Welcome back to our summer serial, Dare Me! If you’ve missed the earlier chapters, just click here to start at the beginning.
Kristy needed a latte and she needed one bad.
The hardware guy thought long and hard. “You said it’s the Tarrant house you’re talking about?”
Kristy nodded. Maybe he hadn’t really said “rewiring”. Maybe he’d just been trying it out on her to see how she’d react. Maybe he’d thought she was talking about some other old wreck of a house with a 1960’s fusebox.
Maybe Jack was right and she shouldn’t have referred to the store as a hardware shoppe.
The hardware guy turned to his buddies. There were only two of them, habitual hardware store browsers, but in the tiny store, they felt like a crowd. Kristy was wedged between a pile of terra cotta planters and a display of garden hoses. There was a piece of fencing biting into the back of her thigh, but she was afraid that if she tried to move, she’d dislodge something, and the entire store would go down like a pile of dominos.
“The Tarrant house,” said the hardware guy to his buddies. They nodded. He nodded. It was like a Greek chorus for home improvement.
“And?” said Kristy.
“You’re going to need to rewire.” He didn’t need to sound so pleased about it. “You’re looking at redoing the whole house.”
“How much will that cost?”
He quoted her a number that made Kristy’s eyes pop. Weren’t things supposed to be cheaper out in the boonies?
“Are you sure you didn’t accidentally stick in an extra zero there?”
“It’s a big job,” he said. “You have to get into the walls, do it all from scratch.”
The Greek chorus nodded their agreement. “Old wiring is nothing to play around with,” one of them said sagely.
“Fire risk,” agreed the other.
“Old house like that? It would go up like that.”
And weren’t they just a beam of sunshine on this fine Monday morning. Er, afternoon.
“Then it’s a good thing I have good insurance,” said Kristy flippantly. She made a mental note to check with Jack about Aunt Ada’s insurance. As in, whether she’d had any and if the policy had lapsed. And if she should be investing in some fire extinguishers. “How much for a box of fuses?”
“You’re making a big mistake.” The patronizing note in the hardware guy’s voice made all of Kristy’s hackles rise. “It will be cheaper in the long run to take care of it now.”
She took the fuses, marching out defiantly with her package under the censorious gaze of the hardware guys.
No long runs here; short term thinking only. Besides, the house was going to be someone else’s nightmare soon enough.
Did she say nightmare? She meant “historical showpiece”.
The real estate agency was housed in a quaint brick house reached by an iron flight of stairs topped by a striped awning. All that was missing were children in sailor suits holding striped lollipops. The only jarring note were the windows, which were pasted with notices of houses for sale, ranging from estate properties with river views to one bedroom shacks. The ads didn’t call them shacks, of course. They were “bijoux”.
Yeah, they were bijoux like Aunt Ada’s house had “historic charm”. Kristy approved. This boded well for their ability to sell her house.
Funny, she was already thinking of it as “her” house. She needed to cut that out. With any luck, it would only be hers for as long as it took to sign the sale papers.
Kristy pushed open the door, winced a bit at the saccharine chimes, and went on in. There were two real estate agents in residence, seated at matching faux antique desks with brass name plaques rendered completely incomprehensible by swirly curly script.
One had hair tweaked teased and colored into a perfect butterscotch popcorn ball. She wore a beige linen suit and a blouse with a floppy bow at the neck, pinned in place with an old-fashioned bar pin.
Her companion was a man with a silky brown beard and a hang dog expression, as though his colleague had just caught him putting down a drink without a coaster. Underneath his desk, a dog of indeterminate breed lacksadaisically scratched his own shank. His big brown eyes and glossy pelt looked very much like those of his owner.
The real estate agents converged on Kristy like well-groomed sharks. “Is this your first time in Philips’ Falls? Are you looking to buy? There’s never been a better time to get in on the ground floor. Scenic Hudson… Property values… Convenient to the city….”
Kristy cut them off with her best child actor smile. “Actually, I’m looking to sell. I just inherited Ada Tarrant’s house.”
The two agents exchanged a Look.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” murmured the butterscotch ball.
Bearded Guy took his cue from her. “She’s much missed in the community.”
Under the desk, his hound drooled in agreement. Or maybe that was just what he did. The faux Oriental rug was a distinctly darker shade over there.
“Anyway,” said Kristy. “I’m glad to hear the property market is so robust. When can you come out to look at it?”
Another look. Butterscotch Ball took the lead. “Everyone in town is familiar with the Tarrant house,” she said tactfully. “It’s a Philips’ Falls landmark.”
By which, Kristy read “neighborhood eyesore”.
“While I’m sure there’s a buyer who will appreciate its historic charm—”
Ha! thought Kristy. Perhaps she should go into real estate.
“—it’s going to take a good deal of work before it can realize anything near its true value.”
Kristy didn’t like the sound of that. “Good deal of work” generally translated into “large capital investment”. If she had large capital to invest, she wouldn’t be in Philips’ Falls.
“How much work?” she asked warily.
They couldn’t have heard from the hardware store guys already, could they? On the other hand, she had no idea of how the jungle drums in a small town worked. The only small town she knew was LA.
Butterscotch Ball pursed her lips. “Ideally, the wiring and appliances would be updated—central air is such a selling point, especially for weekenders—but even on a purely cosmetic level…”
“You need a paint job,” contributed Beard Guy.
Butterscotch Ball glared him into silence. It was clear where the balance of power in this office lay. “It’s not just the paint. The woodwork needs repairing; the stonework needs—”
“Stoning?” contributed Kristy.
Butterscotch Ball mustered a stiff, social smile. “The stonework is in need of extensive repair. I haven’t been in the back—”
Kristy was willing to wager that Great Aunt Ada hadn’t invited her.
“—but I imagine the brick-work in the garden is also in want of attention.”
She made it sound like a three year old who wanted to be read a story.
“So,” said Kristy, cutting through the verbiage, “basically, the house needs a certain amount of TLC before it can go on the market.”
“A lot of TLC,” said Beard Guy. His dog let out a mournful howl in agreement and promptly crapped on the carpet.
Butterscotch Ball looked pained. “Burt….”
“Right away,” said Burt, and went for the pooper-scooper. At least, Kristy assumed he was Burt. Unless Burt was the dog.
Butterscotch looked at Kristy. “If there’s anything else I can help you with, Ms.—?”
“Green.” For a moment, Kristy was almost tempted to play rock star and use Dare, but you couldn’t have it both ways. “Ms. Green. So let’s say I get the place cleaned up.”
“The interior, as well,” said Butterscotch Ball. Kristie detected a certain amount of malicious satisfaction. “Miss Tarrant had such a delightful collection of curios—”
“—but the house will need to be cleared before it can be sold.”
Kristy leaned against Butterscotch’s desk. “I thought you were supposed to make houses look lived in before you can sell them.”
Butterscotch looked pointedly at Kristy’s hand, creating smudges on the polished surface of her desk. “Lived in,” she said delicately. “Not overrun.”
Well, that told her. “Great,” said Kristy, pushing away off the desk. “Thanks. Is there another real estate agency in town?”
Butterscotch Ball shut her ledger with a precise click. “No.”
Burt gave Kristy a weak smile and dropped the bag of poo in the trash. The last thing Kristy heard as she let herself out was the click of the trash can lid.
“Symbolic, don’t you think?” murmured Kristy to herself. A little too symbolic.
She wasn’t sure Alannis was much of an improvement over the B-52s.
Kristy stood on the sidewalk, the bag with the fuses dangling from one arm. It was another steamy day, the sidewalk baking in the midday sun, the glare reflecting off the shop windows and the elaborate grille that blocked off the train tracks.
Main Street sloped at an acute angle, with the train tracks at the low end and the library, set on grounds that made Aunt Ada’s look skimpy, marking the end of the street at the high end. In between, the antique and craft shoppes were shuttered in the morning sun, a lot of them with their cardboard signs turned to closed.
Kristy shaded her eyes against the glare, trying to orient herself. So far, neither of her errands had gone as planned. She had no idea what to do next.
According to the clocks in the window of Country Clocks, it was just shy of one o’clock. Ten o’clock California time.
Kristy sat down on the stoop outside a store called Past Pleasures—accurately named only if your image of pleasures was dented bundt pans and old records—and tapped a familiar number into her phone. It rang twice before a slightly harassed voice said, “Hello?”
“Hi, Miriam. It’s Kristy.”
“Hello, honey.” Miriam called everyone ‘honey’, but Kristy still found it vaguely reassuring. To Kristy, the word conjured up aprons and fresh-baked cookies and visions of home life a la The Brady Bunch.
Kristy hunkered down on the stoop and got straight to the point. “How’s she doing?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. Kristy could just picture Miriam pursing her lips. “Just about usual,” she said cautiously. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Has she been taking her medication?”
Miriam lowered her voice. “I mushed it into apple sauce for her. She didn’t suspect a thing.”
Kristy pressed her eyes closed. This was what it had come down to, her mother being fed mushy apples with anti-depressants in them.
Dementia, the doctors called it, a catch-all term that didn’t say anything at all. Some said it was early onset Alzheimers, others that it might be the result of a series of tiny strokes, but the theory that made the most sense to Kristy was that it was the cumulative cognitive degeneration caused by decades of untreated bipolar disorder.
Whatever the cause, the doctors all agreed on one thing: there was no reversing it, only containing it. She needed round the clock care, and not just care, professional care.
“How are you doing for money?” Kristy asked.
She listened as Miriam gave her an itemized list of recent expenditures: clothing, medication, doctors’ bills. Private health insurance covered some of it, but not all.
The amount made Kristy wince, but, fortunately, there was more than enough in her mother’s account to cover it. Some of it came from her father, the remains of the divorce settlement, and the rest, carelessly, had been tossed in by Kristy in better days. She’d transferred the maximum gift amount to her mother each year, mostly for tax reasons. Now she wished she’d transferred more.
Fortunately, the bungalow was in her mother’s name. She’d done that before the whole Martin implosion.
But there was still Miriam’s salary to be paid. Trained nurses didn’t come cheap. Not that Kristy begrudged a penny of Miriam’s salary; she deserved to be paid twice that. But the money, the money that had always been there, without issue or question, was gone, cushioning Martin’s sorry ass on a tropical beach.
“Give her my love,” said Kristy. It was meaningless, but she said it every time, just the same. Just in case there was still something of her mother left under there, something that remembered she had a daughter.
“I will,” said Miriam, just as she always said. “Take care of yourself, honey.”
“You, too,” said Kristy, and rung off.
She sat hunched over on the stoop, feeling the sun on her back, trying to look on the bright side. Miriam was still there, there was still enough money to cover expenses, they weren’t in the doghouse yet. Kristy had done the math, sitting there in Emma’s apartment in Florence, trying not to give way to pure panic. If she lived frugally, she had enough in her account to see Miriam’s salary paid through January. After that, she was screwed.
She was damned if she was going to go ask her father for help. She’d rather take up pole dancing.
Kristy pushed herself up off the stoop. It wasn’t going to come to that. Screw the real estate people, she was sure she could sell that house if she tried. Whatever she got for the house should be enough to pay Miriam’s salary and keep Kristy in peanut butter while she figured out what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her life. Maybe there was an infomercial somewhere in need of a secondhand celebrity.
Kristy stowed her phone in her bag and plunked her sunglasses back down on her nose. Okay, she could do this. She’d take that house and turn it into the sort of showplace that people would fight to buy. All she had to do was rewire, repaint, and clear out ten generations’ worth of assorted junk. Oh, yeah, and do a little light cleaning.
She needed a latte.
The bake shoppe was across the street, the windows winking temptingly in the sun. Kristy darted across. Ignoring the cannoli and croissants, she went straight to the counter, behind which, praise God, she saw a great, big, shiny espresso machine, all knobs and grilles and those obscure things that took milk and beans and turned them into life-saving brown nectar. With froth.
There was a woman loading cookie-sized linzer tarts into the display case. Seeing Kristy, she put down her tray, dusted her hands off against her apron, and came up to the till. “Can I help you?”
Kristy leaned both elbows on the counter. “How big do your lattes come?”
The woman held up a tall, white cup. “This is our largest size.”
“Beautiful. I’ll take two of those. Intravenously, if possible.”
The clerk hid a grin behind her hand. “Why don’t I start you on one, and then you can see?”
“Works for me. Thanks.”
The counter woman knocked out some old grounds and poured some fresh beans into the funnel. Under her standard issue-apron, she wore a vintage 70’s sundress, with large, abstract flowers on a pattern of blue and white swirls. Kristy coveted it.
“Where did you get your dress?’
“Marshalls.” Looking back over her shoulder, she said off-handedly, “You’re the rock star, aren’t you?”
Something about the way she said it didn’t piss Kristy off. Maybe it was that she sounded so casual about it, as though she were merely commenting on the weather. So, instead of snapping, she just said, “Past tense. I haven’t rocked anything in a while.”
Leaving the coffee machine to do its thing, the woman returned to the counter, using a wadded cloth to wipe up a spill of powdered sugar. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you for your autograph. I was just curious.”
On impulse, Kristy held out a hand. “Kristy. I go by Green now. The Dare thing got a little old.”
“Lydia. That’ll be two-ninety-five.”
Kristy dug out three crumpled singles and handed them over. She looked around the bake shoppe. It was bigger than she’d realized from the outside. The walls were painted yellow, except for the back wall, which boasted an ornate mural depicting an animal picnic, with the badger handing around the scones, and a spectacled rabbit presiding over the teapot.
Next to the counter, napkins, sugar, and artificial sweetners had been neatly stowed in the cubbies of a sideboard that looked a bit like an old-fashioned roll-top desk. For the eat-in crowd, there were round pine tables with matching Winsor chairs.
The drawer of the cash register opened with a ka-ching. It was equally twee, a replica of a turn of the century model.
“They really like their antiques here, don’t they?” said Kristy.
Lydia put Kristy’s singles in the dollar slot. “It’s our primary industry. We get a lot of weekenders and a lot of dealers from the city who come up here for bargains.”
Kristy noted the “we”. “How long have you worked here?”
Lydia put a quarter on the counter and turned back to the espresso machine, which was exhaling large clouds of heavenly, caffeinated steam. “It’s my uncle’s place. I help out part-time.”
Kristy nodded at the mural. “Is that yours?”
“How did you guess?”
“The part time thing. And the signature.” They mural was signed with an elaborate, intertwining LC.
Lydia’s lips quirked. “That would do it.” She set Kristy’s latte on the counter, in a tall cardboard cup without a lid. She nodded towards the side counter. “Lids are over there.”
Kristy cradled the cup, lifting to her nose to sniff the foam. “This smells like heaven.” Expensive heaven, especially given the amount of it she imbibed. She kept forgetting that she didn’t have unlimited funds anymore. “One of these days, I have to learn how to make my own coffee.”
“It’s not rocket science,” said Lydia. “If you like, I’ll teach you.”
“Seriously?” Kristy choked on a mouthful of coffee. “Wow. That’s really nice of you. I mean, but….”
“Never mind.” Lydia picked up her cloth, wiping at a non-existent spill. “I’m sure you have better things to do.”
Yeah, with her glamorous rock star agenda of house-clearing and fuse-fixing.
Kristy let out a loud snort. “Trust me, that wasn’t an attempt to blow you off. I just don’t want to get you in trouble if I blow up your uncle’s espresso maker by accident. I have a bad track record with machines.”
Lydia eyed her warily, as though trying to tell whether she was serious. “It’s really not that complicated.”
Kristy sniffed her coffee, savoring the smell. “In that case, I may take you up on the offer. It looks I’m going to be staying here longer than I’d thought.”
She wasn’t sure why that made Lydia glance back over her shoulder. “You’re in the Tarrant house, right?”
The Tarrant house. That was what the hardware guys had called it to. If she stayed there long enough, would it become the Dare house? Kristy decided she liked Tarrant house better. It had a very Olde Worlde feeling to it. Like a shoppe.
“Does everyone know?”
Lydia gave her a wry look. “It’s a small town. You’re big news.”
The bell over the door jangled and an elderly woman clumped her way in. “One semolina roll, three linzer tarts, and do you have any of those cherry danishes?”
Lydia reached for a white waxed paper bag. “Coming right up, Mrs. Riccardi.” Leaning sideways to speak to Kristy, she said, “Stop by any time. I’m in Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon to closing.”
“Will do.” Kristy raised her cup in acknowledgement. “Great latte. Thanks.”
Lydia was all professional again. “Enjoy.”
There was a stack of cards advertising an art exhibit next month. Kristy picked one up on the way out. With any luck, she wouldn’t be here in a month, but, just in case. She stuck it in her bag.
The town felt like a friendlier place with a coffee in her hand. Or maybe it was less the coffee and more the conversation. It was nice not to be treated like a circus freak. And she really could use the tutorial in caffeine creation. She wondered if Aunt Ada had a coffee maker tucked away somewhere.
Jack might know.
She could see his office from the bake shoppe, a block down on the other side of the street, right across from the Volunteer Fire Station. It was a rectangular wooden building, with a door in the middle and a big plate glass window on either side. On one side was the Philips’ Falls Register, “Published Weekly Since 1822!” On the other side was Jack Vallenti, Attorney at Law.
She could see him through the plate glass window, although the A in Attorney blocked a fair amount of his face.
He had said to stop by.
Kristy started walking uphill, her steps quickening as she approached. She could feel the caffeine rushing through her veins, or wherever it went. That had to be what was creating the tingly feeling in her fingers, not the prospect of seeing the lawyer again.
Guess what? she imagined herself saying, cooler than cool. Looks like you’re going to be stuck with me as a landlady for a while longer.
She’d have to remove her clip if she wanted to get a really good hair swish in.
Not that she would, of course. This was all purely business. Business and a bit of banter. He’d been surprisingly fun to banter with. Fun and nice.
Fun and nice and taken.
Kristy came to a halt as a woman came down the street from the other side, letting herself in through the red-painted door, with all the assurance of long practice. She was carrying something with her.
Making a snap decision, Kristy turned and headed back in the other direction, towards Aunt Ada’s house.
Stay tuned for Chapter Seven, coming up next Saturday!