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It was one of those chilly, foggy days that masquerade as summer in northern California, as the wind whipped across the long crescent of beach, and whisk-broomed a cloud of fine sand into the air. A little girl in red shorts and a white sweatshirt walked slowly down the beach, with her head turned against the wind, as her dog sniffed at seaweed at the water's edge.
The little girl had short curly red hair, amber-flecked honey-colored eyes, and a dusting of freckles across her face, and those who knew children would have guessed her to be somewhere between ten and twelve. She was graceful and small, with skinny little legs. And the dog was a chocolate Lab. They walked slowly down from the gated community toward the public beach at the far end. There was almost no one on the beach that day, it was too cold. But she didn't mind, and the dog barked from time to time at the little swirls of sand raised by the wind, and then bounded back to the water's edge. He leaped backward, barking furiously, when he saw a crab, and the little girl laughed. It was obvious that the child and the dog were good friends. Something about the way they walked along together suggested a solitary life, as though one could sense that they had walked along this way often before. They walked side by side for a long time.
Some days it was hot and sunny on the beach, as one would expect in July, but not always. When the fog came in, it always seemed wintry and cold. You could see the fog roll in across the waves, and straight through the spires of the Golden Gate. At times you could see the bridge from the beach. Safe Harbour was thirty-five minutes north of San Francisco, and more than half of it was a gated community, with houses sitting just behind the dune, all along the beach. A security booth with a guard kept out the unwelcome. There was no access to the beach itself save from the houses that bordered it. At the other end, there was a public beach, and a row of simpler, almost shacklike houses, which had access to the beach as well. On hot sunny days, the public beach was crowded and populated inch by inch. But most of the time, even the public beach was sparsely visited, and at the private end, it was rare to see anyone on the beach at all.
The child had just reached the stretch of beach where the simpler houses were, when she saw a man sitting on a folding stool, painting a watercolor propped against an easel. She stopped and watched him from a considerable distance, as the Lab loped up the dune to pursue an intriguing scent he seemed to have discovered on the wind. The little girl sat down on the sand far from the artist, watching him work. And she was far enough away that he was not aware of her at all. She just liked watching him, there was something solid and familiar about him as the wind brushed through his short dark hair. She liked observing people, and did the same thing with fishermen sometimes, staying well away from them, but taking in all they did. She sat there for a long time, as the artist worked. And she noticed that there were boats in his painting that didn't exist. It was quite a while before the dog came back and sat down next to her on the sand. She stroked him, without looking at him, she was looking out to sea, and then from time to time at the man.
After a while, she stood up and approached a little bit, standing behind him and to the side, so he remained unaware of her presence, but she had a clear view of his work in progress. She liked the colors he was working with, and there was a sunset in the painting that she liked as well. The dog was tired by then, and stood by, seeming to wait for a command. And it was yet another little while before she approached again, and stood near enough for the artist to notice her at last. He looked up, startled, as the dog bounded past him, sending up a spray of sand. It was only then that the man glanced up and saw the child. He said nothing, and went on working, and was surprised to notice that she hadn't moved, and was still watching him, when he turned his head again, and mixed some water in his paints.
They said nothing to each other, but she continued to watch, and finally sat down on the sand. It was warmer, keeping low in the wind. Like her, the artist was wearing a sweatshirt, and in his case jeans, and an old pair of deck shoes that were well worn. He had a gently weathered face and a deep tan, and she noticed as he worked that he had nice hands. He was roughly the same age as her father, in his forties somewhere. And as he turned to see if she was still there, their eyes met, but neither smiled. He hadn't talked to a child in a long time.
"Do you like to draw?" He couldn't imagine any other reason why she'd still be there, except if she were an aspiring artist. She would have been bored otherwise. In truth, she just liked the silent companionship of being close to someone, even a stranger. It seemed friendly somehow.
"Sometimes." She was cautious with him. He was, after all, a stranger, and she knew the rules about that.
"What do you like to draw?" he asked, cleaning a brush, and looking down at it as he talked. He had a handsome, chiseled face, and a cleft chin. There was something quiet and powerful about him, with broad shoulders and long legs. And in spite of sitting on the artist's stool, you could see he was a tall man.
"I like to draw my dog. How do you draw the boats if they aren't there?"
He smiled this time as he turned toward her, and their eyes met again. "I imagine them. Would you like to try?" He held out a small sketch pad and a pencil, it was obvious that she wasn't going anywhere. She hesitated, and then stood up, walked toward him, and took the pencil and pad.
"Can I draw my dog?" Her delicate face was serious as she inquired. She felt honored that he had offered her the pad.
"Sure. You can draw anything you like." They didn't exchange names, but just sat near each other for a time, as each worked. She looked intent as she labored on the drawing. "What's his name?" the artist inquired as the Lab sailed past them, chasing birds.
"Mousse," she said, without raising her eyes from her drawing.
"He doesn't look much like a moose. But it's a good name," he said, correcting something on his own work, and momentarily scowling at his painting.
"It's a dessert. It's French, and it's chocolate."
"I guess that'll work," he said, looking satisfied again. He was almost through for the day. It was after four o'clock and he'd been there since lunchtime. "Do you speak French?" he said, more for something to say than out of any real interest, and was surprised when she nodded. It had been years since he'd spoken to a child her age, and he wasn't sure what he should say to her. But she had been so tenacious in her silent presence. And he noticed, as he glanced at her, that aside from the red hair, she looked a little like his daughter. Vanessa had had long straight blond hair at that age, but there was something similar about the demeanor and the posture. If he squinted, he could almost see her.
"My mom's French," she added, as she sat, observing her own work. She had encountered the same difficulty she always did when she drew Moussethe back legs didn't come out right.
"Let's take a look," he said, holding a hand out for the sketch pad, aware of her consternation.
"I can never do the back part," she said, handing it to him. They were like master and student, the drawing creating an instant bond between them. And she seemed strangely comfortable with him.
"I'll show you. . . . May I?" he asked her permission before adding to her efforts, and she nodded. And with careful strokes of the pencil, he corrected the problem. It was actually a very creditable portrait of the dog, even before he improved it. "You did a good job," he observed, as he handed the page back to her and put away his sketch pad and pencil.
"Thank you for fixing it. I never know how to do that part."
"You'll know next time," he said, and started putting his paints away. It was getting colder, but neither of them seemed to notice.
"Are you going home now?" She looked disappointed, and it struck him as he looked into the cognac-colored eyes that she was lonely, and it touched him. Something about her haunted him.
"It's getting late." And the fog on the waves was getting thicker. "Do you live here, or are you just visiting?" Neither knew the other's name, but it didn't seem to matter.
"I'm here for the summer." There was no excitement in her voice, and she smiled seldom. He couldn't help wondering about her. She had crept into his afternoon, and now there was an odd, undefinable link between them.
"At the gated end?" He assumed she had come from the north end of the beach, and she nodded.
"Do you live here?" she asked, and he gestured with his head in the direction of one of the bungalows just behind them in answer. "Are you an artist?"
"I guess so. So are you," he smiled, glancing at the portrait of Mousse she was holding tightly. Neither of them seemed to want to leave, but they knew they had to. She had to get home before her mother did, or she'd get in trouble. She had escaped the baby-sitter who'd been talking for hours on the phone with her boyfriend. The child knew that the teenaged baby-sitter never cared if she went wandering off. Most of the time she didn't even notice, until the child's mother came home and asked about her.
"My father used to draw too." He noticed the "used to," but wasn't sure if it meant that her father no longer drew, or had left them. He suspected the latter. She was probably a child from a broken home, hungry for male attention. None of that was unfamiliar to him.
"Is he an artist?"
"No, an engineer. And he invented some things." And then, with a sigh, she looked at him sadly. "I guess I'd better go home now." And as though on cue, Mousse reappeared and stood beside her.
"Maybe I'll see you again sometime." It was early July, and there was still a lot of life left in the summer. But he had never seen her before, and suspected she didn't come down this way very often. It was a good distance for her.
"Thank you for letting me draw with you," she said politely, a smile dancing in her eyes this time, and the wistfulness he saw there touched him profoundly.
"I liked it," he said honestly, and then stuck a hand out to her, feeling somewhat awkward. "My name is Matthew Bowles, by the way."
She shook his hand solemnly, and he was impressed by her poise and good manners. She was a remarkable little soul, and he was glad to have met her. "I'm Pip Mackenzie."
"That's an interesting name. Pip? Is that short for something?"
"Yes. I hate it," she giggled, seeming more her own age again. "Phillippa. I was named after my grandfather. Isn't it awful?" She screwed up her face in disdain for her own name, and it elicited a smile from him. She was irresistible, particularly with the curly red hair and the freckles, all of which delighted him. He wasn't even sure anymore if he liked children. He generally avoided them. But this one was different. There was something magical about her.
"Actually, I like it. Phillippa. Maybe one day you'll like it."
"I don't think so. It's a stupid name. I like Pip better."
"I'll remember that when I see you next time," he said, smiling at her.
They seemed to be lingering, reluctant to leave each other.
"I'll come back again, when my mom goes to the city. Maybe Thursday." He had the distinct impression, given what she said, that she had either sneaked out or slipped away unnoticed, but at least she had the dog with her. Suddenly, for no reason he could think of, he felt responsible for her.
He folded his stool then, and picked up the worn, battered box he kept his paints in. He put the folded easel under one arm, and they stood looking at each other for a long moment.
"Thank you again, Mr. Bowles."
"Matt. Thank you for the visit. Good-bye, Pip," he said almost sadly.
"Bye," she said with a wave, and then danced away like a leaf on the wind, as she waved again, and ran up the beach with Mousse behind her.
He stood watching her for a long time, wondering if he'd ever see her again, or if it mattered. She was only a child after all. He put his head down then against the wind, and walked up the dune to his small weather-beaten cottage. He never locked the door, and when he walked inside and set his things down in the kitchen, he felt an ache he hadn't felt in years and didn't welcome. That was the trouble with children, he told himself, as he poured himself a glass of wine. They crept right into your soul, like a splinter under a fingernail, and then it hurt like hell when you removed them. But maybe it was worth it. There was something exceptional about her, and as he thought of the little girl on the beach, his eyes drifted to the portrait he had painted years before of a girl who looked remarkably like her. It was his daughter Vanessa when she was roughly the same age. And with that, he walked into his living room, and sank heavily into an old battered leather chair, and looked out at the fog rolling in over the ocean. And as he stared at it, all he could see in his mind's eye was the little girl with bright red curly hair and freckles, and the haunting cognac-colored eyes.
Ophelie Mackenzie took the last winding turn in the road, and drove the station wagon slowly through the tiny town of Safe Harbour. The town consisted of two restaurants, a bookstore, a surf shop, a grocery store, and an art gallery. It had been an arduous afternoon in the city for her. She hated going to the group twice a week, but she had to admit that it helped her. She had been going to it since June, and had another three months ahead of her. She had even agreed to attend meetings over the summer, which was why she had left Pip with their neighbor's daughter. Amy was sixteen, liked to baby-sit, or so she claimed, and needed the money to supplement her allowance. Ophelie needed the help, and Pip seemed to like her. It was a comfortable arrangement for all concerned, although Ophelie hated driving into town twice a week, even though it only took her half an hour, forty minutes at most. As commutes went, aside from the ten-mile stretch of hairpin turns between the freeway and the beach, it was easy. And driving along the cliffs, on the winding road, looking out over the ocean relaxed her. But this afternoon she was tired. It was exhausting sometimes listening to the others, and her own problems hadn't improved much since October. If anything, it seemed to be getting harder. But at least she had the support of the group, it was someone to talk to. And when she needed to, she could let her hair down with them, and admit how rotten she was feeling. She didn't like burdening Pip with her troubles. It didn't seem fair to do that to a child of eleven.