Author: John Norris

Linda’s vitriol carried from the kitchen, through the dormant halls of her mansion, and into my ears with unmistakable clarity. She started by calling me “that woman,” but quickly elevated me to “hell-spawned slut from Santa Barbara” by the third sentence. I lay in her upstairs guest bed, smiling wider with each slur. The mission, as my sister called it, had started brilliantly.

My hostess’ outburst continued to build. I was the topic, but her husband, Phineas, was the target. “Christ Phin, the dumb skank drove off the road! She could be drunk, or coked out of her mind. Did you ever think of that? No! ’Cause if you had stopped to think, you would never have brought her here.”

Chuckling, I tried to fluff the guest bed pillow. Neck pain bit to my spine. Crashing into the ditch was dumb; she was right about that—intentional, but dumb.

Phin rushed to my defense, as I expected. “Control your voice, Linda, or I’ll control it for you. And you’re wrong about Anna. I lived with her and her sister; she’s as honest as they come. If she says she’s in trouble and can’t go to the hospital, I believe her.”

The mention of my sister wiped the smile from my face and made me sit upright despite the pain. It cut Linda, too. “Is that why you raced to the rescue? Does she remind you of her sister? God be good, you cannot change the past, Phineas. Helping one whore won’t bring another back from the dead.”

I leapt from the bed and crossed the room in two strides. Before my hand grabbed the door knob, Eliza’s voice whispered: “Don’t. That’s what she wants.”

My hand hovered over the brass. “But she can’t talk about you like that,” I said. “I won’t allow it.”

“He’ll protect you; he still loves me, Anna.”

Phin’s army voice erupted. “Enough!

Eliza giggled. “Told you.”

The surge continued in the kitchen. “This isn’t about Eliza and me; this is about a friend in trouble.”

I rested my head on the door. The agony of movement caught up rapidly. “This’ll be easier than we thought.”

Phin’s rage reached a crescendo. “You will treat her with respect. You will welcome her to our home. And, by all that’s good in the world, you will grovel for forgiveness if she’s heard any of this.”

“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” Linda’s voice smoldered. “In fact, I want her out before tomorrow morning. If she’s still here, I’ll drag her out one way or another.” The front door swung open and then slammed shut.

Phin sounded ridiculous as he tried to whisper and scream at the same time. “Where are you going? Get back here!” A reply emanated from outside; it didn’t sound pleasant.

I rushed to the window and glimpsed Linda’s blond curls swoosh into her floodlight-illuminated Mercedes. The SUV backed up and then tore down the front drive.

Eliza continued giggling. “Easy as that.”

After several quiet moments, Phin’s footsteps grew closer. I slipped into bed and rolled over so my back faced the door just before it creaked open. He stepped in; I felt him loom next to the nightstand. The pain killers he gave me were hidden under the mattress, and I feigned a deep sleep. His calloused fingers brushed hair from my forehead. “Modern medicine’s truly amazing.” He then walked out and closed the door.

“Not as amazing as your heart, Phin,” I thought. “Your soft, gullible heart.”

***

I rose at dawn. Out the window, a mist blanketed the vineyards and hills surrounding this Sonoma estate. The Lavinium Winery tasting room sat across the gravel front courtyard and down a small access drive. Its vine-covered stone walls, arched doorways, and manicured flower beds created the look of an historic farm house, even though the structure wasn’t more than a year old. On the hills, the vines had yet to ripen after the winter. Their straight rows and healthy stems stood out against the backdrop of wild flower-laden grass. The surrounding lawn, with its flagstone pathways, sitting gardens, and picnic tables, felt more Essex than northern California. The scene made me sick; it could’ve – it should’ve – been Eliza’s and mine.

The pain in my neck had grown, but the shock of the crash hurt more. That car represented my hope, my escape. With it, I could’ve hid forever. I had tried just to ease into the shoulder lane but my foot hit the wrong pedal. How could I have been so stupid?

The answer, I knew, was Eliza. I had never been good at telling my younger sister “no” when she was alive. In death, her voice grew more petulant and demanding every day. Now, her shade had led me here, to win back what she had lost.

But the quiet of pre-dawn gave me perspective. Fighting Eliza’s battle wouldn’t help me at all. I resolved to ask Phin to take me to the bus station the moment I saw him; Linda wouldn’t need to drag me anywhere.

Gray daylight began to fill the bedroom. No birds sang in this drizzly morning, so the house lay in silence. Looking around the room for the first time, I realized Phin had made every furniture piece: the bed frame, sofa, armoire, and vanity all had his rustic, hand-chiseled style. The man could build anything…almost as well as he could rip anything down.

Linda had clearly taken charge of the decoration. Her pictures dominated the dresser, vanity, and walls. Most of them involved her and a man I assumed was her father in various acts of hunting. I left most alone, but had to turn down the one of the dead doe and her fawn.

A knock on the door jolted me from my thoughts. “Come in,” I said.

Phin entered carrying a tray. “Sorry to disturb, but I wanted to check on you. You’re obviously feeling better. Want some breakfast?”

My stomach rumbled; I hadn’t eaten since the day before. “That…that’s another kindness. Thank you, Phin.”

He set the tray on the bed and poured some tea. “Amazing how fate works, huh?” He handed me the steaming mug. “Of all the places to crash, you pick a spot five miles from my house.”

The brew smelled of jasmine, honey, and mint; its restoration spread through my body after one sip. “This must seem surreal to you. How’s Linda taking my unannounced arrival?”

His expression darkened. “She…she’s very concerned for you. She had to run out and do some errands, but she’ll be back shortly, I’m sure.”

I nodded, nursed my tea, and planned to be long gone before that she-wolf returned.

He offered me a slice of toast with hot butter and homemade strawberry preserves. After the first bite, my stomach gurgled louder than a blasting stereo. Phin tried to be courteous, but couldn’t withhold a snicker. I laughed with him as well; it was like old times.

He quieted and regarded me with a memory-filled expression. “It’s good to see you, despite the circumstances. I…I think about you and Eliza often.”

On a man who fought his way through tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the softness was surprising…and devastating. “I think about you too…obviously.” I began to ask about the bus station, but my heart fluttered and I felt an awakening. A spark of fear coursed through my veins and held my tongue.

“Are you ready to tell me what happened?” Phin asked.

“Tell him,” Eliza said, sounding like she just awoke.

Still, I couldn’t disobey. “I’m so sorry. All I could do last night was beg for your help and fall asleep. I’m headed to Mendocino for vacation. The storm last night was pretty bad and I guess I was driving too fast.”

Phin shook his head and smirked as he relaxed on the bed. “Your sister drove even faster, if memory serves.”

“She was a demon, wasn’t she?”

“Was not,” Eliza said. “Tell him I still love him.”

The words caught in my throat. “I…I must’ve hit a puddle and hydroplaned. It’s all a blur to be honest.”

Phin shrugged his shoulders. “That’s how most accidents happen. After you fell asleep, I towed your car back here. You really did a number on it, Anna. You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Well…we should at least call your insurance—”

“No,” I said, a little too forcefully.

His almond eyes narrowed in confusion. “What’s going on?”

“Oh good,” Eliza said. “This’ll break his heart.”

Despite myself, the truth came out. “I…I’m not on vacation. I’m hiding.”

He sat upright. “Hiding from what? The law?”

“No. Nothing like that.” I sighed and lowered my head. All the pain from last night came flaring back. “It’s my husband.”

His lips tightened. “Sorry. I know you’d never do anything stupid, much less illegal.”

“He’s bright red,” Eliza said with a squeal. “He didn’t even know you got married.”

Wrapping the blanket around my shoulders, I sat next to Phin on the bed. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” I nudged his side. “How were you supposed to know?”

He rubbed his bearded chin. “I should’ve called. I should’ve…done more.”

I almost felt Eliza jumping. “Now! Tell him how much I love him. Please Anna!

Resistance took all the will in my soul. “It was a civil ceremony performed in front of a hired witness. Few people knew at all. I did it to save my vineyard, but I just made things worse in the end.”

My sister huffed, but Phin leaned forward. “How so? Who’d you marry?”

“Jack Nuemid.” The three syllables sent a quiver of pain through my abdomen.

“The real estate broker?” Phin’s incredulity made him rise and pace. “He wouldn’t stop pestering Eliza for a sale price…until I stopped him. Jesus, Anna. Why’d you get involved with that guy? There must’ve been some other way to save Carthage Creek.”

My sister didn’t need to say anything this time. I met his eyes. “You left, Phin…and Eliza had just died. I wasn’t thinking real clear at the time.”

He stopped pacing.

“Oh my,” Eliza said.

I immediately regretted my tone. “Sorry. I swore I wouldn’t rebuke you. Not after all the help you’ve given me. The truth is Jack tricked me. He promised to support the winery, not sell it. I signed a pre-nup, but it had some legalese I didn’t catch. Eliza was the lawyer, not me. So when he came home with his ‘legal team’ and demanded my signature on the sale papers, I jumped in the car and ran.”

Anger poured from his eyes. “There’s always some way to fight, Anna. What about the courts?”

“How would I pay a lawyer? All my money was tied up in the winery. Jack controls the credit cards, bank accounts, even the god-damned cell phone. I called you using a $20 pre-paid thingy from a gas station food mart.”

Phin adjusted his gold watch. “I…I don’t know where to start. No one came to help you? What about the other vintners in Los Olivos?”

“They didn’t mind seeing me go. Less competition for their swill, I guess. Without you and Eliza, things just kinda fell apart.”

He took a chair, turned it backwards, straddled it, and stared at me. “I deserve more than a rebuke. She killed herself because I left; that’s a fact I live with every day. And you…you have it even worse. You’re enveloped by her memory every moment, aren’t you?”

“Even…” My throat tightened. “Even two years later, the hole keeps getting deeper.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Eliza said. “Phin likes strength.”

I had none to offer. I just sat on the edge of the bed and let him burrow through me with his gaze. Only the patter of rain on the window broke the silence. Unable to look at him, I smoothed the wrinkles out of Linda’s blue cotton nightgown.

“You must feel so alone,” he said finally. “There’s something I should show you. Can you walk a little?”

I blinked tears away and nodded my ascent. Phin helped me rise and led me out of the guest room. “It’s outside,” he said, “but Linda’s boots and rain jacket ought to fit.”

“Outside?” There was nothing I wished to do less. I needed warm and dry, not cold and wet.

Eliza didn’t care. “Follow him. You have to. We made love for the first time outside. Don’t you see, Anna. It’s working! Don’t stop now. Don’t you dare stop.”

Phin’s expression matched my sister’s voice. “Yes. Down a short path behind the wedding gazebo. I’ll understand if you’d rather rest…”

My chance had come; everything would stop if I just said so. I began to move, to turn back, but my foot descended the first step instead. It was a clunky, resistant step that sent bolts of pain through my neck, but it was followed by another. In the end, I couldn’t refuse.

Outside, a steady breeze broke the clouds. Patches of mist were still visible, but slices of sunlight made the trees and grass glisten. The smells of mulch and wet earth permeated everything. “This is a beautiful place, Phin.”

“It’s the property my parents wanted me to develop. The job’s made them very proud.”

“Ah yes,” Eliza said with a laugh. “The inheritance argument.”

My anger flashed as well. He had left Carthage Creek to come here after his parents threatened to sell his inheritance. The choice assured his future—and damned ours in the process. “Your work is exquisite,” I said, “no matter where you do it.” We came across a puddle spanning the length of the road. Phin leapt over the shortest crossing while I trudged through the longest. Those boots needed some mud.

He grimaced, aware now of his mistake, but had the grace to leave the old fight alone. We walked on for a short while before the wedding gazebo appeared. The white-painted octagonal canopy, which dominated a field of emerald lawn, brought an unbidden question to my mind: Would I ever experience a marriage celebration in a place such as this? I had to force down the lump in my throat as I realized the answer.

Phin caught me staring. “Nice, huh? We use it for more than just weddings. Tonight, a group’s rented it out to celebrate the New Year according to the old Roman calendar. I think they’re off their rocker, but they pay good money and drink a hell of a lot of wine.”

“They sound like my kind of people,” I said, trying to stem the envy in my voice.

We turned up a path into the surrounding verge. As soon as I entered, I heard rushing water.

“The stream back here flows into the Russian River,” Phin said. “I call it my sanctuary. Thanks to all the rain, it’s a pretty impressive sight at the moment.”

We rounded a bend and the roaring water appeared before us. But the current didn’t shock me; the structure on the near bank, hidden behind fallen logs and mossy rocks, did.

Phin smiled. “What good is a sanctuary without a shrine?”

Two support beams held an earthen ceiling that covered the shrine. A single candle burned inside, illuminating a framed picture of Phin and my sister. I had taken the picture the day we canoed Lake Cachuma and both of them looked their most sun-kissed.

He wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “This is the first thing I built after I arrived. No one knows about it, save you. From now on, I hope you know you don’t suffer alone.”

The warmth from his arm soothed me more than any elixir. “Damn it, Phin.” My head rested on his shoulder. “Why’d you have to go?”

His arms engulfed me and I collapsed into his chest.

Hunger entered Eliza’s voice. “He’ll start by reaching for your hand, Anna. Don’t fight it; let him take you. I need you to let him take you.”

Tears streaked down my face as I met his gaze. He cupped my chin with one hand and reached for my hand with the other. Eliza said, “Told you.” Thoughts and emotions climbed and piled and spun, yet nothing halted the momentum. He leaned down. I closed my eyes. Eliza laughed or cried; I couldn’t tell. I braced for the impact, not knowing if his lips would be course or soft, gentle or commanding, hesitant or hasty.

Just as I expected to feel his kiss, a car sped through a puddle and slid to a halt. Then, a cracking, whipping voice ripped through the forest. “PHINEAS! I know you’re in there!”

Eliza wailed. Phin swallowed hard and loosened his embrace. “I’ll go head her off. Don’t feel threatened, Anna. Linda’s just…just passionate, that’s all.”

“Stop him.” Eliza’s voice held an odd fear. “Don’t let him go.”

“No,” I said. It was the most liberating word I ever thought.

“Anna, you don’t understand—”

“I understand all too well. He’s suffering for you Lizzy, just as much as I do. I have no more hate to scorch him with. He deserves to move on,” I breathed deep, “and I do too.”

Phin ran down the path and disappeared from view. The breeze began to push in another light drizzle. For one split second, with nothing but the rushing stream in my ears and the sporadic tap of rain drops on my head, I felt completely free.

But then Eliza spoke. “Run.”

“I am not running after him, Lizzy.”

“No. Her father’s coming. That bitch dropped him off before she pulled up. Run.”

A short way upstream, a camouflaged man raced toward me. He held an automatic pistol outfitted with a silencer. I rose to call for Phin, but the man pointed the gun straight at me. “Quiet now. Quiet. Just come with me and no one gets hurt.”

He had gray hair underneath his cap and the stooped posture of an old man, but held the gun with complete confidence. “You can take him,” Eliza said, and for a moment, I thought about rushing him. Then, I spied the rushing stream; it was just a few feet away.

“This is crazy,” I said, moving closer to the bank. “You’re aiming a gun at an unarmed woman. Put it down and let’s talk like civilized people.”

“Civilized people don’t go chasin’ their sister’s ex-boyfriend. Linda wants you gone, and she knew you wouldn’t go easy, so…” He flicked the nozzle of the gun down the path he’d taken.

“Take the gun,” Eliza said. “Kill the bastard.”

I stood at the bank edge. My mind flew through the possible outcomes, and they all ended with me fading away, alone and empty. The only glimpses of happiness I latched onto were from this morning: the beautiful vineyard, the wedding gazebo, and the stream-side sanctuary. “You can’t just push me around,” I said to both the man and my sister. “I deserve this.”

Eliza roared as I jumped. A searing pain erupted in my shoulder. Bones cracked and blood splattered just before I plunged into the icy water. With my one working arm, I pushed along the bottom until a surge carried me away.

I floated for a minute, an hour; time became immaterial. There was no more pain. No more heartache. More importantly: no one found me, not even Eliza.

When I finally broke the surface again, the sun had burst through the clouds and now filtered through the forest to spray the water with light. A red stain covered the nightgown around my shoulder, but no wound inhibited me. I waded to the embankment and breathed in powerful gusts until I regained control. And then I heard the revelry.

Scrambling up the bank, I saw the wedding gazebo glow in the sunset. Tents of blue, green, orange, and yellow had sprouted on the field. The tang of barbeque mixed with the honeysuckle in the air. And everywhere I looked, people laughed and talked, wine cups in hand. No one paid any mind as I strolled through the scene, but that didn’t stop me from smiling.

“It’s my apology,” Eliza said. I still couldn’t see her, but her voice no longer filled me with fear. In fact, she had regained the caring, insightful tone that had made me so proud of her when she lived. “I shouldn’t have forced you here; I realize that now and hope you’ll forgive me.”

Settling onto a grassy patch amid the party, I said, “You were in trouble once, and I was too blind to see it. Of course I forgive you, Lizzy. Besides, I love it here. Do I have to leave?”

“No. Phin, Linda, the police, and everyone else think you floated miles away. You can stay forever, right here. As long as people come here to celebrate, you’ll be a part of it.”

“That’s…” I spied a group standing in a circle with raised wine glasses. They toasted to life and renewal; it felt like they were toasting to me. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”