“I don’t care. I’m in love,” Tessa remarked stubbornly. “Someday I’m going to get in a car and drive across the country to California and find him.”

“That’s far, honey,” Ava said wistfully. “By that time Jack Kerouac will be dead if he keeps living the way he does.”

“ ‘Tiger, tiger burning bright.’ ” Whenever Tessa wasn’t quoting Kerouac she was quoting Blake. Songs of Innocence and Experience was the next thing she tried to unload on Carla, also gone unread, although Carla had skimmed a few pages for appropriate quotes. Tessa told Carla that when she and Jack Kerouac had a child together, they would name it Blake, whether it was a boy or a girl. “It’s better to burn out beautifully when you’re young.”

Ava got a funny look on her face when she heard her daughter say that, as if she’d thought similarly once, and had lived that way, and was only now realizing the flaws in such a philosophy.

WHEN THE GIRLS went down to the Eel River, Tessa confided that even though her mother joked around, she’d been terribly wounded in love. They’d come to Blackwell to start a new life after the mess of the divorce. Frankly, there had been a few men since then, but it never worked out. Her mother always chose the wrong ones. Tessa hadn’t bothered to change out of her slip to go to the river. She’d merely added plastic flip-flops and a brimmed straw hat, and she looked like a fashion plate.

Tessa and Carla spent most of their days lying on beach towels, using baby oil to improve their tans, although Carla had fair and irritable skin that burned to a crisp. Carla would reveal juicy bits of gossip about everyone in town as they baked in the sun, adding a few invented details to make life in Blackwell more interesting. The girls who never included Carla were turned into sluts, kleptomaniacs, and runaways. It wasn’t payback, not really. They were more interesting that way. Carla’s brother, Johnny, who worked at the gas station and was known for speeding around town like a demon on his motorcycle and getting into fights at the Jack Straw Bar and Grill for no particular reason, became a haunted loner in the telling of his story. Carla presented him as a deep, moody young man à la Jack Kerouac, rather than a self-centered lout who insisted that Carla not speak to him when she ran into him because he didn’t want to be seen with her. At least when Carla spiced up the truth, she had something to say that held Tessa in thrall, even if it was a lie.

The homespun village lore about Blackwell was probably lies as well, invented by the town’s forefathers, but the stories seemed interesting to an out of towner. Carla told all the old tales she’d heard since she was a child. There were the museum bats coming to life, and the rumor that Johnny Appleseed had passed through town, and, perhaps most interesting, the little ghost girl who wandered along the banks of the Eel River. They called her the Apparition and said she was searching for her sister. Whoever spied her on a summer’s evening would be lucky in love. Tessa adored Blackwell and all its stories. She loved the countryside and declared the Eel River to be a state treasure, one of the wonders of Massachusetts. She wished Jack Kerouac could see it, how the sunlight glinted over the green water, how the cattails grew so tall. She said that when the weather got hotter in late summer they would swim the length of the river. Carla agreed even though after a lifetime in Blackwell she had never done more than wade in the shallows. She had a wicked fear of eels.

AFTER THE COOPERS had been in town for a while, rituals were slowly established for the girls: breakfast, then suntanning at the river, then back to the cottage for supper. Usually they had macaroni or hamburgers, comfort food, all delicious, but it was Ava’s desserts that were truly amazing. That first week she made one of her Seven Deadly Sins cakes—devil’s food for greed. Each night thereafter there was a large gooey piece for dessert. It was the kind of cake that could make you want things you hadn’t even known existed. It made you yearn for more, especially when the last piece of cake was shared and devoured. Too soon the twilight would begin to turn into darkness and it would be time for Carla to go. Tessa always walked her halfway home through the woods. There were fireflies glinting in the underbrush, and branches broke beneath their feet. The girls usually took to whispering. They made up stories about what had happened in these same woods in days gone by. They imagined the pioneer women who had traipsed through the snow, and the strong men who had planted all the apple trees in town. There was also a ghost said to haunt these woods as well, the sister of the river ghost. People said she’d left town in the middle of the night with her beloved, but had always yearned to come home for she knew that her little sister searched for her from beyond the grave. Locals swore that if you saw her, there’d be a journey in your future.

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