A Serial Book Written in Twelve Monthly Episodes
The residents of The Coach House Trailer Park are just as run-down as the park itself. In fact, they’ve all come here to die. Then one day, on a crisp January breeze, Willow Goodhope sweeps into the neighborhood. She moves into the lonely little shack on the other side of the driveway, bringing her potted plants, her Elderberry gifts, and her outrageous laughter. The Coach House residents can’t resist her charm as she breathes new life into hardened hearts, but there’s something about Willow, a terrible sadness that hovers at the back of her enigmatic eyes, and it has everyone talking, wondering, worrying. Kathy overhears her sobbing in her kitchen. Doc catches her burning letters in her fire pit. Myra swears she drinks alone out on her patio in the middle of the night. Patti knows the beautiful girl is after her husband, and Eddie and Donny, forever-feuding brothers, are competing to see who can make her smile first, even though they’re both fairly sure she’d prefer her men with real jobs, real homes, and real teeth. What–or who–is haunting the mysterious Willow Goodhope of Elderberry Croft? Will her new “family” be able to rescue her before it’s too late?
Part 4: April Shadows
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“There he is again, Mr. Tibbles.” Shelly released the vertical blind slowly so it wouldn’t set the whole plastic curtain to moving. The cat in her arms was too busy playing dead to care what was going on outside in the dark. She carried him over to her desk chair, settled him into the spot she’d recently vacated, then returned to the small sliding door at her back entrance.
She’d opted for the wide clackity blinds because if the cats played with them, they didn’t shred, and they were easy to wipe clean. Digits, especially, loved to rub her arched back down the length of them, making the row of strips swish back and forth, batting at them to keep them moving. She knew it wasn’t likely that the man outside could hear the blinds rattling together, but the movement, even with all her lights off, might catch his eye if he happened to look her way.
Mr. Tibbles wasn’t happy about losing the warmth of her body. He leapt off the chair, and wandered off in search of a bite to eat or a catnip mouse to bat around.
She’d first noticed the man a few weeks ago. Although it wasn’t common to see strangers in The Coach House Trailer Park, she rarely paid attention to the few that did come through. People were allowed to have guests, after all. But this one never seemed to visit anyone, at least not that she could tell. He always slipped in on foot, walking slowly, almost furtively, it seemed, and usually well after dark.
The gravel drive that looped through the park was essentially a giant horseshoe back here. After crossing the bridge over the little stream that divided the property front to back, the drive passed by her place where it sat at the west end of the park, then turned left and ran alongside spaces 9, 10, and 11, before turning left again and crossing back over the second bridge at the other end of the property. Space 12, the new girl’s place, was just opposite Space 11, at the farthest east corner, just beyond the laundry shed.
He always came from Shelly’s end of the park, walking past her trailer, his feet crunching softly on the gravel. Didn’t he know that the sound of footsteps on the drive in the middle of the night echoed loudly off the bank of hills behind the property? Back here there was very little noise from the busy street out front, and once the sun set, things got pretty quiet. Next door, Joe’s light usually went out about 9, the trailer on the other side of him, around the same time. Kathy in Space 11 kept a wacky schedule, but from what she could tell, it wasn’t for the sake of entertaining. If there was activity at Space 11, it was just Kathy rearranging her heart-shaped rocks in her heart-shaped yard.
That woman must have hundreds of those rocks. Because Shelly only did her laundry once a month, and then, only at night, she rarely passed by Kathy’s house. But every once in a while, the stocky, energetic woman would be out in her yard, the floodlight on, carting piles of rocks around in an old metal wheelbarrow.
At first, Shelly thought she was a druggie. She’d transcribed enough patient charts to know the signs and symptoms. But Kathy, with wide-eyed clarity that defied the typical paranoia of drug abuse, claimed she simply suffered from bouts of insomnia. “A parting gift from my heavy-handed husband,” she declared. “He made sleeping one of the most terrifying activities of my night.” It was the only time they’d spoken, and it had been very uncomfortable for her. She’d felt the pressure to explain her own nocturnal lifestyle, but it wasn’t anyone’s business but her own. It didn’t help that all three of Kathy’s dogs were barking as though they’d like nothing better than to jump the fence and chew on her legs.
She didn’t understand why people liked dogs. They terrified her. They were deceptive and manipulative, with those big, sad eyes and soft, furry bodies. Then they’d open their mouths and the fangs, the drool…Shelly knew all about dog bites from the patient files, too.
She usually waited until all the lights were out along the drive before she turned on any of her own. Her cats liked to sleep during the day and play all night, so she adjusted to their schedule because she could. Her work didn’t require set hours, just a finished product, and she could transcribe in the middle of the night just as easily as she could in the light of day. She didn’t sleep well at night, anyway, so it seemed to like a good solution to her. Sure, it meant she spent the majority of her waking hours alone, but she had Mr. Tibbles and his harem, so she was never lonely. Besides, and the things she learned from the little voices that droned in her ears for hours at a time were really rather fascinating. Who needed television when her job provided her with so much entertainment and education?
She’d just turned on her computer and opened up the first file when she heard his faint footsteps. The Shadow Man, she had started calling him. She knew it had to be him; it was nearly midnight, and the whole place had been asleep for hours.
She lost sight of him around Kathy’s place, but she got the impression he never went much further. It wouldn’t make sense. Otherwise, he would have just come in from that end of the park, and he always came back out this way.
It must have something to do with that new girl in the cottage by the laundry shed. “It’s none of my business, Mr. Tibbles,” she murmured, more to herself than to the cat who was no longer in the room with her. She turned away from the door and the shadowy figure of the man; whatever he wanted with the cottage lady had nothing to do with her.
Shelly returned to her desk, wiggled the mouse to wake up her computer, and pulled the pile of folders toward her. She had several reports to transcribe before morning, and the rule was that she had to finish one before the kettle whistled, another while her chamomile tea brewed, then a third before she was allowed to eat her breakfast of three scoops of corn flakes and toast with peanut butter.
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By six o’clock the next morning, just as the first hint of light was beginning to seep into the sky, Shelly was finished. She checked and double-checked the printed copies of her transcription, making certain they were in alphabetical order by physician. She checked one, two, three times, that the flash drive was the correct one, tucked it into its case inside the plastic expandable folder with everything else. Then she stood, stretched, and sat back down. Pulling the flash drive from its case, she plugged it back into the computer, and checked it one, two, three more times. Satisfied, it went back in its case, back in the plastic folder. She went through the process one more time, making absolutely certain that there would be no mistakes, no error she’d have to explain, and no mishaps she’d have to recompense for.
Then she went through the process of strapping on the elastic band. It couldn’t be too tight—she didn’t want to leave even the faintest crease in the pile of papers—and it couldn’t be too loose or the zippered case with the flash drive might slip out. It must lay flat all the way around the case, not stretched too thinly in any one spot.
“Keep it even, Steven. Keep it straight, Nate. Keep it flat, Matt.” Three times she said this, three times she smoothed the band in place, three times she took it off again, testing its elasticity to make sure it wouldn’t snap. Three times she slipped it back in place.
“Three time’s a charm, right Mr. Tibbles?”
But it wasn’t Mr. Tibbles who was rubbing against her leg. “Hello, Molly Mia. How are you this morning?” Any other time, Shelly would have reached down and scooped up the long-haired cat into her arms, but today, she didn’t want the strands of white clinging to her clothes. The turtleneck she wore was one of her favorites, with a pattern of tiny blue flowers over a pale mint background, and her ankle-length, dark blue, denim skirt would need a quick rub with the lint-roller to rid it of Mr. Tibbles’ short black hairs already. Today was her delivery day, and she had to make sure she looked her best.
She still had nearly an hour to fill before the records department at the hospital was open, but she’d head out early as she did every week, and do her grocery shopping. It took her exactly thirty-three minutes to find everything on her shopping list, and it all fit into her three reusable bags. Then she’d sit in the parking lot at the hospital until 7 o’clock on the button, greet Mrs. Olson at information desk, and make her way, head down, to the section of offices where she exchanged her pile of reports for another flash drive. The whole ordeal took her less than fifteen minutes if everything was in order, but she gave herself thirty, just in case. She was always home by eight o’clock, with plenty of time to put away her groceries, feed the cats, and take a shower to wash away the germs she’d been exposed to in the hospital, before it was time for bed. By nine-thirty, she was in bed, by ten, asleep.
In the little kitchen, she pulled open the pantry to make sure she didn’t need to add anything to her shopping list. She looked sideways at her shelves, dreading the thought of having to rearrange her shopping trip around what she did or didn’t find there. “Be prepared, or be scared,” she murmured in a low voice. At least three of everything, just in case.
She sighed with relief when she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary and stepped back to close the door of the tiny room, doing a small jig to avoid the cat curling its body around her ankles. “Digits! Stop it, little girl! How am I supposed to walk with you under my feet?”
A few minutes later, she stood at her front door, taking one, two, three deep breaths to calm her nerves. She could do this. She did it every Friday. She’d be gone for two hours at the very most. “I’ll be right back, Mr. Tibbles. I promise.”
She made it to her car without panicking, and was just loading her things into the passenger side, when a voice behind her startled her, and she fought the urge to turn and run back inside, back to her sanctuary.
“Shelly? Good morning.”
She turned slowly, breathing deeply again, in and out three times, her fingers clenched into fists at her side. She didn’t speak; she didn’t know what to say. This was not part of her routine.
“Hi. I’m Willow. I live at the other end of the driveway.” Over a black turtleneck, she wore a funny little red sweater shrug thing that should have clashed with her coppery chestnut hair, but it didn’t. Her well-worn blue jeans and furry boots completed the ensemble, and Shelly blinked slowly—one, two, three times—knowing she could never get away with wearing something so intentionally unconventional. The woman toyed with a huge stone pendant on a long necklace, and she could hear the whir-whir as the silver eyelet rubbed back and forth over the links of the chain. “I was hoping to catch you this morning so we could meet.”
“How did you know?” Shelly slid into the space between the passenger seat and the open door, pulling it a little closer until the bottom bumped against her shin, sending a jolt of pain up her leg.
“How did I know what?” Willow’s confusion was obvious.
“How did you know I’d be out here today?” She didn’t mean to sound rude, but she couldn’t stop the tremor in her voice and the only way to mask it was with briskness.
“Oh!” Willow laughed, too loudly, like a low-class fishwife, and Shelly cringed. “I told Joe next door that I really wanted to meet you, but you never seem to be home. He explained to me that you sleep days and told me to leave you alone. So I bribed him for information with my elderberry apple pie.” She rubbed her palms together and winked. “I have my ways of making a man talk.”
Shelly blinked again, three times. “Well, I’m on my way to work. And Joe should mind his own business.”
“Please don’t be angry at Joe!” Willow stepped forward and put out a hand, resting it on the trunk of the car. “He didn’t gossip about you at all. He just said that if I was going to insist on being a nosy neighbor, this might be the only chance I have to catch you.”
“I guess Joe knows what he’s talking about, doesn’t he?” She couldn’t take the bite out of her words, even when she tried. “Um, it was nice to meet you, but I don’t want to be late, so if you’ll excuse me?” She was still crammed into the car door.
“Goodness! No, I don’t want to make you late.” Willow stepped back, bringing her arms across her stomach, like a loose hug. She thought it looked like she was comforting herself, and she felt guilt forming a band around her throat. “I won’t keep you any longer, but when will you be back? Would you like to come by for some coffee?” There was a forced brightness in Willow’s words; she was making such an effort.
“I’m usually back by nine.” She fudged a little, then held up a hand when Willow’s eyes widened with delight. “But I come home and go right to bed. I work nights.”
“Oh!” There was that chaotic laugh again. “Well, then I probably shouldn’t offer you coffee. Would you like to come over for decaf tea? I make a mean herbal tea. In fact, I have one that’s really good for sleep. It’s a nice chamomile and elderflower blend.”
This woman was determined. “I can’t. I’m going shopping, too, and I’ll have a car full of groceries to put away. And my cats will need to eat. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
Willow shook her head, her red curls bouncing around on her shoulders like fat slinky toys. “Don’t apologize, Shelly. I’m the one who butted into your morning.” She chewed on her lip, and in a resolute voice, she said, “We’ll connect another time, okay?” Then she smiled kindly, stepped around the back of the car, and headed down the drive toward her own place, turning once to lift a hand in a wave.
Shelly breathed in deeply through her nose, catching a whiff of whatever fragrance Willow had been wearing that lingered behind her, and let out her breath in a whoosh, her whole body drooping as she sank into the passenger seat to recover. She hated being put on the spot, caught unprepared.
Father used to do it on purpose. He’d catch her unawares, often standing in the hallway waiting for her to come out of her bedroom or the bathroom, and ask her questions for which he knew she had the wrong answers. “Shelly.” His voice, no matter how smoothly her name flowed from his lips, always made her start violently, sending her heart surging up into the back of her throat, blocking her words and trapping her in helpless silence. “Did you help Mother with dinner tonight?” She’d stare up at him, trying desperately to remember whether he liked the food or not. If she nodded, he’d slap her. If she shook her head, he’d slap her. It was never hard—at least it never left a lasting mark—but it always did what it was intended to do. It stung her flesh just enough to tear open her soul and leave her completely unsure of anything.
In the dark, after her father fell asleep, Mother would creep in and sit on the edge of her bed, knowing without asking, that her daughter was awake and dry-eyed, curled in on herself. Mother would stroke the knobby bones of her spine, following the c-shape of her back with her tentative fingers. “It’s for your own good, Shelly. You need to be prepared. Always be prepared. Life is hard, and no matter how careful you are, how good you are, how brave you are, things happen that we can’t control. We need to be prepared for bad things. They happen. And if you’re prepared for them, you won’t be caught by surprise.” Her touch never brought solace, but there was comfort in its tentative consistency. Father always knocked her off balance, Mother always put things back into perspective.
“Always be prepared, Shelly. Be prepared, or be scared.” She muttered the mantra under her breath as she dashed up the steps one more time to get her purse from the kitchen counter.
Digits was waiting for her, just like Father used to do, and Shelly was not prepared. Her toes caught the cat in the ribcage, making it yowl in surprise, and she reached frantically for the wall, the back of the kitchen chair, the counter, all just beyond her outstretched fingers.
Down, down, down she went, her left leg under her at an awkward angle, unable to find footing in her ill-fitting, slick-soled dress shoes.
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She lay crumpled on the floor, the nerve-endings in her body screaming at her, as pain coursed through her. Could she move? Had she broken something? What if her back was broken? She’d read about so many patients who might have walked again if they hadn’t been moved by desperate friends or family members at the scene of the injury. Did she dare try to move? What if she did and permanently damaged her spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed for life? Who would take care of Mr. Tibbles, and Molly Mia, and Digits, and Twinky-Dink?
The smallest of her cats padded over and rubbed her little body against Shelly’s hip, mewing softly. This little girl rarely came down from her window perch where she slept in a patch of sunlight during the day. At night, she was braver, wandering around the house, keeping to the shadowy corners and beneath furniture. She had only one eye, the other having been so damaged by a kick to the head, that the veterinarian had offered her no hope in salvaging it. “Steel-toed boots and cats don’t mix.” His words might seem callous to anyone else, but Shelly preferred his straightforward talk over those who used tricky phrases to soften the blow of the ugly truth. “I’d rather be prepared than scared,” she’d told him the first time she’d brought Dr. Otis one of her cats. He’d looked her in the eye and told her the truth without mincing words, just as he had time and time again since.
“Oh, little Twinky. It’s going to be okay.” She worried that Twinky-Dink would be able to sense her apprehension, and she didn’t want the cat to be afraid. The poor thing had lived enough of her life in fear already. Mr. Tibbles wandered over, walked around her a few times, then disappeared down the hall. Molly Mia was probably already asleep in the bedroom, and Digits was nowhere to be seen.
“Digits? Mommy’s going to be okay,” she called out, wondering if any of the cats would try to get out the front door she’d left standing open several feet away.
She lay there, futilely guarding the door with her eyes. Should she call for help? Would anyone hear her? Would anyone care? No one ever bothered with her except Joe next door, but she’d made sure he knew that theirs was not a friendship; they were just neighbors. And now this Willow girl. Well, she’d chased her off just as effectively as the steel-toed boot had chased off Twinky-Dink. She’d seen the wounded look in her eyes.
Making up her mind, she gathered her courage and strength, and brought her hands up under her, pushing her torso up slowly, slowly, so that she was leaning on her right hip. She whimpered a little as she tried to straighten her left leg; she reached down and pulled up the hem of her skirt to look at her knee. It was already beginning to swell.
“Well, at least I didn’t injure my spine,” she sniffed, realizing that the intense pain meant she wasn’t paralyzed. Using her right leg to push, she dragged her body backwards on her rear-end until she could reach the door, pushing it closed before collapsing against the wall beside it. “Oh, Twinky-Dink. This is not good. What am I going to do about work?” The cat had followed her across the floor and continued to rub against her thigh, her hip, nudging its head against her forearm.
“Oh no! My files! They’re in the car! What if someone breaks in and steals them? I’m going to be in so much trouble.” She reached up for the doorknob and pulled the door open again, just enough to be able to keep an eye on her car. “Not like it’s going to make a difference,” she muttered. “What am I going to do? Yell at them to stop?”
She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. She couldn’t believe the predicament she was in. Everything was so planned out. It always went so smoothly, like clockwork. What happened?
Willow Goodhope happened, that’s what. If she hadn’t showed up, startling Shelly half to death, putting her on the spot about being sociable, none of this would have happened.
“It’s not your fault, Digits,” she called out for the cat. “You can come out. It’s that Willow Goodhope’s fault. She did this to us.”
Twinky-Dink climbed onto her lap and curled up, having correctly surmised that she wasn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Mr. Tibbles wandered through again, gave the little cat a daggered look, then kept going. Digits was still a no-show.
Fifteen minutes later, she was still sitting there, her knee throbbing too painfully for her to get up, although she’d tried a few times. But she knew she needed to get ice on it, she knew she needed to get up off the floor, and worse, she was beginning to feel like she needed to use the bathroom.
Footsteps on the gravel drive outside had her sitting up straighter, wincing as she twisted a little too quickly. She peered through the tiny crack in the door. She couldn’t see the driveway, but if the person approached her car or the front door, she’d know.
The footsteps slowed, stopped altogether, then picked up the pace again, until the person came into view. Willow Goodhope. What was she doing back here? She bent over and peeked into the car window, then turned toward the front door. Shelly jerked back, catching her breath at the pain shooting down her leg, and pressed her teeth together over her lips to keep the gasp trapped inside her mouth.
“Shelly?” The woman’s voice sounded worried, but she wasn’t sure she wanted Willow’s help. Hadn’t she ‘helped’ her enough already this morning?
She was mounting the steps now. “Shelly? Are you in there?” The footsteps paused a few feet away and it suddenly occurred to Shelly how frightening the situation might seem to someone who stumbled upon it. She sighed through her nose, not wanting the red-haired busybody to do anything ridiculous, like call the police, and pulled open the door just enough to press one eye to it.
“Are you… all right?” Willow didn’t come any closer, and seemed taken aback when she realized Shelly’s eye was at knee-level.
“Um… yes.” She couldn’t ask this girl to help her; she just couldn’t. “But could you do me a favor?”
“Of course. Anything.” She still kept her distance, the questions in her eyes turning to wariness. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she snapped. “Could you just go next door and see if Joe is awake?”
“Absolutely.” Willow’s brows furrowed, as though she was reconsidering leaving Shelly alone, then she turned around and hurried down the steps, disappearing from sight. Shelly breathed in and out slowly, trying to calm her nerves, and get a better control over her pain.
It seemed forever before she heard voices coming around the end of the trailer; a deep, male voice, but not Joe’s, and it sounded like at least two women’s voices. What had that girl gone and done?
Into her view came a young man. He was tall and slender, his hooded gray sweatshirt unzipped halfway down his chest to reveal a tight white t-shirt underneath. He wore jeans that were shredded at the knees, and brown leather shoes that weren’t quite loafers. Over his shoulder he carried a sturdy cane. Behind him was Willow, followed closely by a woman she didn’t recognize.
“Shelly? I’m back. Joe wasn’t home, so I brought Ivan instead. And Patti.”
She wasn’t going to let them in.
The three of them made their way up the steps onto her porch, and before she had time to tell them to leave her alone, the fellow dropped into a crouch right in front of her. He smiled gently, his voice soothing. “I’m Ivan. I used to live here with my parents, but I don’t think we’ve ever met.” He inched closer, his voice dropping. “I need to know if you’re okay. Are you alone? Are you hurt?” He spoke so kindly, so tenderly, so differently than she’d ever been spoken to by a man before. Was it a trick? But when she looked at his face, his eyes, she was sure she could see right through him and into his heart. He really wanted to know how she was.
“I’m alone. I…I tripped and fell. I think I h—hur—” and then the tears started to come. “My knee,” she whispered, her voice breaking on its way out.
“May I come in?”
She glanced over his shoulder to see Willow and Patti standing back, giving her and Ivan space, and she felt guilty for her unkind thoughts toward the younger woman. Nodding, she nudged the door open, then leaned back against the wall again. Twinky-Dink leapt off her lap and disappeared down the hall.
Ivan stepped inside and Shelly felt her skin prickle with renewed anxiety. This was the first man besides Father who’d been inside her home. Ever. And it had been four years since he’d last stepped across the threshold, at least in real life. But Ivan continued to speak gently, carefully, as though dealing with a frightened child.
“Your knee, you said?” He gestured at her legs, but her skirt was pulled modestly down. “Would you prefer my mom to take a look? Or Willow?”
She swiped at her embarrassing tears with the back of her hand. “Okay.” It was just a whisper.
“I’m Patti,” the older woman said as she hurried forward, Willow right behind her. “I’m sorry we haven’t met before.” She reached over and took Shelly’s hand, holding it between her two cool, soft ones. “What happened?”
While she explained in clipped phrases about her fall, Willow bent over her, lifting the hem of her skirt just enough to expose her knee, a frown forming between her brows. There was that fragrance again—it actually reminded her of the chamomile tea she’d had this morning, but there was something sweet and exotic over the top of it. “How long ago did you fall, Shelly? Was it right after I left?”
“Okay. Can I have Ivan call an ambulance?”
“No!” She stiffened and sat forward, pushing everyone’s hands away. “No ambulance. I’ll be fine. I just landed hard. I don’t need a doctor.” Every time an ambulance came to her house, they took someone away and never brought them back. She knew it was foolish to blame it on the ambulance, but something in her did anyway. If she was going anywhere, it wouldn’t be in a shrieking, wailing, death van. Besides, she couldn’t afford health insurance, but she made just enough money, that she didn’t qualify for government help. She was one of those people who fell through the cracks of a broken system.
“Okay. It’s okay. How about if we just make you a little more comfortable. Your backside must be numb by now. Maybe a cushion? A pillow under your knee and some ice?”
Shelly stared at her knee, a little embarrassed over her outburst. It did look awful. Maybe if they could help her stand, she’d better be able to tell how bad it was. “I don’t want to stay on the floor.”
“No, of course you don’t, honey.” Patti beckoned Ivan closer. “Why don’t you let Ivan and Willow help you up? We can at least get you into a chair. Would you like that?”
It took several attempts to get her upright because of her pain, but with her arms around their shoulders, and her weight on her right leg, she gingerly bent her knee a little, then put some weight on her toe to see what she could bear. It hurt, that was for sure, and she wasn’t going to be able to do much more than rest it on the ground for a while, but it wasn’t quite as bad as she’d feared. Maybe just the shock of the fall had her too frightened to be objective.
Her rescuers helped her hobble to the table and sit, bringing another chair around for her to prop her leg on. Willow tucked a sofa cushion under her knee. She was so relieved to be off the floor, but how was she going to get around? She couldn’t put weight on her leg, not enough to walk on, anyway, and she certainly couldn’t hop around on one foot. How was she going to take care of her kitties?
As though reading her mind, Patti spoke. “Ivan, why don’t you run over and grab one of your dad’s walkers? The one with the wheels. He prefers the other one anyway, and I think the wheels will work better for Shelly.”
“Of course!” And the young man was out the door in a flash. Willow laid a hand on Patti’s shoulder.
“Patti, do you think you could make an ice pack while I run back to my place and get some supplies?” She turned to Shelly and explained. “I can make you a compress that will help with some of the bruising and swelling, if you’ll let me. Between that and the ice, you may be okay not going to the emergency room. Although I know we’d all feel better if you went. One of us could take—”
“No ambulance. No hospital. No emergency room. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be fine.”
By the time Willow returned with a basket in her arms, Ivan was back, too, and he and Patti were demonstrating how to use the walker while Shelly sat with a bag of ice wrapped in a towel against the side of her knee.
“I brought over my first aid book,” Willow said, holding up a bright yellow hard-back book. “It says the first thing you need to do is RICE. Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. So I think we’re on the right track.” She handed it to Shelly and reached back into her basket for a wide elastic wrap bandage. “I didn’t know if you’d have one of these or not, so I brought one from my handy-dandy first aid kit. I’m going to wrap your knee to compress it, okay?”
Over the next half an hour, the four of them worked together to get her as prepared as she could be to face the rest of the day. Ivan gallantly offered to take her files in for her and bring her back her new assignments. “I have to get going anyway. I just came by to have breakfast with Mom and Dad, but I need to get to work now. The hospital is on my way, so it will work out perfectly.” As soon as he’d left, Patti and Willow helped her get comfortable in bed, her leg propped on pillows, an icepack on either side of her knee.
“Jasmine.” The word came to her as if on a breeze, and drifted out between her lips.
“Pardon?” Patti asked.
Shelly was embarrassed, but explained anyway. “You smell like Jasmine tea, Willow. I’ve been trying to place it all morning.”
“Really? You think so?” Patti glanced over at Willow, then eyed Shelly curiously.
Willow’s eyes twinkled. “Do you like jasmine tea, Shelly?”
“I…I don’t really know. My mom used to have a special box of it in the pantry for when my grandmother visited. I wasn’t allowed to drink it, but I used to sneak in there just to smell that box.” She let herself remember; Grandma Turner and her funny, flappy arms, hugging her too tightly, and kissing the top of her head. “I think I might like it, actually. Maybe I’ll pick some up the next time I go shopping.” A small bird fluttered in the pit of her belly at the thought of straying from her routine, but the jasmine tea had to be close to the chamomile, right?
“Well, you worry about that when you’re up on your feet again.” Willow reached down and patted her hand where it rested on the arm of the sofa. “For now, sleep. We’ll be back to check on you this evening after you get up, okay? Then I’ll show you how to make a compress for your knee.”
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She’d been so tired after the excitement of the morning, that she was sure she’d fall to sleep as soon as the house quieted. But even with her drapes drawn and the room shrouded in shadows, the cats nestled around her, and the anti-inflammatory pills she’d taken, Shelly could not close her eyes without seeing the look on Willow’s face when she’d rejected her and all that she had offered earlier this morning. Would it be so bad to have a friend or two? Would it be so terrible to have someone who cared enough to stop in and say ‘hi’ every once in a while? To share a cup of tea together? To—
“Who am I kidding,” she muttered into the still air. “What do I have to offer someone like Willow Goodhope? Even her name is like a gift.” She draped an arm across her eyes. She hadn’t realized what lonely felt like until today. When Mother passed away, she’d been so overwhelmingly relieved, and she’d felt guilty, convincing herself that she didn’t need—or deserve—people in her life. The cats were companions enough. Until today. Until that Willow Goodhope showed up on her doorstep, wanting to meet her, wanting to have a relationship with her.
“Why, Mr. Tibbles? What’s so great about me that someone like her would want to be my friend?” She stroked the cat who lay curled into her side, and eyed the walker where it waited for her beside the bed, in case she needed to make a bathroom run in the middle of the day. “And why would Patti and Ivan want to help me?”
The cat had no answers, but purred loudly instead, a little motor vibrating against her ribcage. Shelly wondered if sleep would ever come.
When she awoke several hours later, her knee throbbed, and her hip ached from being propped in one position for so long. She needed more ice, she needed more ibuprofen, and she needed to use the bathroom. Maneuvering herself into position on the edge of the bed, she pushed up and grabbed onto the handle bars of the walker, moaning softly as gravity tugged at her knee. She made it to the bathroom without a mishap, finished in there, then headed to the kitchen for ice and a glass of water. By the time she’d taken her pills and reloaded her bag of ice, which she hung from around her wrist so she could keep both hands firmly gripping the walker, she didn’t think she could make it back to her bed. She ended up on the couch instead, and with miserable tears streaming down her face, she propped her leg up the best she could and sank back into the cushions. She’d wait there until help arrived.
They showed up at six o’clock sharp, armed with a beautiful twig basket filled with muffins, a pound of bacon, and a dozen eggs, and a little gift bag with her name on it. Inside the bag was a Japanese tea cup with a delicate little lid, a linen drawstring of loose-leaf jasmine green tea, and a tea ball. A Get Well card was signed from both the ladies, and from Ivan and Richard, too, and Shelly kept her head down, not sure how to react. She didn’t receive gifts; she didn’t know how to accept this gracefully.
“Thank you,” she muttered.
She had Willow feed the cats in the bedroom and close the door so they wouldn’t be underfoot during the meal. In the meantime, Patti helped her get comfortable in a chair at the table, handling her so attentively that Shelly commented on it. “Oh, this is what I do all day, honey. My husband, Richard, he’s home-bound. I take care of him.”
“My mother was home-bound. I took care of her.” She didn’t really mean to say it out loud, but she was tired from her lack of good sleep, and her guard was down. Willow made herself busy with breakfast preparations, but Shelly could tell she was listening.
“Well, then, you and I have a lot in common,” Patti stated. “You would be a good person to talk to when I have those days, if you know what I mean.” She winked at her. “Don’t tell me you never had any of those days.”
She closed her eyes and nodded slightly. “I had many of those days. Mother wasn’t an easy patient.”
“And Richie hasn’t always been an easy patient either. But, thanks to Ms. Goodhope here, he’s behaving a lot better, lately, right Willow?”
“I think it has a lot more to do with love than with me, Patti. He just finally realized the treasure he had in you.” Willow looked like she was blushing, but it could have been from the heat that was rising off the pan of bacon sizzling on the stove top.
“Regardless, I’d like to help you, Shelly.” Patti sat down opposite her and laced her fingers together on the table in front of her. “Would you let me, since you won’t go to the hospital?”
“Unless you’ve changed your mind and you want to go.” Willow chimed in, but she shook her head.
“I can’t go to the hospital, Willow. I just can’t.” She didn’t say it with any malice; it was just a statement of fact. “I understand that it must be hard to stand by and watch me refuse treatment, but it’s my decision, okay?”
“You’re right, and I’m not arguing with you.” Willow smiled warmly from the stove. “I’m the same way. I always try to treat things at home first. I grew up without hospitals and medical care, so I’m used to doing what I can naturally.”
“You should see the stuff she made for Richie, Shelly. It’s salve for his scars—he suffered pretty significant burns from a car accident he survived—and it works better than anything you could find over the counter.” Patti leaned forward and plucked a napkin from the holder in the middle of the table, giving her hands something to do. “Will you let me help you? Richie needs me so much less these days, and I’ve been hankering for something to do with myself.”
“I’m not a charity case.” This time her words did come out ugly, and she sounded just like Father to her own ears. How many times had she heard him say stuff like that?
“I know you’re not a charity case, Shelly, but I need to be needed,” Patti reassured her. “It’s my personality. Some might call it a weakness, but I think of it as my strength. God put it in my heart to be a helper. It’s what I do best. You need help and I can help you.”
“I’m sorry.” The words came crawling out of her mouth like a reluctant creature. When was the last time she’d apologized for her own behavior? And meant it? “I wish I knew how to be a better person. I’m used to cats.”
“Oh sweetie, don’t be silly. You’re in pain. No one is nice when they’re in pain.” Then she turned and eyed Willow. “Except for you, Willow. You’re always nice, but I know you’re in pain sometimes, too. Maybe not the sprained knee or busted back kind of pain, but heart pain can be just as debilitating. How do you manage to be so kind all the time?”
Shelly watched the two women from the corner of her eye, feeling somehow intrusive, as though she’d just stumbled into the middle of something she knew nothing about. Willow didn’t speak for a long time, but instead of filling the uncomfortable silence with words, Patti sat quietly and refolded her napkin.
“I try to focus on the pain that does heal, or at least the pain that lessens. It gives me something to do. In that, Patti, you and I are a lot alike.”
Shelly heard the dismissal in Willow’s voice. Would Patti take the hint?
“All pain lessens over time, honey.” Nope.
“Not all pain.” There was an edge in Willow’s voice that seemed incongruous with her soft eyes and gentle spirit. The silence that followed carried echoes of Willow’s suffering, and she felt her own shoulders hunch defensively.
“So, who would like some breakfast? I love breakfast for dinner, but this really is breakfast for breakfast for you, isn’t it Shelly?” Willow had scrambled eggs in the pan she’d fried the bacon in, and although she’d drained the bacon grease into a smaller container to cool, the eggs still were flecked with little bits of the meat that had been left behind. They looked delicious.
Not for the first time today, she was glad she still kept the trailer as spotless as it was back when Father was still alive. It was one of the few things she didn’t change. It helped keep her calm; having order and cleanliness around her. She changed the cat’s litter box daily, she washed their bowls between feeding, and she used odor-neutralizing room spray to mask any lingering smells. Her desk was always organized, with everything in its place, and she paid her bills the day she received them rather than waiting for any due date. Shelly liked order. She liked knowing what to expect. She liked to be prepared, even for when things didn’t go as expected, like today. Because she was prepared, she was able to tell Willow exactly where her pots and pans and dishes were without being worried about what she’d find inside her cupboards. Because she was prepared, she hadn’t been embarrassed to let the two women help her into bed this morning. Because she was prepared, even though no one besides her and the cats had set foot inside her trailer in nearly two years since Mother died, she could sit straight in her chair and not be ashamed.
“Thank you, Jesus, for your blessings. So, tell us about what you do for work.” Willow tied the two sentences together as though Jesus was sitting at the table with them. Shelly almost looked over at the empty chair, just in case.
“I’m a medical transcriber. I transcribe doctor’s notes into patient files.”
“Oooooh.” Willow drew the word out, low, almost a whistle. “Top secret stuff. Are you sworn to confidentiality? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever come across?”
She could feel the smile forming at the corners of her mouth. “I don’t think you really want to know, especially not while we’re eating.”
“Oh dear me. No. Please don’t. I raised a son. When Ivan left home, I sent his gross dinner conversations with him.” Patti chuckled, and twirled her empty fork in Willow’s direction. “These eggs are wonderful! So light and fluffy and bacony.”
“Thank you. I use water, not milk.” She winked. “And that’s my top secret information for the day. Tell us something interesting, Shelly. It doesn’t have to be gross, just interesting. I mean, how long have you been doing this? There must be oodles of crazy stories in that brain of yours.”
She grinned self-consciously, and sipped her hot tea, a sense of peace washing over her. This was so pleasant, sharing her table with these two women. “I try not to remember, honestly. I’m always afraid I’m going to be in line at the checkout in the grocery store and the guy behind the counter will have a name tag that matches a patient file. What if that patient had some kind of weird ailment or parasite or something? How could I let him touch my food?”
“Hm. I can see your predicament.” Patti nodded sagely. “Best to forget, I think.”
“I do read some cute stuff about children, though. Things like peanuts in the nose or M&M’s in the ear. It’s always harder for me to forget their stories, especially the sad ones.” Suddenly it felt like all the things she hadn’t said over the years were scrambling at the back of her throat to get out, pushing against that band that always seemed so quick to tighten, to force her into silence. “I hate to hear some of the things adults do to children, and sometimes the things other children do to children are even more frightening. This bullying thing you hear all over the news? It’s almost as if the more we draw attention to it, the more we see it happen. At least, that’s what the charts seem to reflect.” She paused to sip some orange juice. The ibuprofen she’d taken was working better now that she had some food in her stomach. “I suppose it still could be parents who are abusing their kids and just telling the doctors it’s bullies.” That was just the kind of thing Father would do. He could be so adamant that it wasn’t his fingerprints on the inside of her upper arms, even she would half-believe him.
“I just don’t understand child abuse. I know not every child is planned, and I can even understand letting anger get the best of you.” Patti was folding and re-folding her napkin now, her eyes following the movements of her fingers. “There were times I wanted to beat the living tar out of Ivan, and the worst of it was when I was young and he was little. The older I got, the more control I maintained, but that was a case of maturity on my part, not because I wanted to hurt him any less.” She chuckled softly. “Believe me, when he turned fifteen, I thought he was demon-possessed. He was like a different kid! But I simply handled it better because I’d grown up.”
Shelly nodded, not sure what to say, trying to understand Patti’s way of thinking. It sounded so foreign to her ears; just the opposite of the way things had been in her home. The older she got, the meaner Father was, and the more childlike Mother became. The only one who seemed to mature was her, and there were still days when all she wanted to do was curl up in the bottom of her sheets with her flashlight, hiding away from the world, her breath making the air moist around her face until she thought she might suffocate. Even then, she wouldn’t un-burrow. She’d just stick an arm out from under the covers and open up an air tunnel just long enough to replenish her supply. Sometimes, although she’d never admit it, she still did it, usually on those days when Father came home in her dreams, reminding her that she was still a nothing.
She felt a prickle in her armpits and pressure behind her eyes when she thought too long about Father, and made a concerted effort to move the conversation along. “I think, in some ways, even sadder are the stories about children whose parents hurt them unintentionally. Not only are they devastated by whatever accident has happened, but then they have to endure the police investigation and Child Protective Services.” She took a small bite of eggs before continuing; they really were good. “Years ago, I worked on the chart of this child who’d been burned by liquid drain cleaner. Her father had poured it in the tub and closed the bathroom door so it could sit for the allotted period of time, but the toddler got the door open somehow. They discovered her just as she was leaning over the tub, so they thought she was okay until she started screaming. What they hadn’t realized until it was too late, was that she’d pulled the shower curtain up and over the lip of the tub, then leaned against it. The cleaner on the curtain soaked into the front of her shirt and started burning her little belly. To make matters worse, the panicking mom peeled the shirt off up over her head without thinking, and the stuff spread to the little girl’s face and eyes. Because of the pattern of the burns, there was a criminal investigation, photos were taken, CPS was called in, and the couple was held under surveillance in the hospital until everyone accepted their story as truth. The doctor I transcribed for followed-up with the little girl’s burns for weeks.”
“What a terrible ordeal.” Patti leaned back in her chair, shaking her head. “I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for those poor parents.”
Willow stood abruptly, reaching for Patti’s empty plate. Her eyes glistened in her pale face, the flush from cooking completely gone. “Are you finished or would you like some more eggs? There are more muffins, too, but we ate all the bacon on the first round.”
“Oh.” Patti sat up, clearly surprised by Willow’s behavior. “I’m sorry, Willow. Did we say something to upset you?”
“Oh no, of course not!” But her eyes were too bright, too wide, and Shelly wasn’t fooled. “I just thought since I was getting up to get seconds, I’d offer some to you as well. What about you, Shelly?” She glanced down at her plate. It still held almost her full serving of uneaten eggs, a strip of bacon, and half her muffin; she’d been too busy talking to eat. She drew her plate closer to her instinctively.
“I’m good for now,” She stated slowly, wondering what had gotten into Willow.
They sat in silence while the red-haired woman bustled around the kitchen, refilling her teacup, and scooping the last of the eggs onto her plate before returning to the table. Shelly felt somehow responsible for the rift in the conversation. She had to say something.
“Willow, I haven’t really thanked you for helping me this morning. What made you come back by my place after I was so…rude to you?”
“Oh, Shelly. You had to ask.” Willow smiled again, all traces of withdrawal gone from her face. “I was hoping you’d already left for work and I could sneak over and leave you an ‘I’m sorry’ note. I felt so terribly about barging in on you and making you late, and I didn’t want our relationship starting off on the wrong foot.” She laughed, her loud guffaw not irritating the way it was that morning, and pointed at Shelly’s elevated leg. “Now look at you! Talk about starting off on the wrong foot!”
© Jameswimsel | Stock Free Images
After exchanging phone numbers, Patti promised to check in with her before she and Richard went to bed, then again when she got up in the morning, assuring Shelly that she regularly awoke around 6 or 6:30. “But don’t hesitate to call if you need anything at all—and I mean, anything at all, Shelly—in the middle of the night, you hear?” Patti patted her cheek. “I mean it.”
From her comfortable position on the sofa, she watched them go. Her knee was propped up on a stack of pillows and Willow had made her an elderberry leaf poultice. “It’s a slight irritant that will stimulate circulation to the area, helping the body absorb and distribute the pooled blood that makes the bruise. All that increased blood flow also encourages healing to damaged tissue. So use the ice until you need a break, then spread some of this on a wet wash cloth, heat it up in the microwave—not too hot, mind you—and put it over the bruised area. It really does wonders, I’m telling you. You’ll see.” She must have seen the skepticism in Shelly’s eyes. “My mom taught me this. I’ve used it my whole life. It works.”
Willow let the cats out of the bedroom, leaned over to hug her briefly, then pulled the front door closed behind her and Patti.
“You still smell like jasmine, Willow.” She spoke into the aromatic stillness they left behind.
Shelly was alone again. She stroked Mr. Tibbles from the tips of his ears to the tip of his tail. She poked at Digits with her good foot; she’d finally taken herself out of her self-imposed exile and was threading her way around the legs of the coffee table. Molly Mia jumped up on the back of the couch cushions and walked along them until she got to her favorite spot, then curled into a ball, her tail twitching ever so often against Shelly’s shoulder. Twinky-Dink still hadn’t come out of the bedroom.
Not only was she alone, but she was suddenly very, very lonely.
It had been so nice just to sit and visit with the other two women. Sure, there were those few moments of discomfort in the conversation, but in some ways, it made Shelly feel better to know that Patti and Willow weren’t already best friends, that they were still getting to know each other, too. It made her feel more like she was on equal footing with them. And what a strange feeling that was. Equal footing? Had she ever felt like she was playing on the same level as anyone else? Tonight, with these two very different women, she’d felt like she belonged.
She wanted to feel that way again. “I suppose we could change our sleeping schedule, couldn’t we?” she asked out loud, for the first time feeling slightly foolish talking to her cats as though they cared what she said. “Do you think we could learn to sleep at night and work and play during the day like normal people?” The thought made her scalp tingle a little. She’d never slept well at night, so adjusting to the cats’ nocturnal schedules hadn’t been a stretch. Going back to ‘normal people’ schedules might be easier said than done, but if it meant holding on to that feeling of belonging, she’d make it happen. Besides, with Father gone, there was no reason to fear sleeping at night.
She laid her head back on the sofa cushions behind her, bumping against Molly Mia’s back. Her hand rested on the open pages of the book she’d been reading for the last hour or two. But her lack of sleep was catching up with her, and she was just getting ready to reach over and turn off the lamp on the end table beside her when she heard his footsteps outside. Father.
No, not Father. Her thoughts had been focused on him so much over the last several hours, that his name was the first one to pop into her mind. But if not Father, then it had to be The Shadow Man. And suddenly, The Shadow Man mattered to her… because Willow Goodhope and Patti Davis and her husband, Richard, mattered to her. Because Joe Sanderson, and heart-rock Kathy mattered to her.
“What should I do, Mr. Tibble?” Should she raise the alarm? Call Patti and Richard? They were most certainly already in bed. And what could they do, what with Richard’s limitations? But shouldn’t she at least warn Willow? On the other hand, what if he had nothing to do with Willow at all? What if Kathy really was a crackhead and he was her dealer? If that was the case, Shelly needed to call Eddie, the park manager.
The clock on the wall said it was nearly 10:45 pm. She knew she’d probably wake him up, but it had to be done. Picking up her phone, she dialed the man’s number. When his gruff voice answered so abruptly, she almost panicked and hung up.
“Hello? Who is this?” Eddie didn’t sound amused by her continued silence. She had to get it out before her throat closed up.
“It’s me, Eddie. Shelly, over in Space 8. There’s a strange man walking along the driveway back here. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him, and it’s always after dark.”
“What? A man?” Eddie sounded really grumpy now. “He’s probably visiting Kathy. Or Willow, the new girl down in 12. I’m sure it’s all okay, Shelly.”
He was going to hang up and do nothing. She had to stop him. “No! No, Eddie. It’s not okay. He shouldn’t be here. He’s being sneaky and he’s not visiting anyone. He’s just wandering around back here.”
The line was so quiet, she was certain he’d already hung up, but then she heard him sigh, letting out his breath so that his lips made a quiet raspberry sound. “Fine. I’ll come check it out. But if he’s a friend of Kathy’s, you owe me.”
“Wait. I owe you? I owe you what?” No. This was not Father. She didn’t owe Eddie anything except space rental. Her trailer was paid for, free and clear.
“It’s a saying, Shelly. Relax. I’m going after your boogie man now.” Then he did hang up.
A few minutes later, she heard his heavy boots clomping along over the bridge and past her home, his footsteps big and bold on the gravel. There was no way The Shadow Man could miss the fact that he was being followed.
It wasn’t long before she heard Eddie’s footsteps coming back. She could see through the narrow slits between the blinds, the beam of his flashlight cutting swatches of light in the darkness outside. She wondered if he’d stop at her place, but he just kept walking, back across the little bridge to the front of the property. Had he found The Shadow Man?
Her phone rang. Eddie’s voice was still raspy, but he sounded more alert. “Well, Shelly, I think I saw your boogie man. I was almost to the laundry shed when I saw a guy cross the bridge over there. I followed him, and he left the property by going past Doc’s place and out onto the street. He knew I was on to him. I don’t think he’ll be back, but I’ll be watching for him now. And I’ll let Doc know, too. He’s a light sleeper and pays close attention to what goes on here.” He paused briefly, and Shelly wondered if he expected her to say something. “Can you tell me anything more about him? Do you know what he looks like?”
“No. Just that he always comes around between ten and midnight. And, at least the times I’ve noticed him, he’s come over the bridge on foot, so he must be passing your place, too. I didn’t worry about it at first, thinking he might be someone’s friend, like you said, but now I don’t know. He’s slow, too, like he’s being careful. And he sticks to the shadows. He never seems to stay very long, either. It’s almost as though he’s just checking on something. Or someone. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more.”
“Okay. Well, thanks for letting me know.” He cleared his throat, then tried to sound reassuring. “We’ll watch for him. Don’t you worry.”
“Thank you.” She wasn’t sure what else to say, so she returned the phone to its cradle.
In the stillness that followed, a smile began to tug at her mouth. She’d done it. She’d reached out to her new friends. They may never know it, and she wasn’t about to tell them about The Shadow Man—she didn’t want to frighten them needlessly—but she’d taken the initiative, and the first step of contributing to these new relationships. They all needed each other, this odd, mismatched collection of people at The Coach House Trailer Park. She’d fooled no one but herself into believing that she didn’t need anyone, that she was better off alone, that she was complete in her own little world.
No, it was time to open her doors and let others into her life. It was time to release Mother and the guilt she felt every time she thought of the pitiful life the woman had led. It was time to refuse Father entrance into her sanctuary, once and for all.
“Get out,” she whispered, softly, tentatively. “Get out.” Her voice grew. “Get out!” Something terrible and wild surged up inside of her, and she wanted to stand up, to run, to tear at her skin to let it out. She could do none of that, not with her banged-up knee, so she grabbed a pillow and held it to her face.
“Get out! Get out! Get out!” She screamed it over and over, not three times, but a hundred times or more, until her voice grew hoarse and the pillow moist with her harsh breath and debriding tears. When she finally let it fall to the floor at her feet, her hands flopped limply on the sofa beside her, and she laid her head back, eyes closed in release. “This is my house, my home, my sanctuary. You, Father, are no longer welcome here.”
The blinds at the back door clattered lightly. “Come here, Digits,” she called. “Mommy loves you. I’m not angry.” Then she laughed out loud. “I’m not angry anymore.”
Digits, the cat with only three toes on her front left foot, stood up and stretched. She’d been curled up on the floor at Shelly’s feet for some time. Molly Mia followed suit, leaving her perch on the back of the sofa to follow her friend. Mr. Tibbles stayed in her lap, not even lifting his head during Shelly’s tirade.
“Twinky-Dink? Is that you back there?” She turned to look over her shoulder at the slider, the plastic strips still stirring slightly, then down the hall toward the open door of her bedroom. The timid little cat was on the bed, playing with one of the catnip mice Kathy had left on her doorstep back in January.
“Father?” She sat up straighter and listened. The blinds stilled and there was nothing. Her heart didn’t race. Her scalp didn’t tingle. Her breathing stayed slow and steady.
“Goodbye, Father,” she whispered. “Peace, Mother.”
She couldn’t wait for the shadows of this night to fade into morning, knowing that Willow and Patti would be a part of the new day.
Of her new day.
© Typograph | Stock Free Images
The End of Part 4: April Shadows
I hope you enjoyed meeting Shelly Little of Space #8 at the Coach House Trailer Park, in Part 4: April Shadows.
Do come again in May to meet Eddie, the park manager, in Part 5: May Enchantment.