Wednesday, April 19
Low Tide 9:42 a.m. EDT
Despite my early social call, I was at the door of Fun Country’s on-site office at eight o’clock sharp, only to find that “off season” hours were from ten to three. Typical, really. If there’s anything that Fun Country or its agent-in-place, Marilyn Michaud, can do to discommode a tenant, by golly, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
Discommoded, not to say aggravated, I glared at the door. A piece of canary yellow paper was tacked below the card elucidating those very convenient hours of operation, printed with faded red ink.
Attention All Tenants! Fun Country will begin operating on a weekend-only schedule May 14. All Name Rides are expected to open at noon on that date. Park closes at 10 p.m.
Great, I thought, and sighed. The Early Season was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it let you work out any kinks that might’ve developed in the ride over the winter. On the other hand, there was precious little money to be made during Early Season.
Not that there was all that much to be made during the Season, anymore.
Well. Nothing to be done here until Marilyn unlocked the door — on the stroke of ten and not one second before, if I knew my woman. Might as well move on to the next agenda item. Gran’s letter hadn’t exactly left me with the impression that I’d find her safe and cozy at Heath Hill. Trouble was, I didn’t have the idea that Nerazi thought Gran was under tree, either. And yet —
Look to your landhold. Not the kind of advice I could afford to ignore, coming as it did from the oldest and most potent trenvay in Archers Beach.
Walking down Grand Avenue, I distracted myself by noticing changes in the neighborhood. Several of the motels had re-invented themselves as condominiums, and a number of surprisingly upscalish business enterprises had moved in, apparently to service those with deep pockets and plenty of leisure. In one short block, I passed a deli specializing in high-end cold cuts and artisan breads; a day spa offering sea salt body scrubs; and a boutique wine store. Made the east side of Grand, with its seedy diners, t-shirt stores, ice cream shops, and pizza stands, look downright tawdry.
Which, come to think of it, was one thing that hadn’t changed. The townies were still scraping by, borrowing against that day when their ship stood in or their pony came through, while the people from Away never seemed to want for anything.
At Harmon Street, I took a shortcut across a vacant lot between Gentleman Johnnie’s Mini-golf and Seaside Rentals, and leaned against the fence for a couple minutes to catch my breath. There were a couple guys working the grounds at the Gentleman’s, unwinding the blue tarps that had protected the course from winter, and piling them in the back of a lawn tractor. They were stripped down to t-shirts, their discarded flannel draped over a handy salt cedar. I wasn’t ready to lose my jacket, personally, though I might unbutton it, if the temp climbed another five degrees.
I went up the Hill from the east, off of Heath Street, which is the gentle slope. The side facing the ocean is sand-covered stone, and the side toward Kinney Harbor is rock stitched with sea rose. There’s a trail that comes in from the top, through the abutting land, which has been in the Rogers family a good couple hundred years. Once, there’d been a small house and garden plot there, but it’d been let to go wild.
I’d gone to school with Randy Rogers. The land passed to him before we graduated, after his father went over the side as a result of putting his lobster boat too hard by Googin Rock. Back then, Randy’s plans had included joining up, and getting the hell outta Archers Beach, which his dad had opposed. Last I saw him, Randy was getting on the Navy bus with the rest of the new recruits. He hadn’t come back, as far as I knew. I wondered if he’d survived the war.
The wind picked up as I came up out of the protected zone, and by the time I hit the top of the hill, I was blowing like a grampus, bright flecks swarming at the edge of my vision, my chest edgy and raw.
I paused in the shadow of the sentinel trees, breathing shallowly, until the flecks went back to wherever they called home, then stood some more, looking out over the ocean. The sun struck sparks from the busy water, and I narrowed my eyes against the brightness, regretting the sunglasses I’d left sitting in the Subaru’s change tray. Squinting, I could see the islands silhouetted against the turquoise sky. Closer in was Googin Rock, as weird and as black as a moonscape in the retreating tide.
I closed my eyes again, and took an experimental breath, deliberately drawing the salt air down deep into my lungs. Different — so different from the stuff I’d been breathing. Air was supposed to invigorate you, to give you a reason to rise and do battle with the challenges of the day, setting your blood to bubbling and your brain to jigging. Anything’s possible, with ocean air in your lungs. City air’s all weighted down with car exhaust, diesel fumes, and feelings of hopelessness. All that stuff gets into your system and it makes you tired, too, the heavy metals alchemize in your blood, turning your gifts into burdens, and your joys into sorrows. Breathe enough of it and it’ll kill you, sure.
Which was, after all, what I had wanted.
One more deep breath, my chest hardly hurting at all, before I turned and approached the trees. The air changed again as the breeze filtered through leaf; I breathed in the scents of bark and mold, and felt the gathering regard of the forest.
The shadows melted before me, and a path opened for my feet — that was the good news. But the wood was still, no bird song or insect sound, nor stirring of rabbit or squirrel in the fallen leaves, only a whisper of breeze in the branches. Around me, the trees were poised, on the edge of what action I hadn’t a clue.
Thinking it might be me that was making them tense, despite the fact that they’d let me in, I stopped took my hands out of my pockets and opened my fingers wide.
“It’s Kate,” I said, and waited.
Leaves rustled; stilled. I took a breath, tasting the spice of green growing things — then the breeze was back, tickling inside my ear.
Welcome, Kate. . .
All righty, then. Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t me, for a novel change.
The wood on Heath Hill is a mixed stand — hardwood and soft — and I moved on, sneakers soft on fallen needles, then crunching loudly on dead leaves or downed sticks. Somewhere, not close at hand, I heard a scream of maniac laughter — a pileated woodpecker; not exactly what you’d call bird song. Still, it made me feel better to know I wasn’t the only living thing in that place. Excepting the trees, of course.
In due time I came to the Center. Here, the trees thin a bit, ceding pride of place to the soaring black gum which is the heart and soul of the wood.
Nine feet around, is that tree, and somewhere over a hundred feet tall, with great, twisty, wide-reaching branches already showing oval leaves so brilliant they seemed blown from green glass.
I walked up to the giant and put my palms against the rough silvery bark.
“Anybody home?” I whispered.
Silence, the wood beneath my hand rough and cool — only wood, that was all.
“Damn.” I leaned in, setting my forehead against the trunk, and closed my eyes. All around, the trees were still, tense leaves smothering the breeze.
“Damn,” I said again, some while later; I’d phased out again. I pushed away from my grandmother’s tree with a sigh, brushing my hands together to clear off the bits of bark.
Clearly, Gran wasn’t at home. Well, she’d said as much in her letter, hadn’t she? The comfort was that she couldn’t have gone far. That, and the fact that her tree was hale and healthy, green leaves sparkling in the filtered sunlight. The only thing I needed to do was figure out where the devil the woman was holed up, and fetch her back.
Piece of cake.
I came out of the woods on the side abutting the Rogers’ land. Overhead, seagulls shouted insults at each other, or maybe at me, and the breeze whipped right sprightly, unimpeded by leaf and trunk. Stepping from the shadow of the trees, I looked to the hilltop — and caught my jaw just before it hit the ground.
Above me, at the top of Heath Hill, on what had been the Rogers’ landhold, stood a. . .a — well, I suppose the folk who’d built it thought it was a Maine summer cottage in the grand Bar Harbor style. What I saw. . .was a monstrosity; a house that overfilled its land and its location, its windows afire in the sunlight, a sneer at the sea and the sky it overlooked, a slap at the groundlings who groveled in the town.
“Randy sold the land?” I asked, and a moment later the breeze brought me the confirmation of the trees.
. . .sold the land. . .
The new owner had cleared his parcel, brought in dirt and made it all nice and level. ‘way up by the house, a man sat on the flagstone patio, sipping from a mug, a newspaper held between him and the sea. Walkways stretched out from the patio, lined with tame flowers, well-pruned cedars, and marsh pine. The grass was a uniform, unlikely emerald green, and — over the line by a good six foot.
“Now, dammit,” I snapped, and my temper flickered. Not good. I look a breath and sighted upland.
Bearding strange men on their patios at half-past breakfast isn’t on my top ten list of fun things to do. Nevertheless, the thing had to be dealt with, one way or another, and I was the captain of this particular ship until such time as Gran got her ass back from wherever it was she’d gone to.
Firmly, I walked toward that towering monstrosity of a house. At my rear, I could hear the trees murmuring among themselves, expressing a lively interest in what I might be going to do.
I’d’ve liked to have known that, myself, but I figured something would come to me. It usually did. Unfortunately.
Up on the patio, the man turned the page of his paper without ever once looking up.
I stopped walking precisely at the edge of my — of Gran’s — landhold, feet cushioned by emerald grass. Six feet over, right enough. I caught my breath, and considered the matter, feeling the spring of the grass beneath my sneakers, and sighted along the deeded markers, taking my time.
Certain of my markers, I stepped over to the tree line, finding a stout stick suitable to my purpose obligingly close to hand, and went back to the boundary.
This time, I paced the line, double — and then triple — checking, while the new neighbor kept on with his paper, oblivious.
I finished my third check and paused, heart hammering and breath coming a little short, which was the exercise, and the excitement. Easy, Kate, I told myself. You don’t want to be losing your temper.
Right. Losing my temper would be a very foolish, not to say life-threatening, thing to do. I concentrated on taking deep, even breaths until I was feeling steadier. Then, I hefted the stick, drove the sharp end into the emerald grass and began to cut.
I looked up. The man from the patio was rushing down toward me across his pretty, soulless lawn, newspaper — the Wall Street Journal, I could tell by the type — still clutched in one hand, an expression of disbelief on his soft, well-kept face.
“Hey!” he said again, stopping just t’other side of the cut-line. “That’s my lawn you’re defacing!”
“That could be the case,” I allowed, looking him in the eye and giving him a nod. “But it’s on my land.”
He stared at me. His eyes were pale blue; his hair was blond, lightly silvered, and cut within an inch of its life. He’d dressed himself straight out of L.L. Bean: chino shirt, casual khakis and moose hide moccasins all looking brand-new out of the box.
“Your land?” he repeated, obviously having a hard time believing such a thing.
“That’s right,” I told him. I turned and used the stick to point at the stand of old wood, out to the seaward edge of the hill, over toward Kinney Harbor, and back to where we stood, making sure to plant the point of the stick right where I’d been cutting. “I’m Kate Archer, and I own this piece of land. You’re six foot over my line. You might not have known that, so I’m marking it out for you.”
The pale blue eyes glinted. “Prove it’s your land,” he said, and there was a note of pure meanness in his voice that I didn’t like at all.
“You’d’ve seen it on the survey and read it in your deed. The deed would’ve said something about being bounded on the seaward side by property owned by Ebony Pepperidge. I’m Mrs. Pepperidge’s granddaughter, and the deed’s in my name now. You might not have known that either, but you sure did know that this strip here wasn’t any of yours.”
“That deed is ancient!” my man told me, which in fact, it is. “We surveyed as well as we could, but when the markers are old rocks and trees that rotted fifty years ago –”
“Not rotted,” I interrupted, which wasn’t polite, but in spite of my best intentions, I was beginning to get irritable. I raised my stick and leveled it at the solid reality of the five foot granite boulder that was the northern boundary listed in the deed.
“Old rock,” I said, and had the fleeting pleasure of seeing him flush. I shifted the stick again, sighting along it to the second boundary, ‘way down on the Kinney Harbor side of the equation.
“Tree, not by any means rotten. Black Gum live a long, long time; that’s why the original survey picked it as a marker.” I considered him. “What’s your name, if it isn’t a state secret?”
“Joe Nemeier,” he snapped. “I don’t care who you are or say you are. You’re vandalizing my lawn and if you don’t cease, and repair the damage immediately, I’ll call the police and see you hauled away in handcuffs.”
That wasn’t very likely, for a grass vandal, but there was that certain something about Joe Nemeier that put my back right up. The little flicker of irritation was in danger of becoming a full flame-out of temper, which, I reminded myself, I could neither support nor afford.
With that thought in mind, I took a deliberate, ocean-rich breath, to steady myself, and looked straight into Joe Nemeier’s pale blue eyes.
“Here’s a counteroffer,” I said, as calm as I could. “You get your lawn service out here to take up the grass from this line down. Do that, and I’ll call us square.”
He laughed, which I might’ve known he would. Turning away, he snapped over his shoulder. “I’m calling the cops. If you’re smart, you’ll leave before they get here.”
And of course that was all she wrote. Orange flame coursed up my backbone, and likely smoke came out of my ears. That quick, the Word had formed, and there wasn’t anything to do but let it loose.
“Hear me, Man,” I heard myself say, hard and chancy as the surface of Googin Rock. “The boundary will be honored.” And then the Word spoke itself, soft and gentle, like dew.
Joe Nemeier had spun to stare at me, as well he might. Me, I held his eyes with mine for two long heartbeats, feeling the Word settle. When I was sure it’d taken, I looked down, and Joe Nemeier followed my glance.
“What the hell!” he shouted, staring at the blight creeping across the brilliant green. “You poisoned my grass! I’ll have your ass for this, whoever you are!”
“My lawyer’s Henry Emerson, down in town,” I said, barely able to see him through the spangles filling my vision. Stupid! I told myself. But, there, I’ve always had a lousy temper, and if I’d been able to control it, I wouldn’t be in my current state of disrepair declining toward obsolescence.
Careful of wobbly knees and legs gone to rubber, I turned away, pitching my stick back into the wood, and headed for the downward slope into town.
“Come back here!” Joe Nemeier yelled. I heard his feet moving over dry grass and whispered a request to the trees. Shadows loomed, sudden, menacing and cold, and I heard the sound of footsteps again, retreating. When I looked back, there was no sign of Joe Nemeier out of doors, and the line between our properties was marked with a wide ribbon of dead grass.
* * *
Carousel Tides copyright 2010 by Sharon Lee