The Twilight Wife
This morning, I know the scientific term for the vermilion star, Mediaster aequalis, but I have trouble remembering my name. I reach into the icy water to touch the sea star’s bumpy exoskeleton, and I feel like a child full of fascination, not a thirty-four-year-old marine biologist recovering from a head injury. They say I taught freshman classes at Seattle University, but I have no memory of those days. I wonder about the moments I’ve lost, the people I loved. We surely must have laughed together, lifted our glasses to celebrate weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. I used to have a life. But now I have only this island, the husband who stays by my side, and a peculiar recurring dream.
I came down to the water’s edge today, to see if I could conjure a memory, but instead I found this rare, healthy sea star, untouched by the mysterious wasting disease ravaging sea stars along the west coast. Here is this bright orange miracle, all five arms intact. I suppose I’m a miracle, too, still alive and intact after fracturing my skull in a diving accident three months ago.
These islands haunt me, but I have no conscious memory of this area. No memory of my decision to move here to study the rare Tompkins anemone. No memory of buying these pajamas, my sweater, my running shoes.
And I don’t recognize the jagged scar on my right thumb. A thin white line. My husband, Jacob, said I cut myself on a barnacle-encrusted rock while diving.
I once knew how to assemble a scuba unit, but I don’t trust myself to even put on a mask anymore. I don’t recall learning how to dive. Last thing I remember, I was thirty years old. And after that . . . the boat trip to this island two weeks ago. Jacob thinks the beautiful forest emerging from the fog and the rocky coastline of this special place will help restore me. All I can think is, what am I doing here?
I long to reclaim the four years I’ve lost. After my recovery in the hospital, we came here to Mystic Island in the Pacific Northwest, where the wind blows in cold from the sea. On this remote outpost, emergency responders can be slow—if they even get the call. The locals pride themselves on staying “off the grid.” Our landline goes out so often, we might as well not have one.
Jacob follows me everywhere. He worries I’ll forget where I am. He won’t like that I’ve wandered down to the beach alone. I could become disoriented, lose my way. My husband watches over me like a guardian angel.
And I barely remember him at all.
“Kyra! What are you doing?” His voice drifts toward me on the wind. He’s racing along the beach in graceful strides.
“I found a healthy sea star!” My name is Kyra Winthrop. I dropped my maiden name, Munin. I’ve been married to Jacob Winthrop for nearly three years. I have to keep reminding myself.
When Jacob reaches me, breathless, he pulls me to my feet. “You scared the hell out of me.” His T-shirt is on inside out, and he’s in jeans and hiking boots. He’s striking in a Nordic
way, with blue eyes, strong features, and a blond buzz cut. If I could talk to my old self, I would congratulate her for making such a wise decision to marry this thoughtful man, who clearly loves me.
“Sorry I scared you,” I say, looking toward the sea. “I needed to get outside, that’s all.”
“You walked a long way. I got worried.” He looks around in a panic, as if some malevolent force might try to steal me. But there is no other human on this beach, only the seagulls riding the updrafts.
“You shouldn’t worry. You need your rest. Taking care of me is wearing you out.” I touch his cheek, rough with the beginning of a beard. His fatigue shows in the shadows beneath his eyes. I wish he didn’t insist on cooking for me, tidying up after me, doing the laundry. He patiently answers my questions, but I hate having to ask them.
He pulls me into a hug. “Tell me the truth,” he says. “What’s going on? Was it . . .?”
“Yeah, the dream again,” I confess. It’s always the same. I’m diving in murky, churning waters, struggling against the current. I wake in a cold sweat.
“That nightmare won’t leave you alone.” Jacob steps back and rests his hands on my shoulders. They’re heavy hands, as if his bones are made of concrete. “Maybe you need to talk to someone.”
“I’m sorry the burden has been all on you.”
“You’re never a burden. That’s not what I meant.” He lifts my hand to his lips, kisses my fingers. His breath is warm on my skin. “You could’ve woken me. I would’ve come down here with you.”
“But you looked so peaceful.”
He scratches the stubble on his chin. “I’ll be more peaceful inside by the woodstove. Come on, you’re shivering. You should’ve put on a coat.”
“My sweater is good enough.” But he’s right. My teeth chatter as we head back along the beach, picking our way across kelp and shells. I imagine how we must have carried our scuba gear across a similar beach at Deception Pass, the day of the accident. We thought the amazing marine life in the pass would outweigh the risk of diving in such rough waters. He has shown me pictures of the area where we dove, several miles south of Mystic Island. But I don’t remember the Deception Pass Bridge, its span of nearly 1,500 feet rising 180 feet above the narrow strait that separates Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island. Apparently, we consulted the tide tables, which we thought were in Pacific Standard Time. But they were in Pacific Daylight Time. We were diving earlier than we thought, through strong currents instead of in calm waters at slack current.
I turn to look up at Jacob. “How did we survive?”
“What?” He looks at me with confusion in his eyes.
“We made it to shore east of the bridge. But how?”
“We swam. I told you already.” He can’t hide the touch of irritation in his voice.
“I don’t remember every detail of what you tell me—”
“I know. It’s just . . .”
“I’m sorry you have to repeat yourself.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind.”
But I know he does. He tries so hard to be patient. “I want to go back to the pass,” I say. “I want to see where we dove. Maybe I’ll start remembering on my own.”
He interlaces his fingers with mine. “We’ll go back, okay? But not yet. You need some time.”
“Fair enough.” I know he’s the one who needs time. He remembers everything, and now he suffers from post-traumatic stress, while my brain simply blacked out.
I follow him up the steps toward our sprawling cedar bungalow with its plethora of windows and a small garden cottage. Vines of ivy climb the western wall of the main dwelling. Rosebushes cling to the south-facing side. Jacob’s mother planted the first roses nearly forty years ago, when his father built the house as a refuge from city life. It’s the kind of house that might harbor a fugitive or someone in witness protection—or a weary soul seeking a retreat, a sanctuary surrounded by forest and the sea.
Despite its sprawl, the one-story structure feels unobtrusive, as if it has grown naturally from the landscape. Many times in recent days, I’ve stood in the garden or on the beach, staring at the house from different perspectives, trying to remember the last time we were here. I imagine Jacob chasing me up the stone steps, both of us laughing. I know we loved this place—he has shown me the photographs. How lucky I am that his parents left him the place. He hired contractors to remodel the rooms, add the solar panels, and build the garden cottage, where he types away on the Great American Novel. He left his lucrative software business in Seattle to take care of me. He stocked the pantry and rigged a spotty satellite Internet connection in my study, but the island has no cell phone service. It feels like we’re light-years away from civilization, instead of a hundred miles from Seattle, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
If I stand on the deck, I hear the rush of wind, the rhythm of the surf, the muted chirping of birds in the underbrush. There are no cars on this dead-end road, no television, no
neighbors. Since we’ve been here, I have not even heard the drone of a distant airplane. At night, far from the city lights, the stars crowd into a spectacular display in the inky dome of sky. The sheer wildness of this island leaves me breathless, a deep and unspoken longing rising inside me—for what, I’m not sure.
When Jacob and I reach the house, a blue pickup truck comes into view in the driveway. A woman I knew here before, Nancy Phelps, traipses toward me through the long grass. Last week, she brought over autumn squash and pumpkins from her garden. She’s in jeans, pullover, and boots, her golden hair flying.
This time, a man has come with her, probably her husband. I seem to remember—she told me he runs a salvage diving company. He must’ve returned from his latest expedition. He’s crouching to examine the broken solar panel in the driveway.
“Morning!” Nancy says, striding up to us and pulling me into an apple-scented hug. Her features etch delicate impressions into her face. Small nose, wide-set hazel eyes, and a scattering of freckles.
I look down at my damp pajamas, then I smile at her. “If I’d known you were coming, I would’ve worn my fluffy slippers.”
“You look gorgeous,” she says.
“You, too. But you’re lying. I look like I just rolled out of bed.”
“It was a gorgeous roll out of bed.”
“Come in for coffee?” I say.
“Too much to do, but thanks. We were headed up this way to drop off some eggs. Thought Van might take a look at repairing the solar panel.”
“He’s our fix-it man,” Jacob says.
Her husband strides over in a slightly bowlegged gait. He’s handsome in a rough way, all stubble and thick, dark hair. He’s in work boots and jeans and a flannel shirt. “Kyra,” he says in a deep voice, shaking my hand. As his fingers touch mine, I’m struck by a lightning bolt of recognition. He’s gazing into my eyes, offering me a glass of wine.
“You must be Van,” I say, letting go of his hand.
“Good to see you again,” he says. “Nancy says you won’t remember me.”
She gives me an apologetic look. “I had to tell him what happened, couldn’t have you pretending.”
“I’ll be pretending if I say I remember you,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing stayed with you, huh? Not a danged thing?” Van points at his right temple. “You hit your head, and now . . .?”
“Van,” Nancy warns him.
“Just sayin’. You got nothing of . . . how long?”
“Four years,” I say.
“Damn.” He lets out a low whistle.
Jacob pats my shoulder. “She knows how she felt about this place. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” I say. “I loved the island.” I feel silly and cold standing here in my pajamas.
Van steps closer to me. “Any chance it could all come back?”
“No,” Jacob says, while I say, “Yes.”
“Maybe a few moments could come back,” Jacob corrects himself. “But it’s highly unlikely.”
I bite back my response. Highly unlikely?
For a split second, the two men gaze at each other. The voices seem far away, traveling a great distance through the sludgy atmosphere.
“. . . better take a look,” Nancy is saying. “Van’s a whiz at fixing things.”
Jacob is suddenly jovial. “What’s the prognosis, Van?”
We’re all following Van to the solar panel. “Big one,” he’s saying. “Twenty-four-volt, two-hundred-watt . . . not sure.”
Jacob nods. “Can you fix the broken glass?”
Van kneels next to the panel and examines it closely. “I could use some UV-resistant plastic. I could seal it for you. You’re low on watts, but the voltage is okay.”
“That’ll work?” Jacob says. “You can’t replace the glass?”
“Hell no. That glass is bonded to the cells. Could damage the thing. I would use heavy-gauge plastic. I know of some good waterproof sealant. Used on roofs. Not strictly green, mind you.”
“That’s okay,” Jacob says.
“Got to make sure the panel is dry. There’s a trick to the repair. I’ve done it before. You don’t want to get wrinkles in the plastic, like—”
“No need to go into details,” Nancy says, but not in a cruel way. It’s a familiarity born of time and shared experiences.
“Go for it,” Jacob says. “Name your price.”
“We barter around here,” Van says, looking at me. I look away, out across the sea. The wind is kicking up whitecaps.
“Not sure what I can barter,” Jacob says. “I’ve got some oysters—”
“Van’s allergic to shellfish,” Nancy says.
“Wood,” Van says, pointing to the wood pile. “A cord?”
“You got it.”
Nancy pulls me aside. “How are you holding up?”
I watch Jacob and Van crouching over the solar panel, their backs to us. “I’m okay, but it’s day by day.”
“I told you I would help,” she says.
“You and I. Were we close? Before my accident?”
“We did talk some.” She squeezes my arm gently. “Give it time. And in the meantime, let Jacob take care of you. You’re lucky to have a husband like him.” She looks at him and tucks her hands into her jacket pockets.
“I worry he’s getting tired of all my questions.”
“I’m sure he’s okay with it. He says you still have an amazing memory for facts . . .”
“If he says so.”
“Have you given any thought to coming down to the school?”
“To talk to the kids, remember? Teach them about marine biology?”
“Oh, right,” I say faintly. I don’t recall this piece of our previous conversations.
“You could tell them about, say, the Portuguese man o’ war.”
It comes to me immediately. “The Portuguese man o’ war is an ancient, foot-long purple bladder in the phylum Cnidaria, existing virtually unchanged for six hundred fifty million years . . .”
“You do remember a few things,” she says, her brows rising.
When these facts come back to me so quickly, I surprise even myself, though I know I knew all of this years before the time I lost.
She gives me a peculiar look. “I bet you attracted Jacob with all those facts. He always liked smart women.”
“Always? What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, since we grew up together, I know Jacob’s taste in women. He must love your brilliant mind,” she says, smiling.
“I’m not sure I have much of a mind left,” I say.
“I’m sure you do. So, you’ll give it a whirl? Teaching? We have only twenty kids, all ages.”
A sleeping memory stirs inside me. “Yes, you teach in a one-room school. Now I remember being there, vaguely.”
“You talked about delicate ecosystems and the way the warming oceans are destroying the balance of nature. You motivated the kids to make a difference in the world.”
“I’m sure you inspire your students as well.”
“I like to think I do,” she says, hooking her arm in mine. “Let’s walk a bit?” She’s already steering me down the driveway.
“Where are you going?” Jacob asks.
“I’m taking her for a little stroll,” Nancy says. “We’re catching up.”
He gives me an anxious look. “Don’t be long. She needs to get some rest.”
“I’ll have her back soon.” We turn right onto the dirt lane winding through a dense fir forest. When the men are out of sight, she says, “This road was a lot bumpier when we were kids.”
“How long have you and Jacob known each other?”
“Since we were babies,” she says wistfully. “Spring, summer, Christmas. He lived in the city, came to the island on holidays with his parents. But I told you all this.”
“Sorry. I still have a little trouble—”
“Have you given any thought to seeing Sylvia? She might be able to help.”
A familiar anxiety seizes me. “We talked about her, too, didn’t we?”
“I asked you if you were seeing anyone, like a psychologist. You said your doctors in Seattle did all they could.”
“They gave me memory exercises to practice at home, but—”
“I told you if you want to consult with a professional here, I know of one.” She reaches into her coat pocket and hands me a business card embossed in blue text. Sylvia LaCrosse, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, with a telephone number and an address on Waterfront Road. The card looks familiar.
“Did you give me a card last week?” I say. She must have, and I’ve lost it. What did I do with it? My fingers tremble. I nearly drop the card in the dirt.
“No, I didn’t give you a card,” she says. “You said you wanted to think about it.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. “She’s not a psychologist.”
“She’s as good as one. She worked for Pierce County for a lot of years, family therapy. She got burned out in the city. Too many sad cases and not enough funding. She’s semiretired, but she’s still taking on some clients in private practice.”
“You told me all this last week, too, didn’t you?”
Nancy nods sadly. “You need to see her. Trust me, she’s good at what she does.”
“Thank you,” I say, tucking the card into my pocket. Somehow, the possibility of talking to Sylvia LaCrosse calms me, like a soothing balm.
When we get back, Jacob gives me a searching look. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m okay,” I say, although my legs are wobbly.
Nancy gives him a high-wattage smile. “We were talking about how you two have to come over for dinner.”
Jacob looks up at me. “If Kyra wants to—”
“We would love to,” I say.
Van is already in the truck, revving the engine.
“He’s too impatient,” Nancy says. She gives me a quick hug. “We’ll pick a date for dinner. Don’t forget about the school. So good to see you.” But she’s smiling at Jacob, not at me.
“And you,” I say as she heads back to the truck.
Jacob takes my hand. “We don’t need to go for dinner if you’re not up for it.”
“It’ll be nice to be with friends. They can tell me things about my past, fill me in, so it’s not all on you. And it sounds like Nancy might have some great stories about you as a teenager. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that.”
“I don’t mind it all being on me.” He kisses my forehead. “And I’ll have to warn her not to give away any of my secrets.”
Nancy climbs into the truck next to her husband. He says something to her, not looking at her, waving his arm in a dismissive motion. She shrugs and looks away, tapping her fingers on the passenger-side window. The wind scatters leaves across the garden as he shifts the truck into reverse, hits the gas, and peels out of the driveway.