asking either of her girls to join her. Colleen had grown up in the pretty old town and might be interested in the 150th anniversary celebrations she was ostensibly planning to attend. But she salved her conscience with the knowledge that her daughter had lost touch with her long-ago friends.
Mara, though, was an entirely different matter. Clear-eyed and analytical, seldom taking statements at face value, her younger daughter might have seen through her plans and started asking questions. Better to face whatever she found in Hope’s Mill, she’d decided, and then deal with Mara.

An hour and a half after leaving her home in St. Catharines she reached Hwy. 404 which would take her to the countryside north of Toronto. This road was far busier at mid-day than she remembered, so she settled into a centre lane and tried to get her bearings. Although the names on overhead signs were completely familiar, the area on both sides of the highway was now so urbanized that she might as well be in a foreign country for all she recognized it. At this moment she felt every year of her age, and for a moment she regretted her decision to return to the town where she’d lived the first half of her life.
On the evening before her trip Isla knew she’d have to confess her plans. Someone had to know where she was going, and Colleen was the obvious choice. An interesting combination of both her parents, Colleen bore a close physical resemblance to her father. Like him, she was brown-eyed and tall, and she moved with a natural, well-coordinated grace. Although she was middle-aged, her hair was still blonde, just as his had been at that age. Colleen was several inches taller than Isla’s five-foot-two, but they shared similar personalities. When confronted, Colleen often reacted with fireworks, but like herself, the display was soon over, and life went on.

Clasping the phone to her chest, she had sat for a minute, collecting her thoughts before dialling. When Colleen’s voice came on the line, she launched into the speech she had planned.
“Mom!” Colleen’s voice was sharp. “What on earth made you think that I wouldn’t want to go to Hope’s Mill? Did you forget that I lived there for eighteen years?”
She cringed.
“I have to work tomorrow, and then I’m on again over the weekend …” Her voice trailed off as if mentally scanning a list of fellow nurses at the Welland Hospital. “There’s no way I can get someone to work all of those shifts for me.” There was deep disappointment in her voice. “I guess you’ll have to go alone.”
She felt a guilty smile grow on her face, and at the other end of the line she could hear her daughter breathe a long sigh before speaking again.
“Listen, you’ve got to promise that you’ll go to visit Dad. And buy some flowers from me, okay? You know, maybe one of those arrangements that clips to the top of the headstone. I’ll pay when you get back.” There was silence for a moment. “And do you think you could try to look up Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Garnet while you’re there? I’ve been thinking about them lately, for some reason, and I really wish we hadn’t lost touch.”
“I’ll try.” Her voice shook a little and she swallowed, trying for a casual tone in her next words. “It won’t be easy though. You do realize we left nearly thirty years ago, right?”
“Thirty years. Wow.” Colleen’s voice was thoughtful. “I don’t think Mara’s ever been there, has she?”
“No, Mara’s never been there,” she said, still working hard to keep her voice even. “But speaking of Mara, I should give her a call. Do you think I’d sound too nosey if I asked how her wedding plans are coming along?”
“Just text her,” Colleen said. “She probably wouldn’t answer her phone anyway.”

When they finished talking, she had leaned back into the soft cushions of the living room sofa and looked out the window. It took up most of the wall, framing a view she never grew tired of. At the end of her yard the Waterfront Trail separated her property from a sandy beach bordering the ever-changing waters of Lake Ontario. She and Mara had spent hours walking and playing there.

A cherry wood table sat beneath the window, its polished surface holding framed family photographs. Although it had been frightfully expensive, she loved the piece, and seldom looked at it without remembering the first time she’d seen it.

She and Chance had been married only a few months when she spied the table in the window of Medford’s Fine Furniture one cold December evening. The Main Street of Hope’s Mill was bright with Christmas decorations, and a thirty-foot spruce, covered with hundreds of lights, sparkled near the clock tower in the long park running between Main Street and the nearby Fox River. Christmas music, flowed from speakers in front of the Woolworths store on air that felt crisp and incredibly clear after the tomato and garlic-laden warmth of Antonio’s little restaurant where they’d just finished dinner. Chance seldom took time away from his hardware store on a busy Saturday evening, which made their dinner together even more special. But before they were finished, she could see his impatient toe-tapping and she knew he was anxious to get back to work.

Walking from the restaurant, back to his store, she noticed the table in Medford’s window and stopped, pulling Chance to her side. Her first reaction was to gasp at the price displayed on a small white card propped against one of the legs, but in the next breath she exclaimed over the beauty of the piece. To her combined delight and dismay, she found the table waiting for her on Christmas morning.

The framed photographs Isla displayed on the table changed with time and family events, except for one large black and white portrait near the back. It had been taken on their wedding day, late in the evening, while Chance waited for her to change into her going- away outfit. The upward tilt of his chin, and the faraway expression in his beautiful brown eyes was a look she had come to know well. He was bored.

Chance liked the photograph immediately, and he had it enlarged and mounted in a handsome tortoiseshell frame. She, though, had never liked it. After moving away from Hope’s Mill, she was tempted to put the thing into a drawer, but out of respect for Colleen, she placed it back in its spot on the table.

Crossing the room, she picked up the photograph and examined Chance’s image before turning it over and opening the back. For years, the frame had held a small secret. Taking the strip of old
photo booth pictures from their hiding place, she wondered why she still bothered to hide them. In the waning light, she studied the face next to hers and a smile grew on her lips. You are my sunshine; she sang to herself as she carried them into the bedroom and tucked it into her suitcase. Arms hugging herself tight, she continued singing the words they had once sung to each other. You’ll never know, Dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

When then the sign for Brighton Road appeared, she was ready to leave the busy highway and take up a more leisurely pace. Turning right on Brighton, her excitement mounted. Her progress was slowed by several small hamlets, but once she’d blown through them, trying hard to keep her speed down, her grip on the wheel tightened. In the distance she could see Hope’s Mill Road.
The intersection was much wider now, with a gas station and traffic lights, but one corner remained familiar. Although the sign for the place was new, it was made to look old, and it announced that the long, low building, facing a now-paved parking lot, was still home to Tommy’s Drive-In, Best Burgers in Ontario.

She turned at the corner, following Hope’s Mill Road across the rolling Oak Ridges Moraine. And then, just as she knew it would, the land on her right dropped away on a long, slow slope into a deep valley. The town of Hope’s Mill should have been nestled near the bottom, but the view was now so different that she pulled to the shoulder and stared. Acres upon acres of roofs filled once-vacant land, and she sat, trying to absorb this new vista. And then, without really trying, she saw it. It was larger than she remembered, because the town had grown enough that it had to be, but she knew by the big blue and white H at the very top that it was the hospital. In a moment she was eleven years old again. She turned off the car and allowed the memory of a long-ago July day to take hold.

From somewhere in the front yard of her family’s home a cicada droned, its monotone undulating on the hot summer air. Lunch was finished and Isla had made herself comfortable on the porch swing,
8propped on pillows she’d borrowed from the living room sofa. With the sun still high in the sky, the swing was shaded beneath the veranda roof, and she occasionally pushed against the floor with her foot to keep the swing in motion. Engrossed in the book she was reading; she didn’t notice Dorothy’s approach until she’d come up the veranda steps.

She looked up, startled. “You surprised me,” she said, to her friend, holding up the book in her hand. “Did you bring along something to read?”

Dorothy shook her head and rolled her eyes. “It seems like all we ever do is read, and I’m bored of it.”

Sighing, Isla sat up, her finger still marking her page.

Dorothy sat at the top of the steps and leaned back against the porch post. “Where’s Percy?”

“Who cares where Percy is?”

“I do.” Dot half-closed her eyes, and a slow grin grew on her lips. “Your brother’s kind of cute, you know.”

“Ew! That’s really disgusting. But if you must know, he and Garnet are in the backyard building a treehouse.”

Dorothy pulled a face. “Garnet? Double ew! He’s a red-haired freckle face.

“You’re mean. He can’t help what he looks like.”

Dorothy shrugged. “Why don’t we go out back anyhow?”

Isla folded the corner of her page and set her book aside, breathing a long sigh as she did so. “Okay, fine. But let’s get a popsicle first.”

A few minutes later, popsicles in hand, they sat down on the edge of the back porch. Feet on the top step, Isla leaned forward, elbows on her thighs, enjoying her cold treat. Beside her, Dorothy placed her feet two steps down, and crossed one long leg over the other. Tossing her head, she shook back her hair, dark waves that Isla envied, and surveyed the yard.

“So, this is what you plan to do all afternoon?” Isla asked.

“Only as long as Percy’s around.”

She made a face, but Dorothy ignored her and bit off a piece of her popsicle. “He’s dreamy,” she said, speaking around the icy chunk in her mouth.

“He’s my brother!”

Isla looked at Dot out of the corner of her eyes and sighed. At school the two of them competed for marks, usually standing together at the top of the class, but in looks, there was no contest. She had always been short and skinny, her fine brown hair cut in short layers, and until this moment it had never mattered. Dorothy’s body was already blossoming into young womanhood, and her dark hair was wavy and thick. She looked at Dot’s long legs. She’d never minded that her friend had always been a head taller, but in this moment, she felt short and childish.

She could hear Percy and Garnet hammering in the huge mulberry tree that had been allowed to stay in their yard when the subdivision was built. Her parents often grumbled about the purple fruit that fell in mid-summer, staining bare feet and clinging to the bottoms of shoes, but she loved the old tree. Recently, she’d begun putting a stepladder against the broad trunk, and climbing into its shady depths with a book. Seated on one of the huge limbs with her back propped against the trunk, she read for hours in leafy privacy. That had given Percy the treehouse idea. Now she was forced to watch while he and Garnet invaded her tree with hammers, and nails, and cast-off pieces of wood. A sturdy platform was already in place, right in her favourite reading spot.

“They’re so annoying,” she said to Dorothy. “I don’t know how people could like boys.”

Dorothy looked at her. “We’re going into Grade Six in the fall. You will pretty soon.”

“Will not.” She glared at the tree. “If I’d thought of it first, I would have built the treehouse all by myself.”

“Don’t be silly. You couldn’t build a treehouse.”

She glared at Dot. “I could build a treehouse just as well as stupid Percy and Garnet.”

As she spoke, the boys climbed down the ladder they’d leaned against the trunk of the tree and went into the garage. “Watch this,” she whispered to Dorothy before jumping off the porch steps and running toward the tree.

“Isla! Come back here.”

Dorothy’s shout brought the boys to the garage door, and by the time she reached the tree they were right behind her, and Percy’s hand just missed her heel as she climbed up the ladder.

“Get down from there, you little twerp,” he shouted.

She turned and looked through the hole in the floor at their upturned faces.

“Isla, it’s not safe for you to be up there,” Percy said. “When we’re finished, we’ll allow you to go up, but right now you have to come down.”

“You think you’re so big, Percy, but you can’t boss me around.” She stuck out her tongue.

Garnet started up the ladder. His green eyes were wide and his freckles vivid against his pale face. She backed away, toward the far side of the platform.

“No! Don’t lean on the railing,” he said. It was a command.

As Garnet spoke, she could feel it give way and she fell, hitting the ground on her outstretched arm. An awful pain overwhelmed everything else, and the bright afternoon faded into a fuzzy grey.

“Isla-a-a-a!” Dorothy’s wail hurt her ears. “Please don’t die.”

“Shut up, Dot.” It was Percy.

Her mother was beside her now, a comforting hand on Isla’s shoulder. “It’s okay, dear, you just stay right here,” she said. “I’ve called Dr. Morrison. There’s something really the matter with your wrist. He’ll know what to do.”

At last, she heard the kind voice of young Dr. Morrison, and a minute later she felt the prick of something sharp in her thigh. After that, there was nothing at all.

When she was able to open her eyes again, her lids felt heavy, as though they might close again without her permission, but she forced herself to look around. White blankets covered her body and the light above her head was very bright. At her side, a woman wearing a white dress and a stiff white cap held warm fingers to her unhurt wrist while looking down at a small watch face pinned to her lapel.

“Ah, there you are,” the nurse said when she finished. She smiled and her face looked pleasant. “We’ve been wondering when you would wake up.”

“Hello, Kitten.”

She looked to the other side. It was her father who had spoken and although her eyes felt bleary, she was able to focus on her parents who were sitting on chairs placed beside her. A moment later, the curtain at the foot of her bed was drawn back with a swish and young Dr. Morrison appeared. Her parents sat up straight in their chairs.

“So, you’ve had a bit of a fall, have you?” he asked, reaching out to tweak her toes through the blankets. He glanced at the clipboard the nurse handed to him and then he smiled. “It looks like that arm is your worst problem today. Your heart is healthy, and your breathing is good.”

Her father cleared his throat. “So, what’s the plan, Doc?”

“Well …” Dr. Morrison sat down beside her feet. “This young lady is going to have to go to the operating room so we can put her wrist back into place. It’ll hurt a lot, so we’ll put her to sleep, and when she wakes up, she’ll have a big white cast.”
He looked down at her. “You probably don’t remember, but we’ve already taken a picture of your arm, called an x-ray. It shows that you’ve done some pretty serious damage.” He flipped over one of the papers on the clipboard and started to draw.

“See?” He tipped it up and pointed. “These are the bones in your arm, and here’s where you broke your wrist.” He started to draw another hand and arm, but this time the wrist looked bent. “It’s called a Colles fracture, and you have what we call a dinner fork deformity. See how it kind of looks like a turned-over fork from the side?” He sketched a fork, its tines pointing down, beneath the hand and arm and held it up again.

Her parents listened and nodded, and she wondered how they could stay so calm when she felt so excited inside. An actual doctor was talking to her as though she wasn’t just a kid going into Grade Six. He took it for granted that she could understand the medical things he was explaining. Her fuzzy brain danced and buzzed, and a thrilling feeling grew in the pit of her stomach.

Dr. Morrison stood and winked at her. “The next time you decide to climb into a treehouse, make sure the carpenters have finished building it, okay?” He tweaked her toes again. “I’ll see you later, alligator.”

She could feel a silly smile grow on her face when she answered him. “In a while, crocodile.”

In the months that followed, she wondered how she could have spoken so casually to a doctor, but it had been easy. Before the accident, she’d only seen young Dr. Morrison in his office and he’d always been friendly to her, unlike his gruff father who also worked there Now, she began picturing herself in a crisp white coat, understanding medical things, and being able to help people and cure their illnesses. The only problem was, she didn’t know if a woman could become a doctor.

Seated in her green VW, she probed the small bump on her once-broken bone, remembering the day she talked to her mother.

It was a chilly Saturday in early November, long after the cast was off her wrist, when she finally found her nerve. Cold rain had been falling all day, and from the kitchen window, where Isla stood at the sink washing lunch dishes, the wet branches of the big mulberry tree looked black against grey clouds hanging low above the valley. It was warm in the kitchen, and while she’d been busy washing up, her mother was making pies. It wasn’t until she had pulled the plug and wrung out the dishcloth that she found her voice.

“Do you think that a woman could ever become a doctor?” She spoke the words without turning around. A small sweat broke out on her forehead as she tensed, almost surprised that she’d finally asked the question out loud.

She could hear her mother’s rolling pin stop and it made a small clunk when she set it aside.

“Of course, she could. This is 1951. Women can do all kinds of things that they couldn’t have when I was your age.”

There was a sound of the pie dough being placed into the plate, and her mother’s paring knife skif-skiffed around the edge as she trimmed away the extra dough.

“Why do you want to know, Isla?”

“I don’t know. I just wondered, that’s all. Just …”
Turning, Isla threw her arms around her mother, not caring about her wet hands. Face buried in her shoulder, so she didn’t have to meet her mother’s eyes, she told her everything.

“That’s quite a story,” her mother said after she’d heard it all, moving Isla so she could look into her eyes. “And if you still want to be a doctor when you’re older, then that’s what you’ll do. I’ll stand behind you every step of the way.”

Overwhelmed by her mother’s unexpected understanding, Isla buried her head back into her shoulder. It was a long time before she was able to pull herself away.

That night, long after she should have been sleeping, Isla slipped from her bed and tiptoed toward the bathroom for a glass of water. A strip of light, showing beneath the closed door of her parents’ room, cast a glow across the worn hall carpet.

“Do you know what Isla told me this afternoon?” It was her mother’s voice, and it sounded gentle, almost surprised still.

The bedsprings squeaked and she pictured her father sitting down to take off his socks.

“What’s that?”

“She told me that she’d like to be a doctor someday, and she wondered if a woman could do it.”

“So, what did you tell her?”

The bed creaked again as her father rose and walked to the clothes hamper in the corner. She heard him shuck off his clothes.

“I told her that she was smart enough to be a doctor and I thought she’d make a very good one.”

Her father grunted. “I agree,” he said. “She’s smarter than her brother, I’d say, but why did you encourage her, Kathryn? You know we can’t afford that kind of schooling. Besides, she’d probably get through a few years and then get married and have kids, and the money would be wasted.”

Isla’s back straightened and hot indignation flushed her body.

“Don’t worry, dear,” her mother said. “She’s just in Grade Six and there’s a good chance she’ll change her mind before long.”

The light clicked out and she could hear her parents settling themselves into bed.

“Albert, you’ve got to promise me something.”

“Uh huh.” This was followed by a long yawn.

“Don’t you say anything to her, okay? If Isla still wants to be a doctor when she’s finished high school, we’ll find a way. Sometimes I think about what I might have done …”

Her voice trailed off and the room was silent.
Isla stood alone in the hall, glass of water forgotten. How could her mother ever have wanted to do anything except be a mother?

The memory was so real that she was almost surprised to find herself still sitting in her car at the edge of the road. If these happy thoughts left her feeling a bit disoriented, was she really up for the search she planned to undertake? A U-turn was tempting, but that would be the coward’s way out, and she’d done that for too many years. Besides, this was meant to be a wedding gift of sorts for Mara. She ran the fingers of both hands through her short, grey hair. She would definitely not be turning around.

She started the car and put on her sunglasses. Still feeling a little unsettled, she began pulling onto the pavement. Immediately, a horn sounded and a red pickup swerved around her. Panicked, she pulled back onto the shoulder. The truck, an older model and obviously restored, signalled a right turn onto Riverview Road. When the truck turned, she could see its profile, and her heart leapt. It looked for all the world like the ’55 Chevy her father had driven for years.

Breathing deep to calm herself, she checked over her shoulder this time, and pulled out into the empty lane. A moment later, she, too, had turned onto Riverview, the road that would take her down the long hill toward Main Street, the park, and the river. Inside her purse, the shiny new iPhone that Mara had made her buy started ringing, but she let it go.

Like the other roads she’d travelled today, Riverview Road was wider than she remembered — four lanes now, instead of two — and busier, so her progress was slow. Finally reaching the corner of Riverview and Main, she breathed a sigh of relief. The same old brick buildings still stood along one side of Main Street, facing the long park that separated the businesses from the Fox River. A couple of picnic pavilions in the park looked fairly new, and a large and colourful playground stood near one of them. New, too, were the many benches. Some faced the street, and she could see others, far across the park, overlooking the river. At the exact centre of the park, where it had always been, stood the tall clock tower, displaying the time on all four sides.
When the light turned green, she turned onto Main, noting with a smile that the old-town angle parking spaces were still in front of the stores. Pulling into the first available spot, nose to the curb, she looked up the street. Most of the buildings were restored with a heritage look, and the old concrete sidewalks had been replaced with some kind of brick. Huge baskets of flowers hung from old- fashioned streetlights, and the atmosphere was one of touristy welcome. She sat back against the seat and drew a deep breath, suddenly tired. Despite the heat of the day, she longed for a hot cup of tea.

Getting out of the car, she paused to stretch her back and her arms while surveying the street. In front of her was a jewellery store and she examined it through narrowed eyes, trying to remember what business had once been in the building. Next door was a place selling high-end women’s clothing, and then a British import store. Next to that, joy of joys, was a small cafe.

Ten minutes later, a steaming Earl Grey in hand, she settled herself on one of the park benches facing Main Street. She could hear happy shouts and laughter from the big playground, not far away, and across the street, the sidewalk in front of the stores was full of people. Were they tourists, she wondered, or did real people shop there too? She took her time scanning the rest of the street before allowing her eyes to settle on the business directly across from where she sat.
The two-storey redbrick building still dominated the street. Although the sign for NEWCOMBE HARDWARE on its tall false front had been replaced years ago, it seemed that little else was changed since her husband had owned the business and the building. Huge plate glass windows on either side of the front door had once displayed all manner of hardware goods, but now gold lettering on the sparkling glass announced that the building was home to CHANG’S GOURMET GRILL. In smaller letters that she could barely read from her seat on the bench, were the words: Best All-Day Breakfast.

Her contemplation was so deep that she didn’t hear footsteps approaching the bench. When a man stopped in front of her, she looked up, startled.

“Hi!” A grin lit the face of the stocky middle-aged fellow, and it made his brown almond-shaped eyes crinkle at the corners.

“Hello,” she said, shaking the hand he offered.

“Welcome to Hope’s Mill.” He jabbed a stubby thumb at a large button pinned to the front of his shirt. “I’m a vow-un-teer for the anniversary celebrations. We’re s’pposed to be friendly with visitors.” He put both hands into the front pockets of his khaki pants and regarded her. “Are you a visitor?”

“Well, yes, I suppose I am.”

“What’s your name?”

“Isla. Isla Murray.” She paused and then added, “I used to live here.”

“Ohhhhh …” A knowing look lit up the man’s eyes. “They say lots and lots of people are coming back here to celebrate ‘cause a hundred an’ fifty years is something to celebrate about.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “It certainly is something to celebrate about,” she said. “And you’re doing a great job at making visitors feel welcome.” She felt sudden guilt. “I’m sorry, I didn’t ask what your name is.”

Again, he poked his chest with his thumb, a proud grin on his face. “I’m Lee. I’m a nice guy and I got lotsa friends.” He regarded her, his round face serious. “You got friends?”

“Yes, I have lots of friends too.”

“Stayin’ with them?”

“No, I’m not, but I’d like to find some old friends while I’m here.” Was it worth asking? “You wouldn’t happen to know people called Garnet and Dorothy Love, by chance?”

Lee stroked his chin, and the tip of his tongue protruded from between his lips while he regarded her solemnly. “I don’t b’wieve I do,” he said, “but I can ask people for you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, “but thanks so much for the offer.” She held out her hand to him. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Lee. I hope our paths cross again while I’m in town.”

She watched him continue down the sidewalk, and when he looked back at her, she smiled and waved. She was still smiling when she checked her watch. Time to head for the B & B, after making one more stop.

The drive from Main Street and the riverside park, back into the old residential neighbourhood, felt like a welcoming embrace. She was happy to be away from the traffic so she could drive at a snail’s pace, enjoying the comfort of familiar surroundings. A few minutes later she turned down the street where Dorothy and Garnet had once lived, and she held her breath as she approached the house. She wanted to be able to go to the door, and just as she’d always done, call out, “Hi, it’s me. Can I come in?”

Pulling to the curb, she stopped across the street from the small house she remembered so well. The siding was a different colour now, and the large flowerbeds Dorothy had once tended so carefully were gone. She was trying to summon enough courage to go to the door when a silver minivan turned into the driveway, pausing while the overhead garage door opened. After parking, a young woman got out of the van and when she slid open the side door, two small children jumped out.

Isla sighed, wishing she had a solid Plan B.