Tell him to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Between the salt water and the Sea Strand
Then he’ll be a true love of mine.
- English Folk Song
For the rest of her life, no matter where she went or who she became, Anna O’Sullivan never forgot she was a child of sea and shore.
Gazing at the ocean from the sunny deck of her mother’s house in Half Moon Bay, Anna’s nerves tingled with electric anticipation. Any minute. He would be here any minute. She pushed her straight blonde hair away from her face in a gesture born of long habit. Her eyes remained fixed on the surf below, but she also concentrated on the house behind her, listening for the chime of the doorbell.
The windy Northern California coast filled her senses. Anna inhaled, tasting the salt on the breeze and smelling the sea. The raucous cries of the birds and siren crash of the waves beckoned her closer. Cool depths with their vibrant greens and deepening blues hinted at locked away secrets and mirrored the questions in her mind.
Anna started at the distant sound of a car door slamming. She turned from the tides and hurried through the kitchen of her childhood home to the family room and out the screen of her front door.
She ran down the porch steps to greet the handsome man coming up the front walk. “Derek!” Anna threw her arms around him, stretching up to close the foot difference in their heights.
“Anna!” Derek dropped his things, returning her hug with a squeeze. His hazel eyes sparkled as he drew back to regard her. Anna’s breath caught when he gathered her up and swung her around in an enthusiastic embrace.
She looked past his broad shoulders at the car parked on the street. “Just you? I thought you were bringing a friend?”
“Yep, just me. Brennan had something to finish up. He’ll be along later.”
“I’m not mad at that,” said Anna. She climbed the steps and held the screen open for Derek. “Now you and I can catch up. When do you think he’ll make it?”
Derek picked up his duffle bag and hooked a long walking stick through its canvass handles. “What’s today? Tuesday? Um… Thursday, hopefully.” Derek’s forehead wrinkled and his brows came together in an uncharacteristic frown. “Hopefully,” he repeated, his eyes unfocused.
Anna waved a hand in front of his face. “You okay?”
Derek’s expression cleared. “Sorry. All good.”
“Come on in,” she said. “Seems like a million years since we hung out.”
“Way too long,” he said, moving forward.
“What’s up with the stick?” The wooden staff’s intricate carvings drew Anna’s gaze. They were beautiful, resembling an Irish wedding band in their delicate, ornate pattern.
“You know what they say, ‘Walk softly and carry a big stick.’”
“Overkill much? That’s a heck of a stick.”
“Nah, I’ve been doing a lot of trail hiking. It comes in handy.” He didn’t meet her eyes.
Inside, Anna swept one arm around the tidy family room. “Welcome, mi casa es tu casa. You can throw your bag in the second bedroom on the right.”
“Yes’m. Last time I was here all ten of us crashed on the family room floor. Now, the guest room, fancy.” Derek grinned, depositing his bag and staff. He joined Anna in the cheerful kitchen decorated in cobalt blue and white, a sun and moon motif scattered throughout the bright room. “Well?”
“Your slave labor, reporting as requested.”
Anna smiled, going to the stainless steel fridge. “Are you in such a hurry to start searching through my childhood mementos?”
“What? And desecrate The Shrine? God, no.”
“Good, I made sangria.”
Derek sat down at the light pine-colored kitchen table as Anna passed him a full glass. “I love you.”
“Of course you do,” Anna said, ignoring the flutter her heart gave. He hadn’t changed a bit. What started when she was eighteen continued at twenty-two. Her freshman year crush survived, even now, after graduation. When they’d moved into the same dorm at college, Derek seemed so worldly, a year older than her. All the girls loved having him around.
She joined him with her own drink and put the pitcher on the table. “We can work later, and believe me, we will, but you just got here.”
“It’s been a hell of week,” Derek said, putting his feet up on one of the wooden chairs. “I could use a drink, or twelve.”
They clinked in a quick toast. “So, what’s up?” she asked. “Why so stressed?”
He didn’t meet her eyes, again. “How goes the post-graduation job search?” he asked before she could pursue her questions.
Anna stared at her drink. “I started my résumé,” she said.
“Really?” Derek lifted one dark eyebrow. She loved the way his eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled at her.
“Yeah,” she said, shifting in her chair. It was started, Anna rationalized. She had her name and contact information typed at the top of the page. The rest seemed trickier.
“What’s next?” he asked. “Where do you see yourself?”
Anna opened her mouth and then closed it. Pushing away the panic the simple questions raised. She shrugged and took another sip of her drink.
The kitchen phone rang. Its bright trill jarred them both. “I can’t believe your mom still owns a rotary phone,” said Derek.
Anna made a face and held up one finger to her lips in a shushing motion. “Hello?” She sat down with the phone under her ear, holding her sangria. “Oh, hi, Mom.”
Derek waved in an exaggerated motion. Anna rolled her eyes. “Derek says hi.” She cupped one hand over the receiver and continued, “Mom says hi back.”
Derek smiled and sipped his sangria, listening with a bemused expression on his face to Anna and her mother. “He just got here…C’mon. You know I was perfectly safe…Yes, I’ve been locking doors since I was five. You brainwashed me early.”
“Of course not! He’s in the second bedroom. Mom, please.” Anna turned to Derek with mock horror on her face. He chuckled, shaking his head in response, and then munched on a piece of pineapple from his drink. “Okay, that’s enough… Second bedroom, remember? Now you’re being positively parental…What did the doctor say?”
Another pause as Anna moved her fingers and thumb together and apart repeatedly in a “talk-talk” motion. She sighed, frowning. “Stay off it. A shattered heel is nothing to fool around with… Tell me you’ll take it easy?…I’ll be fine… The house will be fine… I don’t see why a neighbor can’t housesit. I should be with you… Okay, if you’re sure…Yes, I gave Hobbs tuna this morning… He’s a cat. He’ll be fine, too.”
Anna took a sip as she listened then said, “Hey, Mom? To keep me out of trouble I think after I organize my room I’ll go through the boxes. You know, clear out some space in the hall closet. Make room for all the stuff from my room.”
A squawk filled the earpiece. Anna held the phone away from her ear. Derek’s eyes widened. “Fine, fine, okay,… I won’t go through your precious boxes… Yes, I promise… Promise.”
The volume on the other end of the phone subsided. “Okay… I will. You stay off that foot… love to Aunt Bess, I bet she never thought this visit would turn out to be so long. If you change your mind, I can be on the next plane… I love you, too.”
Anna hung up with an audible click. Derek leaned forward. “How’s Mom?”
“You mean other than the crushed heel that needs three surgeries, reconstruction and a zillion metal pins in it?”
“Right, aside from that.”
“Not bad. I miss her.” Anna pursed her lips. “It’s no problem to housesit, I’ve been meaning to go through my room anyway, but it feels weird to be here without her.”
“What got her riled up about the boxes?”
“Old argument,” said Anna, putting her glass down. “She never wants to throw anything of mine away. We have a ridiculous number of macaroni necklaces and drawings of rainbows or Pegasus packed in the hall closet. I promised I’d leave them alone.” She held up one hand, fingers crossed, for Derek to see.
Derek blinked. “I guess you’re still going through those boxes.”
“Correction, we are going through those boxes, kemosabe.”
“Why did you lie to your mom?”
Anna shrugged. “She never tells me anything.”
“I thought…well, maybe there are some pictures of Dad?” It came out sounding more forlorn than she meant.
“Gotcha’,” said Derek in a gentle voice. “Time for answers?”
She nodded but didn’t elaborate. How could she explain the feeling that had come over her these past couple of weeks? So unlike her. The primal need to find her father, to know more.
Anna walked out of the kitchen and down the hall to the large, sliding doors of the linen closet. Derek followed close behind as she opened the doors. They gazed at the boxes in neat stacks on its shelves. “Wow,” said Derek. He gave a low whistle. “We’re going to be busy.”
Anna grinned at him. “Yep.” She glanced down the hall at the kitchen clock, a celestial sun and moon with gold hands. “Hmm, quarter to five. We should start after we eat.”
“And the slave labor begins.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Feed me and I’m yours,” said Derek.
“I can’t believe you came,” she said, opening the hall closet again. “I mean, honestly? As busy as this mysterious job of yours keeps you, you show up to play detective with me?”
Derek waved his hands as though fending off her words. “Nah, it’s just all of us Davis alums have a running wager as to where the brilliant Anna O’Sullivan ends up. I wanted to get in close and hedge my bets.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Anna directed a level stare at him.
“What?” said Derek. “Pretend I’m on vacation.”
Anna made a sound falling somewhere between a snort and a laugh. “This is your idea of a vacation? Alright, crazy boy, my room and the hall closet await thee.”
Derek ran a hand through his spiky dark hair. He strode forward to Anna’s childhood bedroom, the first on the right. As he opened the door, he said, “Ah, yes. The Shrine.”
“I hate when you call it that.”
“But I’m not wrong.”
Anna stood next to him in the doorway, gazing at the memorial to her childhood. “No, you’re not wrong.”
The room could turn an iron stomach, Anna thought, not only because of the pink– pink walls, pink ceiling, pink drapes, pink bed covers. No, the trophies, medals, banners and ribbons pushed it into crazy-ville. From her earliest memories, Anna lived at the pool, swimming in competitions since the age of four. Although she was too slight, too short, and everything about her screamed, “sign this child up for gymnastics,” somehow, Anna crushed the competition. She continued swimming in high school and college where she dominated the nation’s distance swimming for years. Her opponents shared a universal tendency to judge her by her lack of height and reach, then to rue their short-sightedness. Anna developed a strategy elegant in its simplicity: shut everything else out and keep winning.
“No one ever taught you about moderation, did they, Anna?”
She shrugged, feeling her cheeks grow hot. “I blame my mom.”
Derek gave her a friendly nudge. “Right, because everyone blames their mothers.”
Anna made a shooing motion at him as she went to bring some empty boxes from the garage to the room that Pepto-Bismol built. Beginning with the earliest years, she began packing trophies, medals and ribbons with an OCD-worthy precision that stemmed from years of training. Derek watched from the doorway. “And so I witness the end of an era,” he said. Turning, he slid the doors of the hall closet open. “I presume I am on the treasure hunt to find photos of dear ol’ dad?”
Anna stopped and joined Derek in the hall. “Yeah, do you mind? I want to find answers, but….” Her voice trailed off.
Derek patted her shoulder. “What if there’s nothing? Don’t worry, I get it.”
She started to return to her packing when Derek stopped her. “Um, Anna?”
“What does dear ol’ dad look like?”
Anna grimaced. “I’m an idiot.”
“It’s not that. I didn’t bring my psychic cap with me.”
“What? Wouldn’t fit in your bag?”
“Nope, I packed too many shoes.”
“Again?” Anna laughed as she walked past him, toward her mother’s bedroom at the end of the hall. “C’mon, I have something to show you.”
Anna’s mom, Ellianna, kept her room decorated in minimalist elegance, a stark contrast to her treatment of her daughter’s. The cool blue and gray tones reflected the seashore outside, a skylight and the twelve-foot French doors let in the sky and coast just beyond their deck. Few knick-knacks and only two photos decorated the space. One picture displayed Anna and her mother. Derek walked over and picked up the silver frame, fixing his intent gaze at a younger Ellianna with her then three-year-old daughter. “Huh, funny.”
“Not funny, ha-ha,” Derek said. “Funny as in odd. This looks like part of a snapshot that was enlarged.”
“Yeah, that’s what Mom said,” Anna agreed. “She said we were with friends and had such a great day, she blew up the picture to an eight by ten so she’d always remember it.”
“But not the friends?”
“Nope, just her and me. Like always.” Anna walked over to her mother’s bedside and the room’s only other photo, her parents’ wedding portrait. “This is my dad.”
Derek put the picture he held down and came to her side. “May I?”
She handed it over. The image was burned into Anna’s memory, her parents, laughing and happy in a garden filled with summer sunshine. Her mother’s long blond hair swept back in a chignon and her beautiful sea-colored, blue-green eyes fixed on her new husband’s face, close to hers. Anna’s father had been a few years older than his bride, with dark, almost black hair and deep brown eyes, the precise shade of Anna’s own. He had a wide, engaging smile, full of life.
“What was his name?” asked Derek, breaking the silence.
“Colin. I used to think he hadn’t really died. Sometimes I would wake up, sure I heard my parents laughing in the kitchen or on the deck. I’d go out and he would put me back to bed with kisses, a little story, but then I would wake up the next morning…” The memory of this childhood dream overwhelmed her senses for a moment. She shrugged it off. “I’d always find Mom alone on the deck, staring out over the waves.”
Derek set the photograph down with a gentle thud. “C’mon,” he said. “I’ll know him now.”
Anna worked in efficient, automatic movements, taking little notice of the items she packed, except to ensure that she organized them in the proper order. She knew her mother would add them to the boxes in the closet. Anna’s mom never threw anything of her daughter’s away, preserving a whole childhood in embarrassing detail. The loss of her husband so early prompted Ellianna to hold on to each moment of Anna’s young life and treasure every keepsake.
She heard Derek in the kitchen, unpacking and then repacking each box with a care that made Anna smile to herself.
She knew she was lucky. Her childhood had been a warm and loving place, she and her mother taking on all comers. The poignancy of a dinner table set for two balanced by the private jokes, common interests, and the lively conversations they shared. Yet, the question remained. What would life have been like if her father had lived longer?
The hours passed as she and Derek talked in animated tones, especially when he found something from Anna’s past that made him laugh.
“Macaroni necklace number forty-one,” he called.
“You collected model horses? There’s a ton in here. ”
“Of course, every little girl goes through a horse phase. I think it’s required.” She smiled to herself.
“Found your baby teeth.”
It took a minute for Anna to realize Derek’s cheerful commentary had gone silent. She poked her head out the bedroom door to the kitchen. Derek held a battered manila envelope open and a stack of photos lay on the table before him. Anna’s heart leapt. “Derek?” Her voice cracked. “Is it…? Did you find him?”
Derek’s hazel eyes were serious when he lifted his head. “Yeah, but that’s not what has me confused.”
“Who is this?” Derek held up an eight-by-ten photo, a picture of Anna’s father and a dark-haired little girl. Anna knew in an instant he grasped the other half to the framed picture in her mother’s bedroom. She hurried to the kitchen table.
“Ella,” she said without thinking. As the word left her mouth she wondered where it came from. Her stomach gave a flip-flop and she hugged her arms close to her body.
Anna sank into the chair opposite of him, her heart pounding. “I, I don’t know, but her name is Ella. I just know it is.” With shaking hands she began to sort through the pictures. They showed a family, complete: mother, father, and two small girls. She swallowed, continuing to look. There they were: at the beach, getting ice cream, at Christmas, gardening. The images went on and on. One strange picture showed her father, Anna, and Ella grinning, each with some sort of fur in their hands. Who gave a fur coat to toddlers? She squinted at the photo.
“What?” The world shrank down to her precious snapshots.
“In a minute.”
“What?” she said, her voice hardening.
Derek held up two pieces of paper. “Your birth certificate.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it before.” Her hungry eyes returned to the snapshots. There were so many pictures of her father. Who was this other girl?
“No, I don’t think you have. Here.” He held the papers out to her.
“No, now! You need to see these.”
Frowning, Anna sighed, and focused on the documents. She skimmed the first, her birth certificate. “Yeah, yeah, born June twenty-first, female, yadda, yadda, yadda–” She stopped. He was right. She’d never seen the version before her. Anna whispered, “Twin?”
Her heart raced as she met Derek’s gaze. He nodded. “Look at the other one.”
Anna’s eyes scanned the page, her breath caught, and her head felt light. “Ella… Ella is my twin?”
“Just ten minutes older.”