Authors: Lynne Cantwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban
Seasons of the Fool
Copyright 2014 Lynne Cantwell
Cover art copyright 2014 Kriss Morton
Discover other Kindle titles by Lynne Cantwell:
The Pipe Woman Chronicles:
Land, Sea, Sky:
Indies Unlimited 2012 Flash Fiction Anthology
Indies Unlimited 2013 Flash Fiction Anthology
BookGoodies How to Write A Book
Boo!: Volume 2
Winter Tales (contributor) (coming Dec. 2014)
Kindle License Notes
This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may be loaned out, but it may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please either use your e-reader’s loan function or purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not either loaned to you or purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Across Lake Shore Drive from the beach, behind the multi-million-dollar “cottages” atop the dunes – the ones with views all the way to Chicago – the woods begin.
Old-growth oak and maple tower over the faux log cabins that nestle into the understory – dogwood, sassafras, tulip poplar, and the occasional pine. Most of the houses look vacant. School begins earlier than it used to, and the families who spent their summer days frolicking in the waves and riding bikes along the winding lanes have gone back to their workaday lives on the other side of the lake. But here and there, windows are still open to catch the warm air of early September. The cars in the driveways of most of these homes sport Indiana or Michigan plates, but some belong to the summer people for whom summer hasn’t quite yet ended.
Here’s one on a corner just a block from Lake Michigan. There’s a gray station wagon with Illinois plates parked in the concrete driveway, and a pickup truck with local plates angled in behind it. A couple of guys in t-shirts and worn jeans are erecting a sign in the front yard – “Ames Construction Co.” – while a man with thinning ginger hair signs something on a clipboard.
We turn the corner onto Nokomis Trail and pass a few more cottages, interspersed with vacant lots where wild grapevines twist around neighboring saplings. In a manicured yard that would look at home in any suburb, an elderly man pushes a lawn mower. On the street in front of his house, a wooden mallard stands guard over his mailbox and two others, its whirligig wings spinning lazily in the breeze.
Every now and then, the man pauses to wipe his forehead with a carefully-folded red bandanna; as he pauses, he shakes his head over the cottage across the way, nearly invisible behind a riot of unkempt bushes and vines.
Next to this abandoned house is a vacant lot. Next to that, at the very end of Nokomis Trail, is a tiny cottage that looks like something out of a fairy story. Garden statuary – here a frog, there a nymph on a log – peek out from amidst gangly purple mums. A gnome guards the entrance to the stepping-stone walk, and several wind chimes hang from the porch eaves.
The elderly man glances toward this cottage and crosses himself surreptitiously. Then he goes back to work.
Inside the cottage at the end of the lane, a plump, matronly woman with a cheerful face hums as she works a loom. The frame takes up most of the living room, leaving only space enough for the fieldstone fireplace, two easy chairs, and a tiny television.
The woman pauses in her work and whistles, long and low. “Well,” she says to herself. “Isn’t that interesting.”
Just then, the back door bangs shut. The woman at the loom looks toward the kitchen, where a tall, thin woman with a narrow face has just come in. Out of habit, she ducks under the harvested herbs hanging from the rafters as she removes her gardening gloves.
“Mind your shoes, dear,” the plump woman says. “I just swept.”
“I’m going back out,” the tall one says as she gets herself a glass of water at the sink. As she waits for the glass to fill, she says, “I saw another dragonfly. That makes seven, just this morning.”
“Was this one headed up the street, too? Toward the Morton place?”
The tall woman nods, then downs half of the water in one long drink. “Looks like things are about to change around here.”
“Yes,” the plump woman says, examining her weaving. “I see that.” She turns back to the tall woman with a sunny smile. “At last!”
At the same moment, thirty-five miles across the lake as the crow flies, Julia Morton Michaud meets with her lawyer. Elaine’s firm is small, so their offices in Chicago’s Loop don’t command the sweeping view of the city that a larger firm would have. But as the Haddon of O’Leary and Haddon LLP, Elaine rates a glimpse of the lake.
Julia attempts to maintain a professional demeanor as Elaine goes through the checklist: life insurance, health insurance, retirement accounts. The country club membership. The burial plots. All of the knotted strands that will have to be untangled before her marriage can be dissolved.
All of the
knots, anyway. The emotional bonds frayed away long since.
“Now, the checking accounts,” Elaine says.
“Equal split,” says Julia. “Same with the savings and money market accounts. And the stocks.” She expects a fight over the stocks, but intends to stand her ground. She needs those investments to live the life she means to live. And she refuses to let Lance get away with everything.
“And the real estate?” the lawyer goes on. “I assume he’s keeping the Gold Coast condo. But you’re going to keep the house in Evanston, right?”
“No,” Julia says. “He can have that, too.”
Elaine looks at her over the top of her reading glasses. “It’s worth several million dollars, isn’t it?” At Julia’s nod, the lawyer goes on, “Well, we have some options. We can ask him to buy you out. Or we can stipulate that the house be put on the market.”
“I don’t want the money,” Julia blurts. “I don’t want any part of that house. He can have it.”
Elaine gives her a look of barely-concealed disbelief. “As your attorney,” she says, “I would strongly advise that that would be against your best interests. But as your friend….” She shakes her head. “Julia, what are you thinking? You’re entitled to half the house, as well as half the condo. And most of your wealth is tied up in your real estate holdings, unless I miss my guess. What are you going to live on, if you give everything to him? For that matter,
are you going to live?”
Julia tilts her chin up. “The house in Michiana. I’m going to live there.”
“In that derelict cottage?” Elaine’s shock is plain.
“It’s not derelict,” Julia says, defensive. “It needs some work, that’s all. And it’s quiet. It’s the perfect place for me to get my head together and do some serious writing.”
The attorney shakes her head. “So you’re really going to lock yourself away in that moldy old place. I thought you were kidding when you mentioned it at dinner last week.”
“Nope.” Julia pulls her chin up higher. “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. This is exactly what I want to do.”
The lawyer sighs. “Well, I’ll draw up the agreement with that in place and send you a draft by tomorrow morning at the latest. But I think you’re making a big mistake.”
Julia nods – in acknowledgement, not in agreement. She looks past Elaine’s shoulder and out the window, beyond the end of the concrete canyon, where a sliver of Lake Michigan is visible. The waves glitter in the harsh light of midday. It feels like a promise. Or like a release.
Silence draws her attention back to her friend. Elaine is regarding her with a wistful expression. “We’ll miss you,” she says.
Julia waves away the sentiment. “It’s not like I’m moving to the moon,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll only be sixty miles away.”
Julia stopped the car in mid-turn and surveyed the cottage with dismay. It was even more overgrown than she remembered from her last visit.
When was that? Two years ago? Three? Before Jesse, anyway.
She diverted her thoughts from that unpleasant topic before the creeping dread could claim her again. Before she could berate herself for the hundred thousandth time for getting mixed up with him.
Come on. Think about practical matters. You can do this.
She could barely see the tire ruts in the driveway under the leaves. The yard was blanketed with reds and yellows fading to brown. She promised herself that she would find a rake first thing, as soon as she parked the car.
She gauged the thicket of naked vines drooping from the driveway arch, compared it mentally to the height of her mini-SUV, and decided to risk it. She eased her foot onto the gas and crept into the drive. Vines snapped and scraped along the top of the car as she passed under the arch.
Absurdly, she felt like cheering when she cleared the entrance – as if she had won a race, or passed a difficult test. She killed the motor and got out, then stood on the running board to check the top of the car for scratches. The vehicle seemed to have survived unscathed.
She let out a breath.
A good omen. I need to trim those back first thing, though. I hope Grandpa’s shears are still out in the shed. And not rusted through.
She cast a baleful glance at the offending vines. Then she retrieved her suitcases from the back of the car and went inside the house.
The front door lock was stiff, as always, but muscle memory came back to her as she jiggled the key. As the door opened, she breathed in the cottage’s musty cedar scent and felt, for the first time in a long time, as if she had come home.
The front door opened onto what an enterprising real estate agent would call the “great room,” but which her family had always called the living room. A fieldstone fireplace dominated the room, taking up most of an interior wall. Before it, a midcentury modern sofa and matching chairs – worth a fortune these days, if an antiques dealer ever got hold of them – stood grouped around a threadbare braided rug. A ladder led to the sleeping loft; Julia had fond childhood memories of sleeping under the eaves with her cousins, Tim and Jen. Or pretending to sleep, anyway. Usually they eavesdropped on the adult chatter below, and giggled until one or another parent yelled up at them to knock it off.
Good times, good times.
Casement windows lined the back wall. As Julia walked toward them to crank them open, she saw it would do no good; the storm windows were still in place. “I wonder where Grandma kept the screens,” she said aloud. “Maybe in the shed?” She would have to put those up first. The place needed a good airing-out.
She turned right, into the tiny kitchen, running her fingers along the countertop just inside the door. They came back grimy with damp, and she winced. Another thing she would have to attend to right away.
The kitchen windows still had their screens installed, thank goodness. She opened them, and fished in the cabinets for a dishrag and some soap. Her grandparents had had a microwave, which she hoped still worked, but no dishwasher.
The dishrag, too, was a little grimy, and the bottom couple of towels had been pulled apart by mice. They had left their calling cards in the bottom of the drawer. She found an ancient box of plastic trash bags under the sink and upended the linen drawer into one of the bags, making a mental note to buy more dishtowels and dishrags when she went to the grocery store – another chore that was first on her list.
The rest of the house tour was much the same. The bigger bedroom had one window with neither screen nor storm window; she shrugged and opened it anyway. Mice had also gotten into the stash of towels in the bathroom. And they had made a nest in the loft, with stuffing from the futon mattress on which she had planned to sleep that night. Sighing, she manhandled the mattress to the edge of the loft and dropped it over the side. The mattress twisted and landed in a sprawl, one corner on the ladder and half on the stone hearth. It knocked over the fireplace tools as it landed, sending them clattering across the hearth. She sighed again as she made her way down the ladder, kicking half-heartedly at the damaged mattress for causing so much trouble.
As she dragged the thing out to the street, she heard someone call, “Everything okay over there?”
“Hi, Mr. Starek,” she said, waving to the elderly man who stood by his fence across the way, watering flowers with a hose. “Just airing the place out.”
“Is that little Julia?” He squinted at her.
“Not so little any more.” She crossed the road so they wouldn’t have to shout. “It’s nice to see you. I’d shake hands, but I’ve been messing around with mouse droppings and who knows what else. The place is a wreck.” She cast a rueful glance back toward her cottage. “How’s Mrs. Starek?”
He dropped his head. “She passed away two years ago. Cancer.”
“Oh,” Julia said faintly. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
He waved her off. “It’s okay. We’ve all got to go sometime.” He glanced up the street. “The old neighborhood isn’t like it was when your dad was little. When the older folks died off, the kids sold out to this new riff-raff.” He threw a disgusted glance toward the cottage at the end of the street. “Like those dykes over there. Next thing you know, we’ll have Negroes in here.”
Julia tried hard not to roll her eyes. A lot of speculation had swirled around the relationship between the two middle-aged women when they moved in, but that had been more than fifteen years ago. They hardly qualified as “new riff-raff” now – except to an old-time resident like Mr. Starek, she supposed. Anyway, she had always believed it wasn’t anybody’s business what people did behind closed doors.
“Bessie missed your grandma an awful lot after she passed away,” he went on. “Surprised you kids didn’t sell the place, considering none of you ever come out.”
“It hasn’t been easy for any of us to get out here,” Julia said. “My cousins have scattered to the four winds. Tim stayed in Hawaii after he got out of the Navy, and Jen married a British guy and moved to England.”
“So you’re the only one who’s close by,” he said. “What’s your excuse?”
She had forgotten what a gossipy old gasbag he was. She shrugged. “Haven’t got one.”
Not one that would satisfy you, anyway. The main reason is that Lance hates the place – which is one reason why I’m keeping it.
“You’ll be seeing a lot of me now, though,” she went on with a bright smile. “I’m moving in.”
He frowned. “I thought you were married.”
“I was,” she said shortly. “It’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Starek, but I’d better get back to cleaning.” She turned away before he could say anything else. But she could feel his eyes following her all the way through up the drive to her front door.
She spent the rest of the morning cleaning, using a rusty bucket and a mop whose hard-as-a-rock sponge head dated from the 1970s. She also carefully disinfected the drawers where she had found the mouse droppings. She intended to wash the floor of the loft with bleach water, too, but decided it would be better to wait until she could open the windows.
As she dumped yet another bucketful of dirty water down the sink, she heard a knock at the front door. “Hello,” a woman called, her voice muffled by the storm door. “Anybody home?”
“Just a minute,” Julia called back as she placed the bucket on the floor and wiped her hands on her jeans. As she approached the front door, she recognized the figure on the other side of the door immediately. “Ms. Elsie! You didn’t have to wait for me – you could’ve just come on in.”
“I didn’t want to presume,” the plump woman said. “Julia, how are you?” Julia pushed the door open, as both of her guest’s hands were full: she carried a steaming casserole dish in one and a bag full of apples in the other.
Ms. Elsie was so short that Julia had to stoop to kiss her cheek. “I’m fine. That’s not all for me, is it? You didn’t need to bring me anything. I need to go to the store anyway.”
“Well, I thought I’d help you eat this,” Ms. Elsie said with a wink. “It’s nothing fancy – just tuna casserole.”
“I love your tuna casserole, and you know it.” They had been moving toward the kitchen as they chatted. Now Julia rescued the casserole dish and set it on the counter. “I’ll have to wash a couple of plates before we eat. Everything’s so dusty.” She busied herself at the sink. “Where’s Ms. Thea? Is she coming for lunch?”
“No, Thea has something to do in town. It’s just the two of us.” Ms. Elsie perched on one of the dinette chairs. “Can I do anything?”
“There’s barely enough room for one person to turn around in this kitchen,” said Julia. “And you’ve already done enough. There.” She dried the plates and flatware with a paper towel, and dished out lunch on the clean plates before bringing everything to the table. “It smells wonderful,” she said as she sat. “Brings back memories.” She flashed a grin at her guest and tucked in.
Ms. Elsie propped her chin on her hand and studied her for a moment, an odd smile on her face. “Our little Julia, all grown up,” she said.
Julia smiled at her around a mouthful of tuna, and swallowed. “So they tell me. Do you want a glass of water?” She rose to get one for herself.
“No, thank you,” said Ms. Elsie. “So are you here just for the week, or…?”
“Actually,” Julia said, “I’m moving here permanently.” She sat back down.
“Oh? What about your husband?”
“Lance and I have split up. I filed for divorce a couple of weeks ago.” She ducked her head for another bite of casserole.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” But Ms. Elsie didn’t sound very sorry. Julia was pretty sure neither she nor Ms. Thea had ever liked her husband. “We’re happy to have you as our neighbor, though. This house has been so sad and lonely since your grandmother died.”
Julia smiled indulgently at the quaint turn of phrase. Ms. Elsie had always had an odd way about her, as if she believed even inanimate things were alive. “How have you been?”
“Oh, we get by,” the older woman said. “I sold a couple of rugs at the art show in Washington Park this summer.”
“That’s wonderful. Congratulations.”
“And Thea’s going to become a master gardener. That’s where she is today – taking a class for her certification.”
Julia snorted softly. “She could probably teach the class. I’ve never met anyone with a thumb greener than Ms. Thea’s.”
Ms. Elsie smiled. “I’ll tell her you said that. Finished?” The older woman picked up the empty plates and moved toward the sink.
“I can get that.”
“Nonsense. You’ve been working awfully hard here. Put your feet up and relax for a minute.”
Julia didn’t put her feet up, but she did lean back and allow Ms. Elsie to wash the plates and flatware. “I need to find the screens and put them up this afternoon. This place needs a good airing. And I don’t want to bleach the floor of the loft until I’ve got some decent ventilation in here.”
“Bleach the floor?” Ms. Elsie turned toward her slightly.
“Mice,” Julia said. “They pulled apart a corner of the futon mattress that was up there. They got into the linen drawer, too, and the towels in the bathroom. That’s why I’m using paper towels.”
Ms. Elsie was shaking her head. “This is the time of year for them to come inside for the winter, too. You may want to get someone out here to set traps and show you how to plug all the holes they’re getting in through.”
Julia sighed. “I’ll add it to the list.”
Ms. Elsie gave her a sympathetic look. “It’s a lot to do, isn’t it? Tell you what. I’ll have Thea come over later. I think she may have some traps left over from last fall – the humane kind, not the kind that break the poor mousie’s neck. I’m sure she would set them up for you.”
“That would be great,” Julia said. “Thank you.” She stood and stretched. “I guess I’d better get going on finding those screens. I suppose they’re in the shed.”
“That’s where we keep ours. I’ll just finish cleaning up in here.”
Julia smiled at her and pushed open the back door. As always, it stuck, and made a horrible grating sound as it opened. She grimaced at the noise. Then she traipsed through the carpet of leaves to the shed at the back of the lot.
Some poking around yielded the screens, a brush for cleaning them off, a screwdriver for installing them, two rakes, and the pruning shears. She knew she couldn’t get to everything at once, but it was good to know she wouldn’t have to outfit the whole house from scratch. She spent a few minutes brushing the worst of the accumulated grime off of the screens outside. Then she carried them into the house, kicking through the leaves like a kid on the way.
“Wow,” she said, pop-eyed, as she reentered the kitchen and pulled the protesting door shut behind her. The room absolutely sparkled, from the tops of the maple cabinets to the freshly-waxed linoleum floor. “You’ve been busy, Ms. Elsie. How did you do it all so fast? I could have sworn I wasn’t gone that long.”
The tiny woman shrugged and sipped from a steaming mug. “I guess I just got going and didn’t know when to quit. Tea?”
Gratefully, Julia sank back into her dinette chair. “Sure.”