So lazy were the breezes of late summer that the only waves on Georgian Bay were those created in the wakes of passing yachts. Bobbing in these random swells, sailboats floated idly, seemingly content to go nowhere.
Wishing he too were on the water, Emman Mallory turned his attention from the boats to his assigned gardening task. In the rising heat of the August morning, he meandered glumly through the ordered rows of flowers, stooping occasionally to pluck a wayward weed from among the cosmos or a fading petal from the fragrant rose bushes.
Since Catherine and Dr. Stephen Mallory expected their children to rotate chores even when school was in session, during summer holidays the tasks naturally expanded to include yard work. Emman preferred this to any job around the place because Stone Gate employed a full-time caretaker. Gardening was merely a matter of helping to maintain the carefully nurtured vegetable and flower gardens.
Emman’s twin brother should have been with him but, predictably, Noel had disappeared as soon as their parents left for the clinic. For the past several months, Noel had drifted away whenever possible, preferring the company of those who shared his new obsessions. In refusing to join them, Emman had earned his brother’s scorn.
His dark thoughts were interrupted by an entreating voice at his side. “Emmanuel,” said his great-aunt Andrea, “I need a favour, dear.”
“Yes?” Emman gave a weed an unnecessarily violent tug.
“I have to attend a committee meeting and Mother is expecting a visit from Alexander and Mabel Stuart.”
“And you want me to . . . ?”
“Escort the Stuarts to Mother’s suite as soon as Alexander gets back from checking on his house. Please see that they stay no longer than half an hour. Mother’s very tired today.”
“Nana’s always tired.”
“She is ninety-five.”
“I suppose the girls are too busy.”
“They’re baking cookies. Would you rather not do this, Emman?”
“No, it’s okay.” Resignedly, Emman removed his gardening gloves and set them on the lawn.
“By the way, where’s Noel?”
“Around,” he answered evasively.
“I worry about him.”
You should, thought Emman. Aloud he said nothing.
“Oh, there’s Alexander now. Let’s get over to the cottage.”
Emman followed his great-aunt across the manicured lawns. Alexander Stuart stepped from his car and waited as they approached. “Hello, Andrea. How’s it going, Emman?”
The Stuarts’ house lay less than two kilometres down the road from Stone Gate’s wrought iron fence and stone portals. But after a terrifying home invasion, Mabel Stuart had been invited to recuperate at the Mallory cottage. While his wife convalesced, Alexander divided his time between the cottage and their empty home.
Originally a gatehouse on the edge of the Mallory property, the cottage retained its rustic charm. Alexander opened the door and found his wife sitting in the cosy central room with its oak-panelled walls and floor-to-ceiling fireplace.
“Andrea and Emman are with me,” said Alexander, sticking his head through the cottage door. “Can we come in?”
“By all means,” said Mabel, fussing with a shawl drawn across her knees.
“I think we’ve found a tenant for our new apartment,” said Alexander. “Peter Oglethorpe, a retired farmer whose wife is in a nursing home. He was referred by Stephen Mallory.”
“Well, that sounds encouraging,” said Andrea. “Stephen wouldn’t refer someone who wasn’t trustworthy.” In her capacity as host, Andrea was willing to have Mabel stay in the guest house indefinitely, but she knew that this was not in her friend’s best interest.
“That’s true. Dad is always careful,” added Emman. Maybe the Stuarts would leave soon. Having them on the property was starting to suck even though they pretty much kept to themselves.
“I can’t see myself ready to leave here for some time,” said Mabel in alarm.
“Now Mabel,” said Alexander, “we don’t want to wear out our welcome. The Mallorys have been exceedingly hospitable, but I’m sure Andrea would like her studio back.”
“I’m quite enjoying painting in the belvedere,” the retired teacher assured them. “And of course, most of my paintings are still stored here.”
“I enjoy looking at them,” smiled Mabel, encouraged by the perceived encouragement from her accommodating host.
“We’ve been here several weeks and it’s time to go home,” persisted Alexander.
“What are you talking about? Who will keep me company while you’re working? Who will help me look after that big house?”
“You know that you’re welcome to stay here as long as you feel the need, Mabel. But once you return home, you’ll have outreach care every morning for an hour or two,” Andrea reminded her. “And, of course, you’ll still have Marlene coming to clean.”
“I’ll come home every day at lunchtime,” promised Alexander. “Besides, the new tenant will be on the property.” He decided not to mention Oglethorpe’s dog. It would be better if the farmer himself broached the matter with Mabel. She would almost certainly welcome the idea – but it would have to be on her terms.
“I don’t know why you took that job knowing how frightened I am,” said Mabel peevishly. “And I don’t even know a Peter Whatsisname. He could be a serial killer for all you know, or care.”
After the home invasion, the Stuarts had had an apartment built above the garage of their home, believing that having a tenant on the property would add to their security and be a deterrent to further attacks. Perhaps a young couple or a single man.
“Needless to say, Stephen will have to vouch for him,” said Alexander, struggling to contain his exasperation.
Mabel Stuart hadn’t always been this fearful, dependent person. Like everyone in Coltsfoot, Emman remembered her as the friendly, helpful librarian. Even after her eyesight began to fail, she made every effort to accommodate the ravages of macular degeneration. One of these accommodations was hiring Marlene Bainbridge to houseclean. Her Irish terrier, Seamus, sensing her need for guidance and protection, began to accompany her everywhere.
No longer working at the town library, Mabel continued to participate in the Tuesday morning Readers’ Circle that she had established as head librarian. Circle members, who included his great-aunt Andrea, began making selections that Mabel could acquire as audio books.
Everything had changed with the home invasion. That people could take advantage of Mabel’s disability, kill her beloved dog, and terrorize the poor woman was unbelievable. That these same people knew of her vulnerability — thus were probably local — was an affront to the citizens of Coltsfoot.
“It’s time for our visit with Claire,” said Alexander, removing the shawl from his wife’s lap. “We don’t want to keep her waiting.”
“Emman’s going to lead the way,” said Andrea brightly. “I have a meeting in town.”
“You’re so involved,” said Mabel, rising slowly to her feet. Emman wondered if the woman was admiring his aunt’s community spirit or complaining that Andrea was delegating the responsibility of escort to her great-nephew.
Outside the cottage, they encountered Noel in a nearby garden, spade in hand, looking the picture of industry. While Emman pointedly ignored him, Noel exchanged pleasantries with everyone else.
“I hear you’re going to be teaching at the high school, Mr. Stuart,” said Noel. “That will be quite a change from the newspaper business.”
“Yes, it will,” agreed Alexander. “I’d have never thought of it on my own but Principal Marshall Henry invited me to be writer-in-residence. Just for a year. A rather grand title for a high school posting, don’t you think?”
“Not at all!” protested Noel fervently. Emman shot his brother a disdainful look.
“What exactly will you be doing?” asked Noel, seemingly unperturbed by his brother’s displeasure.
“Initially it was to teach creative writing to a small group of senior secondary students who may want to investigate journalism and writing as a career,” said Alexander. “But with George Agema suddenly taking early retirement, Mr. Henry convinced me to teach Grade 12 English Lit in second semester. Somehow this led to the year-long supervision of Alice Keppel’s home room. ”
“Our home room,” said Emman, adding, “Poor Mrs. Keppel.”
“Tragic,” said Noel.
“Unbelievable,” added Alexander.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine, sir,” said Noel. “We’re just a small class.”
“It’ll be nice having you boys in the class,” said Alexander.
In your dreams, thought Emman, wondering how an inexperienced teacher could handle the challenges sure to arise in the weeks ahead.