Peter Lately is 35 years old. He's been gone from Littleton five years and found himself in Seven Falls, Montana. On a snowy Friday night a mystery woman will arrive. And nothing will ever be the same again.
**VERY ROUGH DRAFT**
“When do you figure the snow’ll stop fallin’?”
I looked up from the espresso bar and chuckled at Mae, “Let’s see. It’s April in Seven Falls, Mrs. Dahl. Won’t really warm up till next month.” I returned my attention to the glossy pages of my magazine while the elderly matron of my town huffed. Mae was 94 years old and knew just about damn near everything. Except for the weather. The woman was a political nut, watched CSPAN daily with her equally intelligent husband and spent the rest of her time harassing our local librarians for new materials.
“Just because you took one of them fancy classes down in Billings doesn’t make you the town forecaster, Mr. Lately.” She did not look up from her dog eared copy of the second book in the Harry Potter series.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. And yes. My name is Peter Lately. Make your jokes now. After thirty five years on this planet I've heard every single variation you can imagine and probably a few more. To answer Mae’s allegations, she’s correct in one regard. I did take a Weather and Climate class at the state university in Bozeman. But she exaggerates. I don’t pretend to be the town forecaster. Well, I do on Saturday mornings when I take over the local radio broadcast from six in the morning until noon. I’ll admit I do take my duties seriously. She may have a point. Just don’t tell her I said that.
“You going to have Luis in the kitchen tomorrow?” Mae asked as she turned a page, her glasses perched on the very end of her nose.
“If he doesn’t show up you should probably check the skies for a fourth horseman.”
Mae Dahl’s eyes left the story of The Boy Who Lived and locked onto mine with extreme prejudice. “Mr. Peter Allen Robert Lately, you know how I feel about invoking the religious.” She shook her head, “You’ll be in my prayers tonight.” She turned a page and returned to her novel.
"I love Jesus just as much as you do, Mae. I think The Lord is open to joking around about Armageddon.”
She gave me a long look, marked her page with a bookmark and shook her head, “I’d sit here and argue with you but I’ve got a feast waiting for me. Otto’s been taking some classes on cooking.”
I opened my mouth to speak but those grandmother eyes narrowed so I chuckled and put my hands up in surrender, “I give, I give! You win.”
She gave a sly smile, “I always do. Give your sister a hug for me.” The door slammed shut behind her as a few flakes from the intensifying blizzard fluttered to the ground.
I did a sweep through the lobby, mopped down my counters and straightened the condiment bar before I checked the clock. Quarter after nine. I returned to my place behind the espresso bar and my intriguing magazine that said Gilmore Girls was slated to return to television screens later this year. “That’ll be the day”, I muttered to myself. And then she arrived. She was soaked. And I don’t mean she had some snow on her. This woman was dripping water from every part of her body. I gave her another look and realized she was in shorts, a t-shirt and a very light knitted coat. I frowned. “Hello?”
She made her way to a table and gingerly sat. A moment of silence passed before she spoke again, “Why isn’t the music playing?”
I felt my frown lessen. “The music?”
Her voice swerved into an annoyed tone. “Yes, the music.”
I wasn't sure what was going on but I my wild imagination settled on this being a low brow rip off production of Punk’d. Yes, I was probably wrong but my mind goes to strange places trying to explain the slightly weird moments in my life. Welcome to the ride. I shrugged, “It shorted out last night. A leak in the roof in the wrong place. All this damned snow is keeping the repair guy away.”
She stared ahead and absentmindedly checked her phone. “Why are you here?”
I had gone back to my magazine that was regaling me about how this starlet had cheated on her recently wedded husband and he had gone on to record an album all about the pain. It was quite fascinating. I decided she was due another shrug, “Town’s got a weird rule about having at least one store open during a calamity. Something about having a port in the storm. I drew the short straw for this one. Lord knows I'd rather be home and in bed with all the hell breaking loose out there.”
She remained at the table.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“I…I don’t have any money.”
Another shrug from me. I’m really good at shrugging. Olympic champ. “Consider it on the house. You’re my only customer since noon. Well, aside from Mae Dahl. But she’s…,” I felt her eyes finally focus on me with something that resembled concern for my mental state. “Anyway. I don’t think anyone sane will be going out in that disaster tonight.”
She returned to stare at the intricate woodwork of the table.
I tried again, “What’ll ya have?”
She was shaken from her stupor. “Large hot chocolate with heavy cream and extra whip.”
I chuckled as I slipped the steaming pitcher up on bar, “You sure about that? I don’t want to be responsible for a diabetic coma in this weather. I mean…”
There was a snarl from the table, “Just make me the damned drink.”
I sighed, “One diabetic coma on the way.”
I took great care in creating her beverage. It was clear she wasn’t on a even emotional plane. Hell’s bells, she’d snarled at me in my own coffee shop. I threw more whip cream in the cup than probably is legal in the state of Montana. I layered mocha drizzle in the cup and on the whip. I glanced up and found myself very distracted. The long knitted coat was off. And what stood before me was a young woman in a midriff baring t-shirt, jean shorts and Chuck Taylors. A woman who wears a pair of Converse All Stars is head and shoulders above anyone else. I quickly shook the distraction loose and placed the cup on the hand off plane. “Your hot chocolate’s ready, boss.” The phone on the wall rang loud and I bounded over to answer it. “Thanks for calling Lately’s Coffee this is Peter how can I help you?”
“Please for the love of all that is holy and sacred tell me you closed.”
“Hey sis.” My sister. 24 and legally insane in most countries. “And no. I’m still open.”
“Well close up shop. I’m hungry.”
I chuckled. She was going to have to take some lessons from Otto. “I wish I could, kiddo. You know the rules. Port in the storm and all.”
“Fine. Did you hear there’s a car on the Highwayman bridge? Gidget almost had a fender bender in the damned snow.”
My frown returned, “No I didn’t hear that. Who’d think that was a good idea?”
She cackled loudly into the phone, “Maybe it’s the Highwayman! Maybe he’s killing people!”
I cringed. She had a thing for horror movies. Obsession was a better word. “That’s not funny, sis.”
She started humming the JAWS theme song into the phone. And I loved that movie.
“I’m not laughing.”
“You know, JAWS The Revenge is a crap movie.”
“You’re a monster. I’ve got a customer and I’m sure you have better things to do that call me and break my heart in two.”
“Whatever could you mean by better things? You’re using that tone again.”
I bit my lip. She was in rare form tonight. “I’m not using that tone again and before you even ask - no I’m not faking faces.”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“OK sister of mine, that’s where I hang up. See you tonight.” I slammed the phone down and sighed deeply. My customer took note.
“Sisters are the worst aren’t they?”
“Especially when they break up with their boyfriends every week.”
She offered a weak smile. “Oh…yeah.”
I shook my head, “I wish one of them would stick. It's not like they're bad guys. I mean I background checked every single one of them before they even stepped into the house. She's twenty four for crying out loud!”
I cringed. I have this thing where I just talk and talk until someone either tells me to shut it or becomes so indifferent that I belatedly realize I’m no longer interesting. Mostly annoying. Or weird. Perhaps a little of both. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…uh. Yeah.”
“No, it’s fine. I…it’s nothing to do with your sister. It’s just been a day.”
I closed my thrilling magazine and nodded towards her, “You wanna talk about it?”
“I…no. I don’t want to bother you.”
I gestured to the empty coffee shop, “You're my only customer. I've cleaned my counters so well I could eat off them. My machine's been washed so many times it could be sold as brand new. My floors are literally sparkling from the amount of times I've mopped. I'm pretty sure if anybody had been watching me these past few hours they'd have diagnosed me with some kind of OCD disorder and carted me off. For my sanity and the safety of my coffee shop you should probably talk about it with me. I'm liable to start wiping you down.”
“I…don’t…I don’t know.”
I threw my bar towel on the counter, walked out from behind the counter, slipped off my apron and flipped the chair opposite her around and sat. “I've worked here five years. Bought the place out and put my name on it. I've dealt with small children, big children and more. I have patience that makes even the best parents envious. I can wait you out. And trust me - you're not going back out there. The Storm of the Century is having its way with our fair city and her highways and byways. If it helps, my name is Peter Lately. Lately’s Coffee is mine.” I put my hand out.
The woman stared at me. She took a drink of her hot chocolate. “No judgment?”
She reached across the table and shook my hand. “Jill Miller. I’m going to regret this.” She took a deep breath. “You know the bridge?”
I leaned over the back of the chair, “You mean the bridge down the way? The Highwayman Bridge? The most beautiful bridge in the entire county and beyond?”
“You've heard of it.”
“I was born in this little hamlet. It's a point of pride around here. The fact that it spans an unremarkable lake that is mostly dead aside from the never ending rumors of a lake monster every few years...that they don't highlight in the brochures. You're not from around here, are you?”
“What gave that away?”
“You’re not dressed for winter in the Musselshell valley. And those fashions are more a big city girl kind of thing.”
“Bozeman. Recent transplant from Portland, Oregon.”
“So what’s a big city girl doing in a lonely small town world?”
She groaned, “I swear if you start singing Journey to me…”
“So why are you here?”
“I thought I had you distracted with the bridge talk.”
“I've been a barista and bartender here and there for ten years. I know when I’m being redirected. So why are you here?”
Jill Miller stared at the table for a moment. Then she finally spoke. “That bridge is really nice and high. I had to do my research. Far enough out of town but not too far so people would ask where I was. I had it all planned for next week. Then he called. And said some things. Accused me of not being the right woman for him. Told me I wasn't following the right path. Told me I was going to hell. He didn't even let me speak. I've never been hung up on by a boyfriend in my life. The sound in my ear...just echoing over and over. I don't remember grabbing my coat. I just remember that last exit off the highway as the snow was flying across my windshield. I remember stopping the car on the bridge. I remember locking my car doors. I remember the slow walk to the middle of the bridge.”
I felt my heart strings start to shiver. Her eyes were shining with a flood of tears that had been damned up all night. I grabbed a few napkins. She was ready to let loose the pent up emotional flood waters of her heart.
She continued, wiping her nose as it began to run. “It is a beautiful bridge. I pulled myself up and over the rails. I looked back at my car. Could barely see it through the snow. All I could hear was that damned sound of his phone crashing into the cradle. Over and over.”
The room was silent save for the blowing snow outside. I didn’t speak. I didn’t dare. Whether I wanted to or not I now held this woman’s heart in my hand. Whatever I said, however I said it - had to be carefully considered. I was terrified. Saying the wrong thing was another something I excelled in at the Olympics.
“Then I jumped.” She let out a cry and lowered her head to the table sobbing. She pounded the table with both hands as her tears stained heavy on her face.
I didn’t move. What do you do? What would you do? Her fists soon unclenched slowly as the cries softened. I reached my hands out slowly and covered hers with my own. “I’m so sorry.”
Jill looked up, tears still flowing. She spoke through sobs. “Why are you sorry? You don’t even know me.” Her head hit the table with a loud thunk as the wounds of hurt poured free.
I quietly muttered, “I’d like to…if you’d let me.”
Her head snapped up and the tears abated. For now. “What?”
“Sometimes all you need is a pair of ears to listen.”
She stared at me.
I stared at her. It was terrifyingly awkward. “It’s a Friday night. I’ve got dinner I am not looking forward to with my sister. You’ve got a boyfriend…”
She sobbed, “Ex-boyfriend.” And then she furrowed her brow, “And are you hitting on me?”
I moved to speak but stopped. Then tried again. It took me two tries to get the words out right. “Ex. Right. And no, I’m not hitting on you. Unless you want me to?”
Jill stared at me and then cast her glance heaven-wards, “What is my life?”
“That was a joke. Look, you need a laugh. I can promise you watching me try to not offend my little sister and her recent dating history that has managed to include every guy in town with a name that starts with the letter ‘J’ is worth the price of admission. It’ll help pass the time. I need someone there when she starts to take swings at me.” Jill stared at me again. If this continued I’d have to nominate her to the Olympics committee. She was really good at staring into my soul and making me squirm. Just don’t tell her that.
“Are you inviting me to dinner?”
I chuckled, “Yes. A non date dinner where you can point and laugh at dysfunctional people and serve as a bodyguard. She swings a mean Louisville Slugger.”
“I just tried to kill myself jumping off your beautiful bridge. How is diner going to fix me?”
I gave her an Olympic level shrug, “It won’t.”
That stare of hers. Good Golly. “It’s not supposed to fix you. It’s supposed to help you. I want to help.”
“Does there have to be a why?”
“There’s always a why. Ever heard of small print?”
She had a point. ”I don’t believe in small print.”
“Well, I do. Why do you care?”
“So we’re going to do this. Fine. You win. How far is that bridge from my door?”
“Maybe a quarter of a mile?”
“You’re not the only one who’s used our bridge.”
Jill stared at me, mouth falling open, “What…what do you mean?”
“It’s not something we talk about in the brochure. More of a dinner conversation over warm food. Spaghetti is usually my choice.”
She furrowed her brow and studied me. “Don’t you have to stay open?”
“The town rule or whatever. You’re a…what did you call it? A port in the storm?”
I chuckled. She had a good memory. “I think they’ll allow me an exception.”
“You know when my sister called? She was telling me someone had left their car on the bridge. The town elders called her to call me to go get it with my tow truck when I got a moment. Given that car could be causing all kinds of madness with accidents…I think they’ll grant me a waiver.”
“You said waiver.”
“I have nothing to say that won’t come out sounding like a ‘That’s what she said joke’.”
She looked me over one more time and threw up her hands in surrender. “OK.”
I gave her a curious look, “OK as in yes?”
Her face reflected back amusement, “OK as in…sure.”
“Brilliant. Lemme close things up and we’ll head out.”
I headed to the back and shut down my computer system. I glanced at my surveillance system and found Jill was holding her phone as it blinked at her, ringing. I watched carefully. She glanced towards the back of the house where I had disappeared and then back to the phone. Jill’s shoulders dropped as she shoved the phone in her shorts pocket. I killed the lights and headed out front where I closed up shop and then returned to Jill, handing her a extra heavy coat I found on a hanger in the back. “Ready?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think I’d make it this far.”
I put my hand on her shoulder, “One step at a time.”
“That’s corny.” She scrunched up her nose before settling on, “But it’ll do.”
I walked to the door backwards, “I ain’t no pig.”
She rolled her eyes, “Spaghetti. Now. Your sister has a lot to answer for.”
I couldn't argue with her on that point.
"You take in more strays than the crazy cat lady." My sister Carolyn was sitting on the couch absentmindedly watching "Gilmore Girls" and noshing on Red Vines while she harassed me as I cleaned the plates in the kitchen. The snow and wind wailed outside the windows as the remnants of our spaghetti feast were washed down the drain. I rolled my eyes and muttered under my breath, "At one point you were the crazy cat lady."
"Truth hurts, don't it?"
"Don't make me bring up the middle school speedo!"
"You fight dirty." She did. Verbally and physically. Boys knew not to mess with Carolyn Lately because she went for the balls when conflict needed management. She managed with a vengeance. My job as an older brother didn't require me to be the enforcer. She was her own force of nature.
"You gave me the nickname, jerk."
I did. "In my defense, it was after you graduated. Besides, you kinda liked it. Didn't you make a shirt with it on it or something?"
I heard a muttering, a fluttering, and the annoyed face of my younger sister soon stood pointing her long fingers at me, sputtering, "Carolyn the Cat Woman was cool. Then it wasn't. Not my fault that fad turned on me. I blame Halle Berry."
"Don't the hate the player, hate the game."
"You glib mother..."
I arched my eyebrows, "Language, dear sister."
"I'm moving in with the Gilmores." And with that, she huffed her way to the couch and the ongoing marathon of episodes. I loved the show, but my sister took it to another level. And when I say another level, I mean stratospheric heights of madness. She had innumerable posters in her room. She'd taken to reading fan fiction online in the last few months. Carolyn Lately was many things, but she wasn't a quitter when she found something she loved. I heard steps creaking as Jill Miller came down the back stairs into the kitchen, wearing some of my sisters old pajamas. She was clutching a faded towel as if it was a life jacket.
"This is all a bit...weird for me."
"Dinner with my sister has that effect on people."
"That wasn't weird. That was a roller coaster ride. No, this is weird." She gestured with her shoulders to everything around her.
"Where else would you go? Not much in the way of hotels around. And your car's going to need some work to get going again."
"Not saying it ain't." I changed subjects, "Fair warning, my sister snores a little. And by a little, I mean a lot." The spare bed was in her room. We'd moved it in there when one of her friends got kicked out of their house at the start of the year.
"That's OK. I'm just still trying to get my head around all this. What am I going to do tomorrow?" Her eyes searched the kitchen desperately for answers but the yellow cabinets didn't answer.
"Tomorrow I open up shop for breakfast. You come in with me, get a hot meal, and some home made coffee. My sister joins you, makes small talk, and you say as much or as little as you want. She can talk for hours. Days, if I let her." I tossed the washcloth in the sink, "Then I leave the shop in the hands of my guy, we go look at your car, and figure what fixing it needs. You maybe call someone back home, let 'em know you're OK. We figure out where you want to go. We get you there."
She eyed me with what I thought was suspicion it shifted into confusion, "You thought through all that?"
I gave her an Olympic shrug, "You're not the first to use our bridge."
There was a silence. And in that silence I could see a question rushing around her face from eyes to mouth and back again. It wanted to be asked. And so I did what I used to do in my middle school classroom. I engaged in "Wait Time". She ran the clock to thirty seconds.
"Has anyone died using your bridge?"
I sighed softly. She was asking many questions in just the one. Why hadn't she succeeded? Why hadn't she died? And who had succeeded where she had failed? I tread carefully as I spoke, "Yes. Five in five years."
Jill's fists tightened and released every few seconds. "How many have failed?"
"Thirty in the five years since I moved here."
"Popular place." She winced as the words left her lips and I felt her pain as I watched her pain travel from water filled eyes to trembling mouth.
"You should go to bed."
"I'll take it from here." Carolyn's voice broke the tendrils of silence that flashed about the kitchen. I hadn't noticed she'd turned off the television and was standing just inside the kitchen. She crossed the space and gently took Jill's hand in hers. They silently walked up the back stairway and vanished. My sister was a great many terrible things, but she had never disappointed in dosing with empathy and listening ears on those that were crying out.
For my part, I finished my cleaning and retired to my bedroom just off the living room. Jill Miller was still alive. And tomorrow would be the first sunrise since she'd tried to make it her last.