[completed - PG13]
Elana looked about herself and struggled to hold back the tears that had been building ever since she arrived. This was what she had driven 3000 miles for? The torn plastic flapped in the wind. A shower of raindrops pelted upon her and she shifted her position up against the potting bench, away from the gaping hole in the arch of the greenhouse wall. The smell of decaying vegetation filled her nostrils. The shelf, which ran the length of the greenhouse, had collapsed, spilling plastic pots, rusted tools, and containers of fertilisers and herbicides in a haphazard mess at her feet. Behind her, row upon row of fledgling plants were dry and brittle. The only things lush and green were the weeds that forced their way through almost everything and flourished in a wild tangle where the shredded plastic exposed this far end of the greenhouse to the elements. And the other five greenhouses were no better. Her shoulders sagged at the enormity of the job that lay ahead of her. She leaned over to pick up a bent trowel, a rusted cutting knife, and pulled at a weed that had engulfed a stack of pots in its trailing branches. She turned, searching for a place to put them. The whole plan was futile! A wave of bitterness swept through her and with an oath she hurled them at the dingy, mottled plastic that stretched up around her. Maybe selling wasn't such a bad idea after all.
Running feet alerted her to Cody's return. She dragged the back of her hand across her cheeks to erase her tears and faced the doorway. He was rushing up the centre path, his eyes shining.
"Mom, mom! I found pumpkins." He threw himself into her arms. "Isn't this place the greatest?"
Of all the mistakes Elana had made in her young life, perhaps the worst was that day in '92 when she had committed herself heart and soul to Greg Wilkins. At the time she thought he was the answer to all her dreams. She was twenty, in love, and believed his promise to love honour and cherish her till death did they part. She had no reason not to.
When Elana was sixteen her grandmother had died, leaving a sizeable fortune to be divided among her only son, his wife, and their three young daughters. Tom Barnes was shocked at the full worth of the inheritance - his mother had quietly sat on the nest egg without telling a soul - and, in truth, he really had no idea how to go about disbursing it. He had a lot of respect for his eldest daughter's common sense, so he created a checking account for Elana and put the bulk of her quarter million dollars into term deposits and mutual funds. When she was eighteen his name was removed as a co-signer and it was, in fact, all hers to do with as she liked. The two other girls were much younger so Tom merely put their money in trust for them.
Tom Barnes' faith in Elana was not entirely misplaced. She was much like her grandmother. She did not tell a soul about her inheritance and she did not spend freely. But money is insidious and can't help but influence a person, especially one so young. She went to college straight after high school with no real goal in mind, so she chose general studies. She enjoyed the college social life and her marks reflected her lack of effort and attendance. With all that money guaranteeing security she had little motivation. The temptation to travel was great and she often joined one group of friends or other for a week at some tropical paradise. Anything to escape Ontario's cold winters.
While Elana had a large circle of friends she had trouble finding a steady boyfriend. She was pretty enough and not shy by any stretch, but she was not willing to give out, and as soon as dates turned into groping matches her firm 'no' usually put an end to any budding relationship. At nineteen and a half she had begun to think herself a hopeless case. One night, after breaking up with a great looking guy who she really had thought might be different from all the rest, her girlfriends took her out on the town to console her. She didn't normally drink much, but she was feeling reckless and didn't pay attention to the amount of daiquiris they kept buying her. It wasn't long before the guys from the neighbouring table joined them.
Greg sat beside her and commiserated with her about the jerk who had dumped her. He was blonde with the most candid blue eyes she had ever seen. And he was gorgeous. He told her he had seen her around campus and wanted to meet her for quite some time. He swept her off her feet and got her loaded in the process. Too loaded to be circumspect about what she said to him. Too loaded to remember anything in the morning. And he never enlightened her about the things she had given away - her reluctance to enter into a casual sexual relationship, her desire for love, and her financial status - but he used them to his advantage. The next morning she woke up in his bed, fully clothed, while he slept on the living room couch. She was overcome with relief that nothing had happened - that she'd been with a person who had morals and integrity. Greg earned her respect that morning.
He was amazing. They saw each other regularly from that day. He treated her to dinners, took her to shows and never attempted anything beyond a few sweet kisses. In fact he had her yearning for more. She skipped classes to hang out with him. They talked, laughed, shared their innermost dreams, and then one night he proposed while they were out under the stars. Nothing could be more perfect.
Elana wanted him to come home and meet her family but he insisted that he could not leave work for the trip to Kingston. Instead they ran off one weekend to Niagara Falls with only Greg's best friend and his wife as witnesses. Anyway, he had assured her, it would be so wonderful to surprise them with the fait accompli. So two weeks later they drove into her parents' driveway, Elana happier than she had ever been, Greg brimming with charm and confidence.
Frances Barnes was ecstatic. Her daughter, married, and to such a handsome man. Everything about him exuded success - his clothes, his self-assurance, the huge diamond on her daughter's finger. Katrina and Marisa couldn't believe their sister had caught such a hunk. Tom Barnes held back. He didn't want to hurt Elana by not accepting her husband immediately, but there was something about Greg that set his hackles rising. He was too smooth and there was a look in his eyes as they rested upon Elana that Tom did not trust. It was too much like avarice. He shook himself mentally, knowing that his reaction could be a jealous one. If asked, he would have to admit that he didn't think anybody good enough for his favourite daughter. But what he wanted, above all, was her happiness, and without a doubt she was happy.
Tom's concern for his daughter led him to ask her how she had protected her inheritance and he was shocked to learn that she considered all her and Greg's assets shared. He may not have brought as much money into the marriage as she, but he had his up and coming business career and his investment savvy. He promised to double their capital in record time and she had every faith that he could do it. Tom's heart sank, but rather than put a wedge between himself and his daughter he kept his worries to himself.
The wedge, however, became firmly planted. Greg drove it there himself. Though before their marriage he had assured Elana he wanted nothing more than to settle close to her family's home and hearth in Kingston, he now insisted that they had to move to Halifax. It was a promotion and Elana could not help but accede. Later he confessed that he worried that her father disliked him and he wanted more than anything to prove himself to the man. He promised they would visit often for holidays, but time and again those promises had to be broken as business matters intervened. Elana, wanting to be the best wife that she could, supported him in everything he did. She could not understand how her father could not see all her husband's obvious good qualities. She remembered his subtle coldness to Greg when they had visited, and she unconsciously started to draw away.
Greg bought a new Porsche Boxter. She thought it a little extravagant but his patent joy at owning such a vehicle was irresistible. And he insisted it was for both of them, and that they deserved to spoil themselves once in a while. For their six-month anniversary he bought her the most beautiful emerald earrings and pendant. He said nothing was too good for her and she tried her best not to think about how much they cost.
They leased a luxury apartment in the downtown area. She would have rather had a rancher out in the suburbs, but he said this was better for business entertaining, not that they entertained too often in the end. Elana spent her days wandering from aesthetic room to aesthetic room, looking out the windows at concrete and glass, escaping to the gym, and living for the evenings when Greg would be home and her life would be full again. She took gourmet food classes, cooked lavish dinners, and made the most of their time together. And he never once omitted to tell her how much he loved her every day for that first year. As it stretched to two, and then three, he was almost as loving, but here and there cracks appeared in the façade of their perfect marriage. He worked later, often had to go away on sudden business trips, and became very jealous of anyone Elana spent too much time with. He discouraged her from going back to school though she found her days empty and unfulfilled. He put off all the trips they planned to Ontario. He discouraged visits from her family. Sometimes he drank too heavily and then he became resentful and mean. He always insisted on having sex on those nights, even though she said no. And he was always remorseful in the mornings. He begged her forgiveness. He showered her with attention. He promised her the moon. And she always forgave him. One of those mornings as he lay in her arms telling her how much he adored her, he confessed that work was not going well, some investments had failed, and the stress of hiding it from her was causing his erratic behaviour. She was more understanding than ever.
They moved into a smaller apartment in an older building. It had character and charm. Elana enjoyed decorating it and their love flourished. It was like the first year again. Business improved, investments picked up, and Greg finally gave in to Elana's desire to start a family. The first three months of her pregnancy he almost waited on her hand and foot, then he found it more and more difficult to take time away from his business obligations. He missed most of the childbirth classes but made an attempt to read the books. At least, he told Elana he did. She went into labour unexpectedly two weeks early - she couldn't contact him on his cell phone. Cody was born without his father present but the next morning Greg appeared at Elana's bedside with half a florist's shop and more metallic blue balloons than she had ever seen. He took his son in his arms, joined her on the bed, and they spent the morning weaving stories of the tiny boy's future.
Elana had never experienced the kind of love that she felt when she first laid eyes on Cody. All she wanted to do those initial few weeks was hold him in her arms. It didn't bother her that Greg didn't so much as change a diaper; she was happy to do everything for the little love. Greg had promised to bring her family out, but in the end it was only Frances that came. She stayed a week doting on her grandson, flirting with her son-in-law, and allowing Elana to run herself ragged cooking and cleaning for the lot of them.
The first few months of Cody's life, Elana was so involved with the baby that she didn't notice Greg's waning attention or lack of interest in the boy. Her mornings were no longer empty, and when he went on business trips, which he did more and more frequently, she was no longer lonely. When he told her that he had to go to New York for a three-month stint, she accepted it without concern; when it stretched to six months, still she did not worry. They talked regularly and he always said he loved her. He sent her gifts. When he came home for Cody's first birthday it was as if he had never been gone. Two weeks later he was back in the Boxter and on his way to Toronto, his fervent kisses on her lips. He never called. He never came back. It took a notice from her landlord saying that rent was three months past due for her to realise that she and Cody had been deserted.
Finances had been taken out of her hands upon her marriage. Elana hadn't so much as balanced a bankbook since Greg had taken charge. She'd had implicit faith in him. It had been entirely misplaced. She was shocked by the notice from the landlord, devastated by Greg's abandonment, torturing herself about what she may have done to drive him away, worried that something terrible had happened to him, and desperately trying to hold everything together for the sake of her child. She went to the manager's office, wrote a check for the entire balance, and apologised profusely. The next day, when she was paying for a cartload of food and diapers at the grocery store, her credit card was dishonoured. She tried another but it was over the limit too. Her debit card would not accept the transaction. Red faced and confused she scraped together all the cash she had in her pockets and the bottom of her purse and then selected the bare necessities from the bags around her while the people in line glared and complained.
There was much worse to come. A visit to her bank showed her that she had no term deposits, no mutual funds, not so much as a bank balance. The rent check could not go through. She was destitute and homeless. Tears did not come. This was a time for action, not reaction. She returned to the apartment, met with the manager and apologised once again, promised to pay what was owed, and was given till the end of the month. Her first thought was the emeralds. They were sure to cover the rent and give her enough for a deposit on a new place. No matter how much they meant to her she knew she had to sell them. Anyway, how much did they really mean now, after her betrayal? She had always been willing to share all she had with Greg. It seemed that wasn't enough. He'd wanted everything for himself. And he had from day one, she told herself bitterly. The emeralds were not in her jewellery box. Or Anywhere. That explained Greg's final visit home. Elana tried to forget the fun they had shared, their kisses, the love they had made. The whole fabric of her life had unravelled. If it had not been for Cody the emptiness would have been complete and she would have lost herself to the wind. But she had to stay together for him. They fed off each other and made it possible to survive through a time more grim than anything she could have conceived.
Her engagement ring did not bring enough to pay the back rent. She sold the furniture, her clothes, anything anyone would take off her hands. She found a dingy basement suite and put almost all her cash into her new landlord's eager hands. She knew she should go home, back to her parents in Kingston, but she could not face the enormity of what had happened. She could not admit to them how totally she had been duped. She let pride take over and vowed that she would show the world that she had the strength and sagacity to stand on her own two feet. As if the world even cared.
Elana refused to put Cody into daycare so that she could work. She also refused to go on welfare. That would never be an option. Receiving her huge inheritance at the age of sixteen, she had never worked a day in her life. She was twenty-five, a single parent, and had no work experience. Her options were extremely limited. At the local Laundromat she noticed a bulletin board with community notices, things for sale, and help wanted advertisements. She took down all the numbers of people that needed daycare. A week later she had two more toddlers to take care of. Luckily they were both sweet kids, if very active, and what little she made paid the bills, just barely. Every night she lay down at seven with Cody, completely exhausted, and slept through until six am when he was ready to start his day.
A year later she got a job at a daycare centre. They let her bring Cody with her. The pay was only marginally better, but the advantages were more than she had ever expected. It got her out of the tiny apartment, she met new people, and she began believing in herself again. She worked there until Cody was in kindergarten. His school experience convinced Elana that she needed to move to a better neighbourhood. She found the dark basement suite oppressive too, and longed to be somewhere light and bright and open. In September she found a job out in the suburbs at a tropical nursery growing indoor plants. She knew nothing about plants besides that they needed watering and weeding, but her employer was impressed by her sincerity and determination. Her hours enabled her to drop Cody at school on her way to work and pick him up on her way home. She couldn't ask for anything more, except a place to live within walking distance of both establishments. She ended up in another tiny basement suite, but at least this one had windows.
She was ready to make peace with her family, but not to become dependent on them. Her parents visited - a poignant and warm reunion that showed her just how very much she had missed them. She thought her heart would burst as she watched her dad and Cody play together in the rambling back yard. Her mother even made an effort not to voice her regrets about Greg too often. They wanted her to come home and live with them, but she refused. Her father recognised her fierce need for independence but he insisted on buying her a used car for her birthday and paying for a lawyer so that she could finally get a divorce and rid herself of her connection to Greg.
The day that Cody's second year of elementary school ended, three things happened. Elana's divorce became final and she had full custody of Cody, the only outcome she really cared about. The nursery, which had been having financial problems, closed down for good, leaving her unemployed once again, and she finally came to the realisation that holding out because of pride was foolish; she wanted to go home. Everything that didn't fit into the Volvo was sold in a garage sale or donated to Goodwill. Within a week Elana and Cody began the long drive to Kingston.
You can't go home. The home Elana was searching for no longer existed. It hadn't existed for nearly twelve years. She wasn't with her parents a week before she realised that what she had really wanted was her old life back - before Greg Wilkins had turned it upside down. But her life was Cody now and there was only one direction she could go. Forward.
Gone was the house of her childhood. Her parents now lived in a large modern house that was overly decorated. Katrina and Marisa were both married, happily for the present. Her father had insisted on prenups to protect their investments. It was a joy to have a few weeks of complete relaxation but Elana knew that she had to do something to start creating a new life for herself and Cody. One evening her father called her into his office and laid out a proposition that seemed like the answer to everything. It meant moving away again, but it also gave her control over her destiny.
His uncle had died about five years before leaving him a property on Vancouver Island. It was five acres in the agricultural land freeze, and it had a small greenhouse business upon it. Tom had left it in the hands of a realtor all that time, so the business was not operational, but the house had been rented out and kept up, and there was a groundskeeper installed to maintain the outbuildings. A neighbouring equestrian centre wanted to buy them out, but he had refused to sell. He had given Elana money once before and it had not worked out - this time he was offering her opportunity. In his mind it had always been hers, but he had waited to transfer it to Elana until Greg had no further claim on her. He knew that if that vulture had any idea that Elana had equity he would have slithered back to charm it away from her.
Elana studied the pictures in the file her father had given her. A cute bungalow and six plastic covered greenhouses. It was not the same type of operation as she had worked in, but she thought she knew enough about the business to give it a shot. Besides, what she had in tenacity and drive more than made up for what she lacked in expertise. It appeared idyllic; bordered by Douglas fir and hemlock, a mild West Coast climate, and no one to answer to but herself.
The decision made, Elana and Cody enjoyed the rest of their summer with the family; barbecues, swimming outings, evenings out on the deck reminiscing about her childhood. The plan was to take the Volvo across Canada after Labour Day weekend. A young associate of Tom's was recruited to help with the driving in return for being dropped off in Vancouver to visit his mother. The ferry trip to the Island and drive up from Nanaimo to Courtenay was the only leg of the journey Elana and Cody had to make on their own. In Courtenay she met up with the realtor and was given keys and directions to her new home. He looked a little cagey and suspicious as he passed over the final documentation for Elana to sign, releasing his services. He reminded her that there was still an offer standing upon her property and suggested that it was really in her best interest to sell. Elana could not get out of his office fast enough.
As directed, she drove through the next two sets of lights and found herself on Headquarters Road. She drove past the high school and the fairgrounds and then took the second turning to the left. Haven Road. She thought it somewhat portentous and felt all the eager anticipation of finally arriving at her destination after such a long and tiring journey. She barely took in the well-maintained fencing and elaborate entranceway of Stewart Stables. All she cared about was her five acres. She almost missed the driveway; it was overgrown and rutted. As she manoeuvred around the potholes she kept her eyes open for the first view of her house. When she broke through the trees all she could think was, 'That picture dad had must have been taken well over five years ago; nothing could fall to ruin so quickly, surely.' She parked the car. In a stunned state and with a chill creeping throughout her system she took Cody's hand and wandered back, behind the dilapidated house, and began a slow trudge from one greenhouse to the next. Her haven was looking more and more like an albatross.
Running feet alerted her to Cody's return. She dragged the back of her hand across her cheeks to erase her tears and faced the doorway. He was rushing up the centre path, his eyes shining.
"Mom, mom! I found pumpkins." He threw himself into her arms. "Isn't this place the greatest?"
Cody was the one constant in her life. Her reason for living. Elana couldn't disappoint him, not when she saw such anticipation in his hazel eyes.
"Yes, hon, this place is awesome." And at that moment she knew she was going to make something of it, come hell or high water.
Elana awoke to the warm glow of brightness that filtered through the dust-grey windows of her room. Instead of peeling wallpaper, drab carpeting, and the sagging bed that Elana had given up in favour of her air mattress on the floor, she saw the possibility of what the room could be. It was spacious with high ceilings and large windows. She pictured butter-yellow walls, oak furniture, a tawny spread, and a thick rug at her bedside in rich forest green, sienna, and umber. A room that would fill her with warmth even on the drizzliest mornings. She pulled her sleeping bag up to her chin and looked at Cody sleeping beside her, his arms flung out, his breathing deep. The morning was cold so she adjusted his sleeping bag, which had worked itself down to his waist. He muttered something unintelligible but did not wake.
After he'd found her in the greenhouse he had taken her to the pumpkin patch. The rampant vines were rambling through a clearing behind a large shed and intertwining among trees at the edge of the forest. The pumpkins ranged in size and shape, round, squat, oval, and showed a vivid orange against the green of the vines and weeds. Cody ran to a huge one and threw his arms around it. "Can I have this one to carve?"
At that moment an old man came around the side of the shed. "Who's wanting my prize pumpkin?" he asked in a friendly voice. He wore a plaid shirt, faded jeans and gumboots. His grey hair was long and tied back in a ponytail; he had a scruffy beard on his face. He walked up to Elana and held out his hand. "You must be the new owner, come to inspect the place. I'm Sam Jardin."
"I am the owner," said Elana. "But I'm not here just to make an inspection; I'm here to live. I'm Elana Barnes and this is my son, Cody."
"You're going to be living here?" asked Sam in surprise. "Collier said you were selling to Stewart."
"Mr Collier is wrong. He might want me to sell, but it's nothing to do with him. He's not involved in this place anymore. Are you his caretaker?" She put special emphasis on the word and looked back at the almost derelict greenhouses.
"Me? Work for him? He's never hired anyone to tend to this place. He just took advantage of the fact that I decided to squat here and keep it from being vandalised further. I used to work here way back, when it belonged to old Bennet Thompson. About two years ago I came by and found out the old man had died and the place was in holding. I couldn't believe the shambles it was in. There was a family living in the house that threw their garbage out the back door. Teenagers would come and get drunk out by the greenhouses and then try to knock them down. I needed a place to live so I took over the old lunchroom back here." He waved his arm in the direction of the shed. "I couldn't stand to see everything that Bennet had worked all his life for destroyed. Now you're here I guess I'll have to be going. I hope your husband is prepared to do a lot of hard labour and has a chunk of money to sink into this place. It's not going to be easy, but I'm glad you people are taking it on. I never wanted it to be up and sold only to be bulldozed by Darien Stewart and turned into paddocks."
"It's only Cody and me here, Mr. Jardin. I don't have a husband - this place is mine and I'll be fixing it up on my own."
"Then you'll need to hire a good crew. I could give you the name of someone who won't cheat you."
"I don't have a chunk of money. I'm pretty well flat broke. You see - I never expected anything like this. My dad has been paying maintenance for the last five years. The pictures we have show a well cared for operation. The house . . . the house . . ." Elana couldn't go on. She knew if she did she would start to cry.
"The house isn't as bad as it seems. Or the greenhouses, really. If you've got time and aren't afraid of hard work you could do it by stages, get one greenhouse up and running, then two - you know?"
Elana warmed to the man. She knew nothing about him besides what he had told her, but for some reason she believed everything he had said. He cared about the place, and that was important. She needed someone to help her. He was old, but he looked strong. "Would you be willing to stay here and help me? I . . . I can't pay you anything yet, but you'll still have somewhere to live. I'll give you a share of the profits - if there are profits."
"When there are profits. You got yourself a deal, little lady. Now let me show you around, and you can see what I have growing here." He turned to Cody. "Do you like gardening son? I could use a helper with my harvest. I promise you first choice of the pumpkins."
"Okay!" Cody jumped up and down. "Mom! The big pumpkin really is mine!"
Sam Jardin showed them raspberry canes and a small strawberry patch, both finished for the season, and a wild expanse of blackberry bushes heavy with sweet dark fruit. There were apple trees and pears. In the end of one greenhouse there were tomatoes flourishing. Carrots, cabbages and potatoes grew alongside the old lunchroom - Sam's home. He invited them in and Elana noticed that though it was untidy, it was clean. The long wood table, still there from the lunchroom days, was up against one wall and served as a kitchen counter as well as an eating place. Shelves lined the wall above, and in the back was a huge, old wood cook-stove. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and there was a bed against the other wall. Sam told Elana that there was a bathroom with a shower that had been there for the staff in the old days. "You don't have to worry about me - I'm really cosy in here, even in the dead of winter," he said. "I've spent the better part of two years getting it just the way I like it."
Cody was very impressed and didn't want to leave when he'd found a litter of kittens curled up in a box in one corner. He picked up a grey one and held it to his cheek. "Oh, mom - can I have one? I've never had a pet."
"We don't know if Mr. Jardin is planning on giving them away," said Elana.
"If your mom says it's okay, you can have whichever one you want, Cody, but they can't leave their mother just yet. And call me Sam, both of you, please."
"Thank you, Sam. You can call me Elana, too." She went over to the box and looked at the kittens with Cody. "Which is your favourite, hon?"
"The grey one - can I have it?"
"Yes." She kissed his nose.
"I'll call it Smeagol."
"No! Not after Gollum!" said Elana in mock horror.
"Look how cute he is, with such a big head and round eyes. Anyway, when Gollum was Smeagol he was nice."
"That's true, and this guy looks like a real sweetie. Now let's go see what else Sam has to show us."
They toured the greenhouses again while Sam explained what was growing in the beds now, and what had been grown in the past when it was a thriving venture. They ended up at the house where Sam showed how it was structurally very sound. All the damage was superficial: broken, boarded up windows, dangling shutters, collapsed front steps. "There had been people living here up until about four months ago, but Collier would never make any repairs. He had a hard time finding tenants to live in this squalor with the amount he was charging them."
Elana thanked Sam and he arranged to come by in the morning to help her make the house habitable. In the waning light she cleared a place in one bedroom for the air mattress and set up the bed. She brought in their packs and left everything else in the car. After that she drove into town with Cody and they ordered a pizza. They parked by the estuary and ate it as the sky darkened over the still water.
Elana set the camp stove up on the kitchen counter and opened a window. Soon she had water boiling for tea, and eggs and bacon sizzling in the frying pan. She tried not to look at the grime and mess that surrounded her. The last tenants had left whatever they didn't want where it lay and a layer of thick dust had settled on everything. Elana made a list in her mind. Go into town and arrange to get the phone and power connected, buy cleaning supplies, drop in on that scum-bag Collier and give him a piece of her mind. She couldn't afford to sue him for what he'd done but he would hear from her.
When Sam knocked on the back door, she hardly recognised him. He'd trimmed his hair and shaved his beard. She realised that he was younger than she'd thought the day before - closer to sixty than seventy.
"Hey, if I'm going to be working for you, I thought I should look a bit more respectable and less like the old hippie I am. Is Cody up for picking some tomatoes with me while you go into town?"
Elana looked at Cody and he nodded.
"Okay - he can stay with you - he'd only get bored while I do my business."
"Yeah! Can we see Smeagol before we work, Sam?"
"Of course you can. You can meet the mother, Twilight, now too. You have to be real quiet though because she's a bit skittish."
Elana smiled as she watched them walk off between the greenhouses, then she closed the window and finished the dishes. An hour and a half later she had organised for the electricity to be connected later that day; the phone service couldn't be hooked up for two more days. She had loaded up at Superstore with brooms, mops, garbage bags, and assorted environmentally friendly cleaning products. She parked outside of Bob Collier's realty office and took a big breath. Checking her reflection in the mirror, she ran a brush through her hair. She hated confrontations, but Collier just couldn't get away with taking advantage of people like that. She entered the office and was asked to take a seat until Mr. Collier was free. She picked up a magazine and absently started leafing through it, but all the time she kept going over and over in her mind everything that she planned to say to him.
The bell over the door rang again as two men entered the office. Elana heard them ask for Bob Collier and she looked up. There was no way the receptionist was going to let them in to see him first. Elana didn't miss the tone in the woman's voice. It was almost reverent.
"Mr. Stewart, how are you? Good morning, Mr. Bingham. Mr Collier won't be a moment. Would you like coffee while you are waiting?"
The taller of the two just looked at the deferential young woman and nodded, but the other smiled cheerfully and accepted coffee for both of them. When the receptionist left the room to prepare their drinks, the taller one said. "Let's get this over with as soon as possible, Carl. Collier has wasted too much of my time. Now he's feeding us this outrageous story about the owner turning up and wanting to get the business operational. He'll say anything to try and get me to raise my offer. It's intolerable the way the guy runs his business. Do we really have to deal with him?"
Elana stiffened. What were they talking about?
"He's the most underhanded realtor I know," replied Carl, "but he's represented this guy for five years. I don't think the owner has a clue what the land is worth. Your offer is more than generous."
"I know that! Whoever he is should just take the money and run. I don't know what Collier's game is - he lets the place go to ruin and is still hanging out for more money. The owner's got to be just as unscrupulous as Bob is to allow such neglect, but I tell you, Carl, I'm just plain sick of living beside a garbage dump, with welfare bums for neighbours. I'd really pay anything to get rid of that eyesore."
As Elana listened her anger grew. It was more than obvious that this was the illustrious Darien Stewart who had been trying to buy her place as long as her father owned it. How dare he think she was just like that slime-ball Collier?
"Maybe the owner is going to develop it now."
"That place? The only thing to do with it is set a match to it! It's a verminous blight on the landscape. Only a fool would attempt to restore it."
"Well, I guess that makes me a fool then!" Both men turned around to see Elana standing there, her eyes blazing. The receptionist returned at that moment and almost dropped the coffee. "I'm the owner of the greenhouses and your new neighbour, Mr Stewart. You'll be happy to know that you don't have to deal with the unscrupulous Mr. Collier any more. He doesn't work for me. If you have any further offers to make on my place, you have to deal directly with me, and I'll tell you once and for all, I'm not selling."
She looked over to see Bob Collier standing in the open doorway of his office. Turning to the receptionist she said, "It appears that Mr. Collier is ready to see me now, so I'll go right in." She turned her back on the men who were still standing as if frozen and walked past Bob Collier and into his office. He was left with no other choice but to close the door and address her.
"Ms Barnes - you can't mean what you said to Mr. Stewart. I can straighten the whole thing out with him right now. You don't want to be on his bad side. He is very influential. I'm sure if I speak nicely to him and apologise for your outburst we can enter back into negotiations. I've been working on him for years - he's practically eating out of my hand. You'll get more from Stewart than anyone else."
"Have I not made myself clear, Bob? You don't work for me. You're lucky I'm not suing the pants off you. Stewart thinks you're unscrupulous, but you're much worse than that. You are a lying, thieving bottom-feeder. You cheated my father for five years, charging him for caretaking and maintenance that was never performed. You never even bothered to find decent tenants. Is this your normal modus operandi? I'm amazed that you have any clients at all. I'm willing to tell anyone who is interested that you can be trusted only to cheat them."
Outside the office, Carl Bingham apologetically declined the coffees. The receptionist didn't seem to notice. Every word Elana spoke came clearly through the thin walls. Darien Stewart had to grudgingly admire her directness. She was a fool, to be sure, to take on such a losing venture, but she had spunk. He still wanted her derelict greenhouses gone and he wasn't about to let a little thing like her adamant, I'm not selling get in his way. She didn't know whom she was taking on. After listening to most of her tirade, he tapped Carl on the arm and they left the office. However, it was a long time before the image of her fiery eyes left him.
Elana swept past the receptionist without a glance in her direction and so missed the look of admiration on that woman's face. When she got to her car she was shaking. She opened the door and climbed in before she was overwhelmed. Leaning on her steering wheel, she gasped for breath as her head spun. What had she just done? She had never stood up to anyone that way before. She didn't regret a word that she had said, not after the way that arrogant Darien Stewart had belittled her and her decision to rebuild her business. If it was the last thing she did, she was going to prove to him that she was not a fool. She was going to build it up to be a viable venture and there was nothing he could do to prevent her, no matter how influential he was.
The image of Bob Collier's astonished face rose up before her and she suddenly began to laugh. After she had done yelling at him he had almost grovelled at her feet, begging her to re-hire him, coming up with all sorts of pathetic excuses for why the greenhouses and house had become neglected: illness, incompetent employees, untrustworthy tenants. He even insisted that Sam Jardin was his employee, but he had not been doing his job and was really the one who had cheated them both. Elana didn't buy a word of it. She told him she never wanted anything to do with him again As she walked out of his office he begged her not to go to one of his competitors, and especially not to deal with Carl Bingham. The guy would only cheat her. That was a laugh! As if she already hadn't been cheated.
She wiped her streaming eyes, not sure if the tears were primarily from her fury or her laughter. She strapped herself in and put her car in gear. After a quick stop at Subway for two footlongs, she drove back along Headquarters road and turned up the now familiar Haven Road. She drove slowly by Stewart Stables this time, giving it a much deeper appraisal than she had on the other few times she had driven past. Everything she could see looked picture perfect: neat white fences, trim barns, sleek horses grazing in the fields, and way at the back of the property, hidden by outbuildings and trees, the shingled gables of what had to be a house of mansion proportions. For a moment she was struck with the incongruity of the two properties being side by side and fleetingly wondered how she would feel about the decrepit greenhouses if she owned this paradise. But then she saw someone walk out across a field and lean against a fence, calling to one of the horses. He was tall and lithe, and from the way he held himself she was certain it was Darien Stewart. All thoughts of sympathy left her. She remembered his harsh words and she felt a tight knot harden in the pit of her stomach.
Cody came running out to meet Elana when she returned. Her anger had not yet completely dissipated, especially not after having been resurrected by the sight of her offensive neighbour, but she put it aside and greeted Cody with enthusiasm equal to his own. He chatted merrily as he helped unload all the cleaning supplies. Sam came up too and told her he was going to ride his bike down the road a bit to get a friend who owned a truck. They had both eaten a snack while she was out so Elana put the subs in the cooler.
"Hey mom, what's this?" asked Cody as he was unloading the shopping bags.
"A disposable camera. I'm going to take pictures of everything so when we get it all fixed up we'll never forget how terrible it looked when we started. Then we'll take new pictures and we'll have a before and after record."
"Can I take some pictures?"
"Sure - I'll show you what I want and help you get the angle and you shoot. We'll start with an outside shot, do the house, and then go out back."
As depressing as the subject matter was, Elana had fun sharing the task with her eager young son. He came up with some good ideas for shots and even managed to talk Elana into sitting in the pumpkin patch for a picture with his favourite pumpkin. She returned the favour.
After that was done they got straight to work filling garbage bags. Starting in the filthy living room, they planned to work their way through the whole house. It was easy - everything had to go. Elana couldn't be bothered to sort for recyclables; she just wanted the whole mess cleared out. She threw all the restless energy from her pent-up anger into the job and set a brisk pace that Cody didn't even attempt to match.
After about an hour, Sam returned with his friend Dennis who had a beat up old pick-up and a smile a mile wide. It seemed there was nothing he would rather be doing than loading his truck up with garbage and driving out to the dump.
"It'll be great to see this place cleaned up," he said, when Elana offered to pay him for his trouble. "All I need is the dump fees."
"Well, you're not going to stop me from feeding you," she countered.
They took a break for lunch. Elana had never seen subs disappear so fast but there were also apples that Sam had picked and a big jug of juice from the store. They wasted no time chatting but went straight back to work and soon filled the back of the pick-up with broken furniture and heaps of green plastic bags. When the men drove off to dump the first load, the technician from the electrical company came by and checked that all the wires to the house were in working order. When he was done and lights could be turned on Elana felt elated and surprised that such a simple thing could give her a feeling of accomplishment. She spent the next two hours attacking the stove while garbage was stowed into bags all around her. When it was finally clean she had to admit that it didn't look too bad - it was hers and it worked and she'd be cooking supper in her own house that night.
The refrigerator was a different story. It was grimy, rusty, and mercifully dead. Sam took the door off and together with Dennis threw it in the back of the truck. When they set off for their next dump-run, Elana drove with Cody back to Superstore and bought all the fixings for chili and fresh ice for their cooler. She was unloading the groceries on the newly cleaned counter when she had a flash realisation.
"I don't have any big cooking pots!" All her bravado suddenly left her and she lay her head in amongst the beans and bread and peppers and onions. Her shoulders shook as tears filled her eyes.
Cody came up and put his arms around her. "Don't worry mom - you can borrow one from Sam."
She hugged him back. "Silly me. Sorry for crying, kiddo - it's just been one crazy day."
"That's okay mom. Even I cry sometimes."
She kissed him on the forehead. "Even you?" She laughed softly. "Let's get back to work, hon. I'll start cutting the veggies and when Sam gets back you can run down to his place with him and find me some pots."
"And have a visit with Smeagol too?"
"That's why I suggested it. You've more than earned a visit with your kitty."
They ate their chili picnic-style on a blanket on the living room floor. It was quite late, but the house was empty and three of the rooms were relatively clean. There was not a stick of furniture. They only had what they brought with them, their camping supplies, clothing, Cody's favourite toys, and Elana's books.
"There's a Sally Anne in Courtenay where you can pick up some kitchen stuff cheap," said Dennis. "And I'll keep a look out for a fridge for you."
"Salvation Army thrift store," said Sam. "It's your best bet."
"You gonna be needing to rent a carpet cleaner?" asked Dennis.
"No," said Elana. "I'm ripping all the carpet out - it's too disgusting to consider cleaning."
"How about we do it tomorrow?" asked Sam.
"Thanks, guys. That's really nice of you to offer, but I think I'll leave it till I finish painting then we won't need any drop-sheets."
"Good idea - I'm thinking you've got hardwood under here." Sam rubbed the carpet.
Elana's eyes brightened. "Hardwood! I would love hardwood floors."
"Probably need resurfacing, mind you."
"I don't care. Sam - in a week you won't recognise this place."
"I don't recognise it already." He got up from the floor and took his bowl to the counter. "Dennis and I'll do the dishes."
"No, please. You've both done enough. Cody and I can handle it."
"I think Cody's ready to drop," said Dennis. "You put him to bed and we'll tidy this all up."
Elana picked up her son and carried him to the bedroom where the air-mattress and sleeping bags were laid out once more. Gone was the sagging bed. Instead the wall was lined with boxes of their clothes and the two backpacks. Elana decided not to worry about washing up tonight - she simply tucked Cody into his sleeping bag and kissed his cheek.
"You were a great help today, hon," she whispered.
He put his arms around her neck and she lay beside him until his breathing relaxed and he loosened his grip. She gave him another kiss and reluctantly got up from the comfortable bed, turned off the light, and then returned to the kitchen to thank the men and say goodnight.
After breakfast Elana went straight to scrubbing the walls but insisted that Cody get out his Lego and play for a bit. Banging started up outside. Elana opened the front door and saw Sam and Dennis taking apart the porch steps.
"We found some lumber in the back to build you some new ones," said Sam. "When that's done I'll fix up the shutters and measure the broken windows for glass."
"You don't need to do all this work on the house," said Elana. "It's only the greenhouses you're supposed to be helping out with."
"First things first," said Sam. "We're gonna clean up the front yard too. Everything that can't be burned we'll take to the dump. I'm thinking that before the end of the day we'll have a rare bonfire going out back!"
"Can we roast marshmallows?" asked Cody who had followed Elana out onto the porch.
"Not on a scrap fire - it'll be too big and the smoke won't be nice. If your mom says it's okay we can build you a small fire with some good wood."
"Can we Mom?" Cody turned to her and gave her his best puppy dog face.
She gave him a hug. "We'll see. I've got to get back to work now."
"That means yes," Cody said to Sam in a loud whisper.
After lunch Elana decided that both she and Cody needed a change of pace and some fresh air. They drove out to the estuary where they'd eaten their pizza the first night. Elana remembered seeing a paved walk along the riverside. She parked near a small airstrip and they walked together in the quiet stillness of the afternoon.
The water was smooth and reflected the blue of the sky. From a wooden bridge they watched ducks swim between the sturdy pylons. The riverbank was thick with rushes. Small birds flitted from cattail to stump and in and out of the branches of rangy shrubs. Elana just leant on the railing and gazed about as mellow peacefulness settled over her. She looked further out and saw the river widen to embrace the broad stretch of ocean that filled the horizon. Cody busied himself with dropping twigs over the bridge and then running to the other side to watch them drift out from under the bridge and away.
All the furious activity of cleaning, all the frustration and anger she had dealt with in the last two days, all the endless cross country driving of the week before - the burden of it all fell away; slipped from her shoulders as she let the silken ripple of the water, the soft rustle of the grasses, the somnolent resonance of the muted birdsong carry her away to a place beyond thought. Where nothing needed a reason and existence was all that mattered. A frog plopped - the ripples expanded outward, minnows scattered among the submerged rocks.
Sudden, shrill barking shattered the stillness.
"Toto! Quiet! Sorry, he's really very friendly - for some reason he just thinks he owns this bridge."
Elana looked up to see a pretty girl of about her age holding back a black and white Jack Russell who was straining against his leash. Cody stopped what he was doing and walked forward, his hand held out.
"Could I pet him?"
"Oh yes, he's perfectly safe."
"Mom! Look, he's licking my hand."
Elana went over to see the little dog too and soon was talking with his owner while Cody ran up and down with Toto at the end of the leash.
"You've got a cute little dog," said Elana.
"He's not mine. He belongs to my aunt but I like to bring him here. It's my favourite walk - I walk along the estuary and feel like I'm back home again walking along the Serpentine Fen, even though it's really not the same at all."
"You're not from here?"
"I am now. I've lived here a month."
"We've just moved as well, from Kingston - from Halifax, really."
"Wow - that's a long way to come - did you get transferred or something?"
"I actually inherited a greenhouse business, but it's not operational yet and needs a lot of work. My name is Elana, by the way." She held out her hand. All the while they had been strolling along behind Cody and the dog.
"I'm Joy," said the girl, smiling. "I'm happy to meet you. I don't know anybody here yet, besides my aunt and her family. I work at Superstore."
"So, you live with your aunt?"
"Yes, but I'd really like to find my own place - out of town, if I can, only I'm trying to save as much as possible and renting a house on property is expensive."
Elana stopped, looked at Joy, and then made a snap decision. "Would you consider sharing a house?" It was completely unplanned but it suddenly seemed like the most obvious decision. Her house was way too large for only Cody and herself, used as they were to living in tiny basement suites.
"Do you mean that? But you've only just met me and know nothing about me."
"You've only just met us too. But I do have to warn you that right now the place is a real dump. Why don't you come over tonight and see for yourself before you decide?"
"I'd like that."
"My phone's not hooked up yet, but I can give you the address. How's seven?"
"That would be great," said Joy.
Cody came running back with the dog and after a little more talk and some quick goodbyes Joy continued her walk while he and Elana went back to the car to search out a paint store. It didn't take long to find a Cloverdale Paint outlet, but Elana nearly choked when she discovered that one can of paint the buttery colour she envisioned would cost her thirty-five dollars. A sales girl came up and asked if she could help.
"Do you have anything cheaper than this? I have a whole house to paint, inside and out, and my budget won't stand this price."
"Well, there're two ways you can go," she answered. "You can buy five gallon buckets of cheap paint in a neutral colour, like the builders use, or you can go for mistints."
"People order a colour and then it doesn't turn out quite the way they expected it to, so we sell those premixed colours off for eight dollars a gallon. Here, I'll show you where they are." She motioned for them to follow her and then looked at the colour card in Elana's hand. "Is that the colour you were looking for?"
"I just got something very similar to that returned by a client yesterday - let's see if it hasn't been sold yet."
Not only were there two cans of a beautiful butter-yellow, but Elana also found three cans of ochre, two of ivory and one of cobalt blue. Cody picked a can of forest green that he insisted was exactly what he wanted for his own room. After loading up on rollers, brushes, and paint trays, they turned the car around and headed for home, Elana full of anticipation at the thought of covering the existing faded, pea-green of the walls.
Darien let his eyes stray towards the road as the sound of a now familiar engine met his ears. The rusty Volvo had been up and down the road quite often in the last two days. He shook his head. The girl was really going ahead with it! He'd seen that handyman's beater of a truck taking away load after load of garbage. She was fighting a losing battle and he imagined that after a lot of wasted effort she'd have to concede. What she really needed to bring in was one big bulldozer, and raze the lot. From where he was he could barely see the occupants of the car, but it looked as if she wasn't alone, not that he really cared. He wasn't interested in anything about her. He just wanted her gone and the place cleaned out, so the sooner she came to her senses and sold, the better. He lifted a saddle from the fence railing, threw it over his shoulder, and headed for the tack room.
The house looked so much better just to have the stairs and shutters repaired and the boards gone from the windows. Sam and Dennis had done an amazing amount of work - the front yard was almost clear of junk as well. Elana walked into the living room and imagined it a rich ochre. The colour would be perfect. Her heart sank at how dismal it really looked, with the stained carpet and marked-up walls. Joy would take one look and run! If she'd had any sense, she'd have asked her to come in a week, when the painting was done. There was no helping it now, though. She sighed, wondering why she'd been so impetuous, and put the paint cans she was carrying down.
"Which room will Joy get?" asked Cody.
"I doubt she'll take any."
"I hope she does. I like her - will she bring Toto?"
"He belongs to her aunt."
"Oh well - he'd probably scare Smeagol anyway - he's pretty bouncy."
"Very high-spirited," agreed Elana.
"Do you know which room I want, mom?"
"Which one do you want, hon?" asked Elana, smiling down at his eager face.
"The little cute one connected to yours."
"But . . . that's just a walk-in closet."
Cody put his arms around her. "The other two are too big, and they're all the way over on the other side of the house."
"Then it's yours, sweetie. I don't need a walk-in closet anyway. I've always wanted a wardrobe."
"Like in the book?"
"With fur coats?"
"Sorry, no fur coats to get lost in on your way to Narnia."
"Rats! Hey, mom - do we still have marshmallows?"
"Half a bag."
"Can we go out and see if they've got the bonfire going?"
"Let's do that - I don't feel like working any more today."
As they passed through the kitchen and out the back door Cody grabbed the bag of marshmallows from the cupboard. It wasn't hard to find the bonfire. It was way back, in a clearing behind the greenhouses. The smell of smoke and the crackling of burning timber led them there. Sam was standing to one side with a hose at the ready, in case the fire should get out of control, though from what Elana could see there was no danger of that. He hailed them and then, at Cody's pleading, went about building a small fire a bit further away from the blazing heap so that Cody could have his marshmallow roast. As Elana watched the two of them together a small smile slowly grew and spread across her face.
Darien smelled smoke. Children were having lessons in the south ring and he worried that the smoke would make the horses restless. It was coming from that place. Who knew what kind of garbage they were burning, polluting the air. He hurried over, watching as a light breeze carried the smoke through the trees in uneven eddies, first high and then low. Two of the children were coughing and a horse pawed the ground nervously. His anger flared and he brushed his way through the woods, not noticing the branches snapping back against him. At the fence he did not pause but hurdled over, and pushed through even denser bush. He came out onto a clearing and a huge pile of wildly burning junk. She was standing a few feet from the blaze, the fire casting a warm glow on her face. It was as if he'd never seen her before. Her hair was hanging down her back in a dark tangle and the smile on her face was one of delight. He hadn't realised that she was actually pretty. It was a passing thought and he didn't let it affect his actions.
"Did you get a permit for this?" he yelled at her.
The smile disappeared. Her face immediately became tense. "Do I need one?"
"There've been restrictions because of the forest fires! It's bloody well dangerous - and your fire's practically raging out of control."
"No it's not. I've got a hose going here and the whole area has been sprayed a few times. Anyway - what forest fires are you talking about?"
"There've been forest fires all over B.C. throughout August - how could you not know that?"
"Here? On the Island?"
"No, but what difference does that make?" He lunged towards her. "If you're not going to put it out at least give me that hose and I'll do it. I've got riding lessons going on just through those trees. The smoke from your stupid fire is spooking my horses."
"So that's what this is all about!" Her embarrassment caused her anger to flare. "Sam wouldn't have started this fire if there were really burning restrictions. Put my hose down."
"That burned out hippie doesn't know what's going on in the next block! If you're not going to listen to reason, I've got no other option," he yelled, training the hose on the fire.
"Stop that! Get off my property!"
The noise brought both Sam and Cody running. They arrived in time to see Elana wrest the hose from Darien's grasp, only to have it twist and turn and drench them both. Sam ran over and picked it up.
"What's the problem, Mr Stewart?"
"You should know about the fire restrictions, Jardin!" Darien wiped the water from his face. The blue denim shirt he was wearing clung to his chest.
"Oh my God, I forgot all about that! I'll put it out right away, Mr Stewart."
"I'm glad someone around here has finally found some sense," said Darien in a hard, tight voice. "I won't report you, but get it out right now!" Without another look in Elana's direction he strode off through the trees.
"Boy, that man was really mad."
Darien heard the child's voice echo from behind as branches snapped in his face. Damned right he was mad! And now he was soaked too, all because of that . . . he suddenly remembered the look of shock on her face as the water struck her, and he laughed. What a farcical situation! If it weren't so serious it would really have been funny. He hopped the fence again and then made a wide detour around the riding ring and jogged straight up to the house. He managed to get in and change without anyone seeing him, so he didn't have to explain his wet clothing.
As Elana cooked supper, the fiasco at the fire kept replaying in her mind. Stewart had been so arrogant, so obnoxious . . . so right. It made her angrier knowing that she'd been wrong. That she shouldn't have had a fire. She didn't even think to blame Sam; it was her property, her responsibility. And then to top it all off the stupid hose had doused her right in front of the jerk. Her t-shirt had become all but transparent. It was his fault for coming after her so out of control rather than talk to her like a sane person - just her luck to get a head-case for a neighbour. An image of him with his curls dripping came to her mind unbidden and was ejected just as fast. She wasn't going to let the way he looked have any influence over her feelings. Just because a guy was gorgeous had nothing to do with his character. She'd learned that the hard way and wouldn't make that same mistake again.
Elana looked about herself in disgust. How was it possible to make a place look good when there was no furniture to hide the stains on the carpets and the nicks on the walls? She'd washed the supper dishes and put them away, and made sure the sleeping bags were smoothed tidily on the air-mattress - there was nothing more she could really do. It had been a nice idea to rent out a room in her house, but she'd make sure it was painted and furnished before she invited anyone else to come and see it. Upon hearing the knock she sighed and walked over to open the door.
"Hi!" Joy smiled brightly as she walked in and began to slip off her shoes.
"Don't worry about your shoes - this carpet is going as soon as the painting is done."
"The drive here was great. I can't believe it - this place is only five minutes from my work but it's like I'm right out in the country. That property next door to you is so beautiful."
"Well, mine isn't in quite the same shape."
"You have some lovely hemlocks up by the road, and there's a wonderful beech tree in the flowerbed in front of the house."
"There's a flowerbed in front of the house?" asked Elana in amazement.
"You can see there was at one time, and in the spring we can plant it with lavender and . . . oops, sorry. Here I am already planning your garden for you and I don't even know if you really want me to move in yet." Joy giggled.
"Ever since I got home I've been stressing that you'd take one look at this place and run!"
"Why? It's lovely out here. And look at this room! It's so large and airy. My aunt lives in a new, low-cost condo. The rooms are all tiny, and none of the ceilings are this high." Joy looked at the stack of paint cans. "What colour did you get to paint it?"
Elana tipped the can to show her the ochre tone painted on the lid.
"Perfect! Where's Cody?"
"He went down to Sam's place to have a last look at his kitten before bedtime. He should be right back. Would you like to see the rest of the house?"
Cody joined them on the back porch after they'd finished touring all the rooms. Joy asked him about Smeagol and then Elana pointed out the greenhouses.
"You've got a lot of work to do," said Joy, "but you know, it will be fantastic once you get it fixed up. The location is amazing. Just look at your view of the Comox Glacier across the way there."
The sun was nearly set, but a fine line of fire spread across the deepening blue, casting a rosy tint to the spread of ice and snow that was slung like a saddle between the peaks.
Elana let her eyes linger on the sight for a few moments and then turned to Joy. "This is the first time I even noticed the mountains. I've been too overwhelmed by the mess."
They returned into the house while Cody barraged Joy with questions about which room she wanted.
"Your mom has to decide if she wants me to live here with you guys first."
"Of course she wants you, right mom?"
"I'd love it if you really think you want to, Joy," said Elana.
"I've been trying to tell you that since the moment I arrived," said Joy, grinning at them both.
"So, let's choose your room then," said Cody, grabbing her hand and pulling her forward.
"I'm going to put on some tea," said Elana. "Or would you prefer coffee?"
"Tea would be lovely," said Joy as she let Cody lead her to the bedrooms.
"Do you like herbal?"
"Sure," said Joy as she was dragged through the doorway. A few minutes later they were back in the kitchen and Elana was pouring tea into mugs.
"I hope you'll excuse our camping gear. I haven't bought anything yet. Would you like to sit down?" she said, indicating the counter.
"No, I'm fine," said Joy as she leaned against it.
"I convinced her to take the big room in the front of the house," said Cody as he got some juice from the cooler.
"When I found out it has a view of the beech tree I was sold," said Joy. "Plus it's got lots of room for my loom."
"Yes, but there's been nowhere to set up my loom at my aunt's so this is great. I'll be able to get a booth in the Christmas craft market!"
They sat and drank their tea while they chatted about Joy's aspirations. She was saving all her money to someday open a craft store where she could sell her and other artisans' work. Elana sensed there was even more to Joy's story than she had disclosed but that would come with time, when they got to know each other better. She herself had let little out about her past as well. It was almost ten when Joy finally left, promising to come by the next day when she got off shift so that she could help with the painting.
The week was a busy one. Elana painted from morning till night with Joy and Cody assisting when they were able. Joy had chosen the cobalt blue for her bedroom, with ivory trim. For the kitchen they'd mixed some of the yellow from Elana's bedroom with the ivory and painted it a rich cream. They'd had to buy more paint for the bathrooms, which ended up a dusty brick colour. Elana had been sceptical, but she had to admit that Joy had an unerring colour sense. For the smaller bedroom they had fun mixing what was left from a number of different cans and ended up with a colour like creamy coffee.
Elana encouraged Cody to get out and play as much as he could, or help Sam around the greenhouses. Dennis came by with a fridge that he'd found in the Buy and Sell, and tinkered around in the laundry room trying to get the washer and dryer working. By Friday, the walls were all done, and the painted baseboards lay in the middle of the living room floor, waiting for the carpet to be taken up so that they could be reinstalled. Furniture was the order of the day, so while Sam and Dennis were left with the unenviable task of ridding the house of carpet, Elana and Cody hopped into the car to cruise the second hand stores and antique shops of Courtenay.
"We'd better run by the school and register you too," said Elana as they drove down their rutted driveway. "You've missed two weeks of school already. Your holiday is over, bud."
"Holiday? I've been working like crazy. Do I really have to go to school?"
"Of course." Elana looked over at Cody and saw how pinched his face was. "Is something bothering you?"
"I don't know anyone."
"And that's one other reason you need to go to school. Don't worry - you'll make friends quickly. And the school sounds great. It's called Miracle Beach."
Cody's expression brightened a bit. "I won't have to start today, will I?"
"Of course not. We'll go and register and maybe you'll get a tour and meet the teacher."
"Good, because I want to choose the furniture with you."
"And so you shall, honey. I hope you won't get bored, though. I'm going to be dragging you through tons of stores." She reached out her hand and ruffled up his hair. Cody smiled.
The visit to the school went very well. There was a school bus that could pick Cody up at the corner of Headquarters road, but Elana decided to drive him for at least the first month until he was settled in. The shopping trip was very tiring. By one o'clock they had found little more than dishes and cutlery, pots and pans. The furniture in the thrift stores was all shoddy; in the antique stores it was overpriced. They took a break for lunch in an old diner chosen for it's proximity to the shops and not it's ambience. Though it looked tacky inside and out, the food was surprisingly good and the service was excellent. Their waitress was very friendly and seemed to take a liking to Cody, ensuring that he got a very big piece of apple pie.
"This pie's home made, kid. You can't stand it, it's so good. Just like your Aunt Betsy made it, or something."
"I don't have an Aunt Betsy," said Cody, giggling.
"Well, you'll wish you did, it tastes so good."
She winked at him and sauntered off. Cody took a huge forkful and then continued to eat without speaking, relishing every crumb.
"I think I'm going to have to break down and buy some new furniture," said Elana. "I really wanted to use most of the money grandpa gave me for the business, but I don't want to bring junk into the house when all I've done for over a week is get rid of it. Just a little bit of furniture to start off with, what do you think? And soon we'll have money from Joy's rent and if we find someone to take the other bedroom we should do okay."
The waitress was walking past with a load of dishes up her arms and stopped by their table for a moment as she waited for someone to walk around her.
"Sure mom," said Cody, eyeing the pie she'd barely tasted. "And you'll be growing plants in the greenhouses too."
"That'll take time, sweetie."
"There's already things growing. We could sell pumpkins, and apples and . . . stuff."
Elana pulled out a pad and a pencil and began writing down figures. Cody looked up and saw the waitress coming back from serving her other customers.
"You done with that, sugar?" she asked. "Now wasn't that the best pie you ever tasted?"
She looked at Elana and said, "Mind if I join you for a minute?"
"Not at all," said Elana, scooting over in the booth.
"Name's Chandra," she said, holding her hand out.
"I'm Elana, and this is my son, Cody."
"I couldn't help but overhearing," said Chandra. "You have a room for rent?"
"Yes, we live out on Haven Road, and I have a room available. It's three hundred dollars a month, the bathroom would be shared with another girl, and full kitchen, living room, and laundry room privileges."
"You see, I'm really stuck. Everything's going sideways. I was sharing this apartment with a girl I know and now she's got a boyfriend who . . ." She looked over at Cody. "Let's just say I need to find a new place fast. Can't live with them. Is it available right away?"
"Well . . ." Elana hesitated.
"Oh, yeah, I understand. Look, I'm dependable. I've got a steady job and no bad habits, unless you count chocolate. And I know how to bake pie!"
"Did you make this pie?" Cody looked up at her in awe.
"You betcha, kiddo!"
"I've got my own furniture," Chandra said persuasively.
"You'd need a car; we're out of town a ways."
"I know Haven Road. That's where Stewart Stables is. Anyway, I've got a bike."
Elana's face hardened at the mention of the stables. "We're right next door."
"The old greenhouse place? Excellent! 'Bout time somebody fixed that place up. I remember when old Mr. Thompson owned it. I used to go there all the time and buy bedding plants for my mom's garden."
"Would you like to come by and see the room?" asked Elana.
Chandra looked so eager that Elana had to agree.
"I gotta get back to work now - the boss is giving me the evil eye. I've got a course up at North Island from six until eight, so how about I come after that?"
"That would be fine. What are you taking?"
"Philosophy of art."
"Hits everybody that way," Chandra laughed. "It was either that or Sociology 220. Nothing else that I hadn't taken fit into my schedule." She took Cody's empty plate and hurried off to the kitchen.
"She's nice," said Cody.
"You know something," said Elana, "I think you're right. Now let's get going and buy us some furniture."
"Aren't you going to finish your pie?"
"You bet I am." Elana began eating and then took pity on him. She pushed the plate across the table. "We can share."
Chandra turned up in the evening on a motorbike. She confided to Cody that if she'd been asked what colour she wanted the room painted she'd have chosen just that shade. She was thrilled with the hardwood floors, said she'd get her own phone line so she could have an internet hook-up, and she handed Elana one month's rent and a damage deposit stating that she'd track down a friend with a truck and move in on Sunday.
The weekend was busy. Dennis helped Joy move in on Saturday. The truck from the furniture store delivered Elana's new couch and armchair, a round oak table and chairs for the kitchen, and Cody's Captain's bed. Elana was not going to compromise on her bedroom furniture. She was content to sleep on the air-mattress until she found the bed and dresser she had envisioned when she had woken on her first morning in the house. Carpet, curtains and the rest could all come later. Right now they had what they needed, and gazing around her living room she had to admit that the comfy, overstuffed furniture exactly suited the room. Joy had donated a little end table, a lamp, and a wall hanging for over the brick fireplace. A bookshelf for Elana's books and a small rug in the centre of the room and it would be complete for the time being.
On Sunday Chandra arrived. Her furniture was put away quickly and a simple oak coffee table found its way into the living room, along with an emerald green glass vase filled with yellow and white freesias that soon sweetened the house with their fragrance. The three women got together in Joy's room and helped set up her loom. Elana quickly learned about heddles and reeds, lams and beams, and soon an imposing 45" floor loom was taking up quite a major portion of the bedroom, while Joy was crawling about underneath, connecting the harnesses to the treadles. There was an unexpected knock upon the door and Elana left the room to see whom it could be.
She was very surprised to find a gentleman in a suit standing on her front porch. He held out his hand and smiled, and at that same moment she recognised him.
"Carl Bingham," he said. "We didn't really meet properly, but you were in Collier's office the other day when I was there with Darien Stewart."
"Of course I remember," said Elana, taking his hand. Carl made an apologetic grimace, and she continued. "Elana Barnes."
"It wasn't the best of circumstances," he said.
"No," said Elana. "I was not altogether pleased that day."
"In other words you gave both Darien and Bob a well-deserved piece of your mind," said Carl with a grin.
Elana could not help but grin back.
"I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here."
"Well, I can't really think of any reason . . ."
"I just wanted to start over and apologise to you for that day, and welcome you to the neighbourhood."
"I don't think you have anything to apologise for," said Elana. "Won't you come in, Mr Bingham?"
"Carl - call me Carl. Please."
"All right, Carl, won't you come in?"
He laughed and wiped his feet.
"Don't take off your shoes. There've been people in and out of here all day long - it needs sweeping desperately."
Carl almost stopped still in the doorway. He let out a low whistle. "I'm stunned," he said. "I was led to believe that this house ought to be condemned. This room is . . . charming."
Elana looked about the room and decided that it was the man who was charming. The room certainly looked a lot better than it had, but it was commonplace compared with what he was certainly used to.
"And the outside, too. What an improvement. I'm impressed, Ms Barnes."
"We can't have me calling you Carl and you calling me Ms Barnes."
"Elana - you've really done something with this house, and in such a short time, too."
"I've had a lot of help."
He shuffled from one foot to the other. "You know, Darien is very sincere in his offer on this place. I don't know if Collier explained anything to you about it, but his bid is actually above current market value."
"I was wondering when it would get to this," said Elana. "Carl, you seem to be a very nice man, but I don't have any connection to that jerk Collier and whatever your friend Mr. Stewart wants to say to me, he can tell me himself."
"Actually, I represent Darien in all his real estate dealings," said Carl apologetically.
"He was with you at Collier's office," said Elana.
"So you know why I don't bring him along too often," said Carl.
Despite herself, Elana laughed.
"Look, I'm not here to strong-arm you. I just want you to understand that the offer is still on the table. If you should find all this," here Carl drew his arm in a wide circle, "too difficult; if you should come to realise that it's not what you want to do after all, well - you have an option. A very generous one."
"I appreciate what you're telling me," said Elana, "but I'm not desperate yet. I intend to stick it out. I'm very confident that I can make a go of this business."
"You strike me as someone with a lot of determination," said Carl. "But businesses can run into any number of unforeseen difficulties. Please keep the offer in mind." He reached in his pocket and brought out a business card. He was about to hand it to Elana when the other two women came out of the bedroom; Joy was laughing at something Chandra had said. His hand stopped midway and the card fell from his fingers.
Joy stilled in the doorway, colour rising in her cheeks. Chandra continued forward.
"I'm sorry," she said. "We didn't know you had company."
Elana made quick introductions. Chandra walked forward and shook Carl's hand. He greeted her absently.
"Would you like some tea?" asked Joy in a rather breathless voice.
"Yes, please, I would like that," said Carl and he sat down in the armchair.
Elana bent over and picked the business card up, placing it on the mantle.
"So, Carl," said Chandra. "I didn't think Elana knew too many people around here. Tell me how you guys met."
Carl rather disjointedly mentioned meeting Elana in a realty office, all the time his eyes never straying from the kitchen door.
Light fell through the branches. Formless. Evanescent as it slipped in to join the darkness. She was beyond its touch - and, if so, beyond the sight of the group of Thregols that walked stealthily by on the path above. She could see their feet from her hiding place. The leather of their boots, wrapped in thongs; knife hilts protruding from down-turned cuffs. Their odour, rancid and foul, carried on the still air - overpowering any hint of her own almost human smell, tinged with the sharp tang of bergamot. Lanea crept from the shadows when it was safe and turned in the opposite direction than the troupe had taken. If she could help it they would not catch her, and somehow she would find a way to free her friends. She ran through the underbrush on light feet. Stopped in a clearing, full in a shaft of sun, turning her head as she judged which way to go. Her hair was a tangled mass of long, dark curls embedded with twigs and leaves. Her face was streaked with dirt and taut as she listened - her hazel eyes wide and determined. Her breath was shallow as she stood, the light bronzing her shoulders, moulding the slow curve of her . . .
Darien stopped and looked at his screen in disgust, highlighted the last paragraph and clicked on cut. This was the third time in the last twenty minutes he had done so. He felt like throwing his keyboard against the wall. He got up and paced the room, looked through his window. But that didn't help. His view stretched over the trees and he could see the moss covered shingles of her roof and the translucent arch of one of her greenhouses.
Characters have a way of growing and shaping themselves out of nothing, but this one kept trying to become her. His pale-eyed Lanea who shied away from confrontation was suddenly standing up to opposition - defying her enemies. He knew where the tangled hair and hazel eyes came from. That image had been burned into his brain, along with the smudges on her cheek, the faint smell of citrus he had caught even through the wood smoke, and apparently the way her wet shirt had clung to her rounded . . . well, he was only human. He couldn't pretend that even in his anger he hadn't noticed. But what had made the greatest impression that day by the fire, and had done at their first confrontation, were the flashing hazel eyes. But, God was she a shrew!
He sat down again; attacked his keys. Forced a description of gooseberry eyes, hair that grew in short, mousy tufts, a body angular and awkward. Made her creep through leathery leaves and hanging vines where daylight refused to go. Sat back and looked at the sentences that seemed to taunt him. Words that held no magic and sat ungainly and frozen on the white background. He pressed save and exit, knowing that when he opened the document again he would have to change it. Lanea was forming her own life regardless of his wishes. If he were to finish the book he would have to allow her to become herself. He had to find a way for her to become just that, and not the embodiment of his next-door neighbour.
He grabbed his jean jacket and headed down to the barn. Soon he was riding across the fields, galloping hard, taking fences full on. Attempting to escape the inescapable.
"I went by there the other day, you know." Carl jerked his head back over his shoulder.
Darien knew he did not mean the small den that led off from the dining room.
Lina served herself some salad and wrinkled up her nose. "Not the crack house?"
Carl narrowed his eyes at his sister. "It was never a crack house."
"No," said Darien. "Just a welfare refuge, a delinquent hangout, and a garbage dump."
"Collier allowed the place to be trashed," admitted Carl, "but you'd be amazed at how those girls have fixed it up."
"A little paint doesn't change a decrepit house like that for long. I'm sure it's structurally unsound." Darien cut himself a piece of chicken, but continued talking before eating it. "And now she's collected a group of misfits to live there with her. The old hippie is still squatting in the shed, there's a girl on a damn noisy motor bike, and some other floozy with a dented Toyota."
"Oh, I've seen it," said Lina. "It looks like a tin can."
Carl put his fork down, rested his elbows on the table, and leaned forward, glaring. "Have you even bothered to get to know them? How can you make those types of judgements just because they don't have the kind of money you do to be able to afford new cars or rebuild houses? Why should she be a floozy just because of the car she drives?"
"The bleached blonde hair and the tacky clothes say it all," said Lina.
"For your information, her name is Joy, and not only is she incredibly beautiful, she's the kindest, most positive person I've ever met."
"Sorry - bad choice of words," said Darien. "But tell me, what's her profession? Or is she on the dole?"
"Or does she waitress at the pub?" asked Lina, with a smirk at Darien.
He ignored her and looked at Carl.
"If I didn't know that you really are astute, caring, and liberal minded, I'd think you were one hell of a jerk." Carl pushed his plate away. "You've got to get over this mental block about that place and anyone involved with it."
Darien reached out and patted Carl's shoulder. "You're right. I'm being irrational. I had a tough day and I'm taking it out on them. Calm down and eat your supper and tell me all about her. I can see light of love shining in your eyes."
"She's a cashier at Superstore," Carl said. "I know that doesn't sound like much, but she's very creative and does crafts and she makes great tea."
"Tea, eh?" said Darien with a wink.
"And she has the most amazing blue eyes . . ." Carl drifted off, a dreamy look on his face.
"What about the biker chick?" asked Lina. "Really, I don't know what kind of a mother that . . . what's her name? Elaine? I mean she has a kid and she's not married and then she has all those girls living there, and the old transient in the shack out back. What kind of an environment is that for a child?"
"What do you know about being a mother?" Darien shot at her.
Lina looked at Darien in surprise. "Where did that come from?"
As his thinking had been on similar lines as what Lina had just said, he wondered the same thing himself. Must be that the idea of being on the same wavelength as Lina bothered him. He concentrated on his baked potato and didn't answer her.
"Her name is Elana, and she's very nice, Lina," said Carl. "I met her kid and she's done a great job with him. It's not easy being a single parent - I think she's been divorced for quite a few years and had to raise him mostly on her own. And the biker chick, as you call her, is friendly, has a good sense of humour, and no visible tattoos or weird body piercings. They are all normal, down to earth people, and I don't care what either of you think, but I'm going to keep visiting them."
"Of course you are," said Lina. "You're in loooove."
"Justie is coming home for Thanksgiving," said Darien, thinking it was about time the subject changed. "She's planning on moving back here for good and giving riding lessons again."
"Really?" said Lina. "That would be so wonderful. She's the best teacher you've ever had. And maybe she could help me out by judging the equestrian events in the spring. You must miss her so much - I know I do. It's been hard on you to have your little sister so far away."
"It's not like Victoria is on the moon, Lina," said Carl.
Darien laughed, glad to see his friend's good humour restored. He was also relieved that they were no longer talking about Elana. It had been too tempting to ask questions . . . the less he knew about her the better. He had a book to write and he wasn't about to let her image take over his novel. Why she had left such a strong impression, he hadn't a clue - he'd only actually interacted with her twice. He knew that when he was writing his mind became very receptive to the most surprising stimuli. Sometimes it impeded the process, other times it was an amazing creative catalyst. This time he wasn't prepared to explore the phenomenon, either way.
Elana dumped the full wheelbarrow and then arched and stretched, rubbing the small of her back. She had to get used to strenuous physical labour again, and cleaning out the greenhouses was more arduous than anything she'd ever done at her old job. She was only half way through her first week and it was already killing her. It wasn't just the blisters on her hands and her aching muscles, but the mindlessness of the tasks. Picking rocks, pulling weeds, sifting through assorted junk. Sam had been at it for a while already and had set up a system. There was a pile for compostable materials, another for rocks, a burning pile, one for recyclables, reusables, and things that needed to go to the dump. All the piles were growing at quite an alarming rate. He assured her that it wouldn't be long before the ban on burning was lifted and also that he would build the new fire as far away from Stewart Stables as possible, closer to the other boundary line. Dennis had arranged to come the following Sunday to remove the recyclables and the useless garbage.
Every morning was a mad dash to get Cody off to school, then Elana would return to a quick breakfast of her own. After that she worked without a break until it was time to pick him up again. She ate her lunch while he had his afternoon snack, then she went back out to work while he played around the greenhouses or explored the property. Either Chandra or Joy cooked supper depending on their shifts. After supper they all chatted for a bit while Elana supervised homework. Later she played games with Cody, or read to him until bedtime. She went to bed at the same time as her son, bone tired, and fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Giving a small groan, Elana rubbed her back again and pushed the wheelbarrow along the path to the greenhouse she was clearing out. She dumped out plastic pots that had shrivelled up plants in them. The pots were so old and brittle that very few of them were worth keeping. She stacked them in one corner as she concentrated on filling her barrow with the dead plants and dried-out soil. At least none of it was heavy. It was just the bending that was bothersome.
Sam entered the greenhouse and called out to her. "Fancy a change of scene?"
She looked over to him and smiled. "Are you offering a trip to a beach on Maui?"
"Nothing near so good. I was wondering if you wanted to make blackberry jam. The berries are falling off the bushes and I can't keep up with them."
Elana thought of the tasty pies Chandra had baked with the last bucket he had brought her. His donations were making a great difference to her food budget what with the berries, apples, tomatoes, and squash he was always providing. "I've never made jam, and I don't have any of the stuff I would need, like pots and jars and things."
"Don't worry about anything. I always make jam every year and sell it at the roadside stand. With all the greenhouse work I haven't had time to do it this year. I'll bring everything up to the house and all you'll have to do is cook it. I've been picking berries all morning."
"But I don't know how to make jam."
"Nothing easier. I'll bring you some recipes and show you how it's done. When you go to get Cody from school you could run by Superstore and get a couple of ten pound sacks of sugar."
Elana set her wheelbarrow aside with a sigh of relief. She carried two full buckets of blackberries up to the house and then washed her hands and waited for Sam. He was along very soon and when they had the first batch of jam bubbling on the stove he explained how to sterilise the jars and lids and showed her a few other recipes.
"I'll bring you some apples too. Blackberry and apple is great - these apples have lots of pectin - that's what sets the jam - and here's one for jelly and another for apple butter."
The rest of the week was spent preserving fruit. Elana made a few different types of jellies: blackberry, spiced apple, and crab apple, as well as the jams. When Chandra and Joy were around they took part in the activity too. Even Cody did his bit, either helping Sam collect fruit or measuring ingredients in the kitchen. They completely filled an entire counter with jar upon jar of gleaming burgundy and amber preserves, which instilled in both Cody and Elana an inordinate feeling of pride. In no time they were running out of room to put them all. On Saturday Cody excitedly stocked the little stand down by the road while Sam put out the bright new sign that Joy had painted for them.
Business was good as somehow most of Sam's regular customers got wind that the jam was ready. Cody enjoyed rolling the jars in newspaper and packing them into bags for the people. In the afternoon Elana came down to see how they were making out. She decided to relieve Sam and sent Cody off to play because it was too nice of a day for him to be cooped up in the stand the whole time. The first hour she was there saw a lot of business, but soon she was able to settle down and read the book that she had brought. At the sound of a car's horn she raised her head. There was a silver BMW idling in the street. It was very familiar - she had seen it coming in and out of Stewart Stables on quite a few occasions as she was driving by. The driver waved to her to come to the car. She was surprised because most people had parked and walked over to the stand, but she resigned herself that it wasn't about to happen in this case, and so went up to the road to see what the woman wanted.
"May I help you?"
The woman's hair was died a coppery red, and spiked stylishly with mousse. She waved a skinny arm towards the stand. "How very quaint! You're like a child with a lemonade stand. It is all just too cute."
Elana could not see her eyes because of the reflective lenses of the sunglasses she wore, but her attitude was one of condescension, not humour. "Actually, it's jam." Her voice was just barely polite.
"Jam," the woman said, as if it was something unheard of. "Can you actually make a living selling jam by the side of the road?"
"It is not my intention to make my living this way, but if you think of it, all this fruit would have gone to waste if we didn't make the jam, and all the people that have come to buy it would have been disappointed."
"You actually have customers?"
"It has been hard to keep up with the demand." Elana turned to go. She had no interest in being belittled by the roadside, and breathing in the noxious exhaust fumes at the same time.
"Ah . . . well . . . I see. But isn't jam so very unhealthy with all that sugar and all those other terrible ingredients in it?"
"Oh - you mean the blackberries and the apples?" She did nothing to hide the sarcasm in her voice.
The woman chose to ignore the remark and instead said, "I would buy some if you had a sugarless variety. I'm very health conscious and community spirited. I support all the local charities. Do you make it with artificial sweeteners?"
Elana pulled a pad and pencil out of her pocket and smiled sweetly. "We seem to be all out of the diet jam that we make with that lovely aspartame that causes cancer in lab rats, but I can take your order for our next batch. How many jars would you like?"
The woman put her car into gear and sped off. Elana stalked back to the stand. She shouldn't have reacted so strongly, but she had to admit that it had hurt to be compared with a child and a lemonade stand, and to be referred to as a charity case. As if all the work she was doing was childish and futile. As if she was a fool to even think she stood a chance of making a living from her greenhouse business. She saw the woman pull a quick U-turn down the road and then speed past her, sending a cloud of dust flying. Barely braking, the BMW turned and tore up the driveway to the stables. Elana suddenly had the idea that the woman might just be Darien Stewart's wife or girlfriend, and the notion of him being stuck with a witch like that brought a smile to her face.
Continue reading Sofie's story here
Authors love feedback. Please express your appreciation for Sofie's story here