The Celluloid Files

For easy, compiled reading from beginning to (eventual) end!

When Annika Ambray inherits her aunt’s fortune, she doesn’t expect a million dollars.  But earning it might not be worth the trouble, despite her aunt’s wishes.  The town she’s been charged with saving is more like the shadow of a long-forgotten Hollywood movie, and the people in it are just as strange and eccentric as her aunt.  Apparently, they also have just as many secrets.  Annika has a year to breathe life back into Meadowhaven, and the residents aren’t going to make her job easy.

The Celluloid Files: A Serial Story
Episode 1


Meadowhaven, a quiet, sleepy town buried in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, has a reputation for, well, nothing, really.  Once upon a time, it was the vacation spot of choice for movie stars, directors, and the common man looking to rub elbows with the not-so-common.  Today, it’s more of a wallow for those who can’t let go of past glory.  Therein lay my problem.

My aunt, Nora Pingree, lived in Meadowhaven my whole life.  I grew up hearing stories about its lights and bustle, about romantic scandals and lives filled with adventure the way some kids get subjected their grandfathers’ war stories.  Don’t get me wrong; I ate the tales up like any adoring kid who loved and admired the teller.  But one thing I’ve learned about life is that no matter how bright and shiny something seems one day, it eventually fades like a pair of perfect jeans left too long in the sun.

I hadn’t thought of Meadowhaven for nearly ten years, which was about how long it had been since Aunt Nora had come for a visit.  Then I received a phone call that, looking back on it, changed everything. Changed it, and pinned Meadowhaven as the center of my lackluster world.

“Hello?” I said into the phone as I dug a pair of old heels from my closet.  I was on my way to meet a friend, and assumed the caller was the same-said friend, telling me she was going to be late.  I didn’t bother glancing at the number because nobody else ever called.

“Annika?”  The woman on the other end sounded familiar but I couldn’t immediately place her voice.  “This is Agatha Mellion.  I don’t know if you remember me…”  I didn’t.  “…but I used to travel with your aunt.”

It took me a minute, mostly because I was immersed in the search for the elusive shoe, but then it clicked in a cobwebby corner of my brain.  A tall woman, brown hair.  Assertive but with a kind smile, even if it didn’t go very deep.  “Aggie?  I remember you.  My aunt’s friend, right?”

I don’t remember what I thought.  Probably something to do with surprise visits or a birthday reunion or something.  My mom used to get calls like that, totally out of the blue.  That’s the kind of woman my aunt was – out of the blue.  Whatever I thought, I was more annoyed that I was now running late than concerned anything might be wrong.

“That’s correct.  I’m calling on Nora’s behalf, actually.  I represent her estate, and I have important information for you.  Are you busy?”

“Actually, I was just about to meet someone.”  The only thought in my head – beyond how much crap I was going to take from my friend for being late – was, “Aunt Nora has an estate?”

“It’s highly important, regarding your aunt’s will.”

That’s when I stopped and actually heard what she was saying.  My shoes were on, my purse sat waiting beside the front door, but I lowered myself onto my bed.  It felt like the heater had turned on full blast.  “Her will?  Did something happen to her?”

“No one told you?”  I shook my head and the phone with it.  Thankfully, Aggie accurately interpreted my silence and continued.  “Nora was involved in a car accident several weeks ago.  She passed away at the scene.”

I felt hollow.  I may not have seen my aunt for nearly a decade, but that didn’t ease the shock.  The one unassailable point of my family life was that there always existed a chance Nora might drop by for a visit.  Just because she never made it to my apartment didn’t mean she never would.  That her RV wouldn’t be parked outside my building any time I stepped outside.  Until now.

“I’m so sorry, Annika,” Aggie said, sounding on the verge of tears herself.  “If I’d known that, I would have done this differently.”

“My family doesn’t talk,” I managed to say.  That’s always what I say.  It’s a lot easier, not to mention less melodramatic, than to declare myself the Prodigal Daughter, practically disowned and at risk of never even receiving one of my mom’s mass-mailed Christmas cards again.  It was a long story, and unlike Aunt Nora, I didn’t do stories.  At least not personal ones.

“I have noticed that before,” Aggie said, with the forthrightness I remembered from childhood.  “I thought certainly, given the circumstances…Well, that doesn’t matter now.  What matters is that your aunt cared about you a great deal.  She told me her only regret was not being closer to you and your sister.”

This time I nodded with the phone.  My throat seemed to have swollen shut to block my capacity for speech.

“I understand if you don’t want to discuss this now.  I can call back in a few days, when you’ve had a chance to breathe.”  For some reason, that only heightened my need to cry.

Instead of sobbing uncontrollably, I coughed the feeling down and found my voice enough to say, “No, I’d rather have it all at once.”  I figured it would be like ripping off a band-aid.  Why leak information little by little when I could be done immediately and never have to think about it again unless I wanted to?

I heard her take a deep breath.  “If that’s what you prefer.  Nora made me the executor of her estate, as I said, and the majority of her will pertains to you.  She named you her primary heir.”

Maybe that’s a thrilling prospect to some people, grief of loss aside.  To me, it didn’t mean much.  “So, what, I own the store now?”

“If you choose to file the necessary paperwork and go through appropriate channels, yes.  You may also dissolve it if you wish.  But the store is only a small percent of what she’s bequeathed to you.”

“What else could she possibly have to leave me?  Did she have expensive family heirlooms or something?”

“She left you all of her property, with the request that you inspect it personally before you decide what to do with it, including the house, the boat, and the motorhome.  And there’s her investment portfolio and various accounts.”

That might have sounded like a lot, but all of it, minus the accounts, was at least as old as I was.  “So I need to come down there and sort through everything?”

“When you’re ready, yes.”

Like the injured idiot I was, I said, “I’ll let you know.”  Then I hung up, switched the phone to silent, and went out to dinner.

It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning with a headache that was more sob than alcohol – though I’d had plenty of both – that I heard the rest of what she needed to tell me.  I had to guzzle a tall glass of orange juice and pick at a bowl of marshmallowy cereal for ten minutes before I found the courage to listen to the voice mail she left me.

“There was one other thing,” Aggie said, her voice hollowed out by a bad connection.  “I know Nora liked her secrets, so I’m sure you have no idea what it is you’ve actually inherited.  There are a few stipulations and requirements involved, but should you follow your aunt’s wishes, in a year’s time you’ll inherit close to two million dollars.”  She left me her contact information, but I didn’t hear any of it.  Only quick reflexes kept my phone from ending up covered in milk and Captain Sucrose.

So here I found myself, sitting in the comfort of my air conditioned SUV, staring at the same sign that emblazoned the town’s pitiful website.


MEADOWHAVEN: Where the Screen Comes to Life!


Personally, I thought it sounded more like the setting of a horror movie than the quaint tourist village it purported itself to be.  I blamed that thought for why I couldn’t seem to take my foot off the brake.

A single, short siren blared at me.  I glanced in the rearview mirror and winced at the spinning blue and red lights.  Barely to town and I had already drawn the wrong kind of attention.

I rolled down my window as the cop stepped up alongside me.

“Everything all right here, ma’am?” he asked.  His voice was hard, full of clipped tones and speed.  He kept his reflective sunglasses on, staring at me in a soulless way that made me feel like the Terminator had just asked me if I was Sarah Connor.  Physically, he may have been a shadow to Arnie’s enormity, but it didn’t matter.  The shirt he wore too tightly over his bulletproof vest made it clear he worked out.  A lot.

“Everything’s fine, officer,” I said, painting on my best smile.  “I was trying to remember directions.”  So it was a lie; how did I explain feeling too much foreboding to enter his town?

Leather creaked as he shifted his weight.  His hand was on his gun.  That seemed more than a little overcautious to me, and only increased my sense of off-ness.  “New to Meadowhaven?” he barked.

I nodded.  That seemed obvious.

“What’s your business here?”

“I’m settling my aunt’s affairs.  She lived on Sunset Street.  Could you direct–”  I didn’t get a chance to finish.

“Nora’s niece?  I’ll give you an escort.  Follow me.”  Without another word, he left me staring dumbly at the trees along the road.  I hadn’t seen a single car besides the cop for fifteen minutes.  An escort seemed unnecessary.  But who argues with the Terminator?

The cop kept his lights on and pulled around me.  I followed him straight down the center of town.  Beyond the haze of rising embarrassment, I took note of quaint store fronts, old-fashioned ball-shaped street lamps, and pockets of people who all waved at the cop car as it passed.  I slouched down in my seat until we turned onto the second side street and left the pedestrians behind.  We made three more turns onto a gently sloping hill of Victorian homes.  Unlike a lot of Victorians I had seen elsewhere in the West, these looked like they had been here longer than ten years.  Their porches leaned like little old men who couldn’t quite stand to their full height anymore.  Shutters drooped.  Most were in need of several coats of paint and more highlights than a California surfer boy wannabe.

The Terminator stopped in front of a house I recognized from photographs.  Photos that hadn’t done it justice.  Yellows and blues weren’t soft baby pastels.  In reality, the house glowed like a canary sunning itself in a robin’s nest.  Lacy woodwork wasn’t simply cut, it seemed spun under eaves and traceries by a legion of wooden spiders.  No other lawn on the street was as green, and no other yard boasted such a riot of flowers.  Ivy climbed trellises, rosebushes hummed with fat bees, and blue, purple, and magenta irises shot skyward like jeweled scepters.

A lump came to my throat as I took it all in.  Aunt Nora obviously loved and cared for her home more than I had cared about anything, ever.  I would never see her weed around the flowers, fill the bird feeders swinging from a solitary elm, or sip her tea from the pretty little bench on the porch.

Officer Terminator waved me into the dirt space beside the house that apparently served as a driveway.  I found it odd Aunt Nora’s RV wasn’t parked there.  She lived out of it half the year, and I assumed it stood nearby the other half, just in case whimsy took her and she needed to run off to Niagara Falls for a week.

I felt more than awkward getting out of my SUV.  My clothes were rumpled from long hours of driving.  My legs ached, in dire need of a stretch.  No doubt my eyes were red and puffy from short bouts of crying along the way, and I didn’t even want to think about my hair.  I couldn’t just leave a cop standing there waiting for me, though.  Rudeness aside, I really just wanted him to quit staring at me.

“Thanks for the escort,” I said, tugging my blouse into a better, still-rumpled position over my hips.

“All in a day’s work, ma’am.”  He saluted me with two fingers to his temple.  I expected more discourse – on my aunt’s passing, my presence in town, the town itself.  Instead, Officer Terminator climbed back into his car like he was hoisting himself into a saddle.  He left me standing there without another word.

At least he took his inhuman, cyborg stare with him when he went.  That was something, right?

I took a deep breath, closed my car door, and stepped up to complete my duties as clueless, baffled, rumpled heir-apparent.


It didn’t occur to me until I tried the door that I didn’t have keys.  This seemed the kind of town where people kept spares under the doormat or tucked inside a corner of the eaves, but I came up empty.  There wasn’t even one stashed under the ugly grinning frog statue beside the porch steps.  I was about to grab my cell when a red sedan pulled into the space vacated by the squad car.  I hung back, one hand on the porch rail and one foot on the first step.

A tall woman, made taller by three-inch heels, flowed from the driver’s seat in an impeccable blue suit that went charmingly with her graying brown hair.  When she pushed petite, square sunglasses up to keep her hair out of her eyes, I recognized her.  She was certainly older than the last time I’d seen her, with a face of tiny smile lines in all the flattering places.  She waved and I returned the gesture.

“Perfect timing, Ms. Mellion,” I called across the small lawn, trying to be casual yet professional at the same time.

“Please, Annika.  You’ve always called me Aggie in the past.  I see no reason to start with last names now.  I certainly don’t need to feel older than I am.”  She smiled when she said it, which actually peeled years from her rounded features.

We discussed my drive as she joined me on the porch.  Then she produced four sets of keys.  “I can’t ever keep these straight,” she said, her mouth bowing on one side.  “Nora refused to get rid of ones she didn’t use anymore.”  She pointed at a key with a leather head binding.  “That one’s to the ’63 Studebaker she had when we were in college.”

“I didn’t know she went to college.  What was her major?”  It occurred to me I didn’t know much of anything about my aunt, except what I knew from her visits.  Niece guilt dragged at my shoulders.

Aggie laughed – a gentle, warm sort of sound a little like the bees buzzing in the rose bushes.  “What wasn’t?  Oh, here it is.”  She held up a key of what looked like polished brass but was otherwise like every other house key I’d ever seen.  She unlocked the door and held it open for me.

I stepped into the house that was now mine with a creak of polished floorboards.  The air smelled faintly of bread, as if Aunt Nora had been baking the day before.  Bread and cinnamon, with a faint trace of something I couldn’t place.  Immediately ahead of me sat a steep staircase done in pale wood washed white along the railings.  To the left of it ran a long, narrow hallway with a handful of doors leading from it.  The tiny foyer held a coat rack behind the door and a short sideboard with an elegant mirror tucked into an alcove on my left.  There were no coats on the rack – not surprising for this time of year – but it sported one of the loudest hats I ever had the misfortune to look upon.  It looked like it belonged in Gone With the Wind, full of frills and ribbons and wide enough to keep the sun from ever touching a single spot of the wearer’s skin.

Aggie followed me in and dropped all the keys on the sideboard.  “I tidied up a little, but otherwise everything is just as she left it,” she said, sounding like her throat was as tight as mine felt.  She, however, managed to keep talking.  “I imagine you want to get freshened up after your trip.  We can talk afterward.”

“Actually,” I said, snagging the ruffled cuff of her blouse before she could escape, “I’d rather get to the details first.  My head is kind of spinning and I’d like to make sense of some part of this, if you have the time.”

“You want to know how you get two million dollars,” she said, nodding.  “So would I, were I in your shoes.  Let’s go into the parlor.”  That was number two on my list of questions.  Number one was how my aunt had acquired such a huge sum of money without anyone in the family knowing about it.  I figured it could wait for a more appropriate time, though.

My aunt’s house had a parlor.  A real, honest-to-goodness parlor.  It wasn’t very large, more like a small bedroom than something I would consider entertaining guests in, but it was beautiful.  Aunt Nora had decorated with period-specific antiques.  I knew enough about Victoriana to appreciate the overly flowery settee and the fainting couch facing it.  A silver tea service decorated a low coffee table between them, glinting happily in the sunlight streaming through lace curtains.  We sat on the settee, which felt more like sitting on a pillow than the hard lump I expected.

Aggie turned one of the dainty china cups on the tray so its handle lay parallel to its companions.  “Did Nora ever tell you much about Meadowhaven?”

“Sure,” I said, shrugging.  It did nothing to dislodge the guilt.  “She told us all stories.  How Cary Grant loved to eat at the diner and Danny Kaye danced the night away at the dance hall.  We always thought she embellished a little.”

“A little.”  Aggie smiled again.  This time, sadness crowded the corners of her mouth.  “She loved a good story, your aunt.  But I meant more modern tales.  Perhaps how much the town meant to her?”

I shook my head.  “Never anything specific.  At least not that I can remember.”  I was again reminded of how little attention I paid during my aunt’s visits.  Teenagers aren’t known for their attention spans, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done her a great injustice and would now be sent to the corner of hell reserved for horrible nieces.  “Anyone listening to her could tell how much she loved it here, though.”

“She did love it.  More than it deserves, really.”  She sighed.  “As her attorney, I am legally bound to follow her instructions.  As her friend, I can tell you that she wanted you to have this house – and her estate – more than anything.”  Upon seeing the skepticism I couldn’t keep off my face, she nodded and continued, “Yes, it would have been more convincing had she simply left it to you.  But as you said, she loved Meadowhaven.”  She methodically turned all the cups and the teapot so they faced the other direction.

“What, do I have to share the money with the town?  It’s not a big deal, Aggie.  One million is more than enough for a girl like me.”  I was trying to be funny, but my brain kept telling me to shut up.  I didn’t really want the money.  I mean, I did – it’s impossible to turn down a monumental sum with the capacity to completely alter the course of one’s life.  I would be stupid to refuse it.  No, more than stupid.  I would be the walking equivalent of an amoeba.  Yet there I was, uncomfortable with the idea of taking any money from my aunt, especially now that she was gone.

“In a manner of speaking, yes.  Well, if that’s what you choose to do with it.  There are many other ways, I’m sure, to carry out the stipulations.  And there are still the vehicles and physical assets to consider.”  She was babbling, her dark eyes trained on the tea service as her hands continually turned a teacup.

I put one of my hands on hers, stilling her.  I didn’t know what it was like to have someone care so much about me, at least not that they let me see.  But I could recognize the loss.  I’d felt it enough times, after all.  “You were her best friend, Aggie.  I know it’s important for you to do things like she wanted them done.  She trusted you to do it, too, or she wouldn’t have made you the executor of her will.”

There were tears in her eyes when she finally looked at me.  “That’s exactly why she left it to you.  You’ll know what to do with it.”

I didn’t argue, even though every little voice in my head demanded it.  “What did she want me to do with the money?”  This idea lightened my heart.  If I could do something to earn the money, or use it for a greater purpose, that I could get behind.

“It’s up to you.  The stipulations are about how you qualify for it, not about the method you use to do so.”

I smiled at her in what I hoped was a reassuring way that didn’t exude impatience.  “What did she want me to do to qualify, then?”

“Nora never felt she could help the town.  She didn’t know how.  None of us do.  I don’t know if you noticed on your way in, but it’s falling apart.  Our glory days passed while Nora and I explored the world.  The twinkle has gone out of our town and Nora’s greatest wish was to see it returned to its former brilliance.”

“I didn’t notice.”  It was true; I had been too busy worrying about the Terminator to actively see the town around me.

“That’s what she wants you to do.  She wants you to spend the next year helping the town and its folk to recreate themselves.”

That seemed simultaneously a monumental task and easy as pie.  After all, what can’t a couple million dollars do?  I didn’t know anything about revitalizing a business let alone a person, but I was sure I could find out.  “Who judges if I’ve managed it?”

Aggie took a deep breath and shook out the ruffles at her neck.  “I do.  It’s a complicated system she left and I don’t know that I could explain it properly.”

“Seems kind of important.”  I picked at a raised seam on the settee.  “Are there goal posts I’m supposed to hit or something?”

“Your aunt wasn’t the most concrete person.  I’ll know it when I see it.  That’s the best I can offer you.”

I’ve always hated answers like that; my mother used them all the time.  They required trust in the speaker and faith they had your best interest at heart.  I wasn’t rich in either anymore.  A long, torrid story lay behind that particular state of affairs, one I tried hard never to think about.  The vague answer nevertheless sparked off feelings I’d tried hard to bury for years.

I did my best to shove them back in their dark corner of my psyche and said, “So I’m supposed to find a way to make Meadowhaven a place ‘where the screen comes to life’ again, but I have to do it without knowing what qualifies?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“And you can’t give me any more help than that?”

“I can offer my opinion as you go, but no.  Not really anything more.”  Aggie frowned, her smile lines shifting to make her seem even more concerned than she might have been.  Not that I doubted her sincerity either in wanting to help or our mutual frustration.  It was just something I noticed.  I notice things like that a lot, ways in which people can manipulate others without trying.  It’s the part of myself I hate the most – it makes getting close to people more difficult than it should be.

“So, in your opinion, would starting with the store be a good thing?”  I had no idea what sort of business Aunt Nora’s store did on a yearly basis.  I always assumed it kept her comfortable and able to take trips whenever she felt like it.  No store in such a tiny town, no matter how amazing, could rack up two million dollars in personal wealth.

Aggie shook her head.  “You should certainly appraise the store to see if you want to keep it or if you’d prefer to sell it, perhaps to one of your new neighbors.  I know Ivy would like to keep it open.”  As an afterthought, she added, “That’s Nora’s assistant, Ivy Ambrosia.  She’s worked at the store for years.”

“I’ll stop by soon, then.”  I quickly considered and threw away about a dozen ideas to refit the store.  Nothing seemed plausible.  “I guess I need to see the town to really figure it out, don’t I?”

“That,” Aggie said, finally brightening, “is an excellent idea.”

She left me documentation from the will, both for my newly accepted quest as well as my new ownership papers.  It took me about an hour of reading after she left to develop a headache and, soon afterward, a rumbling stomach.  Part of Aggie’s housecleaning included cleaning out the fridge and freezer.  Likely a good thing for spoilage issues, but it left me with nothing to scrounge.  One thing I did know about Aunt Nora: she was part of the all-natural breed that grew up before “organic” was a thing.  She always insisted on cooking as much from scratch as possible.  For me, that meant there wasn’t much of anything in the cupboards, either.

It appeared I was going to have to venture into town sooner than anticipated.

First, I needed a shower.  I lugged all of my suitcases inside, which didn’t exactly help my head.  The shower, on the other hand, worked wonders.  Despite the vintage decor, Aunt Nora had spared nothing in the bathroom.  The tub was a pristine, claw-footed monster big enough to fit four people with varying levels of comfort.  And my goodness, but it was comfortable!  Heaven could have nothing better.

Once I was clean, I donned a lightweight top and skirt with a pair of strappy sandals and went out in search of food.


Aggie’s words were not a figure of speech.

As I took to the streets on foot – the better to gauge the work before me – I immediately noticed the dilapidated nature of, well, everything.  Unlike Aunt Nora’s lovingly tended abode, the houses on her street and the one beyond were sagging, sad creatures entirely lacking in charm.  Most of them sported gaps in the roofing where shingles had clattered away in storms or beneath the sliding weight of heavy spring snows.  Grass stood yellowed and shriveled, showing pale, dusty dirt beneath.  Paint chips flecked half-empty flowerbeds and many of the trees on the block died long enough ago that even the woodpeckers had vacated their dry husks.

By the time I reached Main Street, my mental list of obvious fixes overflowed.  The town’s housing was just the beginning – Main Street stretched out like a ghost, faded and half-forgotten.  If I squinted, I thought I could almost see through it to the future.  A future wherein Meadowhaven had ceased to exist.  I knew I needed to see the past; to recognize the glory Aggie had mentioned and with which Aunt Nora had so often regaled us.  Try as I might, it eluded me.  All I saw were boarded-up windows, signs with missing letters, and weeds half as tall as I was.

There seemed to be four shops still in business.  One I marked but ignored for the moment, a hairdresser, and two others.  My growling stomach distracted me from paying closer attention; the second building across the street on my left let loose a smell I could only describe as mouth-watering to the point of near-delirium.  But maybe that was my stomach talking.

I crossed the street after looking both ways before I realized I probably would never need that habit here.  Two cars sat hunched on this side of the street, both old enough I doubted they came with seat belts.  A cluster of women stopped their chatting a few doors down to cast interested looks in my direction.  I ignored them.  Gossiping women were the last things I wanted to deal with.  I was confident I looked clean and together, but there would be the telltale redness to the eyes, the bags under them that proved I hadn’t slept recently.

Food and then sleep, I promised myself.  I just hoped at three in the afternoon, the emporium of delicious smells would be as deserted as the road into town.

A sign on the window that needed a serious touch-up told me this was Benny and Cheese, which sounded like a bad rip-off of a kid’s play place.  The moment I set a strappy sandal on the linoleum floor, however, it could have been called “Cheese ‘R Us,” and I wouldn’t have cared.  I found myself enveloped in a puffy cloud of pizza heaven.

My mouth watered.  My stomach churned in demand.  My body took a seat at the diner-style counter without conscious direction.  I didn’t see the duct tape holding my stool together or the sauce stains indelibly scarring the cracking floor, though I think my subconscious did.  I only had eyes for the menu waiting for me and even that I saw only partially.  The cover had something to do with gangsters.  Whatever.  The inside bore the phrase, “Chicago-style pepperoni,” and it erased all other thoughts in my head.

I ordered a large all for myself with a side of Diet Coke from the wiry blonde guy behind the counter.

“Expecting friends?” he asked.

“Nope.  And even if I was, they’d have to get their own.”

He gave me a lazy half-grin and said, “Cool.  Be up in a few.”  He left me with my glass of icy soda pop and disappeared out the swinging door to the side of the counter.

I expected him to hand off the ticket to someone in the kitchen, but he didn’t come back.  Either he was smoking something in the bathroom or the diner ran on an employee base of one.

My fingernails made a delicate tick-tick-tick sound on the counter as I drummed them along its cool surface.  The whole place had a ‘50s thing going on.  The counter bore a hint of stylized chrome, the stools were round and spinny.  Underfoot, the linoleum looked a little newer, more like ‘70’s cheap, making Benny and Cheese decidedly less appealing.  The more I looked, the less I liked.  The booths were an ugly pinky maroon, faded from years in the sun and patched together with duct tape.  The linoleum stains weren’t just pizza sauce; I had a feeling the beige color had once been white and decades of foot traffic had taken its toll.  The place was clean, though, and that was a major plus.  I’d hate to find out the only place to eat in town was a nasty gastrointestinal disaster waiting to happen.

The only other people in the diner – a trio of guys about my age – were clustered around an old pinball machine.  Every now and again, the one playing did something right, lighting up the machine’s backboard and eliciting a sound like a cat’s death knell.

I pursed my lips.  Not exactly the best digesting atmosphere, but anything more than cozy silence wouldn’t have met my standards today.

An undefined amount of time later – the clock on the wall, its neon dead, kept telling me time had stopped at four-thirty – my pizza arrived.  I blinked at it in astonishment, then transferred the expression to the blonde guy.  He gave me that same lazy half-grin.

“I guess I won’t need to buy food for the rest of the week,” I said.  The thing was a monster with a deep dish crust as thick as three of my fingers, at least two cheeses that oozed and gleamed without being rubbery, and a full layer of overlapping pepperoni.  It also had about the same diameter as my car’s tire.  “You didn’t have to go to any special trouble,” I added, rubbing my cheek to hide a quick check for drool.

He gave me a quizzical look that upgraded my opinion from stoner to slacker.  Then he lifted a shoulder and said, “It’s the usual.”

Again, I blinked at the pie and then back at him.  This was usual?  I didn’t want to argue.  It wasn’t like I was disappointed he hadn’t brought me a special pizza to flirt with me; dating wasn’t currently on my menu.  Especially now that I had a town to save in honor of my dead aunt.

The thought sobered me.  I had to bite my tongue to keep the tears out of my eyes.

“Thanks,” I said when I trusted my voice again.

Blondie shrugged again, laid out a plate and silverware, refilled my glass, and went back to making a pyramid out of playing cards.

I dug into the pizza, barely pausing to breathe on the first slice.  It wasn’t to drown my brain in a food coma – at least, that’s what I told myself.  I knew it was a lie, but I let the gullible half of myself believe it.  This was just an incredibly tasty, probably-incredibly-bad-for-me pizza and I was enjoying it after a long, long drive.

I nearly choked on it in surprise when the dying cat suddenly went into heat.  The trio of guys clustered around the pinball machine gave manly shouts in perfect unison, one in despair and two in triumph.  The tall one slapped the player on the back before shoving him out of the way for a turn.  The third just kept laughing.  He tried to talk, but only more laughter came out.

I glanced at Blondie, who just shrugged back.  I lifted my eyebrows at the pizza.  It went on seducing me with its well-rounded pepperoni and impressive carbs, leaving me with no choice but to eat more of it.

The losing player bought a round of beer from Blondie, obviously his punishment for not hitting the buttons fast enough.  I had never been a fan of pinball; with only a pair of paddles at one’s disposal, it was as rigged as a poker game in a strip club.  Plus, the constant clicking and shushing and, in this case, the sounds of feline death, gave me a headache.  Or in the current case, made my headache worse.

“Don’t miss Riverglen Road,” the guy said to me as he gathered the open bottles in his hands.

I forcefully swallowed a too-big bite of heaven and croaked out, “Sorry?”

“On your way out of town.  Whichever way you’re going, it’s got great scenery.”  He was cute in a scrawny, lost puppy sort of way.  That last part was probably just my recent loss adding a sad filter, but he put it to good use with his boy-next-door charm.

“Oh, I’m not leaving.  Not for a while, anyway.”  A year, if I wanted to be a millionaire.  I hadn’t decided yet.  Millions would look good on my sister; there wasn’t a lot that didn’t.  If I failed in my quest, the responsibility would pass to her.  That was about the only part of the legal documents I had retained.

His face seemed made for innocent but pleasant surprise.  I was wary of the innocence, but he seemed like a nice guy.  Besides, if I was going to stick around – and especially if I was going to appease my aunt’s spirit in the Great Beyond (her term, not mine) – I might as well get used to being chatted up by locals.  “Really?  How come?”

I wiped sauce from the corners of my mouth with a too-thin napkin and nodded as I took a swig of Diet Coke.  The combination of flavors, pizza sauce and soda pop, sizzled on my tongue and helped calm my frazzled nerves.  I went over three different ways of saying it before finally just blurting, “My aunt died.  I’m here to take care of her stuff.”  Who needs grief when there are awkward social moments to help get over losing a loved one?

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and actually sounded most of the way sincere.  “Wait.”  He took a long look at me, and by long I mean head-to-toe.  Somehow when he did it, it wasn’t at all creepy.  “You’re Nora’s niece?  I’m really sorry.  She was an interesting lady.”

I could tell by the way he said “interesting” that what he meant was “crazy.”  I let it slide.  There were lots of times I thought she was crazy, too.  Who else but the half-insane would require such a task as saving a town to earn an inheritance?

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’m Vinny.”  He shook my hand once I managed to drop my napkin in my lap.

“Annika,” I said, shaking back.

He grinned, and I suddenly knew what ‘like a schoolboy’ looked like.  “Nice to meet you, Annika.  The tall guy over there is my brother, Joey, and the jerk who’s still laughing like an idiot is Tony.”  He raised his voice on the last introduction, throwing Tony a disgusted glare to go with it.

Tony took that moment to turn and bellow, “Where’d you go to get those beers, V?”  I didn’t think he could have heard his name over his own laughter, but some people have remarkably good hearing.  Others simply seem attuned to hearing their name regardless of circumstances like dogs when someone says, ‘treat’ or ‘walk’ from three rooms away.  He joined us at the counter without looking at me.  He was too busy giving Vinny a spot-on impression of a Stallone glare.  In fact, the Stallone thing was more than just the glare; he had the same sort of dark good-looks melded with boyish charm.  The kind that usually went with pulled pigtails, maybe, but I found it strangely uplifting.

“Here, ass,” Vinny said, handing off two of the beers.  Then he tipped his head toward me and added, “I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Since when?”  Tony took a swig of the beer.  With a great show of satisfaction, he leaned against the counter and waggled the bottle in Blondie’s direction.

“Keep ‘em coming, J.  On Vinny’s tab.”  He clapped Vinny on the shoulder before he busted up laughing again.

I went on eating my pizza.  Attractiveness aside, I thought I had better start elsewhere in town than with these guys.  I made it a point to avoid involving myself with the immature, loud, or obnoxious.  A trifecta meant a beeline for the hills.  Even – or maybe especially – when wrapped up in a Stallone-like package.

“Sorry,” Vinny said to me under his breath.  He went to join his brother as he was called for another turn.

Tony tipped the beer back again, watching the game with one elbow on the counter.  “New in town, huh?” he asked without looking at me.

I nodded.  It seemed a rhetorical question at this point.  Plus, I had that no involvement thing working for me.

“Want a beer?  He’s buying.”

A glance at the clock on the wall to confirm my suspicions before remembering that, oh yes, it was perpetually four-thirty here.  I don’t drink a lot, generally, and even then not usually before six in the evening.  I’d left my phone at home, but the sun streaming through the scratched window told me it was still well before six.

“No, thanks,” I said before stuffing another bite of pizza in my mouth.

“He’s a good kid.  Funny.”

I had a feeling Tony meant that Vinny made a good mark for jokes, not that he told them well.  I kept on chewing in a ladylike fashion with my mouth closed and no words falling out.

Tony finished off his beer and waved to Blondie for another.  Finally, he looked at me.  This annoyed me more than his lack of eye contact; the directness of his dark-eyed stare went deeper than my clothes, deeper than my skin.  My cheeks flushed in spite of myself.

“Do you swing?”

A bit of cheese went down the wrong pipe.  I spluttered into my Diet Coke and swallowed hard several times to clear the cough.  Tony slapped me on the back to help.  Then he started laughing again, a low, deep sound to match his voice, like the rolling of stormy waves on a black night.

“Sorry?” I coughed, wiping tears from my eyes.  I hesitated, then remembered I hadn’t bothered to put on eye makeup before embarking on my quest for food.  That only made me more self-conscious.  My back felt warm where he’d slapped it; the sensation merged with the heat of embarrassment in my face.  What the hell was wrong with me?

“Dancing,” he clarified with a self-satisfied grin.  “Do you swing dance?  I always forget that last part.”

“I’m sure you do,” I muttered.  I was torn.  Did I admit my ability to Charleston and rock step, leave myself open to getting to know this Stallone-faced jokester, or did I play dumb?  I hadn’t been dancing in a couple years.  I hadn’t been out with members of the opposite sex in…longer than I cared to comment on.

“There’s a club in the city, the Venutian.  We drive up there every Friday if you’re interested.”  He left me his second beer and returned to his cronies.  The space beside me filled up with cold air, chilling the exposed skin of my arms.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the offer, but I knew one thing.  I was way too tired, too sore, and too stained in tears to worry about turns and lifts and flirting.

The three went on playing pinball like nothing else in the world existed but the beers they routinely chugged down.  I finished off my slice and had Blondie box up the rest – a good three-quarters of the monster.  After I paid, I stared at the bottle of beer still sitting next to me, untouched.

Finally, I pushed it toward the waiter-host-chef and said quietly, “Tell him thanks, but it’s not a good day for beer.”  I was sure Tony would disagree, but I didn’t let that stop me. What I wasn’t sure about was why I cared at all about assuaging Tony’s his feelings.

Ignoring my internal question, I gathered up my enormous doggie box and made my exit from Benny and Cheese.


Outside, I contemplated my options. If I was going to revitalize the town, I needed to know its streets and buildings and people. But the box of pizza in my hands was unwieldy and would go bad long before I got back to Nora’s if I set out to see the town now. If I went back to the house first, I might lose daylight. I had a year, but for some reason I felt like I needed to use every moment at my disposal. I blamed it on impatience with Aunt Nora’s silly, unmeasurable stipulation but deep down, I knew there was more to it.

I decided to make the most important stop first then drop the pizza off at the house. That way, no matter how much time I had left, I’d at least have gotten the big item off my list. The only problem was, I had no idea how to get there. I could go back inside the diner and ask Blondie, or approach the cluster of women down the street. Neither made me feel confident and energetic.

I sighed, tucked the box under my arm, and trotted down the sidewalk.

Three women stood outside a short building with big windows. The sign above the door read, “Goldilocks.” Of course it was the beauty parlor; this town didn’t have enough cliches already.

“Excuse me,” I said, doing my best to sound normal. “Could you tell me where—“

“Oh my gosh,” the tallest of the bunch exclaimed, her eyes going wide as she saw my pizza box. She was on the dark side of brunette and thin as a rail. Some spiteful part of me hated her on sight. She could probably eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted and not gain an ounce, whereas I expected to be several pounds heavier once my pizza was gone. Her makeup was perfect, her hair an exquisite, glossy fall of soft curls that looked effortless. “Are those boys still playing that stupid game?” she asked. “Why do they do that? The ball just goes up and down. It’s not like it can go anywhere but in the hole.”

“They seriously need girlfriends,” a shorter, thicker woman said. I thought she was a brunette, too, but the mass of curlers and foil in her hair made it hard to be sure.

“What happened to Pam?” the first woman asked.

“Took off at the end of the semester,” a third woman said, her blonde hair tucked under a shower cap. “They really need to try for older girls.”

“Women,” the shorter woman corrected.

“Don’t they have jobs?” I asked, satisfying my curiosity as well as making sure they didn’t forget I was standing there.

“Vinny and Joey do,” the first woman said, peering at the sky as she thought. “They work with dirt and electricity, or something like that. I don’t know about Tony. What does he do all day?” she asked the blonde.

The blonde shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“You dated him, Lori. You have to know something.”

“Correction, I went on dates with him. The only thing I know is that he drives a crappy old SUV and he has a pet ferret.”

“A ferret?” the shorter woman asked, her tone expressing disgust.

Bean Pole mistook the question. “It’s like a weasel. Right?” She didn’t wait for a response. “Yeah. I’ve never seen one, but my dad and brothers used to take me camping up north in the summer with a bunch of friends, so I’ve seen a lot of weasels. They’re funny looking, and they move like they have no bones.”

The other women exchanged glances. Two of them started giggling.

“What?” Bean Pole said, confusion on her delicate features. “They do! And they’re greedy. I think ferrets are just hairy weasels.”

“So Tony has a big, hairy weasel, huh?” the short one said, elbowing Lori.

The women burst out laughing. Bean Pole stamped her foot. “You guys! What’s so funny?”

I struggled to keep myself at the fringe of the group instead of walking away. There was no way I was going back in the diner now that my brain contained echoes of Tony’s hairy weasel, but if I didn’t get directions I could be walking all day. Then my poor pizza would be unfit to eat, and I couldn’t let such tragedy take place.

“Can you tell me where the new age shop is?” I asked Bean Pole.

“Sure,” she said, though she didn’t look at me. She was too busy frowning at her companions in consternation. “It’s a block over that way.” She pointed behind herself, away from Nora’s house. “Just go to the end of the street, go left, and it’ll be on the other side of the street. It kind of stands out.”

“Thanks,” I said, and started to back away.

“Be careful,” she said. “The girl who works there is…”

“Weird,” Lori the blonde said.

“Mean,” the shorter woman said.

“…loud,” Bean Pole finished.

I smiled and nodded, assured them I would be careful, and scurried away. Curiosity wanted me to ask why they were doing their gossiping outside of the beauty parlor when it was clear two of them were in the middle of a style. I clamped down on it with a vise of willpower and hurried down the street in search of my aunt’s shop.

S. O. Teric’s was Nora’s pride and joy. She opened it when she was barely out of high school, or so I had been told. Back when bell-bottoms and fringe were in and expanding the mind was a life pursuit instead of an excuse to experiment with drugs…okay, instead of just an excuse to experiment. How it had survived in a little town in the middle of nowhere was anybody’s guess. Considering what I had learned about her bank account, I guessed it probably floated on the income from some secret, unknown source I wasn’t yet privy to. Like blackmailing the leader of a small country, or a really big lottery win nobody in the family had ever bothered to mention.

Bean Pole hadn’t been exaggerating when she said it stood out. It was a small shop on the corner of Aspen and Grove with a vibrant blue front door smack on the corner of the building. The building’s trim was silver and gold, the sort that gleams in the sunlight and is liable to blind a person at the wrong time of day. When I got closer, I saw that the bricks, painted black, were covered in tiny scrolling designs, like a silver henna tattoo. Crystals of different hues hung inside the open windows, dancing in a light breeze. The lack of security surprised me more than the shop; the exterior shouted Aunt Nora did the decorating. My nose started tickling and I found myself swallowing repeatedly to chase away a sudden cough that got stuck in my throat. With a deep breath, bracing myself for what lay inside, I crossed the threshold into S. O. Teric’s.

It smelled like Nora.

That was all I could think before the tears welled in my eyes. Her house held a delightful smell, but it wasn’t what called her up in my memory. This was. This poorly lit, cramped, musty hidey-hole with too many knick-knacks on the shelves and not enough space to move around them; with its buckets of incense sticks and racks of candles and decorative puddles of crystals and rainbows; this was what smelled like Nora. Lavender, sandalwood, old books, dark corners…all the scents combined to paint her in my mind’s eye.

“Can I help you?” asked a sunny voice from behind a tiny counter.

The girl matched the counter. She barely came up to my shoulder. Her floaty clothes both showed off her figure and made her look sweet and innocent.

“Um,” I said, buying time to regain my composure after nearly breaking down from the smell of the place.

“If you’re the new pizza delivery girl, you’re late. You can tell that slacker in front of the oven that I’m not paying for his damn cigarette breaks.” She threw in a few other choice words I wouldn’t be repeating. Ever.

“No, not,” I said, intelligently, taken aback by the words so incongruous with her appearance.

“Oh. Come to have your palm read? Your chart drawn? I don’t do the Chinese stuff yet, but I’m learning. Our Reiki services are no longer available.” She abruptly shut up. Then, as if her speech hadn’t been strange enough, she petted a small golden frog on the counter like it was a beloved friend.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I noticed the black sashes tied around columns holding up the second story, the cloths draped over certain lumpy stands. A sign affixed to the front of the register read, “A light in the darkness, an angel beyond us.”

I cleared my throat, unable to tear myself away from that sign and the little golden frog. “My name is Annika,” I managed to say.

Her response was not what I expected.

“Shit,” she said.

My mouth hung open for a moment as I attempted to find a reply to that succinct reaction. “Uhh…” was all I could come up with.

“You’re here to close the store, aren’t you?” She swore up a storm, muttered something about her horoscope, and slammed her fist into the counter. Then she took a deep breath, shook out her hands and closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, she smiled sweetly at me. “Sorry. I’m on a Zen cleanse. You ever fasted?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a bitch on the blood sugar. But seriously, you’re here to shut us down, right?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“I loved Nora,” she said, almost as if I hadn’t spoken. “We were a part of each other’s spirit group. She was kind of like my aunt, too. I’m Ivy, by the way.” She waved her small, many-ringed fingers at me.

That rankled a little. Nora was my aunt. My blood. Some remnant of my childhood self insisted she was mine and no one else’s. Except I hadn’t felt that way for a decade. I hadn’t cared enough to call her on major holidays, let alone often enough to visit. I didn’t deserve to feel possessive.

I quelled the rancor and forced myself to smile. “She was a good person. I’m glad she had someone close who was like family.”

“She talked about you a lot. How she wished you would follow your light. When she told me she was leaving you the store, I forgot about Mars’ influence and refused to come to work for a week. Wish I hadn’t done that now.” She ran a finger over the golden frog. “I told her you have too much water in your chart to stick around, but she didn’t listen to me. You’re going to sell, whether you know it or not.”

Nora had always preached the importance of an open mind; she lived by the creed, “To each, her own.” She spent time with Wiccans and Neopagans, nudists and Christians, Democrats and Republicans. I couldn’t discount the possibility of my astrological influences suggesting my future, but I would go no further than that. The stars didn’t tell me what to do. I didn’t appreciate having my choices dictated to me, especially not by a stranger the size of a large, surly leprechaun.

“Look,” I said, battening down the hatches on my anger. “You don’t know me. My aunt asked me to come here and see the shop for myself. I’m here.”

So many possibilities flew through my head – choice, savory words that begged to pierce and bite and stab. I couldn’t say any of them. If this girl was as close to my aunt as she claimed, then she, too, was grieving. Maybe more than I was. As much as I wanted to wring her short little neck, she deserved the benefit of the doubt. Plus, she might be my only ally in my new-found, hare-brained quest to save Meadowhaven from extinction.

“Here it is,” she said, gesturing around herself with wide arms. “Look all you want, but you’re going to sell.”

Spite became a flaming snake in my belly, coiling around my stomach as if getting ready to hatch fireballs. I clenched my teeth to keep its exit route blocked and said around them, “I’ll make myself at home, then.”

I could tell a similar serpent possessed my small opponent. Her round cheeks flushed, bright enough to see in the dim light. “Enjoy yourself.” I caught the hiss in her words, but I refrained from striking out at her.

Instead, I smiled and set to the task at hand.

I’ve been told I’m exceedingly good at presenting a cold shoulder. I used it now and left the little clerk in my icy wake.


S. O. Teric’s housed a collection of books on everything from astrology to ghosts to UFOs to traditional healing methods – the usual fare for spirituality stores and new age enthusiasts. But as I wandered down the high rows of books all tucked snugly and untouched in their dusty spaces, I realized this was something more. Cozied in with small-press paperbacks and best-seller hard covers I found the odd leather-bound tome, the occasional unbound, typewritten manuscript. Nora had pulled together a variety of sources on exotic philosophies, ancient civilizations, and extinct belief systems. S. O. Teric’s wasn’t simply a new age store for lonely middle-aged cat ladies and young Goth mind-expansionists who thought the best way to shun the established adult regime was by falling in love with demons and gods. This was a trove of knowledge, collected in her travels around the world. If I sold it or closed it down, her life’s work would be scattered back to the far-flung corners from which she had rescued it. At the very least, I would have to box it up and take it with me, maybe donate it to some historical society somewhere.

The store held an upper level supported by silver-scrolled pillars. I wound my way up the iron circular stair and found myself surrounded by candles. Thankfully, they were all unlit. Sconces sat on display tables, staring at me with the faces of gargoyles and cherubs, cats and jackals and creatures I had no name for. Similar engravings and figurines clustered here and there, flickering in and out of shadow with the movement of a flame in a tall, slender oil lamp. The lamp sat on a table in the center of the floor, the black silk cloth beneath it shimmering faintly. I thought of myself here, surrounded by such images and effigies. I imagined whispers slipping from the book pages, creaks coming from the statues. Goosebumps were inevitable.

I couldn’t stay here, in this place that reminded me so much of Nora and yet also gave me the heebie-jeebies. Even if I toned down the décor, I still didn’t know how to run a business, even a small one with little income and a highly specific clientele. Just how much did I owe my aunt for being a horrible niece? For being her heir? Her blood? Her favorite?

The bell over the front door tinkled happily. I ignored the voices downstairs as I examined a deck of tarot cards on the table. I flipped the top card, revealing the Queen of Pentacles. To be fair and forthcoming, I do actually know how to read a basic tarot spread. I don’t claim the psychic powers that go along with it and I have to look up most of the meanings. Pentacles looked scary to modern Western society, so a lot of decks changed them to coins. Either way, the interpretation involved security and prosperity. Sometimes the “face” cards were interpreted as actual people. In this case, a woman granting prosperity.

I drew a second card, a little weirded out by the first. Death. Contrary to popular belief (and every paranormal-esque movie ever), the Death card doesn’t mean literal death. I suppose it might, once in a blue moon. Its true representation is of an ending that makes way for a beginning. Like the winter that culls the weeds and brush and makes way for spring revitalization. Death…but not without rebirth.

My hand hovered on the deck for a third, final card when the discussion downstairs grew into shouts.

“Get the hell out of my shop, Dark River!” the sales clerk shouted. She followed it up with several choice names and descriptions of the recipient’s mother.

A man answered, but I only heard the deep rumbling of his voice. The darkness seemed to absorb his words.

I stepped over to the railing to peer down from the loft. From there, I could tell the shelves were arranged in a star pattern with a reading table in the middle. That was one thing I shared with my aunt – we both found beauty in the details, even if no one else every saw them.

“Miss Ambray!” A tall man, half-shrouded in shadow, stepped out from under the overhang to raise his hand toward me. “I thought I saw you come in here. I would like a word, if I may?”

Cautiously, I descended the spiral staircase. Who or what made Ivy try to throw a person out?

The man met me at the bottom. He was at least a head taller than me, and, though the lighting stole away the exact facets of his face, he looked to be in his fifties. A black or maybe dark blue suit made him more difficult to make out in the dim interior. “My name is Albert Dark River, Miss Ambray,” he said in his deep voice, extending his hand to me to shake.

I took his hand, felt calluses against my skin. “How do you know who I am?” I asked. Small towns spread gossip, everyone knows that. But the only people who knew my identity were the Terminator cop and Vinny the bad pinball player at the diner. The first I didn’t take for a blabbermouth, and the second had been too busy taking a ribbing when I left.

“It’s my business to know things, Miss Ambray. I work for Majestic Vista Realty.” He handed me a business card that I couldn’t read in the dark.

Ivy appeared suddenly at my elbow. “I told you to get out!” she spat at him.

“Yes, I believe you said of ‘your’ store. But unless I’m mistaken, this store actually belongs to Miss Ambray here, does it not? My business is with her, not her petty employees.”

I didn’t need to see it to know Ivy balled her fists in preparation to unleash a small fury on the man. “He’s the devil, Annika, don’t listen to him. Tell him to get out.”

“What business would that be, Mr. Dark River?” I asked, ignoring her.

“I have a client very interested in purchasing this property,” he said. “Its location is excellent. With the passing of your aunt, for which I am sincerely sorry, I understand its fate is in your hands. A young woman from the city like yourself might not wish to be burdened with such a white elephant as this.” He flicked his hand in the direction of the books. I didn’t need a lot of light to see the distaste written clearly in the pursing of his lips.

“My aunt loved this store,” I said, stalling. “I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do with it.” I directed the last part more toward Ivy than the man.

“Well, when you do, please give me a call. My client is anxious to begin developing a venue that would better benefit the town.”

I nodded at him, not sure what to say to that. My neck tingled at this oddly fortuitous meeting. My first day in town, having only recently learned of my strange fortune, and I was given an easy out. As much as I might decide I wanted to sell, I hesitated to actually make that decision. Too much spun far out of my control, and I couldn’t make any concrete decisions until my brain stopped whirring.

Mr. Dark River made like he was tipping his hat to me, except he wasn’t wearing one. “Good day, Miss Ambray. I hope to hear from you soon. Ivy.” He didn’t look at her, merely dropped her name like dirty handkerchief as he left.

“Let the door hit you on the way out,” Ivy shouted after him. Under her breath she added, “And crush your spine, ‘cause you don’t have any balls.” To me, she said, “When you sell this place, Annika, do me a favor and don’t sell it to that guy. He’s nuts. And an ass.”

Refraining from mentioning pots and kettles, I simply nodded. The business card felt heavy in my hand.

“I don’t suppose you’re interested in having a cup of tea with me?” Was she getting chummy because she imagined we now had a common enemy, or because she saw an angle she needed to play?

“Sorry, Ivy,” I said, listening to chimes in one window twinkle in the breeze. “I need to get my pizza home.”

“Sure.” I could hear the hurt in her voice. “Maybe next time.”

“Maybe,” I said. Secretly, I didn’t think there would be a next time.

I spent the rest of the day familiarizing myself with Nora’s home and went to bed early. She had two spare bedrooms. I picked the larger of the two, unable to make myself stay in the master bedroom. The queen-sized bed welcomed me like a cloud welcomes a fat baby cherub. I was asleep as soon as my face snuggled against the cool pillow.


I overslept. My plan had been to rise early and meet some of the older townspeople. They might be able to advise me in how to go about fixing the broken parts of the town. At the very least, they could tell me which parts were actually broken, and which belonged in the quirky, strange category. Unfortunately, the bedroom sported no alarm clock and I had forgotten to set my phone.

When I rolled out of the bed, my body aching faintly from the previous day’s drive, the sun streamed through the lace curtains with a cheerful glow. I made a face at it, my eyes kept to slits to ward off the light as well as the cheer. Of my possible choices for emotions to begin my day with, today did not include carefree glee.

I showered again to help me wake up, this time making an effort to look more than simply presentable. Makeup, hair, a dark blue sundress. I wanted to make a good impression. Though the swollen blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror denied my high hopes, I at least looked like I made an effort.

Without perishables in the kitchen, I settled for organic oatmeal and water for breakfast. Not the most pleasant way to start my day, but I supposed it could be worse.

I stepped out onto the porch to find a note tucked under the flower knocker. It had my name on it, making me frown. Opening it, I read, frowned, snorted, then tossed it on the front table before closing and locking the door.

If Ivy really wanted to help me, she should have made a better first impression. Maybe we could work up to being allies…eventually. After the irritation had worn off. Besides, I didn’t have time to meet her for a noon lunch; it was already five minutes past.

As I turned to take the stairs two at a time, I accidentally kicked the morning’s paper onto the lawn. Careful as I tread across the grass, I gingerly picked up the heavy roll and shook it open. The Goode County Gazette had served the area for ninety-seven years. It said so right there below the title. I intended only for a quick glance, to discover what this strange backwater found newsworthy.

It was me.


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