Matthew Chadwick was not going home again. He’d spent a few weeks in Maine, on Chadwick Island, twice in his life. So what if the island had been in the Chadwick family for over 400 years? It wasn’t his home and it never would be, but his uncle had died, left it to him and now he was stuck with it.
If that wasn’t enough, he was riding his Triumph Tiger on twisting Maine roads, and it had just begun to snow. In April.
He’d never realized until this moment that his uncle must have hated him.
The farther north he went, the less he needed his GPS. Each twist of the road turned on a memory he hadn’t known was there; the dark stretch of thick woods with trees clawing a pale gray sky, the blue house on that four-way stop, the old Exxon gas station looking different now with all those lights. He knew this road. He’d made this approach before.
The first time, he’d been eight years old, a skinny kid with scabbed knees and elbows. Boy Scout camp had fallen through, something about his paperwork not hitting the right desk in time, and his dad had loaded him onto a plane for Boston with the words, “Mind your manners or Uncle Dan will mind them for you.”
His great uncle had been waiting for him at the airport curb, leaning against the front fender of his truck. Spare of frame, iron gray hair, hands in the pockets of a pair of well- worn khakis, Uncle Dan nodded upon seeing him and said, “You look like a Chadwick, all right. Stow your gear and get in.”
Matt had thrown his backpack into the bed of the old Ford, climbed in, the door hinge squeaking as he closed it, and stared straight ahead.
“You’re going to need this,” Uncle Dan had said, leaving the airport behind them. Matt barely moved his head to look at what was in his uncle’s hand. A Swiss Army knife, shining red. “Take care of it. Keep it clean.”
Matt still had that knife. It was in his front left pocket, and it was clean.
The second time he’d been to Uncle Dan’s place in Maine, he’d been seventeen. His uncle had met him as close to the gate as he could get, not from any warmth of family feeling, not from Uncle Dan, but more that no one could be certain that Matt wouldn’t climb on the nearest plane or out the closest exit and simply disappear into another life, least of all Matt himself. He’d been messed up and had been messing up, and his dad had said, “If Uncle Dan can’t straighten you out, no one can.” He’d been shoved on a plane to Boston without any choice in the matter to spend the ten weeks of summer before his senior year on an island in Maine. He’d not gone gracefully.
Uncle Dan, his thick hair silver white by this time, his weight leaner, his eyes the light blue of a winter sky, had shaken his hand first thing. Matt had stood straighter and returned his grip, looking his uncle in the eye. Facing Uncle Dan did that to a man.
“You’re a Chadwick,” he’d said. “That means something.”
“What?” Matt had asked, hoisting his duffel to his shoulder. “What’s it mean?
“Don’t screw up. That’s what it means.”
Ten weeks later, Matt had either learned or decided, he still wasn’t sure which, not to screw up.
The yellow house with the window boxes, just on the right. He remembered that place. The Congregational church on the hill, white spire spiking into a bleached white sky, he remembered that. The old drugstore with the lunch counter was an antique shop now, little stained glass lamps in all the windows, spreading colored light against a wintry sky. In April.
Matt expelled a breath inside his helmet. It wasn’t quite a sigh. Marines didn’t sigh. His Uncle Dan, a Marine in WWII, had never sighed in his life, of that Matt was sure.
The wheels of his bike made each turn easily. The route into Old Derby, the port town closest to Chadwick Island, felt hauntingly familiar.
The island had been in the Chadwick family since the late 1600s, before the town was established, before Maine was a state, before there was a United States of America. Uncle Dan had made much of that, of the history of their folk in this place, of the legacy that each Chadwick left behind. At eight, he’d listened and wondered at his own place in the story. At seventeen, he’d pretended to listen and wondered what kind of legacy an old man could leave on a remote island in a remote part of the world. At twenty-five, he knew less than he’d known at eight and he cared to know more than he had at seventeen.
Uncle Dan could have helped him out, he knew, but Dan was dead and he’d left Chadwick Island to Matt, as it was always done, oldest son to oldest surviving son, since 1695, and now Matt had to figure out what to do with a legacy he didn’t understand and an island he didn’t want.
And then he saw his uncle’s truck, that beautiful, priceless 1956 red Ford F100. His heart pounded; he hit the brakes on his bike and turned in to stop next to the truck. It was in front of a house on the north edge of town, a white saltbox with black shutters and a blood red door with a tarnished brass knocker. The porch lights were on, even though it was only three o’clock. The snow had stopped, but the skies were overcast and changing from white to pewter. His uncle’s truck. He’d never even thought to ask what had happened to it.
He’d sold it, obviously. Matt, in that instant, decided he wanted the truck. He didn’t think about it, didn’t wonder if he needed a truck. He needed this truck; that’s all he knew.
He strode to the front door, used the knocker, waited, heard movement inside, knocked again, waited, and stepped back a pace when the door opened. Inside stood an old woman, tall, spare, smiling, and on crutches. In her hands she held out a ring of keys, his uncle’s keys. The keys to the truck and the house on the island and the boat lift on the dock on the island. She jangled the keys and then half-tossed them at him. He caught them in one hand without taking his eyes off her face.
“Matthew Chadwick,” she said, her voice that raw, clipped voice of the Maine native. “Dan knew you’d want his truck, counted on it, in fact. Welcome home, Matt. Welcome home.”
Home was a four-letter word, if there ever was one, Matt couldn’t help but think. Right up there with all the words he used to say that made Dan look at him in gut-clenching disapproval.
“Thanks,” he muttered. He stared down at the keys in his palm, at the keychain that had scandalized him when he was younger, and now fit his palm like it was made for it. He ran the pad of his thumb over the thigh of the naked woman, feeling the ridge of her knee, and the tiny raised bump of her pointy toe, remembering how he’d longed to hold that keychain when he was seventeen.
The old woman snickered, then she wrapped her hands around her mouth like she wanted to tell him a secret. “That’s made of metal, son,” she said. “Play with it on your own time, when I don’t have to watch.”
Heat crept up Matt’s face.
From behind her a noise arose, and a small child skidded to a stop beside the old woman, nearly knocking her from her crutches. He was wearing cowboy boots, had a red bandanna tied around his chin, hiding his mouth from view, and he had a cardboard belt tied around his waist. The belt held two small toy pistols.
The old woman winked and nodded toward the keys. “Don’t tell anyone, but I think Dan had that keychain made in my likeness.” Matt stopped fondling the key fob immediately.
The little cowboy who’d skidded into her tugged at the edge of her shirt and whispered something to her that Matt couldn’t understand. She jerked a thumb toward the back of the house. “I’ll be right there,” she said. He left as quickly as he’d arrived, slapping his imaginary horse on the rump as he went around the corner.
“Cute kid,” Matt grunted. But he wasn’t. Kids were the devil and he wanted nothing to do with them. Ever.
“No, he’s not. He’s terrible. The only time he’s cute is when he’s sleeping. And even then, he’s talking.” The woman hitched her shoulder in the doorway. “I vaguely remember you being the same way. Cat got your tongue, Matthew?”
Matt narrowed his eyes at her. “The truck,” he began. He looked toward the drive where it rested, almost like it was waiting for him.
She nodded, blinking her blue eyes at him. “Yep. It’s a truck.” She clucked her tongue. “Dan always said you were smarter than you looked.”
The pitter-patter of little feet rang down the hallway, and Matt looked beyond her for the herd of elephants that must have escaped the zoo. A little girl wearing a tiny blue ball gown and plastic glass slippers tripped over the hem of the too-long dress and landed on her face. She hopped back up like she was on springs, rubbed the tip of her nose, and kept on coming.
Behind her followed a brunette. Her hair was long and straight and it was pulled back into a messy snarl at the back of her head. It reminded him of his grandmother’s yarn the time the cat got into it. But then… then she turned and looked into his eyes.
His breath stopped. His heart quit doing its job and he coughed into his fist to get it started back up.
The old woman punched him in the shoulder. “Breathe, boy. It’s just a woman. I’m sure you’ve seen one before.”
But this wasn’t just any woman. This was Anne Bartlett. This was the only thing he’d left behind in Maine when he was seventeen that still visited him in his dreams. Anne was everything. And she was standing right there.
“Matt?” she said, and his heart burst open.