To the outside world, it looks like Maya Somers lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, her husband, the bungalow they shared and her job. But inside Maya knows Katrina gave her the gift of a fresh start. She and her yellow lab, Doodle Bug, leave the destruction of the Gulf Coast for North Carolina and settle in Oriental, a quaint fishing village on the Pamlico Sound.
In her new home by the water, Maya begins to rebuild her life. She knows she needs to heal from her abusive marriage and the trauma of Hurricane Katrina but isn’t sure where to start. It isn’t long before teachers appear to help her: Hazel, her elderly but spirited neighbor who has secrets of her own, Travis, a handsome kayak guide to whom she immediately feels a strong attraction, Buster, a crusty old fisherman who always seems to show up just when she needs him, and Bay Witherspoon, the much younger wife of a wealthy attorney who becomes a close friend despite their initial differences. Maya finds the most profound help when she is welcomed into a women’s circle that meets on the banks of Hungry Mother Creek. Gathered with these women, Maya learns that becoming vulnerable and sharing her pain with others is the first step of her healing journey.
But what is the second step? Maya isn’t sure but with the help of her loyal yellow lab, her new friends and the peace of living by the water she stays the course. Ultimately Maya finds the healing journey to be messy, tangled and unpredictable, and the end result is nothing she could have ever imagined.
Maya walked to her small kitchen area just behind the living room. She smiled to herself as she placed the casserole on the bottom shelf and wondered what type of condensed soup Hazel used to make this. She guessed it must be Cream of Mushroom, a southern staple she had used many times while helping her grandmother make Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
As she turned back towards the living room, Maya’s heart lurched when she saw Hazel was holding the decorative urn she thought had been discretely placed, but it must have caught Hazel’s eye. “Maya, this urn is beautiful. I love the yellows, blues and greens in the pattern. Surely you didn’t find it here in Oriental? It’s so well-made.”
Maya’s pulse quickened and she felt the color drain from her face. She stood frozen not prepared for this discussion and unsure of how much of the truth she wanted to share.
“Maya, are you okay? You look like you might faint.” Hazel placed the urn on the coffee table and hurried to Maya’s side. She placed her hand in the small of Maya’s back and led her over to the couch. Hazel’s hand was small, but very strong and her touch comforted Maya as she lowered herself down to the couch. She had a flash of insight that said she could trust Hazel and as she regained her composure, Maya decided to be truthful.
“Sorry if I scared you, Hazel. It’s just that this urn is much more than a decoration. It contains the ashes of Steven, my husband who died two years ago because of Hurricane Katrina.”
Well, it was a lot easier than Maya thought it would be, sharing this truth, although not the whole truth, with the first person outside her family. It actually wasn’t that hard talking about the ashes. The hard part would be answering the questions that may follow.
“Steven has a brother who wasn’t able to come to Mississippi after his death,” her words tumbled out, “and everything was in such a state of destruction and confusion I didn’t feel right about spreading the ashes in Mississippi. I’ve just kept them with me since then.”
As Maya was speaking, Hazel sat down beside her on the couch, her hands folded neatly in her lap as she listened. Maya and Hazel’s eyes met and Maya could see Hazel’s eyes were moist with emotion. She reached over and took one of Maya’s hands into hers.
“Oh, honey,” Hazel started, her southern accent drawing the syllables out. “I am so sorry. Losing your husband is one of the most difficult things to endure. My husband died when I was just 50 and it took me a while to make sense of my life, not having him in it. At least we’d already had 25 years of marriage and a son. You and Steven still had so much left to do together.” Hazel’s eyes filled again as she squeezed Maya’s hands.
Maya turned her head to look out the creek window. She was embarrassed by her lack of emotion and didn’t want Hazel to see her dry eyes. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she even muster up a couple of tears for Steven? When he was alive he made her cry easily. Now a lump did form in Maya’s throat.
She felt his grip tightening on her upper arm as he dragged her out into the parking lot of Sherlock’s, the pub a couple of miles from their house. When they were away from the entrance, he said, “Don’t you tell me I’ve had enough to drink ever again! Do you hear me? You embarrassed me in front of my friends.” He shot the words at her through clenched teeth and she physically recoiled, shrinking as his grip on her arm tightened. He yanked her arm for emphasis and continued, “I can’t help it if your lame ass is wasted after three or four beers but I’m fucking fine so leave me alone. If you can’t hang anymore then maybe you should just go home.”
He released her arm, turned and strode into the pub without looking back. Maya instinctively began rubbing her arm. The emotion she had been holding in her chest erupted and tears rolled down her cheeks. She knew she couldn’t go back inside and since Steven had the car keys, so began the walk home, her body weighted by shame.
Hazel squeezed her hand and Maya turned back to look at her, the urn prominent in her peripheral vision. “Well, at least you found his body and knew for sure what happened to him. I've heard of so many people who are still searching for their loved ones who most likely got washed out to sea.”
Maya’s face flushed knowing she wasn't being fully truthful, but she wasn't ready yet to talk about the real cause of Steven's death. After a few seconds of silence, she said, “Thanks for understanding. You’re the first person I’ve told outside my family.”
“Well, Maya, please know you can talk with me any time about Steven, and for extreme circumstances I can always make you another casserole.” Maya smiled, appreciating Hazel’s humor and the change of topic.
“I know I've already said this, but I’m so happy you decided to rent my boathouse. I grew up here with my mother and grandmother but have been alone for the past fifteen years so it feels good to have another woman on the property.”
“It feels good to be here. When I visited in April something just told me this was the place to come. I’m looking forward to meeting more people, getting a job and creating some happy memories here.” Maya smiled, feeling very comfortable sitting next to Hazel. Maybe one day she would tell Hazel the whole story.
“I better get on my way so you can heat up that casserole for dinner. Good luck with your job search and I’ll let you know if I hear of anything.” Hazel stood and walked to the door, Doodle Bug following at her heels.
Hazel’s hand rested on the doorknob just a millisecond longer than necessary. Maya waited for her to turn back and say something else. Hazel never turned but opened the door and stepped out into the humid early evening. The sound of cicadas filled the air.