Alice Graves braced the ladder for her husband, Cully, with all her strength. It was silly, she knew. If he lost his balance, no way she could stop him from falling. He climbed, balancing a sheet of plywood he would nail over one of the inn’s tall front windows. Two down, six to go.
A hurricane in the Atlantic had changed course overnight and headed straight for their little island off the coast of Georgia. Their bed-and-breakfast guests had checked out early that morning. Alice wanted to leave, too, but Cully refused.
“I’ve got too much invested in this place to abandon it,” he’d said.
Like she wasn’t invested.
He’d insisted on boarding up the windows himself. “Who would I hire? Everybody’s taking care of their own places.” Or they already left, Alice had thought, but she hadn’t said it.
After he finished the windows, she drove to the Island Market. Some canned soup, bread, peanut butter, and the storm essential, wine, would see them through. But the shelves were empty. She drove home, the streets jammed with people heading inland.
The inn had withstood many storms in its one-hundred-twenty years, but lately, the storms had gotten stronger. This one, named Ingrid, threatened to be the worst they’d ridden out, a category three and likely to strengthen.
When she got home, she helped Cully move rugs, smaller pieces of furniture, and all the paintings in his studio to the upstairs guest rooms. Downstairs, they set furniture on concrete blocks and put everything they could on countertops, tables, and high shelves.
Alice didn’t know what to do about their daughter’s room. Jess had taken everything she cared about when she left ten years earlier. Stuffed animals on the bed, Coldplay and Weezer posters rolled up in a corner, a box of high school yearbooks and trinkets were all that remained. I should leave it all, she thought, but she felt guilty. She took everything upstairs.
By early afternoon rain and wind lashed the house. When the power failed, Cully’s old dachshund, Sasha, barked and barked, his nails clattering on the kitchen tiles in a tap dance of worry. Cully set a kerosene lantern on the kitchen table and lit it. He sat and whistled and clapped, and the quivering dog leapt onto his lap. When a thundering crash shook the house, Sasha scampered under the table. Cully got up and put on his slicker.
“You can’t go out in this,” Alice said.
“Just to the porch.”
He had to fight the wind to close the kitchen door. He came back in a minute or two and hung the dripping slicker on the back of the door.
“The live oak uprooted. Missed the house by six feet.” His hands were shaking.
She said, “We should have left.” He either didn’t hear, or he ignored her.
When water started coming in the house, Alice, Cully, and Sasha retreated to an upstairs bathroom and huddled on the floor. A few minutes later, Cully said, “Damn.” He pushed the dog off his lap and stood.
“What is it?”
“I need to move your portrait.”
The nude Cully had painted of Alice when she was twenty-six hung over the mantel in the private living room. “Leave it. It’ll be okay.”
“No. I’d rather move it.”
Most of his paintings were big and bold, in black and white and primary colors. This portrait was large but subdued, soft shades of flesh, blue, coral, yellow. In it, Alice turns three-quarters away, looking over her shoulder at Cully, her left breast visible. Cully always said it was his best work.
Jess hated it. “Who wants to see her own mother naked?” she would say. But Alice could see Jess in the portrait. How could Jess be so like her physically and so different in every other way?
Alice heard Cully bump his way up the stairs. Red-faced and out of breath, he leaned the portrait against the bathroom wall and sat on the floor. He was wet to his waist, but he had kept the painting dry.
“The water must have risen a foot while I was down there.”
She pulled towels out of the cabinet and wrapped them around him. “Better?”
He nodded, but he was shivering.
At the height of the storm, they clung to each other, Sasha between them, while the inn shuddered like it would break apart. Around midnight the eye passed over. In the hour of quiet, Alice heard water surging through the house, an occasional thud, a crash. Then the back side of the storm blew through. By four AM, it was over.
At dawn they went downstairs. A couple of feet of water remained in the house, but a line five feet up the walls marked the height of the surge. Alice took it all in. Furniture tossed around. Windows blown out. But the stained-glass above the front door had survived. At least there was that.
Outside, water as far as they could see. The beachfront house across from the inn was mostly gone. The other houses they could see looked badly damaged, but they were still standing. Cully waded out and circled the inn. He came back, shaking his head. “The roof’s half gone, but it could have been worse.” He squinted up at the pale sunlight starting to break through the clouds. “We ought to call Jess. She’ll be worried.”
Alice pictured their daughter, making fancy recipes at the Seattle restaurant where she worked as a pastry chef, going home to her wife, Margo. Alice doubted she and Cully were on Jess’s mind, but Cully kept trying until he reached her. They chatted, Cully mostly yelling reassurances, before he gave his phone to Alice.
“Mom?” A buzzing on the line. “Dad sounds shaky. Do I need to come home?”
The buzz grew louder. Alice shouted, “No. We’re okay.” She choked on the words and gave the phone back to Cully. She had her doubts.
After he got off the phone, he pulled her close. “It’ll be all right. I promise.”
They got a hotel room and waited for the water to recede. The third day after the storm, they met the insurance adjustor at the inn. While he made notes, they stood in the ruined parlor, the floor covered in sandy sludge, fallen plaster, broken glass. The house already smelled of mold and something fishy, spoiled. The smell was making Alice sick.
“I can’t do it, Cully. We’ll spend a ton of money and do all this work, and the next time there’s a big storm, we’ll do it all over again. Maybe it’s time we let the inn go.”
Cully’s jaw worked. “How can you say that? This is home.”
Was it? Maybe it had been a mistake to come here.
They had lived in Charleston twenty years when Cully walked in one afternoon and tossed a letter on the kitchen table. “Look at this.”
Alice read the letter, sat down, read it again. “You inherited a house? My god. What will you do—sell it?”
“Yeah. I’m going to drive up to Yemassee Island and meet with my aunt’s attorney Friday. I haven’t seen the place since I was a kid.”
Alice had heard the stories: Cully’s great-grandfather had engineered the building of the railroad from Savannah to Yemassee Island in the 1880s. He’d built the beach pavilion and the island’s first inn. The inn had stayed in the family, and Cully’s Aunt Julia—a cellist who had toured all over Europe, an eccentric, he’d told Alice—owned it, but she had moved away years ago. The house had sat empty. When his aunt had died in April, he’d been strapped with grading student art portfolios at the college where he taught, and they hadn’t gone to her funeral.
“I called the attorney. She can see me Friday afternoon. Go with me. We can stay a night. It’ll be fun.”
A night away. Jess could stay with a friend. “Sure. Why not?”
Friday, they drove to Yemassee, ate lunch at a local place that overlooked the water, and went to the attorney’s office. The paperwork took thirty minutes, and the attorney gave Cully a key.
They pulled over in front of a weathered gray, two-story house on an overgrown lot dotted with majestic palms and water oaks.
“This is it,” Cully said.
“Surely not.” Alice got out her camera and took photos.
Bougainvillea growing wild over the front porch. Gingerbread trim. Inside, crumbling plaster, rusted tin ceilings, rotting floors, animal droppings. But there were also marble-faced fireplaces and ten-foot pocket doors. Over the front entry, a stained-glass window depicting bougainvillea in reds, pinks, and greens.
Alice took shot after shot.
Cully started up the stairs. “You stay here. The stairs don’t look safe.”
His footsteps faded overhead, came closer, faded again. He came down, brushing dirt off his trousers. “I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.”
They checked into their hotel, walked on the beach, ate dinner, made love. When she brought up the old house on the drive home the next day, he said he didn’t want to talk about it. She developed the photos and put them away, but an idea was taking shape—a crazy one, but it wouldn’t let her go.
Cully had believed teaching art at the college level would allow him time to paint. Instead, it had stolen his time and energy. He hadn’t had a gallery show in five years. Most days, he didn’t go near his studio. He was fifty-eight years old.
People their age made big changes all the time, didn’t they? It wasn’t too late.
Cully could retire. They could move to Yemassee Island, renovate the old house, and open a bed and breakfast. For years they had fantasized about owning a beach property, knowing they could never afford one. This house had been given to them.
If they moved, she would give up her job as a school counselor. Maybe she could get a similar job on Yemassee. If she didn’t, she would miss the kids, but she wouldn’t miss the rest of it. Five years ago, Cully had given her a digital SLR camera for Christmas and a gift card for a photography class. It turned out she had a good eye, as Cully put it. Last year, she’d had a gallery show of her black and white prints and sold most of them. Maybe that was what she was supposed to do with the rest of her life.
If she were honest, did she want this move for Cully or for herself?
Alice didn’t mention the idea to Cully until he told her he’d talked to a realtor in Yemassee.
“What if you don’t sell it?” she said.
“We don’t have a choice.”
“Maybe we do.” She told him her idea and he laughed. “I’m serious, Cully. Think about it. It could be good for both of us.”
He looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “I can’t quit my job and go off, like, like—” He turned and walked out.
A week later, he came to her with a folder of watercolor sketches of the inn. They were accurate to the last detail, even the bougainvillea over the porch. He spread them out on the dining room table and explained his vision.
“Am I too old to do this?” he said.
She kissed him. “No. Absolutely not.”
It was June; if he quit his job now, he would leave the school in a bad spot, he said. Hard for them to hire a replacement on short notice.
“What do you owe them, Cully? Just what?”
He shook his head. “Not a damn thing.”
But there was Jess. She was fifteen, miserable at school and angry at home, and Alice and Cully were at a loss. It wasn’t new to Alice; she’d always been at a loss with Jess.
Alice said, “I don’t know. Maybe the change would be good for her.”
They decided not to tell her yet. The move might not work out, so why upset her or get her excited? But the day their loan for the renovations came through, Cully sat Jess down and wove such a fairy tale about living near the beach that she broke into a grin. That night, Alice and Cully drank champagne and talked about a name for the inn: The Bougainvillea, Alice suggested. Too hard to spell, Cully said. Yemassee Isle. A little drunk, they had settled on Island Escape.
That’s what it was, Cully had said. An escape. A rescue.
After the roof was repaired, Alice and Cully lived upstairs with a microwave and a hotplate. Keith Brewer, a guy who did handyman work around the place, helped out, but Keith was an Afghanistan vet with PTSD. Sometimes he showed up; sometimes he didn’t. Alice and Cully did a lot of work themselves.
They were scrubbing down the dining chairs in the late September heat when Cully said, “It’s like when we first bought the place, isn’t it?”
Alice didn’t answer. Her hands and back ached. She smelled of Clorox. Four chairs to go.
He took the scraper out of her hand. “Take a break. I’ll finish that one.”
She teared up. That was Cully.
The fall she had worked as a life model in Cully’s figure drawing classes, she was twenty years old and desperate for money. “Modeling is safer than stripping,” a friend had told her. Alice told herself she wasn’t an object of desire or ridicule; she was simply an object. She held positions until she ached. She never met Cully’s eyes when he circled her, making his own sketches. Over Christmas break, she ran into him in the campus coffee shop. A month later, they made love in a hotel on the outskirts of Charleston. A month after that, Cully’s wife burst into his office and caught them together. Cully had gotten tenure the year before, or he probably would have lost his job. As it was, he was stripped of his chair of the art department. He and his wife divorced, and the summer after Alice graduated, she moved in with him. They married a year later.
Thirty years ago. It seemed like somebody else’s reckless tale that had little to do with who she was now except that she still loved Cully, maybe too much.
The day in March when Cully hung Alice’s portrait back over the mantel, the inn was almost finished. He and Keith were landscaping the back yard and building the gazebo Cully had wanted for years. They could take advantage of the beach wedding trend, he’d said, and host receptions at the inn. Alice didn’t think they could compete with bigger, nicer places, but she kept quiet. He revamped the website and started booking for the summer. Right away, he booked a wedding party for Memorial Day weekend.
“They want all the rooms,” he told Alice, grinning. “And a reception here. See? I told you.”
A couple of days later, Keith left early, but Cully was still outside at dark, working on the gazebo. Alice went to tell him to come in for supper and found him face down in a pool of water, the hose still running. She dropped to her knees. Sasha tumbled down the steps and ran to him, licking his face and whining. Alice would learn later that Cully’s heart had stopped. Like the snap of a finger.
After he was taken away, Alice sat in the dark kitchen. She had to tell Jess. It was three hours earlier in Seattle; Jess would be at the restaurant until ten. Alice waited up until eleven Jess’s time to call. She asked if Margo was home—she didn’t want Jess to be alone when she told her—but Jess said, “Mom? What’s wrong? Is it Daddy?”
Cully had always been the one who called her.
Jess kept asking why and how.
“I don’t know. I should have been out there with him. If I’d been there—”
“Don’t, Mom. You couldn’t have known.”
“Can you come home?”
“Of course I’ll come. Margo, too.”
But the day Jess and Margo were supposed to arrive, Jess called Alice, crying. “There’s a freak snowstorm. We can’t fly out. Go on with the service without us.”
“No. I’ll postpone it. When do you think you can get here?”
“The weather’s supposed to clear by late tomorrow. Early next week?”
“So Wednesday should work.”
“Sure. I’m so sorry, Mom.”
“It’s okay. Can’t be helped.”
But it wasn’t okay. After Alice got off the phone, she checked the weather. A Pacific storm had created a domino effect and cancelled flights across the country. She had doubted Jess, even though she knew Jess was heartbroken. There it was: the distance between them. Without Cully to bridge it, what would happen to them?
They’d been married ten years when Jess was born. Cully stayed home a week, and then Alice was alone with the baby. Jess nursed frantically, one tiny fist clutching at the skin of Alice’s breast so tightly her tiny fingernails left marks. Alice’s nipples bled; her milk was a trickle. She forgot all she’d learned in prenatal classes. At night she walked the colicky baby and cried with her. When Cully slept through the baby’s wailing, Alice would wake him. “Here. You take her.”
She loved the baby. She did. But where was the sense of wonder?
As Jess grew, she went to Cully first with a skinned knee or hurt feelings. By the time she was ten, she could handle a complex recipe almost as well as Cully; they often cooked together while Alice sat in the den, listening to their banter. When Alice tried to engage Jess with questions about her day and her friends, Jess would shrug, go off to her room. Once Cully got home, Jess chattered away. Alice didn’t know how to change the dynamic. Cully said she was imagining things.
Alice blamed her mother. After her father died when she was thirteen, Alice had counted her mother’s pills, hidden the car keys, lain awake while her mother rambled the house, playing Wagner too loud on the stereo. She had killed herself during Alice’s freshman year in college.
Alice didn’t know how to be a mother because she hadn’t had one. That was what she told herself. Was that excuse good enough?
There was a decent crowd at St. Mark’s Methodist Church for Cully’s memorial, but Jess and Margo weren’t there. Over the weekend Jess had developed an ear infection, and her doctor had advised her not to fly.
At home Alice placed Cully’s ashes on the mantel. She walked through the house, Sasha trailing along. She stood at the French doors to Cully’s studio. She couldn’t bring herself to go in, but she didn’t have to; she knew every inch of it. His easel, an unfinished landscape of the lighthouse, his oils and palettes and brushes. Blank canvasses he’d planned to get to someday.
As part of the first renovation, Cully had set up his studio in the sunroom and converted a half bath into a darkroom for her. But running the inn had turned out to be harder than they imagined. Alice played hostess and managed the housekeeping, but Cully kept the accounts, booked rooms, and cooked breakfast, even though he’d taught Connie Raines, the young woman who cleaned for them, how to make a few of his recipes. He was the one who stayed late at the breakfast table, telling the guests about the island’s history. He loved to tell a ghost story about the inn. In 1898 the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the state of Georgia wiped out Yemassee, and Cully’s great-uncle had drowned when he was eight years old. Cully claimed he had seen the ghost of the boy, sitting on the stairs. He charmed the guests the way he had charmed Alice all those years ago. The way he’d charmed Jess.
The studio and the darkroom had mostly gathered dust, but Cully loved this place. He was happy here. And yet—
“Oh, Cully,” Alice whispered. “Am I to blame?”
The dog looked up, his eyes brimming, and padded away.
The next day, Alice stared at the inn’s website that described the inn as an intimate spot “steps from the beach.” That was true until Cully’s grandfather had sold off the beachfront property in the thirties and people had built houses that blocked the view and beach access. Now guests walked a hundred yards down the shell road to the public beach walkover.
The photos of Cully’s breakfast specialties—quiches, soufflés, shrimp and grits, homemade breads—made her eyes sting. She opened his recipe file. The recipes seemed hard and time-consuming. Jess could pull them off. Maybe Connie could, too, but Alice couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
You could change the menu.
The back of her neck prickled. The solution was that simple.
She felt reassured until she remembered the wedding party booked for the end of May. Alice could call the woman and explain the circumstances. “That wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to do,” she said aloud.
Sasha came out from under the desk. Ears alert, he ran to the front hall and barked.
“Hush,” Alice said, but the dog kept barking. She slammed the laptop shut and followed him. “For God’s sake, Sasha. What’s the matter?”
The dog cowered, quivering, looking up the stairs. He scrambled up the steps, tail wagging, and stood on the landing, whining. He could go up the stairs, but he couldn’t come down; something to do with the old dog’s depth perception, the vet had said.
Alice stood still. The play of late afternoon light from the stained-glass window, the landing in deep shadow, the hum of the air conditioner. For the past week, she had slept in their bed and encountered Cully’s clothes in the closet every morning, a fresh wound. She couldn’t stay in the house a minute longer.
She brought Sasha down and shoved him into his crate. She threw a few things into a bag, put the dog in the car, locked up the inn, and drove to Savannah. She stopped at the first hotel on the other side of the causeway, a Super 8, where she wedged a chair under the doorknob—there was only a chain lock—and crawled into bed. When her phone buzzed, she turned it off without looking at it. She had never allowed Sasha on their bed at home, but she let the dog curl up beside her.
Nothing about the hotel was conducive to sleep: the laboring AC, the damp feel of the sheets, the cheap pillows that crackled when she moved. Coming here had been crazy; she should go home. But the house was so, so empty. She kept checking the clock: midnight, one, two. Sometime after three o’clock, she fell asleep.
She woke to rain. She dressed and went to the lobby, got a cold sweet roll—the microwave was broken—and bitter coffee. She spent the day napping and watching television. She took Sasha out a couple of times to pee and poop on the small green space around the pool.
She slept the second night through and woke from a dream where Cully spooned against her back. She turned her cell phone on. A text from Connie. She’d gone to the inn. She worried when Alice wasn’t there. Five missed calls from Jess, three voicemails. Alice set the phone on the bedside table and stared at it. After a few minutes, she listened to the messages.
“Mom? Call me.”
“Where are you? Why aren’t you answering?”
“Pick up, Mom. I’m worried.”
Alice walked to a pizza place a block down and bought a slice and a Diet Coke. She sat in the room and let the pizza get cold. She threw it away. The phone buzzed. Jess. Might as well take it, get it over with.
“Mom? Jesus, I was about to call the police.”
Would Jess do that? Would she be that worried? “No need to overreact. I’m okay.”
“Why is it I don’t believe you? Where are you?”
“I’m in a hotel in Savannah. I needed a break from the house.” Her voice went low and high all at once. “It’s like your dad’s still there, but he’s not. I can’t get used to it.”
“I can’t imagine the place without Daddy.”
Bitterness flooded Alice, a visceral, real pain. Jess probably had trouble imagining the place at all; she’d spent so little time there since she left home at twenty.
Jess said, “I want to come home. I need to come.”
“Don’t worry, Jess. I’ll be all right.” Alice didn’t tell her about the work to be done to get ready for the season or unraveling the finances and figuring out what to do.
“Mom? Are you there?”
“So will you let me know a good time to come?”
“I will. Listen, I have to go. I’m meeting Connie in an hour.” Another lie.
“Okay. I love you. Please take care of yourself.”
“I love you, too.”
When had Jess ever said those words? When had Alice said them? Why hadn’t she let Jess come? Alice had lost Cully. Wasn’t that enough?
Jess had been seventeen when Alice came home one afternoon and found her making out with a girl. The other girl got up and brushed past Alice.
“Don’t you knock, Mom? Get out of my room!”
Alice’s knees threatened to give way. She stumbled out and closed the door.
When she told Cully, his expression didn’t change.
Dear God. “You knew, didn’t you. You knew.”
“She was afraid to tell you.”
He went to Jess. The murmur of their voices, the sound of Jess’s crying. Alice wanted to go to her, too, but her feet might as well have been nailed to the floor.
An uneasy calm settled over the house. Alice felt as inept as when they’d first brought Jess home, a tiny, helpless thing, and Alice hadn’t known what to do. Now, everything she said to Jess felt false or charged or both. It wasn’t that Jess was gay. What sent Alice reeling was that she hadn’t seen it. She hadn’t known who her daughter was.
When Jess chose a culinary school in Vermont instead of college, Alice felt a guilty relief. She wouldn’t be responsible for what Jess did with her life.
Cully was the one who had talked Jess and Margo into coming to Yemassee two years ago to get married on the beach. They’d thrown a party at the inn—lights strung around the yard, lovely food that Jess helped Cully prepare, a violinist from Savannah. Alice thought the wedding had gone well until she and Jess were putting away the last of the wine glasses that night.
Jess said, “Why is it so hard, Mom?”
Jess rubbed at a spot on a glass. “Why is it so hard for you to love me?”
Alice had rested her palm on Jess’s face. “Oh, Jess. Honey. I do. It isn’t about you. Never, ever think it’s you.”
Alice picked up the phone to call Jess back, put it down. She had read an article Cully found online recently about Jess, an “up and coming” Seattle chef. Alice was happy for her. Margo was an elementary teacher, a steady, kind person. They were living a good life, and Alice didn’t expect Jess to uproot and come running home to rescue her. Not that she would.
Alice could choose a different life. She could sell the inn that was too much for her without Cully. But the inn was Cully, and it was her, too, it was both of them.
She checked out of the hotel and drove to the island, the sky a washed-clean blue, the inlet glittering like the storm last fall hadn’t blasted through and changed things forever.
As soon as she opened Sasha’s crate, he bolted through the house, growling and sniffing. Alice stood in the front hall that smelled like pee and listened. She opened closet doors and looked under beds, pulled down the attic stair, climbed up, shone a light. Mouse droppings. Add pest control to her to-do list.
She was making tea when her phone rang. The May bride’s mother. Alice half listened while the woman spouted her ideas about a reception. Alice said she had to go, she would call back. Her heart galloped. Food. Flowers. Music. Dear God.
She poured a Scotch, took a sip, set it down. Cully had been the Scotch drinker. She pulled up their bank statements online and opened the calculator on her phone. If she moved money from their savings, she could hire Keith to finish the gazebo. Alice could paint an upstairs room or two. Once the inn reopened, she would offer Connie a raise to cook breakfast. The WiFi upgrade and paving the parking lot could wait.
She imagined Cully standing behind her, kneading her neck and shoulders. She ached where his hands ought to be.
There was still Jess.
What would it take to make up for thirty years of imperfect, fearful love?
Ask her to come home and help.
“No,” Alice said.
How scary it would feel to ask Jess for anything. She’d said she wanted to come, but that was easy as long as Alice said no. But if she would come—oh, if only she would.
If she did, what if things were the same between them? What if Alice had lost her chance?
She practiced saying the words. “I want you here. Please come. Please.”
A seventh-generation Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the hills of the north. Gerry’s first novel, Spirit Light, is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in early 2024. Her debut story collection, Crosscurrents and Other Stories, was published by Press 53 in 2015 and nominated for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters fiction award. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals.
© 2022, Gerry Wilson