I took one last glance around the minuscule living room of the stone cottage, making up my mind on the spot. I was aware of the realtor behind me, her eyes focused on my back as I deliberated. She’d no doubt struggled to rent this place for months; it was unkempt, old-fashioned – tiny. And perfect for my needs.
When I turned around her eyes were fixed on me, her countenance hopeful. She looked faintly ridiculous in a claret skirt, tailored white shirt and sky-high heels – which dug into the muddy ground as we made our way inside just a few minutes ago. I mentally reprimanded myself for being so judgmental, the realtor had been friendly and polite from the outset, introducing herself as Maude Yeardley – and it wasn’t her fault I’d chosen to look at a house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dirt and mud. “I’ll take it.”
Was that relief on her face? I wondered idly. It seemed my assumption had been correct and she’d had this one on her books for a considerable period of time.
On the drive back into the tiny township of Puckhaber Falls, Maude made small talk, giving me information about the locality, advice about the residents and gossip. Mainly gossip. Besides being the town’s lone realtor, she apparently knew the personal business of every single inhabitant. It didn’t matter to me. My stay here wouldn’t be a social event, so to be honest, I didn’t really care one way or the other. I would see as little as possible of the other nine hundred and forty two inhabitants and my stay would be as brief as I could manage.
My only intention in Puckhaber Falls was to work up the courage to kill myself and release my soul from the never-ending pain I’d endured for the past two years.
Moving into my new residence took a remarkably short period of time – my needs were few, my possession crammed in the back of my ’68 Volkswagen Beetle. A duffel bag contained my wardrobe in its entirety, consisting of faded denim jeans, t-shirts and sweaters. I’d never been particularly fashion conscious and this lack of awareness had increased exponentially in recent months; to the point where I threw on clothes each day with little regard for what I was wearing. I hadn’t glanced at a mirror for months – I didn’t care what I looked like or how other people perceived me.
A second bag contained my meager linen supplies; a couple of tea towels, two bath towels, a mat for the bathroom floor. There were no sheets, my only bedding requirements being a sleeping bag and a pillow. I never slept a lot anyway.
One box was unpacked in the kitchen – containing a saucepan, a frying pan and a battered old kettle. My eating utensils – a fork, a spoon and a knife. And of course, a can opener. My meals consisted mainly of cans which could be opened, thrown into a saucepan and heated. I owned one plate, one bowl and a mug. There’d never been a need for more than that in my travels, as I didn’t entertain and never invited visitors to my latest residence.
My bedroom took minutes to arrange – by the time I’d assembled the camp stretcher, thrown the sleeping bag and pillow on top of it and tipped the empty box from the kitchen upside down to perform as a bedside table, I was done. My favorite books – Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre and a compendium of William Shakespeare – were placed on top of the box for the nights when sleep too often eluded me.
In the living room, I unpacked my most treasured possessions – a foldable easel, tubes of paint in many colors, a palette and my brushes – all the assorted paraphernalia I needed to earn a small income. Later in the week, I would locate a Goodwill and find a cheap armchair to complete my furnishings.
Once I’d finished unpacking and arranging the little cottage, I stood back to admire my handiwork, satisfied that everything had a place. Not that there was a lot of room, the cottage consisted of one miniscule bedroom, a tiny living area, a small kitchen and a bathroom. The inside was reasonably clean, the outside remarkably overgrown. Located on the outskirts of Puckhaber Falls, the cottage stood at the northernmost end of town, located off the Interstate and hidden down a short gravel drive. There was three quarters of a mile between myself and the nearest neighbor – exactly the way I liked it. Alone was my preferred place to be. My last stop had been in North Dakota and I’d stayed three months, in another small town. I’d stayed until the locals got too friendly – when people began to know my name, it was time to get out of Dodge.
The goodbyes were always the same – people who considered themselves my friends waving farewell. I went through the motions each time, saying and doing all the right things to let them believe I was sorry to be leaving. It was a lie. The only emotion I felt as I promised to write, or email, or telephone – was relief. Relief to escape sentiments I was no longer capable of feeling.
I was drawn to the peace and quiet of small towns, the isolation helped me to stay aloof and I preferred the ambiance. I would invariably do as I’d done here in Puckhaber Falls – drive into town, locate a realtor, lease something small and out of the way. I didn’t want neighbors, didn’t need people peeking at me from across the road or trying to strike up a conversation by the mailbox. I didn’t want people to know me. I would only lease something if I could take it on a monthly basis, avoiding any long term commitment. In the back of my mind was the conviction that I wouldn’t be on this earth long, and why complicate matters by letting a realtor think she had a long term tenant? I preferred a four week window of opportunity to escape, should my plans to depart this life not come to fruition as soon as I would like.
I avoided friendliness, couldn’t permit people to know my inner character. The outer shell of my psyche remained firm, castle walls and battalions holding strong against the possibility of a breach. Behind the castle walls was somewhere no-one was allowed to go. How could I allow it? Behind my strong borders was a tumult of ferocious emotions, flowing like a vortex around my crushed heart. Nobody was allowed to see behind the walls to discover the inner agony. I couldn’t allow anyone in, not even think of loving someone, caring for anyone. I had no heart left to care with. My heart had been destroyed two years ago and now I wandered the country, a fragile shell of humanity, looking for a way to end my life.
I prepared dinner – a can of beef ravioli, heated on the dilapidated stove which was probably older than I was. My needs in the last months of my life were simple, although I did use manners and tipped the saucepan’s contents into a bowl, before perching on the porch steps outside to eat. I must do something about a chair.
Darkness was already falling in this northern area, not helped by the canopy of ancient trees surrounding my new home, casting deep shadows around the cottage. The porch light wasn’t working, but a cheery pool of light flowed from inside, allowing me to eat my meal.
Tomorrow I would go into town, pick up some supplies and approach the small craft stores to see if they’d be willing to sell my paintings. This had been my approach in numerous moves over the past two years, usually affording a small income to supplement the meager funds in my bank account. If things appeared promising, I’d find that Goodwill and buy an armchair. If things didn’t seem promising, there was always the little porch to sit on until I figured something out. My grandmother used to say something would turn up when you least expected it and I heard her voice, using the idiom I’d heard repeatedly before she died. For a split second I dwelled on the memory, then pushed it back into the tidy box where I stored things I didn’t want to think about.
A deep sigh escaped my lips as the last light disappeared on the horizon. It was peaceful and as the darkness deepened, sounds from the forest caught my attention. Small animals had crept from their daylight hiding places to forage and a wolf bayed in the velvety night. The air was heavy with the scent of pine and the musty, rich scent of damp earth.
It was so quiet, I could hear the gentle splash of water from a river nearby. I wondered idly if this was the water source that led to the falls the town had presumably been named for. The forest seemed the ideal place to hike, somewhere to go and think my thoughts in peace. As peaceful as my chaotic mind ever allowed, at least.
I stood up and yawned before walking inside, letting the screen door bang behind me. It had been a long day and I hoped the extreme tiredness consuming me was a promising sign. I’d fought insomnia for so long now, exhaustion had become second nature; but I hoped the long drive from North Dakota might aid me in achieving at least a couple of hours of unbroken sleep.
I washed up the dishes, brushed my teeth and slipped into the cold sleeping bag, rubbing my feet back and forth to create a warm patch. For a long time I lay curled on my side, listening to the strange sounds from the forest outside and trying to distinguish one creature from another. I heard a wolf again, then a second and it seemed they were calling to each other across the darkened forest, seeking one another in the inky blackness.
Close to the window came scuffling sounds, as though some woodland inhabitant was investigating my arrival. I wondered what it was, perhaps a squirrel or a skunk. Whichever it turned out to be didn’t matter, I had no fear of the forest and what lay within its boundaries, was happy to share my world with the animals. They asked no questions, sought no responses and didn’t give a damn for what I was thinking.
When I eventually fell into a restless sleep, my nightmares were filled with memories that could be suppressed during the day, but not in the long hours of night.
“You must be the new girl.” It was issued as a statement rather than question and she was openly curious as she smiled from behind the counter in the local supermarket. “I’m Lonnie Stewart.”
I smiled weakly. “Charlotte Duncan.” I didn’t bother adding that people more often than not called me Lottie. For starters, I wasn’t planning to be any friendlier than I needed to be and secondly – well, ‘Lottie and Lonnie’ just sounded like some lame television program for preschoolers.
Lonnie was about my age, with silky auburn hair drawn into a ponytail, clear brown eyes and a trim figure beneath a navy smock. ‘Puckhaber Quikmart’ was embroidered on the left lapel. She had a smattering of golden freckles across the bridge of her nose and long dark eyelashes which would never need the artificial assistance of mascara.
“That’s a real pretty name; Scottish, isn’t it? Maude told us you were new here, you’re renting the old Macock place.” Apparently this didn’t require a response as she went on without pause. “We live a couple of miles away in Cyprus View – you’re pretty isolated out there.” I nodded, packing my groceries into a canvas bag as she continued chatting. “You look about the same age as me, I’m going to be twenty in January. How old are you?”
“I turned twenty last month.” Alarm bells were clanging a dire warning inside my head – Lonnie Stewart was looking for a new friend. In all the wrong places.
“Are you going to attend Community College? I’m studying Veterinary Science and I work here part time to help out with tuition,” she announced brightly.
“No, I’m not.”
Lonnie appeared disappointed. “Oh, that’s too bad, I could have introduced you around.” A frown creased her pretty features momentarily, disappearing as quickly as it had emerged when her eyes brightened with sudden enthusiasm. “I know, you can come to Jim’s party on Friday night!”
Her unexpected invitation caught me on the hop. I hadn’t anticipated it and didn’t have a ready excuse on the tip of my tongue. I stood there, utterly tongue-tied – staring blankly as I tried to compose a response. Lonnie appeared not to notice and began to load my now forgotten groceries into the other canvas bag.
“It’ll be great, give you a chance to meet everyone. It’s nothing fancy, just a cook-out and some fun. I’ll pick you up if you like?” She stopped speaking, glancing up at me expectantly.
“Um,” I began to fumble an excuse, but her enthusiasm defeated me. It was such an open and friendly invitation, I didn’t like to hurt her feelings by rejecting it out of hand. “Okay,” I agreed cautiously, already scrambling for a feasible excuse. I’d only been in town for three days and already I’d become mired in a complication. It was swiftly becoming apparent that Puckhaber Falls was too small, too friendly. It was half the size of the previous towns I’d stayed in and the size decrease apparently equated to the locals being more friendly and inquisitive about a new person in their midst. I was annoyed by my own foolishness – at month’s end I would get back on the road – if I hadn’t succeeded with the suicide. I had no intentions of making new friendships.
Picking up the bags, I forced a grim smile for Lonnie and escaped out the door, her words ringing in my ears. “I’ll pick you up at seven on Friday night!” The doors closed with a hushed swoosh and my anxiety began to creep upwards. How could I get out of this mess? Worse still, it would have to be done face to face – other than at the Quikmart, I had no way of contacting Lonnie. Lying was one of my weakest traits, I tended to flush to the color of an overripe tomato and couldn’t maintain eye contact when I attempted it. It had always been simpler to tell the truth, even as a child I’d found it excruciating to lie to anyone. Given the circumstances of my lifestyle it would be convenient if I could lie successfully, considering I was constantly trying to keep my distance from people.
The light rain continued to fall, pooling in shallow puddles along the pavement. I shivered a little, hunching my shoulders against the cold. Main Street consisted of barely two dozen stores and one set of traffic lights, which were scarcely needed for the amount of traffic in town. I glanced down the street towards the craft store I’d visited a few days ago – the owner was delighted with my paintings and one stood on display in the window. I glanced at the ominous dark clouds overhead, fervently hoping a piece would sell before too long – I would need money for snow chains.
Head down against the incessant rain, I located my car on the other side of the road, my thoughts returning to Friday night. It would be difficult to wangle a way out of it, particularly as Lonnie was insistent on collecting me. I sighed heartily, dismayed all over again. There was nothing for it, I would just have to visit her at the store tomorrow and make an excuse. Once I’d thought of a valid justification for not attending. That could be my project for the rest of the day – and probably most of the night. I was abysmal at lying to someone face to face…
I stepped out between two parked cars and onto the road, my thoughts a million miles away. A shrill horn blast interrupted my deliberations and I glanced up, eyes widening in alarm. A flash of navy blue – a car going too fast for me to react, even if I could compel my legs to move. My brain was operating in slow motion, something I’d experienced in another stressful moment in the past. I guessed this would be classified as one of those moments.
I did the only sensible thing which came to mind and closed my eyes. I wanted to die and this seemed as good a way as any I’d considered to date. Being hit by a car should do the trick, although I did feel kind of sorry for the driver, who would live with my death for the rest of his life. Not to mention what the impact would do to his vehicle. Waiting for the collision to occur, I wondered if he had accident insurance…
The screeching of tires, the acrid smell of the burning rubber penetrated my senses as I waited patiently for the car to hit me. When it came, the blow wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d anticipated – in fact it was more a gentle nudge. A nudge which threw me backwards onto the dark asphalt and breath left my chest in a sharp whoosh when my skull smacked painfully against the blacktop. For a second or two my eyelids fluttered wildly, before the world retreated into blackness.
“Charlotte? Charlotte! Can you hear me?”
The world remained dark, an inky blackness I couldn’t fathom, the pain in my head excruciating. The voice was deep, with a husky tone which made me think of whisky and cigarettes. Cool hands touched my skin, brushing across my fingers and cheeks in the gentlest of caresses. And the smell… well, I didn’t rightly know what it was, but the scent was… divine. A potent mix of my favorite aromas enveloped me; the tang of salt on an ocean breeze, the sweetness of peppermint candy, the scent of evergreen trees in the forest – all wrapped up together. With considerable effort I opened my eyes and discovered a face hovering inches from mine. He looked like an angel – or at least – how I imagined one might look. Extremely pale skin caught my attention initially, his brown hair exceptionally dark in comparison. His jaw was strong and square and he possessed cheekbones which could make a girl cry for what she craved, but didn’t have. His nose was perfect, neither too small nor too large in a face which was classically handsome and charmingly rugged. He frowned as I watched and the dark slashes of his eyebrows almost met, his eyes filling with concern and… I’d never seen anything like them before. Too dark to be called truly blue, they were nearly navy in color with radiating swirls of silver which reflected my ghostly face back at me.
As much as I wanted to try and understand why this fallen angel was beside me, I lost the battle and drifted back into a soothing nothingness.