The Cottage 


She wiped the tears from her eyes, telling herself over and over that it was just a

memorial service. They weren't really burying her. Not really.

But the sobs came again and she stumbled, one hand reaching out to steady herself, the

other covering her mouth as she tried to keep her emotions in check.

"Miss? Are you all right?"

Jill turned, startled. She hadn't seen anyone else. The others—the family—were all at the

grave site. She stared at the elderly woman, embarrassed by her lack of control. She shook

her head slowly then fumbled in her purse for another tissue.

"Are you a friend of the family, dear?"

Jill cleared her throat, her voice hoarse from crying. "Excuse me. But what?"

"She was so young. You were close?"

Jill nodded then blew her nose.

"I didn't know the family. They rarely went to church," the woman said with just a hint of

disapproval in her voice. "But my niece works at one of his stores."

"I see." Jill dabbed at her eyes, cursing herself for coming. She knew it would serve no

purpose. She'd already said her good-byes. But no, she had to come. She wanted to see

them. And it only served to accentuate her breakdown. A breakdown in front of a perfect


"I come to visit my Eddie nearly every day. He's been gone three years now."

Jill frowned, turned and stared at the monument she was leaning against. Edward


"Oh my God," Jill murmured. "I'm so sorry."

"Oh, I doubt Eddie minds. He probably enjoys the company." The woman patted the seat

next to her on the bench. "Come, sit with me a bit. Tell me about your friend there. People

are always afraid to talk about the dead, as if they didn't exist. My own kids, my

grandkids, after Eddie died, they hardly ever mentioned him. As if they thought he wasn't

always on my mind anyway."

"You were married a long time?"

"Oh, yes. Sixty-three years. A long time to be with someone. A long time to love someone.

People don't realize the huge void in one's life after a death. Oh, people say, I know how

you feel but they really don't. Not unless they've lost someone too."

"I suppose you're right."

"Come, sit with me for awhile."

Jill was about to decline. She hadn't told anyone about her. About them. About their life.

But the old woman's skin crinkled as she smiled, her brown eyes warm and inviting.

Jill sighed and cleared her throat. "The funeral was private. Family only. The service out

here was private too."

"Oh. So you're crashing it?"

Jill smiled sadly, nodding. "Yeah. She was... she was cremated." Jill motioned with her hand.

"Who has a service in the cemetery when they're not even burying them?"

The woman shrugged. "I guess they're going to put a headstone down, give her kids

someplace to go to." The woman patted the bench again. "Come sit. My name is Beatrice. My

Eddie always called me Bea."

Jill smiled. "Bea. I'm Jill."

"I never understood private funerals. I mean, there's more than just the family who wants

to say good-bye. Like you, for instance."

Jill sat down heavily on the bench, her eyes sliding back to the family as they stood holding

hands. The pastor was speaking, his hands outstretched to the sky. Jill shook her head.

God, she would have hated this.

"They didn't know I existed. Still don't. But I loved her so," Jill whispered. "And she loved


"I don't understand."

Jill swallowed and cleared her throat again. "We met by chance less than a year ago." Jill

turned, facing Bea. "Do you believe in soul mates?"


A year earlier

It was a glorious January day and Jill found a quiet park bench. Her park bench. She slid to

one side—the end still in bright sunshine—and unwrapped the sandwich she'd made that

morning. She'd been coming to the park for years, enjoying the lake and woods while she

escaped from the city for an hour each day. Development on the north side of the lake had

the city streets encroaching on the park but the quiet remained. The lake and surrounding

woods totaled over a thousand acres, land that local developers had been salivating over

for years. And little by little, the county would sell a few acres here and there, shrinking

the park while developers kept the county commissioners' pockets lined with cash. Jill was

proud to have served on the Citizens Action Committee which helped pass a ballot initiative

to stop any future land sales.

"Bunch of idiot politicians," she murmured.

But the park was safe now. No matter how much the city grew—and it seemed it was

getting bigger each year—this land would be here, undisturbed.

She bit into her sandwich, scanning the picnic area, seeing familiar faces but none of whom

she knew. They were just faces of people like her, coming to the park for a quick escape.

She never felt the urge to talk to any of them, but people-watching had become a hobby.

And then she saw her. The painter. The woman had been here every day for the last two

weeks. She was closer today, standing out at the edge of the trees, facing the lake. She

didn't have an easel this time, just a large sketchpad. As Jill watched her, the woman

leaned back against the tree, head cocked sideways as she studied the lake.

Jill wondered who she was and where she was from. Her salt-and-pepper hair hinted at her

age, that and the reading glasses that were sometimes perched on top of her head. But her

lithe, graceful body contradicted those signs of an older woman. Jill stared, transfixed as

her hand moved across the paper. She had a nearly overwhelming urge to walk closer, just

to see what the woman was sketching. The lake, most likely, but still, Jill had to see.

Something was pulling her, urging her up off the park bench. Surprised, she found herself

creeping closer to the woman, peering over her shoulder. She saw the woman's hand still,

then watched as she slowly turned, sensing her presence. She slid the tiny reading glasses

back to the more familiar position on top of her head. In the brief seconds that their eyes

met, Jill noticed two things. One, her salt-and-pepper hair did indeed belie her age. She

couldn't have been much older than Jill. And two, there was something so familiar about

her, she nearly stopped breathing. Pale blue eyes collided with her own and a warm smile

transformed the woman's face.


n i d e l i m s e h S . e h t a e r b o t d e r e b m e m e r y l l a n i f l l i J y r r o s m ' I " . y l l a c i t e g o l o p a t i b a , n r u t e r.

but curiosity got the better of me," she explained

"Oh, my sketch." The woman held out the pad. "Here, take a look."

Jill gasped then looked up, again meeting pale blue eyes. "It's... it's me. Sort of."

The woman laughed. "Yeah, sort of. I've seen you on that same bench for days. I thought I

would try and sketch it from memory. I didn't want to actually sit and stare at you. That

freaks some people out."

Jill laughed too and handed the pad back. "And here I thought I was observing you in


"No, people are generally curious when they see someone painting out in public. Or

sketching, as is the case today." The woman held out her hand. "I'm Carrie Howell, by the


Jill took her hand, noting how strong the slim fingers were that wrapped around her own.

"Jill. Jill Richardson."

"Nice to meet you, Jill. You come out here often?"

Jill nodded. "Nearly everyday. When the weather's good."

"Lunch break?"

"Yes, one to two."

Carrie nodded. "I usually come around one myself. It's too crowded during the noon hour,

especially on gorgeous days like today." She pointed to the lake. "I was actually hoping

someone would take a paddleboat or canoe out. I love sketching the lake when it's calm like


"But you do more than sketch. I saw you with an easel the other day."

"I use mostly chalk or charcoal if I'm not painting with water-colors. That's my favorite.

And on the few occasions I feel daring, I play with acrylic or oils but not often." She

shrugged. "It's just a hobby, really. I could always sketch but I've taken classes for

watercolors and other mediums."

"Well, nice hobby to have. It must be relaxing." Jill motioned back to her park bench. "But

I'm cutting into your time. I'll let you get back to it."

"Maybe it's me who is cutting into your time," Carrie said with a laugh. "It was nice to meet

you, Jill. Thanks for being the subject for my sketch."

"Any time."

Jill walked back to her bench, her sandwich long forgotten. She couldn't shake the feeling

that their meeting was somehow preordained. Although she knew she'd never met Carrie

Howell before, the familiarity of her eyes indicated otherwise. Jill would swear she'd

stared into them before.

As she drove back to her tiny office on Oak Street, she replayed her meeting with Carrie,