“You’re not eating,” he says. “Tell that waitress to come back here and take your order.”
“Already had dinner,” I lie.
“Get yourself a slice of pie then,” he says. “I’m buying.”
“No, thank you, Grandpa.”
“At least get one to take back to Junie,” he says. “She loves rhubarb, you know.”
Sighing, I say, “I know.”
He reaches for his glass of cranberry juice with a shaky hand before finishing the rest of his dinner. When I spot his nurse peeking in the doorway, I give her a nod, and she returns a few minutes later with his evening meds.
“That one there reminds me of Eloise Bertram,” he says under his breath as the nurse stands by the door and makes a note on his chart.
I peer across the table.
He hasn’t mentioned Eloise Bertram in ages … not since her husband forced my grandparents into retirement and gave us a three-hour notice to pack our things and leave.
“You remember the Bertrams?” I ask.
He chuffs. “Of course I do. You don’t work for a family for thirty-six years and forget them, do you?”
The nurse places a white paper cup filled with an assortment of colorful pills between us, followed by a plastic glass of water. I push them toward him.
“What do you remember about the Bertrams?” I follow up with another question.
He takes his meds without so much as a fight, and his nurse and I exchange looks.
“Grandpa, what do you remember about them?” I ask again.
He places the cup on the table, eyes narrowing. “Who?”
“The Bertrams,” I say.
Grabbing his fork, he clears his throat. “Never heard of ‘em.”
Deflated, I bury my head in my hands and let it go. I’m not sure what I was trying to accomplish anyway. Maybe a piece of me wanted one last validation that that part of our life happened.
It feels like forever ago.
And sometimes it feels like it was all a dream.
After what happened the summer of ‘09, Howard made his demands and my grandparents had no choice but to accept them. The moment we left the island, the two of them quickly swept our former lives under the rug, refusing to so much as utter the name “Bertram” in any context.
This August will mark ten years since we left Rose Crossing Island, and while we’ve never set foot on that soil in all the time that’s passed, there’s still a piece of me there.
And his name is Thayer Ainsworth.
I stand in the doorway of my Granddad’s Rose Crossing kitchen the Saturday before Mother’s Day, watching the pockets of conversations taking place as the rest of the family settles. My father talking shop with my uncle. My mother and her sister passing a newspaper between them. Whitley chatting her dad’s ear off about her upcoming nuptials while her dead-eyed fiancé scrolls his Instagram.
Once again, Westley’s nowhere to be seen.
Ever since the summer of ‘09, he’s been a completely different person. More withdrawn, less engaging. Sometimes he visits the island. Most of the time he doesn’t.
“Oh my goodness! Thayer’s here, everyone.” My mother throws her arms in the air as she abandons the kitchen table chit-chat the moment she sees me.
I had no intentions of returning to Rose Crossing this year, and if it weren’t for my cousin, Whitley, getting married next weekend, I’d likely be holed up in my Manhattan office wearing my workaholic badge of shame like an Olympic gold medal.
But ever the loyal family man, here I am.
“So good to see you, lovey,” my mom clasps her hands on my cheeks and kisses my forehead like I’m not a full-grown man. “We’re so glad you’re here. The last few years … haven’t been the same without you.”
I glance away, unsure of what to say.
I stopped summering in Rose Crossing with the family years ago. The first couple of summers after the Hilliards left filled me with dread and anxiety. Dread because I wasn’t looking forward to spending another June, July, and August without knowing where the hell Lila was. And anxiety because despite all of my best efforts and intentions, I still couldn’t find her, and being trapped on some private island with limited cell and network connectivity only amplified that helpless feeling.
No matter how many years have passed, I’ve never quite been able to accept the fact that one summer she was here and the next she was … gone. It was like the sea swallowed up all those promises of forever without any kind of warning, leaving nothing but a gray island and a gaping void in my heart I’d never be able to fill with anyone else so long as I lived.
My life trudged forward, but only on paper.
After my senior year, I landed a paid summer internship in the city and shared a place with a handful of guys I knew from school. That fall I started law school and before I’d even graduated, I was looking at five job offers. Took the best one and never looked back. Every May after that, like clockwork, I always managed to come up with plausible work-related excuses as to why I wouldn’t be able to make it out that summer.