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Twice Shy: Chapter 21

I LAND IN CHICAGO AT 1:36 p.m. Alone.

I don’t have the faintest memory of what I did on the plane. I don’t think I opened my bag to utilize any of the prepared activities. If I stared out the window the whole time, I don’t remember it. The next thing I know I’m in a vast, busy terminal standing outside of a duty-free store. Which is not where I need to be.

I go through the motions of finding my gate, sidetracked by every man of tall proportion. I know that Wesley isn’t here, but I can’t help trying to find him, anyway.

I wonder, as I’m boarding another plane without him, if he’s still in the airport in Knoxville or if he’s at home right now. I hope his stomach has calmed down, and that he feels better. I don’t stop to ask myself why I’m still here until I’m already in my next seat. I should have booked a flight home. What’s the point of going to Scotland now? This is Wesley’s dream, not mine. I’m just supposed to be along for the ride.

When I turn my phone back on, a new text message pops up and relief surges over me until I see that the message isn’t from Wesley. It’s from my mother.

Thinking about you! Come visit soon.

I stare blankly at the screen. This is ordinarily the part where I respond with Thinking about you, too! Yes, we need to make some plans.

And then we never make plans.

I’ve spent a long time feeling like I torpedoed my mom’s dreams, her future, by existing. But if I’ve learned anything from living with Violet Hannobar’s ghost, it is that life is short, and the single most important thing I will ever do on this earth is showing the people I love that I love them.

You’re invited to come to my house this summer. Second week of August. Please know that you always have a safe place to stay if you need one.

After sending the text, I pull a brown paper envelope out of my bag and lay it across my lap. My intention was to open it together with Wesley, but he’s not here and I desperately need to busy myself with something, anything, to avoid dwelling on what he may be thinking about right now.

The fifth treasure.

I slit the envelope open, a sheet of familiar lilac stationery tipping out.

To my Mighty & Majestic Violet, Most Wonderful Wife, Everlasting Star, 1989 Blount County Fair Blue Ribbon Winner of Best Rhubarb Pie,

And so you’ve reached the end of another treasure hunt! I don’t know how long it’s taken you to get here, or how many hunts you’ve completed so far. There are nine other maps hidden within the house and grounds. I hope you draw them out for years, and that each treasure makes you smile and remember me.

I love you so very much. You are indomitable. An inspiration. I’ll be watching and cheering you on from beyond.



I lay the paper back down. I fold it in half, tears welling in my eyes, but then I see—

There’s more. Different handwriting scrawls across the back of the paper.

I love you and I miss you so much, you cannot imagine. I’ll wait to go on my next adventure until you and I can be together again.

Violet knew where the treasure was.

She’d found them after all.

I HAVE A LOT of time to think while I cross the Atlantic. I fall asleep, dreaming of treasure and mythical creatures, a helping hand reaching out to me in a dark, moonlit wood. A hand-painted sign with my name on it and a tinfoil star. Anxious brown eyes. Blue ones in colored pencil.

When I gather our bags at Heathrow in London, it is half past four in the morning. But in Tennessee, it’s ten thirty at night. My flight to Inverness isn’t for another three hours. I am so exhausted that I should find a chair and pass out.

He has not texted, has not called. But he answers on the first ring.

He waits for me to speak first. And what I say, after dwelling for so long on what I would say, is: “Are you all right? And before you answer, just know that you don’t have to say yes.”

Wesley doesn’t sound like he’s a whole ocean away. He sounds like he’s right next to me. “No. I am not. I am so sorry. I am so, so goddamn sorry.”

I curl inward toward a wall, hair falling across my face to shield him from inside the phone. “I wish you had told me you wanted to get off the plane.”

“I don’t even remember getting off it. I panicked. I went into the bathroom because I thought I was going to throw up, but it was so small in there, and . . . I’m very, very claustrophobic. I thought I’d be able to power through it, but then bam, there I am in the airport again, and there goes your plane, taking off into the sky.”

“But you . . . you lived in the loft. In that tiny space. It’s practically a coffin up there. And you slept in the tent.”

“It was different in those situations because I could have run, if I’d wanted. I could have gotten out anytime. But in an airplane, I’m a captive. There’s nowhere to run.” He hesitates. “That, and the alternative was unacceptable. If I didn’t sleep in the loft and pretend it was a second bedroom, you wouldn’t have taken the other bedroom. If I hadn’t slept in the tent with you when I had an opportunity to, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

I sink down against the cold wall to the floor, folding my knees to my chin. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I can hear his fear, his self-loathing. “Because it was one more thing wrong with me, on top of everything else. I wanted to be fine. I wanted you to believe I was fine. If I told you everything that was wrong with me, Maybell, you wouldn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“I accept that challenge. Right now. Lay it out.”

His speech stumbles. “What?”

“Tell me everything that’s wrong with you. Give me your worst.”

He does.

“My brother got married in Rome. The flight was so bad that I seriously considered never coming back to the States—I went as far as looking into how to stay there on a work visa. I hate restaurants, because when I sit at tables I feel trapped. Something about sitting down across from someone and it being socially unacceptable to leave at any moment makes me panic. It’s one of the reasons why I can’t date. Dates like to go to restaurants. Forcing myself to ask someone out when I have social anxiety is hard enough, but adding to that, how am I supposed to explain to a woman that I get anxious at public tables? I don’t even like sitting at a table for holiday meals with my family. I stand up along the wall with my plate.

“I’ve sat at a table with you before, so you might not have noticed this. But with you, I know I can get up and leave at any time without having to explain. Knowing that makes all the difference. It’s the same panic whenever I’ve had to go to the doctor or the dentist, or when I bought my truck and had to sit in a tiny room on the other side of a desk from the car salesman. I start thinking about how I wouldn’t be able to just get up and leave if I wanted, for whatever reason, without grabbing people’s attention. Without being asked questions, and having to explain something I myself don’t entirely understand, and . . . I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Whenever I meet with clients, I always have them take a walk with me outside while we go over plans, rather than using an office. I don’t know if this is ever going to change. It’s just the way I am. I think that you are going to give up on me. That you are going to want someone easier.

“Until I’ve gotten comfortable around someone,” he continues, “I get nervous about communicating with them because they don’t know me yet, and they don’t know the issues I have. I’m putting all my energy into trying to present myself as normal, which I get into my head about. Whether it’s real or not, I can’t stop imagining that they’re judging me. Which makes it worse. My mind goes blank, and I just . . . I can’t find the words. I freeze up. It’s mortifying when the words won’t come. It’s so much easier to pretend I have a personality where I don’t have any words for anyone, that I don’t care to, rather than not being able to find them.”

I think about this intensely claustrophobic man up in that hot, airless attic closet, night after night, while I sprawled out in his big comfortable bed below. He did it for me, before he even liked me.

I think about how I crash-landed in his insular life—how difficult that must have been for him. But even on his gruffest day, he couldn’t help but slip up and be caring. The real Wesley was always shining through, rosy shafts of light, like a treasure chest with its lid ajar.

“Listen very closely: I’ve listened to everything you just said and I love you. Do you hear me? I’ve heard all of it, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to love you. You don’t have to hide anything from me, because I love all of it, every little bit. You have to let me love it all, okay? I love you. Say it.”

I think—although I cannot be sure—that he might be crying.

“I love you.”

The airport blurs into another realm, lights, sounds, and people fading out. My heart is back in Falling Stars. “No, you goofball. Say that you are loved.”

“You love me.”

“Yes. I knew who you were when I fell in love with you, Wesley Koehler. I fell in love with you just the way you are. Now say it again.”

“You love me.”

“You bet I do. What parts of you do I love? Which ones?”

“You love all of them.”

“Good. Write it down so that you don’t forget. Carry it in your pocket. I loved you yesterday, I love you now, and I’ll love you in the morning. When I come home in five days, I’ll love you then, too, and I’ll tell you so to your face.”

“I . . .” His voice is raspy. “I cannot wait for that. Maybell, I love you so much, you have no idea. Every part of you. Everything.”

“I know you do.”

“Write it down,” he tells me.

We are both emotionally collapsed, so we hang up with the promise to talk again in a few hours after I land in Inverness, and then do another check-in after I make it safely to Beinn Dhearg, a B & B in Loch Ness.

Disconnected from his voice, I slowly inch back into my environment and reckon with the reality that not so long ago, we were on our first date. Now I am in the UK alone.


And this is a but that Means Everything:

Somebody out there cares. Somebody out there loves me, every part of me. Everything.

[email protected]


Wesley ([email protected]) has sent you an ecard from American Greetings:

You are a whaley special person!


American Greetings: Here’s a copy of your ecard

Recipient: Wesley

Bzz bzz! You’re the bees’ knees!


Maybell: Good morning! Still a little jet-lagged but first night at the b&b was pretty good. It is BEAUTIFUL here

Wesley: Well that’s because you’re there

Maybell: Awww 😍 Heading to the Dores Inn for a late lunch, then off to do some exploring. Will send you lots of pics! Prepare for your phone to be buzzing all day

Wesley: It feels weird to be here alone

Maybell: You’re never alone. I’m right there in your pocket.

Wesley: 😏

Wesley: Very early here but I can’t sleep because I know you’re touring the highlands and isle of skye today. I looked up the weather and it’s supposed to be cold so please bring a jacket and plenty of water

Maybell: I’m going to need to buy another suitcase for the souvenirs I’m getting you. Don’t get your hopes up though because it’s mostly rocks and dirt

Wesley: My favorite

Maybell: Literally just glass jars with pebbles from Dores Beach, some interesting moss I found, and the tiniest wild yellow primrose with its roots intact

Maybell: I’m also taking notes. Copious notes. With terrible illustrations of local plants. I am a botanist now, basically

Wesley: No more, please, I can’t handle it. I am already a wreck of a person. What have you done

Maybell: Sorry

Wesley: No, you’re not

Maybell: Not at all, no

Wesley: Me neither. There’s still a little bit of me left if you want to destroy that too

Maybell: For your birthday I’ve decided to get you a sheep

Wesley: That’s it

Wesley: There’s nothing left

Maybell: 😏

You ever think you were single for no reason and then you meet someone and realize you’ve been waiting for them without knowing it? I know I’m not the first to have this thought or to write it out. I’m sorry these words probably aren’t my own, because I want to give you original genius, but they’re the words that I feel and I wanted to share them with you.

Another evening in Loch Ness, and Wesley’s latest text is a heartbeat in my hand. I look down at his message, trying and failing yet again to come up with the deep, nuanced response it deserves. He thinks he’s alone in not being able to find the right words when he needs them, but he isn’t. Not even a little bit.

He makes me lose mine all the time, and all he has to do to accomplish that is be himself. His serious, darling, perfect self, whom I would not change a single thing about.

I am on a rocky shore overlooking a loch in the Scottish Highlands, yet another impossible-sounding statement I’ve made within the past couple of months. Life is starting to look less like going with the flow and more like steering the boat. Who knows where I might be a year from now? The possibilities are infinite.

I snap pictures: a boulder, clouds reflecting off the water, a tree. It’s been a long day of Loch Ness Monster searching, so I’m running low on new finds to capture on film and resort to artistic shots of my sneakers. Shadow puppets. An apple core that remains from my lunch.

I raise my camera phone to frame the dramatic panorama of mountain summits and valleys, swathed in mist. It’s a gray, gloomy day, with robust winds and a chill that leaches through my clothes, but perhaps this is the type of weather that will entice Nessie to pop her head above water. You never know.

“I won’t even take a picture of you,” I tell the water seriously. “I promise I’ll keep the secret. All I’m asking for is a look. One quick little glimpse.”

In my mind’s eye, the ballroom mural paints itself into the scene: the Felled Star pirate ship breaks through the water’s surface, crumpling in the iron grip of the kraken; the little trees with their soft brushstrokes appear one by one. Out of nothing arises the My May Belle.

The historic paddlewheel riverboat lazes by, my mother leaning on the balcony, calling hello with a white handkerchief. The water is deep green, sky a hot summer haze. Someone dressed in a red-striped suit from the Mark Twain days strums a banjo. A calliope plays. And a monstrous head rises out of the water, scales gleaming in waning daylight.

I take a picture of it all, the painted people, ships, and monsters, but my phone’s not advanced enough to pull them properly out of the nonphysical plane and they come out looking like water, like rocks and trees and sky.

My phone vibrates, the word that matters most to me lighting up my screen.

I’m already smiling when I answer. “Hey, you.”

“Hello there.”

His friendly rumble warms me all over, sparking instant happiness. It’s the closest thing we get to real magic in this universe.

“Tell me all about your day,” he says, instantly making me feel at ease, at home. He might as well be next to me in the flesh. “I want to know everything.”

“A red squirrel took a chip right out of my hand. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be the same—he ate the chip right out of it. Right out of my hand. It’s the highlight of my life.”

“I’m incredibly jealous. What are you doing now?”

“Walking. I’m at Dores Beach, not far from the inn.”

A smile lifts his voice. “Take me there?”

I canvass the trees, the emerald mountains smeared with drizzling rain. The shoreline, cut up into jutting angles. “You are walking along a stripe of pale rocks that the tide can’t reach. The water is a pretty navy blue, little waves crashing onto shore with white froth. We’re holding hands. It’s all quite peaceful.”

“I’m happy to be here with you,” he says.

“Watch your step. Driftwood.”

“Ahh, good catch. But please do zip up your jacket. It’s getting chilly.”

“Do you feel that mist on your face? The sky’s darkening. We’ll have to leave soon, but not yet. Not until the water is full of moonlight, because what if Nessie’s nocturnal?”

“Exactly.” He pauses. “If I’m quiet from time to time, it’s because I’m smiling too big to talk.”

I press one hand to my chest, holding very, very still, because if I don’t I’m going to go flying away into the clouds. The phone is my only grounding weight, his voice my tether to earth.

“Come on, now, you’re falling behind,” he tells me, and I pick up the pace again.

“I’m coming, I’m coming.”

“Please do remember what I said about zipping up that jacket. Don’t want to catch a cold out here—especially since your hair’s damp.”

I zip my jacket and remove my glasses to wipe off the gathering mist. “You hear that bird? Caw-caw!”

He laughs. Then halts. “Don’t tell me your shoes are untied again.”

“They’re not.”

“They certainly are.” He sighs. “What am I going to do with you?”

I look down, playing along, and what do you know—they certainly are. So I begin to lower and lace them up, but he interrupts.

“Let me.”

I slide my glasses back onto my face, and that’s when another memory steps out of my head and into my surroundings. It’s a remarkably lifelike memory, sparing none of the details: an old jacket with plaid lining; golden hair ruffling in the wind, one eye squinting against an oncoming downpour.

Rain is the perfect weather condition for a love story, so naturally, it must be raining at the conclusion of it. There could be no other way.

The man treading closer, all of his features sharpening into focus, is so clear, so present, so real. He stops a few feet away, hands in pockets, forehead furrowed in thought. My breath circulates in my lungs like a sealed potion, unable to escape. Painful.

When he finally speaks, his tone isn’t quite sad but contemplative. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”

The world glows bright and wonderful. Not a dream. Not a trick. He’s here.

“You’re right on time.”

He kneels before me, lacing my shoe. Everything falls quiet, quiet, quiet. The rain is soundless, the volume of the breaking waves dialing all the way down until it clicks off. Color fades away, and there is nothing, nobody in the world, but us.

Wesley removes something from his pocket, then hands it to me.

A note.

Maybell Parrish loves me.

“I read that note ten thousand times on the flight over,” he confesses, standing up. The paper is already worn out, ink smeared sideways with a thumbprint. I am going to fill his pockets with more reminders. I’ll put them in his boots and his wallet, all over the house, the grounds. I’m going to bury treasure.

“I’m so proud of you,” I whisper, reaching up to capture either side of his face in my hands.

Wesley lines up the edge of his flattened hand against my forehead, shielding my eyes from rain. “I’m a little proud of me, too, to be honest.”

“Good. Bask in it. You deserve to.”

“I didn’t know if I would be able to do it alone. I didn’t think I would. And I had a middle seat on the plane.” He shudders, then begins to smile in an automatic mirroring of mine. “I buckled myself in, held on to this note like a lifeline, and soon enough I was up in the air and everything was out of my control. No chance to escape.”

“You are the bravest person I know, Wesley,” I tell him solemnly.

“This is what you and I do. We take turns being brave.” The glint in his eyes dulls somewhat. “I can say no to a lot of things, but not to special experiences with you. I’ve decided that’s the line I’m drawing for myself.”

“When we go home, you won’t have to talk to anyone but me for six months straight if you don’t want to,” I tell him. “When guests start arriving, I’ll tell them you’re a ghost of a logger who died in the nineteenth century and that’s why you don’t ever seem to see or hear them when they speak to you. You’ve been groundskeeping at Falling Stars since it was first built.”

“We’ll tell them another powerful ghost named Violet put a spell over the house that matchmakes all of the single guests with each other.” His grin turns wry. “Asking you to paint a mural, when I’m the one who paints. Asking me to make donuts when, between the two of us, you’re the one with the baking skills.”

“I think I’m beginning to see her last scheme. What interesting dying wishes for a person to leave behind.”

He shakes his head, trying to be long-suffering, but without the heart to be. “She told me more times than I can count that I needed a girlfriend.”

“Not to pile on, but you really do.”

He devours me with a deeply meaningful look that gives rise to goose bumps. Anticipation. “The second wish, though.” His tone is light. Considering. But his gaze is anything but. “Do you suppose it’s legally binding?”

The second wish . . . “Which one was that?”

“For the intrepid explorer . . .”

Ahh, of course. “Finders Keepers rules apply.”

“Well, I did find you,” I point out. “A coincidence for the history books.”

“I believe in a lot of unbelievable things. Coincidences might not be one of them anymore, though.”

I’d have to agree. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Gemma used Wesley’s picture to catfish me. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence led Violet to bring Wesley and me together at Falling Stars.

It feels like fate. The best myth of them all.

“So.” He bends down to kiss my nose. I scrunch it, and he smiles like he’s the winner here. “Finders keepers.” Then he dips his head as though to kiss my mouth but only hovers there. “How does that sound?”

“Like heaven,” I murmur against his lips. A happy, low little sigh stirs from his chest, and it’s a fire ignited, a permanent mark made on the universe. I am seen. I am heard. Understood. Somebody knows that I am here, and it matters to them. If I were to look up at the sky right now, I think I’d see our names in the stars, a new constellation twinkling into being just for us. M + W.

The passionate kiss that follows the declaration of love is the essential ingredient to every romance to ensure it bakes properly, so naturally that is the part that comes next. His mouth meets mine at long, longest last—my heart brightens, glowing in the dark—and somewhere, way out on the black water, there is an extraordinary splash.

5 Rising Stars for the Mighty & Majestic Falling Stars Hotel!

By Clark William


A BLOUNT COUNTY PROPERTY with nineteenth-century boardinghouse roots followed by an early-1900s turn as a hotel has been brought back to life by Maybell Parrish, the great-niece of Victor and Violet Hannobar, as well as Wesley Koehler, the resident groundskeeper and founder of animal sanctuary The Farm Upstate.

The latest incarnation of this historical landmark is a mash-up of its origins: a hotel as well as a boardinghouse. Parrish has grand plans for it (which are too numerous for this author to include in one article), such as an upcoming writer’s retreat, an artist’s workshop weekend, a biannual treasure hunt, a paranormal investigator weekend—the house, rumored to be haunted, is close to 140 years old—and a corn maze with crop circles.

If you’re in the market for a respite from the stresses of life, leave them all at the door and step into this fanciful Appalachian Brigadoon. Meals and laundry services are provided, but if you still aren’t convinced, there are twenty-seven farm animals (and counting) on the grounds to feed and play with. Enjoy Turner Classic Movies nights in the ballroom and tea parties on Sunday afternoons, and make pen pals out of past guests as well as guests to come. Finish that manuscript you’ve been meaning to write for years now while enjoying a donut in Maybell’s Coffee Shop on the first floor. Don’t forget to pick up your own Fraser fir sapling if you want to take a little piece of the Smokies home with you.

Extended board is low-income friendly, forgoing a big up-front deposit. Parrish and Koehler have transformed the property not only into a vacation destination in the scenic Smoky Mountains, perfect for getting away from it all, but also into a temporary home for two families in dire straits after recently losing their houses to wildfires.

Rich with history and all the comforts of the modern age, the Mighty & Majestic Falling Stars Hotel is a world of its own, where life is a little more whimsical (no guest has yet succeeded in finding all six secret doors) and the air just a little easier to breathe. So what are you waiting for? Your best memories are still on the horizon—all they need is you. Come to the Top of the World to discover the magic for yourself.


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