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Twice Shy: Chapter 4


OPTIONS ARE THIN ON the ground. Is there a motel around here? Actually, the answer to that doesn’t matter: I can’t afford to waste my savings on a months-long hotel stay, which is the duration of time I’m looking at while I somehow get the estate up to code. I might have to sleep in my car, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

I’ve walked right out of the cabin and am back in my car. This is . . . I resist even thinking the sentiment, because my mom’s voice filters into my conscience. Life’s not fair. Get used to it.

I attempt to harden myself. It’s too cold for wallowing.

Really cold, now that I’m sitting still and my nerves are fading. My phone’s home screen tells me it’s thirty-nine degrees, and I can’t keep the heat blasting or my car battery will die.

I let my forehead slap the steering wheel. All right, Maybell. You can wallow just a little. At this point I thought I’d be lounging on Violet’s living room couch, fire blazing, evening news on a low drone to take the edge off the silence, utilizing her supersized pantry of baking ingredients to whip up something sweet.

I don’t remember making the decision to get out of the car. I go poof and reappear on the steps of the manor, twisting the handle. The key Ruth gave me earlier today is unnecessary, because while the knob is locked, the door hangs loose on its frame and gives way at the lightest touch.

My phone’s flashlight function illuminates the foyer, grand curving staircase blocked with overstuffed trash bags, some of them ripped open. I expect to be greeted by a familiar wicker bench with a blue floral cushion. The eighties lampshades in Southwest pinks and sandsout of fashion even then, but to my ten-year-old self, the incontrovertible ideal. It was like living on the set of an early-nineties sitcom, but whatever size scale you’re thinkingthink bigger. And with more secret doors.

There’s so much stuff packed in here that the sound of my footsteps absorbs instantly, no trace of an echo. Aunt Violet has ordered every As Seen on TV! product to hit one a.m. programming, whole walls of it, towers and battlements of it, weighing down so heavily that it curves the floorboards. My dumbfounded eyes wander over purchases that look like they’ve never been taken out of their boxes: waffle makers, miniature Christmas village sets, snow cone machines. A waist-high stack of children’s coloring books. Enough Hasbro inventory to play a different board game every day of the year. Wigs, tackle boxes, sequined cowgirl hats, aprons. Hundreds of books and DVDs. My jaw’s come unhinged, and my eyes burn for all the staring, and the dust, and something else that’s never going to leave me alone now.

Your fault, it whispers.

Two narrow paths fork off, left and right, ignoring the staircase altogether since it’s impossible to access. The paths are just barely wide enough to allow an elderly woman to squeeze through. I angle my phone upward to see how high it all goes, dust glimmering in the streaks of light hanging so thickly that I could almost trick myself into believing it’s snowing in here.

Thirty-nine degrees has dropped to subzero. Cold seeps all the way through my skin, into my temporal lobes, moving torpid old memories down the pipeline for forced replay. I can’t believe the same Violet Hannobar who wouldn’t let anyone walk through the house with their shoes on became the Violet who lived in this mess.

I make the questionable decision to keep going, because surely it can’t be like this everywhere. The kitchen was her favorite room in the house: upscale and shiny, decked out with all the best appliances and double ovens (“for double the desserts”). I maneuver over and under packaged cookware like I’m in a game of life-sized Jenga, batting away cobwebs, foot delicately crunching the small bones of something dead.

A dark shape flies at me from out of nowhere and I scream, ducking, dislodging the wall. An Easy-Bake Oven falls onto a birthday-paper-wrapped package that spins and lights up. A voice screams, “Bop it!” in the demon-possessed snarl that could only be produced by dying batteries, and I scream right back.

When the path widens at last, I’m in the living room.

Which means I’ve bypassed the kitchen completely. The shining apple of Aunt Violet’s eye, with fancy double ovens for double the desserts, has fallen victim to the hoard monster.

I find my shell-shocked reflection in the blank, grubby television set, and if I close my eyes, everything is as it was. I hear the soft whir of Uncle Victor’s oxygen machine in the next room. Violet and I are on the burgundy sofa—I’m insisting that I’m mature enough to watch Unsolved Mysteries, but Violet doesn’t like it. I tell her I’ve seen worse at my cousin’s house—he used to watch R-rated horror films while I slept (or tried to) in the armchair. Violet purses her lips. Looks like I’ll be giving Brandon a phone call, then.

I feel like a glamorous movie star in my tinted lip balm and glittery nail polish, smelling of Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Violet wears Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds and curlers in her hair, flaming red with pale roots. Her earrings were gifted to her by Marlon Brando when she was younger, but don’t tell Uncle Victor that. Six fingers are adorned in heavy jewels that, she tells me, out the side of her mouth like she doesn’t want anybody to overhear, her siblings would gladly kill her to get their hands on.

I hiss out a long, unsteady breath. The little girl on the burgundy sofa has grown up, but being a grown-up isn’t at all the way she thought it’d be. She’s so lost now that it’s scary. The only one who’s ever looked out for her is gone.

The Violet in my mind’s eye winks conspiratorially at my childhood self, then dissolves. No one’s been looking out for her, either. At my feet, there’s a grimy blanket and a cup with a moldy toothbrush in it. A hot plate’s switched off but still plugged in, ceramic bowl on top, instant noodles glued to the rim. A dead rat’s tail peeks out from under a pillow.

My aunt’s house is eleven thousand square feet in total: elegant and sparkling, with a wine cellar, a butler’s pantry, and a surplus of unnecessary, beautiful extras. She has special rooms bigger than some people’s houses that were, in my time here, used only one day a year, doors kept closed for three hundred sixty-four days. Yet at the end of her life she was confined to a nest that roughly spans four by three feet.

“I convinced her to move into the cabin not long after I was hired.”

At the sound of another voice I emit a scream so powerful that it could probably carry a paper airplane on its wave. I jump and turn at once, ankle twisting, toppling right onto the dead rat, which turns out to be a live possum. Which rends another terrible shriek out of me.

Wesley doesn’t offer a helping hand, watching with a closed expression.

My knees knock together as I scramble to my feet, heart thumping something dreadful. It’s like I’ve swallowed a bomb. “Jesus Christ! Where did you come from?”

He points wordlessly behind him.

“Well, yeah, no shit. But how did you sneak in so quietly?” He’s huge. I should have heard him hacking through this jungle long before I saw him. Maybe he used a secret entrance. I try to summon a mental blueprint for this house, but all my Falling Stars knowledge has been turned upside down and shaken for loose change. With it looking the way it does now, I can’t even remember which direction my old bedroom is in. Somewhere upstairs. That’s all I know.

He scrutinizes me as though I’m the one who’s acting suspect. “What are you doing? It’s not safe in here.”

“Looking for somewhere to sleep.” I bend to unplug the hot plate, paranoid it’ll turn on even though the electricity’s shut off. This place would go up like a Fourth of July sparkler.

“Somewhere to sleep,” he repeats flatly.

“Yes. I moved out of my apartment because I was under the impression I had a new home with a nice warm bed waiting for me. Living it up like royalty.” I prop my hands on my hips, surveying our less-than-impressive environs. “I did not have ‘colossal hoard’ on my bingo card.”

“There aren’t any nice beds here.”

“I got that, thanks. I’m improvising. Saw a whole pallet of Nintendo 64s back there; maybe I’ll build myself a bed out of them.”

Wesley doesn’t smile at my joke. He’s frowning at me again. I think he has a low opinion of my mental competence. “You can’t stay in here, it’s dangerous.”

He’s absolutely right. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

Wesley hesitates. The worry line in his forehead cracks into a full-blown trench, and he’s silent for so long that I begin to think he’s a robot who’s spontaneously shut off, but then he opens his mouth. Slowly, he forces out the words: “You can come stay in the cabin.” It’s the most reluctantly issued invitation in history. “I suppose.” Another eternity passes. “For now.”

There is simply no way.

“Why not?”

It transpires that I’ve said that out loud.

Obviously, I am not going to tell Wesley that he’s my most recent ex and doesn’t know it, so I say, “There’s not enough room. The cabin only has one bedroom, from what I saw, which you’re already occupying. If I’m crashing on your couch I’ll just be in your way.” And I will not be a burden on anyone. “It’s fine. I’ll burrow into another room here that has fewer possums.” I try for a casual lean but accidentally kick over the toothbrush cup. Cockroaches scatter. “Never mind, I’ll sleep in my car. How good are you at jumping dead batteries, by the way?”

The disapproving frown deepens, bracketing his mouth. He wields silence like a weapon, letting it hang over us for several moments, before responding, “The cabin is a two-bedroom. My bedroom’s upstairs. You can take Violet’s old room downstairs.”

This perks me up. “Really? Are you sure?” Ordinarily I’d want to thoroughly vet a guy before agreeing to stay at his place for any length of time, but it’s gotten so chilly that I can see my breath, silver puffs disturbing the dust clouds. Besides, Aunt Violet liked him well enough to bequeath him half of Falling Stars. If he’s good in her books, he’s okay in mine. I’ll have to find a way to scrub my brain of all associations with Jack McBride and the fact that he’s a stone-cold stunner, of course, but that’s small potatoes. It’s been five seconds since I started seriously considering his offer, and in those five seconds I’ve spotted approximately three bats and four glowing eyes in the corner of the ceiling.

He turns his back. “I’ll change out her blankets and pillows.”

I’m reminded of Ruth saying Violet died in her sleep, full-body shuddering with goose bumps to think that I’ll be lying in her bed. “Could you flip the mattress, too?” I call at his retreating back.

Wesley doesn’t reply. He eases sideways into the passageway and disappears.

“Don’t bother to wait up or anything,” I grumble, picking my way along after. “Not like you’ll care if I die.” Just means he’ll get 100 percent of the estate rather than fifty. Maybe I should be more suspicious.

I make slow progress. Play-Doh mega sets and bead bracelet kits wobble in my wake, glaring ominously down at my unprotected skull. I would hate to die by Etch A Sketch.

By the time I’ve made it out of the house, Wesley’s long gone. When I open the cabin’s front door, there’s a split-second flash of movement as a pull-down ladder folds up into the ceiling. Footsteps thud above, followed by stark quiet.

Violet’s room holds few belongings, likely because she kept her hoard at the manor and didn’t want to cross-contaminate. Or didn’t want to make Wesley’s life challenging by carrying the addiction over into his space.

It’s spare but homey. A comfy queen bed, a dark cherry bureau, a lamp, a bookcase. There’s an air of unfinished business about the room, however. It has the flavor of someone going to sleep in it one night, unaware they’d be gone the next day. My imagination is running away with me again.

I haul my luggage out of my car, too tired to properly unpack. I’m hungry and in desperate need of a shower, but first, curiosity niggles. I float over to the lilac stationery Ruth taped to the wall, and what I find there raises both eyebrows.

VIOLET’S DYING WISHES

IGNORE AT YOUR OWN PERIL

(I’LL HAUNT YOU DOWN, BESTOW 1,000-YEAR CURSES UPON YOUR BLOODLINES, ETC.)

Wish 1. Take extraordinary (extraordinary!) care to comb through every single item in the house before you decide to donate/dispose/keep.

Wish 2. Victor thought there was buried treasure out here but I never did find any. For the intrepid explorer, Finders Keepers rules apply.

Wish 3. Maybell, dear, I’d be thrilled if you painted a mural in the ballroom.

Wish 4. Movie night with a friend is sacred law, don’t forget. Wesley, I’d love for you to make my favorite cinnamon-sugar donuts for the occasion.


I WALTZ INTO MY coffee shop in the clouds and he’s already there, wiping down the counter with a damp rag. Everything goes soft and out-of-focus fuzzy, black and white like an old film. A dark vignette fades out all the people in the room but one, who seems to glow at the edges. He looks up at me, flashing a radiant smile he never shares with anyone else.

Today, Jack isn’t a prince. He’s a barista. We’ve enjoyed a will-they-won’t-they dynamic for ages, but we’ve reached my favorite part of the love story: the sexual tension is at its peak and we’ve got nowhere to go but over the edge in a sensual, tour de force declaration of love. We know each other inside out by now. We trust each other and accept each other’s flaws. I know he’ll never hurt me, because in Maybell’s Coffee Shop AU, hurting me is impossible without my say-so.

“Maybell,” he says breathlessly, rushing over. “I can’t hold it in anymore. The past few months have been unspeakable torture, and if I don’t tell you how I really feel I will fall down dead right here and now.”

“Jack!” I exclaim. “Whatever is the matter?”

He takes my hands in his. “When I look at you, I can’t think straight. Aphrodite who? You are the goddess of beauty. Your mind is a splendor. It’s impressive how you can do any calculation inside your head, like if I asked what fourteen thousand two hundred and eighty-seven times twenty thousand five hundred and forty-one is, you’d know the answer like that.” He snaps his fingers.

“The answer is [redacted],” I reply humbly. “But I don’t like to think of myself as smart. I’m just your average girl.”

“There’s nothing average about you, Maybell,” he goes on, gaze yearning. He sweeps me off my feet, holding me princess-style in his arms. “You’re compassionate and genuine and popular, all eyes on you every time you walk into a room. And your eyes! Incomparable. They’re the prettiest blue, like the water in Sandals Resorts commercials. I hope I’m not gushing too much. But my heart can’t take it any longer—I have to know how you feel about me.”

“This is all so . . . unexpected.” I am positively faint. To think I’ve been so consumed with my busy, successful café—the most successful café in this entire vague area, in fact—that I’ve hardly noticed what’s been brewing between us, right under my nose. Or maybe I’ve been secretly pining. I haven’t finalized the trope just yet.

“I love you, Jack McBride,” I reply solemnly. “And I am ready to bear your children.”

Everyone claps. I notice my parents in one of the booths, proud as can be. They’re in matching white leather jackets that say world tour on the back in rhinestones, and my mother (who’s also my best friend) is beaming with happiness. She has everything she’s ever wanted; she has only ever wanted the same happiness for me.

Color bleeds back into the scene, and for the first time, I realize we’re standing in red rose petals that take the shape of a heart. Candlelight dazzles off every surface. Jack’s reached a level of hotness so severe that I have to shade my eyes, as his hair is dripping wet for some reason and he’s wearing a loose white cotton shirt with buttons that come progressively more undone every time I look away. He grins seductively. “Well, what are we waiting—”

BEEEEEEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEP.

The café disintegrates. I spring out of my bed in the real world so fast that my foot gets caught in the quilt and I bang my elbow on the nightstand. “What the hell!”

The obnoxious beeping noise is coming from right outside the cabin, stopping when I throw open the front door. A bunch of men have marred my view of the lovely Smoky Mountains with two monstrously large containers that are about forty yards long each, sides emblazoned with walland dumpster rental & waste services. It’s eight a.m. I’ve been lying in bed awake and daydreaming since a quarter past seven, so I’m still in my pajamas, barefoot in the rain-soaked yard.

Wesley Koehler, mirror image of the starry-eyed barista I’ve unfortunately been forced to abandon, trots out of the house with a busted cabinet on his shoulders. I watch him balance the cabinet with one arm so he can free the other, shake hands with the guys, and throw it into one of the trucks as easily as if it were a loaf of bread. Wood splinters apart on impact. A small mushroom cloud of dust billows into the atmosphere.

“Hey!”

The dumpster-rental guys wave at me and climb into their vehicles, which look like the front parts of semitrucks but without the trailers, and peel out.

Wesley doesn’t wave. He glances at me, then dismissively away, heading right back into the house. He emerges with one of the trash bags from the grand staircase, giving it a heartless toss. I hear glass breaking.

“Hey!” I roar again. “Now, wait just a minute!” I hurry into the cabin to forage for my shoes, discovering one in the living room and the other under my bed. No time for socks.

“Hold up!” I flag Wesley down, but he doesn’t stop to listen. Just keeps carrying stuff out of Violet’s house and throwing it in the dumpster. “Did you go through that first?” I inquire as he tosses another garbage bag.

He looks at me like I’ve unzipped my skin and shown him my skeleton. “Did I stick my hands in Violet’s garbage? No. Why would I?”

“You don’t know if that was trash!”

“Certainly smelled like it.”

“Violet’s dying wishes,” I press urgently, following him into the house. “Didn’t you read them? She wants us to inspect everything very, very carefully before throwing it out or donating or whatever. Extraordinarily carefully.”

“Violet,” he replies through gritted teeth, picking up a rust-eaten Weber grill, “liked to be difficult.” The grill becomes smithereens.

“Okay, but—”

He walks away. Nostrils flaring, I hurry to catch up again. “I think we should honor her wishes and make sure there isn’t anything valuable in these bags before we throw them out.”

He gestures to the dumpster. “Be my guest.”

When he comes and goes again, this time with an armful of clothes, I find my voice. The one I don’t usually use because no one ever listens to it, or if they do, they laugh at me.

“I want to look through that,” I declare firmly. “Can you stop for a minute? We need to discuss what we’re doing.” I can’t help tacking on a please. It’s why I’ll never get ahead in life: I undercut myself with too many pleases and submissive body language, my annoyingly timid Okay, I understand, forget I said anything, let me know how I can help that makes me mad at myself later.

“What I’m doing is clearing out this house,” he informs me. By this point I’ve seen more of Wesley’s back than his front, and in spite of the nice view I’m getting real tired of it.

He attempts to pitch a guitar case into the dumpster, but I tug it out of his grip. He capitalizes on my moment of distraction and disposes of the moth-eaten clothes I’ve just tried to save. “You’ve only been thinking about estate plans since, what, yesterday afternoon? I’ve been planning this for a year, since Violet first told me I was going to inherit everything after she died. I’m going to fix it up, raze five acres of land, and turn it all into a sanctuary for old farm animals.”

“Into a what?”

Wesley shoots me a hard glare. I’m not prepared for it, for the horrible way it feels to have someone who looks like someone I thought I knew, someone who was warm and kind, direct such coldness at me. “What’s wrong with an animal sanctuary?”

“What’s wrong is that you’ve decided this all by yourself.” Plus, I’m not living next to a literal pigsty.

“Why shouldn’t I? Violet was my friend. I cared for her every day.” He tugs the guitar case from me, opening it to reveal broken hinges and stained velvet lining. See? his expression tacks on smugly. “You, on the other hand? You’re a stranger. You appeared from out of nowhere. No offense, but I don’t believe DNA gives you seniority over me.”

He’s calling me an opportunist. Julie Parrish’s girl, through and through.

“I know what improvements are best for Falling Stars,” Wesley concludes pragmatically. “I’ve been suggesting them ever since I was hired.”

“If Violet liked your suggestions, she would’ve implemented them,” I retort. “I inherited half this place. And so help me, if you throw out one more piece of my rightful property without my approval, I’m going to take legal action.” Please don’t call my bluff. I can’t afford a lawyer.

This stops him in his tracks. “I’m clearing out trash. Just trash, not anything that’s salvageable. Is that not the obvious next step?”

He’s got a point. I hate that he’s got a point.

“What about Violet’s wishes? Every little item, she said. Extraordinary care, she said.”

He exhales through his nose, irritated. The irritation is contagious. “That wasn’t serious. Movie night? Making cupcakes? Those aren’t wishes, it’s meddling from the afterlife.”

“Donuts,” I say, correcting him. “There’s a thousand-year curse hanging in the balance. Sounds plenty serious to me.”

“That’s because you didn’t know her.”

Wesley isn’t fazed by my crossed arms or formidable scowl. He chucks a cardboard box full of books with their covers missing and ignores me.

“Those can be recycled.”

“I’m paying extra for the trash company to sort through it for recyclable materials. Part of the premium service package.”

That sounds made-up. And possibly sarcastic. He’s saying whatever he thinks will get me to stop talking to him.

It’s a relief that I don’t have to feel bad anymore about intruding here, living in his cabin. He’s been waiting around for my aunt to die so he could do whatever he wanted with her home.

I busy myself quality-checking holiday lawn ornaments. That’s what I’m doing officially, anyway. Unofficially, I’m side-eyeing the muscles in Wesley’s arms that cord and shift when he lifts heavy boxes, hunter-green shirt straining across his broad shoulders and back. His skin is tanned and freckled from an occupation that puts him center-stage in the sunlight, so when sweat crops up along his forehead and the bridge of his nose, he shimmers like gold dust. Whenever I’m warm and sweaty, my hair both frizzes out of its ponytail and plasters to my face, which goes as red as a stop sign. When I blush or get overheated, I don’t get two cute splashes of pink on my cheeks. My face incites alarm. I blame the fact that I was born a redhead, which is my go-to piece of trivia whenever anyone mentions the strawberry highlights in my light brown hair.

I wonder idly if Wesley was born with dark blond hair, or if he’s one of those blonds who had snow-white hair as a child. The idea of him having ever been a child is ridiculous. He looks like he was born with a five o’clock shadow and some sharp words for the nurses. I bet he refused to wear onesies because he found them demeaning.

I resent my intimate familiarity with what he looks like, which is at rotten odds with the coarseness beneath his surface. I know every inch of that face, thanks to my dumb, deluded self not running Jack’s pictures through a Google reverse image search.

Physically, I speak fluent Wesley Koehler. Spiritually, he’s a mysterious unknown. An enigma. That kind of face should come loaded with a cocky grin and eyes that twinkle with teasing humor. In the game of Who Wore It Better?, Jack wins, and he doesn’t even exist.

Wesley threads his fingers through his hair, rumpling the every-which-way waves, darting a peculiar look in my direction, then away again. I watch him a while longer while trying to be discreet about it, but now his attention stays firmly fixed on his task. No good morning, no how did you sleep, no curiosity about me as a person and where I came from, no small talk between roommates. No bless you when I sneeze. It’s next-level rudeness.

It’s a feeling too familiar to be mistaken. I’m unwanted in my home.

“Zero points for originality, universe,” I mutter. “You’ve given me that story line loads of times and I’m still here.” The Maybell Parrishes of the world are a gullible, often down-on-our-luck breed with determination that exceeds our talent, but at the end of the world, we’ll be the last ones staggering through that field of zombies. Grumbling, shaking our fists at the sky, too bullheaded to know when to quit, with soft, stupid hearts that won’t be jaded. Being delusional is our downfall but it’s also our saving grace: we’re deluded enough that we don’t see why tomorrow shouldn’t be better, even if the last thousand days in a row have been bad.

Our being equal inheritors of my aunt’s estate is going to be a circus, I can already tell. But if one of us is going to give up, I know it won’t be me.


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