"Are the troops all here, all accounted for?" Quinn Rutledge confirmed as the older boys crowded into the far back row of seats in his ancient black van, The Mystery Machine--the mystery was how he'd kept it running so long.
He grinned as they settled. One by one, the gang went through the usual drill of calling out their names in order of age:
"Dev." Nine-year-old Devlin was the son of Sheila, who'd married Quinn's relative how-many-times removed, Jeb Duncan, and Jeb had adopted Dev shortly after their wedding.
"Jake." Jake was five years old, the firstborn son of Scott and Melina Romero and, despite the age difference, best friends with his cousin Dev.
While he usually picked up the four-year-old triplets (or "trips" as Quinn referred to them; Dev and Jake liked to call them the triple turds or turkeys) from the preschool bus stop just before noon and immediately dropped them off at home with their mother Melina, today she hadn't been feeling good and asked him to babysit until Scott got home from work. Melina was pregnant as well as suffering a cold.
Quinn grinned at the four-year-old, Jeb and Sheila's first child together. He babysat Maisie every weekday while Jeb was at the Amethyst Police Station, where he was Chief, and Sheila waitressed at Mrs. Bea's Café, one of the only two eateries in their small hometown. At three o'clock, he picked up the older boys from the communal bus stop. Since Amethyst had ceased to be able to afford its own school district, a bus was sent to and from the school in Neillsville, where the kids attended. The bus stop in Amethyst was where all the school-age children were picked up and dropped off from school during the year.
While Quinn's job as a nanny didn't earn him loads, he loved the work and, this time of year, anything that would supplement his income and get him through the fall and winter was crucial. Amethyst was strictly a resort town. While the population in the summer numbered in the thousands, in winter the town held only a handful of lifers--some seventy-five to one hundred. Tourists came for the gorgeous fresh water lake, Lake Amethyst, which was four miles long and two miles wide, so named because at the height of summer, when the brilliant sunshine hit the water, it looked like a sparkling amethyst gem. The lake offered the bulk of activities during the sunny season, with swimming, fishing, boating and all the usual activities associated with a lake, but they also had lush, gorgeous forests. Camping was just as popular during the height of the season.
In the last several years, the entire town had been working hard to make Amethyst lucrative all year round. The lifers had plenty of work during the tourist season with the construction of countless cabins and camping areas and even a summer-long carnival at the fairgrounds close to the boardwalk at town center. All during the season, the sound of the carnival rides could be heard from sunup to sundown.
For all their hard work, the town had succeeded in doubling the summer tourism, but only fractionally increasing their population during spring and fall. Same as always, the town was all but dead in winter. Around August the cold air started convincing the visitors to leave, and, with the mass exodus and the closing of summer recreations and the carnival, the absence of sound made Amethyst almost creepy in Quinn's mind.
His first job in Amethyst had been working the carnival but once that closed down for the season, there was little work to be had. As one of the few lifers who wasn't retired or didn't own a business that could be sustained throughout the winter, he took any job that came his way--cleaning, performing maintenance, and babysitting.
"Uncle Quinn, how come you never get cold?" Maisie asked after Quinn slammed the side door, then jumped behind the steering wheel.
"I'm wearin' a jacket, Maisie Daisy," he pointed out. "Even wearin' a hat today." Though it was September and they'd had a few cold mornings, most days turned out sunny and pleasant. Today was the first of the season in which the chill rain had signaled forth the ushering in of winter. They were all bundled up warmly.
"No, no!" Maisie scolded, rolling her eyes impatiently just like her mother. "Your toes!"
Quinn looked down at his Akua flipflops, something he wore even in the winter. He didn't own a single pair of socks and only wore boots when a job he was doing required them.
"What can I say, babygirl? I've got Hobbit feet." He supposed after growing up in third-world countries and places where jungle and desert were predominate, he saw little point in confining his feet. While he was driving especially, he always kicked off his shoes.
As they cracked up, Quinn grinned, finessing the van into starting, then headed toward the kids' homes next door to each other. "Well, my bouncy turkeys, what should we do since we don't want anyone getting sick playing outside today in the cold rain?" Quinn asked during the short drive.
He already knew the answer. Maisie's favorite game was hide and seek and had been most of her life thus far. The whole troop was sweet on her and rarely tried talking her out of her heart's desire. So, as soon as they got inside the Duncan home and gobbled their snacks, Quinn was proclaimed "it". He cleaned up the coffee table in the dining room while they went to hide somewhere in the house.
Quinn started counting at the top of his lungs so they'd hear him from anywhere they chose to settle. "Ten, nine..." Maisie would be the first he found. She giggled so much, especially the closer he got to her all-but-in-the-open place, it wasn't possible for her to remain hidden long. Then the trips would be caught. They usually did everything together--and whispered so loudly--he wouldn't have any trouble locating them. Jake would get tired of waiting and would give up before long. Dev...Dev would be difficult. Dev liked to hide and he always found new, impossible spaces to cram himself into.
Stealing soundlessly into the kitchen, Quinn heard something rustling in the pantry. With the cracker box in his hand, he moved up to the door. Expecting giggling and whispering, he heard only more rattling around.
"All right, show yourself!" he shouted dramatically, throwing open the door.
The skunk inside went backend facing and tail up. Quinn almost dropped the crackers. But then he laughed, shaking his head still covered by the night watchman's cap. He set the snack box on the shelf, then leaned in. "What'd we tell you about being in here, Homer?" The skunk's spray glands had been damaged as a baby and, being defenseless in the wild, Dev had adopted him along with the rest of his mixed menagerie of pets--ducks, raccoons, a rabbit, and a couple dogs. Homer was coming up on almost ten years old and mostly what he liked to do now was eat them out of house and home.
Quinn scooped up the skunk to remove him from the pantry. This time he closed the door tightly. From nearby, giggling alerted him to a hider. No surprise (but Quinn showed plenty), Maisie was half-in, half-out of the broom closet.
Setting Homer down, he instead lifted the little girl in his arms. Immediately, she reached up to pull off his cap. All throughout this day, her hands had proved incapable of staying away from the shiny smoothness of his skull. Not surprisingly after a week of itching like crazy, they'd discovered that one or all of Dev's pets had caused a major flea infestation in the house. The previous Saturday had been spent doing industrial cleaning. Quinn had had to do the same at his parents' cabin where he lived.
Even after every trace of a flea had been removed from both locations, he couldn't stop itching and he'd broken down Sunday night around midnight and shaved his head bald. He wasn't someone who functioned well without proper sleep, and he hadn't had a good night's rest for days. So he'd shaved his head and slept like a baby.
He hadn't anticipated his own reaction to waking up and seeing himself in the mirror. Hence the night watchman's cap. Still, Sheila had almost fallen over when she saw him just before lunch, when he'd stopped at the diner for his customary slice of tart. Quinn had been taught it was rude to eat with a hat on, and so he'd whipped it off and dug in.
Briar, the goth who ran the place, alone said she found his bald head sexy. Sheila had all but cried over his thick, dark hair: gone, gone, oh so gone. Maisie had been fascinated instead of scared of him, the way Sheila had predicted because who would recognize him looking like this?
Together, he and Maisie navigated through the house in search of the trips. Jake was next, after a fake coughing fit. The troop only found Dev an hour sooner than usual because a bored Jake ratted him out. The only reason hostility didn't break out there and then was because the two older boys noticed Quinn's bald head for the first time.
"Sure and begorrah, it's so rad!" Dev said in awe.
"Did it hurt?" Jake asked, looking worried.
The trips all put a wary finger out to touch his shiny head.
"Only my male pride, sprockets. Only my pride."
Dev grinned. "Nah, you look like a warrior. You should get a bunch of tattoos..."
Quinn was gaping in shock at the mere idea.
"You should get a map," Maisie insisted in that definitive way of hers.
"A map, babygirl? You want me to get a map tattooed on my head?"
"Yeah. 'Cause then you could be a globe."
"We could journey around the world!" Phil shouted.
"Oh, you teasin' turks!" Quinn scolded. Laughing, they tackled him to the floor, piling on as one.
They heard the front door shut below. Quinn carried Maisie down the stairs, then let the munchkin stand on her own two feet to greet her mother with hugs and kisses.
Sheila shook her head at him once Maisie was predictably in her arms. "I'll never get used to seeing you like that, Quinn Rutledge. All your beautiful, surfer-dude hair."
"Don't get used to it. As soon as my hair is back, I won't be shaving again anytime soon." The boys filed in, and Quinn leveled a finger at the oldest boy. "And that means no more fleas, Dev matey."
"I wanna shave my head, too, Mom!"
"Me, too!" Jake shouted, always ready to follow Dev to the ends of the earth even if he really didn't want his head shaved.
The trips joined in, and Maisie jumped from Sheila's arms to his. She wrapped her tiny limbs around his head so he could barely see. "Me three!"
Quinn shook his head at her. "Never, never will my beautiful Maisie Daisy shave her lovely curls." Her blond hair was almost as long as she was tall. When he tickled her neck with his mouth, she started laughing uncontrollably.
Scott stepped into the house from the kitchen entry and he went stock-still, his eyes wide at the sight of Quinn. "Dude, what happened to you? Who are you? If not for the Marsh tattoo on your arm, I wouldn't have recognized you."
Quinn had taken off his jacket in anticipation of being too hot inside, the way he usually was. The tattoo on his forearm was of a Marsh wild rose. Below it was the name 'Summer'. During her short time here, Summer's favorite flowers had become the fragrant, pale pink roses that grew up all around Amethyst in the middle months of the year.
Scott's words made Quinn feel as if he'd stepped out of reality, and he could sense the change in Sheila nearby. Both Scott and Sheila knew the end of the tourist season signaled another long winter during which Summer wouldn't come back. Four years ago, Summer Rosales had promised him she'd return during the next tourist season.
She hadn't since, yet he'd been unable to get himself to stop waiting for her. At first, his faithfulness had been a driving need, a relentless loyalty. He'd loved her so much, what choice did he have? But lately, he couldn't prevent the bitter edge of embarrassment that crept inside him whenever anyone brought up Summer. Admittedly, that wasn't often, but even subtle references, such as the Marsh rose, made him feel the humiliation of his situation.
How could anyone else understand? He'd tried to leave Amethyst, to give up the hope that burned inside him, but he felt physically ill each time he left this place--the one place Summer would know to look for him. He couldn't get himself to believe she'd willingly stayed away all this time. Something must have happened. Because they'd fallen so deeply in love that summer they met, the thought that she no longer felt how he did was impossible. He wouldn't accept that explanation, not until he had no other choice. Maybe those closest to him thought he should have long ago reached the point of giving up, but he couldn't. He couldn't imagine deciding to move on.
"Stay for dinner," Sheila invited softly, no doubt feeling sorry for him and not simply because cooking was a skill he didn't possess. About all he could do to feed himself was throw together a sarnie or warm something in the microwave. He'd grown up with a maid coming in to provide meals and clean at his father's house in England, or being fed by his mother's chef, part of her traveling entourage. Their lives had always been so busy, they let someone else worry about providing meals.
Quinn wasn't ashamed to admit he could be bought with food these days. Not simply because he couldn't cook, the fact was he didn't usually have much cash on hand. Unfortunately, his sweet tooth was what took most of his pennies. Luckily, Briar at the café usually accepted whatever he could scrape together for his "afters".
"I should get some writing in," he insisted, pulling his cap back on. Maisie helped him adjust it.
Though both of his parents were musicians--his father, Johnny, a professor at The Royal Academy; his mother Lyra, who could only be described as a freelance musician who traveled all around the world--Quinn's passion had always been writing. Thus far, he'd never had anything published. He had, however, accumulated numeral accolades and awards during his schooling. As a student, he'd been touted as an up-and-comer author who should have long ago made the bestseller lists, considering the anticipation for his published work. Yet, despite his mentor Jayden Donovan--a publisher at one of the largest houses in California--and the honors he'd won at university, Quinn had let so many opportunities slip away from him in the past four years. He was unfortunately inspired only by his muse, a fickle force that rarely allowed him more than a handful of sentences here and there. Mostly, he'd had trouble getting past one blockade in all this time long enough to write: Until Summer Rosales came around again, Quinn Rutledge's life, hopes, dreams and aspirations were officially on hold.
Quinn's parents' cabin had been one of the first built in Amethyst--and not for tourists. Every summer for as long as he could remember, his family had been coming to Amethyst to visit their very distant relatives, the Duncans, with whom they were best friends. It was the one time during the year his immediate family came together. Quinn had looked forward to the time all year. Jeb, Sheila, Scott and Melina had been his best friends. Embarrassing now, Jeb's sisters had been the first girls he'd kissed--more accurately, they'd kissed him within hours of each other on the occasion of his twelfth birthday.
Given his mother's career, discovering all she could about music in every culture to the farthest reaches of the globe, then writing about it in books, reviews and articles, doing tutorials, conferences, live seminars and her wildly popular show on the Travel Channel, Musicology: The Universal Language, Quinn had been exposed to mostly adults all his life and had few friends of his own since he'd been homeschooled by the teacher his mother hired to travel with her entourage. Summer was the time he looked forward to most of all, yet he'd always been eager to leave Amethyst, despite how desperately he missed his friends all the months away. The desolation of the town in fall and winter had been nothing short of depressing for him. As an upbeat, optimistic soul, he avoided anything that made him feel dismal. He'd vowed as a short-sighted youngster he'd never become one of the lifers who lived in Amethyst with the eerie quiet all winter long.
If anything, Quinn's dread of the silent death of winter had grown worse with the explosion of tourism in town. Even from his parents' deluxe cabin a few miles outside of town, he could feel the stillness and disquiet blanketing town with the turn of colder weather. More than two weeks ago at the end of August, he'd started feeling it when his parents left Amethyst, returning to their separate, respective lives. The cabin felt lonely to him again, and he'd wondered more than once if he should find another place to stay. But that consideration always turned quickly to logic. He didn't have money for his next meal. How could he afford to rent housing elsewhere? His parents insisted he stay here, rent-free, telling him he was doing them a favor taking care of the place instead of making them hire someone else to do it when they weren't around. If only the stillness didn't bother him so much.
After throwing together a sandwich with what little he had in his cupboards and fridge, he consumed the sustenance while straddling the bench at the kitchen table and reading through the last chapter in his novel. He'd stopped writing once his parents came at the beginning of summer. His muse outright refused him creativity when other people were around, when he was feeling low, when he was too deep in worry about the rest of his life. Needless to say, it'd taken him more than five years to get as far as he had with the novel. Although he'd written a handful of short stories here and there, none of which had gotten rave reviews from his mentor, he'd worked harder on this, his first novel, than anything else he'd ever written.
"Could finish this winter...if only," Quinn said out loud. He felt a creeping feeling of dismay inside him. If Jayden hated it as he'd seemed to everything previously--don't show him until it's perfect--Quinn knew he'd never have the guts to write anything ever again. His muse might never recover--at the moment, she felt as far away as she'd ever been.
Summer didn't come back this year. Again. I don't feel inspired to do anything because I can't stop waiting for her. Is there a reason to go on hoping? But there's nothing more I can do to get myself to let go. Barely a few weeks after she'd left that pivotal summer that'd changed his life, Quinn had gone looking for her. They'd exchanged phone numbers, addresses, but she hadn't been where she'd claimed she'd be. Though she'd come to Amethyst with a friend of hers she was attending college with, Quinn had never known anything more about her friend than her first name--Apple. Quinn had disliked that silly girl more intensely than he'd ever disliked anyone his whole life--which was really saying something. Seldom had he disliked another person. Usually, he found something worthwhile and lovely about those he became acquainted with. Not so the flaky, spoiled rotten Apple.
But Summer had disappeared seemingly off the face of the earth with her friend, her phone disconnected. Because it was over for her? Because she left here planning our romance to be over? I might never know the truth about that. I don't know where to go looking for that truth.
Each time he considered that summer, he couldn't believe she'd faked her responses, that all they'd shared hadn't meant every bit as much to her as it had to him. Quinn had been a loner all his life, except in Amethyst, and even here he'd never felt a connection like the one he'd forged instantly with Summer Rosales.
The only answer for her continued absence had to be that something had happened to prevent her from returning. Something drastic.Something permanent or life-threatening. Because it's been four endless years.Is she still whole? Healthy? Alive?
Even as I need to know, I don't want to. Because it might mean accepting I'll never see again the only woman I can ever love.
Because he had to get back into town and close up the carnival for the night, and besides, he wanted to stop at Mrs. Bea's for something sweet, he headed back out into the cold figuring few people had been to the fairgrounds today with all the rain. Though the downpour stopped just after he arrived at the cabin, he had trouble picking his way through all the puddles and slop on Main Street. His flipflop-shod feet were caked with wet mud.
Once inside the warm café filled with those who wanted company and comfort food, he dried his feet on the mat the best he could. Most of the tables and booths were taken, so he sat at the counter with Bud Marasek, a widowed lifer who owned a farm and a popular pumpkin patch that everyone visited at least once every October. Bud's teenage daughter, Harper, was busy waiting on tables.
As if his presence had been logged in at the door, Briar Sankey came out of her kitchen with a piece of tart she said she'd been saving just for him. Her parents had owned the café all her life. After her father's death when Briar was young, her mother had taken over, but in the last few years Bea's health had forbid her from working in the restaurant anymore. Now Briar did almost everything--hostessing, waiting tables. Her cooking and baking were what she was known for, though, especially her desserts.
Though Briar was almost a decade older than Quinn's twenty-six years, she still dressed and looked like the goth girl she'd been in high school. Head to toe, she was dressed in black velvet gowns, corsets, capes and ruffles (covered with the café's custom apron). Her extremely white skin was made paler by the dark, tragic makeup she wore. Despite a style few others could pull off, Briar was an extremely attractive woman and, besides that, sweet as the pie she generously set before him and accepted the barely-enough change he dug out of his pocket to pay her.
Quinn couldn't help his discomfort with Briar. Somehow he always remembered how, a few years after Summer had left, Jeb and Sheila had fixed him up with the goth girl. They'd all gone out on a double date--one of the most uncomfortable situations Quinn had ever had the misfortune of being thrust into. He'd been far from over Summer. Briar had been too quick to make it known she wanted to go on a second date with him--without their mutual friends. Though she'd seemed breezily fine when he'd told her as tactfully as he could that he wasn't interested in being more than friends, he couldn't fail to notice she always made a point of emerging from the kitchen to greet him personally when he came into the café and she saved him a slice of one of her to-die-for-tarts every single day.
With thanks, Quinn sloughed off his jacket before digging wholeheartedly into the pumpkin praline pie, experiencing pure joy at the taste of the sweet treat.
"Carnival shutting down soon?" Bud asked next to him. The farmer was wearing a black night watchman's cap almost identical to Quinn's--no surprise since they all shopped in the same place. Nearly every night, Bud came in for dinner. He had nothing by way of cooking skills either and, Quinn supposed, he wanted to be closer to his daughter while she worked her shift after school.
"Pretty soon," Quinn agreed. "Town already feels too quiet."
Bud nodded. Quinn caught the other man's gaze on his tattoo. The realization that every single lifer in Amethyst knew he was waiting for Summer Rosales to come back screamed him full in the face again. Embarrassment sent him back to his pie.
What am I waiting for? he asked himself. The image of Summer's lovely face filled his mind, and he knew she'd taken not only his heart when she left but also his life, his ambition, his purpose. Without her, he was no longer whole.
Yet the sense that something had to give had been growing inside him lately--and not just because of all the unspoken words from those who knew him best. I can't just go on like this anymore. I have to move forward again, somehow. Somehow, he had to find another life, a different purpose, even if that meant leaving behind what mattered most to him.
How? How do I do that? Just give up? Stop waiting? Stop hoping? Stop wondering? Accept that I was alone in something that took over my entire being and life during one perfect summer?