It was a glorious January day and Jill found a quiet park bench. Her park bench. She slid to one side—the end still in bright sunshine—and unwrapped the sandwich she'd made that morning. She'd been coming to the park for years, enjoying the lake and woods while she escaped from the city for an hour each day. Development on the north side of the lake had the city streets encroaching on the park but the quiet remained. The lake and surrounding woods totaled over a thousand acres, land that local developers had been salivating over for years. And little by little, the county would sell a few acres here and there, shrinking the park while developers kept the county commissioners' pockets lined with cash. Jill was proud to have served on the Citizens Action Committee which helped pass a ballot initiative to stop any future land sales.
"Bunch of idiot politicians," she murmured.
But the park was safe now. No matter how much the city grew—and it seemed it was getting bigger each year—this land would be here, undisturbed.
She bit into her sandwich, scanning the picnic area, seeing familiar faces but none of whom she knew. They were just faces of people like her, coming to the park for a quick escape. She never felt the urge to talk to any of them, but people-watching had become a hobby.
And then she saw her. The painter. The woman had been here every day for the last two weeks. She was closer today, standing out at the edge of the trees, facing the lake. She didn't have an easel this time, just a large sketchpad. As Jill watched her, the woman leaned back against the tree, head cocked sideways as she studied the lake.
Jill wondered who she was and where she was from. Her salt and pepper hair hinted at her age, that and the reading glasses that were sometimes perched on top of her head. But her lithe, graceful body contradicted those signs of an older woman. Jill stared, transfixed as her hand moved across the paper. She had a nearly overwhelming urge to walk closer, just to see what the woman was sketching. The lake, most likely, but still, Jill had to see.
Something was pulling her, urging her up off the park bench. Surprised, she found herself creeping closer to the woman, peering over her shoulder. She saw the woman's hand still, then watched as she slowly turned, sensing her presence. She slid the tiny reading glasses back to the more familiar position on top of her head. In the brief seconds that their eyes met, Jill noticed two things. One, her salt and pepper hair did indeed belie her age. She couldn't have been much older than Jill. And two, there was something so familiar about her, she nearly stopped breathing. Pale blue eyes collided with her own and a warm smile transformed the woman's face.
Jill finally remembered to breathe. She smiled in return, a bit apologetically. "I'm sorry but curiosity got the better of me," she explained.
"Oh, my sketch." The woman held out the pad. "Here, take a look."
Jill gasped then looked up, again meeting pale blue eyes. "It's...it's me. Sort of."
The woman laughed. "Yeah, sort of. I've seen you on that same bench for days. I thought I would try and sketch it from memory. I didn't want to actually sit and stare at you. That freaks some people out."
Jill laughed too and handed the pad back. "And here I thought I was observing you in secret."
"No, people are generally curious when they see someone painting out in public. Or sketching, as is the case today." The woman held out her hand. "I'm Carrie Howell, by the way."
Jill took her hand, noting how strong the slim fingers were that wrapped around her own. "Jill. Jill Richardson."
"Nice to meet you, Jill. You come out here often?"
Jill nodded. "Nearly everyday. When the weather's good."
"Yes, one to two."
Carrie nodded. "I usually come around one myself. It's too crowded during the noon hour, especially on gorgeous days like today." She pointed to the lake. "I was actually hoping someone would take a paddleboat or canoe out. I love sketching the lake when it's calm like this."
"But you do more than sketch. I saw you with an easel the other day."
"I use mostly chalk or charcoal if I'm not painting with watercolors. That's my favorite. And on the few occasions I feel daring, I play with acrylic or oils but not often." She shrugged. "It's just a hobby, really. I could always sketch but I've taken classes for watercolors and other mediums."
"Well, nice hobby to have. It must be relaxing." Jill motioned back to her park bench. "But I'm cutting into your time. I'll let you get back to it."
"Maybe it's me who is cutting into your time," Carrie said with a laugh. "It was nice to meet you, Jill. Thanks for being the subject for my sketch."
Jill walked back to her bench, her sandwich long forgotten. She couldn't shake the feeling that their meeting was somehow preordained. Although she knew she'd never met Carrie Howell before, the familiarity of her eyes indicated otherwise. Jill would swear she'd stared into them before.
As she drove back to her tiny office on Oak Street , she replayed her meeting with Carrie, trying in vain to recall a time when she may have possibly run into the woman before. Nothing would come to her, so she simply attributed it to one of those déjà vu feelings you could never explain.
But she felt certain she would see Carrie Howell again.
Jill drove into her driveway at exactly five-twenty, the same time she got home every day. Their modest home was in an older neighborhood, the huge trees indicating the age of most of the houses. Some of the older homes had been torn down and replaced with newer, upscale versions but the trees remained. She and Craig had bought the home shortly after they'd married. His parents had been kind enough to give them the down payment. Right. She knew now that it had simply been their way of controlling them. She and Craig, both just out of college, both teaching at the same high school, had hardly had the funds for a house. But his parents found just the perfect house for them. And as an added bonus, it wasn't even a block from their own.
Jill rolled her eyes, wondering why she'd allowed it in the first place. But the truth was, she'd fallen in love with the two-story house, the big trees, the huge yard, the quiet neighborhood. So it seemed a blessing at the time when they offered the down payment. She just had no idea they'd be involved in their life as much as they were.
She parked her car in the driveway well to the right to give Craig room to pull in his truck. The two-car garage was packed, with room for only one vehicle. Craig's new truck meant Jill had to park her old Subaru outside now. It had seen some years but she couldn't bear to part with it, not when gas prices were what they were and she was getting well over thirty miles to the gallon. She raised a corner of her mouth in a smile and raised her eyebrows. But it wasn't like she went anywhere. Back and forth to work, back and forth to town, hauling Angie around. She hadn't taken a real trip in years. In fact, they'd not even gone on a vacation since Angie was ten. The older Angie grew, the more activities she seemed to be involved in. Activities that took up most of the summer.
She was barely in the kitchen door when her daughter ran into the room, a scowl on her face as she placed both hands on her hips. It was a gesture Jill used to find amusing, knowing Angie had picked it up from her over the years, but now it was simply annoying.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Yes, I know exactly what time it is. It's the same time I get home every day."
"Mom, I had a study group meeting a Shelly's house. We have a biology project we're working on."
"Why didn't you ask your grandmother to take you?" Jill asked as she opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water, absently wondering what she'd fix for dinner tonight.
"Grandma always has to take me places. Why can't you take me?"
"I work until five every day, Angie, you know that. If you needed to be somewhere before then, ask your grandmother. You're at her house after school anyway."
"She shouldn't have to take me all the time. She's not my mother."
Jill closed her eyes for a moment. Apparently her mother-in-law was in one of her moods. It was on those occasions she preached to Angie how terrible it was that Jill didn't teach school anymore, how horrible it was that she had to work until five, well past the time her only child was home from school.
But Jill would not argue with her fourteen-year-old daughter.
"Okay, let's go," she said.
"To your study group."
"It's too late now, Mom."
"Then why are we having this conversation?"
"You just don't get it, do you?"
"Apparently not," she murmured. "Where's your father?"
"He's got a game tonight."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot. Do you know when he'll be home?"
"He's your husband, not mine."
Jill stared as her daughter walked out of the kitchen in the same huff she'd walked in. Four more years of high school. Wonder if I can rent her out until she graduates?
She'd been in this kind of mood for the last six months, since she'd started high school. It was like someone flipped a switch. Her happy-go-lucky daughter had turned into the bitch from hell. And she knew her mother-in-law just egged her on, pointing out all of Jill's failings as a mother. One being the fact that she quit the teaching job all those years ago, a job which would have afforded her the opportunity to spend quality time with her daughter each summer. The truth was, Jill quit teaching because she couldn't stand being around teenagers when their hormones played havoc with their personalities. She was afraid she'd never want to have children of her own after spending her days with them. So, after only four years, she quit. She found a job as office manager for Tutt Construction shortly thereafter and she'd been with them ever since. When old Mr. Tutt handed the business over to his son eight years ago, Jill suddenly found herself with a nice raise and a new assistant. Seems Johnny knew her worth and all she did, even though his father had treated her—and paid her—as an entry level secretary. Jill kept the accounts organized, kept everyone on schedule and handled all the advertising.
And now that she had an assistant, it was a relatively stress-free job that she left at five each day and rarely thought of again until she arrived at eight the next morning. No, her only stress now was a teenaged daughter whose hormones had attacked her from within and who got immense pleasure out of driving her mother insane.
It'll pass. Words Craig had used just the other night. The problem was, Craig was hardly home so he didn't notice the change in Angie. Unlike Jill, Craig loved teaching high school. It kept him young, he said. It also kept him away from the house. Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in spring, Craig coached them all. And in the summers, he played on no less than three softball teams. On his off nights, he volunteered his time at the little league fields.
It was no wonder they'd only had one child.
She took a package of ground beef from the freezer, wishing she could remember where his game was tonight and if he'd be home at a reasonable hour. Out-of-town games would get him home at eleven or later. If the game was at the gym, he'd be home by nine-thirty. She'd make up a casserole. If he was hungry when he got home, at least she'd have something. If not, then tomorrow's dinner was already prepared.
She sighed, wondering when her marriage had evolved into this, wondering if all marriages got this way after nearly twenty years. They rarely talked. Hell, they rarely saw each other. Their sex life had become the obligatory once-a-week whether they wanted to or not. That was once a week on a good week. More often than not, Jill was in bed and asleep when Craig made it home. And that was another issue with her mother-in-law—Jill should be out supporting Craig, going to his games. After all, that's what the other wives did.
Which was bullshit, of course. And Craig didn't expect her to travel to games, just to watch him coach. It was ridiculous. However, he did want her to attend his summer softball games. And she did on occasion. She knew most of the other wives and got on well with them. But it got old, sitting for hours, watching a bunch of grown men acting like teenagers, each trying to outdo the other and show off their softball prowess.
Changing out of her business clothes, she slipped on a comfortable pair of sweats and an old baggy shirt of Craig's. As she robotically began preparing dinner, she poured a glass of wine, something she'd been indulging in for the last year or so. Neither she nor Craig were big drinkers, although he did enjoy an occasional beer with his softball buddies. But she'd bought a bottle of red wine on a whim one day and enjoyed having a glass with dinner. Dinner that she most often ate alone or with Angie. Lately, she'd begun enjoying a glass during the preparation of dinner too.
As she systematically added onions to the beef, she thought of the woman she'd met that day. Again, that nagging feeling of familiarity crept over her. She leaned a hip against the counter as she added more wine to her glass, wondering if she'd see her again tomorrow.
Jill waved to her assistant at noon as the younger woman left for lunch. Jill always enjoyed the quiet in the office from noon until one. The phone rarely rang, giving her time to concentrate on the books. Accounting was a skill she had to forcibly learn when she took this job. Surprisingly, she found she was very good at it, intuitively so. But she hated interruptions. And now that she had an assistant to take care of the mundane chores around the small office, she could afford to close her door, shutting herself off while she balanced the accounts.
But now during lunch, her door was wide open on the off chance a customer might come in while Harriet was gone. Their business was still relatively small but had grown considerably since Johnny had taken over. He was more hands-on than his father had been, beating them to the office each morning, then leaving at nine to check on the various construction crews he had out in the field. Whereas his father ran the office and relied on his crews to run the construction end of things, Johnny allowed Jill to run the office while he managed the crews. It had been a profitable change for the business. A change that kept them all busy from eight to five.
But now Jill found herself watching the clock, wishing for one p.m. to arrive. She was anxious for her own lunch hour, anxious to go to the park. For some reason, she couldn't get Carrie Howell out of her mind. Even this morning, after Angie had thrown a fit about Jill not being able to take her to band practice at four, she longed for the quiet hour when she could escape to the park. God forbid Angie should hang around school for forty-five minutes until practice started.
"Mom, that's for losers. Those without a ride."
"Well, it looks like you'll be a loser today. Unless your grandmother can take you."
"Of course, push your motherly duties off on Grandma," she said sarcastically.
"My motherly duties right now include working from eight to five. I don't have the luxury of being home all day like your grandmother."
"I can't wait until I'm old enough to drive. Then I won't have to rely on you anymore," she spat.
"Your grandmother's going to buy you a car, is she?"
"Dad promised I could have a car," she yelled.
"Yes. I think he promised you my old Subaru."
Tears welled up immediately. "I'm not driving that piece of crap! I'll be laughed out of high school."
She ran screaming from the room and Jill rubbed her temples, wishing once again that Craig was here to witness one of her little fits.
And after a completely silent trip to school, one that ended with Angie slamming the door on the Subaru, Jill escaped to the quiet and calm of her eight-to-five job.
She looked again at the clock, watching the hands move to twelve-thirty, knowing she was getting absolutely no work done as she listened to the ticking of the clock.
Finally, with only five minutes to go, she began getting ready, saving the little work she'd done, closing down her computer. She walked to the tiny break room and retrieved her sandwich from the refrigerator, then grabbed a plastic bottle of water and waited patiently at her desk. As soon as she saw Harriet drive up, she rushed to the door, meeting her on the sidewalk.
"You're in a hurry today," Harriet said. "Got a date?"
Jill laughed. "A date with a park bench, yes."
"Well have fun. See you at two."
Yes, she was in a hurry today and the morning had been endless. And the anticipation she'd been feeling all day manifested itself tenfold as she approached the park. She didn't pause to wonder why she was in such a hurry to get to the park, in such a hurry to see if Carrie Howell was there today. Again, that feeling that she was being controlled in some way, being guided to the park, settled over her and she knew it would be futile to try to challenge it. She didn't want to challenge it.
She wanted to see Carrie Howell.
And as she eased onto her park bench, letting the sun warm her, she looked around, her eyes searching for the other woman. A moment of panic hit when she didn't see her on first glance, then through the trees, near the lake, she stood. Easel again today.
Jill felt a wave of relief wash over her at the sight of the other woman. She couldn't explain the comfort she felt, knowing Carrie was here. Without thought, she unwrapped her sandwich, eating and chewing methodically as she watched Carrie.
Then, as if sensing her eyes on her, Carrie turned and stared right at her. Jill stopped chewing, her throat tight as she imagined those pale blue eyes looking at her. Carrie lifted a hand in greeting and Jill did the same. It wasn't until Carrie turned back around that Jill was able to swallow again.
What is wrong with you?
But she had no answer. She simply had an overwhelming urge to be near the woman. And before long, she would get her wish as Carrie walked toward her. Jill hastily wiped her mouth with her napkin and took a swallow of water.
"Hi, Jill. Good to see you again," Carrie greeted.
"Yes. I see you have your easel today. Watercolors?"
"No. Colored chalk. I usually just use my sketch pad but I had an inspiration for a larger picture. I wanted to capture the trees and lake, maybe add a duck or two in the foreground. If it turns out good with the colored chalk, then I'll do the scene with watercolors." Then she opened her notebook and handed Jill a paper. "Here. Thought you might want to have this."
Jill took the paper, noting the sketch she'd seen yesterday, the sketch of her on the park bench. Carrie had added features to her face, making it obvious it was her, not just a faceless woman in the park. It was beautiful.
"Thank you. It's lovely."
"Well, I had a lovely subject."
Jill smiled, not knowing what to say.
Out of her bag, Carrie pulled a half a loaf of bread. "I was about to go feed the ducks. Feel like walking along?"
"Sure." Jill stood, motioning to the easel. "Will that be okay?"
"I doubt anyone will swipe it," Carrie said.
They walked along the trail, heading to the small piers where paddleboats and canoes were tied. In spring and summer, you'd be hard-pressed to find one available as the lake would be littered with them. But today, on this cool January afternoon, no one had braved the water.
"I can't decide which time of year is my favorite out here," Carrie said. "I like the quiet of winter, like today. But I miss the greenness of spring and summer. When I sketch in the winter, I try to find something bright, something colorful. Like one of the red canoes on the water, for instance."
"I've never seen you here before but I take it you're familiar with the lake," Jill said.
"I'm familiar with the lake, yes. I don't often come here to the park, though. Especially during the summer. Way too many kids running around," she said. "Not that I have anything against kids. They're just...disturbing," Carrie said with a laugh.
"Yes, I'll have to agree."
Carrie laughed. "Let me guess. You have a teenager."
Jill nodded. "A daughter."
"She's fourteen, thinks she's eighteen and acts like ten. Do you have kids?"
Carrie nodded. "Two boys. Josh is seventeen and will graduate in May. Aaron is fifteen. Couldn't ask for better kids. Josh has always been mature for his age, and thankfully, they get along well. Josh actually enjoys being taxi service for Aaron, so that saves me right there. He's taken his role of big brother very seriously."
"Angie is at the I Hate My Mother stage," Jill explained.
"It's a girl thing," Carrie said. "My mother reminds me I was at that stage for fifteen years," she said with a laugh.
They approached the swim area, deserted this time of year except for the ducks that were sunning themselves on the sand. As if sensing a free lunch, no less than ten came over to meet them. Carrie handed Jill several slices of bread and they went about the fun chore of tearing it up and tossing it to the clamoring ducks at their feet.
"Oh, here she comes," Carrie said, pointing to a late arrival. "I call her Grandma Duck."
"Is she old?"
Carrie shrugged. "I have no idea. But she's more gray than brown, and see how she limps." Carrie squatted down. "Here, sweetie," she murmured, tossing bread to the old duck.
Jill watched, smiling as Carrie shooed the other ducks aside so Grandma Duck could eat.
"I've seen her around for years," Carrie said. "She's a tough old broad."
The loaf of bread was devoured quickly, so they made their way back to the park bench. It was a fun hour but it passed far too quickly.
"Can I ask you something?"
Carrie nodded. "Sure."
"Have we met before?"
Carrie laughed. "You too? I've been thinking about it since yesterday. You seem so familiar to me."
"I know. But I don't think we've met." Jill allowed her eyes to linger on Carrie's pale blue ones. "Surely we would remember."
Carrie's eyes turned serious. "Perhaps in another life," she murmured.
Jill was about to say she didn't believe in that sort of thing but the familiarity in Carrie's eyes told her it might be true. "Perhaps."
Carrie smiled, her eyes softening. "And perhaps I'll see you again."