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Authors: Mariah Stewart

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Wonderful You (5 page)

BOOK: Wonderful You
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5

 

 

T
he early October su
n blazed on a field of corn stal
ks that stood, pale and brittle, against a backdrop of bright blue sky. Zoey glanced at the c
lock on the dashboard as h
er little red car approached a curve in the road that outlined the field in an uneven black line of asphalt. The co
rn
had long been harvested, but the crows were still picking through the remnants of the ears that hadn't made it to market. It was almost two, and the realtor’s office was still another ten minutes away, out on Route 30. Zoey would be late for her appointment, but she knew that Peg Morris, the realtor, would wait for her. Peg had been assisting Zoey in her quest for a
little house f
or the past two months, since Zoey had signed the contract that ensured her employment with the HMP for the next twenty-four months.

This house search was, Zoey acknowledged, a very big step for her. She saw it as nothing less than an act of self-
a
f
firmation
. It spoke of her commitment to her job, to herself, to a future of her own making. It said that she could buy her own home with her own earnings, that she
expected to be with the HMP for a long time to come. The realization of the enormity of the step she was taking, without having consulted either of her siblings or
her mother, made her grin every time she thought about
it. She had wanted to surprise everyone. Surely they would be as proud
of her as she was of herself.

Zoey pulled into the parking lot of the little brick house that served as the office of one of Lancaster County’s major real estate brokers. Inside, Peg would be waiting for her with a st
ack of color photos, perhaps a
video or two of available properties. Zoey just hoped that there would be a few that were not center hall colonials with four bedrooms and two and a half baths in pricey developments that had years to go before they took on the appe
arance of a real neighborhood.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Zoey apologized as she slid her tweed jacket off her shoulders and sat in the chair next to the realtor’s desk. “I should have left earlier.”

“It’s not a problem.” The young woman smiled. “I was just organizing a few photographs of some new listings to see what you thought.”

The realtor passed an inch-high stack of color photos across the desk to Zoey, who flipped through them quickly.

“No

no

no
…”
Numbers one through five were soundly rejected. “I think I’d like something with a little more
character.”

“What about this one?” Peg handed her a photograph of a contemporary home perched high on a hill, from which an infinite series of decks led downward to what would have been the backyard had it been more accessible. “Gorgeous views.”

“Ummm, not my style.” Zoey handed the photo back. “It just isn’t me.”

“This one?”

“Not exactly…”

“How about this? It’s a lovely little cottage, authentic Revolutionary War era.”

“Is this one of those places where the ceilings are really low?”

Peg nodded. “The original section was built in seventeen thirty-two.”

“That’s out, then. My brother would have to crawl in.”

“Well, then, would you like to look at this one?”

Zoey narrowed her eyes and inspected the photo. “Where are the trees?”

“There are trees.” Peg leaned over and pointed to wispy shadows on the picture.

“What kind of tree is that?”

“I’m not sure,” Peg, told her, “but this developer is known for his landscaping, so I’m sure it’s a good one.”

Zoey shook her head.
“I’ve decided that I definitely do not want a development house. I want


Zoey placed the pile of photographs on the edge of the desk and frowned. “I don’t know exactly what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Well, how ’bout I take you out for a drive and we’ll see what’s out there that might catch your fancy?”

“I think maybe I should just wander about on my own. That way I won’t feel guilty for taking your time if I don’t see anything I like.”
Zoey checked her watch again, t
here was a meeting for all of the show hosts at 4
P.M.
If she left now she’d have time to meander through the hack roads while on her way back to the HMP headquarters. “I promise I’ll call if I see anything that I think looks promising.”

“Well, let me just suggest a few places.” With a blue felt-tip marker, the woman drew a little map for Zoey on a sheet of letterhead. “There are a few small towns out
this
way.” She made an arrow following a road to the right of the highway. “Of course, many of them are little more than crossroads


“Crossroads could be fun,” Zoey smiled. “I’ll call you. And thanks for the map.”

Once back in her little red sports car, Zoey followed
th
e road back out to Route 30, drove south a little, then
made the indicated right t
urn. Five or six miles down the
road, she came to a crossroads, just as Peg had said. She rode the brake, driving slowly through the little town until she passed a sign that read, “You are leaving East Crawford.” Three more miles down the two-lane road she passed another sign:
W
ELCOME TO
B
RADY’S
M
ILL.
Zoey slowed to the posted twenty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit and coasted down the wide main street. Gracious homes—mostly authentic-looking colonials—were set close to the road. A general store, a post office, a feed and farm equip
ment repair shop, and one gas
station pretty much completed the center of town. A sign for the library—shape
d like an open book—hung from
the front porch of a small Queen Anne-style house. Set back off the road was a small white-spired church, architecturally plain e
xcept for its handsome stained
glass window. Neatly tended rows of white marble headstones, glistening in the sun, marched behind the church in precise and neatly tended rows. Across the road weeping willows dipped lacy arms into a wide lake, Zoey eased her car to the shoulder and leaned across her steering wheel to watch two young boys in a small rowboat as they tossed fishing lines into the dark blue water. Irresistibly drawn, sh
e turned off the car, got out,
and walked to the edge of the lake.

On the roadside of the lake, a stone wall had been built, and Zoey found it to
be just the right height for
leaning on. Below the wall, the last few water lilies of the season floated and drago
nflies chased lunch just above
the surface of the water. A few brown ducks floated in the shade of some orange-leafed maples that grew near the bank, and alon
g the shore, three young women
walked frisky toddlers, holding onto their hands lest they venture too close to the water. Up a slight ridge to the right, several houses—newer than those nearer to the center of town—stood in the afternoon sun, their backyards sloping slightly to the lake.

A slight shuffling sound behind her alerted her to company. She looked up and smiled at the old man in
the worn straw hat and denim jacket who stopped and took a place next to her along the wall. He placed his arms across the broad top stones and leaned slightly forward and said, “Nice day, eh?”

The voice was like gravel, rough and gritty.

“Beautiful.”

“Yup. Nothing like an early autumn day.”

Several geese made a noisy arrival, feet first, startling the toddlers on the grassy slope with their loud honking.

“Noisy buggers, damned geese. Always complaining. Too many of them, nowadays. No predators, ya know. Oh, a hawk or a heron will get a few of the young ones, cuts the population a bit, but not so’s you can tell the difference.” He cleared his throat and took his hat off to wave it slightly in the crisp air. He ran a hand through thinning white hair before replacing the hat. All the time he spoke, his eyes never left the two boys in the rowboat.

“Isn’t there a hunting season or something?” Zoey asked.

“There’s sport hunting, but shooting those things”— he pointed a slightly gnarled index finger toward the birds on the bank—“tame as they are, would be criminal. Walk right up to ya. There’s no sport in that.”

“No, I would guess not.” Zoey took a deep breath, deep enough to catch the scent of algae and slightly stagnant water. She leaned over the stone wall and saw that below the bridge, the lake narrowed somewhat to run into a culvert that disappeared under the road. Here and there, remnants of the summer’s crop of cattails leaned toward the lake, their long fringed arms drooping like piano shawls into the still water.

“You wouldn’t be Addie Kilmartin’s granddaughter, now, would you?” the old man asked, still not looking at her.

“No.”

“Didn’t think so.”

They watched as the small boat with its young fishermen floated toward them. One of the boys held up the small fish he had just reeled in. The old man waved to
the boy to acknowledge the catch, then called to him, “Throw ’im back, James. He’s too small.”

The boy carefully removed the hook from the delicate mouth of the fish.

“What kind of fish do you suppose that was?” Zoey watched the boy as he gently slid the fish back into the lake.

“Trout.”

“Hey, Gramps,” James shouted up to them, “what do you think of this one?”

The boy held up another fish, noticeably larger than the one he had a minute earlier set free.

“Looks like dinner to me, son,” the old man chuckled. “I’ll be over to watch you boys clean them in another hour or so. Call your mother when you get home and tell her that we’re doing the cooking tonight.”

“Will do, Gramps.” The older boy grabbed an oar and headed back across the lake.

From somewhere a church bell chimed three bells. Zoey checked her watch. Three o’clock. She’d better get moving, or she’d be late for her meeting. Reluctantly she straightened up and said, “Thanks for sharing the view with me.”

“My pleasure.” The old man turned to look at Zoey for the first time. “Just passing through?”

“Just passing through.” She nodded.

“Pass through again some time.”

“I just might do that,” Zoey called over her shoulder as she got into her car and started the engine, pausing for just a second to take one last look at the lake.

It really is a pretty little town, she thought as she followed the main street to the next crossroads, where one sign announced the end of the village limits and yet another the upcoming Brady’s Mill Pumpkin Festival. She made a left turn and headed back to the highway. If she hurried she would just make her meeting.

* *
*

O
n the following Sunday morning, Zoey hung over the railing of her small deck and watched a flock of Canadian geese fly overhead in a slightly ragged V and thought back to the geese on the lake at Brady’s Mill. Sipping at the day’s first cup of coffee, she inhaled deeply of the morning air, fragrant with the scent of clematis and sweetpea from a neighbor’s deck, and wondered how she would spend this beautiful autumn day. A screen door slammed a few doors down, and she glanced over to see a young girl struggle to set a large orange pumpkin down on the deck steps without dropping it. Zoey glanced at the date on her watch. It would be Halloween in another three weeks. Maybe she would get a pumpkin at the local market and paint a clever face on it.

She thought of other Halloweens, long past, when her mother would take all four kids—Zoey, Georgia, Nick, and Ben Pierce—to the local farmers’ market, where each of them would pick out their own personal Halloween pumpkins. She and Georgia would select small, perfectly rounded pumpkins upon which they would carefully draw cute and friendly little features on chubby orange-pumpkin faces. Nick and Ben, on the other hand, would seek out the biggest, most unperfect specimens, which they would later carve into grotesque masks of twisting scowls and ragged teeth that would glow demonically when lit candles were placed inside. Zoey laughed out loud at the recollection of the sight of the two ugly pumpkins, which the boys would set at the end of the driveway to ward off evil spirits and erstwhile trick-or-treaters.

The little girl disappeared into the apartment, returning minutes later dragging her father by both hands. Time to carve the pumpkin. The father gestured to his daughter, who spread a layer of newspapers across the top of the table. The prep work completed, the pumpkin was set atop the table and the serious debate of how best to carve began in earnest.

I want a pumpkin too,
Zoey thought as she swished her coffee around in the bottom of the cup. Where had she seen something about pumpkins, about
a pumpkin day or pumpkin fest?

Brady’s Mill,
she recalled.
Their pumpkin-something is today.

What better place to find a perfect pumpkin?

Zoey finished her coffee in two gulps, and took the stairs to her bedroom two at a time. She slid into Sunday country clothes of slightly baggy jeans and a nubby crewneck sweater of palest gold, and bounced back down the steps as quickly as she had climbed them. Locking the front door behind her, she set out for Brady’s Mill.

Traffic leading into the village was much heavier than it had been during the previous week. A middle-aged man in a black sweatshirt with a large orange pumpkin
appliquéd
on its front instructed Zoey to follow a short line of cars as they filed into a cornfield, now cleared to serve as a parking lot. She pulled into a makeshift parking spot in front of a row of tall evergreens, then fell in line behind a crowd of young pumpkin seekers who all seemed to know exactly where they were going. On the other side of the evergreens, a rambling stone farmhouse edged its way to the road. Behind it stood a ba
rn
, and next to the ba
rn
a windmill. In the open farmyard, large wooden cribs offered pumpkins of every size and shape, and long tables were laden with baked goods and produce. Zoey poked through the pumpkins until she found several that she liked, then tried to balance them while rummaging in her purse for her wallet.

“You planning on walking into town for a while?” a woman asked from the other side of a table upon which tidy rows of jars of relishes and butters—pumpkin, apple, and peach—were displayed, their labels neatly printed by hand.

Zoey hesitated momentarily. “What’s in town?”

“Oh, the usual country fair stuff. Local crafts and food, games for the children.”

“Sure.” Zoey nodded. “It sounds interesting.”

“Well, then, I’d be happy to mark these
paid
for you and set them aside so’s you don’t have to cart them around with you. You can just pick them up here on your way out.”

“Thank you, I’d appreciate that.” Zoey placed the pumpkins in a basket and passed them back to the woman, who instructed her to write her name on a slip of paper, which she stuck between two of the pumpkins before placing the basket on the ground along with other baskets similarly left under the table. She tallied up the cost of pumpkins, and Zoey handed her several bills to pay for them.

Zoey wandered along, glancing at the tables of baked goods, most of which had pumpkin or apple on the small white label stuck to the clear wrapping that covered all the tempting offerings. Pumpkin bread. Apple strudel. Pumpkin muffins. Apple turnovers. Pies. Cookies. Cakes. Zoey strolled along to the last table, where she bought a tall paper cup filled with icy cold apple cider, then followed the crowd meandering toward the center of town. The road was blocked off to traffic at either end, and shoppers and sightseers alike enjoyed the atmosphere of an old-fashioned street fair. A man on stilts passed by, followed by a woman on a unicycle. At a table under an enormous oak, a young woman painted tiny flowers on the chubby cheeks of a little girl. Someone was selling balloons in the shape of pumpkins, and farther down the street, someone else offered sweatshirts emblazoned wi
th the same cheery jack-o-lantern
s that smiled from the shirts of the festival volunteers. Makeshift stands along one side of the street sold water ice, Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cake, and cotton candy.

Sipping at her cider, Zoey walked the street with the crowd until she found herself back on the bridge overlooking the lake. She set her cup on top of the wall, and leaned her arms against the stone, just as she had done once before, and warmed by the afternoon sun, slid her sunglasses onto her face, and watched the activities on the lake below. Twenty or so rowboats, all manned by children who looked to be no more than ten or twelve, lined up along one side of the lake. Someone in a slightly larger boat popped a balloon, and the race toward the opposite shore began. Parents and friends shouted encouragement from both sides of the lake as the small boats made their way—some unevenly, some with practiced skill—toward the finish line. A whoop went up when a blue boat, manned by two young girls, slid past their nearest competitors for the win.

“So, then, if you’re not Addie Kilmartin’s granddaughter, it must be the lake that brought you back,” a voice of grit and gravel said from behind her.

Zoey turned to see the old man in his straw hat who had sidled up to her. She smiled with genuine pleasure, tickled to be recognized by someone in this crowd where everyone else seemed to know each other.

“Actually, it was the pumpkins, but yes, I like the lake.” She paused
, then asked, “Who’s Addie Kil
martin?”

“Was my next door neighbor.” He took the place next to her, and leaning his arms on the top of the wall, added, “Died this past spring. Her granddaughter was supposed to come along this summer and tend to selling the house, but hasn’t managed to get around to it. Wish she’d get on with it. I’m gettin’ too old to keep mowing both her grass and mine.”

“Hey, Gramps, did you see us?”

The young boy who had manned the fishing boat earlier in the week called from the boat, which bobbed up and down, so many boats making the lake a bit choppy.

“I certainly did. Could have won if you hadn’t gotten so cocky there at the end and let your cousin Jackie sail right on past you.”

The boy scowled as he rowed toward the shore. “We’re going to get
lunch now. Besides, all the row
boats have to get off the lake now for the paddleboats,” the boy called over his shoulder.

“Paddleboats?” Zoey asked. “I love paddleboats! Can you rent them here?”

“Yes, but right now, renting’s for the race only. Cou
rse it’s a two-person boat…

She frowned.

“…
but in my day, I could paddle with the best of them. Say, I don’t suppose you’d be up for a race this afternoon?”

“With you?” She grinned and nodded eagerly. “I’d love to be in a paddleboat race with you

What did you say your name was?”

“Littlefield. Wallace T. Littlefield. Most people know me as Wally, or just plain Doc.”

“You’re a doctor?” She fell in step with him as he headed toward the slope leading down to the lake.

“Retired.” He grabbed her elbow gallantly as the slope became slightly steeper. “And who might you be?”

“Zoey Enright.” She paused and extended a hand, which he took with a grin.

“Zoey, eh? Used to have a maiden aunt named Zoey. Never did marry up, that one. Too independent. Thought she could do everything for herself.” He looked at her slyly from the corner of his eye. “Are you one of those too independent women who wants to do everything for herself, Zoey Enright?”

“I’m working on it.” She smiled, thinking of the plans she had made so recently for her future. “I’m definitely working on it. Now, do you prefer Wally or Doc?”

“Either one will do.”

“I like Wally,” Zoey told him. “You look like a Wally to me.”

He motioned Zoey toward the end of a small dock where several two-seater paddleboats were secured.

“Sign me up, Henry.” He handed over a ten-dollar bill to a burly flannel-shirted fellow who seemed to be in charge.

“Doc, you’re not planning on r
acing one of these things…

“Plannin’ on racing, plannin’ on winning.”

Burly Flannel Shirt opened his mouth to reply, then took a step back when Zoey, eyes twinkling with mischief, slipped her arm through Wally’s. “Ready, Wally?”

“You betcha.” Wally winked and with a frisky sidestep led Zoey to their boat, leaving his cronies behind to gape.

Once in the paddleboat, the old man burst out laughing, slapping Zoey on the back, saying, “Did you see the look on that old coot’s face? Why, Zoey, he’s still gasping for air. You’re all right, Zoey Enright. Yessir, you’re all right in my book.”

“You’ll be the talk of the town now, Wally.” She laughed and slid her feet onto the wide pedals.

“Yup. Have every widow lady and old maid for miles around sending me pies and dinner invites.” Wally laughed again, then pointed to the pedals and told her, “Now, then, let’s get down to business. You know your feet are going to get wet.”

“Not a problem,” she assured him. “This will be fun.”

“I take it you have done this before?”

“It’s been a while,” she admitted, “but last summer I rowed my brother’s rowboat a couple of times.”

“Well, this will require more leg muscle than arm or back.”

“Not a problem,” she told him. “I’ve always been a runner. I’ve got thighs like steel bands.”

“Well, then, let’s give it the best that we’ve got.”

Another boat lined up next to them. “Say there, Doc, I heard that cocky little boast of yours back there on the dock.”

“Facts are facts, Clifford. I call ’em as I see ’em. And what I see right now is me and my lady friend beating the pants off the nearest competitor.”

“Well, now, Doc, you know, Betty and I have won this race five years running.”

“Looks like the reign is over, Clifford.”

“Wouldn’t want to put a little money where that big mouth of yours is, would you?”

“I might. What did you have in mind, Cliff?”

Cliff rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, the Youth Council is looking to build a new ball field.”

“I’ve heard that.” Wally nodded. “I’ve been thinking
about donating a few acres that I own on the other side of my woods.”

“And I have a few acres back of our place facing Miller’s Pond Park that I’ve been thinking might serve the purpose. Maybe the loser here gets to donate the ground for that new field.”

“Hmmm.” Wally appeared to think this over, then looked at Zoey. “Steel bands, you say?”

“Absolutely,” she assured him.

“You up to a challenge?”

“You betcha.”

“Well, then”—he turned back to Cliff—“my partner here says we can take you without breaking a sweat.” Wally turned the steering wheel slightly to the left and headed toward the starting line. “Cliff, I’m guessing that the next time we stand on that back parcel of land of yours, someone will be shouting, ‘Play ball.’ ”

Zoey giggled as Dr. Wallace T. Littlefield cordially tipped his hat and paddled toward the starting line. It was clear that he—as well as Cliff and his wife—would enjoy the race, regardless of the outcome.

The starting gun was the puncturing of a large tightly filled blue balloon.

“Keep in sync with me, now, Zoey.” Wally pointed to her feet. “Here
we go, with the right foot…”

Paddling like frenzied ducks, Wally and Zoey’s boat shot out of the line like a bullet, headed for the red balloons strung across the water on the opposite side of the lake.

“I’m right on your tail, you old coot!” Cliff yelled from six feet behind them.

“You’ll never catch us, Clifford, there’s too much young blood in this boat.”

Wally was still laughing as they crossed the finish line five feet ahead of their closest rival, and when he helped Zoey out of the boat amid whistles and cries of “Ringer! Ringer!”

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