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Until Darkby Mariah Stewart
The old man took two steps back, then two more, until he was close to the middle of the one-lane dirt road. There he stood, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face, watching the painters tuck the last of their scaffolding into the rusty bed of an old pickup truck of indeterminable color. The only vehicle in a twenty-mile radius that might have been older than the painters was his own.
“So, what do you think?” The young woman stood on the bottom step of the front porch, the smile on her face a sure sign that she had a pretty good idea of what her elderly neighbor was thinking.
“Your grandfather be spinning in his grave, right at this very minute, thats what I think.” He wagged a gnarled finger at her. “Old Jonathan be spinning out of control right down there where we laid him. Surely he is.”
“Now, Mr. Webb”—Kendra Smith bit back a grin and forced her most earnest expression—“what is it that you think my grandfather might object to?”
“Well, since you ask, lets start right there with that purple door.” The cigar that Oliver Webb held jabbed at the air in the general direction of the house that was the object under discussion.
“Its called aubergine. It means eggplant.” She came down off the step to stand next to him.
“Fancy word for purple.” He all but spit out the word. “What in the name of the Jersey Devil were you thinking? Painting the house green and the door purple!”
“I was thinking that the house has spent all of its two-hundred-plus years painted white.” She tucked an arm through his. “I was thinking it was time for a change.”
“Houses supposed to be white, maybe,” Oliver Webb said, perhaps with a little less bluster. “If in fact they need to be painted at all.”
“I like it, Mr. Webb.” Kendra tilted her head as if to study the paint job that had just about all of the 147 residents of Smiths Forge, at the fringe of New Jerseys Pine Barrens, lingering at the counter in MacNamaras General Store for an extra ten or fifteen minutes just to talk about. “I like it a lot.”
“Be suiting you, then,” he grunted, and she knew he was softening, just as shed known he would.
“Suits me just fine.” She smiled, disarming him.
“Hmmph.” Mr. Webb took a puff or two on his cigar. “Well, anyone come looking for you, you wont be hard to find, thats for sure.”
He knocked the ash off his cigar and climbed into the cab of his 1976 Chevy pickup. The passenger door no longer opened, and the flatbed was riddled with cancer, but it ran, and as far as seventy-eight-year-old Oliver Webb was concerned, running was all a pickup really had to do.
Still shaking his head, Webb made a U-turn and headed back toward the main road, which lay a mile or two through the pine trees. On his way, no doubt, to MacNamaras, where hed tell one and all that yes, indeed, Kendra Smith had painted the old Smith house two shades of green and hed seen with his own eyes that the front door was purple and that was a fact.
Kendra shoved her hands into the pockets of her worn jeans and watched the painters clear the last of the paint cans from the foot of the drive, then waved as they crowded into their truck and drove off in a cloud of dust. She took one last leisurely stroll around the side of the house, admiring the way the darker shade of green set off the windows from the pale sage of the clapboard. The afternoon sun sent shadows across the new roof—now a sturdy gray—and played up the clean new look of the ancient siding. Pleased more than ever with her decision to have the old house painted, she went up the back steps and opened the door.
During the months since her decision to return to Smiths Forge, to make the old house her own, shed had the electrical wiring upgraded, the plumbing updated, and the pine floors refinished. Shed also toyed with the idea of central air-conditioning, but resisted rather than disturb the two-hundred-and-forty-year-old joists in the attic. There were some modern amenities that Smith House simply hadnt been built to accommodate.
The brick fireplaces had all been cleaned and relined, the kitchen spruced up just a bit, and shed even had some insulation tucked into the attic. Bringing the family furniture out of storage where the pieces had languished for years had given her particular satisfaction. Seeing the rooms as they had been when she was a child had brought her the first bit of peace since her mothers death almost four years ago.
When Kendras ill-fated marriage had fallen apart over the past year, there was no question of where shed go to lick her wounds. Once having returned to Smiths Forge, she had no desire to leave, and so began the task of renovating the house to conform to her needs, just as her ancestors had done, each in their own time. Now that the last of the work was finished, she was ready, eager, to get back into the mainstream of life. She looked forward to once again feeling that zing when a new case caught her interest, the rush when shed completed her task. The quiet satisfaction she got when her work helped some poor soul find closure.
Shed made a few phone calls earlier in the week, and late yesterday afternoon, her phone had rung with the request that she take on a job that was right up her alley. A packet of material would arrive within twenty-four hours, shed been told. Could she begin work immediately?
Could she ever.
She slipped off her sandals and left them to one side of the front door, fighting back a slight twinge of conscience as she turned the lock. There wasnt one resident of Smiths Forge she wouldnt trust with her life, and locking the door felt as if she was locking it against them. To Kendra, that smacked of mistrust. But years working as a sketch artist for various law enforcement agencies had given her an up close and personal view of the darkest side of human nature. Kendra had come to learn the value of taking those few basic steps to keeping all safeguarded and secure.
Step number one was keeping your home under lock and key, a sad but necessary commentary on modern times, even here, where in so many ways time had stood still. On her way out the back, she locked that door as well before slipping the key into her pocket.
The well-seasoned canoe that Kendra had dug out of the barn when she returned to Smiths Forge lay facedown on the ground where shed left it yesterday at just this time. She flipped it over, then pulled it forward with both hands, dragging it over forty feet of scrubby grass and pale gray sand to the bank of the stream.
Wonder what Oliver will have to say when I paint the barn to match the house, she mused as she slid the canoe into the stream, then waded after it, climbed in, and pushed off in the shallow water.
The stream, at a narrow point behind the Smith property, both widened and deepened gradually as it flowed toward the lake deep in the woods. Miles of tributaries of this river or that snaked through the Pines, sometimes merging before going their separate ways again. There were endless ways of becoming disoriented and lost in any one of them. Once Kendra had known these waterways well. Her father had been raised in this house, had explored these woods and streams in this same canoe, and had shared the beauty and the mystery of the Pine Barrens with his wife and his children. Summer vacations, spring breaks, fall weekends, winter holidays—at every opportunity, Jeff Smith had brought his family here, to the million acres that made up the Pine Barrens, the landscape that had changed so little since the first Smith had settled there.
While still a child, Kendra had been taught by her father how to find her way around the Pines. Now, as an adult, a novice once again, she had to learn her way alone. Every day she repeated the previous days run through the waterways, adding another mile or so to her trek, memorizing the natural landmarks. A right at the gnarled old cypress tree would bring her a mile and a half downstream from the next largest tributary of the river. Taking the left where the water forked would lead to the first of the lakes that lay beyond the marsh, one of several lakes that were born years ago when the river was dammed to create cranberry bogs. Once she had know it all as well as she knew the back of her hand. She was determined to learn it all over again, bit by bit, mile by mile.
Kendra reached her goal for the day—the point where the stream snaked past the old iron forge—and turned the canoe around to head back. It had been years since that last trip shed made here with her father and her little brother. Ian had just turned four, and hed amused himself by trailing his little fingers in the dark, tea-colored water as Kendra had helped paddle. Jeff Smith had been strong then, strong enough to paddle the canoe on his own, though hed let Kendra lend a hand. Two months later, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and their whole world was turned on end. Seven years later, Ian, too, was gone, lost forever. And then her mother, Elisa . . .
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