The cottage had been occupied by the groundskeeper until the museum’s funding dried up. Now it was rented out, and the new people were set to arrive. The cottage was small with a wraparound porch and a tilted chimney. There was a twisted wisteria vine all along the porch railing and red roses growing up a trellis that reached to the roof. Carla Kelly watched for the moving van, but there was only a station wagon with New York plates, packed to the gills. There was no man around, no father or husband, only Ava Cooper, a woman in her thirties dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt. She was surprisingly young and beautiful, almost as if she were a movie star, with her honey-colored hair pulled back into a tortoiseshell clip and her mouth streaked with scarlet lipstick. She didn’t look like someone’s mother, except that her daughter, Tessa, was equally beautiful, resembling her mother, only her long hair was a shade paler, an ashy blond. The daughter was also wearing blue jeans. She had on a red shirt that flared out behind her as she carried bundles back and forth from the station wagon to the cottage. The radio was still turned on, as if mother and daughter had no idea that a car battery could quickly go dead, which Carla knew only too well since she worked weekends in her father’s gas station, a job she despised. The car radio was playing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” It was Carla’s favorite song. The Kelly property met up with the museum acreage in the back, so Carla had slipped through the woods into the yard to spy on her new neighbors.
Blackwell was an isolated town in the Berkshires. The closest movie theater was forty miles away. People went to bed early and worked hard. Carla was bored out of her mind. Moving in from a hidden spot behind some pine trees, standing in a cool green pool of shadow, she surveyed the cottagers. The air was fragrant with honeysuckle and the bitter sulfur-tinged scent of bridal wreath that grew along the lanes in Blackwell. Carla imagined that she’d known the new people forever, that the new girl was her best friend. When they walked through the high school corridors the following autumn, everyone would call out hello, but they’d be far too busy with their plans to bother answering.
Ava Cooper tossed down a bundle of blankets and pillows. Fed up with work on such a gorgeous summer day, she began to dance to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” She threw her arms into the air as though it was the most natural thing in the world to be dancing in the driveway. Her daughter applauded, and the clapping startled the birds in the woods. All at once some crows flew up from the trees. When the Coopers turned to watch the birds, there was Carla watching them in return.
“Hey there,” Ava called, gesturing for their new neighbor to come over.
Carla walked out of the woods slowly, ashamed to have been caught spying. She was wearing pedal pushers and an old blouse that looked dingy compared with Ava’s. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Some of the girls at school whispered that she smelled like gasoline.
“Thank goodness,” Ava said as Carla approached. “You’re just what we needed.” The sunlight fell over mother and daughter as they stood there grinning, hands on hips. “A friend for Tessa.”
AFTER THAT CARLA was at the Coopers’ every day. She could hardly imagine what life had been like without them. All that first week she came over early while Tessa was still in bed. She’d sit with Ava in the kitchen, drinking coffee—something her own mother would have never allowed. Ava was divorced and her ex, Tessa’s dad, was an actor. “I should have been smarter,” Ava confided to the teenager, as if Carla was her girlfriend, too. Both Ava and Tessa called her Carly, which made her sound exotic, even to herself. “Anyone who falls in love with an actor should have her head examined,” Ava joked.
When Tessa would finally wake to join them at the table, she’d be wearing a white silk slip instead of pajamas. The fabric had a blue ribbon stitched prettily through the hem. It took Tessa an hour to wake up and at least three cups of black coffee. It wasn’t that she was lazy, it was simply that she was out of sync with the pedestrian everyday world. She was a night owl, often reading until dawn. She was madly in love with Jack Kerouac and before long lent Carla her dog-eared copy of On the Road. As far as Carla could tell the author was a drunken lunatic who rambled on about nothing in ridiculously long paragraphs. She told Tessa she thought the book was fascinating, but really she’d stopped reading halfway through.
“The only woman stupider than one who marries an actor is one who marries a writer,” Ava told them both at breakfast. Ava was an amazing baker. They were having honey buns along with their cups of black coffee. The combination of caffeine and sugar woke a person up, pronto, even dreamy Tessa.