Wynn Baxter returns to Willow Island to study rare plant life and welcomes the opportunity to investigate the mysterious circumstances of her father’s death. But the truth gets complicated as twenty year-old memories begin to surface. What Wynn learns will shake her emotional foundation.
A haunting story of forgiveness, science, murder, and other matters of living.
Wynn Baxter considered life a series of birthday presents. Some she grew out of like a pair of jeans, or purple hair. Some presents came wrapped in paper, but once the paper was removed, she’d know in a glance if she loved it or hated it. The very worst gifts came unexpectedly and stuck around for a lifetime, such as the memory of her father lying in his casket on her sixth birthday, and her mother taking off.
Her mother, Ruth, suddenly developed an inexplicable burden for the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest in Central Africa.
Who knew? Certainly not Wynn. Not Grammy or Gramps, either. Not even her mother’s twin sister, Roxie. But her mom was gone and quickly dubbed as the black sheep of the family.
After that, Wynn was referred to as the lost lamb.
That was twenty years ago.
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” ~ Frederic D. Oberland
Wynn smiled. It was early morning, plenty of time for birding. Her backpack was fully equipped, packed with binoculars, cameras, and the basics for fieldwork. She added a logbook and electronic tablet from the desk, cradling it between the soft pads in the pack, and then drew one of the arm straps over her left shoulder. Outside, she walked down the tree-shaded path to her Aunt Roxie’s cottage.
A flicker of wings caught her attention. A Kirtland’s warbler darted back into the island’s foliage.
Wynn cupped hands over her eyes, but she didn’t see the bird now. As soon as she could make an entry into her Life List she’d note its sighting.
Just ahead was her destination, a blue clapboard cottage trimmed with white shutters and heart cutouts. Wynn zigzagged across the yard to keep from bumping her head into all the birdhouses hanging from tree limbs.
People talking rolled from one end of the porch to the other. Through the wavy, old glass she saw that Aunt Roxie’s Bible Club was in session. Wynn had assumed the club would meet later in the day. What should she do?
She’d simply go birding alone.
The sun stretched a welcoming pool of light across the front lawn. Twenty feet below the granite cliffs was Lake Michigan, turquoise blue and white capped today. The island ferry was moving down the shore to dock at the Yacht Club, blowing its horn in salutation, announcing its impending arrival.
Wynn paused at the sound of her aunt’s angry voice through the open windows, “Stop it, stop it! Think about what you’re saying for once, will you? Every time you bring up that subject, it does nothing but stir up trouble on the island for many of us old timers who’ve experienced similar situations. My niece sure can’t find out about what I did. It’s taken me years to get her back here and I won’t let you, or anyone else, ruin my plan. Promise me, no more talk about it! Ladies? Promise me.”
A flood of agreements followed.
Ruin her plan? What was Aunt Roxie talking about?
Wynn ducked her head. Too late.
“Wynn, is that you? Wynn! Come inside and meet my friends.”
“I’m coming!” Wynn called.
The door opened with a whine of complaint.
Five female Bible club members got their good first look at the island’s latest summer tenant.
Wynn’s large eyes, the color of wet green leaves, stared back. With that, the day took a new direction.
“Ladies, I want you to meet my niece, Wynn Baxter.” Roxie announced a bit too cheerfully. “She’s staying in my garage apartment. Lemonade, dear?” Still clearly upset, she forced a wide smile while holding up a pitcher loaded with ice cubes and fat lemon wedges.
“Sure.” Wynn answered as she slipped into one of the wicker chairs. She awkwardly pulled at the strap on her backpack. “Sorry, I forgot today was your Bible club. I came to ask you to go birding with me. But I can go alone.”
“Nonsense, we’ll go birding another day. We’re glad you’re here, aren’t we, ladies?” Aunt Roxie asked, quickly obligating Wynn to stay by handing her a glass. “If you had come earlier, you could have joined our meeting. Now we’re to the eating part. You must stay and get to know everyone.”
“I don’t know how to play bridge, but I sure know how to eat. I’ve come at the right time.” Wynn took a long sip.
The women chuckled and nudged each other as though they shared some private joke; what had Roxie told them about her?
“What’s so funny?”
“We don’t actually play bridge, my dear. Our official name is Bridge Over Troubled Waters Ladies Club. Quite a mouthful, I know. You see, God is our bridge and the troubled waters are life. And here we are…the ladies!” Roxie curtseyed.
“Ahhh. I see.” Wynn smiled at them.
“How are you enjoying your time here on the island, Wynn?” A blonde woman asked just as her cell phone played. “Sorry…I have to answer this call.” Turning her back she flitted to the far end of the porch.
“I just had an idea!” a blue-jeaned lady said. “How about we all plan a girl’s day together with Wynn to get to know her better?”
“Ladies, although I’m overjoyed to have my niece with me, Wynn’s real purpose here is to study plant life. She has no time for socializing, at all. But before she leafs in the fall, I’m hoping she’ll cure my rose’s mold problem. Get it? Before she leafs in the fall?” Roxie chortled.
“Actually, I’m here on a grant from the University of Wisconsin to create a record of the island’s rare plant species. I’m also interested in learning more about the aquatic life. They’re all inter-related.” Wynn threaded her fingers together. “And, as for your rose mold problem, Aunt Roxie, try mixing two tablespoons of fine horticultural oil with one tablespoon mild dish soap and a large tablespoon of baking soda. Mix with one gallon of water and stir until it’s dissolved. A clean paint brush is ideal to apply the mixture.”
“God blessed my twin sister with a smart child, didn’t He?” Smiling broadly, Roxie kissed the top of her niece’s head.
“And what a dark-haired Irish beauty she is, too.”
“Ladies, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourselves to Wynn?”
“Me first! Hello Wynn, I’m…”
“Sheri,” Wynn interrupted with a smile.
“How did you ever know? Did someone tell you my name? Don’t tell me you are psychic? Not that I believe in those sort of things, oh no…I do not.”
Wynn pointed at the nametag pinned to her blouse.
“Oh, you!” Sheri laughed.
“Sheri Mills runs one of the island’s most popular tourist shops,” Roxie said.
“Maybe you’ve seen it? We’re right on the beach and its shrimpy pink.”
“Hard to miss,” Wynn said, remembering the building.
“Thank you. We sell souvenirs, postcards, straw hats, and wild t-shirts, among other trinkets.” Sheri wiggled her gray eyebrows. “If you drop by sometime, I’ll give you a beach snow globe.”
“Wynn, it’s such a blessing to meet you. I’m Faith. Here, try one of my éclairs.” The cell-phone lady had ended her call and now held out a platter.
“Sure. Thanks, Faith.” Wynn slipped one onto a china plate circled in pink roses. “They look wonderful. Homemade?”
“Faith Montgomery bakes heavenly desserts when she isn’t selling real-estate,” said a large woman in a flowered caftan.
“I give all the glory to God. And praise the Lord, these days, real-estate is sizzling on the island. Tourist money just keeps rolling in on the waves.” Faith’s cell rang again. “See what I mean? Pass these out for me, will you, Wynn?” Faith handed the platter to Wynn as she answered the cell. Her voice faded as she walked away.
Steadying the platter with one hand, Wynn set her éclair back on her plate and began serving the women.
“I better pass on those éclairs, Wynn. My clothes are starting to get a bit tight.” A petite brunette tugged at the waist of her linen capris. “I’m Jackie Bennett. My husband is in the import business. We live in a mid-century house above the granite cliffs. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s the best house on the island with the loveliest gardens, thanks to Owl’s nephew, Doug Reed.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Wynn smiled.
“When is Boone due back from his business trip to…where did you say he was?” Sheri asked Jackie.
“Boone went to Nepal this time,” Jackie answered. “Right now, he’s most likely trudging down the Himalayan slopes alongside Sherpas who are loaded down with rare Asian artifacts for his business, and for me—of course. Communication is nonexistent when he is out so far, but he managed to find a cyber café in Kathmandu, where he emailed me to say he would be home soon. I can’t wait. It’s hard sleeping without him right beside me.”
Wynn handed the empty tray to Roxie and returned to finish her éclair, but it was gone.
“I think you’ve met everyone except for Wilda.” Roxie referred to the woman in a flowing caftan, who was busily devouring both her dessert and Wynn’s.
“Most people call me Owl.”
“Isn’t that my éclair?” Wynn pointed.
“Of course it is. Owl always finishes what we leave behind,” Roxie whispered to Wynn in an informative tone.
Owl licked her fingers. “Yes, I do. I hate waste. Waste not, want not. And I also like to register my opinion, Wynn. People know this and come to me for advice. You might do well to remember that.”
“Undoubtedly, I will.”
“Since you’re new to the island, let me tell you about its history and some of its mysteries. I’m known around these parts for shooting from the lips because I say things straight out. It’s the only way to be.”
Wynn rubbed her temples against a migraine. The unexpected calling of a nearby loon eased the pain. Now if she could just see the bird. Dare she go for the binoculars inside her backpack?
As if sensing her discontent, Roxie scooted her chair closer to Wynn, and patted her hand to get her attention.
“I bet this is a fascinating story. Tell me every detail,” Wynn prodded, hoping to please Roxie.
“I will.” Owl began, “In the late 1800’s my ancestors, Joseph and Anna Reed, bought the string of Willow Islands and built a mansion on the south end of this one. It was real fancy, no doubt about it. Italian plasterers did the first floor walls. Not only were there European imported marble fireplaces, but also marble windowsills a foot wide. Anna wouldn’t have any but the very best wallpaper for the second floor, and every piece of furniture was handmade to her specifications. It took four years to build the manor, and six months more just to ferry over all their furnishings from Egg Harbor.
“But then tragedy struck and what happened next has affected the island to this very day. Because of it, there are those who refuse to take a step onto the island for fear of...”
Nonchalantly, Roxie reached out and pinched a flap of skin on Owl’s arm.
“Ouch!” Owl cried rubbing the red mark. “Roxie! Why did you do that?”
“There was a crumb on your arm I was trying to brush away. Sorry Owl.” Roxie excused herself and left the room.
Wynn wondered what had just happened. Had Roxie warned Owl in some way to keep her from continuing the story?
Owl grew silent, as if in a trance, and then the words poured from her lips like a stream down a mountain. “On the Reed family’s last trip to the island before winter set in, the boat capsized in a horrific storm. Anna was able to save her two little boys, James and Joel, but her husband drowned and his body was never found. Anna searched the shoreline for years hoping her husband’s body would someday wash up so she could give him a good Christian burial. It never did.” Owl leaned forward. “For many years this island was referred to as…Widow Island. There’s been a curse on the island ever since. Like a summer cold, only some residents get it.”
“A curse?” Wynn asked, intrigued.
Maybe this quiet island had some mystery, after all.