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 2: February Embers
Richard was in a good mood today. When he said her name, it wasn’t with his usual biting tone, and he shaved this morning after his shower. He even complimented her on breakfast once he was settled into the recliner for his morning news programs.
It was nice, this unexpected glimpse of the man she married so many years ago. She smiled to herself as she pulled back the curtain at the window beside her favorite green chair, keeping a ready eye on him.
There were days when she would give anything just to roll over and go back to sleep, back to her dreams where her husband could walk without excruciating pain, where her son looked at her with something more than dismissal, and where the days didn’t stretch out interminably before them.
Patti took another sip of coffee, savoring the last moments of peace before he called her name. He’d gone outside to sit in the sun after their light lunch of potato soup and crackers, a plaid flannel blanket draped around his shoulders to ward off the early February chill. But he wouldn’t last long, however determined he might be.
She knew why he was out there, and her smile faded. Willow Goodhope.
Willow had drifted in on the blustery winds of January like some woodland Mary Poppins, planting herself in that horrible shack at the edge of the park, just beyond the laundry shed. She’d turned the dilapidated building into a rustic cottage where things grew practically overnight. Flowering vines crawled up and over the entrance, leaving her front door in shadows, so that Patti could never tell if it was opened or closed unless she really looked. She didn’t like that; she preferred to know when she was being watched. Overflowing pots of growing things were hanging from the eaves and scattered about the river rock patio, making the place look like an old lady wearing too much jewelry.
Then she’d gone and named the place as though she owned it. Elderberry Croft.
Sounds like a witch’s house. In fact, it looks a little like a witch’s house, too. How does she get all that stuff to bloom in the middle of winter?
Patti could barely keep the geraniums growing along the front of their Space #10. She’d love some real grass and pretty flowers in the yard, but she didn’t want the hassle of tending the small patch herself, and she didn’t really have time to grow things anyway; especially things they couldn’t eat. Joe next door used every square inch of his lot to grow his vegetables, and he liked to wave his hand trowel over the fence at her, encouraging her to do the same. But there were some days when he was out there sunup to sundown, and she knew that was more than she could commit to; not with Richard needing so much from her.
She sighed, wishing he’d call her Patti, knowing he never would. She got up, set her empty mug on the counter beside the sink, then hurried out to the small porch where he sat, leaning forward in his chair to get a better view of what was going on down the way.
There she was, on her hands and knees, digging around in the flowerbed under her front window. Her long hair was pulled back into a braid that kept slipping over her shoulder. With a toss of her head, she’d send it slithering out of the way again. Self-consciously, Patti brought a hand up to her own braid, wrapped tightly around itself at the back of her head. It was thin, more gray than brown, and she hadn’t worn it hanging down her back like Willow’s in fifteen years.
“I’m amazed at how much that woman can do in an hour,” Richard stated, openly staring.
Patti came around to stand in front of him. “She’ll see you. Don’t embarrass yourself.” Bending forward, she slipped the blanket from his shoulders and folded it quickly, laying it over the back of the chair. Drawing his walker up close, she stepped around to his left side where she was less likely to grab him in the wrong place, and slid her arm under his. She tugged a little more forcefully than usual. “Come inside and warm up.”
“She’s already seen me, Patricia. You’re the one getting embarrassed; not me. I like watching her. She actually smiles when she works.” So do I, she thought. You’re just too busy staring at the earth girl down the way to notice. She wondered when the last time was that he had watched her, his wife, the way he watched Willow Goodhope.
She helped him stand, his legs wobbling beneath him as he found his balance. She waited beside him, ready just in case—she couldn’t stop him if he went down, but she could ease his landing a little.
She hated it when he fell, almost as much as he did. The scar tissue on his legs and torso was still sensitive, even after all this time, and any extra jarring of his back could send him to bed for days. Today, however, watching him watch Willow, well, she might just let him go down, if his legs decided to give out.
At that moment, the young woman stood, pressing her hands into the curve of her waist, and stretched languidly, letting her head fall back, her eyes closed as she soaked up the sunlight. Then she straightened and turned to look right at them.
Patti felt her husband stiffen momentarily, and she instinctively pressed her hand more firmly against his shoulder. “I got you, Richie,” she said, dropping her gaze to his shuffling feet as he stepped into the security of his walker. She was acutely aware of the young woman catching them both at their most vulnerable; Patti in spirit, Richie in body.
When she dared to look up again, Willow was gone. Her husband didn’t say anything; neither did Patti, and the two of them hobbled back inside the trailer together.
“What’s for dinner?” The tone of his voice indicated that his good mood had deserted him for the day.
“I’m making scalloped potatoes with some of the left-over ham from last night.” Kathy, the neighbor between them and Willow, in Space #11, had dropped by yesterday afternoon. With her, she’d brought a portion of a spiral-cut ham, the glazed top crispy and blackened.
“My son sent me a grocery store gift card. Hams were on sale, and I really wanted one, but there’s no way I could eat the whole thing myself, and ham isn’t good for the kids.” Kathy referred to her dogs that way; she had three of them, and all were fat and happy from stuff that ‘wasn’t good for them.’
Patti couldn’t understand why Kathy had suddenly taken an interest in cooking for them. A few weeks ago, she showed up on the doorstep with a basket in her hands. Her explanation was awkward and stilted, and Patti was so surprised, she just stared mutely.
“I’ve been messing around in my kitchen, and I made too much food for just me. I thought you might want a break from cooking tonight. Here.” She thrust the basket at Patti, then flipped back the currant-colored dish towel to explain what was in it. “Mashed potatoes, a little gravy, green beans and bacon, and a few pieces of fried chicken. I used Joe Sanderson’s recipe for the chicken, so if you don’t like it, you can go bang on his door.” And with that, Kathy had turned on her heels and scurried back to her own place.
The ham was the third offering she’d brought in so many weeks. Each time Patti returned the basket and dish towel, Kathy brought it back with more food and another awkward speech. Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it was because Kathy had made peace with her estranged son; she told anyone who would listen about him, and she had new pictures of Makani, his wife, Sylvia, and their plump-cheeked little boy, Makani Jr., to show off.
Patti had pictures of Ivan all over the walls in the little bedroom where she slept, apart from her husband because of his chronic pain issues. But there were none in the living room where Richard spent most of his waking hours.
Although Ivan was about the same age as Makani, he didn’t have a wife and a beautiful grandchild for them to dote on. Ivan had a boyfriend.
No response from Richard about the scalloped potatoes meant that he either approved, or he was saving up his complaints for after he’d eaten his fill.
Later that evening, sitting across from each other over their empty plates and after-dinner coffees, Richard squinted contemplatively at her. Patti steeled herself for whatever might come out of his mouth.
“So I’m wondering why you haven’t said hide nor hair about the Goodhope woman.” He spoke nonchalantly, his bland tone in sharp contrast to the volatile words.
Patti began to clear the dishes to buy some time. What did he expect her to say in response to that? I haven’t talked about her because I don’t like her? I think she’s one of those goddess type people who believe they’re in tune with the vibrations of the earth? She bugs me? She’s too pretty for her own good? She’s too pretty for my own good because my husband won’t stop staring at her?
“Well? I can’t believe you have no opinion whatsoever about her. You’re a woman.”
“I don’t know anything about her, except that she’s got red hair and likes to garden. We obviously don’t have much in common, do we?” She carried the stack of plates and the casserole dish to the sink, not wanting to look at him.
“So you’ve already tried and measured her without even getting to know her.” His tone, so deceptively calm before, now cut at her with the familiar jagged edge he wielded when he wanted her to feel some of his pain. She pressed her lips together and didn’t let out what she wished she had the courage to say to him.
Most nights, neither of them went to sleep very early, but they usually began preparing for bed almost as soon as the evening meal was over. In Richard’s room, Patti gathered up his collection of skin creams and pain medicines, and the night-time back brace he wore to bed, while her husband peeled off his loose-fitting clothes.
The scars on his abdomen and ribcage still tore at her heart, but the twisted skin covering his spindly legs was the worst. It had taken her years to not wince at the sight of them. The flames had licked away at him while he lay trapped in his crumpled car, his legs clamped between the steering column and his seat. By the mercy of God, he’d been unconscious when they dragged him out of the wreckage.
Patti unscrewed the cap from the jar of the over-the-counter cream she used on the worst of the silvery strands of tissue, wishing for the thousandth time that they could afford something more effective. Richard stretched out on his bed, his head on his pillow, his mouth set in a grim line. He closed his eyes as usual, still proud, still hating his deficiencies, unable to look her in the eye while she nursed his damaged body.
She had grown to love the routine of the evening. Sitting on the bed beside him, she could feel his tension begin to wane as she smoothed cream over his taut skin, gently at first, then with more pressure as he relaxed, methodically working out the bunched muscles of his legs. This was as intimate as they ever were anymore, and it was bittersweet, this aching for someone who no longer ached for her. She loved the man beneath burns, she yearned for the smile she knew was trapped behind the bars of bitterness.
She closed her eyes, letting her shoulders drop, her hands and fingers having memorized the motions of her ministrations, and imagined him touching her the way he used to, with eagerness, and passion, love.
There was a slight stirring, then his hand came to rest on her knee. She stared in surprise at his broad fingers spread over the black fabric of her pants. Holding her breath, she lifted her gaze…but he lay still, eyes closed, his features relaxed.
Be happy for the little things, she heard her head whisper to her heart.
Patti awoke to the sound of rain drumming against the metal roof of the porch overhang outside her window. A cold, blustery day, the weather channel had predicted last night. Well, at least she wouldn’t have to put up with Richard sitting outside making googly eyes at Willow Goodhope.
She lay in bed listening, letting the pitter-pattering soothe her. He must not be awake yet. Mornings like this, when she could come to life slowly, instead of being jarred out of bed by her husband’s needs, were a small blessing to her. She rolled to her side and pulled the chain of the pretty Victorian lamp on her bedside table. A soft glow shone down on the framed picture beside it, taken back when they were young, hopeful, and Ivan still felt like the most important boy in the whole wide world. She smiled at the three of them. “Group hug,” she murmured, tracing a circle around their happiness with her fingertip.
A light knock on the front door interrupted her reminiscing, and Patti’s eyes darted to the blue numbers on the clock beside the picture. 8 o’clock on the button. Who could it be at this time of the morning? She slipped her legs out from under the blankets and reached for the heavy bathrobe she always kept handy, in case Richard had need of her in the middle of the night. She tied it around her waist, smoothed her frizzy, fine hair back behind her ears, as though that would help, and slipped her feet into the house shoes she’d stepped out of the night before.
The knock came again, a little quieter this time, and Patti hurried to answer it. Peeking through the window beside the door, she jerked her head back in surprise, her hand going to her mouth.
Willow Goodhope! What did she want at this unsociable hour of the morning? Patti sighed, straightened her robe a little, and pulled the door open just enough to be polite. “Hello?”
“Good morning,” the woman whispered, her eyes shining out from under the fur trim of the hood that kept trying to slip forward over her face. What on earth was she wearing? A cape? Wool the color of a damp forest floor enveloped her in soft folds, falling to an uneven hemline just above her knees. On her feet were shiny black rubber boots imprinted with iridescent peacock feathers, and on the porch behind her, was a red umbrella with a plastic peacock head for a handle. “I have something for you. By the way, I’m Willow.” She spoke in hushed tones, as though she knew Richard was sleeping.
“I’m Patti.” She paused, swallowed her rudeness, and continued. “Nice to meet you. I’m not dressed yet, but would you…would you like to come in?” Please say no.
“Oh goodness, no. I’m way too early to be visiting. I was just going to leave this on your doorstep, but I saw a light come on and thought you might be awake.” From beneath the folds of her cape, she withdrew a rectangular basket, almost identical to the one Kathy kept refilling with food for them, its contents hidden beneath a cream-colored tea towel. “Besides, I brought you something for breakfast on this cold, wet morning.” She held it out to Patti and pushed back her hood when her hands were free. Her long hair, loose and unchecked, curled riotously around her bold features, her cheeks and nose pink from the cold, her lashes spiky and naturally frost-tipped. She looked like a wild woman of the woods, all reds and creams, camouflaged in her moss-hued, fur-trimmed coat, and she smelled of pine and wood fires. Smoky. Spicy. Enticing.
Patti looked away, unsettled by how instantly drawn she was to this creature at her door. She suddenly understood why Richard couldn’t stop staring, but it didn’t make her feel any better about it.
“Thank you, Willow.” At a loss, she didn’t know whether she should explore the contents of the basket while the girl waited or not.
“Go inside where it’s warm, Patti. I’m sorry to have bothered you so early.” Willow seemed to read her mind. “It’s Saturday. You should be sleeping in!” She turned, scooped up her umbrella, slipped her hood back up over her head so that just the tip of her nose and some errant curls could be seen from where Patti stood watching her. Then she looked back over her shoulder, smiled, and dashed out into the rain, her boots splashing in the small puddles that were forming along the gravel driveway. She waved one last time from under the umbrella, then turned her hand upward, catching the heavy raindrops in her cupped palm.
Patti slowly closed the door, hoping Richard still slept, not wanting to have to explain her strange encounter with Willow. She carried the basket to the kitchen, turned on the low light over the sink, and lifted the cloth.
Inside the basket, on a pretty paper plate, were six large muffins, the tops of them sugary and crumbly. They were carefully wrapped in wax paper so thin it was nearly transparent, and they were still warm. Two small jars, banded together with raffia ribbon, nestled in the folds of the towel, too. One was an amber-colored glass with a black screw-on lid, and a label that read Healing Salve. The other was identical, except that it was a deep blue glass, and it was labeled For Healing Hands. A card was slipped in behind the bow, a short poem inscribed on either side.
Healing SalveElderberry flowers, Calendula, and ComfreyShea butter, Olive Oil, and a dab of Vitamin E,For scrapes and bruises, for where there are scars,A gentle touch can smooth away the years.
She flipped the card over and read the second set of lines.
For Healing HandsShea Butter, Beeswax, Elderberry flowers,Coconut and Almond Oil, balm for your labors.The hands that help, the hands that heal,Are the hands in which true love is revealed.
Patti stared at the words in the fanciful script. How did she know? Who told her? Was someone in the park gossiping about them? Who did this Willow Goodhope think she was? She felt a flush creep up her neck. Richard must not see this; he’d be so embarrassed.
He’d be livid.
She tucked everything back inside the basket and hurried to her room, the one place in their tiny home he never set foot. But what was she going to do with the muffins? One thing her husband still had intact was his sense of smell. The rich aroma of baked bread, tart berries, and cinnamon, wafted down the hall with her. He would notice.
She shoved the basket into her tiny closet, making room for it on a top shelf. Tossing aside her robe, she quickly dressed in a pair of comfortable jeans and a pale blue turtleneck. Richard used to tell her the color made her look soft and pretty.
Scurrying back to the kitchen, she didn’t take the time to check on him. She’d make pancakes. And she’d add cinnamon and extra vanilla to the batter. She could whip them up quickly, and they would easily mask the smell of Willow’s muffins. She thought there might even be some left-over blackberry syrup, an item she’d splurged on over the holidays, knowing how much Richard loved it on his ice cream.
She’d just started the coffee when his voice, gravelly from sleep, filtered down the hall. She blew out a long breath; she hadn’t realized how tense she was in her frantic rush to hide the evidence of the Goodhope girl’s unexpected visit.
Richard was lying on his side in bed, facing the doorway. He looked tired today, as though he hadn’t slept well, but his eyes were alert, studying her as she crossed the room to him. Feeling unsure of herself—was it guilt?—she looked away.
“You’re a sight for sore old eyes, Patricia, with your pink cheeks and pretty blue top.”
Patti’s heart leapt inside her as his tender words washed over her. Almost afraid she’d imagined it, she kept her face averted as she gathered up his robe, the daytime back-brace, and his hairbrush. He liked to shower first thing out of bed.
By the time she stood before him, bracing the wheels of his walker with her feet, her arms laden with his things, Richard was sitting, pulling his brown terry cloth robe around his shoulders. He stood slowly, finding his balance, but didn’t immediately propel the walker forward as he usually did. He was watching her, waiting for her to look at him. She flushed when she saw something in his eyes, something deep and somehow familiar to her.
“I was dreaming about you just now.” He held her gaze in a way that wouldn’t let her look away. “I didn’t want to wake up.”
“Oh.” Her answer came out breathy and insignificant.
He reached up and brushed her cheek with the back of his knuckles.
When he was situated on the seat in the shower, she left him alone, pulling the bathroom door closed behind her. In the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of coffee and slipped into one of the chairs around their little table. What a morning, she thought, wrapping her trembling fingers around the warm mug. Her stomach was still doing butterflies over the way Richard had looked at her. And Willow Goodhope? What the devil was she going to do with those muffins hiding in her closet? There was no way she was going to bring up the girl and her gifts now. She wasn’t about to share her husband’s thoughts and attention with the red-headed enigma.
The phone on the wall behind her rang, startling her, making her coffee slosh over the rim of her cup. She stood and brought the receiver to her ear while she dabbed at the wet spots on the table with a paper napkin.
“Hey, Mom. It’s me.”
“Good morning, Ivan. What’s got you up so early on a Saturday?” It was barely after nine.
“I’m hungry. Did you already eat breakfast?” He sounded sullen, pouty, like a child, and she suddenly knew that she did not want him invading the tenderness of this morning with his abrasive spirit.
“I’m getting Dad out of the shower in a few minutes. We haven’t eaten yet, but I—”
“Good.” He cut her off. “I’m coming over.”
“Wait!” She spoke too slowly; he’d hung up. Patti sighed deeply, dropping back into the chair. She folded her hands in her lap and bowed her head, her eyes closed in prayer.
“Oh God. Help me.”
The shower had washed away some of Richard’s gentleness, and when he found out Ivan would be joining them for breakfast, he scowled. “Did you invite him?”
“No. But he’s our son. He doesn’t need an invitation.”
“Yes, he does, especially if he’s bringing his girlfriend with him.”
“Richie, please.” Why couldn’t he just accept that this is what Ivan had chosen? He didn’t have to agree, he didn’t even have to like it, but he didn’t need to be hateful. “I don’t think he’s bringing Jackson anyway. He just said ‘I.’”
“Good. Maybe he broke up with her.”
“Richie!” All the possibilities the morning had promised dissipated. Why not bring out the gift basket, too?
“Willow Goodhope stopped by this morning.” The words were out before she even knew they were coming.
Richard froze, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. “She did?” He was sitting at the table, his napkin already unfolded in his lap, clearly frustrated at having to wait for his breakfast.
“Yes. While you were sleeping.” While you were dreaming of me. The thought twisted in her belly.
“What did she want?” At least he didn’t sound too happy about it.
“She brought us a basket of stuff.” Patti stood at the sink, washing the skillet she’d used to make the pancakes that were keeping warm in the oven.
“Well? Where is it?”
Her hands shook a little, making the heavy pan clunk against the steel sink. “In my room.” She wished now that she’d taken the basket straight out to the dumpster the moment Willow disappeared around the bend in the driveway.
Richard was silent for so long, Patti finally turned to look at him over her shoulder. He was toying with the handle of his mug, his expression unreadable. She took a deep breath. “I’ll go get it.”
A moment later, she returned with the basket and set it down on the table in front of him. Then she headed back to her room. She’d wait there until Ivan arrived.
Sitting on the edge of her bed, she reached for her mother’s Bible where it rested on her nightstand, even though she didn’t read it often enough. The margins were filled with the spidery script of the God-fearing woman who’d taught by example to be faithful in marriage, and faithful to God. Patti found solace in the written thoughts of her mother, and sometimes even in the words of the Lord.
She opened to the New Testament—she didn’t think she had it in her to read about wars and plagues and prophets of doom right now—and started flipping through the pages of the shorter books, the letters to the churches. Paul, once bent on the destruction of the followers of Christ, had become the most outspoken apostle of them all, and his letters to fellow believers back then were still applicable today. She let her eyes meander over some of the underlined verses of the second letter to the Corinthians, then the letter to the Ephesians, one of her mother’s favorites. She was almost through Galatians when her eyes stopped; a section of verses underlined and bracketed in bold strokes, as though the woman reading them had returned to them over and over. In the margin were the words, Lord Jesus, help me.
Patti’s breath caught; she’d prayed the same thing earlier herself.
Her fingers caressed the page as she read the scripture out loud. “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”
“Lord Jesus,” she whispered, using her mother’s personalized version of the prayer. “Help me. Help me to not grow weary of doing good, especially to my husband, and to my son.” She paused, her throat constricting around her words. “And even to Willow Goodhope, who apparently understands about the doing good part.” She cleared her throat, hoping her next words didn’t sound too disrespectful. “And Jesus, don’t forget about the reaping part, okay? Please?”
The door to her bedroom suctioned with the opening and closing of the front door. Ivan was already here; he must have been in the car when he called. She closed the Bible and laid it on her pillow.
Through the thin walls, she could hear the two men greeting each other, and she felt the usual urgency to stand in as referee in case things got out of control as they so often did. But as she listened, what she could make out of their exchange was pleasant, even a chuckle from Ivan. She smiled, waiting, giving them a few more moments alone.
She found the two of them sitting at the table, Willow’s basket open between them. They were each enjoying a muffin, and Ivan held the card of poetry in his hands. “Do you think she made all this herself?” He reached for one of the jars and unscrewed the lid to smell its contents.
“I believe that woman can do anything she sets her mind to,” came Richard’s reply. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t seem upset at all. She could hardly believe his reaction to the contents of the basket. At that moment, he looked up, and his eyes met Patti’s. Ivan noticed and turned to look at her, too.
“Hey, Mom. Sorry about crashing your morning. By the way, these muffins are amazing. You should try one.” He stood and pulled out her chair for her. “Here. Sit. You want some coffee?” Then he reached for the coffee pot to refill everyone’s cups.
She sat, as directed, his civility leaving her at a loss for words. What had happened to the crabby boy who’d called not more than half an hour ago?
Richard’s eyes went back and forth between her and Ivan, watching them, studying them both, as though really seeing them today. She smiled tentatively at him; he actually smiled back. It wasn’t much, just a lifting of the corners of his mouth, but it was there, nonetheless.
“So I saw the pancakes in the oven. Are you going to bust them out or what?” Ivan dropped back into his seat. “I’m starving. These muffins are good, but I really want some of your flapjacks. Bring ‘em on!”
Patti happily retrieved the platter from the oven and pushed the start button on the microwave to warm up the syrup. Little things.
“What are your plans for the day, Ivan?” she asked, wondering if he’d be sticking around for a while.
“Well, Jackson and I,” Ivan began. Patti cringed at the name on his lips, knowing that Richard could hardly stand the sound of it. “We were going to go hiking today, but then it started raining.” He shrugged, spread peanut butter over the stack of pancakes on his plate, a small furrow forming between his eyebrows. “Then we started arguing, and I left, because we seem to do a lot of that lately. So honestly, I don’t have any plans.”
Patti waited for Richard to make a snide remark, but he was uncharacteristically silent.
“You know, relationships are hard,” Ivan stated before shoving a dripping, gooey bite into his mouth.
“Yes, they can be,” Patti murmured, recalling the verses she’d read only a few minutes ago. “But we can’t give up on each other, Ivan. No one deserves to be given up on. Sometimes we just need to look outside ourselves and our own needs to the needs in the lives of those around us.”
Ivan nodded, holding her gaze with his. “You’re right, Mom. No one deserves to be given up on. No one.”
Richard reached over and brushed his fingers along her forearm. The unexpected caress sent a tremor straight to her heart.
“So, this Willow woman. Tell me about her.” Ivan changed the subject abruptly. “She moved in last month, right?”
Richard nodded. “Yep. She’s pretty amazing, what she can do with plants. Seems like she can make anything grow. And apparently, she can make anything out of what she grows.” He waved a fork at the basket still on the table. “She’s quite a looker with all that red hair, too, isn’t she, Patricia?” He cleared his throat, not waiting for an answer. “You should go down and introduce yourself, son. She’s about your age.”
It was like a light coming on in Patti’s head. Ivan. Richard was thinking of Ivan when he stared at Willow. She dipped her chin, embarrassment making her face warm.
Ivan grinned cheekily across the table at his dad. “Well, maybe I will. But don’t be trying to set us up or anything. I’m in a relationship already.”
“I know that, Ivan.” Richard’s words were gentle, without condemnation. “I just think you might find a friend in her.” He turned his face in the direction of Elderberry Croft. “And I get the impression she could use a friend, too.”
Valentine’s Day. Usually Patti didn’t make any plans other than a special dinner. She always bought or made Richard a card; he always wrote her a nice, short note. He didn’t often tell her he loved her, but on Valentine’s Day, and a few other select holidays, he made a point to do so.
“Mom?” Ivan stuck his head in the front door, not even bothering to knock. It was another clear, Southern California day, although the cloudless sky left the air bitingly cold. He wore a vintage corduroy blazer the color of dark chocolate, and a rust-colored wool scarf wrapped around his neck. It brought out the velvet brown of his eyes that were so much like her own. He was very handsome, this man-boy of hers.
“Good morning, honey. Happy Valentine’s Day! How’s Dad doing out there?” Richard was outside on the front porch in his chair, and Patti had just finished running the vacuum, wanting the place to look spiffy for their evening meal. She had a roast marinating in the refrigerator and a poppy-seed Bundt cake in the oven.
“He’s fine. Staring at Willow again,” he laughed. Thanks to Willow Goodhope, Ivan was coming by more regularly, and Patti wasn’t surprised to see him, even today. She’d sent him down the way with a thank you card after the rain had stopped the morning Willow came by, a loaf of Patti’s banana bread tucked into the basket she was having Ivan return. An hour or so later, he was back, basket and tea towel in hand, a lighthearted smile on his face. “She said these were yours.”
The two of them often sat outside on Willow’s patio when he visited. Ivan explained why she never invited him in; she told him up front she had a policy about being alone with men in her home. Patti knew it made Richard happy to see them out there; he’d really made an effort to be kinder to Ivan lately, and even toward her.
“Look what Willow gave me today,” Ivan remarked, holding in his hand a smooth branch, one end wrapped in twine, the other end split, the two halves curving slightly away from each other. Then he demonstrated how to use it, tapping it against his palm to make a percussive sound. “See? It’s called a clapper. It’s like spoons, but made of a hollowed-out elderberry stick. Pretty cool, huh?” He laid the foot-long instrument on the table and pulled out a chair, dropping into it. “She plays a wicked flute, Mrs. Goodhope does.”
Patti paused in the middle of smoothing lemon oil on her maple coffee table. “Willow’s married?”
Ivan frowned, looking more uncertain than upset. “I honestly don’t know. She just seems…taken, I guess. I thought she was wearing a ring when I first met her, but I haven’t seen it since. There’s something about her, Mom. I think if she’s not married now, she must have been at one time.”
“Well, why didn’t you ask her? You’re always so good with people, Ivan. They open up to you without realizing they’re doing so.”
“It’s the strangest thing. I keep meaning to, but every time the conversation gets close, it somehow slips my mind. I don’t know if she’s redirecting things, or if I’m just easily distracted, but the time never seems right. And really,” he picked up the clapper, tapping it on his thigh a few times. “If she wanted us to know, don’t you think she’d have let on already? It’s not like she keeps to herself or anything. In some ways, she’s more open than any other person I know. But there’s something about her, something she’s hiding, or protecting, and I kinda feel clumsy and nosy when I start poking around.” He shot a look out the window to where Richard sat in his chair. “I like her, Mom. Not the way Dad wants me to like her, but I like her nonetheless.”
He hadn’t mentioned Jackson in the last week or so, and although Patti was concerned, she wasn’t going to be nosy, either. Ivan was a big boy, and he would talk to her when he was ready.
“Hey, how’s that cream working on Dad? Does he like it?”
“The stuff from Willow? Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “It’s wonderful, Ivan. I know it’s too early to tell if it’s making much of a difference on the scars themselves, but Dad loves it. I’m sure it helps that Willow made it,” she chuckled good-naturedly, still amazed that he was letting her use it on him. “It’s so easy to work with. It soaks in quickly, it doesn’t get sticky, and it doesn’t have any kind of medicine or preservative smell to it. Just natural; like the woods, all spicy and warm. And I love mine, too. Look at my hands!” She held out her hands toward him, palms down. “My fingernails seem stronger in only a week or two.”
“Healer’s hands. That’s what you have, Mom.” He smiled sweetly, looking to her like the little boy he once was.
Patti blushed, beaming. The little things.
“Do you need help with anything before I leave,” he asked, heading toward the door.
“I’m good, honey. But you can see if Dad’s ready to come in yet. If he is, you can help him. That would be nice.”
A few minutes later, just as Patti pulled her cake out of the oven, Ivan ushered Richard back inside. “I’m going to lie down for a bit, Patricia. I’m a little tired.” She smiled and nodded, pleased to see the two of them working together so nicely. Richard still didn’t seem to be sleeping well at night, but he didn’t complain, and Patti looked forward to the hour or so to herself when he napped, often taking advantage of the break to go on her daily sojourn around to the front of the trailer park to check the mail.
The Coach House Trailer Park was so named because of the two-story building at the front of the property. It was, in fact, a stop along the old stage-coach route of the 1800s that passed through Southern California. In its glory days, the main house had been a hotel stop, complete with upstairs rooms for paying guests, and two shacks out back for those who opted to spend their money on extra services provided by a local brothel. The coach house had been converted, some sixty or so years ago, into a boarding house, then into three huge apartments, then eventually, the property and the accompanying acreage had been purchased by the current owners. They put in sites for mobile homes, fixed up the outlying buildings. including the two little love-shacks out back, and opened up The Coach House Trailer Park. Kathy now lived in one of the little back buildings, Willow Goodhope had moved into the other.
As Patti strode past Elderberry Croft, she slowed to admire all that the girl had managed to accomplish since she’d arrived only a month and a half ago. It really was remarkable. Patti and Richard had moved here shortly after his accident, nearly fifteen years ago, and Ivan had spent the last of his high school years here. In all that time, no one had cared so much about how their places looked. Sure, Joe grew his vegetables, Myra had hanging plants all over her front patio, and Kathy liked to rearrange her formidable heart rock collection on a whim, but this was different. Willow didn’t just move in; she became the property.
At that moment, Willow emerged from the front door of her home. Waving wildly, she called out, “Patti! Just the person I wanted to see today!” She wore leggings under a long sweater, her feet encased in woolly boots that looked like something an Eskimo might wear. Her hair was swept up in a pony tail at the back of her head and her ears were covered with a pair of purple fuzzy earmuffs. Willow wrapped her in a quick hug, exclaiming, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and Patti caught a whiff of that smell again. She breathed it in—it reminded her of something; what was it?
“Are you going to check your mail? I’ll walk with you.” Willow spoke loudly as she fell into step beside Patti, linking her arm with hers. “I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I appreciate Ivan. Thank you for having such a wonderful son. You are truly a blessed woman.”
“You’re welcome, Willow. Although I should be thanking you. He hasn’t been the same since you two met, and we’re seeing a lot more of him around here.”
“What’s that?” Willow leaned toward her a little.
Patti grinned, stopped walking, and turned to face the younger woman. Reaching up, she pushed back the earmuffs. “Is that better?”
Willow’s laugh burst out of her mouth, making Patti step back in surprise, but then she, too, started to laugh.
“Oh my goodness, I am such a dingbat!” Willow wheezed when she’d calmed down a little.
“What’s that?” Patti hollered, setting the two of them giggling like schoolgirls again.
“Hey, you two!” Kathy came out her front door and called out to them. “You’re scaring the kids!” She made her way down her steps to the gate to greet them.
“We’re going to check the mail for Valentines,” Willow declared. “Join us!” And the three of them headed off together, leaving Kathy’s dogs safely inside her yard.
They stood before the long row of mailboxes on the main driveway into the park, their three boxes set one right next to the other. “I got a card from Makani!” Kathy tore into the red envelope with gusto.
“How wonderful,” Willow responded enthusiastically. “I can’t wait to meet him. What about you, Patti? Anything good?”
Patti was frowning at the pile of bills in her hands. She always came to the mailbox with a sense of anticipation, looking forward even to the mail-order catalogs that came on a regular basis. She didn’t get out much, but she enjoyed paging through them as though she was window-shopping. Today there were none, only cellophane-windowed envelopes and a stack of ad sheets from the big chain drug and grocery stores in the area. Then a hand on her arm made her pause.
“Look. You dropped something.” Willow bent over and picked up a small, pale blue envelope from the ground and handed it to her. How had she not noticed it? Turning it over, her heart fluttered when she recognized Richard’s handwriting, addressing the missive to her.
Kathy was busy reading her card, and Willow was thumbing through her own small stack of mail, so Patti tucked the envelope into her coat pocket. She would read it in private when she got home.
Her mind was racing. Richard never mailed his Valentine notes. She suddenly couldn’t bear it; the letter was burning a hole in her pocket. “Ladies, as much as I’ve enjoyed this little impromptu outing, I really have to hurry home. I was having so much fun, I almost forgot. Richard was dozing when I left, and I slipped out without telling him. He knows I check the mail every afternoon, but he does expect me back so he doesn’t have to worry.”
“Then let’s go!” Willow cried, linking arms again and drawing the two older women back the way they’d come. They split off to their respective homes, and Patti slipped inside as quietly as she could.
“Richard?” She called out softly, waited, and when he didn’t respond, she hurried to her room and pulled the door closed behind her. Using her fingertip, she carefully slit open the envelope. On the front of a plain blue card were the words, My love. Inside, it said, Will you celebrate Valentine’s Day with me tonight?
What did it mean? Didn’t he remember that she always made a special meal to celebrate? Was it possible he wanted to go out somewhere? Why did he send the invitation through the mail? Why not just talk to her?
She stood, momentarily indecisive, then made up her mind to do just that; talk to him. She quickly covered the few feet to her husband’s room. At the last moment, her heart fluttered, but she pushed open his door anyway.
His bed was empty. “Richard?” She called, shock and concern making her voice crack. Had he tried to get up while she was gone? Was he lying on the floor somewhere, hurt? She turned—then caught sight of another blue envelope on his pillow. It had slipped down near the headboard and she almost missed it. Snatching it up, she tore into it, not caring if it had her name on it or not.
I’ve gone with Ivan. He’s going to help me prepare for this evening. Dare I hope that you will be waiting for me? Will you wear something pretty?
Patti stared at the card in disbelief. This was not her Richard. This was not his doing; it couldn’t be, could it?
But inside her, something was waking up, stirring, and shifting, an ember being fanned to life. “Dare I hope?” she whispered, repeating her husband’s words. She hurried back to her own room, throwing open the door of her closet. Something pretty?
In clear plastic, at the end of the rod, hung a dress she’d worn years ago on one of the last dates they’d shared, their fifteenth anniversary. Ivan was twelve, and they’d left him home alone for the first time. The dress was dated, with shoulder-pads and a dropped waist, but it was blue, and Richard had told her she looked beautiful that night.
An hour later, showered, and waffling between anticipation and self-doubt, Patti stood before the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the closet door in her room, wearing a silky white camisole and matching slip set. “Even my underwear is outdated,” she muttered to her reflection. She brushed her hair slowly, watching her careful movements in the mirror, wishing the strands were once again the pretty chestnut they’d been so many years ago. It wasn’t very long, considering she hadn’t cut it in years; it seemed to have slowed to a stop, like so many other aspects of her life. She had just begun to braid it, preparing to pin it back in place, when there was a knock on the front door.
She donned her robe, hoping it wasn’t Ivan and Richard already. “Who is it?” She wasn’t going to open up for just anyone; she was in her underwear, after all.
“It’s me, Willow. I come bearing gifts.” Her voice, although light and playful, was like a boon to Patti, solid footing to her shaky nerves. She pulled open the door, prepared to tell the girl all about her surprise afternoon, but the moment she saw her face, she could see Willow knew already.
“I’m here to help you get ready for your big date,” she stated, clearly prepared for nothing but acquiescence. She had yet another twig basket—this one twice the size of the one that now held catalogs on Patti’s coffee table—stuffed full of jars and bottles, pretty bags, and a small cluster of dried white flowers. “Let’s work a little magic, shall we?” Willow wiggled the fingers of her free hand as though casting a spell. “Take me to your inner sanctum.”
Patti reached out and impulsively hugged her, breathing in the woodsy aroma that seemed to emanate from the girl. “I don’t know how you knew, and right now, I don’t really care. But you’re right. I need help. I haven’t gotten ready for anything other than my bed in years.”
When Willow finally let her turn around, Patti felt a surge of panic, almost afraid to look. But when she raised her eyes to her reflection, she gasped in surprise. “Oh, my!” She lifted her hands to her hair.
Willow had asked permission to cut it, “a little shaping up” she promised, but the results were drastic. Patti’s hair now fell in soft, smooth waves around her face, a small cluster of flowers pinned above one ear. “You’re beautiful, Patti! You look like a modern Jane Greer. Did you see her in Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum?”
“I don’t know about that, but I feel like I’m looking at something from out of my past, that’s for sure!” Patti couldn’t stop staring at herself. Even the grey in her hair seemed softer, even intentional, and her make-up, although subtle, highlighted her big, brown eyes. She practically glowed, like she was all lit up inside. “Do you think he’ll notice?” It slipped out, her whispered fears, and Willow circled around to stand in front of her. Taking her by the shoulders, the younger woman waited until Patti looked at her.
“He’ll notice.” Her eyes were luminous.
Patti nodded like a child, and she spoke in a small voice. “You remind me of my mother, Willow. You’re so certain about things.” Then almost as an afterthought, she added. “But you smell like…like my father!” She pressed a hand over her heart, swept suddenly back in time. “That’s it! I didn’t know I even remembered that smell. Oh, Willow, my dad worked in a lumber yard, and he always smelled like cedar and pine, all spicy, and earthy. I loved it when I was a little girl. It was my favorite time of day, when he came home for supper.”
Willow chuckled loudly. “So I smell like a man, huh?”
“Not just any man. My daddy.”
“Well, thank you.” Willow didn’t seem to take offense. “Now I’m going to disappear, and you are going to get dressed before your Prince comes to whisk you away.” She began gathering up her things and refilling her basket.
“Thank you.” Patti still stood before the mirror in her underclothes, her reflection watching the girl. “Although that feels so inadequate. Thank you for what you’re doing with Ivan. Thank you for opening my eyes to the little things…to hope. Thank you for whatever is happening to Richard. I can’t explain it, but I somehow think you’re at least partly responsible. Your gifts—you—you’re just so alive. Thank you for sharing you with us.”
Willow’s eyes were bright as she smiled and shook her head slightly. “I’m only breathing, living, like everyone else, Patti. One breath in, one breath out. Sometimes all we can do is keep breathing.”
Patti saw it then, that hollowed-out place Ivan had alluded to, something raw and torn open in the look that passed between them. “I’m so sorry, Willow. For whatever your loss, I’m sorry.”
The girl turned her face away, but Patti could see her shoulders rise and fall, slow and steady, one breath in, one breath out, breathing, living.
It was after five o’clock, and getting dark, and Patti was beginning to worry. Willow had left her alone more than an hour ago and there was no word from the boys. She’d even tried calling Ivan’s home, but no one picked up there. These five hours were the longest she’d been apart from Richard in years, and as pitiful as that sounded, even to her own ears, she felt his absence like a cold day without a winter coat. He may not be the warmest thing in the world, but he was hers, and he was comfortably tattered in all the familiar places.
When she heard the purr of an engine, and wheels on the gravel outside, her mouth went instantly dry. He’s here! She dashed to the bathroom, checked her hair and lipstick, pinched her cheeks a few times, then returned to stand in the middle of the living room. She had no clue what to do while waiting for him to walk through the door. It would be ridiculous to act nonchalant.
A brief knock was followed by the turning of the doorknob. Ivan entered, and she gasped at the sight of him. All decked out in a black, long-tailed tux, he greeted her, a satisfied smile on his face. “Mrs. Davis, your husband awaits your company. Shall we?” With that, he spun on his heels, stuck out an elbow, and waited until she came forward to slip her hand through his arm.
As they stepped out onto the porch, Patti brought her free hand up to her mouth, remembering just in time not to smear her lipstick. Richard stood beside the open door of a shiny, black limousine, straight, and tall, and waiting for her. There was no walker in sight; he was supporting his weight on a dapper black cane. He wore a beautiful suit, charcoal grey, his white hair freshly cut and combed away from his face.
Ivan handed her into the car, then helped Richard in, before making his way around to sit up front with the driver.
“Where are we going?” Patti asked, feeling a little shy around this inexplicable version of her husband. She felt like Cinderella, riding in a magic pumpkin carriage, but with Willow as her beautiful fairy godmother.
Richard just patted her knee and smiled mysteriously, not really looking at her. She stole a glance at him, her mind still trying to juxtapose the man who sat beside her with the one she’d been caring for all these years. Even his profile seemed changed; stronger because of the way he held his shoulders and kept his back straight. Time melted away and the old flame in her heart burned for him.
The car tires crunched along on the gravel as they pulled away from the front of their trailer. She turned and looked out the back window to see Joe standing on his porch, smiling and waving. When they came to the stretch between Kathy’s and Willow’s little houses, the car slowed even more, then purred to a stop altogether. Ivan was opening their door before Patti had the chance to ask questions.
“Oh my word!” She exclaimed as she stepped from the car. Willow’s place was all aglow, the patio festooned with twinkle lights and flickering candles. There was a roaring fire burning in the fire-pit, and a table for two set up comfortably close to it. On the steps of her home stood Willow, in a loose-fitting, long-sleeved gown as blue-black as the sky above them. Her hair flowed down her back, but it was swept away from her face by a homemade tiara crafted of dried berries and multi-colored leaves.
She spread her arms wide and greeted them with a smile.
“Welcome to Elderberry Croft!”
Richard looked up at the attentive man who’d just cleared their plates. He smiled. “Thank you, son. Please tell Willow that the food was excellent.”
Patti nodded in agreement. The pork loin steaks with elderberry glaze were indescribably delicious. “And that apple crumb dessert, too, Ivan. My goodness!”
Ivan seemed to be having the time of his life as he played the part of their server to the hilt. Patti’s jaws were beginning to ache; she hadn’t smiled this much in far too long. Ivan spoke in a formal voice. “Because of the definite chill in the air—in spite of the fire—you have the option of basking in the glow of Elderberry Croft for as long as you like; I highly recommend a little snuggling in order to keep warm, if you do. Or you are free to return to your limousine and drive with the top open so you can watch the stars pass by overhead. Snuggling is still highly recommended.” He winked. The limousine, having disappeared shortly after dropping them off, swept back around and pulled up close to the front of the little house.
As enchanting as Elderberry Croft was, Patti was feeling the cold, even though she wore a velvet shawl around her shoulders, courtesy of Willow, and her legs were extended toward the fire. She looked at Richard, however, wanting him to decide.
As though reading her mind, he reached across the table and took one of her hands in his. “Would you like to go for a drive with me, Patti?”
When he looked at her like that—and called her Patti—she’d go anywhere with him.
Once he had them settled comfortably in the back seat of the limo again, Ivan leaned his head in the window close to Patti.
“Dad, Mom, I think you know your own way home from here. You have this limousine for up to two more hours. Take advantage of it. Your driver will take you anywhere you want to go, as long as you’re back by ten. If you don’t care where he drives, I’ve already given him some suggestions.”
Patti, overwhelmed by the amazing night, teared up. “Oh, Ivan. How can we possibly thank you for all of this?”
He bent forward and placed a warm kiss on her cheek. “You’ve got it all wrong. ‘All of this’ is my way of thanking you, even as insignificant as it may seem in the grand scheme of things. You’ve had this night coming for a long time. And, by the way, you look beautiful tonight, Mom.”
He reached around her and put a hand on Richard’s shoulder. “Dad.” A bottomless well of emotion was wrapped in that small word, and then he was gone.
Soft music began to play as the limousine pulled away from Elderberry Croft toward the front of the park. They passed the coach house, the three trailers up front, then pulled onto the main road that took them out into the magical night.
“He’s right, Patti.” Richard spoke so quietly she almost missed it, but when his long fingers brushed her cheek in the dark, she knew she wasn’t imagining it. “You look beautiful tonight.” He found her hand, and brought it to his lips, placing a kiss on her knuckles. “Almost as beautiful as you look to me when you’re scrambling eggs for my breakfast. Or folding my undershirts. Or massaging my aching legs. It’s the little things I’m thankful for, Patti. The little things that tell me you haven’t given up on me. And I’m an old fool for not telling you every day of every week of every month of every year that I love you.”
As though on cue, Tony Bennett’s romantic croon filled the air around them, as though echoing her husband’s words. He pulled her close against his side, and she rested her head on his shoulder. Then, in his gravelly voice, Richard joined in, singing to her their song from long ago.
Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight.
Yes, you’re lovely, with your smile so warm, and your cheeks so soft,
There is nothing for me but to love you, just the way you look tonight.
With each word your tenderness grows, tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose, it touches my foolish heart.
You’re so lovely, never, ever change. Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it? Cause I love you just the way you look tonight.