"You look nice. Haven't seen that blouse on you before."
"Oh!" Carolyn gasped, turning from the hall mirror, where she'd been knotting the tie neck of said blouse. Even after a few weeks, it was still a shock to hear another voice in the house than her own. And after a few days, Mandy had learned the art of navigating the creaky stairs and groaning hallways, and could move soundlessly through the house. It was hard to predict where her restless feet would take her next. "Thank you. I try to look nice for church."
Mandy, who had been living in increasingly thick layers of sweaters and sweatshirts as the spring cold persisted, tucked her chin into her mustard-yellow sweater. "Right, you said you were going today. Mind if I come with? It's been awhile. Treat you to breakfast afterwards? You keep talking about Izzy's, and I've looked up their menu. The loaded French toast sounds amazing."
A refusal—of the breakfast, of course, not the ride—leaped to her tongue, but Carolyn bit it off. Mandy was forever offering favors, favors her upbringing had practically hard-wired her to decline, but she had come to realize that her new friend's generosity was just that. Generosity. So which would be ruder? To refuse the offer, relieving Mandy of the burden of following through, or to accept and be a leech on Mandy's finances?
"That would be nice," she said at last, the words spoken carefully, in defiance of all instinct. "You really don't have to."
"I want to," was the usual refrain, but Mandy's smile was warm with kind understanding. "Give me a few minutes to change and I'll be right down."
"No rush," Carolyn always budgeted an extra fifteen minutes for the trip, which usually left her drinking lukewarm coffee in the church basement before the service. This morning though, she suspected she would be ambushed the minute she stepped through the doors; it was so rare for her to miss a week that having now missed two in a row—last Sunday she'd offered to drive Mandy to the Ikea in Bloomington—the congregation would be wild to hear about what had kept her away.
Lucy would have told them most everything by now, Carolyn suspected. Lucy had been the first she'd told about her crazy plan to begin with, and as the youth pastor's wife, she was in prime strategic position to share all the tidbits Carolyn had let slip about Mandy over their texts. Well, at least this way Carolyn wouldn't be responsible for any misinformation spreading, if Mandy was there to answer the whole town's questions about her in person.
She sighed, turning to the mirror. Just as well she'd made an extra effort that morning, with a hint of blush on her cheeks and a dab of cherry-red lip balm. And her forest green blouse, with its high, tied collar, did look particularly nice beneath the trailing ends of her strawberry-blonde hair. Ooh. Maybe she'd stop in at the salon and make an appointment, because those ends were looking a bit frayed. Winter cold sapped all moisture from her body, and she was never as careful as she ought to be.
"You look great," Mandy's voice again made her startle. She had changed into sapphire-blue wrap dress layered over charcoal gray leggings, and carried a gray wool pea-coat and heeled boots. Scrutinizing herself in the mirror, Mandy turned, posed, and grinned. "What do you think about this for my debut?"
"You look wonderful," Carolyn said, and meant it. Mandy's figure was beautiful even in clothes that would turn Carolyn into a flour sack, so in a dress designed to make the most of her, Mandy was stunning. She was now doubly glad she'd made an effort, because to stand up next to Mandy was inevitably to be seen. "Ready to go?"
"Ready to go," she replied, heading towards the door, "and ready to freeze, I guess. It's a pity looking good always means being cold in the winter."
"You should get some long underwear," Carolyn's kept her toasty, even underneath thin slacks, "it helps."
"Yeah, I've been researching cold-weather clothes, seeing as how what I thought would be enough definitely hasn't been. Expect some packages over the next few days. My credit card and I have been having some fun."
The drive into town was quiet; Carolyn liked to focus on the road, and Mandy absorbed herself in scenery. She couldn't understand what was so fascinating about half-frozen ponds or stands of skeletal trees, but she supposed it was a change after the forest of skyscrapers Mandy had called home for the last three years.
Hong Kong. Even pictures of it were overwhelming to Carolyn. So many people and so much life crammed vertically into such a small area. The constant bustle and noise…the idea of it made her head hurt. But to go from that life, where there was always something new to do and see, to this one, where their days were spent quietly walking from room to room…she couldn't imagine how it could satisfy.
But it did. She thought so, anyway. Mandy certainly seemed at ease no matter what she did, whether it was lounging on the sofa reading, or cooking an elaborate meal for them, or taking long walks along the barren country roads surrounding the house like withered veins. After her virtual classes finished for the day—and she only worked from 5:30 to 9:30 in the morning—she could spent the hours absorbed in any number of quiet hobbies. Carolyn, despite being used to this life, felt dull in comparison.
That was hardly new.
Carolyn pulled into her usual spot towards the back of the church lot. "Before we go in, I should warn you," she hesitated, wondering how to frame things eloquently.
"I'm prepared to be the circus sideshow," Mandy finished, smiling. "Don't worry. I usually am. How much do your friends know about me?"
"I've told them a bit," Carolyn said, "It's still hard for them to believe you're actually here."
Mandy unfastened her seatbelt and buttoned up her coat. "I'm a little surprised no one's come out to say 'hi' yet. Did you tell 'em to stay away?"
Not as such, but not not as such, was the most honest answer. Carolyn settled for, "I—I thought you'd want some time to settle in first."
"Ha! I figured. Well, let's do this," she swung open the door and eased herself into the frigid air. Carolyn, double-checking that she'd put the car into park and after locking the door twice, followed after.
Mandy walked up to the church like she'd been there hundreds of times before. The ushers, Dan Phillips and Mark Parson, shook her outstretched hand heartily, playfully teasing Carolyn for keeping her 'guest' in captivity on the farm. Mandy responded in kind, lingering at the door while Carolyn ducked through, feeling her ears warming in embarrassment at their jokes. That flush spread to her cheeks when Lucy, spying her in the foyer, immediately abandoned the Lundquist tribe of eight and descended on her.
"Carrie!" she cried, throwing her arms around Carolyn, "You're here! You should have told me; I'm only here because Pastor Sanbury asked Ashley to sing in this sermon too. How could you let me almost miss you? And where's—" she broke off with a gasp, eyes going wide, and voice lowering to a stage whisper, "oh. Never mind, I see her. Wow."
Carolyn had never known Lucy Burch intimidated by anyone, so it was almost gratifying to see her accept Mandy's handshake with a faint, "Good morning."
She made the introductions. "Amanda Blore, this is my friend, Lucy Burch. Lucy, this is Amanda."
"Mandy," she corrected, drawing her hand back. "It's nice to meet you. Carolyn tells me you're an old friend. I expect the inside scoop, you know."
"Oh!" whether Mandy had known or not, she couldn't have made any surer invitation to friendship; Lucy loved to gossip and hoarded tasty stories to trade like a squirrel hoards acorns in winter. "I'd be happy to, but you'll have to talk her into letting me visit sometime. Carolyn's become very shy since you arrived."
"Well, we're going to breakfast after the service. Why not come with us?"
Lucy pressed a be-ringed hand to her heart, shaking her head. "Aren't you the sweetest? I would love to, but the youth group is rehearsing right now for the Easter review. My husband is the youth pastor," she preened, gesturing towards Matthew Burch, tuning his guitar onstage, "and I'm the choir director. Sunday's are pretty full for us, I'm sure you can imagine. But neither of us would want to be anywhere else."
"Another time, then," Mandy said, nodding, "If Carolyn doesn't mind me taking over the kitchen for a night, I'll host you all for dinner."
"That would be lovely, wouldn't it, Carrie?"
"Of course," refusing hospitality was unthinkable, but she mentally groaned at the thought of scrubbing out the mudroom again. And she'd have to unpack all the good china, and was there even enough of the silver dinner service for five? Thomas had taken a big chunk of it with him, but Carolyn couldn't remember how much. She made a mental note to check as soon as they got home.
With a few more token pleasantries dropped, Carolyn and Mandy were allowed to pass into the sanctuary, their progress slowed as people Carolyn hadn't spoken to in months made it their personal business to reproach her for not having come to see them, introduce themselves to Mandy and gush that they were all sure to be the best of friends, weren't they, because Carrie was just such a gem, so reliable, and they all loved her and would Mandy like to come to dinner or Bingo night or reading hour at the library because all of Westerberg had been dying to meet her?
Even Stephanie Alstrom, of all people—whom Carolyn had despised ever since she had pointedly refused to invite Carolyn to her twelfth birthday party, leaving her in a flood of humiliated tears at being the only girl in sixth grade not to attend her epic sleepover—invited Mandy to career day for her third-graders. The pang of betrayal Carolyn felt when Mandy readily accepted was ridiculous, and she knew it, but it still bled her like a needle.
Responsibility towards her guest wouldn't allow Carolyn to slip away, so minutes ticked endlessly by as what felt like the entire congregation processed past to welcome Mandy and ignore her. The opening chords of 'Our God is an Awesome God' had never sounded so beautiful, for they finally provided the cover Carolyn needed to hustle Mandy into her pew and put her back to everyone in the church. There, she mouthed the words and tried to conquer the sensations of irritation and resentment swelling in her heart, flagellating herself for not feeling more charitable, more Christian.
Mandy was a guest, a guest who had been in a variety of distant, exciting places. Naturally everyone was thrilled to meet her. Then too, Mandy was charming, full of bubbly conversation—which Carolyn had been enjoying alone like a miser—and moved effortlessly through a crowd of strangers. Who could help but want to meet her?
She was welcome news to a town that generated little of its own. Jealousy was inexcusable under these circumstances.
"That was nice," Mandy said, boots crunching on a slick of ice in the parking lot. Tossing a glance over her shoulder, she added, quietly, "Although I did think we'd never get out of there. Are they always like this?"
"No," her voice was sharper than she intended. She blinked. "They're just curious about you. Next time it shouldn't be so bad. Give it time and they'll ignore you."
"Yeah, I bet," she replied, "But it was a lot. You still up for breakfast? We could just go home and I'll cook. I've got enough eggs and ham for a few killer omelets."
Was Mandy offering her an escape? Was this another favor? Either way, Carolyn would not have forgiven herself for taking it. Her weakness was her own concern. "Oh, yes. I'm looking forward to it. I haven't eaten at Izzy's in awhile, and I'd like you to meet her."
They climbed into the truck and Carolyn revved the engine to life. "Yes. Remember that friend I told you about, whose parents own the bakery? That's Izzy. She went to college to study hospitality and when she came back, she opened a café. It was part of her parents' business for a bit," Carolyn backed out of the parking lot and swung them into the road, "but it really took off, so she renovated this old paper mill a little outside of town and turned it into a gorgeous restaurant. We joke that almost every couple in town gets engaged at Izzy's. It's really the only 'fancy' restaurant in Westerberg."
"It looked nice on the website. She's got a real eye for design."
"She started planning for her own place when we were kids. In high school, she took cooking classes and was even head of the student café in senior year. Did you see the deep-fried pancake twists on the menu?" At Mandy's nod, she went on, "She developed those back in ninth grade. They were the star of every bake sale."
"Ooh, maybe I'll try those instead. A true local delicacy."
"They're pretty amazing."
They fell into silence again during the drive, Mandy studying each building they passed as though committing it to memory. Carolyn reflected that they hadn't actually been into town more than twice since Mandy had arrived. It wasn't part of her normal routine—she'd go to the grocery store each week and do all her errands at the same time—and her budget wasn't such as to allow her to eat out more than once a month. And though she did spend time with friends, their families and schedules often complicated their plans. The last person she'd visited with was Lucy, and that was back in February, for their annual Galentine's Day movie marathon.
What could Carolyn have taken her to see, anyway? There just wasn't much to Westerberg. The town had only a rough crosshatch of four major roads, each one running for only a few miles before the buildings and stores petered out into cornfields and windbreaks again, a farmhouse or two lying in lonely splendor in the snowy fields. And inside the town were all the landmarks you would expect to find. There was the library, a hardware store, a few general stores—including the historic one kept alive by the town's good will and a few grants from preservation societies—as well as a fair few bait and tackle shops. The crowning gem of Westerberg was the school, which had been expanded a decade ago to include a fancy workshop—what they called a 'maker's studio'—which, among other things, included a bank of 3D printers. Carolyn remembered going to the open house with the rest of the town, shaking her head at how things had changed.
They were following the river now, trees denser as they huddled near the shore, and the road wound a bit more as it followed the icy stream. The river was an offshoot of the local lake system, which lay a further half-hour to the east, and which at this time of year were besieged by ice fishers making the best of the late season. Carolyn wondered if she should ask Mandy about ice fishing, because it was a local hobby and even though Carolyn despised it, Mandy might not. She didn't seem to despise anything. It made her feel like a gremlin in comparison.
Thankfully, there was no time to consider the question, for the Mill had just come into sight.
"Oh," Mandy cooed, "That's lovely."
It was. The mill was a two-story whitewashed building with a tall, peaked roof, lying just to one side of the river, part of its base cantilevered out over the stream. Izzy had stripped the heavy beams around the windows and eaves so that the dark wood would stand out in contrast to the white brick, and she had even restored the water wheel to operation, although it turned on a motor now, not by the force of flowing water. In the winter, it iced over in delicate falls of brittle white, icicles breaking off occasionally to float in the sluggish, dark water of the stream. Izzy was also a big believer in Christmas lights, which she changed with the seasons. Winter was blue and white, and even in warm sunlight, the colors gleamed.
They pulled into the crowded parking lot. Sundays were always busy at the Mill, catering to the after-church rush and the secular weekend brunch crowd. Another two cars pulled in as they picked their way across the parking lot and into the bubbling dining room.
"Carolyn!" the hostess Michelle waved her through the crowd, "Long time no see! Table for—" she broke off, peering at Mandy over the thick rim of her glasses, "oh. Table for two?"
"Yes," she said, "and if it's not too much trouble, could you put us by a window?"
"No problem. I could seat two at the barrel, and it's free now, if you want it?"
"Um," she turned to Mandy, "there's a table now, but it's kind of…well, it's a bit smaller than the others because it's a renovated water barrel. Not everyone likes it, so it's usually free, but the view is very nice."
"That sounds fine to me, but are you okay with it?"
"Yes," she nodded to Michelle, "Okay, we'll take the barrel."
Michelle led them through the dining room to the riverside of the restaurant, where a row of traditional two and four person tables each occupied the tall windows overlooking the river. About midway through the hall, crouched beneath the stairs, was the barrel.
When they saw it, Mandy laughed. "I love it! How adorable!"
Carolyn smiled. It really was. The barrel was original to the paper mill, and Izzy herself—with a bit of Carolyn's help—had sanded, varnished, and oiled it to a high shine. Its broad mouth had been topped with a square of old door, some of the original iron fittings still in place. It was a bit small for two, but its position was a bit more intimate than the other tables, and it was positioned just over the waterfall, which meant they had a great view of the lacy line of roiling water as it spilled endlessly over the ridge.
It was also Carolyn's honorary table, and had been since the day she and Izzy had finished making it over. Her initials were even on the underside, scrawled in a drizzle of gloopy varnish.
Michelle took their coats and left them with some menus, promising—despite Carolyn's protests—to tell Izzy they were here.
Mandy folded her arms atop the menu and took a lingering look around. She sighed. "I love places like this. It just feels so right, when a place that's been useful in the past continues to be useful in the present. So much better than just bulldozing it and putting up a boring old box, you know?"
"Yes," she agreed, opening her menu. Pro forma, of course. Carolyn only ever ordered the scrambled eggs with green salsa, accompanied by a side of refried beans and cornbread. "There are a few places around here like that, and they're always popular. I'm just glad that, even though there's a Walmart a few towns over, a lot of us still visit local shops. There's a big feeling in Westerberg about preserving history."
"I could tell. Were the pews at church the originals too?"
"Some of them; the annex has new ones, of course."
"Felt like it. The aesthetic is nice, but my butt just doesn't like vintage."
Carolyn laughed, startled again by Mandy's quick humor. Joking about church, even about how hard the cushions in the pews were, felt sacrilegious. She could almost see her mother's stormy frown, and laughed even harder.
Mandy had opened the menu. "Ooh, yeah. Those pancake twists. They sound amazing. And does this place serve a latte? My milk frother broke in transit and I've been dying for one."
"In the back," Carolyn only ever got the drip coffee; a latte was $2 more expensive.
"Well hey, stranger," a light, sweet voice broke in. Izzy ducked under the stairs to squeeze Carolyn in a half-hug and planted a kiss on her temple. "Missed you! How've you been?"
"Just fine," Carolyn returned the hug, "Uh, Izzy, meet Mandy. Amanda Blore, I mean. And Amanda, this is Izzy—Isabelle Morales."
Izzy stuck out her hand. "I go by Izzy."
Mandy met it, squeezing heartily. "I go by Mandy. Nice to meet you."
"And you. I have to thank you; Carolyn usually doesn't come to the restaurant. She must be here because of you. Both your meals are on me today, by the way, so help yourselves."
"That's nice of you, thanks," Mandy replied before Carolyn could sputter out an excuse. "Everything looks delicious. Carolyn told me about your famous pancake twists; do you recommend them with fruit or chocolate and caramel?"
"Chocolate and caramel, definitely. Although I'll toss some strawberries on 'em for you too."
"Excellent. And your blackberry latte sounds fantastic."
"It is! You wouldn't believe how long it took to find the right syrup for it," Izzy sighed, taking Mandy's menu, "Everything has to be special-ordered out here, and I tried six different brands before we got the right one. But when it's right, it's right. Carolyn, the usual for you?"
At her friend's nod, she took her menu too. "Great. I'll try to swing by if things get a little quieter later, but," she looked around, grinning, "it looks like another busy weekend. Nice to meet you Mandy, and enjoy!"
"Thanks," she said to Izzy's retreating back, watching her black braid swing as she turned to greet diners on her path back to the kitchen. "She seems nice. I can see why you're friends."
"Really?" Carolyn shook her head, "It was always a bit of a surprise to me."
"Don't sell yourself short. You're quiet, but anyone can see that you're kind."
Considering the trend of her thoughts when they should have been focused on Godly virtue and charity, Carolyn couldn't agree. But Mandy was insistent.
"You are. And you're gutsy."
"Gutsy?" she snorted, "What about me says 'gutsy'?"
"You took me in," Mandy winked. "Plenty gutsy. But anyway, before I get sucked down this rabbit hole, you need to tell me the dirt on everyone I met this morning. What's your deal with what's-her-name, the blonde with the pixie cut? I've never seen you go so stiff."
Carolyn forcibly relaxed her shoulders. "Stephanie. It's nothing, silly childhood stuff. We just aren't that close."
Mandy's brow arched and it was clear she didn't believe her, but she didn't push. "Okay. Well, she gave me real high school mean girl vibes, so I don't think she's grown out of silly childhood stuff. Am I right?"
Carolyn shouldn't laugh at this either, but the idea of Stephanie Alstrom stepping in front of a bus was too delightful. She reined it in quickly, but Mandy's eyes gleamed.
Their coffees arrived.
"Shoulda known you were too good to gossip. If you won't give me the dirt, then tell me one thing. Everyone called you Carrie this morning, except for Izzy." Mandy licked a line of foam off her lips. "So do you prefer Carrie or Carolyn?"
"Either is fine."
"Bullshit," Mandy shot back, cheerfully, "Everyone has a preference."
"Carolyn, then," she answered, "I've always preferred Carolyn."