“Do you need me to walk you home, hon? It’s pretty late.”
Winnie eyed the sky outside the cafe’s large picture window and shrugged. “I think I’m good, Ronnie, but thanks.” She smiled at her boss and finished sweeping the main floor. “I think there’s enough sunset left to get me across the park,” she added when Ronnie looked unsure.
“If you say so,” Ronnie sighed. “Just promise you’ll go straight through instead of winding along the paths, yeah? I know there’s still enough light out in the open, but once you get to the woods around the cottage, it’ll get very dark sooner rather than later. Here, I can put that away. You go get your things and clock out, all right?”
“Yes ma’am,” Winnie said, unable to keep in a laugh at the other woman’s protective nature. As soon as Ronnie learned that Winnie didn’t have any family in town or, in fact, in the state, she apparently decided to adopt Winnie as a surrogate daughter of her own. It was sweet, and a little reassuring, if Winnie was being honest. It was nice to know that she wasn’t totally alone in Birchland Bluffs.
“Hey, now, none of that ‘ma’am’ stuff,” Ronnie chided, laughing herself. “I’m not that old.”
“Of course not, Ronnie.”
“That’s better. You text me when you make it inside your place, okay?”
“I will, Ronnie. Promise.”
“Good girl. Okay, now, shoo. Go on. Daylight’s wasting.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Putting words to action, Winnie untied her apron as she walked back through the kitchen. She waved at the pair of teenagers finishing up a last round of dishes. They waved back, and one gestured at her apron. “I’ll take that,” they said. “Our mom’s running late, so I’m going to run a load through the wash.”
“Thanks, Sunny,” Winnie answered, unpinning her name tag and handing the apron over. “I can put the load away when I open tomorrow, if you leave before the dryer is done.”
“Good deal,” Sunny agreed, giving a thumbs up and tucking the apron on top of a pile of napkins and other aprons. They resumed helping with the dishes, whistling as they did. Kenny, their brother, joined in and Winnie smiled to herself.
She retrieved her backpack and punched out on the old-fashioned time-clock by the back door. She checked the time as she slid her card back into its slot—eight forty-five. No wonder Ronnie was shooing her out. She was only supposed to work until eight thirty. There’d been a rush after the Labor Day concert in the park wrapped up, and the cafe had gotten busy. Really, fifteen minutes over wasn’t that bad. Winnie pushed open the door and turned back to Sunny and Kenny. “Night, y’all. Have fun at school tomorrow!”
“Will do!” Sunny chirped, at the same time as Kenny snorted and said, “Yeah, right.”
Winnie chuckled to herself and slipped out the door, making her way through the alley out to the wide sidewalk in front of the cafe. She waved at Ronnie through the window and then headed for the corner to cross Main Street into the park. She tried to take the most direct route possible without trampling the flowerbeds that made up the half of the park closest to the cafe. Once she reached the soccer field, it was easier to beeline for the bandstand at the back of the park.
A few people milled around still, enjoying the pleasant evening. She was impressed to see that the concert decorations and concessions booths had largely been taken down and packed up already. The town council was, she had learned, quite adept at organizing volunteers. It shouldn’t surprise her. In the two weeks she’d been in Birchland Bluffs, she’d seen a strong sense of community. It ramped up even more once the last of the tourists cleared out. She exchanged nods and waves with a few people she recognized, customers from the cafe mostly, as she reached the bandstand and headed around it to the path that led to her rented cottage.
“Heading home, Winnie?” She glanced back, finding the town’s carpenter, Jacob, loading some decorations into the back of a pickup parked behind the bandstand. She paused and turned, nodding.
“Cafe just closed and Ronnie wanted me to get home before the sun did,” she cracked a smile.
“Course she did,” Jacob said, nodding as he closed the tailgate. “Guess you had a decent rush, for her to be just now closing.”
“We did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place so busy.”
“Probably won’t again for a while,” he answered. “Not until Christmas at least, maybe not until Spring Break. But it’ll be steady,” he said, as if to reassure her. “You won’t get bored. No one else in town makes a coffee like Ronnie. She keeps us coming back.” He laughed a little.
“Good to know,” Winnie returned. She wasn’t surprised at the promise of steady custom. The diner and the gas station out on the edge of town were the only other places to buy coffee you didn’t have to make yourself, and Ronnie had by far the most options of the three locales. Winnie made to leave, raising her hand to wave, but Jacob stopped her with a question.
“How’s the cottage holding up? It giving you any problems?”
Winnie blinked. “Um. It’s fine. Quite lovely, really.” She’d been a little surprised at how nice it was, thinking from the rental description as a local landmark, and the price, that it wouldn’t offer much in the way of amenities. She hadn’t been in a picky mood when she’d taken it, sight unseen. But it was fully furnished, had electricity and Wi-Fi, and was within walking distance of the only places to find a job in town. “It’s nice and cozy. No problems, although to be honest I’ve been working most of the time or walking around town. Getting to know the place.”
He nodded to himself, looking relieved. Winnie wondered if there was something she should know about the cottage. But Jacob just smiled and said, “Glad to hear it. If you do have any problems, just give me a call. Council’s got me on retainer to maintain it.”
“Okay, thanks.” That explained his interest in the place. “Night, Jacob.”
“Night,” he returned. “Good luck beating the sun home.”
“Ha, thanks.” She turned back to the path, which led through a decent sized stand of the birches for which the town had been named. They dotted the entire bluff, but by far the biggest concentration was on the far end of the park and around her cottage. Their pale bark kept the path from being too dark, despite the closeness, and though the sun had slipped behind the hill the cottage was nestled against by the time she reached it, there was still just enough light for her to find the right key as she approached the door.
“Too bad the lighthouse doesn’t work anymore,” she murmured, glancing up to its shadowy bulk at the top of the hill. Then she’d definitely have plenty of light to walk home at night. Of course, she thought, then I’d have to also make sure to invest in some blackout curtains. That would probably be more light than I wanted, really. She found herself wondering how the original occupants of the cottage dealt with that issue, especially since blackout curtains hadn’t been around back then.
The town council member who’d done the final walkthrough with her and handed over the keys when she signed the rental agreement had given her a little bit of the building’s history. The park once belonged to the Hillis family, who founded the town. The cottage had housed their caretaker, who was also responsible for maintaining and operating the lighthouse. At some point, the Hillis family moved on, leaving the land and the lighthouse to the town. Now the town was in charge of the lighthouse’s maintenance—I wonder if Jacob handles that, too—and had overseen its operation until it was put out of commission in the eighties. The town also owned the cottage, and kept it as a rental home. Usually it was summer tourists who rented it, but the council seemed perfectly happy to rent it to her on a more permanent basis and bring in a little extra income.
Lucky for me. She had looked at the apartments closer to the edge of town, and they were nice enough. But without a car, she really needed something closer to Main Street. Birchland Bluffs did not exactly have a robust public transportation department. At least not from September through May.
Winnie laughed at herself and stopped a few paces short of the front door to take in the cottage. Its stone exterior looked thoroughly old-fashioned and charming, and the stained glass windows at the front added to its appeal. This was helped along further by the fact that the inside had been given a complete modernization. Well, she amended to herself, late nineties modern, at any rate. The Wi-Fi was the most modern feature of the place, and it was surprisingly robust. All over town, in fact. Cell service and the internet did not seem to suffer from Birchland Bluffs’ rural location as she would have expected. Something told her there was a story about that, but she hadn’t been here long enough to discover the answer without asking outright.
The sun finished slipping beneath the horizon and Winnie hurried forward, breathing in the balmy air and taking in the soothing sound of the lake lapping against he base of the bluffs beyond the trees and the hill. As she put her key to the lock, another sound reached her ears. She frowned, shaking her head. Surely she must be imagining the sound of swingy big band music coming from inside. “Must just have it stuck in my head from the concert,” she muttered. Ronnie propped the cafe door open during the performance so they could all listen along. Winnie turned the key and pushed the door open, stepping into the main room of the cottage, and into silence. She shot a curious look at the radio, but it remained inert. No big band music. She laughed at herself and shook her head again, locking the door behind her.
“Just imagining things, I guess,” she said to the empty cottage.
She set her keys on the table behind the sofa and made her way into the bedroom, pulling out her phone to text Ronnie. The closing of the door masked the sound her keys made as they fell to the floor, seemingly of their own volition.