Cottage by the Sea
Annie Marlow hated to disappoint her parents, but she simply wasn’t going to fly home to Seattle for Thanksgiving. She’d already made the arrangements for Christmas and it was too late to change everything now. She had plans.
Working as a physician assistant, Annie didn’t get many four-day weekends, and Trevor was cooking a turkey and had invited her over for the day. Steph would be there, too, and they were both anxious to meet a cute young doctor who had recently joined the clinic at another site.
What her mother really wanted, Annie realized, was a family photo for the Christmas card her parents routinely sent out each year. For all she cared, they could photoshop her in. There wasn’t any need for her to change her plans, especially now, less than a week before Thanksgiving.
Gabby, her cousin, was flying to Los Angeles to join them. Giving up time with Gabby for a Christmas-card photo? Not happening. Besides, Annie had a new pair of four-inch designer heels and a dress she intended to use for a girls’ night out on the town.
Her mother tried again, laying on the guilt. “Annie, please?”
“Mom, you can’t change everything at the last minute like this.” She glanced at the time and inwardly groaned. Much more of this conversation and she’d be late meeting Steph for their yoga class.
“Your brother is coming with Kelly and the baby.”
This was her mom’s best inducement? Her brother? The favored son? She had already seen Mike and his family twice this year. “He was planning to be there for Christmas, too, remember.” Mike was the one who needed to change everything around. It was unfair that she should rearrange her entire life to suit her brother’s schedule.
“We haven’t been together as a family since August.”
Pressing the phone to her ear, Annie became impatient as her mother continued speaking.
“You haven’t seen the baby in a while. Did you know Bella is walking already?”
“I’ll see Bella when I drive up this Christmas. I’ll make sure to stop in Portland on my way through,” Annie protested. “Mom, please. We’ve been through this already.”
Her phone dinged, indicating she had a text message. Putting her phone on speaker, she checked the text to see that Steph had sent her a selfie. Her friend was gorgeous, with her purple-tinged hair. She’d made a pouty face and looked like she was kissing through the phone.
“Annie? Are you laughing at me?”
“No, sorry, Mom,” she said, squelching her amusement. “Steph just sent me a text.”
“I’d so hoped you would change your mind.”
“Sorry, Mom, really I wish I could, but I simply can’t.” Well, she could, but not without ruining her own plans. “You won’t miss me,” she said, trying to soothe her mother’s disappointment. “You’ll be involved with Kelly and the baby, and Dad will spend all of his time with Mike.” Bella would command all their attention; they cherished this first grandchild. To be fair, Bella was adorable. It was hard to believe she was walking already.
“Promise me you won’t change your mind about Christmas, then, will you?” her mother asked. Annie had been given the chance to work last Christmas, and with money so tight, she’d jumped at the chance at double-time. Her parents had no idea what the cost of living was like in southern California, and how hard it was to make ends meet.
“I’ll be home for Christmas, Mom, I promise.” She hated it when her mother doubted her. One time, one measly time when she didn’t get home for the holidays, and her mother refused to forgive her.
“I’m sorry to harp on you,” her mother said. “It’s a disappointment is all.”
“I know. I’m sorry, too, but Gabby and I have the entire weekend planned. If I’d known sooner I could have made other arrangements, but it’s too late now. It’s only a few weeks and I’ll be home for Christmas. I have my own life, you know.”
Her mother’s frustrated sigh came through the line. “Don’t be like that, honey.”
“Stubborn,” her mother countered. “Family is what’s important. I know you have a lot going on, but your father and I are getting up in age. We won’t be around forever, you know.”
Annie couldn’t believe her mother. This was a new low when it came to making her feel bad, reminding Annie that at some point in the future her parents would die. It was ridiculous, seeing that they were both healthy and in the prime of their lives. Biting down on her lower lip, she resisted the urge to tell her mom that she was being absurd.
Her mother seemed to sense that she’d gone too far with the guilt. “I have an idea,” she quickly rebounded. “Invite Trevor.”
What her mother didn’t understand was that she wasn’t romantically interested in Trevor. She’d happened to mention his name a time or two, and she had yet to hear the end of it ever since then. Inviting him to Seattle would only perpetuate the idea that they were involved. He was a friend, and besides, Steph had set her sights on him. There’d never been any sparks between him and Annie. She liked him, though, and he was fun to hang out with. It didn’t hurt that he was a terrific dancer and being on the floor with him generated her a lot of attention.
“You like him, right?”
“He’s a friend, Mom, nothing more. Besides, you’re forgetting about Gabby. She’s already purchased her ticket. I’m picking her up at LAX early Wednesday afternoon.” Annie had already mentioned her cousin’s visit a dozen times or more.
Her mother had yet to recognize how unreasonable she was being. “I’m genuinely sorry to disappoint you, Mom, but this whole family Thanksgiving just isn’t going to work this year.”
“Okay, honey, I understand. We’ll miss you.”
“Mom, I really need to go.”
“Okay. Just one more thing. I wasn’t going to tell you since I thought you’d be home for Thanksgiving, because I wanted to surprise you.”
Time was ticking away. Grabbing her yoga mat and her bag, Annie headed for the front door of her condo.
“Dad and I remodeled the kitchen. We bought all new appliances and countertops. You won’t recognize it!” Her parents loved their home and had saved thirty years to build it. It was on a hillside that overlooked Puget Sound. The views were stunning. Her parents had purchased the property years earlier and then diligently saved and sacrificed to build the home of their dreams.
“That’s great, Mom. I’ll see it at Christmas. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
“Before you go, your dad wants to say hi.”
“He’s not going to pressure me about Thanksgiving, is he?”
“No, silly.” She must have handed off the phone because the next voice Annie heard was her father’s.
“How’s my daughter, the doctor?” her father asked. He’d wanted Annie to continue on to medical school.
“I’m not a doctor, Dad.” Annie had grown tired of school. The breakup with her college boyfriend had devastated her, and she’d been eager to be done. Instead of continuing school to get a medical degree, she’d opted to become a physician assistant.
“Someday,” her dad said. He never seemed to lose a chance to remind Annie of her dream of working in medicine. What he didn’t understand nor seem to appreciate was that she did work in medicine, just not as a physician.
They spoke, and Annie found herself glancing at the time. “Dad, I’d love to chat more, but I’m meeting a friend.”
Annie pulled into the gym at the last minute and found Steph impatiently waiting outside. Together they rushed into their class. Afterward, Annie felt worlds better, relaxed and in good spirits.
They stopped for a smoothie at the juice bar, and while Steph wasn’t looking, Annie snapped a selfie of the two of them and tweeted it.
“Let me see, let me see,” Steph protested and then laughed. “You’re bad.”
“Hey, we both look great.”
“Is it Gram-worthy?”
Annie laughed. “Looks like it to me,” she confirmed, and posted the photo on Instagram, so Gabby would see it. She couldn’t wait for Gabby to arrive on Wednesday; Annie had looked forward to cousin time for weeks. The two were close in age and had been best friends nearly their entire lives. Gabby had recently ended a six-month relationship, and Annie intended to do everything she could to make her forget Geoff, starting off with a pre-Thanksgiving party with friends from the clinic at a popular night spot.
Thanksgiving morning, Annie woke with a killer hangover. Her head felt like someone was inside swinging a sledgehammer, and her mouth was as dry as an Arizona riverbed. The incessant ringing of her phone, which was sitting on the nightstand by her bed, made it even worse. Caller ID showed that it was her aunt Sherry, Gabby’s mother. Why, in the name of all that was decent, was she calling Annie at this time of the morning? Gabby had checked in with her mom when she landed. She was more than ready to hand the phone off to her cousin, who rolled over and grumbled at the interruption.
“Hello,” Annie barely managed to say, holding her hand firmly against her forehead, hoping that this would appease the tiny men inside her brain, so they’d stop hammering.
“Annie.” Aunt Sherry’s voice was breathless, as if someone had knocked the wind out of her. “Oh Annie . . . Annie.”
Sitting up in her bed at the sound of tears in her aunt’s voice, Annie asked, “Aunt Sherry, do you need Gabby? She’s here.”
“No . . . no. I need to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
A gasping sob escaped her aunt.
Annie tensed and keeping her voice steady and low, asked, “Are you okay, Aunt Sherry?” Seeing how serious the conversation was sounding, Annie put the call on speaker for Gabby to listen in.
By this time, her cousin had sat up and was rubbing the sleep from her eyes. The two exchanged looks and Annie shrugged, unable to decipher what was happening.
“Do you . . . Do you . . . television . . . Is it on?” her aunt asked, barely getting the words out.
“No. Aunt Sherry, for the love of heaven, just tell me what’s happened.” As Annie spoke, she reached for the remote and turned on the television, switching channels to the twenty-four-hour news station. She tuned in, and the first thing that popped onto the screen was a Thanksgiving Day advertisement from Macy’s, which told her nothing.
Instead of answering, her aunt started sobbing. “It’s horrible, Annie. I . . . I don’t even know how . . . I don’t know . . . how to tell you.”
As a physician assistant, Annie had often dealt with people in crisis mode. “Take a deep breath, count to five, then take another breath, and start at the beginning,” she advised her aunt in a calm, soothing voice. Her immediate suspicion was that something had happened to Lyle, the man her aunt had been dating for the last fifteen years. That didn’t make sense, though. She would have called Gabby if that had been the case.
“I’m . . . trying.” Aunt Sherry counted softly, out loud, and sucked in another breath, just as Annie had recommended. “Your mom . . . and dad . . .”
Annie tensed. “My mom and dad?”
“They . . . invited me to breakfast.”
Her mother had always made a big deal about breakfast on Thanksgiving, inviting family and friends over.
“I . . . wanted to see . . . the baby . . . Bella.” Her words were staccatolike between sobs; she was having trouble even getting the words out.
“Aunt Sherry,” Annie said softly. “Has something happened to my parents?”
Her aunt ignored the question. “When I got . . . close . . . just . . . two blocks away . . .” She continued in the same jerky speech. “The police . . . they . . . stopped me.”
“The police?” Annie repeated, her mind whirling. “What were the police doing there?”
“They . . . had . . . It was barricaded.”
“A barricade?” Annie hated that she sounded like an echo, but her aunt wasn’t making a whole lot of sense.
“It’s . . . been raining . . . and raining.”
“Well, that happens in Seattle quite a bit.” Annie impatiently added, “Especially around this time of year.” The Seattle area was known for its rainfall, which was another reason Annie chose to live in California.
“Annie,” her aunt said, sobbing hysterically, while sucking in deep breaths between her words. “You . . . You . . . don’t understand, the entire hillside . . . is gone. It . . . simply . . . gave way, taking . . . taking everything with . . . it.”
Gabby gasped at the news.
Annie slowly rose out of her bed, standing with one hand pressing against her forehead while the other pressed the phone to her ear. “Are you telling me Mom and Dad’s house slid off the hillside?”
“Yes,” Aunt Sherry said and gasped. “Their house . . . and . . . twenty . . . other homes.”
Annie froze and glanced at the television screen. Breaking news had just interrupted the newscast. A helicopter was flying over the water, identified on the screen below as Puget Sound. A single home was breaking apart in the mud-caked waters below the helicopter and sinking into the water.
“Mom and Dad?” Annie pleaded, as her heart pounded at the seriousness of what had happened. “Did they get out?”
“I . . . I don’t know . . . I don’t know how they could have. Everyone said it happened so fast, and so early . . .”
Annie fell back onto her bed, her legs shaking so hard they wouldn’t hold her up any longer. Her entire body began to tremble. “How early this morning?”
“The officer said . . . it happened around four . . . They think . . . most everyone was still in bed. No . . . notice. No . . . warning.”
The tightness in Annie’s chest made it impossible to speak. It was highly likely that her entire family had just been wiped out in a mudslide.
And her baby niece.
Annie’s mind couldn’t absorb what she was hearing and seeing on the television. Her aunt’s sobs echoed in her ear and seemed to be reverberating against the walls of her head.
“Annie?” her aunt sobbed. “Are . . . Are you there? Say . . . something.”
“I’m here,” Annie managed to whisper. She inhaled and followed her own advice, counting to five and then breathing in again, hoping the technique would calm the rising sense of panic that threatened to overcome her. “I . . . I need . . . I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
“Good. Have Gabby . . . make . . . Have her do . . . the flight arrangements.”
“I will.” How calm she sounded, Annie thought to herself, but her voice wasn’t her own. It seemed to come from across the room somewhere. Her cousin placed her arms around her, hugging her closely. “Find out what you can before I get there.”
“I’ll . . . do what . . . I’ll see what I can learn.”
“There must be survivors,” Annie insisted, doing her best to think positively, convinced her parents had somehow found a way to escape. She had to believe they were alive, because anything else would be impossible to accept.
“I’ll do . . . what I can. I promise, but . . .”
“But what?” Annie demanded, her voice gaining in strength.
“But . . . Annie . . . there’s little hope for survivors. I’m so sorry, so very sorry.”