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?
Al returned the phone to its cradle on the wall, his other hand clutching the worn fabric of his shirt over his heart. The organ thumped so hard against his ribcage he was sure it was making ready to beat its way out of his body.
But then, maybe that would be better.
We regret to inform you that your wife, Margaret Sue Tanner, passed away in her sleep….
Nothing else the man said—the details, the date, the time of death—none of it mattered anymore. All he needed to know was that Maggie was gone.
For twenty-six years, he’d lived here in this dive trailer, working his fingers to the bone at the Lazy Boy factory, just waiting for his wife to die. Twenty-six years.
It should have taken less than one.
And now, at sixty-nine, there wasn’t much living left in him, either. He’d spent it all on her: his money, his days, his years, his health, and whatever happiness he might have had in life.
A factory worker, that’s all he was. Unskilled, uneducated, and unappreciated by the company he’d given most of his life to. Granted, he hadn’t really given them anything at all. They’d paid him for his time, he made sure of it, and he didn’t come early or stay late, but he showed up every weekday, barring illness or injury, and they knew they could count on him.
Unfortunately, over the years, he’d become ill more often, but with a factory job and his advancing age, coupled with his daily intake of alcohol and cigarettes, no insurance company would look at him, at least not for what he could afford. He lived in a catch-22 world: if he worked, he made too much money for state-funded health care. If he didn’t work, he could qualify for healthcare, but he couldn’t pay his—or Maggie’s—monthly bills. Well, he had to eat, and he needed gas and electricity, and there was always Maggie—always Maggie. So he opted to work.
Until now. With his wife no longer needing his money, Al no longer needed his job. He was old enough to retire, he could afford to cover his own measly expenses on his social security check, and then he could qualify for Medicare.
Unless he opted to finally do the right thing.
It had been too long since he had options.
Dropping onto his sagging sofa, he laid his head back and stared up at the cork board ceiling. He felt a little sick to his stomach.
“I need a beer,” he muttered. The ceiling said nothing to change his mind, so he hauled himself up off the sofa and headed for the kitchen.
The wood-paneled walls sometimes made him claustrophobic, but beer eased the mounting tension in the room. The television, his constant companion, sometimes rasped against his senses like a bickering woman, but beer took the edge of the voices. Silence, if he could no longer stand the television, made him antsy, and beer usually soothed his spirit. Loneliness, when it caught him unawares, made him feel hollow, and beer helped fill in those empty places.
He plucked a cold can off the shelf in the refrigerator, and hooked his thumb and middle finger into the plastic rings of a new six-pack he’d put to chilling in there when he first got home. He took them all back to the sofa.
Maggie was gone. No, Maggie was dead. She’d been gone a long time already, maybe even before she showed up.
Suddenly, without warning, Al began to weep. Giant tears rolled down his cheeks in silence, and he swallowed hard to keep back the groan that tried to escape his throat. Why was he crying? Why now, after all these years?
Death. The finality of it all hit him like a bullet, leaving a gaping hole in his heart where his locked-away grief—and everything else tangled up with it—was suddenly let loose.
He sat that way for longer than he would ever admit to anyone, eyes pouring, nose running, cold drinks growing warm in his hands, as he let the years of sorrow empty out of him.
~ ~ ~ ~
He first saw her sitting in the waiting area at the barbershop, her finely-shaped legs crossed, one foot swinging to the rhythm of some song she had playing in her head, turning the pages of a ladies magazine. Even as she read, she held her head high, her chin thrust forward, posing as though she knew she was being watched. And she was. Glancing around the shop, Al could see he wasn’t the only man appreciating the view and wondering what on earth the pretty little thing was doing at Ol’ Elmer’s.
Turns out she was waiting for a ride, and the barbershop was where she’d been told to wait. And wait, she did. According to Elmer, she’d been there for an hour by the time Al showed up, and she was still there when he was done, all trimmed and shaved. Al watched her out of the corner of his eye, and didn’t miss the subtle nervousness beneath her poise: stolen glances at her watch, her eyes darting over the top of the magazine to the large window that looked out into the parking lot, the way she chewed on her bottom lip.
Al paid for his haircut and went home, curiosity about the girl sitting like an uncomfortable weight on his chest. Who was she waiting for and why was her ride taking so long? She looked about in her mid-twenties, a good ten-plus years younger than Al, but something about her made her seem old beyond her years, something about her eyes. When he passed her on his way out, she’d looked right at him; bold, steady, but not outright challenging. He paused momentarily, thinking she might speak to him, but when she said nothing, he just nodded his head and left.
When Al returned for his Friday trim four weeks later, he pushed open the barbershop door and stopped dead in his tracks. There she sat, in the exact same chair, one leg crossed prettily over the other, reading her magazine. Their eyes met across the top of the pages in her hand. She acknowledged him, but didn’t smile.
“She’s been here every Friday for a month,” Elmer muttered by way of explanation. “She apologizes for tying up the seat in the waiting room, but I know a good thing when I see one, and she’s bringing in the business for me. I’ve been booked solid every Friday afternoon since she started showing up.”
“Anybody asked who she’s waiting for?” It was Jude Carson from the next chair over. Al was sure the girl could hear the old man’s gravelly voice, but she didn’t appear to be paying any attention to their talk.
“Of course I did,” Elmer grunted. He held up his left hand and pointed at the wide gold band on his ring finger.
“She’s got a husband? She’s not wearing a ring.” Al had made it a point to notice.
“Fiancé.” Elmer spoke the fancy word from the corner of his mouth. “Told her to wait for him here, on Friday afternoon.”
Jude chuckled, and flipped the crisp page of his newspaper, making a racket. “What the Sam-diddly? Did he forget to mention which Friday?”
“Apparently.” Elmer’s bushy brows came together. “Al, you’re about her age. I think she might need someone to talk to.”
Al was taken aback. At thirty-seven, he was still hoping to find a woman to marry one day, but the more time passed, the more he wondered if maybe there just wasn’t any woman out there hoping to find him for a husband. He didn’t understand the female mind, and the longer he stayed single, the more intimidating they became. Oh, he liked women all right. He liked looking at them, he liked thinking about them; but talking to one? Especially a stranger, at that? No thank you.
Just as he pulled open his car door to get in, she spoke from right behind him, startling him. “You’re Al, right?”
“I am.” His voice sounded wary, but she didn’t seem to notice. She wore a pretty blue dress with a red belt and matching red heels, and her hair was carefully styled in that puffy short hairdo all the girls were wearing those days. Every time Al thought about girls’ hair he was grateful to be a man.
“I know you and Elmer and the others were talking about me in there.” She said it like she was going to make some kind of a point, so Al didn’t try to deny it, but waited for her to continue. “Just so you know, I’m waiting for my fiancé. His name is Billy Raven. You heard of him?”
Al didn’t voice the thought that Mr. Raven appeared to have flown the coop without his little dove, but shook his head and said, “No, sorry.” Then before he could change his mind, he did voice the second thought that came to him. “You need a lift somewhere?”
The girl stood there, looking at him in that forward way. Finally, she said, “I could really use a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Would you like to take me to dinner?”
He should have known she’d be trouble. He should have seen it coming a mile away.
They were married six weeks later in a chapel in Vegas; no family, because she had none, and his sister wasn’t able to fly out from Colorado in the middle of a blizzard in March. It was probably the most impulsive thing Al had ever done in his entire life, but Maggie made him feel daring; a little dangerous. And feeling dangerous did something to a man’s insides.
One month later, Maggie lost the baby Al didn’t know she had. She also lost any reason to pretend she loved him, and before he had the chance to settle into married life and all that he’d dreamed it would be, he was clambering to get out so that he could crawl into a hole and lick his near-fatal wounds.
But Al was raised up to stick to his promises. Maggie was now his wife, and he’d promised to care for her in sickness and in health, so that’s what he intended to do. Once he got over the impact of the cannon ball she aimed at his chest, he realized she was ill; no one in their right mind would behave the way she did without being some kind of sick.
For the next year or more, he put up with her self-pity, her anger, her derision. She called him foul names and told him he wasn’t a real man; no real man would have stuck around after he found out she’d only married him because she was having Billy Raven’s baby. And somewhere in his gut, he thought she might be right…except for those rare moments when she’d come to him, usually in the dead of night, great, gasping sobs tearing out of her, and beg him to hold her.
“I’m so sorry, Al. I’m so sorry. You’re too good for me.” She never said the words he wanted to hear from her, but he’d shush her, and tell her things would get better, that he’d see her through this, that he’d always be there for her.
Things didn’t get better. On the eve of their second anniversary, he found her sitting on the edge of the bathtub, a dazed look in her eyes. One hand rested in her lap, the disposable blade from his razor clamped between her bloodied fingers. Her other arm hung at her side, dripping into a growing pool of blood on the bathmat.
Al reached for her just as she began to topple backwards into the tub, and lowered her to the floor. Raising her arm so that the cut wrist was above her heart, he wrapped a hand towel around the wound as tight as he could make it. “Don’t you die on me, Maggie Sue,” he ground out. “Don’t you die on me. Neither one of us deserves this.”
She began to moan, then cry softly, but when he told her he needed to take her to the hospital, she clutched at the hem of his shirt. “No, no! Please don’t take me there. They’ll put me away, Al. They’ll take me away from you.”
He peeled her fingers from his clothes, a terrible sadness seeping through him at the sight of the bloody prints she left behind. “They’ll help you, Maggie. They’ll help us. They’re not going to take you away.”
But she begged him, her sobs turning to wails. “No, Al! You don’t know what they do to people like me! They’ll take me away and drug me and do terrible things. I know it’s true. Please don’t make me go.”
When he’d freed his shirt from her, he’d felt the hard ridge running from the heel of her palm almost four inches up the inside of her forearm, and something in the way she spoke made him believe there was at least an element of truth in her fears about the hospital. And he wasn’t about to let them take her away from him.
Instead of seeking professional help, Al gave in and took care of her himself. He stayed by her side for the next two weeks, missing work for the first time in longer than he could remember. He cleaned her wound, he helped her bathe, he even washed her hair for her. When it dried all soft and natural around her pale features, her big eyes following his every move like he was her hero, he thought she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.
For a while, there was stillness in their home, if not peace. For a while, Al thought there might be hope for them, that maybe she’d bled out her despair on the bathroom floor that night.
Sure enough, something did bleed out of Maggie, but it wasn’t her despair. She was no longer angry or aggressive, but became fidgety, weepy; easily fixated on minor problems while ignoring things that needed her attention. He’d come home to find her down on all fours, scrubbing the grooves in the kitchen linoleum, her knees raw from kneeling in scouring powder, while the dishes piled high in the sink. And she wouldn’t let him help. The one time he’d washed up after supper while she bathed, she’d been inconsolable, weeping bitterly about not being a good wife, promising to try harder.
She’d go through every item of clothing they owned between them, a pair of tiny scissors in hand, snipping out tags and loose threads, while dirty laundry filled the hamper to overflowing. She’d spend hours organizing their closet, one day by color, the next by the length of each item on its hanger, sometime even by outfit.
Over time, her fixation turned to him. She’d be up at the crack of dawn cooking breakfast, putting together a healthy lunch for him to take to work, making certain he was dressed neatly, every hair in place, his face clean. She’d be waiting for him on the front porch when he got home, a tall glass of lemonade or iced tea in her hand, or coffee on a cold day.
Then she started asking him to stay home from work to be with her. “I’m afraid, Al. The guy next door is home all day, and there’s something wrong with him, I just know it.” There was always a variation of this excuse, but Al knew full well that their neighbor was a single mom who worked while the kids were in school, leaving the apartment empty during the hours he was at the factory.
Every day became worse, to the point where she’d sometimes cling to him, weeping, begging him not to leave her. He’d have to peel her arms from around him and promise her repeatedly that he’d come straight home the moment he clocked out.
One morning, she was up before him as usual. He could hear her opening and closing the drawers in the kitchen, and the smell of garlic and scrambled eggs wafted through the rooms. He got up, dressed in his work jeans and blue shirt, and made his way to the kitchen, realizing at the last minute that the sounds had ceased. Maggie was nowhere to be found.
The memory of finding her in the bathroom came rushing at him like a punch in the gut, nearly doubling him over, and he raced through the small apartment, terrified of what he might stumble upon, but desperate to find her anyway.
He found her outside in their numbered parking spot under the carport, sitting primly in the passenger seat of his car, his lunchbox on her lap, a bright smile plastered on her face. She wore a pair of jeans and one of his shirts; she looked like a caricature of him.
“I’m going to work with you,” she declared. “Isn’t that wonderful?” She leaned over the driver’s seat and tried to open his door for him, but her fingers couldn’t quite reach the handle. “Come on! Get in, Al, honey! We’re going to have so much fun today!”
He’d missed work that day, because she refused to get out of the car, and he wasn’t about to make a scene and drag her out for all to see. He kept his keys hidden away after that.
But his boss wasn’t pleased. “You been missing a lot of work this last year, my friend. You gonna keep this up?” It wasn’t really a question, and Al knew he wasn’t really his boss’ friend, either.
Every day, Maggie tried a new tactic to keep him home with her. Sometimes it was as trivial as refusing to get out of bed to cook breakfast for him, something he’d never expected her to do in the first place. Other times, she went to drastic, if not very effective measures, like when she hid all his jeans and he had to wear his one pair of good slacks to work. Another time, she refused to come out of the bathroom so that he could use the toilet. For a week straight, she pretended to have fainting spells, crumpling to the floor in the middle of breakfast. He only fell for that one once.
Al was exhausted all the time. He didn’t sleep well, for fear she’d do something crazy in the middle of the night, and he worried about her all day while he was away. He caught himself dozing at the wheel on the way to and from work more than once, and his patience was worn thin.
He knew he needed help, but he didn’t know where to turn. She had no family, at least none that she ever claimed, and all he had was his sister in Denver, and she’d never even met his wife. Maggie had no friends, and because she consumed his every waking moment, Al didn’t have any either. Even so, the guys he used to play poker with, or bowl with, weren’t really the “help-with-the-crazy-missus” kind of friends. Although she hadn’t tried to harm herself since cutting her wrist, he knew she really wasn’t safe to leave alone anymore.
And then, two weeks before their fourth Christmas together, everything changed.
“You can’t go to work today.” She said it so casually, so matter-of-factly, that he got sucked into the conversation without realizing it.
“I’m not going to let you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Maggie.” Al pushed up from the breakfast table and carried his plate of half-eaten scrambled eggs to the sink. He was no longer hungry.
“Oh, I’m not being ridiculous.” He turned and studied her. She was too calm. He decided to ignore her and headed to the bathroom. It had to be another hair-brained scheme of hers, and he could feel his nerves pulled taut like tension wires.
But when he stepped out into the little hall, there she stood, blocking the way to the front door. She watched him, eyes wide, bold, like she’d done so many years ago at Ol’ Elmer’s. But this time, oh, this time, that look was all challenge.
“What’re you up to, Maggie Sue?” He kept his voice calm, calling her the name he whispered to her in the middle of the night when she came to him for comfort.
“You’re not going to work, Al. I told you. I hate your job. It’s destroying our marriage.”
In the back of his mind, lights flickered and flashed, a warning, telling him to pay attention, to keep his cool, to not let his guard down. But Al was tired of playing this game with her. He was tired of hoping the beautiful girl he married would miraculously reappear. He was tired of this life they were living. He was tired of her. No, he was sick to death of her.
“Go ahead. Do whatever you’re going to do to try and stop me. But know this. That job you hate so much is putting a roof over your head. Granted, it’s not a fancy roof, but it’s a roof none the less. That job feeds you, clothes you, bathes you, sustains you. In fact, that job is what keeps you out of the hospital. If I didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have this apartment, and if we didn’t have this apartment—”
“Shut up!” The words barreled out of her mouth like a freight train, the force of them making him reel backward a little. And then he saw the knife she held above her head as she came at him. “You’re staying here with me! Alive or dead, I don’t care!”
He lowered his shoulder and charged her, his body reacting before he really thought about what he was doing. He rammed into her, taking her down like a bull does a matador, crushing her up against the wall. Her head hit the plaster hard—he heard the solid thunk—and bounced off, her face crashing into his shoulder. The knife went flying, skittering impotently away from them, and he breathed heavy with the strain of holding onto what was left of his self-control.
“Enough. Enough!” The words were like ripped canvas between his clenched teeth. They were both on the floor, Maggie propped up, her back to the wall, Al on his knees straddling her thighs, his arms around her, pinning her own to her side. “Enough!”
Everything stilled in the aftermath of their collision, and he took some steadying breaths, preparing for a volley of words, or fist, or whatever else she might throw at him. It took him a moment more to realize she wasn’t moving, limp in his arms. Sitting back on his heels, he grasped her shoulders with both hands and held her at arm’s length.
Her eyes were open and she was looking right at him, but her head lolled a little to one side. In slow motion, she reached up and patted his cheek. “Stay home,” she murmured.
Al cursed loudly, something he rarely did even quietly, and let go of her, pushing himself up. “Why are you doing this to me?” He raged. “I have done everything I know to do to make you happy, Maggie. What more do you want from me?”
She slid down the wall to lie to her side, but her eyes stayed trained on his face. He knew this trick; how many times had she fallen off her chair at the table before? “Get up, Maggie. I’m not playing your stupid games anymore.” He just wanted to go to work, to get away from her and her toxicity.
She didn’t move, except for a slow blink. It took her a long time to open her eyes again. “Stop it, Maggie.” He said it less vehemently. “Get up now, come on.”
“Stay.” It was barely more than a mumble, and the word trailed off as her eyes drifted shut.
“Maggie?” He was suddenly terribly afraid. He dropped to one knee beside her and put a hand to her cheek. Her eyelids didn’t even flutter. “Maggie. Open your eyes!” He could hear the panic in his voice, his insides churned and clenched in fear. “Maggie!”
He scrambled up and across the hall to the bathroom to get a wet washcloth for her face. He just made it to the toilet before he threw up what little there was in his stomach, his body heaving up his insides in a delayed reaction to all that had just happened. As soon as he was able to stand, he splashed water on his face and quickly rinsed his mouth, grabbing a washcloth out of the cupboard under the sink, almost all simultaneously.
When he ducked back out into the hall, Maggie was sitting again, clutching her head in her hands, her elbows on her knees. She was moaning softly.
Al hurried to her side and held out the wet cloth where she could see it. “Here. Let me wash your face. This will help you feel better.” His hands were shaking as he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and tugged her hand away from her face. Maggie lifted her head and looked up at him.
“Thank you, Al. I’m sorry. I must have fainted.” They were the same words she’d used repeatedly during her week of fainting spells. Like flipping a switch, his fear turned to anger again.
“Not a problem,” he snapped. He stood up and adjusted the waist of his jeans, tucking the tails of his shirt in a little more snugly. “I have to go to work, Maggie.”
At first, she didn’t say anything, but just as he opened his mouth to speak, she sighed, and replied, “I know. Just go, Al. I’ll be fine.”
It took him so by surprise that he faltered, hesitated. “Do you want me to help you get up?” He reached out a hand to her.
“No, no. You go to work. I don’t want you to be late because of me.” She smiled sweetly up at him. Was this another trick? Did she have another weapon hidden away somewhere?
“Maybe you should go lie down for a bit, Maggie.” He didn’t feel right about leaving her slumped on the floor in the hallway.
“Stop worrying about me, Al. I’m fine. I’m just going to sit here for a few more minutes. I’m fine; really, I am.”
At a loss, his fatigue not helping him think straight, he turned and headed through the kitchen, scooping up the knife she’d wielded en route. On impulse, instead of putting it away, he spread a kitchen towel on the counter, and emptied the sharp knives from their drawer into it. Wrapping the towel around them, he shoved the bundle under his arm and headed for the front door.
“Bye, Al. Have a good day.” Maggie’s voice drifted from the hallway, soft, but steady. Al opened the door, and all but ran from the apartment.
By noon, he knew he had to take his lunch hour to go check on her. He felt like the worst kind of man leaving her on the floor like that, especially after he was the one that put her there. He could easily have disarmed her without throwing her against the wall, but something had snapped in him when he saw her coming at him with that knife, and it had taken everything in him to reel it back in. His reaction scared him now, far more than anything Maggie had done.
Donning his jacket, he clocked out for lunch, and hurried out into the crisp December air. Christmas in Southern California rarely delivered anything worse than chilly temperatures, a few rain showers, and maybe a brisk winter wind on sunny days that dried the skin and chapped the lips. Today was one of those days, and his face burned from both the wind, and from his shame.
Ten minutes later, he was pulling into his parking spot at the apartment, his anxiety almost consuming him. He barely had the emergency brake on before he was out of the car and dashing to the front door, key at the ready.
He burst inside, immediately aware of the stillness in the air. “Maggie? It’s just me, Al,” he said, as though she might not recognize the voice of her husband of nearly four years. But there was no reply. He hurried to the hallway and stopped dead in his tracks.
They didn’t share a room—they hadn’t since she lost Billy Raven’s baby and moved into the tiny room at the end of the hall. Maggie lay like a ragdoll, crumpled on the floor just outside her door, her legs stretched out behind her like she’d been dragging herself along.
Rushing to her side, he put a hand against her cheek. Her skin was warm. He watched her chest; he could see her taking shallow breaths.
“Maggie,” he murmured around the tears that threatened to choke him. “Maggie, I’m home. I’m here, baby. I’m calling an ambulance.”
She didn’t respond.
“I won’t let them take you away, Maggie.”
By the time the ambulance arrived, Al had thought through it all. If he told them what he’d done, he’d be sent to prison, and rightfully so. He knew he deserved it, and had circumstances been different, he would have come clean on the spot.
But he also realized that without family and him in jail, Maggie would become a ward of the state. She would be a number in the system, and all those things she’d feared might well come true. She’d be institutionalized for certain, most likely kept drugged because of her mental instability, and who knew what else. Al had heard the stories about the nut houses, and if he got locked away, there’d be no one left to watch out for her.
Al chose the lesser of two evils that day, and lived with the burden of that decision for over a quarter of a century.
Maggie’d suffered a stroke that day, most likely caused by hitting her head when she fell off the stepstool while changing the light bulb in their hallway. It was a fortunate thing that Al had forgotten his lunch and had come home for it, but her prognosis wasn’t good. Al made a promise to himself that he’d see her get the best care until she passed, then he’d turn himself in.
To everyone’s surprise, Maggie turned out to have a little more living left to do, but she was in no condition to come home. She lived in a world of her own making, and like a naughty toddler, couldn’t be left alone or unattended even for a moment. Al found a full-care facility that he’d heard nothing but good about, and signed the paperwork that said he was the sole provider for his wife’s needs, and that he would pay the exorbitant costs that came with the facility’s upstanding reputation.
He moved into the trailer park that same year, cutting his own expenses down to almost nothing. And he waited. Even when he met Myra in the trailer two spaces down, and he felt his heart jolt back to life like he’d been electrocuted, he waited. Just like Maggie was doing when he first set eyes on her, he waited. And waited.
And now, twenty-six years later, his ride had finally come.
“Doc. Got a minute?” He didn’t know who else to turn to, but he knew Doc would be slow to hand out pat answers, and even slower to judge. He was surprised the man had even opened his door; Doc was even more private than Al was.
The man nodded and stepped outside onto the landing, pulling his door closed behind him. For as long as the veteran had lived here, as long as they’d known each other, Al had yet to set foot inside Doc’s place. In fact, Al didn’t even know if Doc even let Eddie in, although the park manager had every right to do so.
Doc’s place was actually a small loft apartment over an old garage on the property. Even though The Coach House was called a trailer park, five out of the 12 spaces were actually permanent structures: that Willow Goodhope’s place, Kathy Kekoa’s, the upstairs and downstairs apartments in the main building, and Doc’s.
“I’ve got some cold ones in the fridge.” Al knew he didn’t drink beer, but Doc nodded, and followed him down the stairs. The two men walked along the gravel drive together, their paces unhurried, not saying anything, but Al could tell Doc was gearing up for what he was about to hear. Al didn’t make it a habit of knocking on his neighbor’s door unannounced.
Al slid the glass door closed behind them, leaving the blinds open so he could see the row of mailboxes across from his place. It was almost three o’clock, and Willow Goodhope would be coming around the corner at any minute to check her mail. He could just about set his watch by her. She always made a point to look for him, too, and her smile and wave were the highlights of his afternoon.
Al perched on one of the two swiveling barstools at the counter that divided the sitting room from the kitchen. Doc settled into the sofa, one elbow on the armrest. With his other hand, he stroked his thick gray beard, slowly, contemplatively. He didn’t speak, didn’t push, just waited.
Al was tired of all the waiting. It was time to finish this.
“I killed my wife.”
After all these years of the story playing itself out in slow motion on Al’s life, it sure didn’t take long to spell out the necessary details. Doc didn’t say a word while he spoke, and Al appreciated his silence. No questions, no accusations, not even a raised eyebrow. Doc just listened.
“And now I guess it’s time to come clean the rest of the way.” Al stood up and thought about grabbing one of the beers in the fridge, but for some reason, he didn’t really want one. He rounded the end of the counter and took a glass from the cupboard, filling it with tap water instead.
“That was all a long time ago, Al,” Doc finally said. “Doesn’t sound to me like you killed her. And even if they found a link between her death and that incident, it sounds to me like you were acting in self-defense.”
Al took a long drink, and even at room temperature, the water went down easy. But he shook his head gently at Doc’s words. “I’ve thought about that, believe me. But I just don’t want to be the one to make that call anymore. I’m tired of carrying this around my neck.” But Doc was watching the door, no longer paying Al any attention.
“You got company,” he said.
Willow Goodhope tapped lightly on the slider. She held up a letter for them to see.
Doc got up to let her in; Al stayed where he was behind the counter, as though the barrier would hide more than just the lower half of his body from her line of sight.
“Hi, guys. Boy, it’s definitely August out there. I think it might hit a thousand degrees today!” All that red hair was pulled back into a braid at the back of her head, but loose curls lay damp against her skin, softening the lines of her angular face. “It feels good in here, though. Isn’t air conditioning wonderful?”
Doc grinned at her the way he always did, like he was surprised to be charmed by her. “Ms. Willow Goodhope,” he said by way of greeting. Al swallowed the last sip of water, and almost went for the beer after all.
“How are you, Willow?” He found his voice, and somewhere, a smile for her, but stayed behind the counter.
“I’m fine, Al. Thanks for asking. I didn’t mean to interrupt, but this,” she held up the letter again, “was in my mailbox by mistake, and I thought I’d just hand deliver it instead of sneaking it over into your box. I hear tampering with someone else’s mail is a crime punishable by law.”
So is murder, Al thought, then felt a flush creep up his neck. Doc snorted; he must have been thinking along the same line of thought. Willow crossed to the counter, her eyes darting back and forth between the two men.
“Here you go. It looks like it might be important.”
“Thanks.” He took the letter that she slid across to him. It was from the cemetery where Maggie’s remains would be cremated. “Yes. It is important.”
Willow turned, then paused, then turned back again and tipped her head to study Al. “What’s going on, guys? Al, what’s wrong? You’ve been acting strangely for the last week or so. Is everything all right?” Her eyes dropped to the letter still on the counter in front of him.
Al opened his mouth to tell her he was fine, just fine, but what came out surprised even him. “You don’t by any chance know of a good, cheap—as in free—lawyer, do you?”
She took a quick step backward and Doc cleared his throat. Al looked over at him, expecting to see the man rolling his eyes, but Doc’s expression was blank.
Willow, on the other hand, had blanched noticeably, even with her already pale skin. In fact, she looked a little sickly as she spoke. “Oh. Well, I…I can do a little research, if you’re serious.”
“Oh, he’s serious all right,” Doc muttered. The room fell quiet. Finally, Willow spoke, her voice sounding shaky.
“What’s happened, Al?” She pointed at the letter now. “Does it have something to do with that?”
After holding tight to his secrets for so many years, it was remarkably easy to release them now. “My wife just died. Last week.” He took a deep breath, but didn’t look at her. He was pretty sure her face would register shock, and soon horror over what else he was about to say. “Twenty-six years ago, I tried to kill her. She’s been in the hospital since. I never told anyone what part I played in sending her there, because I needed to make sure she’d be taken care of. She had no other family, and if I went to prison, she’d become just another number in the system.” Oh, the relief of coming clean. Why did it have to feel so freeing when, after all was said and done, he’d be back in prison again, this time the brick and mortar kind. He tapped the envelope on the counter. “Now that she’s gone, and all the arrangements made to take care of her body, I can finally turn myself in.”
For a few moments, she didn’t speak, but she didn’t look horrified, either. “Do you mind if I sit? I need to think a minute.” Her words surprised him but he nodded and waved at the empty end of the couch.
“Please. Sit. Would you like a glass of water? A cold beer?”
“Water would be great,” she replied, sinking gingerly down beside Doc. She waited until Al brought her the drink, took a few dainty sips, and sat quietly while he returned to the stool where he’d been sitting earlier. Finally, she looked up at him, her eyes large and concerned, but filled with something else, too. He just couldn’t be sure what that something else was yet.
“Can you tell me what happened? I mean, I didn’t even know you had a wife, Al! But I might—there’s someone—maybe I do know someone who can help you.” She took another big sip. “But I need to know a little more, if you don’t mind telling me.”
For the second time in less than an hour, Al unloaded the burden he’d carried around by himself for all these years.
“Listen, Al.” Willow took a deep breath and started over, her voice still trembling a little, but loud enough that he could hear. “Listen. I do know someone who might be able to help you. I say ‘might’ because I know he can, but I don’t know if he will. I—I need to—” Her voice cracked, like her body was resisting the words she was trying to speak.
“It’s okay, Willow. I’ll be okay.” He felt terrible; he could see she was deeply affected by all that she’d heard, but there was more to her emotional reaction than his story, and the last thing he wanted to do was burden someone else with his sordid past.
“No. No, Al. Just wait, okay? Don’t do anything yet.” She seemed to get steadier the longer she spoke, so he didn’t interrupt her. Doc still sat like a rock, listening, watching Willow with guarded eyes. “I’ll make some phone calls today, okay? If I can’t reach him today, I’ll try again in the morning. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”
“Willow, this is my problem. It’s not something you should feel you need to take on. I don’t want—”
“Al!” Willow held up a hand, cutting him off. “Please. Let me help. It’s the least I can do for everything you, and you, Doc—this whole place—has done for me. I want to help. I may not be able to offer more than information, but let me at least try.” She stood up and carried her empty glass to the sink. “Give me until this time tomorrow, okay? Sit tight until then.”
Doc stood, too, and waited until she came back around the end of the counter before he spoke. “Al, listen to the lady. It’s been twenty-six years. What’s one more day?”
Then Willow reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Al, would you mind if I prayed for us right now?”
Caught completely by surprise, he stared at her, then turned to catch Doc’s surprised expression, too. But the soldier nodded discreetly, and Al shrugged, not knowing how else to respond.
God? What on earth did God care about any of this? Al had never asked for help from anyone, no less some ethereal deity whose existence was at best, debatable. There was no loving God in the picture of Al’s life, or Maggie’s life; not that he could see, anyway. They’d just made do on their own.
Then Willow started praying, and Al’s thoughts slowed, stilled. Every cell in his body seemed to hone in on her voice and the name she spoke. “Jesus, Jesus. You set up this meeting today, you had this planned all along. That letter in my box? You put it there, didn’t you, Jesus? Thank you. Thank you.” She paused, and he held his breath, hoping she wasn’t done. “But we need help, Jesus. We’re facing our own walls of Jericho, and we’re not feeling very equipped to bring them down. You’re going to have to give us your strength, Jesus, your power.”
Al had never heard anyone talk to God like this. It almost sounded like she was ordering him around. Except that it didn’t sound rude. No, she sounded…confident. She wasn’t begging, or over-dramatizing, or getting all holy-roller with her prayer. She was just talking.
But religion made him uncomfortable, and he shifted on his stool. Wrap it up, Willow Goodhope. We’re good.
“And I’m asking you now, Lord, to give Al your peace, too.” Al actually flinched. It had been a long time since he’d heard a woman say his name so gently, tenderly. It soothed him and made him want to crawl out of his skin at the same time. She needed to stop. He couldn’t take any more of this. “You tell us we only have to ask, and you’re there, ready to give it, so I’m asking, Jesus. Peace. Pour out your peace on this home today. Thank you, Jesus.”
His eyes were open and he watched her, waiting for her to lift her bowed head. His palms were clammy and even in the air conditioning, he’d begun to sweat. But to his dismay, she reached out a hand toward Doc, who stood behind her, a little apart from them. Her fingertips found his forearm, and she spoke again. “Jesus, thank you for Doc, for his tender heart. His very presence is healing to me. Thank you.”
And she was done. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and stepped back. The place on his shoulder where her palm had rested was warm, damp, and his whole body seemed to tingle a little.
“Whew. I feel much better.” Willow smiled self-consciously, but the look on her face confirmed her words. “I hope I didn’t make you two uncomfortable.”
Doc barked out a laugh and reached over to pat her cheek. “That’s the understatement of the year, little girl.”
Willow blushed, but turned to Al, a determined look in her eye. “You’re going to wait before you do anything, right?” She raised her eyebrows in question, and her voice didn’t quaver at all this time. “You need to give me a little time to make some phone calls.”
“I’ll wait.” Al nodded affirmatively.
“He’ll wait. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.” Doc chuckled, then slid the door open for Willow.
Morning came, and with it came the reality of his life, flooding back in like a tidal wave, just like it had every morning since that phone call. Maggie was dead, and he was going to jail, two things that should have happened a quarter of a century ago.
Al dragged his feet out from under his blankets and headed for the bathroom. It was still early, but his body had grown too accustomed to waking up at five o’clock every morning for it to adjust quickly to his new schedule. He’d turned in his notice at the factory last week, but when he told them that his wife had died, they gave him the option of using some of his banked sick days to finish out his two weeks. That way he could continue getting paid for the next month, but he didn’t have to show up for work.
“You might as well use them, Al,” Sherri, the boss’ secretary said gently. “That’s what they’re there for, whether you’re sick in the body or sick at heart. You rarely use those days, which means you have months of sick time stored up, but they’ll just disappear when you leave. We don’t pay you for any unused sick time.”
He was grateful at first, because there was a surprising amount of paperwork and various arrangements to make for Maggie’s remains. But now, time was moving slowly, and Al was waiting again.
Willow Goodhope. That girl could turn a man upside down and inside out with just the flash of her smile. In a way, she reminded him of the way Maggie had looked, way back when he’d first spotted her sitting in that vinyl chair, swinging her foot back and forth like the pendulum of a clock, waiting for Billy Raven. Waiting to be rescued. But when Willow she sat across his small living room and listened intently to his sad tale, she didn’t once make him feel like the monster he figured he was.
Wait, she’d said.
Willow Goodhope. Good hope. She truly brought good hope with her when she moved into The Coach House Trailer Park and her little cottage across the creek. Now here he was, waiting to see what word she’d bring him today, what help she was going to offer him.
By noon, Al was getting impatient. Not that she owed him anything, but he’d been so set on his course of action, and now he felt derailed, just standing around doing nothing.
When the phone rang an hour later, Al just about jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t had an ounce of beer in over twenty-four hours, on the off chance he ended up ditching this crazy waiting game and decided to drive himself to the police station, and the longer he went without it, the more irritable he felt.
“Al, it’s Willow.” His knees nearly buckled and he dropped like a rock onto one of the barstools. “Do you have a minute?”
“Too many of them.”
“Okay. I spoke with my…with the guy I told you about. He’d like to come see you. He wants to help you.” She took a deep breath and sniffled a little.
“You getting sick?” She sounded awful.
“No, I’m fine. But I need you to know a few things about this guy before you agree to see him.”
“Okay.” Al said the word slowly, not sure about this now. Things had seemed so simple a few days ago. He waited, and for some time, she didn’t speak, and he thought maybe they’d lost their connection. “Willow?”
“I’m here.” She sniffed again. “Just trying to figure out where to begin.”
“Take your time.”
“Al, this guy is—was—is, well, according to him, he’s my husband. His name is Christian Goodhope.”
Shadowman. Christian Goodhope. Willow’s husband.
“I told him just enough of your story to give him an idea of what happened, but that wasn’t much. He wants to hear it straight from you, without my spin on it.”
“Right. That makes sense.” Al’s thoughts were racing. “Is he some kind of a lawyer or something?”
“Yes, in fact, he is. He’s an associate at Pendelton Law Offices in Ontario. He’s the new guy—only been with them a little over a year now—but he’s been around the block a few times and he….” She paused, as though trying to come up with the right words. “He knows what he’s doing.”
“I don’t want a lawyer, Willow. I’m turning myself in.” He had no interest in trying to prove his innocence, because he wasn’t.
“He’s not offering to be your lawyer. Not yet, anyway. He just wants to talk to you.” Her voice had a little edge to it that he’d never heard before. “But the fact that you’re going to turn yourself in is all the more reason you need a lawyer. Don’t go to court without representation, Al; you’ll get thrown to the wolves. I don’t care what you have or haven’t done, you don’t ever want to stand alone in our crazy judicial system.”
“He won’t try to talk me out of it?”
“He’ll help you figure out the best way to do whatever it is you want to do, Al. That’s what he does best.” Now he was sure of it. The serrated edge of her voice cut into him. Al tried to figure out what she wasn’t saying, but didn’t know how to ask the right question.
“So, why does he want to help me?” He heard her sigh deeply on the other end of the line.
“You want the truth?”
“He doesn’t want to help you, specifically. He wants to help me. If helping you will get him access to me, he’s yours.”
Al stood up. Nope. Not going there. “I don’t need this, Willow. And clearly, neither do you.”
“Actually, you’re wrong on both counts.” Resignation seeped through the phone line and he waited for her to explain. “You need him. Believe me, you need him and whatever advice he can give you.” She paused only long enough to take a breath. “I need him, too. He’s paying my bills here, he’s paying my daddy’s bills, and he’s the man to whom I committed myself for as long as we both shall live. I haven’t seen him since January, Al. Don’t you think it’s time I grow up?”
What did one say to a question like that? Not knowing what had transpired between them that they were now bitterly estranged, if not divorced, he had no way of knowing how to respond. “Okay. I’ll talk to him, but I’m not promising anything else.”
“Good. Are you going to be home this evening around five?”
Al grunted. “Where else would I be?”
“Good. Now I need you to do something for me.” Great. Now what?
“I’m not going to be alone with him. He’s coming here to meet with you. We’re going to meet at the mailboxes so he can see that I’m alive and well. I told him I’d give him ten minutes tops, just the two of us. Then we’ll come over and I’ll introduce you two, then leave.” She listed off the details as though she’d thought through things carefully.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want Doc there and I want you both sitting outside on your front porch where he can see the two of you watching us. I don’t want to be alone with him even for a second. Can you do that for me?”
“Is he dangerous?” Al did not like this one bit.
Willow snorted. “Only if you love him, Al. Then he’s the most dangerous man in the world.”
At 4:38 p.m, Doc arrived and set up two folding chairs on the otherwise empty front porch of Al’s trailer. “Brought you some front row seating.” He pulled a silver flask from his back pocket, dropped into one of the chairs, then lit a cigarette. “I could use a glass of ice and an ashtray.”
Al obliged his old friend, accustomed to his frankness, then joined him, a cigarette of his own in one hand, a cold RC cola in the other. He desperately wanted a beer, but he needed to make sure he kept his wits about him for the next hour or so.
They didn’t talk, but just sat and stared out at the row of mailboxes not more than sixty feet away. Five minutes later, Willow crossed the little creek that divided the front of the property from the back. Doc whistled softly at the sight of her. She looked like a million bucks in a long copper skirt and a shirt the color of moss that hugged her every curve. Something about that color made her skin look almost see-through, and the way the late afternoon sun shone on her hair, it looked like it was alive, all loose around her face and shoulder like that. Willow Goodhope was armed and dangerous, and that man of hers better play his cards carefully. Al was actually glad when she just waved at them, and didn’t stop to chat; going straight to the end of the driveway just past the last mailbox. Practically the whole front half of the park could see her if they were looking. He was fairly sure she’d planned it just so.
At 4:55 p.m, according to the Timex around Al’s wrist, a shiny silver Toyota Avalon pulled into the drive and slowed to a stop next to Willow. The two men on the front porch got even quieter, if possible.
Willow stepped behind the mailboxes and waited, arms crossed. Doc let out another whistle, this one a little longer, as the man unfolded himself from behind the wheel of the car. If ever there was such a thing as tall, dark, and handsome, Christian Goodhope was it. He really wasn’t so tall, but everything about him seemed pronounced, defined, like he was chiseled from rock by one of the great sculptors of old, all combining together to make him someone not to be ignored. His gray suit only added to the affect.
Doc muttered something unintelligible, and Al turned didn’t miss the fact that the veteran was poised and ready to launch himself off the patio if necessary. Al would be right behind him.
But the man who must be Christian Goodhope just stood at his open car door studying her.
“Where’s your truck?” She asked, not even bothering to offer a polite greeting. Her voice carried the short distance and Al remembered Eddie saying the guy had been driving a Ram the night he was escorted off the property.
“I sold it.”
“Good.” Willow kept her arms crossed tightly. She dropped her gaze, one foot kicking at a tuft of grass. “Thanks for coming.”
Christian nodded, then took a step back and closed his door. Coming around the front of the car slowly, he stopped a few feet from her. She didn’t come out from behind her barrier.
They stared at each other a few minutes, then she looked away, back toward the Doc and Al on the porch. Al had a clear shot of most of the man’s face, and what he saw there was starting to embarrass him. Even from this far away, he could see the way Christian was taking her in, raw hunger all over his face.
“Willow.” It was only one word, but when he said her name, she flinched visibly.
“Ah, man,” Doc groaned. “He just took off the gloves.”
Christian took another step closer, like he was approaching a wounded animal. “Willow, please,” he said. He didn’t beg; it was just a request, but Al had no doubt the jurors in the courtroom sat up and listened when Christian Goodhope spoke. Authority and persuasion, compassion and determination, it all rolled off his tongue like an incantation. Al wanted to plug his ears for Willow’s sake.
The man reached the side of the driveway where grass met gravel; the row of mailboxes and Willow only a few feet away. Al had to strain to hear the next words. “Will you take a ride with me? I’ll bring you right back, I promise.”
Willow looked back at them again, her eyes wide, then at her husband’s car, then back at them again. Doc shook his head and scowled. The spell was broken.
“I didn’t ask you here so you could show off your new wheels. Follow me. I’ll introduce you to Al Tanner.” She stepped around the last mailbox and whisked by him, so close that the hem of her skirt swirled against his shins as she moved.
“Weighed, measured, and found wanting,” Doc chortled to himself, but Al could see that Willow was at the very edge of her limits as she walked purposefully toward them, Christian just a few steps behind. She had that shell-shocked look he’d seen so many times in Maggie’s eyes, as though she suddenly couldn’t take anything more, and he felt his shoulders tense, the muscles reacting automatically to her stress. Both he and Doc stood as they approached.
But by the time she reached the patio, she’d regained enough of her composure to be able to turn and face her husband. “Christian, this is my next-door neighbor, Doc.”
Al didn’t miss the grimace on the younger man’s face when Doc didn’t release his hand right away. In fact, if he wasn’t mistaken, Doc was holding on pretty tightly. Good. Let the kid know where things stood right up front. Just because this pretty boy lawyer was a necessary evil didn’t mean they all had to get along.
“And this is our friend, Al Tanner. The man you’re here to help.” The two of them shook hands, too, and when Al met his gaze for the first time, he felt a fissure of guilt at the haunted look in Christian’s eyes. He suddenly wished he knew more about the Goodhope’s story.
Doc walked Willow home and from the corner of his eye, Al watched Christian follow his wife with his eyes; as though memorizing every detail of her to take away with him when he left. Al cleared his throat. What had he gotten himself into the middle of?
Christian turned to him and in the blink of an eye, the vulnerable hunger was replaced by a sincere smile. “I’m glad Willow called me, Al. Yes, it was good to hear her voice again, and to see her—” His voice broke off, but he started again. “To see her looking so well, but when she told me about your situation, I wanted to meet you. What you’ve been through is really remarkable, and from what I gather, rather commendable, too. I’d like to hear your story, Al, if you’ll share it with me.”
An hour later, Al felt like a new man. Christian Goodhope was a man worthy of his name, and in Al’s opinion, worthy of his wife. It wasn’t his place to say so, he knew that, but he had no doubt, whatsoever, that the man was honorable and upright, a man of integrity.
With Al, Christian didn’t sugarcoat anything, explaining to him his rights, his options, and what he thought the best course of action would be for him to take. “The circumstances of your case are not common, Al, but I believe that even with a full confession, you’ll be able to get your case dismissed after a few court appearances. If you opt to have me represent you, that’s what I’d present to the judge, based on what you’ve told me.”
“I can’t afford you,” Al stated, matter-of-factly. He eyed the luxury sedan parked outside.
“I’d like to take the case anyway.” Al no longer cared if Christian’s motivation for helping him was to get to Willow. In fact, if him hiring the young lawyer meant helping to repair the broken marriage, then he was all for it. He’d seen the way the man looked at his wife, and Willow had all but admitted that she still loved him, too.
Al knew what it was like to live in a loveless marriage. He knew what hopelessness looked like, and what was between the Goodhopes wasn’t hopelessness. Oh, they were both hurting, maybe even beyond repair, but he didn’t think they’d given it a full fighting chance yet. He wasn’t going to play matchmaker, but he was through with waiting. He wasn’t going to stand around and wait for the hammer to fall, for the other shoe to drop, for another tragic ending. If hiring Christian Goodhope as his lawyer meant the man would have an excuse to show up at The Coach House Trailer Park every once in a while, then Al was signing on the dotted line.
Al watched the road long after the silver Toyota disappeared around a bend. He took a deep breath in, then blew it out, wondering at how light he felt. Was this the peace that Willow had asked God for? Well, maybe he was answering Willow’s prayers without her even realizing it. Maybe God was using Al to help take down the Jericho walls around Willow’s heart.
“Did you set all this up, God?” He voiced the question into the fading light. “Is this what you planned all along, bringing Willow Goodhope here to help us, so that we could help her?”
There was no audible answer, but Al didn’t need one.
The End of Part 8: August Memory
Thank you for sharing Al’s story with me.
Do come again in September for Part 9: September Longing.