Tuesday, April 18
Low Tide 8:51 a.m.
Sunrise 5:54 a.m. EDT
I’d expected the house to be locked and empty, and it didn’t disappoint me. For form’s sake, I tried the doors, and every window I could reach, checked the empty mailbox and took note of the fact that the porch was free of yellowing newspapers. By the time I’d done all that, I was shaking with cold and damp, and really wanted that cup of coffee.
It was good, I thought, as I walked down quiet, fog-filled street, that Bob’s was still there. Bob was one of those old friends of Gran’s who didn’t think so much of me. And if anybody knew where she’d gotten to, it would be Bob.
The bell on the knob jangled as I pushed the door open, and again, when I shoved it shut behind me. Heat blasted down from the overhead blower and hit me in the face. My eyes started to water, which was likely just the eyeballs thawing out.
The place hadn’t changed any, from what I could see through the tears. There was Bob himself at the back counter, white haired and pixie-faced, pouring coffee for one of the regulars. I didn’t off-hand recognize the wire-thin woman in the salt-stained work sweater and patched jeans, but it went without saying that she was either a regular or a townie — and probably both.
For a minute — no longer — I stood on the threshold, taking it all in. The radio was tuned to WBLM in Portland, just like it’d always been, bellowing classic rock music into the din of conversation and clattering silverware. The booths on the right, away from the windows, were crowded; the tables along the windows, not. The dividers were still up, sequestering the so-called ‘summer dining room.’ On the walls between the windows were the photographs famous people had signed to Bob over the years. It seemed there were a few more since the last time I’d been in, which surprised me. I didn’t think famous people came to Archers Beach anymore.
That’s what I noticed, inside that first minute, then Bob straightened up from pouring, looked down the room and saw me.
The woman he’d just served saw him stiffen, and she turned on her stool to sight along his line. A couple fellas in the booths noticed her interest and turned to look, too.
I nodded, casual and friendly as I could manage, heart hammering and short of breath as I was.
“Bob,” I said, by way of greeting.
I saw some of the starch go out of his shoulders and he gave me back my nod.
“Kate,” he answered, civil, if not exactly welcoming. He hefted the pot. “Coffee?”
“Coffee’d be good,” I said, though it wouldn’t be, unless a miracle had occurred since the last time I’d had Bob’s brew. It would, however, be hot. I moved forward, walking careful on wobbly legs.
The guys in the booth went back to their talk, and the woman at the counter turned away, showing me a narrow back. I slid into the empty stool next to the wall, and watched while Bob hooked a thick brown mug from the peg, filled it and set it down on the counter in front of me. He turned to put the pot away; I reached for the cream and doctored my cup. The coffee was strong; rich dark odors rising in the steam. I finished with the cream and wrapped my hands around the mug, wise enough not to try to drink just yet, grateful for the uncomplicated warmth.
Bob’s face, when he turned back to me, that wasn’t exactly uncomplicated.
“You come for the keys, I guess,” he said. “Bonny said you’d be by.”
I sighed, quietly, one guess to the good. Go, me.
“I’d like the keys, sure,” I said to Bob’s waiting eyes. “Also some idea of how long she’s been gone, and where she went. I tried to call. . .” The kitchen bell rang, sharp, signaling a meal up, and Bob turned to deal with it. Me, I cuddled my coffee mug, and concentrated on the music, laboriously piecing “Born to Run” out of the surrounding din.
“You’re Bonny Pepperidge’s girl.” The voice was low and raspy. I glanced to the right. The thin woman in the sweater was watching me. Her eyes were pale gold, like old ale; her face was brown, spare and pointed. There were creases at her eyes, and lines around her mouth. The hair wisping in mist curls from under her gimme hat was a sort of rusty brown. She might’ve been thirty, or sixty, or anywhere in-between.
“I’m Kate Archer,” I admitted, nodding at her, and gave the obligatory lineage. “Bonny Pepperidge’s granddaughter.”
She chewed on that a bit, then washed it down with a gulp of coffee.
“Nancy Vois,” she said, with a nod of her own. “I helped out with the merry-go-round couple Seasons back.”
Not much of a conversational gambit, even if I was good at small talk, which I never had been. I made what I hoped was a non-committal noise, raised my mug in both hands, and sipped carefully. Hot, bitter, and just slightly oily. Wake-up coffee, yessir! Just what a girl who was half-frozen, half-frantic, and half-dead needed on an empty stomach at the end of a long, long drive.
I had another sip.
Next to me, Nancy Vois drank down what she had left and thumped the mug to the counter. She flipped over the check, sighed, and slid from her stool.
“Stayin’ for the Season?” she asked me, pulling a couple crumpled bills out of her jeans pocket.
Fortunately, she didn’t ask what it depended on, since I didn’t know myself.
“Need any help on the ride, I’m an able mechanic,” she said, just letting me know, and smoothed the singles between thin, knobby fingers before putting them carefully across the check.
“Thanks,” I said; “I’ll remember that.”
She nodded again and took herself off; I sipped some more, feeling the coffee wash away a layer of stomach lining, and squinted at the menu hanging over the kitchen window.
“Here.” A manila envelope briefly obscured the menu, and settled on the counter in front of me. A ring of keys jingled and landed on top. “Bonny left this for you, ’round the middle of October. She said I was to tell you it’s up to you.”
I frowned. “What’s up to me?”
Bob, predictably, shrugged. He might be one of Gran’s oldest friends, but it doesn’t naturally follow that he knows her mind, nor thinks he should. Her business was her business and she was fully capable of taking care of her business — be it the carousel, or the town council, or the sullen, sickly girl-child who had landed on her doorstep bearing news of her daughter’s death.
I sighed, and held the mug out, two-handed. “More coffee, please?” I said, nice as I could, and waited while he reached ’round for the pot and poured.
“Bob,” I said, serious and steady. “Where’s Gran?”
He shrugged again. “It’s in the packet, I’m guessing,” he said. “You want anything else?”
I looked at the envelope, my name written on the front in old-fashioned cursive. Sighed again and met Bob’s eyes.
“I’d like a cheddar cheese omelet,” I said. “With home fries and wheat toast. Please.”
“Sure,” he said, and turned away to write up the ticket.
I’d taken my time — not to say dawdled — over breakfast. By the time I was done, I’d stopped shaking, and the ever-present pain had settled down to what I’d come to consider normal levels. I paid my tab, put the keys in my pocket, tucked the unbreached manila envelope under one arm, and strolled back to the Subaru through nothing worse than a light mist, silvered by the sun.
It would’ve made sense, I guess, to open the envelope right there in the car, and get down to cases. I thought about it, then put the envelope on the passenger’s seat, started the Subaru and drove over to Ahz’s Market. Displacement activity.
‘Round about eight-thirty, having displaced as well as I was able, I was back at the house, sliding one of the four keys on Gran’s ring into the lock of the second-floor apartment.
Grocery bag in the crook of my arm, pack slung over the opposite shoulder, I pushed the door with an elbow. It didn’t budge, of course. Tupelo House had been built right around the turn of the century and it has its crochets.
Sighing, I juggled the bag, settled myself firmly on my left foot, raised the right and brought the flat of my still-damp sneaker smart against the center of the door.
My technique was still good; the door popped wide. Inside, it was dim, and I hesitated.
“Oh, right,” I said out loud, sarcasm mode on. “So now you’re afraid of the dark?”
Overhead, a gull laughed, caught an air current and whisked away, still laughing, its shadow flickering over the dunes.
“It wasn’t that funny,” I muttered, and got my feet moving — right, left, right; that’s all it took to get inside. I dropped my pack to the dark linoleum floor, yanked the key out of the lock, and used my hip to shut the door.
Tupelo House is three storeys tall, what they used to call an “oceanside cottage,” built with extra income in mind. Half of the ground floor is a rental; a comfy studio apartment with a patio nestled against the dunes. Upstairs, the main floor of the owner’s quarters consists of a great room, the French doors presently hidden behind winter-weight curtains opening onto a porch — the so-called “summer parlor.” To the rear, overlooking the alley/parking lot, is the kitchen; bathroom/laundry combo down a short hallway, and the stairs to the third floor, where two long bedrooms run the width of the house, each with a window overlooking the sea.
I carried the groceries into the kitchen, put the bag on the counter and sighed. The refrigerator’s doors were open, the inside a gleaming wasteland. And dammit, I thought crankily, slamming the freezer shut and reaching into the main compartment to turn the temperature dial and give the light bulb a half-twist to bring it on — dammit, if she’d had time to clean out the fridge, she’d had time to call me. What on earth ailed the woman?
That the answer to that was probably in the manila envelope I’d shoved, still unopened, into my pack, I ignored for the moment. It felt better — safer — to be annoyed at Gran. That was familiar territory.
The fridge hummed, and I slammed the door before moving across the room. The window over the sink was dark; Venetian blinds rolled down and folded tight. I yanked on the cord, and the blinds rattled up, letting the weak April sunlight into the room. Then, I went down the hall to the bitter end and fiddled with the thermostat, nodding in satisfaction when the furnace gave a low, irritable rumble.
On my way back to the kitchen, I detoured into the great room, and pulled the heavy curtains back. Outside, Saco Bay sparkled and flashed in the sunlight, the early morning fog gone like it had never been. I paused with my hand gripping the edge of the curtain, staring at the scene I had once professed to loathe.
Straight out, waves broke against Blunt Island and Strafford, perfectly visible now. Down beach — south — there was the Pier, the sand stretching wide and straight beyond it. If I squinted, I could just make out the black blotch of Googin Rock, and the notch at Kinney Harbor. Out again, further south and to the east, I could see Wood Island Light.
To the north, the beach begins a long eastward arc; the communities up that way are Surfside, Grand Beach, Pine Point. At the far end of the arc is Cape Elizabeth Light, and beyond that is the open sea.
It’s a mesmerizing view, and maybe I stood there a little longer than I had intended, asleep with my eyes open, more or less. No surprise after all that driving, even with a quart of Bob’s coffee in me, and, anyway, I tended to phase in and out nowadays. Part of the process, that’s all.
The shadow of a gull flickered over the glittering waves; I blinked, shook my head, and turned away from the window. My pack squatted by the door like a reproachful hound. I walked past, giving it plenty of room in case it decided to jump up and get mud on my jeans.
In the kitchen, the fridge was already cooling. I made quick work of stowing my loot — skim milk, coffee, a vacuum-sealed pack of Swiss cheese, and a loaf of off-the-shelf whole wheat; a bottle of cheap chardonnay, half-dozen eggs, a pound of margarine — folded the bag, and put it between the fridge and the wall. There were maybe a half-dozen other bags already in residence, which homey touch delivered a sharp and completely unexpected little twist of anguish.
Closing my eyes, I swallowed hard. I hate to cry; always have. I don’t think that’s something Gran taught me.
I spun. Stretching high on my toes, I opened cupboards at random, discovering canned goods, paper towels, dishes — none of which made me feel any better. I forced myself to turn away, and leaned on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, gripping it so hard my fingers hurt, and concentrated on breathing slow and easy until the tightness in my chest eased off to bearable.
“I’m too old for this,” I told the kitchen at large, my voice rasping in my own ears as I half-laughed. Ayuh. And Gran could give me a couple centuries, local. Both of us were ‘way too old for games.
Some more deep breathing and I managed to get myself steady — or at least steady enough. I didn’t like the way this was shaping up. The state of the apartment not only spoke of a woman who had time enough to tidy up before she’d taken herself off, and it also showed a state of readiness that indicated she’d expected to return.
Except she hadn’t returned. And she hadn’t felt it necessary to share her plans with one of her oldest and closest cronies.
Which did make one wonder what the hell was going on.
I sighed, and pushed away from the chair, heading for the hallway and my pack.
There was only one way to find out.
I ran my finger under the flap to break the seal, and gingerly slid the contents of the manila envelope onto the kitchen table.
A green bank book in a cloudy plastic sleeve slipped free first, followed by an old button folder, well-smudged and tattered, the word “Legal” written diagonally across its face in rusty black ink. Last to emerge, almost as if it were as reluctant to be read as I was to read it — a single sheet of Gran’s stationery, folded in half.
I put the envelope aside, and reached — not for the letter, but for something a little easier to deal with.
The flaking gold stamp on the front of the bank book read “Archers Beach Community Federal Credit Union.” It was the account we’d set up years ago; the first page listed joint owners Ebony Pepperidge and Katharine Fae Archer; the last page revealed a balance that was enough to pay the Season lease on the carousel’s space in Fun Country, and a tidy sum left over.
I closed the bank book and sat holding it in my hand, wondering if this whole business was nothing but an elaborate charade to drag me back to Archers Beach, where I’d sworn I’d never set foot again. All it had taken to break that oath had been a half-dozen unanswered phone calls and a letter from the bean counters.
“And you call yourself a Child of the Ozali,” I muttered, slipping the bank book back into its sleeve and reaching for the Legal folder.
The string that wrapped ’round the button and kept the flap in place was thin and grimy. I unwound it with care and pulled out four documents, each stapled in a crisp, new cover.
I had, as they say, a Very Bad Feeling about this.
Carefully, as if it were a live thing that might at any moment take it to mind to bite me, I fingered the top document off of the pile, and considered the folio notes. Pepperidge: Transfer of Real Property/Tupelo House, that was the title. The date was October of the year previous, and the lawyer — no surprises there — was Henry Emerson.
“This plan was not brought together in an instant, Malvolio,” I muttered.
Malvolio, typically, didn’t answer. Where’s your straight man when you really need him?
For form’s sake, I opened the document and scanned the first page. “. . .transfer of real property located at 100 Dube Street, Archers Beach, Maine, known as Tupelo House, from Ebony Pepperidge to. . .”
Sighing, I put the document aside and pulled the others to me. After the first, I knew what I was dealing with, and quickly shuffled through the documents transferring the carousel and the business wholly to me.
The fourth document, though — that was a surprise.
Gran had deeded the land on Heath Hill, that had been Pepperidge land since this little bit of Maine coast had been settled — to me. Wholly to me. And that was — just wrong.
I closed my eyes, but all I saw was spangles of colored lights, swirling. Soon, I was going to have to voluntarily get horizontal and grab some sleep, or sleep was going to ambush me and put me flat on my face in some uncomfortable and embarrassing locale.
First things first, though.
I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and finally picked up the letter.
A leaf fell out when I unfolded the sheet. I gave it a look — enough to establish that I didn’t off-hand recognize what sort of tree had put it forth — and began to read.
If you’re reading this, things have not gone as I had hoped and expected they would. I’m afraid I’ve left you a pretty mess, my dear, and it’s yours to decide whether or not to clean up after me.
The obligations of kinship. . .of love. . . are not always easy to bear. But, there, I haven’t told you anything you didn’t learn as a babe.
If you’re reading this. . .I’m glad you came home, Katie.
All my love,
* * *
Carousel Tides copyright 2010 by Sharon Lee