Welcome to Elderberry Croft
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 violet 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 1: January Breeze
A new neighbor.
Kathy was expecting her any minute now. She coughed into her elbow as she peered through the narrow opening of her kitchen curtains at the empty cottage across the driveway. It wasn’t much more than a shack, really. The roof needed new shingles, the ancient wooden siding was chipped and peeling where the sun beat down mercilessly upon it, and the roots of a massive eucalyptus tree slowly churned up the river-rock patio. Screens were missing from a few of the windows, and the green front door hung at an angle to accommodate the frame that had been put in with a blatant disregard for plumb lines. Its one redeeming quality, a charming little creek that danced along the edge of the patio and on through the rest of The Coach House Trailer Park, seemed slightly incongruous with the rest of the ramshackle structure.
The inside, according to Myra, wasn’t in any better condition. She’d stopped by to visit the day before after doing a thorough cleaning of the place in preparation for the new tenant.
“Filthy, Kathy! Horrible! And the carpet! Aiee!” Myra often spoke in exclamation marks, bobbing her head for added emphasis, her dark, chin-length hair doing the cha-cha around her face. “It’s disgusting! When I told Eddie it needed to be replaced, he said they won’t do it because it’s less than five years old! But it looks more like fifty-five to me! And the shower!” She went on and on until Kathy interrupted her with a glass of her favorite boxed wine, kept chilled in the refrigerator for just such visits.
“Why are you so worked up? This new one will come and go just like all the others.”
Myra took a long sip. “I know, I know. But this one,” she shrugged her bony shoulders. “I want her to like it.” The sweet-tart drink made her lips pucker. “I want her to like us.”
“So? What’s new? You want everyone to like us.”
Myra left a few minutes later, her basket of dirty rags and cleaning supplies hoisted on one scrawny hip. “Don’t let her catch you spying on her tomorrow, Kathy-la. I mean it!”
A few minutes before ten, a truck pulled in, one of those little Toyota pickups that simply refused to die, its once royal blue paint faded and oxidized by the California sunshine. The woman driving wore a pair of over-sized, blue-tinted sunglasses, and her mahogany-red hair threatened to escape a clip at the crown of her head.
“Young,” Kathy quickly labeled her. “Probably between boyfriends. I give her six months, tops.”
Her eyebrows lifted with surprise as the truck maneuvered into the parking space in front of the ramshackle house, giving her a full view of the contents of its bed. Plants. No mattresses, no dressers or coffee tables, no boxes covered in packing tape and black marker. Plants in huge clay pots and delicate ceramic bowls, hanging baskets and galvanized steel buckets. Verdant bundles wrapped in twine and burlap to protect them from the brilliant January cold. She shot a guilty glance over her shoulder at the one scraggly philodendron on a plant stand in the corner of the room. Between her irregular watering schedule and the fact that the dogs couldn’t resist chewing on the few brave tendrils that managed to creep over the lip of the yellow pot, it was a miracle the plant was still alive. She turned back to the window just as the woman threw open her driver’s side door and started talking, gesturing, and nodding effusively. It took a moment, but it finally dawned on Kathy that she was conversing with the plants themselves, making her way around the truck bed, cooing and smiling, fondling leaves and petals, cheering, and clapping her hands.
Kathy muttered to the old and rather obese Labrador that wandered out from under the table. “She’s talking to her plants. Like they understand her or something.” She twirled a finger around in circles at her temple and gazed Heavenward with long-suffering eyes. “I just don’t get some people, Heidi.” The dog responded by licking her hand and flopping its tail against her legs a few times.
She turned away from the window, and coughed deeply again. She hated the way her lungs felt, as though they were being shaken around inside her chest like a baby’s toy rattle, but the cough was something she’d earned after forty years of smoking, and she’d learned to live with it. When she caught the seasonal cold, however, it always frightened her a little. Sometimes she’d cough so long and hard, she seriously wondered if her insides would fly out of her mouth.
She made her way through the obstacle course that was her kitchen to her sofa and dropped into one corner, strategically situating herself so she could monitor both her favorite morning soap opera, as well as the activity outside the window. Heidi clambered up onto the cushion next to her. “That’s all we need, huh, little girl? Another crazy neighbor.” She sighed loudly and leaned her head back on the cushions behind her. Heidi blinked once and sighed, too.
She woke with a start, her open-mouth snoring loud inside her stuffed-up head, and peered up at the clock again. She’d been asleep for over an hour! Heidi stood at the front door, scratching to get out, and fat, little Trixie waddled out from the tiny bedroom to see what was going on, her stubby tail wiggling frantically. Bella Basset let out one deep woof from where she lounged on the end of Kathy’s bed. Kathy sat up, massaged a crick in her neck, then turned to check on her new neighbor.
She could hardly believe the transformation that had taken place outside her window while she napped. She forgot all semblance of subterfuge and pulled the sheer panel back to see more clearly. Squinting, her bleary-eyed from sleep, she was having a hard time comprehending what she was seeing. She turned and snatched up the set of binoculars off the end table beside the sofa. They still technically belonged to her ex-husband, but he’d never been back to claim them, so she put them to good use keeping an eye on the comings and goings in the park. It was rather convenient that the park’s laundry station was just up the drive from her place.
On the stoop sat a huge terracotta pot overflowing with fluttering yellow honeysuckle—in flower!—that stretched its tendrils up to the roof and along the low eaves. It formed a natural archway leading to the front entry, and it looked like it’d been growing there for years. Delicate clusters of pink and purple flowers burst out of a peat moss basket hung from a decorative plant hook mounted on the wall below the porch light, softening the askew lines of the door frame. She thought they might be nemesia, or some kind of salvia, but she wasn’t certain. On the patio, in huge pots, red, pink, and white petals hovering over dark foliage had to be cyclamen. Kathy recognized them because they grew right outside her own picket fence, but the only time she’d seen them look so healthy and bloom so enthusiastically was on the shelf at the home improvement center where the plants were all on steroids. Troughs of bushy geraniums were just on the brink of flowering, what looked like a huge camellia was in full bloom, and were those yellow blossoms African daisies? In January? An old-fashioned hydrangea and a spike-leafed aloe vera odd-coupled in a pedestal urn that was dark with the patina of age and countless waterings. Begonias, blue forget-me-nots, and frilly ferns were tucked into shady spots all over the patio, and nestled among the roots of a mulberry tree that spread its branches over the little creek. In the flowerbed beneath the front window, thick-leaved Jades—standard issue in most rentals in Southern California—showed off the last of their winter blooms. Some quick and aggressive weed excavation had uncovered the two rose bushes that had somehow survived over the years, and exposed a few saucy snapdragons and a blanket of alyssum the weeds hadn’t choked out completely. The roses had been hacked back to sticks, and Kathy wondered if the woman realized it was way late in the season for trimming roses.
Wind-chimes and friar bells hung in the rafters of the porch, their various tones creating harmonies in the breeze, while sun-catchers sent rainbows of light dancing across the tiny yard. She looked over at the clock on the wall for the third time, feeling a little like Rip Van Winkle waking up from his hundred year snooze.
“How the hula did she do that?”
Heidi and Trixie were snuffling and scratching with a renewed fervor, and Kathy realized she had a perfect excuse to spy on her neighbor more openly. “Oh, all right. Let’s all go outside for some fresh air.”
She pushed open the front door and was nearly bowled over as the dogs scampered past her and out into the yard. “Hey!” She cried out, unprepared for their exuberance.
“Hello! Are you all right?”
Kathy’s eyes flew to the gate, even more unprepared for the woman who stood there. “Oh! Oh my! You… you scared me!” She pressed a hand to her chest and took a few deep breaths. “I have a heart condition, you know,” Kathy said more gruffly than she’d intended.
“Oh dear. I did not know that. And I did not mean to startle you. I just wanted to come and introduce myself; I’m your new neighbor.” By now the dogs were snuffling and pawing at the fence, trying to get out. Heidi was actually up on her two back legs, her front paws resting on the crossbar of the gate as she leaned her head into the woman’s stroking hand. “Hello, pretty girl. You are a lovely, old dear, yes, you are.”
Kathy frowned. “Careful. They don’t really do well with strangers.”
“Of course they don’t. I don’t either. I mean, strangers are so strange, right?” She gave Heidi one last scratch behind the ear, reached over and ruffled Trixie’s mop, then held aloft the rectangular twig basket she carried. “This is for you. And your pups, of course.”
“Oh. Oh! Well. Thank you.” Kathy fumbled for words. Oh dear. What would Lucy say when she saw treats for everyone but her?
“I almost forgot!” The woman dug into her pocket, pulled out a small, drawstring pouch, and tucked it inside the basket. “This is for your kitty. She came by earlier and just fell in love with it. When she wandered this way, I guessed you were her person.”
Kathy made her way down the two steps and across the small yard to the gate. She thought she smelled vanilla and cinnamon, and her mouth began to water in anticipation. The image of a large kitchen, a small boy, and the floury aftermath of several batches of Christmas cookies flashed through her mind, and she smiled at the memory. She would have to call her Makani tonight. She wondered if he was eating well.
Her neighbor thrust an open hand over the gate. “I’m Willow. Willow Goodhope.”
Of course, Kathy thought as she took the proffered hand. Even her name sounds organic.
“I’m Kathy. And welcome. I was going to come over and see if you need anything. Or any help. I mean, moving can be so much work. But… well, I…..” She was flustered again and at a loss for polite excuses.
“Work? On a day like this?” Willow waved a hand dismissively. “Oh no. This is a day for doing absolutely nothing. In fact, I’m going to go put the tea kettle on, find a good book, and curl up in an empty chair to revel in my new home. I just had to make sure the plants were settled in first. But the rest? Well, moving in takes care of itself, doesn’t it? It’s just stuff.”
“How… how did you do all that so quickly?” Kathy jutted her chin in the direction of the cottage. “It just doesn’t seem possible.” She didn’t intend to sound rude, but she really wanted to know. She loved her little yard and put hours into it every week, but she’d lived her over ten years now, and she couldn’t remember it ever looking so lovely. Somehow, Willow had turned the pre-existing eyesore into a greeting card. In little more than an hour!
“The plants? I know! They just settled right in, as though they belong here.” Willow held up her hands, palms facing Kathy. “God’s incredibly creative, isn’t He? And He gave me green thumbs, so I try to do my part,” she stated, beaming, as if that explained everything.
The hands she held out for examination were roughened and callused, dirt under the nails. It seemed inconsistent with everything else about her, but it made perfect sense, really. The plants didn’t climb into those pots on their own, Kathy thought to herself.
“Well, thank you again and…welcome. Again.” She patted the basket, then snapped her fingers at the dogs. “You girls stop sniffing the neighbor! Go on inside, now, you hear? Go!” She looked up, a little embarrassed by their out of control antics. “I’m really sorry. They usually just bark at folks, then run away.”
“It’s fine. They’re just curious. Yes, you are, aren’t you?” She reached down and gave Heidi’s ear one last tug and turned to leave. “Don’t hesitate to visit, Kathy. I mean it. If you need anything, you just come right over. I’ll see you later.” She fluttered her fingers in the air and headed back across to her own place.
Kathy stood for a few moments longer, watching the woman’s long, full skirt sweeping along the ground behind her. What an odd cookie, she thought; then remembering the promise of cinnamon sugar cookies, she glanced down at the basket in her arms. She lifted the cloth that covered the contents and studied them, perplexed and delighted at the same time. The Christmas aroma was gone.
Nestled in the folds of a currant-colored dishtowel was a set of two oriental-style tea mugs with no handles. Inside one was a small honey bear squeeze-bottle; in the other, two old-fashioned tea balls on chains. A muslin drawstring bag was stuffed with something crinkly and lumpy, and a stitched-on label gave a description of the contents in pretty, scrolling handwriting.
Elderberries, flowers, ginger, and lemon zest.
Add a dollop of honey and you’ll be sure to get some rest.
Colds, coughs, fevers, and malaise
They’ll all flee and the flu will fly away.
The bag that Willow tucked inside for Lucy held a stuffed crocheted ball on the end of an elastic string. Kathy could smell the pungent catnip, and something else earthy and pleasant, and she had no doubt that Lucy would, indeed, love the toy.
The basket also contained a wax-paper packet of peanut-butter cookies, Kathy recognizing the tell-tale crisscross pattern on top of each one. She lifted them to her nose, wondering if perhaps she’d been mistaken about what she’d smelled earlier; maybe it was these, and not cinnamon sugar cookies after all. She tore open an end of the package, pulled one out, and took a bite. Not very sweet, she thought. In fact, they were almost a little salty, but the peanut butter flavor was rich and robust, making up for any other minor defect the crunchy cookies might have. They’d probably taste better dunked in cold milk.
Then it occurred to her that there was nothing left in the basket.
“Oh!” She exclaimed, realizing her mistake. “These must be for you!” She looked down at her dogs who sat pining at the gate for the neighbor who had disappeared inside her little home. Kathy, on the other hand, was greatly relieved that Willow was gone, and hadn’t been there to witness her faux pas just then. “Come on, you naughty kids. Look!” She waved a cookie above their heads. “I have treats for you. And I must admit they’re the best doggy treats I’ve ever tasted!”
Willow’s long hair was woven into a braid that swished back and forth behind her as she worked. The yard was covered in leaves that had swept in during the heavy winds the night before, and she was busy raking them into heaping piles. She hummed to herself and stopped periodically to look up into the branches over her head at a bird that seemed to be talking to her.
Kathy and Myra stood at the window together, discussing the new neighbor.
“I just don’t get it. How did she know I was sick?”
“Don’t look at me,” Myra shrugged as she poked around through the contents of the gift basket. Holding up the bag of cookies, she giggled. “Can I try one? I’ve never tasted a dog treat before.”
“You’re such a silly old lady, Myra.” Kathy didn’t mean for her words to be unkind, and she knew that Myra knew it. They were both silly. And old. That’s why they got along. “Do you want some Elderberry tea with your biscuit? We can be proper English ladies while we spy on the new girl.”
“Your skin is too brown to be English, Kathy-la, and my accent is too strong. No one would believe us.” Myra bit into a biscuit and reached over to pull back the curtain.
“I called Makani last night.”
Myra spun around, her eyes big. “You did what?”
“I called my son last night. He answered the phone. We talked.” Kathy kept herself busy toying with the tea kettle that wasn’t quite whistling yet. She’d filled the tea balls with the mixture from the muslin bag and washed the mugs in hot water so the tea wouldn’t cool too quickly. She’d even put generous amounts of honey in both, knowing her friend well enough to assume she’d want it extra sweet.
Myra handed her half-eaten dog cookie to Heidi who was lounging on the sofa. She pressed both hands to her flat chest. “Tell me all about it, Kathy-la! Tell me! I can’t believe it!”
The kettle whistled, Kathy snatched it up and filled both mugs, then handed one to Myra, making sure she had a good grip on the infuser chain. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears, but there was a tender smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “We talked about Christmas, about good memories. He said he missed my cooking. He has a son, you know?”
“I know! How old is he now? He’s named after his daddy, right?”
“Makani Junior, of course. My boy isn’t going to let his son forget his roots. They call him Kani for short, just like I used to call Makani when he was little. He’ll be four in April.” She’d never met her only grandchild, and it nearly broke her heart when she let herself dwell on it. She’d only seen pictures of him when he was a tiny baby, but she was certain she’d recognize him instantly if she ever saw him; she clearly remembered Makani’s squishy cheeks and big, brown eyes. She didn’t think little Kani’s features would be too different. She lifted the steaming mug close to her mouth and blew on the surface of the liquid to cool it. “I wish they lived closer.”
After a few moments of silence between them, Myra blew on her tea, too, then sipped it. “Oh my goodness, Kathy-la!” She was cradling the mug in both hands. “Es delicioso! It tastes like my Sangria!”
Kathy chuckled, glad for the change in subject. Her conversation with her son—the first they’d had in years—had been achingly sweet, and she wanted to cherish it close to her heart a little longer. “Your Sangria tastes like juice. It comes in a box, Myra. A big juice-box for a big kid.”
“Oh, leave me alone. I hardly drink at all anymore. My doctor told me I had to quit. He said my liver isn’t going to last much longer.” She sighed dramatically. “He said I’m probably going to die soon.”
“We’re all going to die, you old fool. Some of us just sooner than others. It’s what we all moved here for; to die. And I bet I’ll go before you do. My heart isn’t going to last any longer than your liver, even if you do ever quit drinking for real.” Kathy sipped her tea, enjoying the way the tangy flavors soothed her throat. She could feel warmth flooding her chest from the inside out, and she sighed deeply. “Sounds morbid, doesn’t it? But it’s true.”
“That we’re all going to die?” Myra shoved Heidi over to make room for her skinny backside on the couch.
“No; that we all came here to die. Think about it.” Kathy shoved poor Heidi off onto the floor altogether and dropped into the corner she’d vacated. “Everyone who lives in our park.” She nodded her head sagely. “They all come here to die. Do you have plans to move again?”
“Me? Aiee! Never again!” Myra shook her head emphatically.
“Neither do I. Patti and Richard next door aren’t going anywhere, either. They’re living off his disability, and their son, he’s gay, so they won’t ever have any grandchildren.”
“Don’t say that, Kathy-la. You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. I met his boyfriend.”
“That was his roommate. That doesn’t mean they’re together.” Myra squirmed a little, clearly uneasy with the topic.
“Roommates, Myra?” Kathy was enjoying her friend’s discomfort. “They’re not in college anymore. And they were holding hands. I saw them.”
“I used to hold hands with my friends when I was younger. That didn’t make me…that way.”
“Gay, Myra. They’re gay. Which means there won’t be any grandchildren. Patti and Richard have come here to die. Then there’s Joe. The way he fries all his food I’m surprised he’s still looking so good.”
Myra’s eyes lit up. “I know. That man, he’s a handsome one. If I was a little younger, I might ask him to cook for me.”
Kathy rolled her eyes. “You’re ten years younger than he is already. How much younger do you need to be? It doesn’t matter anyway. He’s already got a lady friend. You’ve seen her. She comes out from Los Angeles about once a month to visit. Her daughter drops her off on her way to Palm Springs.”
“I’ve seen her. She’s the real reason I haven’t asked him out.”
“Besides, you’re obviously not his type, Myra. She’s at least a foot taller than you are, and she still wears high-heels and make-up. You can’t compete with that.”
Myra looked down at her feet encased in the inelegant bulky socks she was wearing. Her faded blue rubber boots were outside on Kathy’s porch. Then she shrugged. “Joe has bad knees. He couldn’t bend over far enough to kiss me so it would never work.”
“Myra, I should send you out into the cold for putting that thought into my head. Yuck.” Kathy scowled disgustedly, then picked up where she left off. “Shelly Little and her cats. You know how that’s going to end.”
“What do you mean? She can’t be more than fifty years old.”
“When you’re a cat lady, age has no bearing. One day, those cats are going to turn on her and Eddie’ll find her face down—”
“Stop it! Don’t say it, Kathy! Aiee! What kind of movies are you watching these days?”
“And speaking of Eddie,” Kathy continued, grinning capriciously over her friend’s ruffled feathers. “He’s got his own little kingdom right here. He’s the perfect trailer park manager. No woman, no kids, his mother tucked in two trailers over. He’s not going anywhere, not in a million years. He’s King of The Coach, as far as he’s concerned. They’ll have to crowbar him out of this place; him and his old Ford.”
“How do you know he doesn’t have a woman? Maybe he’s got a girlfriend somewhere else.” Myra stood up to get a refill from the kettle.
Kathy patted the binoculars on the end table. “I have my ways. His mom does his laundry for him; I’ve seen her folding his clothes. Besides, he only has eight or ten teeth and that gut is something else. He doesn’t have a woman.”
“You’re so mean. And nosy,” Myra said, peering out the window to see what new developments were taking place across the way. “So what kind of name is Willow? I mean, I know it’s the name of a tree, but it sounds kinda hippy-ish, doesn’t it? She’s too young to be a child of the 60’s; maybe it’s New Age or some Middle Eastern thing. I wonder if she has a boyfriend.”
“And you call me nosy?”
Myra reached for the kettle and offered Kathy a refill, too. “So if everyone comes here to die, why would someone so…so alive come here to live?”
When Myra finally left, the sun was reaching for the horizon with shimmering rays. It was going to be bitterly cold tonight, and the wind had picked up again, making the dogs unsettled and whimpery. They clambered onto the sofa next to their beloved owner, and together they sat in the warm comfort of their little home as twilight turned into evening. Even Bella Basset managed to slide off the bed and waddled across the floor to drop in a heap at Kathy’s feet.
Kathy’s mind wandered back to her phone conversation with her son the night before. It had been over three years since they’d spoken in anything other than angry words. Makani had wanted to contact his father when little Kani was born. He said he wanted to tell him about his new grandson, about how it felt to be a dad, but Kathy knew there was more to it than that. Makani, having now held in his arms a son of his own, really wanted to know how Paul could have walked away from him. He wanted his father to admit that he was wrong to leave, and to tell him that he, Makani, would never abandon his son the way Paul had abandoned him.
But Kathy knew the men in her life too well to stand back and let that conversation take place. She knew the answers and the words Makani needed from his father would never come from the man who’d beaten her bloody time and time again, who’d run around with other women, even while she was in the hospital delivering their son. She knew why Paul left; he refused to believe Makani was really his. He liked to tell her he only ‘shot blanks,’ so she must’ve been sleeping around on him, and got herself knocked up by one of her lovers. None of it was true, but Paul didn’t want to hear it. He just moved on one day. He packed a bag, got in his car, and drove away. As far as Kathy knew, they were still married after all these years, but she’d had the foresight to put her maiden name, Kekoa, which meant ‘brave soldier,’ on her son’s birth certificate, giving Makani his Hawaiian roots as his foundation. She’d left the father’s signature line empty.
And twenty-six years later, she wasn’t going to give Paul the opportunity to fill in the empty places for their son, even if she did still know how to reach him.
Makani’s requests had turned to demands, making him sound remarkably like his abusive father, and Kathy, reacting with the old rage she still had inside, lashed out at him, accusing him of being just like his old man. “You’re no better than he is, boy. You’re cut from the same cloth. Have you taken a swing at your wife yet?”
Makani hung up on her, and she knew she deserved it. She’d waited a few weeks, expecting him to call back and apologize. When he didn’t, she called him, prepared to give him what little information she had about Paul. But he’d refused to take her calls. He sent her letters and cards back unopened. And after a year, then another, and a third had gone by, Kathy stopped hoping for reconciliation.
Christmas was always the worst. For so long, it had just been the two of them and the assorted pets they’d had over the years, celebrating the season together. Kathy put on Christmas music the first day of December, and played it nonstop in their home for the whole month. They put up their little garage sale tree with the stiff wire branches that could handle the weight of homemade ornaments made from modeling clay, rocks from their heart-shaped rock collection, and other assorted things they could drum up. One year, they’d made Hot Wheels their tree theme. They’d hit all the local thrift stores and bought up as many of the little cars and trucks as they could afford, then taken all of Makani’s from his toy box, and tied each one to the branches of the tree with red curling ribbon and tinsel. It was a little boy’s dream come true.
Cookies. Santa had to have his milk and cookies, and just in case the jolly elf decided to drop in a little early to see if Makani was being good, the boy had taken it upon himself to make sure that the cookie jar was always full. Those were some of Kathy’s favorite Christmas memories; baking cinnamon sugar cookies and drinking eggnog or hot chocolate with her boy.
How she’d missed him these last few years. How she’d missed the man he’d grown up to be, the father she knew he was—so different from the father he’d had—and his son who surely would grow up to be just like him. Her arms ached to hold that little boy….
And now, it seemed that anything was possible. Now, because Willow Goodhope showed up on her doorstep smelling like delicious memories, there was hope. For whatever reason—they hadn’t talked about anything too serious—Makani had taken her call. For whatever reason, he’d talked and laughed and remembered with her. For whatever reason, the door that had been slammed and locked between them seemed to be opening up.
Makani promised to call again on the weekend. Little Kani had already been in bed when she called, but her son assured her that she could speak to him on Saturday. “He knows who you are, Mom. He points at your picture and says, ‘Zat Gamma!’”
Too emotional to ask him to tell her more, she’d said goodbye with the flicker of hope burning inside of her. Saturday couldn’t come soon enough.
It was dark inside now, and she reached over to turn on the lamp. Time for dinner.
Bella Basset was so old and arthritic that Kathy hated to make her go outside to do her business, but as soon as they all finished eating, Kathy bundled up, and herded the dogs out into the night. She didn’t care that her thrift store men’s coat was a teal popular in the eighties. It was lined with fleece, and the hood was huge, so she could pull it almost closed over her face, protecting her from the biting air.
“I’m an island girl, God. A cool breeze is nice, but this wind? My blood is like ice in my veins.” She shivered on the top step, waiting while Bella Basset wandered around the yard with Heidi and Trixie. Glancing over at Willow’s cottage, her eyes widened with delight as the outside light flickered off, then a myriad of twinkle lights lit up the entryway instead. Many of the plants were draped in burlap again, but those under the cover of the porch roof shimmered colorfully as they danced in the soft glow, reminding Kathy of a Thomas Kincade painting. It looked warm and inviting over there, and she didn’t want to look away.
Just then, the door swung open, and Willow flitted out into the cold. She had her hands up over her eyes, her fingers cracked just enough to see where she was going, as she made her way out into the little yard. She looked up, saw Kathy watching her, and waved.
“I haven’t seen it yet, but what do you think? Does it look enchanted?”
Enchanted. That was exactly the way it looked. “You’re a little wacko, you know that?” Kathy called back. “Where’s your jacket, girl?”
The laugh that burst out of Willow’s mouth surprised Kathy almost as much as the lights had. It was loud, unchecked, and contagious. She couldn’t keep from smiling in response.
“I’m so excited I can’t even feel the cold! Okay. Count to three for me, will you?” The girl had reached the fence and was leaning over to pet all three dogs who’d gathered to say hello.
“Count to three?” Kathy asked.
“Yes! It’s the Ceremony of Lights and you’re the new Mistress of Ceremonies!” Willow clapped her hands. “I can’t look until you count to three.”
“Did you fall off the ladder while you were putting those up?” Kathy shook her head but made her way down the steps to stand at the gate near Willow. She smiled at the childlike anticipation on her neighbor’s face.
“Come on, Kathy!” Willow reached over and grabbed her by the shoulders, gently shaking her. “Count! I can’t stand the wait any longer!”
“Okay! Okay, already! One…two…three!”
“Three!” Willow cried out the number at the same time Kathy did, and she spun around, her hair, loosed from the braid she wore earlier, fluttering around her shoulders. “Oh my!” she breathed. Then she was laughing again, twirling like a little girl, the wind catching strands of her copper locks and tossing them in her face. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Kathy was laughing now, too. “Yes, it’s pretty,” she agreed. Then she remembered her manners. “Oh! I had some of your tea today. It was very good.” She cleared her throat. “Um, I also had one of your dog biscuits, before I realized they were for the dogs. You should have labeled those, you know.” She was still a little embarrassed by the mistake, but something about Willow made her think she’d appreciate the story.
“Oh Kathy,” she gasped, her eyes lit up with humor. “I’m just glad I didn’t put raw liver in them, or fish guts, or something terrible like that!”
“I am, too!” Kathy’s brow furrowed a little as she thought about the afternoon she’d spent in Myra’s company. “You know, I haven’t been coughing much at all since I drank your tea. So, how did you know I was feeling sick?”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I was just talking to God while I was puttering around yesterday, asking Him what He thought you might like from my garden. The tea was His idea. I tried to tell Him you might prefer a cordial or some jam, but He insisted on the tea.” Willow’s expression was sincere as she spoke, one hand clutching at her wayward hair, pulling it all forward over her shoulder. It looked to Kathy like she was beginning to feel the cold, but she continued talking anyway. “January is notorious around these parts for blowing in all kinds of fun stuff like colds and flu bugs. It even blew me into your life this year!” She laughed, bouncing up and down on her heels and hugging herself. “That tea is one of my favorites! It helps boost the immune system, keeps the sinuses clear, and works like a charm on fevers and muscle aches. I love it, and I’m glad to hear you love it, too. If you’re sick, you just keep drinking that all day. I can make you more in a heartbeat. You’ll be amazed at how much faster you get well.” Then she grinned and lifted her shoulders up around her ears. “I love it when I hear Him correctly. And He probably loves it when I listen, right?”
Kathy nodded, unsure of how else to respond. She often talked to God, but He didn’t talk back; probably because she only talked to Him when she was complaining about something. She’d worked hard to get to where she was, and where she was wasn’t anywhere great, but at least she’d managed to do it on her own. God hadn’t been much help. Not really. He was more like an imaginary friend, someone she could talk to in the middle of the night without worrying about Him running off to gossip about her to someone else.
“Okay. Now I’m feeling the cold. But I’m so glad you were out here to share this with me. I hate celebrating alone.” Even in the shifting light of the blustery night, Kathy could see something like longing flit across Willow’s face, and she felt like she’d just glimpsed something private, something she was not intended to see. It made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t like it.
She cleared her throat and gruffly declared, “If I’m all you got, Willow Goodhope, then you’re really alone. You’re even worse off than I am!” Then she covered her mouth with her hand, the words sounding crass and insensitive. Willow’s shoulders dropped like a deflated balloon, and the sudden glisten in her eyes only made Kathy feel worse. “I’m sorry. That sounded awful. I…I can’t believe I said that. I’m such a party-pooper.”
“Don’t say that. You’re not a party-pooper. You made a perfect MC for my celebration tonight! You played right along, you counted for me, and you laughed with me. That’s more than most would have done for a completely ridiculous stranger.” But Willow wasn’t looking at her. She was staring at her little house with its pretty white lights and the lovely flowers, and Kathy could tell the girl wanted to disappear inside it again, hidden away, safe from the world.
Kathy shuffled back and forth, mortified by her thoughtless words. She did that often, she realized. She’d taken the old ‘think before you speak’ adage and tweaked it so that she spoke what she was thinking. How many other people had she hurt by the thoughts spilling unfiltered out of her mouth?
Makani. Her words had nearly destroyed their relationship. It wasn’t his fault his father walked out. It wasn’t his fault he wanted answers. It wasn’t his fault she still harbored bitterness and anger and resentment toward Paul for all the times he’d pounded on her, called her terrible things, pushed her away with his cruel words…the way she, Kathy, was always doing to others.
Makani. His wife, Sylvia. Had she ever said anything kind to the girl who had stolen her baby’s heart? She honestly couldn’t remember. Maybe there was more to Makani’s silence than just the things she’d said to him. Maybe it had something to do with what she never said to the woman he loved. And Myra? She hurt Myra’s feelings almost every day. She didn’t mean to, not really, but Myra was just so easy to poke at. She couldn’t count the times her dear friend had stormed out the gate, tears in her eyes, threatening never to return again. What about Patti next door? That poor woman spent every waking moment taking care of grumpy old disabled Richard, but did Kathy ever offer to help? No, she was too busy making snide remarks to Patti about useless, worthless men. It didn’t matter that Richard was a bitter old coot. Patti needed to be encouraged and acknowledged for standing by him when he didn’t deserve her, not torn down and demoralized for doing what she could to make Richard’s life better.
What Kathy wouldn’t give to have someone in her life who refused to leave her side, even when she wasn’t very nice.
“You’re not ridiculous, Willow. You’re a lot to take in, you’re unique. In a good way!” she clarified quickly. “I think what you’ve done to your place is amazing. My dogs like you. My cat likes you. I like you. And I hope you won’t stay a stranger for long.” The words didn’t come easy. She had to practically wrench them out of her mouth. But she meant every single one of them.
“I’m so glad you feel that way, Kathy! I don’t mind being ridiculous, and I really don’t mind being alone most of the time, but I hate being a stranger.”
Was this magical creature really all alone? Was there no one in her life to share these moments with? Kathy knew what it felt like to be alone, and most of the time, she didn’t mind it either, but at least she knew the people around her. At least she knew she could call Eddie if a faucet broke or the roof leaked. At least she knew Myra would come running if Kathy’s heart started acting up again. Well maybe she could be Willow’s ‘at least.’ In fact, maybe she should try being Patti’s ‘at least,’ or Myra’s ‘at least,’ or even Shelly Little’s ‘at least.’ Someone should take it upon themselves to check on the strange cat lady every once in a while. Why not her?
Maybe it was time to put Paul’s binoculars away and step outside her comfort zone.
I have a new motto.” Kathy beamed at her friend through the screen door. Myra, still in her bathrobe, stared at her in shock.
“What are you doing here, Kathy-la? Is everything okay? Is it your heart?” Myra clutched the lapels of her robe together. “I was just getting ready to take a shower.”
“Are you going to invite me in or am I going to have to stand out here in the cold, freezing my fingers off?” Kathy knew her words were still gruff, but they were much nicer than what she might have said even yesterday.
“Of course! Come in. Sorry. I’m just not used to you coming to see me. I always come to see you.” Myra stepped back, then closed the heavy front door after Kathy was safely inside. “Let me go get dressed. There’s still coffee left if you want some.”
“No, no, Myra. This will only take a minute. I just wanted to tell you my new motto. Are you ready?”
“What do you mean, Kathy? Are you sure you’re okay? I didn’t know you had an old motto.” Myra dropped into a chair at her circa-1970’s dinette set and picked up her coffee cup, taking a sip and frowning. “What is this motto?”
“A motto. It’s like words to live by.”
“I know what a motto is.”
“Well, I have new words to live by. Are you ready?”
“Sure.” Myra was getting impatient, Kathy could tell, but she didn’t care. She was used to Myra’s frustration.
“Try on, don’t spy on, people.” Kathy smiled and spread her arms in an anticipatory gesture. Myra just stared blankly at her. “Well, what do you think?”
“What do I think? I think you’re losing your marbles. What does that mean? You’re going to try on people? I get the not spying part. I’ve been telling you to stop doing that for years. But trying them on instead? Loco.”
Kathy grinned. “Okay. So it’s silly. But it means something to me. I’m going to stop sitting in at my window spying on people through my binoculars—”
“Paul’s binoculars,” Myra corrected her.
Kathy continued without commenting on the interruption. “And start trying on new friends. Like trying on clothes. See how they fit. How we get along. I’m going to try to make some friends here at The Coach House.”
“Well, it’s about time. I’m always telling you that you need to have someone to check on you. Someone besides me, who won’t die before you do. My doctor says my kidneys are in such bad shape that one of them is bound to give out soon.”
“Then I’ll be here to take care of you. Maybe you could have one of mine.”
“What? Why would I want your diseased kidney?”
“My kidneys are in great shape. You’re the one with diseased organs.”
“I’m not diseased. My body is just failing me. Ask my doctor.”
“I don’t need to ask your doctor, you old—” Kathy smacked her forehead and clamped her lips shut. This new motto was going to be a little more trying than she’d planned on.
“Look Myra. I’m not always very nice to you.”
“No. You’re usually mean to me.”
“I know. And I’m sorry.” Myra stared at her, a look of distrust in her eyes, and Kathy continued. “I just want you to know how much I appreciate you as my friend. I don’t know anyone else who would put up with me—not even my own son!—the way you do. I want to try to be a little easier to put up with. This is me trying.”
Myra didn’t speak, her mouth open, her eyes wide, and Kathy chuckled. “This is me trying you on! See how it works? Stupid, I know, but it makes sense to me.” She shrugged and turned to go. “I didn’t want another day to go by without you knowing that I’m glad you’re my friend. I’m going to try to be a better friend to you, Myra.”
Just as she reached for the handle of the door, Myra bolted up out of her chair and threw her arms around Kathy. “I’m glad you’re my friend, too, Kathy-la. I like your motto. It’s not stupid at all.”
“You should come up with some words to live by,” Kathy said after Myra released her.
“Words to live by? Oh no. I need words to die by. I won’t live much longer, remember?”
Kathy rolled her eyes. “You’ll outlive me, silly old—friend.”
A happy little grin lit up Myra’s face, and Kathy waved goodbye. “I’m off to see Shelly now.”
“You’re what?” Myra’s expression was priceless; she was even more shocked by Kathy’s stated intentions than she’d been by Kathy’s appearance on her front porch.
“Shelly Little. Cat lady. I think she needs a friend, too. Someone who doesn’t have four legs and a tail.”
“You’re crazy, Kathy-la. Loco.”
“You said that already. If this is crazy, then I’m okay with that.” Kathy headed down the steps and crossed the gravel road that circled through the park. She patted the ball of catnip in her pocket, mentally promising Lucy she’d request a replacement from Willow.
Tomorrow, Kathy had plans to stop in at Joe’s place and ask him for the recipe of a simple meal she could cook for Patti and Richard. No one had much money at The Coach House, so she had no qualms about telling him to keep her limited larder and resources in mind. She was sure a night off in the kitchen might do Patti some good. She was also sure Richard wouldn’t so much as utter a ‘thank you,’ but that wasn’t going to stop her from trying them on, too.
There was no one home at Shelly’s house, but she could hear the scuffling and mewing of cats behind the door. One catnip ball wasn’t going to be enough. Maybe it was providential that Shelly wasn’t home. She’d go right now and ask Willow about making more of the toys. She’d buy them from her.
When she reached the driveway between their two houses, Kathy paused, suddenly feeling uncertain about her plan. Should she bother her new neighbor already? The poor thing hadn’t even been here a week yet and here she was, thinking about asking her for favors. Besides, her heart was beating pretty hard with the walk she’d taken around the park. Maybe she should go lie down instead. She could introduce herself to Shelly and her cats another day.
Before she could chicken out, she marched across the little yard and made her way carefully up the steps and under the honeysuckle archway onto Willow’s front porch.
The sound of sobbing stopped her in her tracks. Deep, heart-wrenching cries were coming from inside the cottage, and Kathy wanted to cover her ears against it. The sadness she’d seen on her neighbor’s face the night before was real, and by the sound of her weeping, it clearly went very deep. The poor thing.
What could she do? How could she help? She’d have to talk to Myra about this.
She turned to go, trying to slip away without making any noise. She’d just cleared the bottom step when the crooked front door opened, and Willow stepped outside, a moss-green shawl draped around her shoulders for warmth.
“Kathy? Were you looking for me?” Her voice cracked a little, but other than her red-rimmed eyes and pink-tipped nose, there were no other telltale signs that she’d been sobbing only moments before. “I didn’t hear you knock.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Willow. I’ll come back another time.” Kathy felt terrible.
“You’re not bothering me, not at all. What can I do for you?” She was putting on a brave face, making Kathy feel even worse, but there didn’t seem to be any way to politely leave now.
“I was just wondering about this catnip ball. You made it, right?” She held up the toy by the string.
“I did. The herbs are from my garden, and the ball is just a quick little knitting job.” Willow had moved forward until she was standing under the honeysuckle. With her pale features that closely matched the creamy flowers on the vine overhead, Kathy thought she looked like a growing thing herself in her green shawl, her mahogany hair loose around her shoulders. “Would you like another one?”
“Actually, I was wondering if I could pay you to make several of them. Maybe five or six of them?”
“Five or six of them? Your kitty likes them that much?” Willow’s laugh burst out, albeit a little subdued compared to the night before.
“Oh no. They’re not for Lucy.” Kathy met her eyes. “I’m following your example. I’m going to go officially meet Shelly Little down at the other end of the park. She’s lived here for a few years now, and even though I learned her name right away, I never bothered to introduce myself to her.” She could feel the heat of a blush creep up her neck, and was glad for her dark skin. “You made me want to change that.”
“Oh, Kathy, that’s lovely!” Willow came down the steps and wrapped her in a quick hug, then she stepped back. There was that cookie smell again; it must be her lotion or shampoo. “Thank you for coming to see me. I was just asking God to send me a reminder that He loves me, and He sent me you.” Her tender smile didn’t completely replace the sadness in her eyes, but relief settled around Kathy’s shoulders.
“Now for those catnip toys,” Willow declared. “I just so happen to have several of them on hand. I’ll be right back.” She hurried back inside and returned with a little woven basket filled with the stuffed toys. “Take this with you when you go. Make sure she has one for each of her cats. If that’s not enough, you let me know, and I’ll whip up a few more, okay?” She thrust the basket into Kathy’s arm and pulled the shawl a little tighter around her shoulders.
“Are you…are you all right?” The words were out before she’d given them a moment’s thought, and Kathy wanted to bite off her tongue.
For several moments, Willow didn’t answer, but let her eyes drift across the patio from pot to pot and plant to plant. Finally, she said, “Do you see that tree over there?” She pointed at a tree that grew along the little creek beyond the mulberry tree, one Kathy hadn’t noticed before. “Do you know what that is?”
Kathy didn’t recognize it. It looked more like a shrub. She shook her head.
“It’s an elderberry tree. That tree is how I knew I belonged here when I came looking last month. That tree was my Christmas gift from God.” She smiled, the tender way a mother does when looking at her child. “It shouldn’t be growing there, not on its own like that. Even though they grow beautifully up north, and especially in the Central Valley, here in Southern California, especially in this arid climate, these trees require a fair amount of attention in order to survive. They prefer moist soil, cool nights, a sunny spot, and other elderberry trees.
“But look.” Willow pointed at the little creek. “That tree is growing in the one spot where it will find everything it needs. Rich soil. Water. Sun. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 17:8. It says, ‘He—or she, in my case—is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.’” She turned back, the gentle smile still on her face. “I’m like that tree. I’m in a place right now where I didn’t think I could grow, but somehow I am. God is teaching me to send out my roots toward the water, to choose life, to bloom where I’m planted, maybe even to bear fruit. And for now, this is where I’m planted.” She stepped back, opened her arms wide, and faced the little cottage.
“Welcome to Elderberry Croft.”
The End of Part 1
I hope you enjoyed meeting Willow Goodhope of Elderberry Croft and some of her new friends in Part 1: January Breeze.
Do come again in February–if not sooner!–for Part 2: February Embers.