The tiny cabin was a cob-webbed hovel. An abandoned relic left over from an era that pre-dated air conditioning and bed springs. Casually, coolly, completely in command, Jennifer Dade scanned the room. Yes, the cabin predated indoor plumbing as well.
The manager of the campgrounds, a tan, 30-something woman, had lake-green eyes that seemed as weary and faded as the once-white apron she wore. Yet there remained a quiet dignity, as if she was not yet resigned to rejection. And no, it wasn't that Jenn wanted to be rejecter-girl, not that she wanted to take her business elsewhere, but the dirt....
As if on cue, Jenn sneezed, and then met the woman's eyes. They were steady. Unflinching. Joan of Arc, prepared to be martyred at the stake.
Why now? Why this?
The place was borderline-unlivable, and Jenn did have limits to what she'd put up with. She had standards. High standards. She thought of her last boyfriend, Taj, the 24-year-old drummer with a love of Cartoon Network. Mostly-high standards.
The manager noticed her hesitation (understatement of the year) and patted the head of the cherubic chubster that was clinging to her hip.
"You don't want to stay here, do you? You're here for the Summer Nights Festival and you're expecting something a lot nicer, right? There's a bunch of bed & breakfasts up the road. The Wildrose Inn is the nicest, and I heard they had a cancellation. If you make it there before high tea, you might get in."
"The Wildrose Inn?" Jenn breathed the words, shallowly transported by the idea of a towering Victorian with rambling rose bushes that dotted the lawn. Tea on a silver platter…. and a toilet. It sounded heavenly, with mass appeal. Commercial appeal. The sort of commercial appeal that would insure Jennifer's job.
The little girl piped in, flashing her big blue Olive Twist Eyes, and a grape-juice stain that extended from nose to chin. "It's all right, Momma. Somebody else will come soon. We'll find a renter. I know we will."
Watching the kid, Jenn felt something tug at her heart, and she wasn't sure if it was the first stirrings of maternal instincts (which frankly terrified her), or her stubborn impulse to drop a quarter in every panhandlers box, even though she knew it would only perpetuate the very impracticability of the homeless plight.
However, if she wanted to keep the job of her dreams, she needed to fight these urges. For the next two weeks, Jenn was on assignment, and her computer needed electricity. Ergo, if there was no electricity, there was no job.
So, even if she wanted to stay here, she couldn't. Problem solved.
She almost smiled until she noticed the black-plated plug in the wall. Okay, electricity was here.
Still, the readers would love the Wildrose Inn. Presidents had probably slept there. There was probably a charming love story about the ghosts that roamed the halls. Because of course, there would be ghosts at the Wildrose Inn. And a five-star chef who thrilled the critics.
The sad-faced kid began sucking her thumb. Jenn felt her womb contract, pulse, sigh. No. Be strong.
"It wasn't exactly what I had in mind. I was expecting something a little more..."
"Fancy," finished the woman, no stranger to the obvious.
Time for a new tactic, something that didn't make her feel like such a martyr-killer.
"This is the Deluxe Cabin?" asked Jennifer hopefully. Maybe the paper had made some clerical mishap, and Jenn had landed the supersaver accommodations instead? Time were tough. It was a possibility.
"My ex was a wilderness freak," the woman explained. "He loved the sounds and smells of nature, and bought this place for a song. Of course, then he leaves me to run it. Not that I want to talk bad about Emily's father," she covered her daughters ears, "but if I called him an asshole, I'd offend thousands of butt-cheeks everywhere."
Sorrowfully, Jenn shook her head. "Been there, bagged that, sobbed at the ending. We're a gullible gender. Too soft-hearted to stand up for what is best for us. No, it's all about sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice."
It was a habit of Jenn's. Promote camaraderie, create intimacy, inspire trust. It was the key to her reporter's way, the secret to getting to the very heart of strangers in the span of sixty minutes or less.
But not this time. The woman heaved a self-sacrificing sigh, uncovered her daughter's ears, and then smoothed at non-existent creases in her apron.
"You'll be happier at the Wildrose. It's really nice. They have these great down comforters and in the afternoon, Sven will do massages. His name isn't really Sven, it's actually Mario, but still, he has great hands."
Her apple cheeks blushed a dark scarlet, and Jennifer suspected the woman knew Mario's hands in the most intimate sort of way.
Feeling sentimental and guilty warred with her need to do this feature right, and Jenn glanced at the kid who was now milking this one for all it was worth, her little grape-stained chin wobbling, her wide eyes brimming with diamond-bright tears.
It was like watching a little Meryl Streep, and Jenn had always been a sucker for Meryl Streep, her ability to convey heart-wrenching melancholy with only a quiet look. This kid had that same Oscar-winning genes in spades and knew it.
Unfortunately, it wasn't completely an act.
Mind made up, Jennifer nodded. "I like this place. Sometimes I think it's important to get away from the distractions of the everyday world. A place where I can turn off the television."
"-- and chuck the cellphone in the lake when the ringing gets too loud."
The woman laughed, a relieved laugh, and Jenn smiled to herself.
"Not a problem. No cell reception for miles."
Miles? Miles? Longingly, Jenn stroked the brand new iPhone in her jean pocket, knowing she could never chuck it into the lake. All the hiking and nature apps that she'd loaded especially for this assignment? Pointless.
Techno-gadget-lust vs. the good of human kindness.
Her sigh was long and slightly over-dramatized, but at least now the manager looked relieved, and the little kid looked more than a little self-satisfied.
Yes. I'm a sap, and for the next two weeks, she'd been rustic, outdoorsy sap, and hopefully they didn't have poison ivy.
"Welcome to Harmony Springs. I'm Carolyn and this is Emily."
Now that she'd made peace with her decision to abandon all the comforts of a post-industrialized society, Jenn set her suitcase on the floor. "What do people do for bathrooms?"
Carolyn started to laugh. "We're not that rustic. There's a men's bath and ladies bath right down the path. You won't be able to miss it, but it gets dark at night, so keep a flashlight handy. You brought your linens and soap, right?"
Sneaky Emily was watching her, daring her to back out of the deal now, not that Jenn was considering it - much. "Oh, yeah. I'm all set."
"Perfect. We'll get out of your hair. There's a movie every night in the main lodge, and a horseshoes tournament at dusk."
"Wow. I think I'm going to love this place," gushed Jennifer, and Carolyn smiled gratefully.
"You're a nice person."
"Sometimes. But I had an ex who dragged me on survivalist training for two weeks. I ended up with a sunburn and a bad case of poison ivy and the piece d'resistance? he dumped me because I wasn't tough enough to hack it. I think I can make it fine." With or without three-ply toilet paper.
Really? Asked the snide little voice in her head.
"One last thing, and we keep the grounds really quiet here. We only have two guests now, but Cabin Three really appreciates his privacy."
"He doesn't like children," muttered Emily, and Jenn kept her smile to herself. Obviously Cabin Three did not take likely to having his emotions manipulated for capitalistic purposes.
"We don't know that, Emily," scolded her mother.
"Yes we do. He tells me that all the time."
"I'll make sure to stay out of his way," Jenn assured them both, liking Cabin Three more and more.
Now that Emily's sales job was complete, the little girl threw open the wooden door, and dashed out of the cabin. She ran in unlaced sneakers, jumping down stairs, and over rocks. Watching her unbridled freedom, Jenn envied that ability to run, laces whipping out wildly, uncaring of the consequences that might doom her to a bruised knee or for example, losing the job of her dreams.
Before Carolyn could trail after her daughter, Jenn had one more thing she wanted to know. "Can I ask you something?" she asked.
Carolyn halted on the wooden porch and nodded, her eyes watching her child, making sure the knees didn't get skinned. It was always the loving mother who looked over the world with guarded eyes, wanting the best for their kids, wanting them to avoid the bumps and bruises of life. In that respect, Jenn's mother was exactly the same.
"Why don't you leave here if you're not happy?" she asked, not wanting to think about her over-cautious parents at the moment. She was here for work.
Carolyn sucked in her lip, the way people do when they have an answer ready, but they know it's the wrong answer, so they chew on their mouth and their words, hoping to find a more socially acceptable way to spit it out. Almost all of the Dade family were notorious lip-suckers -- except for Jenn.
"I thought about leaving, about starting over, but not yet. One day, I'm going to wake up, and know that I'm ready, but right now, I wake up, and I go to work. Doing the cleaning and the laundry, running the movie, keeping Emily somewhat well-adjusted. That's enough for now. It makes me happy. It makes Emily happy and if Emily is happy, then I'm happy. "
"But don't you want more? Don't you feel like you're settling?" Jenn had an irrational fear of settling, an irrational fear of living her life on the terms as defined by Great American Societal Credo #32, A Woman Must be Successful and Recognized On Her Financial Merits, a well-trod treatise on The Post-Feminist era Female.
"Why are you so interested?" Carolyn asked, obviously noting the not-so-well-disguised panic in Jenn's voice, which came as much from her own insecurities as it did from professional curiosity.
Jenn decided to come clean, because on a good day, she wasn't this edgy, but this wasn't a good day. It probably wouldn't be a good two weeks either, and although she didn't like to read the writing on the wall, sometimes the wall needed to be read.
"I'm a journalist. I'm here to write about this town, this place, the Summer Nights festival, and I'm fighting for my job against a femme fatale who is sleeping with the boss, and I don't have a chance in hell of keeping my job, but if I keep my job then my parents aren't right, and I'm twenty-eight years old, which is too old for my parents to be right, and so I have to come up with something here. Something fascinating. Something illuminating. Something mesmerizing. Something that will titillate my editor far more than the sight of Miss Nolita's naked garbanzos."
Carolyn knew desperation when she saw it. "You're sure you don't want to check out now? The Wildrose has this great chef. Four stars. In fact..."
Jenn held up a courageous hand, Joan of Arc style.
"Let's forget about the chef for a minute. What would you do if you weren't here?"
"I don't let myself think that far ahead."
"Because usually it's not good, and I like being happy. If I don't think too much about tomorrow, then I'm happy."
Most other female New Yorkers aspired to be dancers, or media captains, or heart-free mistresses to high-powered men. All Carolyn wanted was to be happy. Jenn made a mental note to investigate this self-satisfaction concept more fully. Females choosing happiness over the rigid expectations of the world? Story at eleven.
Aaron Barksdale drummed his fingers on the mahogany tabletop, glancing at his watch for the hundredth time, not wanting to look like an impatient male in a frilly female world, but as a writer, he believed in absolute honestly, so yes, he was an impatient male in a frilly female world.
But not impatient without cause. The elegant dining room of the Wildflower Inn was overstuffed with flowers, smothered by the rabid scents of hairspray… and potpourri.
Aaron hated potpourri. Neither was he especially fond of hacked-off flowers which were crammed into vases, and in his soul he knew that a woman's hair was best left soft and unshellacked. Feeling rather justified in his criticism, he leaned back in the pint-sized chair and his fingers drummed even faster.
Where was Didi? She was always late, he reminded himself, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
"Excuse me. I don't mean to interrupt, but can you move your chair please?"
At the sound of a woman's voice, his fingers ceased their drumming and he turned to contemplate this newest irritation. Automatically his mouth curved into the politely expected smile, but it wasn't as difficult as usual.
She had eyes were the quiet blue of an early evening sky, possessing that wondrous sort of delight most commonly seen in magazine ads for cleaning products. Her face was long and thin, with a sharp nose well suited to intruding where it didn't belong. But she had nice hair, he admitted, only to be fair. Autumn gold waves that fell past her shoulders, soft, and unshellacked - as it should be.
"Your chair?" she repeated in that same no-nonsense tone, and he reminded himself that people must be more dense in frilly, female worlds. Trying to oblige, he shifted an inch forward, until his knees lodged painfully against the adjacent chair. All social obligations now complete, he nodded to dismiss her.
"Do you need that much room?" asked the woman who would not be dismissed. "I'm trying to work," she offered as way of explanation, as if everyone chose a dining room as their personal office. Of course, with the hodge-podge of electronic gadgets spread on the table in front of her, he wasn't surprised she needed extra space.
"The chair's aren't that big," he argued, because if he moved any closer to the table, he'd be on top of the table.
She looked him up and down, and smiled, patently fake. "You don't look fat."
Fat? Then he noticed the teasing look in her eyes. "Don't get nasty," he answered testily, because Aaron had never handled teasing well.
"I'm trying to work here, but I can't move my elbows. I need to move my elbows," she explained, flexing her arms over the small tabletop, her expression politely determined in that way of people who didn't know when to give up.
"Don't we all?" he muttered, before unhappily adjusting his knees. Trying to block out the rest of the world, his fingers began nervously drumming once again.
She looked up, scowled at his hand.
"I'm making you unhappy, aren't I?" he asked, strangely happy about it.
As soon as he spoke, a heavily-embalmed dowager at the next table shushed him. Obviously people in her world enjoyed the oozing scent of bad potpourri and didn't mind having their legs compressed in unnatural positions.
Cranky old biddy, he thought. Probably owned cats.
"Sorry," the younger woman apologized in a stage whisper, with a nod toward the next table. He nearly smiled when the older woman sniffed.
"It's not your fault," he told the younger woman magnanimously.
"I won't bother you again," she promised, but after that, he could still feel her staring at his back, and he told himself that the woman was very attractive, and he shouldn't mind having her stare at him, preferably leering. But this time, he could feel the tightness of his collar, the instinctive desire to cover his face, and he told himself it was the surroundings. The filigreed trappings and overindulgence of gilt. When faced with too much noise, too much gold, and too many eyes, he had an overwhelming urge to flee.
Finally, he turned around, shuffling his chair sideways to face her. "I don't like being in crowds," he explained. "Especially fussy crowds with pearls and rose-patterns and cucumber sandwiches." It was as close to an apology as he'd ever admitted.
"You don't get out much, do you?" she asked.
"Enough," he lied. He got out more than he wanted, and every time he did, he regretted the experience. When he got right to the point, as he knew he should, Aaron preferred isolation. He preferred the voices in his head, the world he created, the perfect turn of the phrase.
He preferred alone.
"Why are you here?" she asked, seeing through the lie.
"Dragged the dragon out of his lair? Must be some friend."
He snickered at the thought. Didi? "She's not a friend."
"Oh," she replied, a wealth of innuendo in the word, and he choked back his laughter. She thought Didi was a date. "I'm sorry. I'll get back to work."
"Don't let me keep you from it," he said when she turned away, not bothering to correct her assumption.
Eventually she shifted again, knocking into his shoulders. "I can be a very bad procrastinator. Sometimes I'll know I should be working, but if I know I have the time, it's like pulling teeth.
"You should be more disciplined." Deciding that maybe she did need more room to work, he shifted to the other chair at the table. It was a little better. They weren't touching so much.
"Disciplined like you?" she asked with a mindful glance at his undisciplined fingers, and Aaron felt an odd heat on his face. A blush. Easily explained by the heat of the room, the presence of chemical additives, and the disconcerting lack of oxygen.
"I never pretended to be a great example," he muttered, and before she turned away, she smiled. He noticed.
There was a bleak trickle of sweat down his neck because he enjoyed her smile. It made him warm and lethargic, and Aaron didn't want to feel warm and lethargic, so he rubbed at his neck, and concentrated on the Great Lily Massacre in the bud vase in the center of his table.
Not that it was enough. Out of the corner of his eye, he could observe her as the roller-ball pen scratched the well-thumbed pages of her moleskin. Careless and haphazard, but energetic and slightly obsessed. He approved.
When she wrote, she talked to herself, reading aloud, and it wasn't half bad. A few dangling participles. Some verbs that could have been punchier, but over all, it was decent. He got caught up watching the movement of her mouth, and decided that her mouth wasn't half bad, either. It was fluid and expressive, never still, never concealing.
Oddly fascinated with her, Aaron forgot about the pungent smells and the cramped ache in his knees. It wasn't that she was pretty, but the light in her face drew him in. A hum of energy radiated about her, not relaxing, not comfortable, but always magnetic. When she was paused in her work, she would ruffle her hair, mussing it up even more. Each time she raised her hand, the dowager glared. Not liking the glares, Aaron gifted the dowager his best crocodile smile. People didn't like his crocodile smile. Instantly the stares stopped.
The drama of the world played around the younger woman, but she was immune to it all. He didn't understand this ability to tune out the noises, and he wondered.
All too soon, the waiter came, presenting her with the check. As she pulled some cash from her overstuffed bag, she didn't look Aaron's way, and he told himself he was relieved. After all, he didn't like to be disturbed. But then she rose, and he found himself supremely disturbed. He didn't want to notice her, didn't want to leer at her body like some undersexed boy, but it was impossible. Truly. She had breasts that would make any man want. High lush curves that would just fit his palms.
Beneath the table, his cock throbbed painfully and he told himself that it had been too long since he'd had sex. At one shining moment in time, his sexual appetite had been legendary. It was humiliating to realize he'd been reduced to an ordinary man with ordinary tastes and a hard-on that could bisect a brick.
Needing to focus his energies elsewhere, his fingers drummed on the wooden tabletop, hard and fast, an eerily carnal rhythm.
Thank God no one was there to see.
Except for her.
As she walked away, she glanced at his drumming fingers and then smiled at him, a quick nervous smile, not a sexual invitation, not that his body knew the difference. Stupidly he stared - and of all the human foibles, Aaron hated stupidity most of all - but he couldn't help himself. For a second her eyes widened, zeroing in on him, cataloging each and every one of his human foibles, probably so she could pen them in her journal in her chicken-scratch scrawl.
Aaron looked hastily away. One innocent smile, and in his mind, he'd kissed her, stripped her, and had whispering his name between frenzied moans.
After she left, he calmed his oversexed blood, and his undersexed cock, leaning back in his chair, breathing in the florid scent of rose like smelling salts.
In a few minutes, Aaron returned to his normally disagreeable state, and he smiled with relief almost happy that Didi was late. This way he'd have something more familiar to gnaw on.
It was over an hour later when Didi finally showed, not that he should be surprised. There were many words to describe Didi Ziegler, punctuality not among them. She peered at the world through her owlish round glasses in a flamboyant red. People whispered that it was undiagnosed dementia to wear red past seventy. But Didi, who had broken hearts for nearly half a century, ignored the whispers and went airily on her way. And Aaron, who knew gossip to be only the most perverted form of the truth, chose to ignore them as well.
"You're late," groused Aaron, obediently holding up his head as she kissed the air somewhere next to his ear.
"I like to see you squirm, darling. What sort of agent would I be if I didn't torture my client?"
"A humane one."
"You don't want a humane agent. You want a viper, and we both know it. Save the lies for you pages. Speaking of," she raised her pencil-line brows until they disappeared into the silvery wisps of her crisply styled hair, "Do we have progress yet, or are you still twiddling your thumbs? I suppose twiddling is preferable to other, more colorful uses. But the isolation, the provincial wilderness… the mind assumes the worst."
Didi always knew the exact way to restore him back to equilibrium, and he flashed her a grateful smile. "Before you start the interrogation, I'd like to eat first, dining on rubbery chicken and/or wilted salad sopped with dressing that's going to clog my arteries and send me to an early grave. After the plates are cleared, we'll progress to pointless chit-chat wherein you tell me all sorts of frothy drivel, and I'll pretend to care. Then I can complain about the state of the world, and the melting of the ice caps and ponder the fates of little baby seals."
She cocked back her head and laughed, a rich belly-laugh that caused heads to turn and Aaron's mouth twitched in amusement. "One of these days I will fire your worthless, delectable ass."
"I'm the client, Didi."
"And you keep bringing that up. A convenient truth that only muddies the patent unhealthiness of our business relationship."
"Bite me," he said with not a trace of malice.
"It's a good thing I don't have a full set of teeth, instead of these giant moons they call veneers. Tell me, Aaron, what happened to natural teeth, and natural boobs, and natural wrinkles? Ugly is a dying art form," she said patting her beautifully coiffed hair slyly.
"You wear it well."
"If you call me Broom Hilda, you will die."
"You always look lovely." It was true. In his eyes, Didi represented the very best of the female sex. Razor-sharp, loyal, but with a large heart that few would ever see.
"I am not lovely, merely eccentric and egotistical. In the past, the men fell for it in droves."
"They still do," he said, and she beamed with approval.
After they ordered, they ate, and she dished the latest in the publishing world. Some old names, many new, and Aaron was glad he was longer a part of it. Moving north, 'fleeing' as Didi termed it, had been the best decision of his life. Too bad she didn't see it that way.
"I saw your father."
"So?" he asked easily, shaking pepper over his plate, not really caring how much he used, or where that it landed.
"It was the Scribner dinner. He asked about you. He's getting old and scrawny, much like the rubber chicken you are condemning to your well-seasoned hell. He looked heartbroken as well. I thought you would want to know."
"That's the Scotch."
"I could give him a message, although it would be a horrendous waste of my time and talents, because I am not some plodding delivery service, especially when you could do it so easily yourself. However, because I am an exceptional agent, dedicated to my clients needs, I would. But only this once."
Aaron sawed at his chicken with excessive force. "Tell him the usual."
"It always makes me happy to spew vulgar obscenities, and watch his eyes narrow to toothpicks. Martin is waiting for the manuscript," she added, daintily picking at her salad, turning from one unpleasant topic to another.
"I'm not ready to write again."
"Yes. I know. You are too emotionally frozen, devoid of all feeling and heart, and even worse, unable to plot your way out of a paper bag. Blah, blah, blah. You are becoming tedious."
He stared at her silently, as any self-respecting heartless, emotionally frozen man would do.
Unamused, she shot him a withering look.
"I need more time," he lied. Actually, there were ten completed manuscripts under his bed. In fiction, Aaron believed in total honesty. In life, not so much.
"I've been telling him that for eight years. Eventually he will grow old and possibly die, and you will have squandered your opportunity. Not that I care."
Aaron shrugged, feeling the pecking bites of guilt, and he hated guilt. Guilt was usually directly followed by stupidity. "I'll have something when I have something." It was an empty promise, Didi knew it, and she moved aside the bud vase, the better to scowl at him.
"Show me what you have, Aaron. Give him a morsel, something to dangle in front of his greedy little eyes, and let them remember the vibrant talent that you are."
Aaron fought the urge to put the vase back in place and hide the disappointment in her eyes. "When I'm ready. The perfect book takes time. It's nearly impossible to do it twice in a lifetime."
"You will never be ready if you spend all your time in this dreary little ghost town. You should be in the city."
She spoke with all the arrogance of Aaron's father, some acquired from her two short years as Cecil Barksdale's mistress, but there was one important difference between the two. Didi actually looked at Aaron with affection. Aaron's father only looked in the mirror with affection. In the end, it was the same reason that both Didi and Aaron had left him.
"Since hell has now frozen and your will has fossilized into something large and beastly, usually found in museums, I have no choice. For the next week, I will be slumming here for a short respite." She coughed, not so delicately. "If you feel a warm, relentless wind breathing down your neck, it will be me doing my job as I should be paid to do, if you were actually writing."
As he considered the horrific idea of someone sitting there, waiting for him, expecting to actual read his words, Aaron's fingers began to tap once again. His father had always said true genius could never be forced. There were few things that Aaron and Cecil agreed on. That was pretty much it.
He considered the lethal determination in Didi's face and knew that soon he would have to come clean. But not yet.
"Oh, you are the sly one," she murmured, her mouth curved in a Cheshire grin. "I know you've been writing. It's there in your face, your restless fingers." Delighted at his obvious misery, she rubbed her hands together. "There. I've decided. Every day we will have lunch, and you will report your progress."
"You can lunch wherever you choose. You'll lunch alone."
"You would treat me so shabby, Aaron?" she asked, watching him with those piercing black eyes that knew him better than anyone.
"No," he said with a resigned sigh. With a single-minded efficiency, Aaron had chased away everyone in his life. Nine years later, it was only Didi who stuck beside him. He wasn't sure if it was his commission check that kept her in his life, or some stubborn desire to needle him to life. He suspected the later. Money had never been Didi's raison d'etre.
"It would break my heart if you chose to brush me away now."
"You don't have a heart," he reminded her.
"True. But if I had a heart, it would break."
Aaron pushed at the chicken on his plate, seeing too much resemblance in himself and not proud of it. "As long as we don't eat here again," he told her, then swallowed a bite, doubts lodging in his throat like a bone. This was going to be a disaster and Didi's victorious smile didn't help.
Airily she waved her knife with as much skill as flair.
"Of course, darling. Whatever you want."
» available at Amazon