The smell of cinnamon lured Pam Whitford out from under her soft burgundy comforter. She grabbed the pair of jeans and sweatshirt she’d draped over a chair near the bed and pulled them on before leaving the room she shared with Mel Andrews. She’d long since learned not to venture upstairs without being reasonably dressed since the people staying at the Sea Glass Inn could appear in the common areas at any time, day or evening. On one particularly embarrassing night, an older guest had turned on the kitchen light and discovered her sitting in a wash of moonlight at the breakfast table, finishing the leftover pizza from the fridge and wearing nothing more than a sports bra and underwear. He’d apologized and left the kitchen with an empty glass, one he had presumably been about to refill with water, and she had escaped into the downstairs suite with the pizza box. They’d both avoided eye contact during breakfast the next morning, and Pam had never again left her and Mel’s room without the minimum requirements for decency.
She took the steps two at a time and inhaled deeply as the scent of Mel’s baking grew stronger. Pam was a private person, happiest when she was alone in her art studio or snuggled with Mel. She should hate the intrusion of the inn’s constant stream of guests in her life, the need to be fully dressed before she entered her own kitchen, and the effort to make small talk with the strangers who shared meals with them. But she didn’t. Because of Mel. Pam came through the door and paused for a moment as she watched Mel rolling out a batch of dough on the counter. She felt like a goofy teenager with a crush every time she saw her partner and lover. Her heartbeat skewed off course and she couldn’t keep the silly grin off her face if she tried.
Mel had changed her life in unexpected ways. Loner Pam now met new people every week. She ate meals and took walks on the beach with them. If one of them stopped in the backyard to look through the studio’s large windows and watch her paint, she waved and smiled. Sometimes she kept working, and other times she actually invited the guests in and showed them around. The old Pam would have covered the windows with blackout curtains and hidden inside. Not the new Pam. She’d seen how willing Mel was to open her home and heart to complete strangers, and she’d personally experienced the healing effects of Mel’s warmth and love. Because of her, Pam was more open, too, and she’d made friends from all over the world. In turn, those friends, with their stories and secrets, gave her plenty of inspiration for her art.
She crossed the kitchen and stood directly behind Mel, wrapping her arms around Mel’s waist. She kissed the side of Mel’s neck and felt her insides melt when Mel leaned into her.
“Mmm.” Pam nuzzled the hollow between Mel’s neck and collarbone. The dough combined with Mel’s shampoo to make an intoxicating blend. “Cinnamon and vanilla and roses. I could eat you up.”
She opened her mouth wide and took a pretend chomp out of Mel’s neck. Mel laughed and ducked out of reach, holding her floury hands in front of her. “Let me finish these rolls first, and then you can nibble all you want.”
Pam braved the threat of a flour dusting and leaned forward for a kiss. Mel’s lips felt warm and soft against Pam’s. Despite her protests, Mel was the one who slipped her tongue into Pam’s mouth and deepened the kiss into the kind that made Pam see stars when she shut her eyes. The contact from thigh to breast charged Pam’s nerve endings so much she thought it had to be visible. She must be glowing like a firefly. At the same time, Mel’s touch brought her a now-familiar sense of peace. The peace of being home.
Mel pulled away. Her throat was pink and her eyes looked hungry, but she pointed toward the back door. “Go paint or…something. Walk the dog, watch the sunrise. If you don’t, we’ll be trying to pass off frozen pizza as a gourmet breakfast and our reputation will plummet.”
Pam grinned. If it weren’t for hungry guests, she and Mel would be back in their bedroom already. Or maybe right here on the kitchen floor…
“Later,” Mel said, as if reading Pam’s mind.
“Most definitely.” Pam waggled her eyebrows and made Mel laugh. “Come on, Piper. We’ve been banished.”
Pam’s small brown-and-white spaniel jumped off her bed in the corner of the kitchen and trotted to the door, her entire back half wagging in anticipation of a morning seagull chase. Pam gave Mel one more quick kiss—heroically resisting the urge to press her against the kitchen counter—and went outside. She and Piper navigated the path through the backyard without needing more than the predawn glimmer. The summer air felt warm and damp against her skin, but Pam shivered with anticipation. She and Mel would have the entire afternoon together. They could wander through the town of Cannon Beach or explore a new trail in Ecola State Park. Or maybe just lock their bedroom door and stay inside all day.
Pam inhaled deeply and coughed the exhale. She wrinkled her nose at the putrid hint in the air. Had something washed ashore during the night? “Just a quick walk today, Piper,” she said, reaching down to scratch the dog between the ears. Pam would keep a close eye on her this morning, and then later, when the sun was up, she’d come out here alone and do whatever cleanup was needed on the beach. Their property only extended to the beach access cliff, but Pam considered all of Cannon Beach to be her responsibility as much as anyone else’s.
She hesitated at the top of the staircase leading to the beach and Piper scampered down, a few steps ahead of her. Pam couldn’t count how many mornings she’d begun this same way, with a walk on the beach. She’d never tire of it, even if she had a hundred lifetimes. She heard the relentless waves and felt each one crash and ebb inside her. The air reeked today, but normally the fresh taste of salt tingled in her nose and throat, and the familiar memory was enough to make the faint hint of something rotten fade into the background for a moment.
The beach was still bathed in darkness, and Pam could barely see more than an outline of Haystack Rock. The ocean glowed an iridescent black, except for the occasional whitecap peeking through the early-morning gloom. Pam shivered. She’d been on the beach in the deep dark of moonless nights before and she’d never felt anything but at home and welcome there. Why was today different?
She heard a faint whine and walked down a few steps before she saw Piper standing on the lowest stair. Her white fur stood in stark relief against the backdrop of glistening black sand, and Pam spun around and looked over her shoulder. A bright half-moon hung in the east, high enough to illuminate Piper. Pam turned around again and fought down a wave of nausea as she realized what she was seeing.
The beach was black. Not shadowed, not reflecting the night. Black.
“Piper, come.” The dog immediately followed her command and ran to Pam’s side, leaving smudged footprints on the wooden steps. Pam knelt when Piper reached her and picked up one of her paws. It was coated with a thick sludge, and when Pam held her trembling hand in front of her face, her mind finally registered what she had been seeing all along.
Pam told Piper to stay and she walked the rest of the way to the beach by herself. Everything was covered in a thick coat of oil, as far as she could see in either direction along the beach. Even the sea in front of her. A thick rope of terror coiled around her heart as she fought for breath. The smell—what was it? Animals? Birds? How many were trapped out here? How would they ever clean this off the sand?
A flash of white—startling movement against the still shadows—caught her attention. The flailing motion broke her out of her frozen state and she ran up the steps, grabbing Piper on the way. She raced across the backyard with her dog clutched to her chest and slammed open the back door.
“Mel. The beach. Oil.” She spoke between gasps. When had she started crying? “A bird. I need to save it.”
Mel swiveled away from the pan of cinnamon rolls and stared at her with an expression as horrified as the one Pam felt must be on her own face. A long moment passed as if Mel was processing the information and the bedraggled and oily state of Pam and Piper, but then she snapped into action.
“The dog crate is in our closet downstairs,” Mel said. She took Piper from Pam and cradled her against her white shirt with one arm while she reached for the phone with the other. “Take some of the towels from the bathroom.”
Pam heard the distinctive beeps of Mel dialing 9-1-1 as she flew down the stairs. By the time she had wrestled the rarely used crate out of the back of the closet, stuffed a few towels in it, and run back upstairs, Mel had hung up the phone. Pam paused and looked at Mel hopefully. It couldn’t be as bad as she’d first thought. A barrel of oil, and no more, had crashed ashore in the night, just below the inn. The damage was limited.
Mel shook her head silently in answer to Pam’s unspoken hope, and rested her cheek against Piper’s head. Tears rolled down and onto the dog’s fur.
“What’s wrong?” Jack, one of their guests, stood in the kitchen doorway still wearing his robe. His partner Trevor was behind him, in jeans but barefoot. “Did something happen?”
“An oil spill,” Mel said in a choked voice. “The beach is covered for miles.”
“What can we do?” Trevor asked, resting his hand on Jack’s shoulder.
“Can you help me empty out some cardboard boxes in the garage?” Mel asked. “They’ve already opened the convention center as a refuge. We can take birds and animals there, but we’ll need…”
Pam left Mel and the guests to gather more boxes and she retraced her steps to the beach. She waded through the oily sand that threatened to suck her light sneakers right off her feet, staring into the darkness for some sign of the bird she’d seen. The entire beach was still, too still, and she nearly stepped on the seagull before it feebly lurched to its feet and fell over again.
Pam knelt in the muck and opened the door to the crate. She gathered the struggling bird as gently as she could, folding its wings and nestling it on a pile of towels before she closed it in. She stood up and lifted the heavy burden while thick globs of oil plopped off the crate’s bottom and the knees of her pants. The smell of Mel and the kitchen, the warmth of the inn and the promise of an afternoon of idleness, and the rejuvenating joy of a morning walk on the beach receded from her world like they’d been sucked down a drain. The sun was beginning to reveal the shore’s secrets now, and Pam saw flashes of movement here and there as creatures struggled to move, to survive.
She had one bird, and Mel was collecting boxes for more. But how would they ever save them all? Would her world ever heal from this?
Jenny Colbert pushed a loose strand of unwashed hair behind her ear and squinted against the harsh fluorescent lights as she counted the makeshift animal pens filling the vast convention hall. She had arrived at Cannon Beach two days ago, refreshed after a two-week stay in Puerto Vallarta and clean after a long shower in her temporary Los Angeles apartment. She hadn’t showered, eaten, or stopped to catch her breath since.
A woman holding a clipboard came over to her. She was wearing cutoff jeans that showed her slender, athletic calves and an inside-out faded yellow T-shirt. She looked as weary and grubby as Jenny felt. Jenny forced her tired mind—usually quick to remember details—to recall her name. Pam? Yes. Pamela Whitford. An artist of some sort, and one of the owners of the Sea Glass Inn where Jenny would be staying while she was here. Not that she’d be spending much time in her room there, away from this convention-center-turned-wildlife-hospital.
“Hey, Jenny,” Pam said. Her shaky voice and red eyes were proof she’d been crying not long ago. She cleared her throat and blinked a few times before continuing with a more composed tone. “The entrance hall is almost filled with the donations we’ve been getting all night. Home Depot has sent three truckloads of plywood, trash bags, and plastic tubs for the washroom. The local paper brought stacks of old newsprint, and they published the list of items we need, so people have been stopping by with things like blankets and gloves. Workers from the PetSmart in Tillamook are having a drive to collect crates and dog runs, and they’ll start bringing what they’ve got so far to us tomorrow morning. My friend Tia has set up a phone line, and we’re getting calls from people all over the Northwest who want to volunteer.”
Jenny watched Pam tick off each item on her clipboard as she shared the information. Jenny had been doing this work long enough—traveling to cities after disasters and helping the animals and birds involved—that she could easily spot the few key people she’d need as cornerstones on her team. Pam and Melinda Andrews had been immediate choices, and Jenny’s instincts had been spot-on. The two hadn’t paused since Jenny had walked into their damaged town and started directing the rescue efforts. Mel—Pam’s partner and owner of the Sea Glass Inn—was in charge of the main room where the birds would live until they were able to return to the beaches. Pam was in charge of what Jenny thought of as the infrastructure. Crates and pens, workers, tables and chairs. All the equipment they’d be using over the next few weeks. She was organized and persuasive, relentless in her desperate desire to take care of her home after the disastrous oil spill. She’d already plowed through Jenny’s hastily written list of necessities.
“Thanks, Pam,” Jenny said when Pam seemed to run out of things to say. She put her hand on Pam’s shoulder and gave her a squeeze. Years of living a nomadic lifestyle had helped Jenny hone her talent for bonding quickly with strangers, even though those relationships she made never turned into anything deeper than an occasional postcard that found its way to her next temporary home. The friendships she formed were transitory, but important. They helped her assess people and connect with them during a crisis, when the most vital action was forming a team to handle the problem at hand. She cherished the shared sense of purpose she felt, for a short time, at least, with the people whose lives had been affected by a disaster, the people who were willing to devote their time and energy to help her heal the local wildlife. Once the danger was over, she would pack up her scarce belongings and move on.
Letting go of relationships when it was time for her to leave was as necessary in her chosen profession as forging them immediately upon arrival. Still, despite her parents’ warnings about getting too close to people she’d eventually leave, and her own self-protective instincts, Jenny occasionally met people like Pam and Mel who made her wonder what it would be like to know them better. To just hang out with them on a normal day, without a life-or-death mission attached to their friendship. She didn’t let her thoughts linger there too long, though. She gave Pam another pat on the shoulder and dropped her hand to her side. “You’ve done an amazing job so far. Try to take a little break. Get something to eat or some sleep, if you can.”
Pam nodded before she walked away, but Jenny doubted she’d take her advice. Pam wasn’t any more likely than she was to stop right now, to sit and put her feet up and sip some tea. Those small normal acts didn’t belong in this damaged world. Jenny sighed. Someday Pam and Mel would sit in their backyard, on the top step of the stairs leading to the ocean, and relax with a glass of wine or morning cup of coffee. Someday. But not now.
Jenny froze in place when she saw another woman intercept Pam before she got to the large bank of doors leading into the foyer. She was a stranger to Jenny—a new volunteer? She was dressed simply in jeans and a long-sleeved, light green sweater, with her tawny hair pulled back in a ponytail and a basket over one arm.
Jenny had a million-item list in her head: Make sure the people from the water company were installing the right number of spigots at the proper height. Double-check the charts for in-processing the oil-covered avian patients. Greet each volunteer and start collecting their names and skills before she assigned them to jobs.
Later, though. She’d cross every item off the list before she allowed herself to take even a small catnap, but for the next few seconds she’d let herself stand idle while she watched the interchange between Pam and the woman who was giving her a hug and handing her something wrapped in paper. After exchanging a few words with Pam, she moved on to the next volunteer and repeated the same gestures. A hug, a short chat. Handing over a wrapped bundle from her basket.
Jenny needed to get on with her own work. She’d delegated volunteer training and recruitment to Pam and Tia. But Jenny ignored her carefully structured system for once and walked across the cavernous room toward the newcomer. She was surprised by her own movement, and even more so by her fervent wish that she’d been able to shower and change in the recent past. Since when did she care how she looked, especially when there was more important work to be done?
“Are you here to volunteer?” she asked. The woman spun around to face her, looking startled at the words. She looked as clean and rested as Jenny felt bedraggled and weary. Just standing next to her was refreshing, and Jenny felt some of the stress she had been carrying inside since her arrival dissipate, only to be replaced by a new kind of tension. Attraction. Jenny allowed her energy to be buoyed by the feeling, but she wouldn’t let herself linger here any longer than she had when imagining a lasting friendship with Pam and Mel. “Tia is in the lobby, and she’ll assign you to a work station.”
“Oh…sure. Of course I’ll be glad to volunteer. I’m Helen Reiser, by the way.”
“I’m Jenny Colbert.” She shook Helen’s hand, surprised by the firmness of her grip. Helen had a softness about her, accentuated by the tantalizing aroma of yeast and butter that seemed to linger in the air around her, but her strong fingers and direct gaze showed she was anything but weak. Jenny was reading too much into a handshake, but it was part of her job to come to quick judgments about a volunteer’s character. Just as quickly, she discovered the unexpected way her body responded to Helen’s touch.
“Nice to meet you, Jenny.”
Helen smiled and a few fine lines appeared near the corners of her big blue eyes. Jenny had first thought Helen was in her early twenties, but the lines made Jenny add a decade to her estimate. Helen had a youthful grin, but something in her expression showed she had lived through tougher times than these. And she was beautiful. Understated, but with something sharp beneath the calm exterior. Jenny shook her head. She was here for one purpose only—to return the shore and its inhabitants to their clean, pre-spill condition. She needed to know enough about her volunteers to be able to do that job well, and nothing more. Maybe she should put some distance between her and Helen until she had more sleep and was her usual efficient and detached self.
“Yes, well, nice to meet you, too. Be sure to check in with Tia and she’ll assign you to a work station.” Had she said that before? She was having trouble concentrating.
“I saw her and fed her,” Helen said with the rueful look of someone who had listened to one of Tia’s breathless monologues. Jenny had only been here two days, and already she’d heard more words from the one woman than she herself had spoken in the past month. “I’ll ask her what she needs me to do as soon as I’ve delivered these croissants. I figured no one here has bothered to eat much today.”
Helen reached into her basket and handed Jenny a parchment paper cone. Jenny paused before accepting the warm package. “I really shouldn’t. I have too much to do, and—”
Helen waved off Jenny’s words. “Nonsense. It’s small and portable and you need food to have enough energy for this job.”
Helen walked away before Jenny could protest anymore. Not that she wanted to. She couldn’t even remember the last thing she’d eaten, but she was damned sure it hadn’t been as good as whatever Helen had given her smelled. She opened the top flap of the parchment and took a bite of the small, perfectly moon-shaped croissant. A thick slice of ham and some gooey, melty cheese were folded inside. Jenny finished the pastry in two more bites and crumpled the paper as she watched Helen talking to Mel on the other side of the room. She shook her head. Helen intrigued her mind and aroused her body. Now Jenny’s stomach had joined the fight against her concentration. She’d better stop drooling like an enamored and hungry puppy and get back to work.
Jenny tossed the paper into a trash can and turned away from temptation. The convention center’s floor was crisscrossed with channels, so segments of walls could be pulled out, separating the main floor into several smaller conference rooms. She had arranged for most of the space to remain open, but a corner of the room was enclosed on three sides. This quieter area would soon be filled with waist-high sinks where volunteers would clean the seabirds, washing every last drop of oil off their delicate feathers. Now, though, it was empty of both people and equipment. The perfect place for Jenny to regroup.
She pulled a small pad and pen out of her back pocket and flipped through several pages of names. She added Helen to the list, feeling a small tingle of secret pleasure, as if she was writing her name with a heart around it in a school notebook. She rubbed her eyes. Helen’s effect on her was a symptom of sleep deprivation. Nothing more.
Jenny added a star next to Helen’s name. Even though Tia was technically in charge of volunteers, Jenny kept careful track of them during the early stages whenever she organized a new rescue center. She noticed the leaders, like Pam and Mel. She watched for aggressive recruiters, like Tia, because the rescue effort would desperately need bodies to help, and most people would have a difficult time saying no to her. She also identified groups of friends who would be more inclined to remain interested if they were on the buddy system. Helen was definitely a leader. Jenny had noticed the way the other volunteers responded to her. She brightened their expressions, and not just because she was handing out heavenly pastries.
What was it about these coastal towns? Jenny had witnessed it time and again—all communities drew together after disasters, but ocean side towns seemed to transcend the temporary closeness of other places. They were a family.
Helen was the embodiment of the community’s intimacy. She was feeding the people, nurturing them, with her personality and not only her food. Jenny would be a part of this place for a short while, welcomed inside because of her knowledge of this type of tragedy, but then she would move on to the next place where she was needed. She was a catalyst. She’d handle details, train volunteers, put a system in place. Assign duties and tasks, and then stand back and let the community do the work.
She’d always been an outsider, moving from disaster to disaster, just as she’d done throughout her childhood with her doctor parents. She had the experience needed to run this rescue effort, but without the people from the community nothing would be done. People like Mel and Pam. Helen. They had the heart and the drive to heal their home. Jenny gave them the tools and resources they needed and then she moved on. Sometimes she felt a twinge of longing when she left, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Because by then she had performed her role—the one her parents had instilled in her from childhood.
So why did it feel different this time? Why did Helen make her feel a small but persistent urge to see what the view was like from the inside? Just once, just for a moment? Whatever the reason, Jenny didn’t have time to dwell on it right now.
She saw some weary-looking, grime-covered officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife carrying crates through the back door of the center, and she stuffed the notepad into her pocket again and rushed over to help. Tonight, she would concentrate on getting as many frightened birds and animals as possible into the safe, yet artificial world of the event center. Tomorrow, they would begin washing and treating them. Hopefully in the not too distant future, they’d be releasing them back into the wild, and Jenny would be released as well.
Helen felt the lingering weight of Jenny’s gaze as she walked away. She figured it had more to do with the basket she was carrying than with her as a person, but she let herself bask in the electricity she had felt between them. The center was full of exhausted and hungry workers—of course they were going to respond favorably to anyone offering fresh-baked food. Especially her famous ham and Gruyère croissants. She could look like the Incredible Hulk, and she’d still expect to be on the receiving end of salivating glances in this crowd.
She delivered several more pastries on her way over to Mel. Everyone responded with ravenous gratitude, but something about the look Jenny had given her made a deeper impression. Tia had mentioned Jenny as soon as Helen walked through the door, carrying on a monologue about Jenny’s brilliance and her organizational skills. Between surprisingly short pauses to take huge bites of croissant, Tia had delivered a barrage of facts about Jenny’s competence and her gorgeous looks. She had sounded like a fantasy woman, and Helen had expected her to have some mysterious aura, visible from across the room. In reality, Jenny had looked as zombielike as all the other sleep- and food-deprived people in the room.
And in reality, Jenny had been one of the most glamorous and regal women Helen had ever seen. A quick swipe of a washcloth and a catnap, and Jenny would be fit for a stroll down Rodeo Drive, although she looked too down-to-earth and principled to be interested in anything as inconsequential as fashion. Tall and slender, she made even the ratty tan coveralls she was wearing look elegant. Her blond hair was streaked with platinum, more likely due to time spent in the sun than in a hair salon, if Helen was right in her assessment of Jenny’s personality. And the green eyes Tia had rhapsodized about? They were as reflective and bright as a tide pool that hid an entire mysterious and varied ecosystem in its depths.
Damn those eyes. Helen finally reached Mel, who was standing in the center of an empty plywood pen. Helen had planned on coming here with an offering of food and nothing more. Actually, she hadn’t even meant to do that much. Not because she didn’t care, but because she couldn’t afford to give away even a tiny croissant. She had maybe two months’ buffer between this moment and bankruptcy, and given the state of the beaches, crowds of tourists weren’t likely to be flocking to her bakery and buying dozens of muffins anytime soon.
“Hi, Mel.” Helen hesitated next to the wood panels. She didn’t doubt her abilities as a baker, but she still felt a little reluctant to offer her food to Mel. People raved about the breakfasts at the Sea Glass Inn, and Helen wasn’t sure how her pastries would compare.
“Helen, it’s good to see you here,” Mel said, stepping over the barrier and giving Helen a quick hug. She broke away and peered into the basket. “What smells so delicious? I’m not above begging if you don’t offer me whatever it is you have in there.”
Helen laughed and handed Mel a croissant. She’d remained distant from the locals so far, preferring to keep to herself, but Mel’s implied approval seemed significant to her. In the three months Helen had been in town, she’d already seen several stores open and then fail. Businesses were started on a whim because of the appeal of living and working in the laid-back and naturally beautiful coastal community. Too few of the owners—and Helen lumped her naive self of three months ago in with them—actually realized what it took to succeed. She didn’t blame the longtime proprietors for waiting until new arrivals were established before considering them part of the family.
“I’m supposed to ask Tia where she needs me to work, but do you mind if I help you here for a while?” Helen was skipping steps in the process, but she hoped Jenny wouldn’t mind. Functioning bodies were most likely in demand, no matter what job they were doing, and Helen had made a tenuous connection with Mel. She wasn’t ready to be thrust into the midst of a group of locals who were still strangers to her.
Mel’s sigh of relief made her glad she had offered to stay, not just for herself, but for Mel and the cause.
“I’d love to have help. Volunteers seem to prefer to move on quickly to one of the more glamorous, hands-on jobs, so I’ve been doing this alone.” Mel rubbed her temple and left a black smear across her pale, tired-looking skin. “Not that any of this is glamorous, of course. I didn’t mean that. What I should say is—”
Helen stopped her with a quick squeeze on the shoulder. “I get it,” she said. And she was pretty sure she did. She’d spent enough time in the foster system to understand the myriad reasons behind people’s motivation to help others. Still, help was help, no matter what the reason behind its offer. She’d prefer to stay out of the crowded areas here. Get dirty and do her part, but keep some distance. “Although maybe I should ask what’s all over your hands before I commit to anything.”
Mel smiled and held out both hands, palms up. “The local news.” She gestured toward the empty pen behind her. “We’re using balled-up newspapers as bedding for the birds. Jenny said it’s good cushioning for them, and it’s easy to clean out the soiled papers. Be prepared for hand cramps.”
Helen interlaced her fingers and flexed them in front of her. “Finally, those hours spent kneading bread will pay off. I knew I was training for something.”
She stepped over the side plank of the pen and picked up a stack of newspapers. Mel followed, and they began to separate sheets of paper and scrunch them into balls. They worked in silence for several minutes, until Helen’s hands were blackened and silky-feeling from the residual ink. “Are you afraid?” she asked quietly, finally giving voice to the fear in her own mind.
“Of ink poisoning?” Mel asked. She laughed without humor and shook her head. “I know what you mean. About our livelihoods. I will be, but not now. I’m trying to focus on what needs to be done, and what I can do to save these beautiful creatures. Deep down, all of us are afraid of what will happen to our businesses and our homes here. We’re coming together now to do what we can to save the beach. Later on, we’ll work together to survive without a strong tourist season.”
Helen had no doubt the core of locals would band together and weather this storm, but where would she fit in? Her bakery was new. She’d barely gotten started before this disaster, and she hadn’t been convinced she’d be able to make her business last. Now, at the height of tourist season, when she should be making enough to keep herself in flour and eggs, her store was empty. Apparently even she wouldn’t be in the store much over the upcoming weeks, given the amount of work to be done at the center and the number of people here to do it.
“Your inn is established.” Helen admitted her fears after a brief internal struggle. She usually would keep her concerns to herself, but something about this place made her want to talk. People and emotions were laid bare here. “You have a reputation, customers who will return once the beaches are clean. I don’t know if I’ll make it that long, and even if I do, who will remember to come to my shop?”
Helen felt the beginning of a panic attack coming on. She wasn’t prone to them, but they’d been fairly regular since she’d taken on the stress of starting a business of her own. They’d become even more persistent over the past few days, ever since the tide of oil had slicked across Cannon Beach. She found some comfort in the rhythm of pulling sheets of paper off the stack and forming them into balls. Slide and scrunch. Slide and scrunch. Breathe.
“We’ve only been open for a little less than two years, so I’ll be looking for creative ways to attract customers, just like you will. It only took me two hours to drive to Cannon Beach from my old home in Salem, but the real journey to get to this place was a long and hard one. I’ll do whatever it takes to stay here. I’m sure you feel the same.”
Helen nodded without looking up from the strange little sculptures she was forming with her hands. Mel didn’t know her past, but Helen figured most people in this isolated town had complex reasons for being here. The anonymity of tourist season, when the streets would be crowded with strangers. The hibernation of the off-season. The very reasons Helen had chosen to come here. To find some peace at last.
“Besides, you’ve made a loyal following already with those croissants of yours.” Mel tossed a wad of paper onto the growing mound of them. “I figure a few more days of this work, and you’ll be exhausted and numb enough to give me your secret recipe.”
Helen grinned, feeling a small release in the tension she had been carrying in her chest. “Not a chance. I’d have to be—” She paused abruptly and pointed across the room where four coveralled people were carrying dog crates through a side entrance. “What’s going on over there?”
“They found more birds,” Mel said quietly. “We should go help them.”
Helen saw Jenny moving quickly toward the newcomers. Almost before Mel had finished speaking, Helen had hopped over the side plank and was jogging over to her. Something about the way Jenny was carrying herself gave Helen a sense of urgency, but she slowed to a walk as she got closer. The men set the dog crates down and went back outside, presumably for more. Without a need for words, Helen stepped to one side of a crate and gently helped Jenny lift it.
Jenny smiled a weary but clear thank-you and gestured with her head toward one of the pens already filled with newspaper balls. Helen felt the weight of the crate shift as the birds inside jostled each other. She tried to make the short walk as smooth as possible, and her fingers hurt from gripping the cage tightly so she wouldn’t drop it.
“Let’s cover this end of the pen before we turn them loose,” Jenny said once they had deposited the crate in the four-by-eight enclosure. Helen helped her place a large piece of plywood over one half of the pen, making a small cave. Jenny opened the crate and tipped it slightly, sending four oil-covered birds scurrying into the darkened side.
Helen followed Jenny’s lead and quickly placed a second plank over the other end of the pen, completely enclosing the birds. She was as bewildered and surprised by the tears running down her cheeks as the birds seemed to be by their new prison.
“What kind are they?” she asked with a tremble in her voice.
Jenny looked up from where she was kneeling by the crate and pulling out dirty newspapers. She stood and came over to Helen, putting an arm across her shoulders. “They’re murres. Are you going to be okay?”
Helen leaned into Jenny’s embrace, surprised yet again by her own willingness to be touched. Usually she was the one doing the holding—holding herself at a distance from everyone else.
“Yes,” she said, drawing strength from Jenny’s combination of detachment and caring. Obviously this work meant a great deal to Jenny, or she wouldn’t be doing it. But at the same time, she seemed to have a shield in place. Do the job without the tears. They wouldn’t offer help anyway, neither for the birds nor for Helen’s future here in oil-soaked Cannon Beach. “They just seem so frightened. I hate that this happened to them.”
“I agree. They’ll be scared for a while, and then they’ll adapt. We’ll do our best to make captivity easy for them until their release. But remember, these are the lucky ones, the ones who get to come here and be scared. They’re safe now and will be clean soon.”
Helen nodded and picked up her end of the empty crate. They’d take it back to the people who would soon fill it with more birds for her to help heal.
As she worked side by side with Jenny into the night, Helen’s eyes remained dry. She had been thinking about herself earlier tonight. What it meant for her to be at risk of losing her bakery so soon after opening it. The loss in income, the guilt-driven need to volunteer. She’d learned as a child to put herself first, because she’d never had anyone else to take care of her. The sight of those four birds, burdened with oil and helpless in their cage, had finally driven her focus off her own problems and onto the small creatures huddled in corners.
Jenny sat on a wooden bench at the top of a staircase and stared at the beach below. She had witnessed scenes like this on countless occasions, but the discrepancy between normalcy and disaster always unsettled her. The timeless sound of waves thundering to shore from deep ocean origins was unchanged, unhindered by the spill. Rugged Haystack Rock looming in the foreground looked the same as it did on the numerous postcards sold at every store in town.
Contrasted with these were the lingering stench of oil and the volunteers spreading across the beach as the sun rose. They made slow but steady progress as they scooped blackened sand into trash bags. The sight of them made Jenny feel guilty for not being at the center doing her part to help, but Mel had practically carried her back to the inn for a few hours of rest.
Jenny stretched and yawned. The short nap had been good for her. She had been getting punchy with lack of sleep, and she needed to be clearheaded enough to make good decisions for the animals and birds temporarily in her care. Plus, she had organized the rescue effort well enough for it to run without her for two or three hours. Shifts of volunteers had been working around the clock for five days, but starting tonight, Jenny would shut down the operation during the night except for a small staff of people to keep watch over the full pens. Both the workers and the frightened sea creatures would benefit from the dark, quiet hours. Time to heal and rest.
Although she usually moved on as soon as life was returning to normal at a disaster site, she thought she might stay here at Cannon Beach for a little longer. She could imagine the area in full glory, with white-and-gray gulls dotting the shore and sky. The waves would be blue green and splashed with foam, not rainbow slick with oil. Tide pools would be full of life and not merely dead, greasy puddles. Like the mosaic hanging over her bed in the inn, with Pam’s signature scrawled across the bottom corner. The painting showed a slab of basalt, lit by the sun and darkened by shadows, standing watch over a pool of clear, glistening water. Starfish shimmered with embedded pink sea glass. Anemones and mussels adhered to the rock’s surface, giving a sense of permanence and solidity.
Jenny rarely stayed in one place long enough to see the stable, real world reappear. She only saw the veneer of disaster covering the familiar, and the steady progress of those laboring to remove it. Surprisingly, she wanted to be here long enough to see Mel welcoming guests to the inn, and to stare through the studio window as Pam painted. To see Tia opening her gallery once again and gabbing the ears off every tourist who strolled in.
Most of all, though, Jenny wanted to see Helen in her bakery, covered with a film of flour and chatting with customers, the worry lines around her eyes and creasing her forehead gone for good. Jenny sighed deeply and coughed at the smell of oil, feeling as if it was coating the inside of her mouth and lungs. She had spent long hours in the same room as Helen over the past couple of days. They had talked a little, but only about the work they were doing. They had never been alone like they had been when they first met, but instead had always been surrounded by crowds of volunteers. Still, Jenny had felt a connection and she couldn’t shake the desire to know Helen better. To know who she was when she wasn’t functioning in disaster mode.
A cool, wet nose gently nuzzled her hand where it was resting on the edge of the bench. Jenny smiled, relieved to have a distraction from thoughts of Helen, and reached down to pet the inn’s resident spaniel.
A young man’s voice called, “Piper! Piper, where are…oh, there you are.” Danny, Mel’s son, came around the corner of the garden path and halted when he saw Jenny. “I should have known she’d find you, Jenny.”
He sat on the bench next to her, over six feet of gangly college sophomore. He and some friends had driven from Corvallis to help with the rescue efforts, and the sight of the six rested and ready-to-work young people had nearly made Jenny cry. She and the other volunteers had been dragging with exhaustion after the first heavy wave of birds came into the center, and the reinforcements had been more than welcome. Jenny saw Mel in her son’s face and eyes and in his friendly, easygoing manner. But even though Jenny knew they weren’t related by blood, she saw Pam in him, too. He was sensitive and artistic, with a deep connection to nature and animals. He took to the job of washing the fragile, oil-covered birds as if he’d been born to do it.
“I’ve been trying to clean her ears, but she hates it,” Danny said, holding up a tube of ointment and a gauze pad. “She’s been tilting her head and fussing at her right ear, and we think she got some oil on her paws and then got it inside her ear when she scratched it. She’ll let us do anything with her, except this.”
“She’s probably hurting,” Jenny said. Piper was sitting at her feet, gazing at the beach with a forlorn expression. She didn’t move beyond the yellow tape marking the shore as off-limits, though, treating it like a solid barrier. Jenny slid off the bench and gathered the small brown-and-white dog against her. She wrapped one arm around Piper’s chest and used the other hand to gently raise the outer flap of her ear.
“She has some inflammation, but it looks like you caught the problem early enough.” She reached for the ointment and gauze, and then read the label before awkwardly smearing some of the tube’s contents on a clean pad with one hand. “This stuff should clear up the problem in a week or so. See how I’m holding her against me? She’s confined, but she’s also comforted by the pressure and closeness.”
Jenny swabbed Piper’s ear while she quietly explained everything she was doing to Danny, who had come to kneel beside her. “You should clean both ears, even if she’s just showing symptoms in this one,” she said, releasing Piper and getting a new gauze pad out of its wrapper. “Why don’t you try doing her left ear?”
After a short struggle, Danny got the hang of holding Piper still while he treated her ear.
“Good job,” Jenny said when he let the dog go with a pat.
“Thank you. You make it look so easy, but by the end of the week, I’m sure I’ll be better. I’ve thought about trying to get into the vet school at OSU, so any practice or advice I can get will help.”
Jenny had met quite a lot of aspiring veterinarians doing the work she did. Some were discouraged by the manual labor and heartbreak involved, but others seemed to thrive on the work at her temporary rescue centers. Had any of them gone on to finish school? Would she ever know if Danny made the choice to follow that dream or not? Most likely she wouldn’t. By the time he made any serious plans for his future, she’d be in a different state, or even country.
“I’ll make sure you get a chance to work with some of the injured animals and birds while I’m here,” she said. She could trust him to be gentle and to listen to her. “You’ll be helping them, and it will be an interesting experience to add to your application, if you decide to pursue your degree.”
“That’d be fantastic. Thank you,” Danny said. He stood and called Piper to his side. “Thank you for everything you’re doing here, not just this chance to help you.”
He looked back at the inn for a few moments before meeting her eyes again. “And for my mom. This place means so much to her. If she lost too much business, or ever had to close…” He shook his head. “And for Pam, too. She cares about the sea life, and I know it’s killing her to see any creature suffering. You’re doing something really good for all of us.”
Jenny blinked away the unexpected and unpleasant heat of tears. She felt proud of what Danny was saying to her, and she’d enjoyed the small interaction with a pet and its owner. She hadn’t had a chance to do simple vet work since her earliest internships and clinic work. She had been raised by parents who gave up everything to practice medicine abroad, and—except for following her heart to vet school instead of medical school—she had tried to follow in their footsteps. Danny’s appreciation touched her on a personal level. She’d heard similar words before, but she’d never felt them so keenly.
She shrugged, creating some emotional distance with the casual gesture. “It’s just what I do. But you’re welcome.”
Danny nodded and turned away. Jenny figured he was as uncomfortable with the emotions this rescue project was bringing to the surface, in him and in his mom and Pam. Jenny knew it was better to focus on the details and not the feelings involved. Build pens, assign volunteers to tasks. Deal with the facts on the clipboard, not the emotions in her heart.
Unfortunately, the cause of too many disconcerting emotions was standing on the path watching them. Danny nearly bumped into Helen in his haste to get back to the house.
“Oh, sorry, Helen, I didn’t see you there,” he said. “Is breakfast ready? Whatever you and Mom were baking smelled awesome.”
“There’s quiche and banana bread on the table.” Helen smiled at him, and then turned her attention to Jenny. “Are you coming? You really should eat something before you get back to work.”
“In a minute,” Jenny said, hoping Helen would stay with her instead of disappearing into the inn. She breathed a silent thank you when Helen sat on the bench next to her as if in response to Jenny’s unvoiced request.
Helen was silent for a few moments, apparently unaware of the turmoil she was causing in Jenny’s mind. The two of them had worked together for days, but they hadn’t yet been alone together outside the center. Jenny had been trying to keep her perspective clear, seeing Helen as merely one of her volunteers. An attractive and tempting one, to be sure, but in reality no different from the hundreds of other people Jenny worked with at every job site. Sitting here, close enough for their thighs to touch, was something altogether new. Jenny felt them connected to each other and held apart from the rescue effort. This was one of those moments they might share if there was no spill, no need to rush back to the center, if Jenny was just a regular member of this community. Sitting on a bench together and watching the ocean waves—so normal, yet so out of reach. Jenny tucked her hands under her legs to keep from touching Helen, who looked beautiful with her cheeks slightly reddened from working in the kitchen. The scent of vanilla seemed to enrobe the two of them in a homey and safe bubble.
“Danny is right, you know.” Helen finally spoke, in a quiet voice and as if choosing her words with care. “You’re doing something amazing here. With the birds and animals, of course—their care is the most important—but for the community, too. You’re healing this town, in a way. People would suffer if their businesses had to close because the beach stayed toxic. But it’s even more than the money. It’s this community. The people here are close and care about this place, but you come here as a stranger and work alongside us like you belong. You seem very selfless.”
Jenny shrugged again, as conscious of her need to deflect Helen’s praise as she’d been when Danny had thanked her. “I appreciate the way everyone has made me feel like part of the community. This is a special place with very generous people who give more of themselves than I do. Look at what you’ve done here. When you aren’t working at the center, you’re feeding the volunteers. I’ve chosen to live as a nomad, but I sort of envy the way you belong.”
Helen gave a short, humorless laugh. “I don’t know about belonging.” She stared out toward the ocean, but Jenny wondered what she was really seeing. “I was so excited when I found the perfect spot for my bakery, but before renting, I should have asked how many people had tried and failed to run a successful business in that very spot. When I first got here, everyone was very polite and friendly, but I used to wonder if they were secretly making bets about how long I’d last. I’m certainly not the first person to come to the ocean with big dreams and little business sense.”
Helen looked at Jenny again, her intense gaze direct and almost sharp. “And to be even more honest, I wasn’t planning on volunteering when I walked into the center. I’d spent the day trying to figure out how to get out of my lease because of the spill. When I worry, I bake, so I ended up with several dozen croissants. I thought I’d drop them off and get the hell out of there.”
Jenny laughed. She kept her hands under her thighs but used her shoulder to bump Helen’s softly. Instead of moving away again, she leaned into Helen and felt her respond in kind. She meant the gesture to reassure Helen, but Jenny felt more electric and recharged from their contact than she ever did after a good meal or decent sleep. “Whatever your initial motivation, you jumped right in with everyone else. Like it or not, you’re as much a part of this town as anyone who’s been here for decades.”
Helen shook her head with a rueful expression. “I always thought a community was where other people lived, something out of reach for me. I never expected to have one of my own, and now I probably won’t…Well, never mind.”
Jenny wanted to question Helen. Find out what was going on behind her troubled expression and offer comfort. But she wasn’t here to get involved more than necessary. Her attraction to Helen was obvious to her, but she couldn’t even imagine a way to act on it. She couldn’t picture a future that didn’t have her leaving town and Helen staying. Her parents had always warned her about attachment because they never knew where their next assignment would be or when they’d need to pack up and leave. Jenny had become very good at being on her own, making friends quickly and letting them go just as fast, and she used the skills her parents taught her in the career she’d chosen. Most people had a few friends they knew for years, her mom had told her. She said Jenny was lucky to have hundreds of friendships, even if they only lasted a brief time.
The argument hadn’t made much sense to five-year-old Jenny, but she’d taken it to heart and lived by it for years. Sitting here next to Helen, wanting to wrap those loose tendrils of Helen’s dark gold hair around her fingers, somehow the argument seemed as foolish and hurtful as it had when she was a child.
She stood and held out her hand to Helen. “I always thought community meant a place where I’d visit for a while and then leave. It’s the way I grew up.” She tugged Helen to a standing position. “Right now, this community needs us, and we can’t let it down. First, though, I want to have some of this banana bread Danny’s been raving about.”
Helen kneaded a large mound of soft dough on the marble countertop in her bakery’s kitchen. Over the past five days, she hadn’t been open for business more than three hours each morning, and even then she’d had a limited supply of pastries for sale. She’d been baking more than she had when she was in culinary school, though, as she helped Mel feed practically an entire town of volunteers every day.
The slow beach cleanup and the continuing flow of birds into the rescue center were clear signs that this summer wouldn’t be the heavy tourist season she’d been hoping for. She’d had dreams of selling dozens of muffins and cupcakes every day—enough to support her through the long winter months when customers would be sparse. Instead, she was giving away more than she put in her display cases.
Helen punched the dough with a tight fist and felt a mist of flour puff into her face. She braced her hands against the edge of the counter and stood quietly, her head bowed while she struggled for control. No need to punish the dough for her foul mood. She had a pile of bills in her office and itemized lists of her projected expenses. She’d written dozens of budgets, trying to find a way to keep her business going without a significant summer income, but she felt trapped in a maze with no possible way out. So what did she do? She left her bakery door shut while she made another large tray of food for the center’s volunteers. Foolish.
Helen heard a rapid series of knocks on the front door and she pushed past the blue plaid curtain that separated the kitchen from the sales floor. Not that the word sales seemed appropriate since the large display cases held only a few dozen cookies and some chocolate cupcakes. She sighed when she saw Tia standing next to the closed sign and waving at her. Not a hungry horde wanting to buy her scraps for exorbitant prices, but someone who was probably looking for more donated snacks. Given the way Tia talked and Helen’s apparent inability to say no, Tia would most likely leave the store with full boxes. Leaving Helen with empty display cases and a similarly empty cash register.
She unlocked the door with a resigned click. The cookies and cupcakes had been made this morning, anyway, and Helen wouldn’t have kept them much longer—they might as well be put to good use.
Tia came through the door in midconversation. “And I said I’d bring something from my favorite bakery for our snack. You don’t think it’s wrong of us to meet, do you? I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I also believe it’s important to maintain a sense of normalcy. Not to let this tragedy destroy the life we’ve built here. Right?”
Helen was too busy wondering how she had become Tia’s favorite bakery, when the woman had never been here before, to grasp the full meaning of her words. “What meeting?”
“Our book club, at the Beachcomber,” Tia said. She wandered over to the sparse display cases and peered inside. “You should join. Most of the locals are members. We meet at seven on the first Thursday of every month.”
Helen, ashamed of the scanty offerings in her cases, was happy to keep off the subject of baked goods. She was flattered by Tia’s reference to her as a local, even though Tia hadn’t seemed to consider her one until after the oil spill. “I have to volunteer tonight, but maybe I’ll come next month,” she said. If she still owned the bakery and was in town, she added silently.
“Please do.” Tia frowned and tapped a long, red-painted nail on the glass. “We were thinking of canceling because of the spill, but Jocelyn and I decided to go ahead with the meeting. Were we wrong to plan something fun during a tragedy? Jocelyn said we should continue to function as a community, that the meeting would give all of us a chance to get together and talk. To share our pain. What do you think, dear?”
Helen had been in the bookstore twice since arriving in Cannon Beach, but she easily recalled the owner, Jocelyn. She and Helen had spoken for a few minutes, and then Jocelyn had moved around her store gathering an armload of exactly right books for Helen. New books by her favorite mystery authors, two titles Helen never would have chosen for herself but ended up adoring, and a book of poetry. She had devoured the books and had gone back for more, and this time Jocelyn had a stack waiting behind the counter with her name on it.
“I think you two are right,” she said. “Everyone is working hard, and the days have been long and sad. You’ll probably end up comforting each other and talking about the spill more than books, but that’s how it should be.” Comforting each other and gathering together in a familiar and beloved routine. Helen understood the appeal even though she wouldn’t accept Tia’s offer to join them. She’d be the outsider.
“Should I go with the muffins or the cookies?” Tia asked, interrupting Helen’s reverie. “They both look delicious.”
Helen was still thinking about the book club, and she took a moment to switch gears mentally. “I have some sand dollars in the back room,” she said. “I’ll go get a couple dozen for you.”
“Wonderful!” Tia smiled with a remarkable amount of energy and enthusiasm, given that she’d been working as volunteer coordinator nearly nonstop for the past two weeks. She seemed indefatigable, and Helen envied her ability to keep moving and talking without rest. Helen wasn’t as resilient these days, but Tia had the advantage of being a permanent fixture at Cannon Beach—not a newbie baker who wouldn’t last the season. Helen would never be as openly extroverted as Tia, no matter what her situation, but she certainly had reason to lack Tia’s verve.
Helen layered the soft pastries in a pale pink to-go box. She’d been making a similar dessert since culinary school, but after naming her bakery the Sand Dollar, she’d changed the shape of them. The disks of flaky, buttery Napoleon pastry were filled with different flavors of cream. Grooves and notches were piped on top in vanilla icing to give them the look of sand dollars. The ones she had made today were stuffed with an almond-flavored pastry cream mixed with fresh raspberry coulis. She’d been planning to stop by some local restaurants on the way to the center and try to sell her signature pastries at a discount, willing to take the loss if it meant she could earn some paying customers. A lucrative account supplying desserts to a five-star restaurant would have been great. Instead, she’d donate her pastries to the local book club.
“These are beautiful,” Tia said as she peered inside the box. “They’ll remind us of what we’ve lost on our beaches, and what we’ll find again under the layers of disgusting oil. How much do I owe you, dear?”
Helen quoted a price that would barely let her break even given the cost of ingredients. She wasn’t sure why she was undervaluing the high-end and time-consuming confections. Was she trying to buy her way into the community, or was she doing this as a way to support the people involved in the cleanup effort? Maybe a little of both. Unfortunately, every step she took to belong to this community was another step away from financial success and the chance to really make this her home.
“Nonsense,” Tia said, putting double the amount Helen had asked for on the counter. “I’ll see you at the rescue center later on this evening. And remember, if you need a break, come by Jocelyn’s.”
Tia had already pushed out of the door without pausing for breath or to say good-bye, as if she was carrying on a day-long conversation, and Helen happened to be part of it for a few minutes. Helen took the cash off the counter and gratefully put it in the starving cash register, then she closed and locked the door behind Tia. The streets were empty and she wouldn’t have any more paying customers tonight. She might as well go to the center and start her shift early. She boxed up the remaining items from her case and set her dough in a cool spot to rise overnight for tomorrow’s loaves of bread. Although she specialized in sweet pastries, she had planned from the start to offer some sourdoughs and whole grain breads as well. The more she diversified, the more likely she was to make some cash. Besides, her pastries were indulgences, but fresh breads were staples. She needed to cater to the families living here year-round as much as to the occasional tourist who would come to their oil-covered beach.
Helen hung her blue striped apron on a wooden peg and went into the bathroom to wash her hands and scrub flour off her cheeks. She couldn’t do much about the smear of pink pastry cream on her T-shirt or the dribble of chocolate batter on the thigh of her faded jeans without going back to her apartment and changing her entire outfit. She’d rather be a little messy than late for evening feeding at the rescue center, but part of her wanted to look her best, or at least look reasonably clean, when she saw Jenny. She turned away from her reflection with a tired sigh.
She was foolish to think Jenny would care what she was wearing or how presentable she was—Jenny was interested in the birds under her care, not in Helen. Well, Jenny did seem to care about her volunteers but not how they looked. Helen shook her head. She was tired and rambling to herself. She needed to get to the center and get to work before she crawled on her bakery counter and fell asleep. She piled the remaining boxes of sand dollar pastries into her arms and carried them outside, balancing them against her hip while she locked the bakery door.
“Can I help you with those?”
Helen spun around and saw Jenny walking toward her with an armful of pizza boxes. She looked tired and sleep-deprived, as usual these days, but her natural loveliness shone through the veneer of weariness. The drawn expression on her face only emphasized her high cheekbones and curved lips. Her socks were mismatched and her sweatshirt was torn, but if a television crew swooped down right now to interview her for the news, her devotion to this cause and her unyielding goodness would enhance her looks more than makeup or a restful night’s sleep could ever do. Helen was sure of it because just last night she had watched Jenny on the evening news, lighting up the screen with inner and outer beauty.
Helen wished she’d kept a change of clothes here at the bakery.
“Looks like you’ve already got your share,” Helen said, pulling her focus off Jenny’s lips and nodding toward the boxes she carried. “Besides, the heat from the pizzas would melt the pastry cream.”
“Please tell me you made more of your sand dollars,” Jenny said as they started walking along the sidewalk together. “I don’t want to sound like I expect you to bake for me and the other rescue workers every day, but I’m seriously addicted to those things.”
Helen laughed. How was Jenny able to relieve all her tension with a few words? The money she was spending on ingredients and the time she spent baking, assets she could barely afford to squander, were worth every stressful moment just to hear Jenny’s compliments.
“Yes, these are sand dollars. The filling for this batch is—”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess.” Jenny shifted the boxes to her left hand and traced a path along Helen’s lower ribs with her right index finger. “Strawberry?”
Helen nearly dropped her boxes at Jenny’s touch. One finger, a second or two of contact, and a layer of cotton between them. No big deal. Then why did Helen feel as if her ribs had been seared? “What?” she asked, more startled by her response than by the touch. She stopped and faced Jenny.
“You have the remains of something pink on your shirt. I thought it might be a clue to the ingredients you used.” Jenny put both forearms under her pizza boxes again.
Helen couldn’t read the look in her eyes. She gave up and stared at the pastry boxes. “I would have changed shirts, but I wanted to…well, it was almost feeding time, and…”
Jenny shook her head. “Why bother? We’ll be covered with oil and mashed bird food before the night is done. Besides, right now you look good enough to eat.”
Jenny cleared her throat and started walking again. Helen swallowed the surge of arousal she felt at the simple statement and hurried to catch up.
“Raspberry,” she said.
Helen grinned. Jenny seemed as distracted by her company as she was by Jenny’s. “The filling is raspberry, not strawberry.”
They walked in silence while Helen struggled to find a topic of conversation that wouldn’t leave her breathless. “You have good taste,” she said. She realized too late that Jenny might think she was referring to her good enough to eat comment, and she hurried to explain herself better. “People make pilgrimages from all over the state to get Fontana’s pizza.”
“I make it a point to sample all the local favorites when I’m in a new place,” Jenny said. Helen thought she saw a flush of red under the crew neck of her sweatshirt. “From local restaurants, I mean,” she continued in a rush. “Fontana’s pizza, Mel’s scones, your sand dollars.”
Helen liked having her baked goods lumped in with the other Cannon Beach specialties. She’d hoped to make that exact name for herself and her bakery this summer. Too bad she was earning a reputation from donations instead of sales. Money again. Why worry about it when there was so little to be made right now?
“You called yourself a nomad before. Do you travel all the time?”
“Yeah,” Jenny said. “It’s the only life I’ve ever known, except for the years when I was in vet school. My parents worked with Doctors Without Borders, and I traveled with them from the time I was only a few months old. I even got my college degree online since I was still a minor.”
“Really? What an exciting life you must have led.” Helen paused at a street corner and looked both ways before crossing the road even though barely any cars were out. The first weeks of summer had been crazy, with city-sized traffic on small-town streets. Jenny must be bored with the meager offerings of Cannon Beach, especially when she compared them to the grander and more exotic specialties of far-off lands. Helen had moved around far too much as a child—but not with her parents and not for philanthropic reasons. She imagined Jenny running through villages like she belonged in them, playing games with the local children…
“It wasn’t as romantic and exciting as people think.” The bitter edge to Jenny’s voice broke through Helen’s daydreams and caught her full attention. “If my parents were called to a specific place, it was because a lot of people were sick there, and I wasn’t allowed to mingle with them. Most of my childhood friends were stray animals I’d find when I played outside of towns, and not other kids my age. By the time I’d pick up a little of the local language and get to know a few families or get attached to another pet, we’d be moving on to the next epidemic and leave them all behind.”
Helen wasn’t sure how to respond. The adult Jenny, who had chosen a lifestyle similar to the one her parents had followed, evaporated before her eyes. In her place was a lonely, isolated young girl who seemed similar to the child Helen had been. But Helen had made different choices, as soon as she was old enough to be on her own. She veered over and walked close enough to Jenny so their arms touched. “Didn’t you ever want to settle down in one place, once you could make your own decisions? A place where you could make friends and be part of the lives around you?”
Jenny gave her a rueful smile and leaned in to their contact for a brief moment. “I used to think I would someday, but when I got to vet school, it was months before I adjusted to the idea that I was going to be with these same people long enough to make friends. Forming lasting relationships isn’t exactly a skill of mine.”
Helen almost tasted the bitterness and hurt in Jenny’s voice. “From what I’ve seen, you are great with relationships. Everyone who works with you here trusts and likes you. Was there someone in particular who made you believe you aren’t capable of making lifelong friends?”
Jenny sighed and looked away, although she kept her body close by Helen’s side. “I guess. I really had only one serious girlfriend during vet school. I never really thought it would be a forever type of thing, and we had our rough spots, but when she left me I had a really hard time handling it. I was used to being the one who left, and even when our family moves were sudden, they were never unexpected. It was a crazy overreaction, but I almost dropped out of school because of it. But then I was offered a summer internship with a wildlife biologist who was traveling to South America. Travel was familiar to me, and I enjoyed the work, so I focused on finding jobs that kept me moving.”
Helen couldn’t imagine how she would have felt if she hadn’t had any significant interaction with people her own age until she was of age and on her own. In some ways, Jenny must have grown up faster than other kids, and in others she had been left behind. Her parents should have been preparing her for school and life, not keeping her separated from it. Helen heard the dichotomy coming through in Jenny’s tone of voice as she went from relating the story of her girlfriend—who must have been insane to let her go—to talking about her present life.
“I can help more animals and birds and communities if I move to where I’m needed,” Jenny said. “My mom tried to explain that to me when I would be sad about moving again. She’d say it was selfish of me. I didn’t understand her at the time, but I think I do now.”
Helen spoke without pausing to think. “Nonsense. They were the selfish ones, not you.” She felt a buildup of her old rage. All she could hear was her uncle’s voice. I gave you everything after your parents died. A house, food, clothing. And this is how you repay me? The cost of his generosity had been much too high for Helen to accept, but she’d been torn by guilt when she heard those words and was too young to know better. She was trapped in her own memories, but the sensation of Jenny moving out of reach and the chilly sound of her voice brought Helen back to the present with a thump.
“I did see more of the world than most people ever will. I was exposed to local food and customs and places, so I learned more than any school-bound class could have taught me. And my parents have saved thousands of lives. I’d never be selfish enough to think that a real house or a sleepover with school friends should have made my parents give up their mission.”
“No, I guess not,” Helen said, trying to adjust to the quick shift out of her own past as Jenny now defended her parents’ lifestyle choice. She guessed that Jenny had wavered between anger and guilt for a lot of years. Helen had been on that particular seesaw often enough to recognize the signs. She wanted to help Jenny banish the guilt forever. “Still, couldn’t they have compromised even a little once you were born? There must have been plenty of opportunities to help others in the States or by staying in one place where you could make friends and be safe.”
Helen paused at the edge of the rescue center’s parking lot when Jenny stopped in the shadows. Beyond them, volunteers were moving in and out of the building.
“I know you mean well,” Jenny said. She sounded as if she was speaking through gritted teeth. “But you probably grew up in a traditional home with parents who went to work from nine to five each day. Maybe one of them even stayed home and took care of you full-time. You can’t possibly understand the amount of suffering in this world. People who sacrifice their lives to ease it are doing something vital, and if I had to give up the stray dog I’d befriended or the tree fort I’d made, then I was doing what needed to be done.”
Helen shifted the awkward boxes in her hands. She was tempted to upend the lot on Jenny’s head. “You have no idea what my life was like growing up. I’ve seen my share of suffering, and I’ve experienced plenty, too. Just because I’m trying to find a quiet and settled home here doesn’t mean it’s all I’ve ever known. It means I’ve had enough of the opposite to last a lifetime.”
Helen walked away without giving Jenny a chance to say anything else. She was worn-out from the amount of work she’d been doing and by the conversation she’d just had, and she was about to lose her business on top of everything. All she wanted to do was go home and curl in a ball, but she pushed through the glass doors and set her boxes on a folding table, where they were quickly attacked by hungry workers who mumbled their thanks around crumbs and pastry cream. This might not be her community or her home for long, but right now she was needed here. She grabbed some long rubber gloves and a handful of trash bags.
Time to clean some cages.
Jenny took her time crossing the parking lot, and by the time she entered the rescue center, Helen was nowhere to be seen. She put her pizzas on the table next to the already-plundered pastry boxes and snagged a couple of sand dollars before they disappeared. She paused in the doorway leading from the large foyer to the open auditorium and leaned against the doorjamb while she ate and watched the scene before her.
The main floor was covered with plywood pens, laid out like houses on city blocks. Jenny knew the inhabitants of each one, even without seeing them. A few Western grebes along the far wall, although luckily many of them had been farther inland during breeding season and were safe from the oil spill. Pens for the murres were clustered on the north side. The gentle and timid loons were tucked in a quiet corner. A dark curtain separated the washing area from the rest of the space. Quiet human voices blended together, creating a background murmur.
Jenny licked a trail of raspberry pastry cream off the side of her palm and thought about her reaction when she had innocently touched the pink stain on Helen’s T-shirt. Powerful and unexpected, like everything else about Helen. Jenny had been foolish to make assumptions about Helen’s life before they met. She’d seen hints of toughness behind Helen’s cheerful smile, as if she’d survived something difficult and had stories to tell about her journey. Jenny had tried to ignore her interest in Helen, had lumped her in with what she thought of as everyone else. Jenny’s own life had been so far from the traditional ones she read about in books and saw in movies that she sometimes forgot everyone varied from normal in some way. She’d activated her usual response against getting attached to a community and had thought of herself as someone too different from these people to ever truly relate to them. Or care about them.
She’d made a mistake and had made Helen angry. Jenny rarely had long enough relationships to need to worry about apologies or fights, and she wasn’t convinced she knew how to handle either of them, but she didn’t want to back away right now. She wanted to move closer, if only for a brief time.
She took a huge bite of her second pastry and turned her attention to Helen. She had spotted her immediately, of course, as soon as she had looked into the auditorium, but now she let the rest of the world fade away and saw only her.
Helen was cleaning the grebes’ cages with her accustomed grace and efficiency of movement. She gently herded the birds into one end of the pen before she removed the soiled papers from the other. Then she moved them to the clean side and repeated the process. Pen after pen, with a quiet and experienced touch. She had developed a routine, and Jenny loved watching her work. Mostly because she was good at her job and kept the birds calm, of course. The tempting sight of Helen bending over to pick up a dropped glove or tie a full bag shut was only a bonus and not the reason Jenny was mesmerized by her.
Jenny wiped her powdered-sugar-covered fingers on her jeans and grabbed a pair of gloves from a supply box. She walked to the pen Helen was cleaning and stepped over the side of it, silently going to work alongside her. Helen didn’t acknowledge her verbally or even with a glance, but she subtly altered her rhythm to accommodate Jenny’s presence.
From the start, Jenny had recognized her own work ethic in Helen. Helen understood the importance of behind-the-scenes work. She stayed on the grubbier side of the rescue effort, cleaning pens and holding birds while a special food mash was tubed into their stomachs. Because she was such a familiar part of their days, the birds seemed to have adjusted more quickly to temporary captivity here than at other rescue sites Jenny had managed. She took on the role of assistant now, letting Helen move the birds. The elegant black-and-white grebes with razor-sharp, slender beaks waddled silently from one end of the pen to the other as if they’d been following Helen’s directions their entire lives. Helen might not realize what a difference she was making, but Jenny did. She’d have to find a way to thank her for taking care of the chore that was usually the least favorite for the volunteers but was one of the most vital to the well-being of the birds. Jenny had a few ideas about how she could thank Helen, but they all involved a more hands-on approach than Jenny usually took with the people she briefly met in disaster-torn communities. Maybe she’d have to settle for getting her a gift card instead, but the other options seemed much more enticing. She kept her thoughts to herself and wordlessly stuffed paper into garbage bags. Together they finished cleaning the remaining grebe pens and then carried the trash bags to the Dumpster behind the center.
The back lot of the rescue center was quiet in the growing dusk as they lobbed the bags into the huge, rusty container. Helen led the way back to the building, but Jenny put her hand on Helen’s arm to keep her from going through the door and returning to the brightly lit, crowded auditorium.
“I’m sorry,” she said, picking up the thread of their earlier conversation as if it had just happened. “I shouldn’t have implied that you had a boring or easy childhood. And I didn’t mean to sound like I thought I was superior because of the way I was raised or because of the way I live now. I’m not. It’s just the only way I know how to live.”
Helen shook her head and looked off into the distance. The fading colors of the sunset gave her skin a peachy glow and made her eyes glisten. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have insulted your parents or the choices they made. I just heard some echoes of my own loneliness when you were talking about not having many friends, and I wanted to take your side against them. And maybe I was a little jealous because you were such a huge part of their lives and their work.”
Jenny realized she still had her hand on Helen. She should move it, let go, step back. Instead, she slid her palm down Helen’s arm until she reached her hand. Their fingers interlaced loosely.
“You weren’t close to your parents?” Jenny asked. Admittedly, after watching Helen interact with her neighbors in Cannon Beach, Jenny had pictured her growing up in a close-knit family. Learning how to bake in the kitchen with her mom. Experiencing the cozy domesticity Jenny had sometimes longed for.
Helen shook her head. “I never had a chance. We were in a car wreck when I was still a toddler. The truck hit us head-on, and since I was in the backseat, I was the only one to survive.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Grieving is abstract when you barely knew someone.” Helen leaned against the metal siding of the auditorium, still keeping her hand in Jenny’s. “Anyway, my uncle brought me to live with his family, but he was…well, he wasn’t a nice man. I don’t think he and my father were ever close. As soon as I was old enough to pack a bag, I was running away on a regular basis. I stayed on the street or in foster homes, but then I’d be taken back to his house. We lived in a small town, so the cops got to know me well enough to recognize me and I never got far. Once I turned eighteen and graduated from high school—barely—I got the hell out of there.”
Jenny sighed and propped her shoulder on the wall next to Helen. She felt a current of excitement being this close to her, their hands joined and their thighs barely touching, but she put her own responses in the back of her mind. This was a time for a different kind of intimacy, and she didn’t want Helen to stop talking. Jenny lived her own story. When she went to disaster sites to work, the focus was always on the present—how to deal with the crisis of the moment. Rarely did she stand still long enough to listen to someone else’s life unfold through their words and expressions. Rarely had she ever wanted to hear.
“What did you do once you left?”
Helen shrugged and Jenny felt the friction of the movement against her own shoulder. Her fingers tightened on Helen’s reflexively, and Helen returned the squeeze.
“I was directionless. For most of my life, I had been straining to get away, but I never had any idea where I was headed to. I didn’t have the best support system in place. Most of my friends were runaways, too. Ditching school, leaving home, getting into trouble. I managed to stay clear of the worst parts of street life, but I was on a downhill slope. I was crashing with some people I knew and couldn’t seem to get a decent job, let alone hold on to one if I managed to get hired.”
Jenny shuddered to think of the direction in which Helen’s life could have gone. She realized the sharp edge she had seen beneath Helen’s surface had been honed by survival. The added dimension made her even more attractive to Jenny, but it scared her, too. She wasn’t accustomed to seeing depth—just names and faces that blurred together and faded from her mind once she moved on.
“And now you’re a pastry chef and entrepreneur. I’m impressed. What made you turn your life around?”
Helen looked at her with an appreciative smile, as if Jenny’s compliment actually meant something to her. “I got a job washing dishes in a diner. Not exactly the dream career for most people, and it didn’t pay much, but I got a hot meal every night. It was owned by a huge Italian family, and I loved watching them fight and laugh and run their business together. They were everything a family should be, and nothing like the one I had. At first I figured I’d be there for a month or two and then leave—my usual work pattern—but I stayed. Every once in a while, one of them would give me a little cooking lesson, and eventually I was working on the line. My favorite things to make were breads and desserts. I worked my way through culinary school and saved enough to open a bakery of my own.”
Helen spoke the last three sentences with a casual voice and a shrug, as if the journey had been as simple as one-two-three, but Jenny knew better. The effort and discipline required to start from scratch and build a new life were awe-inspiring to her. She felt an inexplicable sense of pride in Helen’s accomplishments, and she wasn’t sure why. She’d had nothing to do with Helen’s life before this, and she had no stake in her future. She didn’t understand how an attachment seemed to be forming between her and Helen, but she had to stop it before it got strong enough to threaten her life’s work.
And she would stop it. Later.
Right now, though, Jenny gave in to the itchy feeling in her fingers and she reached out to touch Helen’s hair, tucking a strand of gold behind Helen’s ear. She let her hand linger there, feeling the warmth of flesh and heartbeat.
“You seem to fit here,” Jenny said, feeling somewhat sad because she herself didn’t fit anywhere. “After accomplishing so much, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble making your bakery a success.”
Helen gave a bitter laugh. She straightened and pushed away from the wall, breaking all contact between them. “Thanks, but I’m already on my way out of business. Everything I read told me to have at least six months of living expenses saved before trying to start a new business, but I only had saved enough for maybe three when I found the opportunity to rent here. I thought I’d be okay since the summer season was about to start, but then…”
“But then…” Jenny echoed. The spill. The damaged beaches and wounded animals. Jenny had seen this happen again and again, when lives were ruined by this type of disaster. She did her best to help everywhere she went, but somehow this felt different. She was inside, with the rest of the community. “You’ve been doing more than your share of work, but we can get by if you need to spend more time at your bakery. And all the donated pastries you bring each night—you really don’t need to feel responsible for feeding everyone here. It must be costing you a fortune in ingredients. I’ll come to your store with cash when I need my sand dollar fix.”
Helen laughed. “I’d much rather be here doing something good than sitting in my empty bakery and watching the empty street. I like bringing food, too. I crunched the numbers, and if I stopped it would only delay the inevitable. I wouldn’t save enough to make a real difference. But I can make a difference here. I think I’ve always felt like it was me against the world, but now I’m part of a team. I don’t want to lose that feeling, even if it’s only temporary.”
“I’ve always been the team coach,” Jenny said with a grin. “But I’ve never really been part of it, until—”
“Jenny, there you are. I have a surprise for you.” Mel’s voice broke into their conversation, shattering the intimacy Jenny felt growing between them. Jenny turned to see Mel framed in the open doorway, backlit by the bright fluorescent lights. She didn’t have to hear what the surprise was since she recognized the two silhouettes behind Mel.
She sighed and walked toward them, away from Helen. “Hello, Mom. Dad. It’s good to see you both. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
Jenny opened the door to her room at the inn and dropped her mom’s light canvas bag on the floor next to the bed. She shouldn’t have been as surprised as she was to see her parents at the center tonight. She knew they were in the States—albeit on the other coast, in Florida—and they often came to see her and help with her rescue efforts whenever they could. She tried to be grateful because they were giving their time, and they worked hard no matter what job they were given, but somehow their visits were more exhausting than the hard work of disaster relief.
“You’ll be staying in here and I’ll move to the smaller room upstairs,” Jenny said. She didn’t like leaving what she’d come to think of as her room. Now she’d have to share a bathroom with two of Danny’s college friends, and she’d miss sleeping in this room with Pam’s beautiful painting of the tide pool. She stared at the mosaic whenever she felt despair or weariness settling in her bones. The sun shining through her window and making the sea glass sparkle gave her the lift she needed and the incentive to keep going until the beach returned to the state of Pam’s vision. Still, she couldn’t begrudge her parents the larger room, and she was glad Mel had space for her somewhere besides the floor in here. She was accustomed to much more primitive conditions than this on most of her job sites, so she wouldn’t complain.
“Very glamorous,” her father said, as if reading her mind. “I hope you don’t forget you’re here for work and not a vacation.”
“I never forget why I’m here,” Jenny said softly, but he had already walked over to the window where her mother was standing. She watched the two of them as they looked out at the dark and looming hulk of Haystack Rock. Eve and Lars Colbert. Dark and light. They looked as young as they had when she first left them to attend vet school in the States. Similar in build and quick in movement, they only showed the passing years in a few lines on their faces. They would be leaving for the Sudan in a few days and stopped here to volunteer along the way. She wondered where they got their energy to keep moving and changing. She was always on the go, too, but the effort was sometimes too much to bear.
“Mel’s partner Pam did the paintings for all the rooms,” she said when Eve turned away from the window and came over by the bed. “They’re spectacular. I can show you the others one of these days.”
Her parents both made the right comments when they admired the mosaic, like Jenny had when she’d first seen it. The difference was, Jenny had immediately wanted to buy one like it, impractical as it would be. Mel had told her that almost everyone who stayed at the inn wanted to buy one of the paintings. The cost was prohibitive for most, but Pam had created a line of smaller, more affordable canvases, each with a scattering of sea glass. Jenny had already bought one with a purple- and coral-colored starfish on it. She didn’t offer to show it to her parents, though. They would have liked the small oil painting if they’d seen it on display somewhere, but not as a possession. She didn’t want to hear the lecture about how impractical it was to purchase souvenirs from all her trips. Mental pictures were easy to pack, her mom liked to say. Anything besides the essentials for living was a waste of space and travel funds.
Jenny said good night and left her parents to unpack and rest after their long cross-country flight. They looked as perky as ever, while she dragged herself up another flight of stairs leading to her new room. They had always been energized by travel and new places and unfamiliar people. Jenny was the opposite. Her day had been filled with nudges out of her comfort zone. Her parents’ arrival, her spat with Helen. Most of all, the sensation of closeness she’d felt when she and Helen had talked outside the auditorium. She’d been drawn into Helen’s life, and she had been both disappointed and relieved when Mel and her parents had broken the spell.
Jenny opened the door to the rose-colored room and saw what Mel had done to make the place welcoming. Her belongings had been packed and moved here while she was still at the center with her parents. Mel had turned down the bedcovers and had put some bottled water and snacks on a small mahogany table. Jenny stripped down to her underwear and fell onto the bed, pulling the quilt up to her chin. She was thirsty, but even the thought of uncapping a bottle of water seemed to be too much effort.
But there was Helen. Downstairs right now with Mel, preparing breakfast for the small army of volunteers. Jenny was tempted to go see her and to offer some help, just to be around her again. Common sense warred with temptation. Tired as she was, Jenny was about to give in and make the long trek downstairs when someone tapped at her door. Her first instinct was to feign sleep in case it was one of her parents, wanting her to go for a midnight jog or go swim with the whales or something insanely active. But neither of them would have knocked politely and waited for her to answer. The door would be open by now.
“Come in,” she called, pulling herself to a sitting position against the headboard.
It was Helen, with her cheeks flushed from the heat of the oven and smears of flour and some sort of orange-y batter on her navy sweatshirt. Much too beautiful to be alone with Jenny in Jenny’s room in the middle of the night. Jenny didn’t have enough self-control for this.
“I thought you might like some tea.” Helen came over to the bed and set a small tray on the bed stand. “Chamomile, to help your mind stop circling and let you sleep. And a piece of pumpkin bread in case you’re hungry.”
Say thank you and good night. Instead, Jenny patted the mattress next to her hip. See? No self-control. “Thank you for this. Why don’t you sit with me for a few minutes. You look like you could use some rest, too.”
“I’m all right,” Helen said, but she sat on the bed with a groan. “Great. Now I’ll never get up.”
“Fine with me.”
“Stop.” Helen laughed and swatted at Jenny’s covered legs. She lay down crosswise on the bed, her rib cage draped over Jenny’s calves, and propped her head on her hand. “You’re tempting enough, saying things like that,” she said.
Jenny had been worried about her own response to Helen, afraid to get too close after a lifetime of moving and with more of the same in the foreseeable future. She hadn’t stopped to consider whether Helen might feel the same attraction to her, but Helen’s words and the deepening red on her neck hinted at her feelings. Jenny cleared her throat, acutely aware of Helen’s breasts and side where they rested on her lower legs.
“Your parents certainly jumped right in to help tonight,” Helen said.
Jenny was glad to have a change in topic. Talking about her parents was the mental equivalent of a cold shower. “They always do, no matter what the cause. They seem to have unlimited energy and drive.”
A trait Jenny didn’t share. She had strength and endurance when it came to her work, but her parents were on another level entirely. The evening with them had been a whirlwind as she showed them around and put them to work helping Helen clean pens. Soon her dad had wanted to try something new, and he had ended the night in the wash area, sudsing and scrubbing the oil from the fragile feathers. Her mom had likewise wanted to be part of every aspect of Jenny’s operation, and she had volunteered to examine and treat the recuperating wounded animals and birds in the ICU area of the center. Jenny had been glad for capable extra help, of course, but the difference between being with them and sitting here with Helen was astronomical. Helen stirred her up but centered her at the same time.
“Always looking to do more,” Helen said. “Did they expect the same from you when you were small?”
“Not at first.” Jenny remembered long, boring, dusty days when she would have done anything to get parental attention. Once they turned it on her full force, she had longed to return to her days of invisibility. Somewhere in the middle would have been nice. “When I was a little kid, I was…let’s say unsupervised. Once I was old enough to help at the clinics and was planning my own future, I became more of an object of interest to them.”
“They must be very proud of what you do. It’s incredible, how many lives and communities you’ve saved.” Helen plucked at the quilt where it lay over Jenny’s knees.
Jenny swallowed, distracted by the buffered but electric touch of Helen’s restless fingers. “I guess, in a way. But I guarantee they won’t be here long before I get The Talk again.”
Helen’s hand stilled. “The sex talk?” she asked with laughter in her voice. “Aren’t you a little old for that?”
Jenny laughed too and jostled Helen with her legs. “No, silly. The Don’t you think it’s time you gave up this hobby and went to real medical school? talk. Although I’m too old for that one, too.”
“You’re not serious, are you?”
Jenny nodded. “Completely. They believe I’m in a phase. I’ll eventually go to med school and we’ll travel the globe as a happy family.”
“Insane. You’re a natural with animals, and you’re doing important work. I’d expect you to go the other way if you were planning to make a change. Maybe settle somewhere and have pets of your own. A family. A community. Something you haven’t allowed yourself to have before.”
“Never,” Jenny said with emphasis. The single-word answer was her knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone asked her the question about settling down, but it wasn’t the whole story. And Helen wasn’t just anyone. She deserved more of an explanation. “I used to imagine having a real home with a yard for animals and friends who lived close enough to see whenever I wanted. I sort of had the life I’d dreamed of in vet school, but it was a transition time for all of us, between college and career. Everyone was looking toward the future, and I didn’t feel settled like I’d expected.”
“I understand why you couldn’t find the home of your dreams when you were young and living with your parents, and even during vet school. But you have options now.”
Helen shifted her weight on Jenny’s shins. Their skin wasn’t touching anywhere, but Jenny felt Helen’s movements as friction when the cotton sheets rubbed against her bare legs. The exquisite pressure from Helen’s body made Jenny want to stay here forever, but she couldn’t let her body and heart make the decisions, could she? “Movement is what I know. I can’t let myself feel dissatisfied or second-guess the choices I’ve made. If I do, then the pain of saying good-bye is too hard to bear. I learned that lesson early.”
“Out of necessity. To protect your heart when you were a child. Do you still need those defenses?”
“Do you?” Jenny rubbed her leg against Helen’s back as she spoke, using the contact to let Helen know she wasn’t trying to insult her with the words. “You told me you kept yourself at a distance from the people here until the spill. Everyone has some armor in place, to protect themselves from being hurt by other people or the circumstances of life.”
“True, but I’m changing. I came here believing I didn’t need anyone else’s help or support. I’ve realized I need the people around me, and they need me, too. The oil might have drowned my business, but I’ll start over again somewhere else, somehow. And next time I won’t be so stubborn about opening myself up to friendships and connections.”
“Somewhere else. Exactly.” Jenny focused on the one thing Helen had said that seemed similar to Jenny’s own life, although in her heart she was convinced Helen belonged right where she was. “It’s not this town or these specific people. It’s the way you feel about them. I’m not even sure a house or piece of land would make me as happy as I imagined when I was little. I was lonely then and thought a home was what I needed. I just pictured home as a building. Now I see home as something else entirely.” What was her definition now? A person? Helen? “It can mean a community full of friends, like Cannon Beach, and I can take them with me wherever I go, reaching out to them from wherever I happen to be. I could work more on making lasting friendships, but I’m born to travel, I guess. It must be in my genes.”
“I was forced to move around, looking for a home,” Helen said. “I’m tired of it.”
“Me, too, sometimes,” Jenny admitted in a barely audible voice. Helen crawled up the bed and curled up beside her. Jenny wasn’t immune to the arousal she felt when Helen got so close, but the awareness of their divergent futures was enough to keep her feelings in check. She wrapped an arm around Helen’s waist and pulled her close, taking comfort in this one moment they were able to share.
Jenny had been lonely before. Playing hopscotch by herself on a dusty lane while her parents treated sick children in their clinic. Getting in bed alone on every first night in every new city or village. She thought she was familiar with every facet and nuance of loneliness.
And then she woke up without Helen.
Jenny was up before the sun, but Helen had already slipped away. She lay quietly for a moment, letting the sensation of being without Helen wash through her like a tsunami. Somehow she knew there was a good chance she would feel this way every morning for the rest of her life. She’d gone to bed as a whole person holding another person in her arms. She woke with a missing piece.
At the same time, she felt better rested and more alive than she had for months. She’d slept soundly and with a sense of peace she hadn’t known before. Nothing in her reaction to Helen was straightforward. Everything was full of contradictions. Their night had been chaste, but she now felt closer to Helen than anyone else. She had shared with her. Shared the doubts she rarely voiced, and the dreams she never allowed to flourish.
She got out of bed and went through her normal morning routine. Speed shower, put hair in a ponytail, and find the cleanest clothes in the pile on the floor. Within ten minutes of waking up, she was on her way downstairs. She considered stopping by her parents’ room, but as early as she’d gotten up and as quickly as she’d gotten ready, she was certain they had beaten her downstairs.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” her dad said when she came into the kitchen. He was sitting at the small breakfast nook with her mom, Mel, and Danny. “We were going to come get you if you didn’t wake up soon.”
Jenny took a deep breath while she put last night’s tea tray in the sink and rinsed her cup. The backyard was still in shadow, but she saw Pam’s figure moving past the windows of her art studio. Pam spent a lot of time in there when she wasn’t at the rescue center, but Jenny had overheard enough to know Pam wasn’t actually painting right now. This oil spill was affecting everyone in its path. Eventually, though, life would find its balance again. Pam would paint, Mel would have a full house of paying guests, and Helen would somehow find a way to run her own business and make it a success. And Jenny? She would move to the next place that needed her. If she’d learned anything from living in one crisis after the other, it was not to believe in the temporary reality a disaster created. She’d fallen for it this time, but soon enough she’d be back to her routine. Her parents—even though they drove her crazy at times—understood her lifestyle more than anyone else.
“I haven’t slept through the night in ages,” Jenny said as she poured a cup of coffee and added cream and sugar. Might as well keep the peace. “I guess I stayed in bed longer than expected.”
“You look rested,” Mel said with a subtle wink. “I guess the bonus features of your new room agreed with you.”
Jenny couldn’t hide her answering grin. Mel must have noticed Helen going into her room and not coming out until morning. Jenny still felt Helen’s absence like a wound, but the memory of holding her made her smile. “Yeah,” she said. “The bed was very comfortable.”
“I’ll bet it was.”
“What room were you in?” Danny asked, looking back and forth between the two laughing women. “Did you get a new mattress, Mom?”
“We’re going to miss you when you go back to school, Danny,” Jenny said, changing the subject. “You’ve been a great help at the center.”
“Are you in college?” Lars asked. “What are you studying?”
“What school?” Eve chimed in.
Jenny rolled her eyes. She recognized the eagerness in their voices. They were asking simple questions, but they could become serious medical-profession recruiters at any moment. She sometimes wondered if they got a commission every time they talked a student into pursuing a medical degree.
“I’m on scholarship at Oregon State University.” Danny smeared grape jelly on a thick slice of toast made from homemade bread and passed the jar to Jenny. “I haven’t picked a major yet.”
“I think he’d be a brilliant professor,” Mel said, elbowing him in the side. “Maybe literature?”
“Yeah, right,” Danny said with a laugh. He looked at Jenny. “Can you see me in a tweed blazer with elbow patches?”
“You probably can wear whatever you want. I don’t think there’s a required uniform,” Jenny joked. She took a bite of her toast. Crunchy outside and soft in the middle. Flecks of whole grains and chopped walnuts gave it good texture and complemented the sweet jam. She’d bet anything Helen had made the bread. Was there anything she couldn’t make? Money out of thin air, Jenny supposed. She sighed and tried to get her mind off Helen and back on to the conversation going on around her.
“Yes, Mom, I know Pam wants me to be an art major, but you saw my final project for the drawing class I took last semester. What a disaster.” Danny wiped his hands and neatly folded his napkin. “Actually, I’ve kind of been thinking of vet school. Jenny and I were talking about it, and after working with the animals here at the center, I’m even more convinced I’d like to try.”
“Really?” Mel asked with a proud smile on her face. “You haven’t mentioned it before, but I can see it being a good fit for you. You’ve always been great with animals.”
“If you’re interested in the medical field, you might want to consider working with people instead of animals,” Lars said, taking a sip of coffee. “The opportunities for helping others are limitless, and you’d be making a real contribution to the world.”
Mel and Danny sent shocked looks Jenny’s way, as if they were hoping she hadn’t heard the comment. She’d heard it too many times to be bothered by it anymore. She took another slice of toast and coated it with butter and a drizzle of honey. “I think you’re a natural, Danny. If you need a letter of recommendation, count on me. Vet school admissions committees love to see this kind of volunteer work on applications.”
“Thanks, Jenny,” he said. “I just might take you up on that.”
Jenny didn’t miss the look her parents exchanged. She could already feel them gearing up for The Talk.
Jenny was silent on the way to the center. Her parents had talked nonstop yesterday about Cannon Beach, the beauty of the area, and the work Jenny was doing here. Today, they had already moved on and were focused on their upcoming trip. She wouldn’t be surprised if they left as unexpectedly as they’d come. She was sure they’d remember some city or research library or colleague they desperately needed to visit before they left the States. She wouldn’t take it personally when it happened. By now she knew they weren’t trying to cut their visit with her short but merely shifting ahead to the next stop on their never-ending journey. They couldn’t stop their itch to get moving again. It was their nature as a couple and as doctors.
Even as she listened to their chatter, Jenny replayed the scene from breakfast in her mind. Mel obviously had an interest in Danny’s future, and she had ideas about what might be good for him. But the moment he mentioned a different choice he was considering, Mel was right there with him. Jenny had no doubt Mel and Pam would encourage and support him no matter what career he picked. Her parents had been thrown into relief against the backdrop of Mel’s unconditional acceptance, pushing their agenda as always. Again, Jenny couldn’t blame them or get angry. Again, it was their nature.
But was it hers? She knew she’d never go to med school. She couldn’t imagine a life without animals—caring for them and protecting them. She’d felt confident in her choice and proud of herself for following her own heart. But had she truly committed to living her own life? She sometimes wondered if her insistence on constant travel was really her own decision, or a way of atoning for her rebellious decision to be a vet. Or maybe she’d taken the easiest path, the one most familiar to her. She treated the patients of her choice, but she mimicked her family’s chosen method of doing so.
Jenny pushed the jumble of thoughts out of her mind as they pulled in to the parking lot. Right now, she was more concerned about Helen. Would she be here this morning? Would there be tension between them? They’d done nothing more than sleep in the same bed, but Jenny had a feeling the night had affected Helen just as deeply as it had her. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have left without a word.
She got out of the car and her heart jumped when she saw Helen running across the lot toward her. She hesitated for a moment before she recognized the worried expression on Helen’s face. Jenny knew trouble when she saw it.
“What’s wrong?” she called, sprinting toward Helen. Had something happened to the birds? One of the volunteers? Helen?
Helen stopped, gasping for breath, and grabbed Jenny’s sleeve. “Amy Hansen. Her dog. Hit by a car.”
“Is she inside?”
Helen nodded. “In the back room. The nearest emergency vet is in Seaside. Too far.”
Jenny squeezed her shoulder and took off toward the door to the auditorium. Amy was one of her regular volunteers. As tireless as the rest of the Cannon Beach citizens, Amy had been involved in nearly every aspect of the center’s work. Jenny burst through the door with Helen right on her heels and jogged to the small room where she stored the vet supplies she brought to every site. She never knew what type of animal she’d need to treat. Here, she mostly took care of shorebirds, but she’d also treated sea animals and the occasional house pet that had ingested oil.
Amy was leaning over a folding table, her arms wrapped around a medium-sized yellow Lab. Her little boy, Sam, was beside her, crying and holding a corner of the blanket that covered the dog. Jenny had seen the child here a few times, playing with Tia while his mother worked with the birds.
“Hi, Sam. Can you tell me your dog’s name?”
“Buddy. Can you save him?”
“I’ll do my best. How old is Buddy?”
Jenny moved to the table while she asked a series of questions, more to get Sam talking and relaxed than to get information. She’d learn what she needed from Buddy himself. She nodded at Helen, and as if they were communicating mentally, Helen stepped into Amy’s place and put her hands gently on the still form of the dog. Amy backed away and leaned against the far wall with Sam in her arms.
Jenny murmured instructions to Helen as she examined the dog. Outwardly, her voice sounded calm and her hands were steady as she checked the Lab’s limbs, cleaned and sutured a large gash on his hip, and took X-rays with her portable machine. Inside, on the contrary, she was panic-stricken. What if he didn’t make it? What if there was something she couldn’t fix? When she was on the job, she had hundreds, sometimes thousands, of patients. Some made it, some didn’t. She cared about every single one of them, but Buddy was different.
Jenny shaved the hair around another deep cut. This animal belonged to people she knew. She had always considered small-scale vet work to be less significant than what she did, but she’d been wrong. She glanced back at Amy and Sam, both with tear-drenched cheeks. The stakes seemed higher because she herself was connected to this circle of animal and owner, like when she had helped Danny with Piper.
Jenny finished the last stitch and snipped the end of the suture. Buddy had been nonresponsive to his surroundings at first, but he was beginning to look around again. Jenny motioned for Amy and Sam to come over to the table, and Buddy’s tail weakly fanned the air when they came close.
“He has a slight concussion and two deep cuts. No broken bones. I gave him antibiotics, but I’d suggest getting him to your regular vet to make certain there’s no internal bleeding or other serious problem. I can only do so much here, but he’s stable and should be fine to move.”
“I can drive you to Seaside,” Helen offered.
Jenny got Danny and her parents to help move Buddy to Helen’s car on a makeshift stretcher. Helen shut the door behind them, leaving her alone in the room with Jenny. “You were awesome,” she said, walking over and hugging Jenny tightly.
Jenny’s hands shook where they rested on Helen’s back. She nuzzled into the warmth of Helen’s skin and inhaled a scent of vanilla and spice. “Thank you for helping.” The words were inadequate, but Jenny knew they both had experienced the same depth of emotion. Concern for one of their own, fear, a sagging relief. They didn’t need to put words to the feelings to make them more real than they already were.
Helen pulled back and rested her hand on Jenny’s cheek. “I’m sorry I left this morning. It was just…It’s all too much…I love spending time with you and learning about you, but I want more.”
Jenny put her palm over Helen’s hand and pressed it close. “I do, too. I just don’t have more to offer. My time is limited here, but maybe we can talk on the phone and write. Then the next time I’m near here, we can arrange to meet.”
Helen shook her head. “I don’t want a pen pal, Jenny. I want this.” She put her arms around Jenny’s neck and kissed her.
Jenny thought she had uncovered every side of loneliness in her lifetime, but until she felt its lack, when it suddenly and explosively vanished at the touch of Helen’s lips on hers, Jenny realized she’d never truly understood what she had been missing. Jenny explored Helen’s mouth gently with her tongue. The sweet, sweet taste of her. The passion between them stayed soft, hovering near the edge of the kiss, and Jenny felt its energy. Waiting to be unleashed, if only there weren’t people waiting outside for Helen. If only Jenny didn’t have to leave.
Helen pulled back as if she felt the good-bye in Jenny’s kiss. “This is what I want, every day and every night. Not once a year when you happen to be passing near the West Coast on your way to someplace else.”
She turned and walked out the door. Jenny dropped into the closest chair and rested her elbows on her knees. She wasn’t sure what to think anymore. Her values hadn’t changed since she’d come here, but the way she wanted to express them had. She stood up and started to put her instruments away. Her world was upside down here, and she wasn’t sure how to handle the resulting vertigo. She’d have to fall back on her old standby. Hard work. She flipped off the light and went out to greet her next hundred patients.