No amount of contemplation could deter my horror. Something was terribly wrong with existence even if I was the only one who knew it.
I reached into the side pocket of my shorts and retrieved my cell phone. A quick inspection showed it was but a few minutes after ten in the morning. I had to call Mom and Dad. I had to know life continued outside Carr Beholden. I dialed the phone and waited patiently while the sound of perpetual ringing filled my ear.
This is rather silly, I suddenly thought. My panic was based on a dream. Sure, it was a nightmare if it was anything, but it was nonetheless a product of my own drunken imagination fueled by significant amounts of processed sugary goods. Whom was I kidding? Of course the world was still out there, and no, I doubted it had changed because I dreamed something bizarre.
“Hello?” Mom’s voice startled me and yanked me back from contemplation.
I tried not to sound like a mad man. “Mom, it’s me. How are you this morning?” Even if my words sounded normal, my voice didn’t, thus I failed in my endeavor to not sound like a mad man.
“I’m okay. How are you? You sound tired…” And hung over, I was sure she’d add. She knew I was working on my book last night. She knew what that meant. I suppose I knew she didn’t have to say it.
“I’m a bit tired,” I replied, “and only just woke up. I was up late finishing the book.”
“You have a hangover, don’t you?”
Damn! She went and said it. I pondered lying about it and decided not to. What would be the point? She already knew, but then that made her question rhetorical.
“A bit. And I’m probably suffering from a major blood sugar crash as well. You know me…” I paused for a moment trying to remember why I’d called. Ah, yes. “So how’s everything over there?”
“We’re fine. I just got home from Marshall—” I forgot about her grocery shopping this morning. The idea of her out alone somehow frightened me. That dream was bothering me more than I thought. “—and your father’s already taken breakfast and lunch over to Mr. Boskey. Now we’re sitting here working on a puzzle. Why, Vey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Mom. Nothing’s wrong. It’s the hangover, I suppose. I just feel weird this morning. A shower will probably wash it off.”
I heard the inaudible sigh escape from her lips. She was worried about me. She never liked the drinking even though she knew it happened in excess only when I was finishing a novel. Most days I limited myself to three or four and sometimes fewer. Then again, sometimes more.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m fine like I said. I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning after a long night. I don’t seem to have my feet under me yet. My brain will switch on momentarily, I’m sure.” We both chuckled lightly at that. “Listen, I know I was planning to come over today, but why don’t you and Dad pack up the dogs and come over here instead? They can go for a swim—you two can as well, if you want—and we can watch a movie and visit or whatever comes to mind. To be honest, I’m not sure I feel like getting out today. Besides, you two haven’t been here since the kitchen was completed, and I think you both should be more familiar with your future retirement home.”
“Hey!” she said sarcastically before laughing. I was serious and she knew it, but neither of them liked to discuss the possibility of ever having to rely on someone else. They also didn’t like the thought of having to leave the home where they’d lived for decades.
“I’m serious, Mom. About coming over here today, that is,” I added. “It’ll be good for the two of you to get out of the house. And I’m serious about wanting you to see what’s been done to Carr Beholden since your last visit.”
“Let me ask your father.” I could hear her muffle the phone with her hand as she spoke to him. While I doubt she realized it, I could still hear her. “Richard, Dave wants to know if we’d like to go over there today instead of him coming over here. I think we should. I think something’s wrong although he says there isn’t. Why don’t we take the dogs with us and spend the day there?” I couldn’t hear his response but knew what it was the moment she came back on the line. “You’ve got a date, mister. Why don’t you go get a shower and we’ll plan to be there in about an hour.”
“That’s perfect. Come on over when you’re ready. Margaret and Helene should be over later to do chores, so we can all sit down to a good lunch while they’re here.”
“Alright, Vey, we’ll be over in a bit. We’ll have the dogs with us—oh, food…”
“Don’t worry about it, Mom. I still have a big bag of dog food from when I had them here a few weeks ago. They won’t starve, I promise.”
“Great! You go get yourself cleaned up and waked up, and we’ll see you in an hour or so,” she finished.
“Gotcha,” I responded, and then said, “Thanks, Mom. I’ll see you later.”
I flipped the phone closed and took a deep breath. It made me feel much better knowing they were coming here. That made very little sense to me, as I couldn’t put my finger on why it mattered if we were there or here. Sure, it wasn’t completely dishonest to say I had a hangover and didn’t feel like getting out, but it was more than that. A lot more than that. No matter, I thought, the issue’s already settled and they’ll be over in a short while.
I stood in the sunroom and stretched for a moment. Increasing blood flow should help me feel better. Even if it didn’t, the stretching itself felt good. I stared out at the lake as I arched my back, stood on my tiptoes, and pushed my arms behind me as far as they would go. The relief I felt escaped me as a quiet moan of sheer pleasure.
Looking through the windows that surrounded me only helped to relieve my stress and hangover-induced discomfort. It was another calm day on Kingswell Lake. There were a few clouds in the sky, wispy little things that held zero promise of the rain we needed so desperately, and they reflected peacefully on the still water that barely rippled. A fish leaped into the air near the middle of the lake and created a splash as it undoubtedly caught an insect hovering a bit too low for its own health. The tiny disturbance added to the Thomas Moran picture that lived right outside.
After standing there for another minute, I picked up the laptop, beer bottle, empty glass, and the Twinkies wrapper. I took everything to the office where I deposited the laptop, and then I went to the kitchen with the rest.
The counter was covered with empty beer bottles. Ten of them, in fact, and they were augmented with various bits of garbage from the confections I’d consumed all night. I added the bottle and wrapper to the mess before placing the glass in the sink. It was then I finally headed to the master suite where I could take a shower and hopefully bring myself back to the land of the living.
A steaming hot shower was precisely what I needed. It was as if it washed the memory of my nightmare down the drain. Even if that was not the case, it at least washed away the sweaty residue of my overindulgence.
I threw on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt, after which I made my way back to the office. It was time to send Compassion in a Sweet Caress to Brody with a lame excuse about why he didn’t have it the previous night as agreed.
Although old habits die hard, I couldn’t find it within me to come up with anything new, so instead I sent it to him with a quick note: “Sorry it’s late. I think you’ll like it. Let me know. Dave.” I hit the send button, watched the manuscript disappear into the digital void, and closed the laptop. I planned to check with Brody later.
I wandered aimlessly through the house for a few minutes considering what I could do to occupy my time until my parents arrived. I didn’t want to be idle. The thought of having enough time to think about what happened last night scared me.
I glanced around for a moment before deciding to go sit on the porch. It was still early enough that the west side of the house would have no direct sunlight, so it would be somewhat cool even if the temperature already hovered well above miserable. I made my way to the door and stepped out to the screened-in porch perfectly coinciding with the arrival of George’s old Cadillac.
“Why’s he here?” I wondered aloud.
The large black sedan pulled to a stop next to my Lexus. At that distance, I could see Margaret sitting in the front passenger seat and someone else in the backseat whom I assumed to be Helene. Old George McCreary was Margaret’s husband, Helene was their daughter, and he sometimes played taxi service for their rounds.
I had hired them to visit weekly to do the cleaning and general chores around Carr Beholden. With it being so large, I wasn’t interested in doing it, and they appreciated having steady income for a job that really wasn’t difficult. They normally would have all the cleaning and other tasks completed within four or five hours. That time would only increase as more of the old hotel was renovated, but so far they didn’t complain about the size of the job. I was accustomed to them arriving by nine in the morning but had rescheduled them later in the day knowing I would not be alive that early after finishing my book.
The three of them climbed out of the car in unison. I waved and said, “Good morning.”
“Mornin’, Davey,” George yelled. He was terribly boisterous. Had it been earlier in the day, I would have been tempted to kill him for that. His continuing to call me Davey would have been reason enough to make it a slow and painful death.
I pushed the screen door open as they approached the steps.
“Good morning, Mr. Lloyd,” Margaret said as she climbed the four wooden stairs to the porch. She was neatly dressed in a light blue ankle-length skirt and white cotton blouse, a matching blue bandana tied neatly around her neck, blue sandals (I hadn’t realized such things existed), and her gray hair was tucked neatly under a dainty wide hat with a blue accenting ribbon. If I didn’t already know she always focused on being a proper lady, I’d have suggested she was significantly overdressed for housecleaning.
“Margaret, I do wish you’d call me Dave.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t think of such a thing, Mr. Lloyd, you bein’ a famous author and all. You’re the only celebrity here in Kingswell and deserve to be treated as such.” That struck me as terribly untrue since I didn’t feel like a celebrity and didn’t want to be treated like one, but I let it go and listened as she continued, “Besides, you’re my employer and it wouldn’t be right proper for me to be so casual with you, now would it?”
I couldn’t argue with her. She was a true Southern belle who demanded propriety in all matters. How then does she put up with George? I thought.
I held the door open as she stepped by me and onto the screened porch. Standing only five-feet-four-inches tall, she was a short petite woman, a stark contrast to her massive husband. Although never in front of them, it wasn’t unusual for people to comment about the bizarre couple they made when standing next to each other. He towered over her and looked as though he might crush her by mistake.
“Good morning, Mr. Lloyd,” Helene said as she followed closely behind. Wearing a pair of skimpy denim shorts and a sleeveless button-down shirt, a dirty pair of sneakers, and a red bandana over her beautiful black hair, she was the polar opposite of both George and Margaret. She spent her free days working with her mother, but I always suspected there was a hooligan inside that girl that one day would cut loose and break her parents’ hearts. At only 15 years old and slightly taller than her mother, she already was a very pretty young thing who caught the eyes of most young boys, not to mention more than a few of the older men who should know better.
“Good morning, Helene. How are you today?”
“I’m fine, and thanks for askin’.” Her teenage charm was undeniable, a product of strict country upbringing. Being a city man myself, however, I saw through it and knew it was a thin veil used to cloak the wild child that scratched and clawed just under the surface hoping to be set free. I always kept her at arm’s length because of it. She was trouble looking for a place to happen.
George patted me a bit too hard on the shoulder as he stepped through the door behind his daughter. “How ya doin’ this mornin’, Davey?” he said too loudly.
“I’m fine, George. And you?”
“Never been better.”
“Are you playing chauffeur today?”
“Yep. The womenfolk wanted some company, so here I am.”
With all of us on the porch, I stepped around them and opened the door, let them enter before me, and then closed it behind us after I stepped inside. Immediate embarrassment rushed to my face in hues of red. Margaret stood at the door to the kitchen looking at the empty beer bottles and sweet wrappers on the island counter.
“Did you finish another book last night, Mr. Lloyd?” she asked.
“Uh… Yes I did, and I apologize for the mess.” I stumbled past her into the kitchen, but she caught my arm before I reached the island.
“Now, Mr. Lloyd, you needn’t worry about makin’ a mess. You pay us to take care of that for you, so I’m not worried about that. I do worry about how much you’re drinkin’ though. It can’t be healthy. All that sugary junk food is bad for you, but it’s the alcohol that’s got me worried.”
“I appreciate it, Margaret, but you don’t have to be concerned. I generally drink more when I’m finishing a book. That doesn’t happen all the time. I think a splurge now and again doesn’t hurt.”
“If you say so, Mr. Lloyd.” The disapproval on her face shined through clearly enough. She was mothering me as she always did with everyone, and she’d said her piece and would not bring it up again.
Thankfully, it was at that moment my parents arrived. While I’d not heard them drive up, Mom peeked her head in the door and announced their arrival with a friendly “Knock knock!” She pushed the door open the rest of the way and stepped inside before I could even respond. The two dogs were behind her with my father right behind them.
“Hey, I’m glad you’re here!” was my greeting as I approached them. I hugged them both and petted each of the dogs briefly who responded approvingly with happily wagging tails. George, Margaret, and Helene then said their hellos to my parents as a general free-for-all conversation ensued as is normal amongst friends.
We made our way into the living room where Helene settled in a corner like a spoiled child. I understood her woes; she was the only young person here and was only here to do a job. Her parents, on the other hand, were close friends of my parents and enjoyed the unexpected opportunity to visit with them. Margaret would soon decide it was time to get to work, but until then Helene would take a few minutes for herself.
As the others settled on and around the main couch where they could talk, I stepped into the kitchen and prepared a tray with glasses of ice, a jug of iced tea, a bowl of sugar cubes, a handful of spoons, and a handful of napkins. Even a city guy—a widower no less—knows how to be civil in his own home, I thought.
I returned to the living room with the setup and placed it on the cocktail table in front of the overly large couch. Everyone prepared their own glass and sat chatting idly and trying to catch up. The entire scenario struck me as funny because these people saw each other almost daily yet acted as though it had been months since they spoke. “Them’s country folk,” I facetiously mumbled under my breath.
Perhaps fifteen minutes passed before Margaret stood and announced she and Helene needed to do what they were paid to do. They headed off to the kitchen for supplies as George, my parents, and I continued talking.
The dogs were comfortable on the love seat across the room. I didn’t mind if they got up on the furniture, and I’d have to admit there was some measure of enjoyment in letting them do it when I knew it bothered my dad. He was of the strict mind that animals should never be on anything except the ground. That mentality never sank into my head when I was growing up. Even though I didn’t have pets, I didn’t mind if other people’s pets used my furniture as long as they didn’t ruin it. The two canines were as comfortable as possible in their tucked away location. I would let them sleep a bit before taking them out for a swim. That happened to be their favorite activity when they visited. Who was I to rob them of such a simple pleasure?
During a break in the conversation as Mom fixed herself another glass of tea and Dad stepped over to quietly scold the dogs for being on the furniture, George walked to one of the large panoramic windows and absently looked outside. He took a sip of his beverage, and then he began whistling a tune that caught my attention like an explosion. It was eerily familiar and I glanced around the room because everyone had fallen silent. They were looking at George. Even Margaret and Helene had stepped back into the room and were staring at him.
“What is that tune, George?” I had to know. Only after the question spilled out of my mouth did I realize I already knew and in fact didn’t want him to answer. I wished there was a way to retract my inquiry, to reverse time long enough for a do-over. But it was too late for that. I stood terrified at what he was whistling.
He turned to look at me. “I ain’t rightly sure what it is, Davey. Been stuck in my craw since’n I got up this mornin’.”
Had a mirror been placed in front of me at that particular moment, I’m quite certain what would have been staring back could easily have been described as a mad man. The music struck a chord in me that echoed back in the look of horror on my face.
I was overly forceful when I again spoke to George. “Keep whistling it.” The commandment got everyone’s attention. It was a demand more than a request and they knew it. I felt bad for that despite needing him to repeat it.
In response, he began whistling the broken tune. He was off-key as was normal for George, and his rhythm was anything but consistent. His musical failings aside, the melody struck the very heart of me. I was quite certain it had the same effect on everyone else considering the ghostly faces that now stared at him in disbelief.
Mom stood up from the couch with a look of concern on her face. I glanced at her, took note that all color had drained from her complexion, and immediately turned my attention back to George.
“Keep whistling it,” I repeated. The order was clear and inarguable. He looked at me for the briefest of moments and realized I was deadly serious. As the tune formed and escaped from his lips, I supplemented the music with the words I could remember: “We are pleasure’s anguish and pain’s desire… We bring undying forever to feed our ire… Hourglass sands are had in vain… Feel our dark heart bleed your pain…”
George’s whistled rendition of the pat-a-cake song stopped abruptly. My own voice trailed off as I realized how impossible this was. The silence that followed was punctuated by only one other noise: the sound of Mom’s glass of iced tea crashing to the floor at her feet.