THE TWO YOUNG WOMEN SCURRIED QUICKLY across a busy Riverside Drive, laughing loudly in embarrassment as they attempted to beat the rush of an oncoming car. It was a lovely spring day, perhaps the best of the early season with a brilliant sun shining off the rich blue waters of the St. Lawrence River not far away. Though most pleasure craft—the big cruisers—had yet to be launched, it was clear the sailors, in their stylish skiffs and schooners, were prepared to test the wind. In the distance, a lake freighter likely registered in Scandinavia appeared deep in the water, pushing at least twelve feet of surf heading west.
From the safety of their sidewalk, Ria Cahill and Natasha Constantinou, her best friend from the university, giggled nervously again knowing their carelessness could have produced dire consequences. But they didn’t care about that now. They were here for a good time. This being a Saturday, they had decided that a leisurely lunch was in order, and Clayton was their ﬁ rst choice. About a dozen miles upstream from Alexandria Bay, it was one of the more bustling and beautiful villages that bordered this international river.
Ria pointed to the town’s famed Opera House across the street, an impressive brown-brick structure that was built more than a century before. It was the venue of choice for players of all sorts—from Beatles’ wannabees to bluegrass to Beethoven. Laughs, too; one fall, that corpulent comedian with the ﬂ at-top hair, the star of Mike & Molly, regaled a packed house. “My cousin Joanne and her band played there last fall, and I came down to see them,” she said. “You remember them?” Indeed, Natasha did. It was the night of Ria’s uncle’s seventieth birthday party. A night that changed her friend’s life, maybe forever.
Having reached safety, their pace slowed, they would enjoy the moment. Now they could witness the quaint shopping concourse that was Clayton: an age-old ice cream shop, the famous hardware store that was more a specialty shop than a traditional habitat for hammers, saws and nails. Sadly, Corbin’s, perhaps the ﬁ nest store for books and art this side of the river, was set to close its doors, yet another victim of the electronic world.
Across the large inlet stood Grindstone Island, home to only about ten permanent households. But its Potters Beach on the opposite side was a popular nesting spot for Canadian cruisers, seeking sanctuary from the provincial cops, the jetski-riders, suspicious that alcohol might actually be consumed, and that a good time could be had. New York’s liquor laws were more boater friendly, and the Canucks knew that. Someone told Ria, the teacher, the island once boasted the last one-room schoolhouse in New York State before it closed its doors twenty-ﬁ ve years earlier. Some teachers would have relished the thought of leading a class from grades one through eight—in one room. Imagine the challenges? Even though she loved the island’s scenic beauty, she could never see herself doing something like that. Her mother, her often unglued mother, would have disowned her.
“We need to fatten you up a bit!” Natasha said. A month her junior, she was a natural beauty, what with her licorice black curly hair, petite nose and doe-like eyes. Her father, a ﬁ rst-generation Greek, was a successful rug dealer down in Rome, his stores scattered throughout central New York. She and Ria attended St. Lawrence together, their tuition north of forty grand a year, majoring in education. They were destined to work with children.
“Where do you want to eat?”
“Coyote Moon, I love that place,” Ria replied, pointing to the storefront for one of the region’s better wineries. “I’m in the mood for a glass or three of wine.” They proceeded to the restaurant located in one of the village’s tonier red-brick buildings and soon they were seated riverside.
“By the way, Cahill, did I say I love your hair?” Natasha said, her eyes now frozen on Ria’s radically changed coiffure. Her girlfriend’s long, straight blond locks of old had been her trademark, looks that had attracted the ogles of many a male SLU student. Now she was a brunette, her hair styled wavily above the hair line, parted on the side. “You know who you look like? Only with brown hair? That Kelly Ripa chick. I saw her on TV this morning.”
“Yeah, but better lookin’!”
Ria smiled at the compliment. “Just thought it was time for a change. But who knows? Maybe next month, I’ll be a blond again.”
Natasha looked into her friend’s eyes. It had been nearly four years since Ria had awakened from her induced coma following the assault that resulted in severe brain trauma.
“So, don’t lie to me, how are you?”
“Not even close to a hundred percent, but better,” Ria replied. “The headaches come and go, and I still have memory losses, particularly short-term.” She paused a beat. “What’s your name again?”
“Bitch!” cried Natasha, and they clinked their wine glasses once again with laughter.
“But you’re happy at that pre-school in the Bay?”
“It’s not the gig I had lined up in Gouverneur. Before all of that stuff went down, that is. Money’s shitty, but I love the little brats.”
The waitress, having taken their orders, disappeared into the kitchen. The restaurant was now ﬁ lling with like-minded patrons, especially at tables next to the windows. A hostess entered the seating area, followed closely by a man dressed in blue jeans, tan cowboy boots and an off-white Safari shirt. His shoulder-length hair was parted down the middle and pulled behind his ears. Covering his eyes were a pair of Serengeti aviators.
Glancing over Ria’s shoulder, Natasha was momentarily distracted. Not every day does a man with an ass like that make his presence known, she thought. Lowville was one of the more prosperous towns upstate but it could never be considered a mecca for good-looking men. A few of her teaching colleagues, the guys, might have qualiﬁ ed, but they got snagged quickly by the nurses, legal assistants and the farmers’ daughters, and were now producing their predictable litters.
Seriously, she had to ﬁ nd another teaching job in a real city or she would go stark raving mad. And preferably in any city that didn’t call itself Rome. She had to get away from her parents. Well, especially her dad, who called her constantly. What was that expression? Helicopter Moms? Well, her dad was worse. Besides, how can any chick, at least if you’re half hot, make it in a town where the local radio station’s lead story the other day was a cow running amok down the main drag? No, she had to get the hell out. If she ever wanted to get laid again.
Ria noticed her friend’s diverted eyes and glanced behind to the corner table. “Who are you looking at?” she asked. “That guy?”
“Yeah.” His head, however, was buried in his menu and didn’t look up.
“Yeah, but I can’t place him,” Natasha said, offering her friend a clever grin. “Of course, if we meet up in the bathroom and I don’t make it back after about six minutes, don’t come looking for me!”
Ria laughed. “You’re such a total slut, and that’s why I love you!”
“That’s a compliment I can accept. Thank you!” Natasha beamed.
Their waitress returned with a second glass of wine, followed by a lunch of vegetable Paninis and Greek salad as the two young women became engrossed in conversation, reminiscing about college and the good times they had in Canton. Yet they knew discussion about the events of that night on Remington Pond was inevitable. And beyond.
“Tash, I feel like I’ve lost the last four years of my life,” Ria said with a sigh. “I mean, it’s taken me till now just to ﬁ gure things out…and even now I’m not sure what the hell is happening in my life. That attack was so…wrong!” Natasha reached across the table to grasp her friend’s hands, she too becoming emotional. “All because I had the gall to be with Josh…”
Natasha let her friend’s words linger a moment.
“Joshua Troyer…now he was smokin’. But didn’t he get married…to that woman!”
“Yeah, to Hannah…Hannah Zook, of all people. But he didn’t know. At least not at the time.”
“You haven’t seen him, have you?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. He paid me a visit in the parking lot of my school, just a week or so ago.”
“Shut your French doors! Really?”
“So, he told me he was still married to the weird chick, even though he left the sect. Which pissed him off, actually. He didn’t like me calling it a sect.”
“Well, that’s what those creeps belong to. More like a cult if you ask me. Jesus! How’d he look?”
“Like the freaken Greek Adonis he was then!
“Jesus!” Natasha repeated. “Gonna see him again?”
Ria shook her head. “We’re so different. But I’ll never forget that night with him.
“Anyway, let’s change the subject,” she announced. “Did you know that Brad found a job in the oil business out in North Dakota? And Mom says he’s making a bundle.”
The reference to her older half-brother took Natasha back a few years. She had twice found herself in bed, regretfully, with Brad Cahill. Ria had introduced them during their graduating year, and they found themselves together at that drunken Labor Day party on the Pond. The sex that followed was the result of too much beer and too little choice. None of the guys at that party did anything for her—other than Brad and his misplaced charm. The second time, a week or so later, was simply the result of the grief she’d felt over Ria being on death’s door. She didn’t want to be alone that day.
Inwardly, she chuckled. That second time had provided some comic relief, at least these four years later. It was her iPhone going off while Brad was getting off. Her dad always had terrible timing; he had getting called, again, just as she giving Brad a blow job.
But that was it. Nothing more. He was there when she needed some emotional support but he wasn’t much of a man. More like a child.
“How is that rectal oriﬁce?” Natasha was never one to mince words.
“I don’t really know. He never calls or texts me,” she said. “All he cares about is making money. Barely made it home in time for dad’s funeral two years ago, and I mean by mere minutes. Haven’t seen him since. It’s always been all about him.”
“Well, he certainly got off lightly. What was his sentence for assault? Two years’ probation? Restitution?”
“Dad had good lawyers,” she sighed.
After the waitress arrived to remove their dishes, the girls ordered a third glass of wine. They were enjoying each other’s company. Outside, yet another couple of long ships, laden down with freight, were traveling in concert only a hundred yards apart, to destinations unknown. They were joined by a new group of sailboats, large and small, their sails down, motoring towards the open channel. The cruiser owners, with their mammoth engines, called such sailors cheaters. Loved to boast about the serenity of sailing, yet dependent more often than not on their motors and props.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” Ria said, staring at the beautiful waterway. “Never get tired of these views.”
Suddenly, a familiar voice was heard from behind.
“Hello, ladies…it’s been a long time.” The women turned to see the man with the shiny ﬂaxen ﬂowing hair announcing his arrival. Removing his glasses to give them a better look, a suggestive smirk emerged slowly.
“Jesus Christ on the cross!” Natasha, the Roman Catholic, cried. “Nick!”
Ria was in shock, her mouth agape.
“Actually, I prefer to be called Nicholas now. Nick was…what’s the word for it? So pedestrian.”
Ria ﬁnally found a few words for herself.
“What’re you doing here?” It was more a statement than question.
Wells’ facial language feigned hurt, even indignation.
“Is that all you have to say? ‘What’re you doing here?’”
His deep-set blue eyes went to work, surveying the sinewy but sexy brunette now before him. Totally ignoring her friend across the table, it was as if Ria was alone. He decided to change his tone.
“You look good, Rees,” he said, admiringly, now using fondly a nickname from their days back in Canton. “You’ve changed your hair. Almost didn’t recognize you. Not sure I care for the color, though.”
Ria stole a glance at his appearance as well.
“You’ve changed, too. Your hair is…long.”
“Yeah, everything about me has changed.”
Then, as Wells lifted his sunglasses to the top of his forehead, Ria noticed the scar above his eye.
“What happened there?”
“Nothing much,” he said, dismissing the question. “Just a little disagreement I had a couple of years back.”
For a few minutes, as the three entered into small talk, Ria let her mind wander back to that summer nearly ﬁve years before. The charisma this man had exuded. The conﬁdence that often crossed the line to cockiness. He said his father was a big shot downstate, and that he had lived in luxury. That his extended family had been kingpins of business, constantly boasting of impending greatness on his part.
That he would make his ﬁrst million before he was thirty. How gullible could she have been?
Now it was Natasha’s turn to enter the conversation.
She had heard enough.
“Nicholas, huh?” she said, contemptuously. “I’ve heard lot of bullshit before, but this tops it.” Natasha wasn’t about to give this guy an iota of respect. If Brad was an asshole, this guy was more than his equal.
“Just trying to improve my life, that’s all,” he replied, his eyes still glued to his ex-girlfriend. “But, have to say, I’m dismayed at your reaction. After all, we were good friends, once…well, more than just friends.”
“Well,” Natasha answered, “My memory’s still intact, Nick. What I seem to remember about you was your need for anger management classes. How jealous you always were, and how you treated my friend, here. Like shit! But I’m surprised. I was under the impression you were still in jail. Or least hoping that would be the case.”
That did it. Natasha had used words that didn’t go over well with the young man. His steely eyes became frozen with hers.
“Now, Natasha…is that a nice way to greet an old friend? Weren’t we at least civil to one another at one time? I would hope we could be now.”
But before she could answer, he returned his attention to Ria.
“It was good to see you again, Rees,” he said. “Stay well…and who knows? We might just meet again. Under more pleasant circumstances. Emphasis on the word pleasant.”
He glared in Natasha’s direction. “Away from negative people. This world is full of frowns.” Then, slowly he turned his back to them and walked past the bandstand and on to Riverside Drive beyond. Watching him disappear, the girls remained mute.
. . .NINETEEN