By Anastasia Alexander
Copyright © 2014 by Anastasia Alexander
The pale blue sky took on the same hue as his eyes, a deceptively calming color Camille Marie Britain had gazed at for twenty-six years of marriage. Now she saw the color when the sky decided to torture her with painful memories. If she could dab it with a paintbrush to change the hue, she would. It didn’t matter what tint as long as it wasn’t his color, anything but his. She wanted nothing around to remind her of his infectious laugh, the way he spun rhetoric, or his charismatic charm.
That’s why she had fled her house and her job to come to God’s favorite land: Island Park, Idaho. And here she was, meditating on a wooden dock being gently rocked by boat waves, surrounded by purple mountains and crisp, cool air with a hint of stale algae. The setting sun spread a thin, pencil stripe of lavender across the green valley. This sacred hideaway exuded a magnificent peace. The perfect place to run to. She shut her eyes to better concentrate.
The October breeze picked up by the time Camille finished her deep breathing meditation on the dock by the lake. Slowly, as she was trained, she opened her eyes to see pine trees and ruffled waves—and then looked east as a dark object caught her eye. What was it? A pine tree? No, it was too close to the shoreline. Driftwood? Maybe, but it sure would be a big one. The object seemed to move. She watched, now intrigued. The shadow moved between the pine lodge trees and the licking waves of the lake. A deer? Dog? Moose? She made out what might be a head, arms. Perhaps Gaia, goddess of Earth, was coming to bless her. But no, she could now see a hat, boots, and a bulky form.
She drew her legs close, sitting in a round ball. A man. Only one cabin away. She fumbled with the old wood underneath her hand until a sliver broke away from the board. She twisted the shard between her fingers as she realized the shadow, person, man was coming toward her. It wasn’t long before the stranger’s footsteps clicked against the dock. The evening swallowed up most of his physical features, but he was larger than she’d expected, a solid giant, with a broad, wide chest, lean stomach, and long, sturdy legs anchored by black cowboy boots. But what caught her attention and caused her to scoot back was the hatchet in the sheath on his belt and the rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Howdy,” boomed his voice, deep and masculine. “Do you know why there’s a light in that cabin?” He motioned to the front of the cabin, which faced the dock.
“No,” she muttered, hating the interest that flared through her. He was a man, and that was all she needed to know to stay clear.
“The Clarks asked me to keep an eye on the place. Someone’s moving around in there. I’m going to check it out.”
“We . . . we’re renting the cabin.” Her eyes focused on the hatchet.
“Oh, I thought you said . . . never mind. If you’re the renters, then we’re neighbors.” He leaned over, his hand extended. “I live several cabins that-a-way.” He pointed into the darkness from which he’d emerged as he grabbed her cold hand, enveloping it with his large, firm grip. “I’m Jackson Armstrong. And you are?”
His gaze burned into her as she prayed a silent thanks for the mask of darkness and the fact that his attentions seemed amicable. “Camille.”
“Britain,” she said, wishing she didn’t always answer every question anyone asked.
“Mom, phone.” Her eighteen-year-old daughter jogged down the dock, waving a cordless phone. Darlene’s bouncing honey-brown hair reached her waist and delicately framed her pale face. She had a small, catlike nose and fragile cheekbones, which matched nicely with her slender frame. She’d inherited the best traits of both parents. Unfortunately, that included her father’s haunting pale blue eyes—eyes impossible to avoid.
“Darlene, our neighbor, Jackson.” Camille gestured toward him.
They shook hands, and then the fellow sidled off the dock. “Better be headin’ home. Just came to check the cabin,” he called out before disappearing into the trees. He whistled a tune Camille didn’t recognize.
“He’s a good whistler,” Darlene said.
Camille shook her head. “Don’t you try it. Whistling is always a bad omen when women do it. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for summoning misfortune.” She didn’t really believe that, of course, but she had enough problems with bad luck, and she planned to do everything she could to ward it away during her stay here.
* * *
“You wouldn’t want to be responsible . . . responsible . . . responsible . . .” Water splashed on Jackson’s boots as the woman’s fading words reverberated through him. Mothers were the same everywhere. Pouring guilt and orders on their kids: do this, do that, don’t ever . . . Mothers believed that if they didn’t tell their children to breathe, they’d forget to. He knew his mother had done it—and still did it—out of love, but it was irritating all the same. The way he learned to deal with it was love her, accept her, and most of the time overlook her flaws.
The lady he had just met, although attractive in a smart, intelligent way, seemed to be extra endowed with this cautioning business if she took it as far as a superstition of whistling. What utter and complete nonsense. It was hard to believe the world had been in the enlightened age for centuries and people still took stock in that hocus pocus stuff. That was why he would stay away from women and remain alone in nature. No more answering to a female.
He had made it to the dirt path that headed up to his cabin where snarling weeds had overgrown most of the trail. He’d have to clear it. Maybe tomorrow. He also needed to get his photography assignment done. Not much time for motorcycling on the back roads. He shouldn’t have agreed to play handyman for Mrs. Clark. Now he would have to deal with Camille and all the demands an upper class woman would require. But he couldn’t say no to Mrs. Clark with her cancer returning, especially with her family being so non-supportive. There was a woman who wouldn’t nag children, if she had them. She was too stalwart for that.
Miserable luck that she’d rented to an academic woman. But maybe I’m getting carried away, he thought as he knelt by his stone fire pit and checked the fish in his Dutch oven. She might not be that bad.
Not that he cared, of course.
The trout looked done. Too bad he hadn’t put potatoes and carrots in for a complete meal. Or didn’t have any lemon and salt to flavor the fish. A woman would have thought about all those extra things before even catching the fish.
His mind wandered back to the woman, with the eyes so deep he’d felt he could drown in them. Maybe Camille’s husband would do all the repairs himself. He stared at the flavorless fish with a frown. Maybe he would wander over there around dinnertime and score a decent meal. He carried the Dutch oven into his cabin, and the stink that had formed in the bathroom even overwhelmed the smell of the fish. He couldn’t ignore it much longer. His bathroom had become so dirty he feared getting athlete’s foot.
He ate his fish in silence with none of the endless chatter he was used to enduring when his ex-wife had been around. She sure could ramble on, sounding like the school teacher on Charlie Brown, “Whaaa, whaaa, whaaa.” After scraping the last bit of meat off the bones, he dumped the remnants into the trash, put his plate in the sink, and flipped on the radio to listen to a talk show. He’d have to straighten up the cabin before his son came. He wanted no reports going back the other way that his new, more simple life had any flaws in it.
* * *
Why did that man have to come over? Camille thought, reluctantly taking the phone from Darlene’s hand. And why had someone called? She wanted to be left alone. Completely alone, all but for Darlene. Camille needed time to heal, to figure out who she was now that she was no longer Mrs. Adam Britain. She didn’t want to be social and neighborly. “Hello,” she snapped into the phone.
“Run into any bears?” her oldest son asked.
“I’m reading a survivalist handbook right now.”
“Great. I can see it. You go on a walk and stumble across an angry black bear and say, ‘Bear, can you wait a minute while I look up what I’m supposed to do in my survivalist handbook?’”
“Relax. I know what to do. You put your hands above your head and walk around pretending that’s how tall you are. Take bear-fear off your list.”
“Mom, you’re not taking me seriously.”
“Would you relax? I’m fine.”
“But tomorrow’s Halloween—”
Her son talked on, but she didn’t listen. Instead, she noticed a chill spreading through her. Her son did have reason to worry. Ever since she studied folklore for her minor in college, strange, uncomfortable things happened to her. She had broken her arm twice on previous Halloweens and her leg once on Friday the thirteenth. “You’re one crazy woman,” her husband had told her many times. “You know you bring the accidents on yourself, don’t you? No one else has these things happen to them. You make them happen on purpose to prove yourself right.”
She knew differently.
“Richard,” she broke into her son’s endless stream of concern, “I will be extra careful. You have no need to worry.”
“Well, okay. I’ll call tomorrow to see if I need to fly out. ’Til then,” he said.
She sighed. Her son had turned into her father—an over-protective version. “Darlene,” she called to the end of the dock, where her daughter stood looking over the lake. “Let’s go in. It’s getting dark.”
Together they hiked the incline to the tiny, lodge-pole pine cabin she’d rented for the semester. She flung the door open as if she owned the place and was used to coming in and out, but the illusion of the paradise being a familiar home stopped there. She shivered, pulling her wool sweater tighter around her prickling her skin.
She checked the thermostat. “Darlene, stay away from that Jackson person.”
“He seemed nice.” Her daughter’s matchmaking skills were apparently shifting into gear. “Good looking too.”
“Just don’t. Please.” Camille gave her plea more thought, then added, “Forget I said anything. Let’s make hot chocolate. Help me find the kitchen supply box.”
“I can’t believe we’re out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“You’re the one who begged to come.” Camille searched the cupboards for a teapot.
“I couldn’t miss seeing my mom on a wild adventure. You never know, we might run into a bear.”
The two fell into pleasant chatter until they grew tired and dragged themselves up the creaky stairs to their bedrooms. Camille had taken the smaller room that smelled of pine and had a lamp that cast a glow of light onto the log walls. A large pine bed was covered with a checkered handmade quilt. Also in the room was a rocking chair and a pine chest-of-drawers topped with a lamp. A pine closet graced the opposite side of the room. If Camille had brought up her suitcase, it would have filled the space between the chest-of-drawers, the rocking chair, the closet, and the bed. The cozy room invited her to snuggle into the blankets, studying a book about Yellowstone until sleep consumed her, but she must have left her book in the kitchen. Not wanting to disturb Darlene, who had left her bedroom door open, Camille crept down the stairs without flipping on the hallway light. As she moved down the stairs, an uneasiness seemed to crawl over her like thousands of spiders dancing on her skin. To add to her nerves, the wind had picked up outside, sending a howl echoing through the cabin. Camille stumbled around the unpacked boxes in the hall, the clock light on the microwave guiding her. Eleven forty-six. Only fourteen minutes until Halloween. Seizing her book from the counter, she hurried to her bed.
She managed to almost fall asleep, but then suddenly she sat up in bed, startled. “Was that the hoot of an owl?” she asked the quiet room. Another cry came. “It must be an owl.”
The lamplight flicked. A blanket-wrapped Darlene rushed into the room. “Did you hear that?”
“That’s a bad sign.”
“What are owl cries supposed to mean?” Darlene asked. She shivered as she sat on the foot of the bed. “I forget.”
“The Romans and Native Americans thought they signaled death and disaster,” Camille said. “But Greeks liked owls because it was Athena’s bird. They thought anything associated with an owl brought wisdom.”
“I like the Greek version better than the Roman’s,” Darlene said.
Camille nodded as another screech filled the air. “I’ll take the Greek interpretation too. We just have to make sure the bird doesn’t come in or fly around our house. Because if it does . . .”
“What?” Darlene asked.
“It’s a death omen.”
“Oh.” Her daughter pulled the blanket over her head. “We’re being silly,” she said.
“I’ve studied too much about superstitious traditions,” Camille agreed.
“The problem is that superstitions sometimes have legitimacy.”
“I know. Either this getaway already has a bad omen cast on it or we’ll be blessed with wisdom.”
“I hope this is Athena’s owl.”
“I do too.” Camille couldn’t help but think that if she were here with a man, she would feel a lot less nervous. She was being silly. She shouldn’t need a man around to feel safe.
The owl hooted again as they shook under their blankets, and Camille pulled hers tighter around her chest. If Jackson were here, he wouldn’t be afraid of the hoot of the owl. Instead, he would most likely make fun of her silliness. No way would he let those things bother him. But then, he seemed to be the kind of guy who didn’t let much get to him.