Little Broken Things – Nicole Baart

KEY LAKE WASN’T DEEP. It wasn’t particularly lovely either, but the tree-lined shores fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and there was something dusky and mysterious about the slant of light when the sun began to set across the water. The lake had a beauty all its own, and Quinn tried to remind herself of that as she sat on the edge of the dock, her toes ringed by specks of bright green algae. If she leaned over far enough she could see not just the bubbles from Walker’s submerged snorkel but the shape of him, too. Murky and indistinct beneath the slightly brackish water. But there he was. Diving. Hers. When he broke the surface, Quinn stretched out her foot, toes curled like a ballerina en pointe, and he placed a piece of smooth glass on top of it with a smile. “It’s not a slipper,” he said after taking the mouthpiece of the snorkel out from between his teeth. “But we could call you Cinderella all the same.” “Does that make you Prince Charming?” “Not even close.” Walker palmed the piece of glass and moved through the lake as silent and smooth as the little waves that lapped at the posts of the old dock. Then he pulled himself up and out, spilling water from the fine lines of his body, naked but for the boxers. He settled himself on the dock beside her, cool and dripping.

“I wish you’d put on a proper swimming suit,” Quinn protested, but something deep in her stomach knotted at the sight of him. Her husband wasn’t handsome so much as he was striking. It was impossible to meet Walker Cruz and not stare. It was the breadth of his strong hands, the ropy muscles of his dark forearms. The five o’clock shadow that he let curl into an honest-to-goodness beard when he was too preoccupied with a project to shave. Most appealing and confusing to Quinn was the intelligent, peculiar flash of his copper-flecked eyes. Sometimes, when he looked at her, Quinn felt like he was a stranger. Even though she slept beside him every night. “Your boxers are practically see-through,” she told him. “My mom has a telescope, you know.

” Walker shook his head and scattered droplets of water over Quinn. “Mrs. Sanford can look to her heart’s content.” He laughed, dismissing the house across the lake with a flick of his fingers. Quinn didn’t have to look to know that the windows of her childhood home winked black as the sun slipped behind its brick walls. Maybe her mom was watching. Maybe not. She tried not to care either way, but it was hard not to. Indifference was for people who had no reason to care. Unfortunately, Quinn had many reasons.

For starters, the fact that she and Walker were living in her mother’s rental. Or that they were both—temporarily, she hoped—unemployed. And, of course, there was Walker himself. It didn’t matter that Quinn loved him; her mother thought he was unsatisfactory— and she made little attempt to hide her disdain. “Hey.” Walker put a damp finger under her chin and tugged her face toward his own. His kiss was wet and warm. He tasted of lake water and the Chardonnay they had with grilled chicken for supper: buttery and crisp. “It’s temporary,” he reminded her. “Define temporary,” Quinn murmured against his lips, but he was already pulling away.

“You didn’t like Los Angeles.” Quinn made a noise in the back of her throat. “It’s better than here.” But Walker would not be so easily disregarded. “We’ll be gone before winter.” “It’s August,” Quinn said as if that was proof. That winter was coming. That they had already lingered here too long. Paying her mother half of what a summer vacation rental normally brought in and validating Elizabeth Sanford’s many warnings about the financial instability of marrying a struggling artist. “My piece will sell,” Walker said, and the glint in his eye was almost enough to make Quinn believe.

Almost. “Can I see it?” He shook his head but held up the polished, cloudy glass between his thumb and forefinger. “A hint,” he said, and the smile that played on his lips was enough to make Quinn grin back in spite of herself. “You’re crazy,” she said. “Crazy genius? Or just crazy crazy?” Walker pushed himself up and offered his hands to Quinn, the glass still clutched between his last two fingers and his palm. She could feel the cool smoothness of it pressed between their skin when he lifted her. “Just crazy, I think.” Quinn could have argued, but she wasn’t in the mood. Walker’s feet made a set of perfect footprints on the worn boards of the dock, and she followed them carefully, her own small feet swallowed up by the dark silhouette of his. Their life wasn’t crazy.

Not exactly. It just wasn’t what Quinn had always hoped it would be. At the edge of the dock, Walker stopped and slid his feet into the ratty flip-flops he had kicked off earlier. Between the dock and the house was a stretch of shorn grass that refused to grow properly because of the sandy soil beneath. It was rough and sprinkled with thistles, but it was perfect for bocce ball and lying on a towel in the sun, the two pastimes that had dominated their summer routine —if the lazy, haphazard way they filled their days could be called a routine. They were waiting. Waiting for something better. Waiting for inspiration to strike. But lately Walker had been too busy in the boathouse he had transformed into an art studio to play or lounge with her. To wait.

Quinn was happy for him, truly she was, but she didn’t like being locked out of any area of his life. Walker’s art was the worst. She felt small in the bald-faced hunger of his need for texture and color and light. The way he shivered at the sight of prairie grass bent by a storm or a branch that had fallen askew, crooked and disturbing as a broken limb. Quinn wasn’t nearly so deep. She felt lost in her husband sometimes. Like she was drowning. “You coming in?” she asked, trailing a finger down his damp arm. “You’ll need to change.” It was an excuse.

She craved him like water, the almond slant of his eyes, the way his skin was as dark and fine as sun-warmed soil. He had a slight accent from summers spent in Mexico City with his father’s family, and a lilting softness that rounded his consonants courtesy of his Ghanian immigrant mother. Quinn loved it all. Her husband was so extraordinary. Set apart. Quinn ached for him, for something more than a mere wedding band to bind them together. She was his, heart and soul and body and mind and anything else she had to give. Quinn just didn’t know if he was hers in the same way. “I have clothes in the boathouse,” Walker said. He was already distracted, his gaze on the high windows of the old, box-shaped building that housed his fever dream.

It had been many long months since Quinn had seen him this way, but now he was a man consumed. There was little room for anything else. Even her. She let her hand fall to her side. “Okay,” Quinn said. “Don’t be too late.” He took several steps away from her, dismissed, his mind obviously on whatever awaited him in his makeshift art studio. But as Quinn watched, he caught himself and paused, gave his wife a final second of his attention. “You all right?” “I’m fine,” she assured him. “Go.

” She hadn’t told him about her sister’s text. And she wasn’t about to when he was already concentrating on something else. I have something for you. What was Quinn supposed to do with that? A single cryptic message was typical Nora, and Walker would tell her as much. He wouldn’t give it another thought, and his nonchalance would only make Quinn feel silly for wondering. For worrying. But she couldn’t help it. I have something for you implied a transaction of sorts. She hadn’t seen Nora in over a year and she longed for her older sister with an almost childish desperation. They had never been close, not really, but absence and an air of mystery had rendered Nora the stuff of dreams.

Her random texts and even less frequent phone calls felt almost illicit, dangerous, though as far as Quinn knew the worst thing her sister had ever done was walk away from a full-ride scholarship to Northwestern and shrug off Sanford family expectations. Quinn envied her sometimes. Walker didn’t seem to notice that anything was wrong, and he winked at Quinn as he walked away, his flip-flops slapping his heels in rhythm as he carried his find to the boathouse. It wasn’t much, that tiny piece of glass. Walker’s installations were usually magnificent in size and stature, and Quinn had a hard time reconciling the artifacts he was digging up from the lake with the immense sculptures her husband was known for. He had been almost spiritless since they moved from Los Angeles to Key Lake, Minnesota, at the beginning of the summer. At least, artistically speaking. Quinn had loved the undivided attention she’d received for the nearly two months of Walker’s creative dry spell, the way that he trained the intensity of his concentration on her. She was his outlet for the long, hot weeks of June and July, her body and the plane of her hips, the way that her back lowered to her narrow waist, the object of his obsession. Walker had always been a singular man, devoted and laser-focused since the moment she met him in an introductory art class in college.

He had been the professor’s work study, but Walker ended up teaching most of the class. And Quinn had admired his obvious devotion from the start. She’d wished maybe she had more of whatever Walker possessed hidden somewhere in her own soul. Quinn wasn’t nearly so exceptional. But she was determined. And as far as she was concerned, this humiliating homecoming, these months of living under the watchful, disapproving eye of her mother, were nothing more than a detour. She shielded her eyes against the sunset and stared across the lake, daring Liz Sanford to stare back. All at once she was grateful for Walker’s boxers, for the unruly flip of his dark hair, for the way her life was on display. Even an enigmatic text message from her sister couldn’t get Quinn down. She knew what she wanted.

And this time she wasn’t going to let anything stop her. NORA NORA GLANCED IN the rearview mirror and saw that the girl had buried herself in the dusty car blanket. It was wrapped completely around her, a plaid cocoon from which only the toe of one purple sneaker peeked out. She wasn’t even sitting up anymore. Instead, her seat belt was pulled taut over the soft mound of the blanket and her tightly curled body, the fabric twisted so that Nora wondered if the restraint was doing any good at all. Maybe this wasn’t safe. Maybe transporting a child required a special endorsement on her driver’s license. Nora remembered the complicated five-point harness of the little girl’s toddler days and wished she would have remembered to grab the booster seat. The last few hours had been a fog. A grueling blur of tears and exhaustion.

Of trying to comfort and failing miserably. Nora couldn’t help it—she was tense, scared, and the child had wilted beneath the strain of the stifling atmosphere in Nora’s apartment. She sat with her back tight in a corner and cried as though the world would end. Hot dogs didn’t help, though Nora drowned them in ketchup just the way the girl liked. Neither did cartoons, but the only kid-friendly TV shows were reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants. The child had seemed more afraid than entertained. Nora had been there when the girl was born, a truly terrifying affair that disabused her of the notion of ever having children of her own. When it was all over and the doctor had cheerfully announced, “It’s a girl,” Nora had taken the nameless infant into her own arms. She felt all elbows and thumbs, awkward and angled, as she cradled the tiny bundle, a hesitant participant in what should have been a natural rite of new life. The baby wasn’t quite what she expected either.

The skin on her newborn cheeks was white and peeling, her fingers so diminutive that Nora hardly dared to touch them for fear they would splinter. But the infant was wide-eyed and quiet, her lips parted as if she were about to say something. “She’s amazing,” Nora said. And she was. But she was also strange and unnerving and miraculous. “What are you going to call her?” “Her name is Everlee.” “It’s pretty,” Nora forced herself to say. But she hated it. And in the years after, she used every excuse she could not to call the girl by her ill-chosen name. Sweetie or honey or bug.

Anything but Everlee. She had a hard time even thinking the name. “Honey?” Nora called, shifting her eyes to the rearview mirror again. The child was still balled up under the blanket. Maybe she was sleeping. She certainly needed it. “Sweetheart, can you hear me under there?” No answer. But then, she wasn’t much for talking and never had been. “We’re going to play a little game, okay? A pretend game.” Did this sound like fun? Nora hoped so.

She wanted to make it as painless as possible. “It’ll be great. Like playing dress up, only we’re going to put on a different name. Just for a little while. You get to pick what you want to be called. Won’t that be fun?” Silence. Nora could see the blanket shift a bit in the rearview mirror, but it seemed she was only pulling the swaddle tighter. “What’s your favorite name? Should we call you Courtney? Or Piper? What about Olivia like in those books I bought you?” Not even a flicker this time. Nora sighed and adjusted her sunglasses as the sun dipped closer to the horizon. The sky was all vivid pastels, long sweeps of clouds like brushstrokes as she drove into the light.

It was too cheery for her errand. So picture-perfect it was almost artificial. It reminded her of the place she was going, and not in a good way. I have something for you, she wrote, and then couldn’t think of anything else to say. What could she say? Get the guest room ready, I’m strapping you with a reticent six-year-old for I don’t know how long. Oh, and I don’t intend to tell you a thing about her. Nora knew how that would go over. Details. Quinn would want details and an annotated outline and the entire freaking story beginning with the very moment that the girl was conceived. And Nora couldn’t tell her anything.

Perfect little Quinn. Lovely, good, careful Quinn, who played the part of the wide-eyed baby sister so beautifully. Her degree was in secondary education, high school English to be exact, but Nora understood that she was better suited for preschool even if Quinn wouldn’t admit it herself. Quinn was an optimist, a happy girl who had once been both the head cheerleader for the Key Lake Titans and the vice president of the student body. She was supposed to marry the captain of the football team and have lots of adorable babies to populate Key Lake. But Quinn had uncharacteristically gone against everyone’s expectations and decided to do something different altogether. Quinn was trying to be someone she was not. Marrying that unbearably sexy, but totally weird, artist. Moving to Los Angeles. Pretending she could handle a roomful of teenagers when Nora fundamentally understood that high school students would eat her sister alive.

The last time Nora saw Quinn, her hands and wrists were hennaed, elaborate flowers and intricate designs crisscrossing her fair skin like a map. Walker was experimenting with graffiti and tattoos, and his wife had become his favorite canvas. That had been almost two years ago, a rare family Christmas at the Sanfords’, and Nora had felt downright sorry for her sister. Quinn seemed bewildered by her own life. She stared at her husband with a naked longing, a look that made Nora feel as if she had witnessed something shamefully private. But then Quinn’s eyebrow would quirk and it was as if Walker was a complete stranger to her. Lips slightly parted and head tipped just offcenter, she gazed at her own husband as if seeing him for the very first time. It was unsettling. The henna began to smudge partway through the day and Quinn drank just a bit too much champagne during the gift opening and began to seem blurry and indistinct herself. She was melting away, fading like the orange dye that stained her hands.

But Quinn was great with kids. At least, she had been. A dozen years ago. “What about Annie?” Nora asked, directing the question to the back seat. “I love the name Annie. To match your hair.” A shuffle. The slightest scuff of blanket on car upholstery. Did she say something? “What?” Nora tilted her head so that her ear was angled toward the back seat while her eyes remained on the road. The last thing she needed to do was end up in a ditch with a child bundled like a caterpillar in the back.

The girl would look like the victim of a poorly planned abduction. “Did you say something, love?” “I want to go home.” “I want that, too,” Nora said, because she didn’t know how else to respond. And it was true. But it wasn’t possible. Not anymore. Not for either of them ever again. Nora stifled a shiver and told herself that the goose bumps sprinkled across her arms were because the air-conditioning was on too high. She reached for the vent, angled it down and away, and then grabbed her phone from its resting place in her cup holder. The girl would probably be scarred for life, would grow up to text and drive and kill herself in a fiery crash, but Nora set a bad example a nyw a y.

O ne e ye o n the r o a d a nd the o the r o n he r s c r e e n , s he p e c ke d a no the r t e xt t o Q ui nn: I ’ m c o m i n g.

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