It wasn’t far, now, but had it really been only three hours since they had left home? Seemed longer. Their road trips didn’t normally drag like this, but they were seldom this long. And, of course, they normally didn’t begin with the tension already set. Angela Tyrell lowered the make-up mirror on her visor to check her look and spotted Samantha in the back seat making eye contact with Ethan in the rear-view mirror. The smile Samantha squeezed out didn’t quite make it to her otherwise warm, hazel eyes, which then swung away to catch the passing scenery out her left side window. A strand of her dark brown hair clung to her cheek until she brushed it away. With just a slight turn of her head, Angela could see Ethan’s focus return to negotiating the winding Coastal Highway.
She let her gaze wander past Ethan’s profile and out the driver’s window to the road’s far edge tracing its course along steep, coastal cliffs. When the gently undulating road ahead curved to the left, she could see clear to the bottom where foaming surf crashed against huge rocks jutting from the water a hundred feet or more below road level.
It pleased Angela that Samantha had such a good rapport with her dad. The one Angela shared with her daughter was good, too, always had been, anyway … mostly. It would be again when the tension from this latest crisis of value differences passed … finished passing, she corrected. Already on the mend, it just needed a bit more time … time, and a place to spend that time together as a family without distractions. She silently pledged to herself and to her daughter that during this time she would see that all the doors and pathways were unblocked and welcoming to whoever might be ready to take the steps.
And she was always willing to be the first to take a step. “Oh, Sammi, wouldn’t you just love to live back there in Mendocino? All those quaint, old houses and stores – it’s like something you’d see in New England.”
“There sure wasn’t a shortage of tourists,” Sammi answered after only a brief pause. “They were everywhere. I guess that’s what we were, though.”
Angela looked but could pick up no clear sign of sarcasm. She’d take it as a step.
Ethan spoke up. “Well, you know, they used shots of the place to create Cabot Cove in that old TV show, Murder She Wrote; although, I can’t say it looked much like it did on the screen. Where was the calm harbor at the end of the road lined with cottages and picket fences? Or maybe we just didn’t drive down the right street. That quick loop we made through town probably missed a lot. But, I’d say they still added a few things and changed a few, too, probably moved a store or house here and there, maybe eliminated a whole coastline of breakers crashing over rocks.”
Angela concealed her smile at her husband. He tended to ramble on once he got started after an extended period of silence, but this was probably a good time for rambling. Better than the awkward silence.
And, so, Ethan rambled on. “Apparently, you can do just about anything with an image once you digitize it. Hey, I wonder what we could do with our place back home. I’d like to see a nice big tree in the back yard, maybe a weeping willow or a big, old, gnarly pepper tree. Or how about a pennant-flying turret on top of a three-story tower above the roof – yeah, and with a moat around the whole thing – with alligators?”
Angela gave her husband another smile, but this one was bright and for public consumption. He was really trying to keep things light. She just hoped things would stay that way. If only her stubborn daughter would see her side. Without Sammi being aware of where her side had come from, though, she supposed it was a lot to expect. Still, she was Sammi’s mother, and at fourteen, the girl would simply have to respect her wishes. Even though Ethan sided with Sammi, she was still Sammi’s mother, and it was her right, her responsibility, really, to demand certain behavior. And if she chose not to explain why she believed the way she did, she was within her rights to still insist on compliance. In all the years with Ethan, she hadn’t even revealed it to him. She was just glad that he had never insisted and that he seldom even commented on it any more.
“How come we don’t come up here more often?” Sammi asked no one in particular. “It’s so beautiful.”
Now, that was a definite step. Angela hoped Sammi was getting back to her normal, sweet self, and that her question and remark really were spontaneous reactions to the scene sweeping past on both sides of the car, emerging from out beyond the windshield and dwindling out the rear window like a travelogue.
“Gee, Honey,” Ethan answered. “It’s a good three-hour drive. But, that is a good question. How come, Angela? Once or twice a year wouldn’t be all that tough. I’ll bet your Uncle Liam gets lonely up here all by himself since Louisa died. What’s it been now, three years? A phone-call every month or so hardly cuts it.”
“Well, she went just after Memorial Day, so, yes, it’s been just under three years. Seems like just weeks, when I think about it. But Uncle Liam says he likes the solitude, and that the weekly trips into town are enough to keep him civil to the few people he might meet in between.”
Ethan let out a short laugh. “Yeah, he told me a while back that he’s got a couple of neighbors he’d be just as happy to see only once every decade or so, if that. But, with the nearest one well over a mile away, and that one is tolerable enough, others that aren’t so easy to get along with are scattered far and wide. Still, I’d say he was fortunate to be married to a woman that liked the outdoors as much as he does. It’s a shame we never got up here to see Louisa in a place she loved so much.”
Sammi said, “Uncle Liam told me it was Aunt Louisa’s idea to move up here when he retired. He said she liked the light up here better for her painting. I can’t tell it’s any different from back at home, but I guess she could.”
Angela’s smile was soft and relaxed. Sammi was actually taking part in the conversation. She seemed to be over the black mood that had overshadowed most of the miles they had traveled since leaving their driveway in Santa Rosa. She had spoken little other than those few excited remarks when she claimed she had spotted a whale just offshore after passing through Jenner. It could have happened, she supposed. The gray whales were on their way back north with their new calves after birthing in Baja. Angela didn’t see it, but Sammi insisted that she had.
After they made the turn inland just south of Fort Bragg, and the new course threaded its way through towering redwood forests growing thick on steep mountain-sides, it was easy to imagine the beautiful, rugged Northern California coastline was a thousand miles away. After a few miles on the well-maintained, state highway, they turned off onto a less well-maintained, county road, and then onto one lesser yet. Private roads and driveways, frequently unpaved, that branched from it to disappear into the shadows beyond curtains of roadside greenery could easily be mis-identified as game trails.
“Honey, do you remember what it was that Liam said about finding that last turn-off?” Ethan slowed down to creeping speed and glanced at the letter-sized computer print-out. “Something about a tree? This map he sent us will only get us so far. There’s no rhyme or reason to the lay-out of things up here. Unless, you’re a bear, I suppose. They probably know their way around. But for us human-types, it’d be awfully easy to get lost. There’s no signs or addresses or anything.”
“Well, I suppose the folks that live up here know where everything is, and he and the others are probably just as happy not to have sight-seers and solicitors dropping by.”
“I guess. What are there, four other houses that share the road? Is this a private road, do you know?”
“I think Aunt Louisa told me once they have five others that share the road, and it is county, not private. There was probably a road-name sign at one time, but after it got knocked down or shot up, I guess no one got in a rush to replace it.”
Ethan stopped to give ample space for a reluctant doe and two prancing fawns ambling across the blacktop a hundred feet ahead to disappear into the brush beneath the trees at the road edge. As they watched nature’s parade, no one spoke, other than a hushed “aw” from Sammi, until the roadside ferns and tree saplings swallowed the last flicking tail.
Sammi wondered, “Where’s their father, do you suppose?”
“Oh, bucks don’t stick around after breeding,” Ethan explained. “Hunters like ’em too much.”
“That’s awful! So, he just leaves mom to raise the kids while he’s off with his buddies? Just like a man, I guess.”
“Hey, now,” Ethan responded. “Take it easy on the guy, okay? He just does like all the others. That way he’s still around and breathing when he’s needed the following year.”
“I think she was kidding, dear.”
When Ethan slipped Angela a wink before responding to Sammi’s judgment, she suppressed a smile.
After catching Sammi’s attention in the mirror, he said with wide eyes, “Is that right, honey? Is my little girl really onto how the world works?”
With a chuckle and a hand thumped against the back of his seat, she answered, “Yes, Dad, I really do know how things work, even in the jungle.”
When Ethan started the car moving again, Angela said, “I think Uncle Liam said there’s a strange looking tree about a hundred feet before the turn, an old-growth redwood about a thousand feet tall that lightning has hit so many times, there’s hardly a limb left on it. He said it looks like the Washington Monument covered with bark.”
“A thousand feet, huh?”
“His words, so I suppose it could be an exaggeration. It’s probably just tall enough and different enough from the jillions of other trees around here to stand out.”
Ethan kept his speed to thirty or less, frequently much less in the tighter curves, and thankful there were no other cars to hang on his rear bumper like out on the highway. In fact, since they had taken the turn-off from the highway ten miles or so back, they hadn’t encountered a dozen other vehicles, coming or going, and none since the last turn-off onto their current road at least two miles back. But there were no camp grounds or lakes up that way, and deer hunting season was weeks away, so unless they were locals, visiting locals, or lost, there was no reason for anyone else to be on these isolated roads.
He took occasional glances off to the sides when he wasn’t negotiating a sharp turn or preparing for the next one. “Wow! Just look at that! Without a bunch of growth beneath the trees, there’s a hell of a view back in there. It’s like something out of the Jurassic Period. Some of those trees look about that old. And just look at the matt of dead needles and stuff. Some places it looks like a couple of feet deep. Sure wouldn’t want to try walking through that for very long. And there’s not a lot of level ground, either, so it’d be either climbing up the side of a mountain or trying to make my way down without sliding down on my ass. Bet it’d be easy to get turned around in there, too. You might be able to keep straight from the sun, but you probably wouldn’t be able to see it or even tell what direction it was most of the time, even if it wasn’t clouded over. Think we can go a whole week without getting lost, Sammi?”
“Probably not. But, I’ll stay out of the woods if you will. We’ll let Mom and Uncle Liam do any trekking that needs trekked.”
“Deal!” Ethan caught Angela’s eye and winked at her surprised smile. It was good to have the old Sammi back.
“Oh, yeah,” Angela responded with a laugh. “The great outdoors-woman, that’s me. I’d get lost in my own rose garden if I didn’t have stepping stones to follow.”
The road was wide enough for two cars to pass, but not with a lot of room to spare. Although clearly not freshly surfaced, the pavement showed little wear and tear. But that was probably due more to the lack of traffic than the quality of materials and application. The edge of the pavement frequently abutted a steep bank or ended at the lip of a drop that ranged anywhere from a foot to forty feet. Safety railings and barriers were non-existent. Occasional clear spots merely accentuated the primeval forest through which they made their way.
“There it is!” Sammi thrust her hand toward the windshield. “There’s the tree!”
Ethan lifted his foot from the pedal and allowed the down-slope of the road to take them past the tree before softly braking. The nature-branded tree, nearly eight feet wide at the ground, was burned only at the top where stubs of limbs jutted from the lifeless trunk.
“Wow, it is the tallest thing around! I bet it gets hit by lightning a lot.”
“And here’s the turn.” Ethan swung onto the dirt track that began a long ascent up the side of the canyon that branched off the larger one cleaving the mountain. It was just wide enough for one car, and, after fifty feet, it disappeared around a curve. “This is the last fork, isn’t it? Uncle Liam’s driveway?”
Angela nodded and looked at him with a smile tinged with hope more than doubt. “Pretty sure.” But she glanced at the piece of paper in her hand before adding, “This is number five, right? That’s what he told me. Five turns-offs after leaving the highway: a left, a right, two more lefts that were both dirt, and now this one to the right, also dirt.”
“And then what’d he say? Half a mile?”
“Uh huh, or there-about, again, his words. So that could translate to somewhere between zero-point-five and five-point-zero.”
At close to a mile, the rift opened out to merely a tree-choked depression where a saddle nestled between rocky peaks. As the mountainsides curved away, the forest thinned, and images of what lay beyond began to find their way through until they could make out the shape of a house outlined against open sky beyond. The car swung around the last dense grove of redwoods and cedars towering above swirls of ferns, and Uncle Liam’s retreat stood before them.
Like a ski lodge overlooking Lake Tahoe, it was an assemblage of heavy timbers, stacked logs, supporting beams, and many-paned windows. A wide, wooden porch with whole, de-branched saplings for handrails swept to the left from the front door, across half of the house front, and around the north side toward the back. It was roofed over as far as the front corner of the house, and then the rest lay open to the sky. A wide, second floor balcony that appeared to have doors from every room up there repeated the shape of the porch. The first impression was that it was bigger than it really was. Built by a family with four children, it was plenty big enough to hold a family mini-re-union. It promised a grand view out beyond the other side of what looked from the front yard like a wide vista of rugged mountains and yawning canyons.
Sammi had no sooner opened her door than the front door of the house opened and a flash of black and white bounded down the steps and streaked toward them. Sammi jerked her leg back into the car and closed the door as the dog slid to a halt at the sound of a brief, sharp whistle from a man still descending the steps. It sat there, still fifteen feet from the car, its tongue hanging out the side of its grinning mouth, squirming to resume its eager greeting of the guests but anchored by the master’s signal. When the smiling man approaching the car stopped beside the dog, he waved his arm in a come-on-out gesture.
Angela opened her window half way and called out, “Hi Uncle Liam. Is he okay?”
“Oh, sure, he’s fine. He’s just happy we’ve got visitors. Come on out.”
Sammi was the first to take his word for it and was kneeling in front of the dog before Angela could utter a word of caution. But when Liam made a subtle move with his hand, and the dog leapt into the girl’s open arms with its tongue lashing her face, it was clear to all that this was not an animal to be feared.
Liam squatted beside Sammi, and, after giving her a brief hug and a peck on her cheek, he stroked his hand down the Border collie’s back. “His name is Pepper … well, to the AKC, he’s Vanessa’s Dash of Pepper. Vanessa was his mother. He just goes by Pepper.” Then, standing, he greeted his niece with a hug and a peck, and her husband with a hearty handshake. “Glad you finally got up here to see me. You didn’t have any trouble finding the place, did you?”
Chuckling, Ethan answered, “Your print-out was a great help, but road signs would’ve helped, too. I can’t see how you don’t get lost every time you go shopping.”
Liam happily accepted Angela’s second, heartier, hug, a cheek-on-cheek caress accompanied by a wide smile. “Well, I do have to pay attention. If I were to let myself get distracted by daydreaming, or – shudder – texting, I’d probably wind up at a neighbor’s house. I s’pose road signs probably would help.”
“So, you do have neighbors – real, human neighbors that live in houses and eat store-bought food?”
Liam’s laugh was an easy chuckle. “Well, mostly, anyway. We’re sorta civilized out here, just not obsessive about it.”
He waited for Ethan to gets their bags out, and then took Sammi’s and led them into the house with Pepper and Sammi trailing behind.
After getting everyone settled into their rooms, they all went out to the back deck for the dinner Liam had begun in his smoker and barbecue some hours earlier.
Well into a meal of marinated brisket, mixed grilled vegetables and potato salad, Angela remarked, “This is Mom’s potato salad, isn’t it? I haven’t had it in years. I could never make it right.”
Liam nodded and grinned. “And neither could Louisa. If you don’t get all the right ingredients, right down to the right brand names, and in the right proportions, it just won’t do. Good thing your grandmother taught me how to make it along with your mother or the best potato salad ever devised would be lost to posterity, never again to be appreciated for the art-form it truly is.”
With a good meal shared with good company finished, and everyone sitting and sipping the last of their zinfandel, and Sammi her sparkling cider, Ethan stood and walked to the railing where he slowly swirled his glass as he gazed out at the view.
Looking to the northeast, level ground had been graded and smoothed but allowed to revert to natural growth, except for a thirty-by-forty-foot area heavily fenced off for a vegetable garden, and then ended a little over eighty feet past of the deck. Beyond, the ground sloped at an increasing angle that quickly arced down at nearly forty degrees to the bottom of the canyon close to a thousand feet below. The enclosing mountains framed a panoramic scene of a canyon that swept to right and left and opened to another one straight across that snaked and twisted into the distance. The farther summits, peeking through gaps between nearer mountains like nosy neighbors from over the fence, faded away northward into a hazy distance. With the sun in its fall toward the mountaintops in the west, the eastern slopes and the deeper chasms were in shadow. Towering conifers covered the rugged range in a textured matt that seemed a single, solid mantel except where occasional meadows and clearings, like moth-eaten holes in a blanket, revealed the myriad individual pillars of the internal structure of the seemingly endless forest. And, as Ethan remembered observing from the car, the world beneath the trees was not a tangle of underbrush through which only small animals might scurry, but an open cathedral lushly carpeted by decades and centuries of leaf mold, ferns, mushrooms, and fallen, decaying giants, broken and splintered from the impacts and half covered in moss. Here and there, lichen-etched boulders and shoulders of bedrock lay exposed where soil had eroded away, and they protruded into the resin-scented air like worn molars.
“I do this often,” Liam said from beside him, leaning with his elbows on the rough bark still coating the railing. “Never get tired of it, either. Except for a few unpaved roads, and even fewer paved ones, all for the sole purpose of taking travelers to isolated holdings like this place, there’s hardly a mark of Man anywhere out there.” He turned and leaned back against the rail, cocked elbows resting atop the rough wood, and he observed his niece and grand-niece, sitting at opposite ends of a bench on one side of the rustic picnic table, not looking at each other or speaking. “So,” he began, speaking to no one in particular. “Anyone gonna tell me why Sammi had to go to court?”
The silence was not total; a soft breeze whispered through the endless boughs like a prolonged sigh. When the near-silence began to get embarrassing, Ethan spoke up. “It was just some little tiff at school. Schools don’t handle hardly anything anymore, you know. Just about anything more than a sneeze winds up in juvenile court.”
“She got into a fight,” Angela said, rising to her feet but not moving from the table. “It was not a little tiff. She resorted to violence against another girl, something she knows I am adamantly opposed to.”
Ethan turned to face the table and his family. “Well, honey, you know, it was self-defense.”
“I don’t care. She should have just turned around and walked away. Violence never solves anything.”
“I tried to, remember?” Sammi’s voice was almost muffled, as though she was speaking more to herself than to anyone present. Still seated at the table, her head was down, and her hands were clasped at the back of her neck so that her forearms were nearly covering her ears.
Angela turned to face her daughter and shook her head. “Well, you should have tried harder.”
“Every time I tried, I got punched.” Her voice quavered. “How many times am I supposed to let someone punch me before I punch back?”
“If you used the amount of energy that went into your punches to ducking and walking away, I’m sure you could have escaped unharmed – and without doing harm.”
Ethan’s elbows went behind him to rest on the railing. “Darling, remember what the judge said? A person has the right to defend him or her self. And from what the witnesses said, Mindy had her backed into a corner and was whaling on her. If it had continued, Sammi could have been injured … more than the split lip and bruises she did get.”
“And she could have seriously injured Mindy by escalating the violence.”
“No more than what she was getting. I don’t understand how you can defend Mindy against Sammi. She’s the one that started it, and apparently not for the first time, both with Sammi and others. She’s a known bully and troublemaker. It’s about time someone stood up to her.”
“I’m not defending Mindy. Her behavior is her parents’ concern, not mine. I’m saying Sammi – my daughter – is not to resort to violence. It’s my belief, and I’m afraid I’m going to insist on it.”
“But, there are times when it’s unavoidable, when a person has no other choice.”
“There is always another choice – always.”
At the other end of the table from Angela, Sammi stood up and, with her voice tight and her eyes tearing, she spat out, “What do you know? When did you ever stand there and let someone pound on you? When did you ever –?” Without finishing her rant, she spun and ran out into the fern and low bush covered clearing on the north side of the house, a fifty-foot space between house and forest. She didn’t stop until the shadow line of the first trees fell across her. And then she merely stood and glared into the deeper shadows.
Liam looked from the disturbed girl to her mother, to her father, and back to her mother. He bit his lip and tried to ignore a polite ahem from a long-squelched family skeleton asking to be heard in its closet. Instead, “I wish I had known it was such a tender subject. I’m sorry.”
Ethan laid a hand on the older man’s shoulder. “It’s something we’re going to have to work out. We can’t just let it rest without reaching some kind of agreement of –”
“There is nothing to discuss and no agreement to be reached other than that my daughter will abide by my standards. I’m sorry, Ethan, but this is not negotiable. No violence, no excuses, no exceptions.”
When Liam jerked beneath the hand on his shoulder, Ethan withdrew it. But before he could apologize or ask what was wrong, he noticed Liam’s attention focused on Sammi. And when he turned his own gaze that way, he felt a chill of icy fear run down his back.
As Sammi took slow, even steps backwards out of the shadows, a small animal, still in the shadows and indistinct at first, kept pace with her. Its swaying, slow amble toward her along with its size made it recognizable as a young, bear cub. It was no farther than twenty feet from the girl, and then twenty feet behind the cub at the same ambling pace came an adult bear. It walked in that same swaying, slow movement that made it look like it was just nosing around, but its gaze never strayed from the retreating human that was close enough to the cub to pose a threat.
As Liam moved toward that side of the deck he motioned to both Ethan and Angela with both hands to stay put and to remain silent, then he spoke in a soft voice that still carried across the clearing. “Keep moving slowly, Sammi. Don’t run, but don’t let the cub get any closer, either. Slow and easy … slow and easy … that’s right. Keep coming.”
While he kept up his instructions, he moved over to the rear door of the house and, from just inside, pulled out a rifle. Still taking slow but long, distance-eating paces while he operated the bolt of the scope-less rifle to feed a round into the breech, he stepped down into the side yard toward the trio. He raised the weapon to his shoulder where he could watch both animals over the top of the barrel, but he never lost a step closing with Sammi. When he was beside her, with the rifle pointed at the creature behind the cub, he said, “Okay, honey, see if you can turn and face the house without stumbling. Just pivot on one foot as you plant it … that’s right. Don’t run, now. Keep going nice and slow … you’re doing fine.”
Walking backwards at the same slow pace, he followed Sammi back to the steps from the deck. Knowing without having to look that Sammi’s parents were at the top of the steps behind him, he said, “Don’t run, but take Sammi inside, and don’t close the door on me; I’ll be right behind you.”
The cub paused when Liam started up the four steps then turned at his mama’s grunt. When she grunted a couple more times, he took a couple of short hops in her direction, them sauntered the rest of the way back to her. She sniffed him, turned and ambled away with him pretty much in her shadow.
Liam didn’t set his rifle down until the door was closed and firmly latched. He removed the cartridge from the breech and reinserted it back into the magazine, closed the bolt on an empty breech and pulled the trigger to a solid click, then leaned the rifle back against the wall between the door’s opening and a shelf. He turned to face his ashen-faced guests and held out his arms to Sammi.
Pausing briefly for a hug from Angela’s enclosing arms, she went to him.
His arms held the shivering girl as he gazed over her head at wide-eyed Mom and Dad. “What we just walked away from with all our hides still intact is probably the most dangerous thing in these parts, especially this time of year. They’re not long out of hibernation, and they’re looking for just about anything to eat. Not the cubs, of course; they’re mostly nursing. But you don’t want to get between Mama Bear or Papa Bear and a berry bush. And you fer sure don’t want to get between Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Papa Bear wouldn’t hesitate to eat a cub or two if he could catch one without Mama nearby. But even he is reluctant to go up against her. To protect Baby Bear, she’d pretty much tear Papa a new one.”
“Why didn’t you just shoot her?” Ethan asked.
“Oh, my, no! It wasn’t needed. I mean, I would have if she had charged, but she didn’t appear to be that agitated. Now, she could have gotten that way pretty quick, but it wouldn’t have been instantly. And that’s why I kept her targeted. But, as you saw, she read the situation merely as risky but not perilous. And it was a teaching moment for Baby. You know, sorta, ‘Look, but not too closely, then leave, and always keep your eye on those pesky humans.’ Hopefully, he’ll remember it the next time he comes across a person.”
“That guy in Alaska got too close, I guess.”
“Oh, you mean the one in the news a couple of weeks ago that thought he could live with bears and not get eaten? Yeah, he was a fool. But, he was in Alaska, and the bears up there are Grizzlies and Browns. They’re overgrown cousins of the sort we have around here. Normally, black bears aren’t very aggressive if you play by the rules. Some folks say there seems to be an increase in their numbers in recent years. Not a lot, but some. I think they’re just losing more of their fear of humans ’cause they see so much of us, and we’ve usually got food nearby. They simply come scrounging for easy meals.”
“Do you think we should leave?” Angela asked with a shaky voice.
“Oh, no, not at all. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to scare you. I just tend to ramble on, sometimes. You should be aware of the hazards of your surroundings, is all. Just keep in mind that out here in the woods, nature is king, or queen, I guess, in this case. The more you know about what’s out here and what it does, as well as how and why it does what it does, the safer you will be. Even going out for a hike, just be aware, if nothing else, of where you are and which way to go to get back here. Even I might get lost if I didn’t pay attention, ’cause most trees look pretty much alike. Naw, stay and enjoy your week here in God’s country. Even take a stroll if you feel like it. Just pay attention. It’s a good idea, too, to make a bit of noise as you go. If bears, or anything else out there, can hear you coming, most likely you’ll never see them.”
Ethan looked at Angela for a moment, then back to Liam. “Anything else? What else is out there that we should know about?”
“Oh, why there’s lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!” When fear again widened their eyes and mouths, he laughed. “Just kidding, folks! Come on, now, Angela. You don’t really think I’d let you go roaming about if there were real monsters out there, do you? Or even live here, myself?”
“No, I guess not. I think my heartbeat is finally settling back to near normal. That was quite an attention getter for our first day.”
“I won’t deny that, but it’s over. Mama and Baby have moved on, and I need to go back out and clean up. Don’t want any enticing scraps to bring ’em back, or any of their cousins.”
“Cousins? You mean –?”
“Joke, Angela. It was a joke. Here, why don’t you and Sammi relax and work some womanly magic with the coffee maker over there in the corner, and us men-folks will do the man-chores outside.”
Twenty minutes later, Liam closed the back door after he and Ethan came back in. As he turned to the room, Angela handed him a cup of fresh-brewed coffee.
“Well now, this is a pretty good reason to consider having house guests more often. Thanks, hon.”
“You’re welcome,” accompanied a kiss on his cheek.
After a third sip of coffee, Liam removed a bubbling, cherry cobbler from the oven and set it on an unlit burner. “That needs a good half-hour or so to cool,” he said as he extended his hand toward the front of the house. “So how about a tour of your Aunt Louisa’s paintings? She was working on one the day she died, a gorgeous sunset. It’s unfinished and still on the easel in her studio. That’s not morbid, is it? It just struck me as the best way to display it … sort of like keeping it in context.”
“I’d love to see them,” Angela answered. “She was so talented. And, no, I don’t think it’s morbid, at all. It sounds like a lovely memorial. Come on, Ethan. Sammi?”
After a pleasant evening of looking at some pretty good works of art, during which time no mention was made of Sammi’s misadventures, and then some excellent, home-made cobbler, everyone was happy to turn in early after such a hectic and tiring day. Everyone agreed, too, that the likelihood of events during the remainder of their visit being equal to the angst and terror of this day were slim – non-existent, even.