Authors: Dee Ernst
© 2016 by 235 Alexander Street
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
If you’d like to learn more about Mt. Abrams, including other books in the series, please visit
To find more of other Dee’s books, go to
Comments? Questions? An uncontrollable desire to just chat? You can reach me at
. Abrams was exactly the kind of quaint, close-knit community that people dreamt about. Everyone knew everyone else, people smiled and rescued kittens, childhood sweethearts lived happily ever after, and everyone who lived there, when asked, would all say the same thing—“Yes, it’s a lovely place to live. Nothing ever happens here.”
Everyone who lived there was, of course, lying. Mt. Abrams was exactly the kind of quaint, close-knit community where everything and anything happened, quite often, and to lots of people. There were moms who drank too much wine, kids who did drugs and shoplifted makeup from Lord & Taylor, adultery, vicious gossip (much of it true) and worse.
We all thought that a certain wife kept falling down the stairs way too often. And the single mom with the drug problem kept sending her kids away to her “grandparents,” and we all smiled and nodded and ignored the child services worker who came every week. And, of course, there were “characters.” As my very good friend Shelly Goodwin often said, Mt. Abrams seemed to have a disproportionately high percentage of drunks, assholes, and whack jobs.
But the myth persisted. Nothing ever happened there.
Until Lacey Mitchell dropped off the face of the earth.
For me, Ellie Rocca—divorced, working from home, and in a little bit of a rut—it became almost a challenge to figure out where she’d gone, and more importantly, why.
a lot to the people around here. Just like any small town, people liked things to stay pretty much the same from day to day, especially when kids were involved. The morning bus stop ritual, for example, was sacred. So when Lacey Mitchell did not walk with her boys to the bus stop one Monday morning, we all noticed. Lacey usually stood with her two sons, David and Jordan, smiling faintly from a short but significant distance from the main group. That morning, her husband Doug did the honors. I smiled and waved, and immediately started to wonder—laziness? Doing her roots?
“Hi, Doug, is Lacey all right?” I called over. He was standing as far away from the bus stop as was humanly possible without actually being on another block.
The two boys both turned and looked up at their father.
“She’s fine,” Doug said. He smiled briefly. “Her father is ill. In Buffalo. I drove her to the train station Saturday.”
Jordan, the older of the boys, tugged on Doug’s sleeve and muttered something, but Doug shook him off without even glancing down at his son. “Don’t know how long she’ll be away.”
I nodded. “Oh. Well, give her my best when you talk to her. Do you need any help with the boys?”
Doug flashed another smile. “No, thanks, ah, um… “
“Ellie,” I reminded him.
Another tight smile. “Right. Ellie. We’re good.”
I turned back to the circle of moms, eyebrows raised. “Buffalo?” I whispered.
“I never realized she had a father in Buffalo,” Sharon Butler said.
“I never realized she had parents, period,” Shelly Goodwin muttered, and the group burst into smothered laughter.
“Come on,” I said. “Lacey isn’t that bad.”
Maggie Turner made a noise. “Yes, she is. She’s like a mom-bot, all perfect and polite. Him too. They’re like Stepford people.”
She did have a point. They were a beautiful couple—tall, lean and vaguely Nordic, with fair hair and pale blue eyes. They both had a certain look, as though they’d met while modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch. They looked like the type of people you couldn’t imagine doing anything even vaguely distasteful, like throwing up in the back seat of a car. Their sons were equally good looking and polite, and managed to never get their clothes dirty.
The bus pulled up, and the sounds of the engine and cries of good-bye drowned out all conversation. I gave ten-year-old Tessa a kiss and waved as my beautiful, fearless, and way-too-stubborn little girl climbed on the bus.
The bus chugged up the hill, and I turned to Shelly. “Ready?”
Shelly nodded. “In fifteen?”
I nodded and watched as Doug got into his Camry to drive away, and then trudged up the hill to home. In fifteen minutes I’d be back down with Boot, the most spoiled cocker spaniel in the world, and a Thermos mug of coffee for a morning walk around Mt. Abrams. It was all the exercise I got these days, and since I was on the slow rise after fifty, I made the effort, even on days not as perfect as this beautiful May morning.
When I came through the door into my kitchen, there was no blare of hip-hop or garbled television noise from upstairs. Cait was still asleep. Caitlyn was my other beautiful, fearless, way-too-stubborn daughter. She was twenty-four. She was born in the first years of my marriage, when things between Marc and I had been great. Tessa was born in the last few years of the same marriage, when sex was the only thing Marc and I had left in common. Now Marc lived in a sleek two-bedroom condo in Hoboken with a view of the New York skyline. I was still in a slightly shabby, decidedly quaint Victorian on Abrams Lane, around the corner from the post office and town library, with a view of the lake.
Cait had just finished a very expensive graduate program with a master’s degree in French poetry, with a specialization in early nineteenth century romantics. I figured she’d be switching from her part-time job waiting tables at a chichi French restaurant to a full-time job waiting tables at a chichi French restaurant any day now.
I filled my Thermos with hot coffee, then added way too much sugar and flavored creamer, and called for Boot. She skittered around the corner into the kitchen, ears perked, stump tail wagging. Boot is milk white with black spots and a single black paw. She sat patiently while I attached her leash. My phone made its
You’ve Got Mail
noise. A text from Carol Anderson. She’d meet me at the corner.
Carol was ten years older than I, with all her kids grown and mercifully out of the house. She’d lived in Mt. Abrams all of her life, having been born in one of the Victorian houses on the top of the hill, and then having moved into a more spacious Craftsman-style house after her marriage. She knew all the old guard, and as the librarian at our tiny local branch, she knew many of the newer residents as well.
I bet she’d know something about Lacey Mitchell.
lots of movies for the boys,” Carol said. “Superhero stuff. She reads mostly nonfiction. I never see him at all.” Carol treated her relationships with library patrons with the same confidentiality as a doctor or lawyer, often claiming you could tell more about a person from what they read than by any other means. She kept everyone’s guilty secrets intact, for the most part, but was not above breaking her code of silence for a good cause. “Last week she came in on Thursday. That’s the last time I saw her.” She glanced down at me. “Father in Buffalo?”
I nodded. I never talked much when we walked. Carol was almost six feet tall and had legs up to her neck, and despite the few years she had on me, never seemed out of breath, even going uphill. Shelly was my height, almost five-six, but jogged everywhere and ran marathons in her spare time. I managed to keep up with them mostly because Boot pulled me up the hills, but trying to have a conversation anywhere but on a flat stretch of road was too much to ask, and both of them knew it.
We turned onto Morris, which was
not a backbreaking incline. Shelly tugged on Buster’s leash. Buster was a chocolate lab, and you’d think he’d love the great outdoors, but he hated the hills as much as I did.
“I bet there’s something odd there,” Shelly said. Shelly was five years younger than I, and my best friend in Mt. Abrams. Her youngest son was the same age as Tessa. I had met her during my first week in Mt. Abrams, when her previous chocolate lab, Bruno, wandered into my new house and refused to leave. Cait adopted him on the spot, and when Shelly arrived to claim her wayward pet, she had to resort to some quick thinking to get her back. Cait became her dog sitter.
I became her friend.
Shelly was average height with a flat body—no boobs, no butt, narrow hips. She was very healthy and fit and had a heart of pure gold.
Carol rolled her eyes. “There’s always been something odd there. I mean, those kids come into the library and never speak unless spoken to. Not that I object. Those boys are model library citizens. But who has kids like that anymore?”
Maggie Turner came jogging out of her short driveway and ran around us, grinning. “Come on, Shel, let’s take the next hill,” she said.
Maggie was young, thirty-six, with way too much time on her hands when she was home. Her hair was bleached blonde, super short, and she had five visible tattoos. She was a professional musician, playing second violin in a fairly famous chamber group that gave concerts worldwide. When she was touring, during five or six months every winter, her husband Derek, an artist and cartoonist, cared for six-year-old Serif.
Who was a little girl, in case you were wondering. I know. Serif. That’s a therapy session just waiting to happen.
Maggie was wearing high-cut gym shorts and a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. “Up the hill?”
Shelly tugged at Buster again. “Not today. What did you think of Doug?”
Maggie stopped bouncing and settled in beside Carol. “I think the two little boys were as surprised as we were about Lacey having a sick father.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I noticed that too. And Doug looked awful, like he’d had no sleep.”
Carol shrugged. “Maybe she left him. Maybe he threw her out. Maybe they were up all night having great monkey sex, and she couldn’t walk this morning.”
I was in the process of taking a gulp of coffee as she said that and spewed it all over the street. “Monkey sex?”
Carol nodded. “Yes. When you climb up the headboard, shrieking.”
I licked coffee off my thumb. “Well, I wouldn’t know about that. I’ve pretty much forgotten what sex is, even the non-monkey kind.”
“Seriously, Ellie, I can introduce you to Martin,” said Maggie. “He’s first cello. Amazing guy.”
I shook my head as we turned onto Davis Road. It was quiet and flat, lined with what looked to be Victorian dollhouses. Back in the late 1800s the lots had only been thirty feet wide at the street, so the homes were all narrow and deep, with tiny porches and lots of gingerbread trim. Kate Fisher was on her porch, as she was every morning. We waved and tried to hurry by, but we weren’t quite fast enough. Kate was a talker.
“Ladies, good morning! Oh, I love spring, don’t you? And this is the weekend I set out my impatiens. I hate to see the pansies go, but it’s time…”
We walked on. Luckily, Kate never minded if no one answered her.
There were a few rental properties in Mt. Abrams. The general consensus was that renters did not make good neighbors because they didn’t care how their properties looked. Even though she had only lived there a few weeks, Kate was quickly earning the respect of all of Davis Road. She’d painted all the trim of her tiny house herself, a bright white, and had filled all her window boxes with pansies. It was too bad she couldn’t keep her mouth closed for more than seven seconds at a time.
We turned again, climbed another hill, and finally, spread out in front of us, was the lake. Beyond that rose the mountain that Josiah Abrams named after himself. My house was off to the left, across from the water. Josiah’s original house had been expanded over the years to become the clubhouse, and come summer, the social center of Mt. Abrams. The Mitchell house stood on the opposite side of the lake, facing the clubhouse, looking pristine in the morning sun.
The whole vista was flushed with the first pale green of spring, and the reflection off the water was breathtaking.
I stopped to take it all in. I got to see this every single morning. What else could I want from life? Probably not a cello player. “No thanks, Maggie. I’m going to leave my love life to fate.”
Shelly sighed. “Yeah. Good luck with that.”
he community of Mt
. Abrams was founded in 1871 by Josiah Milner Abrams, a Brooklyn-born merchant who made a fortune during the Civil War by supplying the Union army with saddles and bridles for its cavalry. He had grown tired of the city life, such as it was, so one day he got on the train in Hoboken and traveled due west into the untamed heart of New Jersey, looking for a little piece of paradise he could call his own.
Legend has it that when the train stopped at Lawrence Township, he stepped off to stretch his legs and started wandering up a nearby hill. He forgot all about getting back on the train, apparently overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the place. At the top of the hill was a crystal clear lake, and beyond that, a small mountain so green that Abrams fell in love and bought the whole shebang. Luckily for him, the small mountain was insignificant enough that it didn’t have a name, so of course, he named it after himself. He started by building a grand summer retreat. He had dreamed of a quiet, private paradise for him and his family, but his heirs had other ideas, and most of them involved making more money by selling off everything Josiah had owned, including his land. By the time Marc and I looked at Mt. Abrams, it was your basic lakeside community. Quirky, yes, but hardly paradise.
When Marc and I moved there in the mid-nineties, he wanted a nice, modern bi-level, steps from the train station, so he could commute easily rather than try to drive every day into New York City. I fell in love with one of the original Victorians—not right on the lake, but close enough. Since living by the lake meant he had to walk ten minutes to the station instead of three minutes, he hesitated. Once he conceded that, from a resale perspective, lake view was a better location, we bought the house. Because it had been fairly neglected, we bought it for a song and spent five years in a state of continual rehabilitation. Not the best way to live, but Cait learned early on the joys of new sheetrock and that fresh paint smell.
I loved it. Marc did not. He tried, but he grew to hate the house—its quirky electrical system, uneven floors, and random fits of falling shingles. By the time Tessa was born he was done—with the house, the small-town living, and with me. He got a shorter commute. I got the house I’d always wanted, amazing friends I’d cultivated for years, and a king-size bed all to myself.