In this short story, a woman takes a step into her past seeking contrition, but instead discovers a humility that would change the course of her life.
With her manicured fingers tapping her steering wheel, Ava pulled into the cluttered city street. It was a two hour drive home, but she could not shake the feeling that she needed to go somewhere first. The open house she had hosted that day was a success and Ava was certain she would close on the property by the end of the month. Of course, homes in the sprawling harbor town did not sit empty long, especially the prime real estate along the lakefront. The town was a typical coastal tourist destination complete with summer rental condos, a dozen seafood restaurants, and a vivacious nightlife, but Ava had once known it as her second home. She had spent every childhood summer there at her family’s lake house. Ava had not visited the cottage for over fifteen years after her parents separated. It had been on her mind ever since she had begun picking up properties in the area. She was not even sure she remembered its location, yet felt a sudden urgency to locate it. Despite her exhaustion and long drive ahead, she changed her route.
Ava clicked on her signal and turned onto a side street leading toward the lake. Jeremy and the kids would be expecting her home by six thirty, but the nagging feeling would not relent. While heading towards the shoreline, she allowed her instincts to take over and lead her there. Coasting down a hill that curved towards the shore, she spotted the rows of white sailboats tied along the dock and acknowledged the familiarity of the harbor. Continuing forward, she headed up a steep hill hedged with trees that led into a lesser populated area. The lake homes that followed were more private and the views more scenic, leading her to believe she was on the right track. After several minutes of traveling deeper into the forest, she came upon the entrance to a dirt road. The large pine trees framing the drive seemed familiar and she was certain the destination was near. A few minutes into taking her sedan down the rough uneven road, she came upon a fork. The drive to the left beckoned her in its direction and after proceeding for awhile, there it was.
Ava’s old lake house sat there lonely and abandoned. As she shut off her ignition and stepped out, she was surprised by the extreme calm and quiet in the forest. Walking up the stone path clumsily in her high heels, she soaked in the sight of her childhood haunt and noted how it appeared much smaller than she remembered. Much of the olive green paint had chipped off the weatherworn plank siding and the repurposed wood shingles were in need of repair. Some of the white window shutters were torn off from a recent series of storms.
Walking around to the front of the cottage facing the lake, she stepped onto the wooden deck and soaked in the scene of the boardwalk stretching down towards the shore. The waves lapped gently at the wooden posts supporting it and Ava inhaled deeply, delighting in the musty scent of the lake that transported her to another time. Turning towards the entrance, she noticed a scrap of paper tucked into the storm door. Curious, Ava opened the door and released the paper, then took it in her hands and unfolded it. It was a note written in woman’s handwriting, addressed to her.
If you find this letter, please contact me as soon as possible. I have something for you.
Beneath the signature was a phone number and address.
Ava was stunned. Memories of the little girl next girl came crashing forward from the deep recesses of her mind, memories she was surprised to have stored. It had been nearly twenty years since she and Mattie had last played together on the shores between their neighboring lake homes. They were fond memories of two carefree little girls collecting seashells and building stick forts, but they clashed with memories of anger and deception. Ava knew what Mattie wanted to give her and then realized she had never forgiven her friend after all those years.
It had been the summer of 1989 and the season was at its end. Ava’s family had begun packing for home where Ava and her brothers would return to school. Ava would soon say goodbye to her seasonal friend and they would go their separate ways until the following summer.
It was the last day at the lake and Ava brought Mattie to the cottage after a morning of outdoor play. While Ava’s mother fixed the girls a light lunch, Ava was at her side, pleading, “Mommy, Mattie wants me to sleep over at her cottage tonight and her parents said I could, so can I?”
Her mother sighed while spreading mustard across a slice of bread. “I’m not so sure about that, sweetie. We have to leave early in the morning, but I suppose since it’s your last day with your friend, it will be alright as long as you’re ready to leave by eight o’clock.”
“I will, Mommy! I promise!” Ava shouted with excitement.
While the girls sat at the table eating their sandwiches, Mattie and Ava chattered on about their plans for that evening. They were not thinking about the next day when Ava would leave and they would not see each other until the following summer. To them, the hours ahead would last forever.
Peering down at Ava’s throat, Mattie commented, “I really like your necklace. I never noticed it before.”
Ava bent her head to look towards the beautiful aquamarine pendant hanging from her neck. “Thanks. My parents got it for me for my birthday. I guess it’s my birthstone.”
“It’s really pretty,” Mattie said.
The girls spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the forest and swimming in the lake. When darkness fell, the two families came together on the beach and built a bonfire to celebrate the Cain’s final night. It was a perfect ending, and after the families returned to their cottages for the night, Ava curled up on the floor of Mattie’s bedroom, snuggled up in her sleeping bag. She had removed her necklace before retiring because its sharp edges made for an uncomfortable sleep. She placed it next to her other belongings on a chair in Mattie’s room. The wooden floor beneath felt hard on Ava’s back, but she was so tired from all the day’s activities that she hardly cared. Though the girls began their idle chatter and laughter as soon as they switched off the light, it did not last long and both were asleep in little time.
At morning’s light, Mrs. Gleason was gently shaking Ava awake. “Get up, Little Miss Sunshine! You’re going home this morning and your mother wanted me to roust you now!”
Ava sat up groggily and began gathering her things before heading to the bathroom to change out of her pajamas. Once she was ready, she crept back into Mattie’s room and dove on top of her sleeping friend.
“Mattie, I have to go now!” Ava cried out, hugging Mattie tightly. “I’ll see you next summer.”
Mattie looked up at Ava with tired eyes and pouted. “I wish you didn’t have to go already.”
“Me neither,” Ava replied. “Bye, Mattie. I promise to write.”
“Me too. Bye, bye,” Mattie muttered, her bottom lip jutting out.
While Ava was leaving the room with her night bag in hand, she suddenly stopped. “Oh wait!” she cried. “I almost forgot my necklace.” She walked over to the chair and did not see it on top of it nor beneath it. “It’s not here!”
“Is it in your bag?” Mattie suggested.
Ava dropped her bag on the floor and pulled out her sleeping bag, pajamas, and toothbrush. Her search through the bottom and in the pockets came up empty. “No! It’s not,” Ava responded, her voice becoming frantic.
“I’ll help you look,” Mattie offered, crawling out of bed and onto the floor to look beneath it. The girls searched in every corner and under every piece of furniture, but the necklace could not be found.
A sickening thought entered Ava’s mind and lodged there like a parasite. Looking at Mattie directly, she asked, “Did you take the necklace?”
“Of course not!” Mattie gasped in disbelief. “Why would I take your necklace?”
“I don’t believe you,” Ava growled. “You liked it so much that I bet you stole it.”
Mattie’s sun-browned skin suddenly turned ashen and her appearance became forlorn. “No,” she denied. “I swear I didn’t.”
At that time, Mattie’s parents entered the room. “Ava, your mother is here wondering if you’re ready to go,” Mrs. Gleason announced. “Did you girls say your goodbyes?”
Mattie and Ava fell quiet, their eyes narrowing and mouths formed tight lines.
“What’s the matter?” Mr. Gleason probed. “Are you two sad because Ava is leaving?”
“No,” Ava replied firmly. “Mattie stole my necklace and she won’t give it back.”
“Mattie!” Mr. Gleason shouted. “Why did you take Ava’s necklace? Give it back to her so she can go!”
With wide eyes, Mattie bellowed, “I didn’t take it! She’s lying! She just can’t find it.”
Mrs. Gleason turned to Ava and said, “Honey, if Mattie says she didn’t steal your necklace, then she didn’t. Your mother is waiting and you have to go now. If it turns up, we’ll mail it to you, I promise.”
Ava snatched her bag and after offering Mattie the most formidable glare she could, stomped out of the room. Her mother was too irritated by Ava’s lateness to notice her daughter’s ill humor. The drive home seemed to last an eternity and Ava’s anger heaved and boiled inside her. She internalized it, allowing her rage to seep into her skin and race through her veins like poison. As time passed, the anger remained, having burrowed deep, so much that whenever she thought of that morning at the lake, the memory conjured wild waves of fury and she wished every affliction upon Mattie.
That was the last time Ava would see Mattie. She had received one letter from Mattie following her departure that professed that she had not been able to find the necklace before her family returned to their winter home. She wrote that she was very sorry and promised that she had not taken it. Mattie ended the note by proclaiming her wish that they remain friends and hoped Ava would write back to her. Ava never replied.
As Ava stood on the boardwalk of her deserted cabin and looked down the shoreline at the neighboring cottage where Mattie’s family had lived, she reflected on the passing years. She realized that she had not spent an entire summer at the cabin since then. She had begun playing summer sports which kept her in her hometown and had only traveled to the lake house for a few weekends out of the year. Never once did she walk over to the Gleason’s cottage to play with Mattie. It was only a few years later that Ava’s parents divorced and her father had won ownership of the cottage. Ava never had a close relationship with her father and never took him up on his invitation to spend time at the lake. By that time, the cottage had become an object of her childhood and her focus fell on more important matters like soccer and boys. The cottage along with Mattie gradually fell into the category of forgotten memories.
Ava stared down at the scrap of paper in her hands, noting that Mattie’s address was about an hour away, but Ava would be in the area later in the week to stage a home. Ava decided that she would drop by Mattie’s place as soon as she was finished. She knew Mattie wished to return the necklace and confess to taking it. Ava could not care less about the necklace now, but was curious to see Mattie and hear her much delayed confession.
It was Friday afternoon and the time was slowly slipping into evening when Ava punched Mattie’s address into her GPS, certain that Mattie would be home at that hour. Sure enough, when she pulled into the driveway of the two-story Victorian style home, she saw lights through the windows and parked behind an old station wagon.
Turning off the ignition, Ava sighed nervously, mustering the courage to face her childhood friend. She studied her reflection carefully in the mirror and touched up her lipstick before getting out of the car. She walked up to the front door and smoothed out the wrinkles in her pencil skirt before pressing the doorbell.
When the door opened momentarily, Ava was surprised to see not a mature Mattie, but a much older and grayer version of Mattie’s mother. “Hello?” she said softly, a confused expression on her face.
“Mrs. Gleason?” Ava asked and when the old woman nodded, she continued, “Hi! I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Ava Brown, formerly Ava Cain, the little girl who–”
“I know who you are,” Mrs. Gleason interrupted politely. “No need to explain. Mattie told me she had attempted to contact you and had hoped you would come or call. She thought it was a long shot that your family still owned that cottage, but had no way of getting a hold of you.”
“As a matter of fact we do, but I have not been there in years and it was just chance that I was in the area and had gone to the house earlier this week and found her note. Is Mattie here so that I can talk to her?”
A shadow fell across Mrs. Gleason’s face, “Oh my dear, she is not. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mattie passed away on Sunday. In fact, her funeral was this afternoon. We’ve had so many visitors that I thought that’s why you were here. Oh, Honey, please come inside and have a seat.”
As Mrs. Gleason pulled Ava inside and closed the door, the former pit of nervousness in Ava’s stomach transformed into a heavy boulder. It could not be possible. Surely, Mattie was playing a cruel prank and would jump out of her hiding place at any moment to surprise her.
Mrs. Gleason led Ava to the living room where she offered her a seat and the old woman sat herself down on a worn recliner. A cold sickness flooded Ava’s body as she lowered herself onto the sofa and took in her surroundings. She immediately saw a hospital bed in the corner with all sorts of wires attached to medical machines and an IV drip beside of it.
“She was in hospice care,” Mrs. Gleason explained. “She had terminal pancreatic cancer and I was helping care for her up until the very end. We had some time to say our goodbyes but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Ava’s jaw was slack, unable to find the right words. “I…I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“The truth is, Mattie left you that note a month ago when she was still able to get around,” said Mrs. Gleason. “She wanted to see you, but I’m afraid you came too late. As a matter of fact, she had something to give you. Wait here and I’ll see if I can find it.”
The aged woman slowly raised herself up and shuffled off to a back room, returning after only a moment. There, dangling from between her wrinkled fingers was Ava’s aquamarine pendant.
“My necklace!” Ava said, feigning surprise as she clutched it in her palm. “Thank you so much.”
“It was under the floorboards,” she said.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“In Mattie’s room at the cottage-it must have fallen between the floorboards. We found it a few months ago during some remodeling before we discovered Mattie was sick. She had lost your old address and had no idea how to contact you, but when she was diagnosed and given a month to live, she knew she had to find you and make sure you got it back.”
Ava’s hands were trembling and she could not look Mrs. Gleason in the face. The tears ran freely while the guilt twisted her soul like a wrench. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” Ava cried. “I was so horrible to Mattie, accusing her of stealing it.”
“You were just kids then and Mattie forgave and forgot long ago, but she knew she could never be at peace unless you knew of her innocence.”
Suddenly standing, Ava said, “Mrs. Gleason, my apologies, but I must get home to my kids. I’m so sorry for everything and promise to visit again. I’d love to hear about Mattie’s life. I only wish she were here so I can tell her how sorry I am.”
As she led Ava out, Mrs. Gleason replied, “You can still tell her. She’s buried in South Cemetery.”
With some daylight left, Ava found the cemetery and easily spotted Mattie’s grave, the fresh dirt piled high in thick clumps. Her feet were heavy as she stumbled towards the grave and crouched down, nearly collapsing from the shame.
“Mattie, I’m sorry,” she said aloud. “I am so, so sorry for what I did to you. I was cruel. I know you’ve forgiven me, but please help me to forgive myself. “
As Ava wept over Mattie’s grave, a deep calm settled over her. She had set out that afternoon seeking a confession from Mattie, but instead received conviction. As the week’s events replayed in her mind, she became aware that Mattie’s death had fallen on the same day Ava discovered the note. That strange urgency to find the cottage formed an eerie awareness inside of her. As Ava drove home towards the setting sun, the necklace dangled from her review mirror, a constant reminder of lost chances.