“Here’s the last of your Tupperware, Ronnie. Thanks for all of the food. It was delicious.”
“Oh, thanks hon! Just in time, too. I’m making a batch of chili tonight, and maybe some pot roast. I can pack you up more leftovers.” She paused, considering. “Do you like chili and pot roast?”
Winnie couldn’t help but laugh. “I do. But really Ronnie, you don’t have to keep bringing me food. I can cook for myself.”
“Of course you can,” Ronnie nodded. “But I know what a pain it can be to cook for one, and with the boys both out of the house, Allen and I have all of this leftover food. It’s more than we can eat—leastways not if we don’t want to get tired of everything I know how to make.” Now she was the one to laugh. “It’s really no trouble.”
“All right, all right,” Winnie held up her hands in surrender. “I won’t fight you too hard. I can admit it’s a lot easier to reheat something than to make it from scratch, and your food definitely tastes better than frozen dinners from the store.”
“Easier to come by, too,” Ronnie grinned. “You might have noticed they don’t go in for a lot of that frozen stuff here at the grocer’s.”
“I did.” Most of what the grocer carried could be called “farm fresh” with no trace of a lie, given how much of the area around Birchland Bluffs was occupied by working farms and ranches. There were dry goods to be had, but the selection was absolutely limited. If she wanted something specific, she had to order it online or hope she could bum a ride into the “city” to pick it up. So far she hadn’t needed to do that, but Ronnie and several of the customers had offered her a ride last weekend if she needed it. Winnie found it reassuring that she could count on being able to get into the bigger town for shopping when the need arose. She was trying to keep her online presence to a minimum, and besides, no one delivered to her house. She wasn’t quite willing to test having something like food delivered to the post office and held until she could pick it up.
She stifled a yawn and grabbed her apron from the dryer, shaking it out before putting it on, then clocked in and picked up a tray of brownies. She felt the warmth radiating off them and looked up at Ronnie in surprise. “These are fresh!”
“Kenny stopped by and made them before heading to school this morning. I was just planning on doing cookies and scones, but he insisted. I think he’s trying to put off the start of his senior year.”
“Goodness,” Winnie couldn’t help yawning again. “How early must he have gotten up?” She took the tray into the front and started arranging the brownies in the glass display by the counter. Hearing Ronnie follow, she called over her shoulder, “Why is he so against school, anyway? To be honest, I would have thought Sunny would have more trouble.”
Ronnie chuckled. “What, because of the ‘they slash them’ thing?”
“I mean. It’s a very small town.”
“True. But you forget we see all kinds during tourist season. Besides, we take care of our own. Sunny’s always been so unapologetically themself, I don’t think many folks even thought to take issue with it, truth be told.”
“Huh. That’s nice to hear.”
“Don’t get me wrong. We’ve definitely got our share of old timers and a few others set in their ways, but Sunny knows to steer clear of them and they know better to make trouble. Kenny, on the other hand, well, I think he’s not ready to graduate. There’s too much pressure to go somewhere else, and he’ll need to, if he wants to get his baking credentials. But he’d rather just stay here or home in the kitchen, you know?”
Winnie’s forehead wrinkled as she considered this. “I think I understand,” she said after a few moments. “He knows what he wants to do, but the idea of doing what it takes to get there is daunting?”
“Something like that,” Ronnie agreed, giving Winnie an assessing look of her own. Winnie fought back a wince. She suspected there’d been more of a ring of understanding in her voice than she’d meant to convey. Ronnie shrugged and went on. “He’ll get there eventually. I hope he comes back once he’s done with his learning, but not many folks do. Probably a big part of why he’s so hesitant in the first place. He’s a Bluffs boy through and through.”
They put aside talk of Kenny and got to the work of opening. Most businesses in town were closed until at least ten in the off-season, but Ronnie liked the cafe to be open in time for the teachers at the school to stop by and pick up coffee and a danish or muffin. Ronnie had already done most of the baking before Winnie arrived, so now all that was left was to put the coffee on and make sure everything was in order for the day. As she’d promised Sunny the night before, Winnie retrieved the rest of the linens from the dryer and folded them before putting them away and returning to the front.
“All right, you’ve been yawning all morning,” Ronnie chided her as she emerged from the back. “Get yourself a cup of coffee before you try to help any customers. I’ll take care of young Mr. Lariat here.” She shooed Winnie toward the coffee pots and moved to the register to help Jacob, who appeared to be the first customer of the day.
“You’re up early,” Ronnie observed after greeting him. “What can I get you?”
“I’m starting Mr. Kerns’ bookshelf installation today. Want to double check my measurements before I get to work. I’ll take a small coffee and an apple danish, please.”
“I’ve got the danish,” Winnie told Ronnie as she poured a coffee. “Here you go,” she handed it to him before leaning back against the far counter to sip from her own mug.
Jacob nodded in thanks and settled into a stool behind the customer counter, slipping Ronnie a five dollar bill so she could ring him up. “No change,” he said. He glanced over at Winnie as she stifled yet another yawn. “Late night?”
“No, not really,” she answered, shaking her head. “I just didn’t sleep very well.” The bell above the door tinkled as Gary from the hardware store came in. Winnie went back to the pastry case and fetched another danish, anticipating his order.
“Thanks,” he said, money already in hand for Ronnie. Unlike Jacob, Gary stopped in about the same time every morning and always ordered the same thing. He settled in beside Jacob and gave Winnie an amused glance. “Did I hear you say you’re not sleeping well? Ghost keeping you up?”
Beside him, Jacob groaned and dropped his head to the counter. “Oh, here we go,” he muttered.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Ronnie said with a roll of her eyes. “He’s talking nonsense.”
“Like hell,” Gary chuffed, sounding pleased as punch. “You’ve been there long enough. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed any strange things happening in the cottage by now.”
Winnie narrowed her eyes. “I mean. Okay, there’s the thing with my keys, but you can’t honestly tell me that’s down to a ghost.” If it wasn’t a wobbly table, she’d been prepared to believe the cottage’s hillside location meant it just had a subtle tilt she hadn’t noticed.
“What’s going on with your keys?” Gary asked, eager to find evidence for his theory.
“Don’t encourage him,” Ronnie protested.
“They just keep falling off the table. It’s no big deal. I was thinking I’d just put up a command hook by the door. Do you have those in your store?”
“What, those sticky-back things? Sure. Got a few. I’ll put one by the counter for you if you want to pick it up after your shift. That’s it though? Just keys falling over?” He gave her a shrewd look.
She started to answer in the affirmative but paused, remembering how she’d thought she heard music from inside when she got home last night, and the frequent but inconsistent draft about her ankles. Then there had been that voice she had almost heard last night. But still, a ghost? That was just silly. “You’re just pulling my leg,” she chided him. “Ha ha, very funny, play a joke on the new girl.”
He’d seen her hesitation though, and beamed, triumphant. “No joke. Cottage is haunted. Always has been. It’s why the town usually only lets it out for vacationers.”
“Gary, shut it,” Jacob said, nudging his side. “Don’t listen to him,” he told Winnie. “It’s just an old building. Old buildings always have little oddities about them.”
“I mean, you probably don’t have to worry about anything,” Gary said, his tone assuring. “I think it’s just a little poltergeist. Never hurt anybody. Just likes to move things about. Don’t make it angry and you should be fine, yeah?”
Ronnie snorted. Winnie gave Gary a skeptical look. “Don’t piss off the ghost that lives in my home. Right.” She finished her coffee and held the cup up to Ronnie. “I’m going to go wash this. You gentlemen have a nice day,” she tossed over her shoulder as she pushed through the door to the kitchen. “A ghost,” she muttered as she cleaned the mug. “Really.” She hadn’t taken Gary for the conspiracy type, but she supposed every town had to have at least one. Could be a lot worse.
By the time she made it back to the front, Jacob and Gary were gone and more customers had started to trickle in, mostly picking up orders to go on their way to work. Winnie and Ronnie settled into their usual routine of taking and filling orders. The steady work of the morning rush helped banish all thoughts of ghosts.
Sunny and Kenny turned up a little before four. Sunny was their usual bubbly self, telling Winnie all about the first day back and which classes they were already excited about. Winnie felt a pang of unexpected regret. This was the first time in four years she hadn’t been right there for all of the first day of school excitement. She was surprised to realize that she missed the classroom. “How about you?” she asked Kenny as he settled into the kitchen to start a new batch of brownies and cookies while she clocked out. “Was your day all right?”
“Could have been worse,” he grunted. “I like my History teacher, and Food and Nutrition is starting with a baking unit.”
“That sounds fun. Hopefully they’ll give you an opportunity to learn something new to you.” Curiosity overcoming her, she asked, “What are you starting off with in History?”
“Class focus is current events, so right now we’re talking about news sources.” His face wrinkled up in a smile. “Lot of the kids didn’t like it when she pointed out that Wikipedia and Facebook aren’t always reliable sources for information. That was kind of funny.”
“Glad to hear she’s setting a solid foundation for research.” Winnie patted him on the shoulder. “Hopefully it will be a good year for you. I’m pretty good with history and research, so if you need any help, hit me up, yeah?”
“Okay. Thanks. See you tomorrow.”
“You, too!” She waved as she slipped out the door, smiling to herself. Kenny was a good kid. She hoped he could reconcile himself with his looming future without too much difficulty.
She made her way back to Main and walked the block down to the hardware store. After that, she considered the rest of her to do list. She needed to go to the grocer’s, but she also needed shampoo and mouthwash, which the grocer’s did not carry. Upon her first visit there, noticing the lack of any non-food or food-related items, she’d been informed that’s what the drugstore was for. “So, drugstore first,” she decided, changing her heading. She passed by the post office on her way and ducked in, not really expecting any mail, but figuring it didn’t hurt to check. As expected, nothing but junk mail. At least the junk mail was limited here—she hadn’t forwarded her address with the post office back west when she’d moved. All she had were a few general fliers from businesses in the city and something from her internet provider trying to get her to add a cable package. Winnie chucked all of it into the post office’s recycling bin and continued with her errands.
Back at home, she felt the draft around her ankles again while she was putting away her food, and it couldn’t be put down to the refrigerator, since that was closed. Then, while she was hanging up her newly purchased hook, her keys fell off the table no less than three times. She was in the act of turning around the last time, and could have sworn it looked like they jumped off the damn table by themselves. Gary’s suggestion of a ghost came back to mind and she gave herself a hard shake, going to test the end table one more time. Still not wobbly. “The floor is probably just uneven.”
To test out this theory, she grabbed a can of soup from her cabinet and set it on the ground on its side, then stood back, expecting it to roll away and prove her theory.
The can just sat there.
“Oh, come on!” Winnie declared, bending down to pick the can of soup back up.
She’d seized on “uneven floor” as the best explanation for the keys falling and was determined to validate it. She carried the soup around the cottage, setting it down in different places. It stubbornly refused to roll.
Silas watched all of this with interest, wondering what the point of Winnie’s experiment might be. Once or twice he had to grab Ginger by the ruff to stop her from batting at the can. She seemed convinced the living human was introducing some fun new game for her to play. Silas followed Winnie into the study, where she halted in front of the desk and stared down at the pile of library books. He realized he’d forgotten to close the one he’d been reading while she was at work.
“Not a ghost,” Winnie muttered under her breath, moving to check the window casing. “That’s just not possible. No such thing.”
Ah, Silas thought. Someone in town had mentioned the cottage’s supposed haunted status. He watched her look for loose boards and set the can down again, wondering if he should let Ginger play. Would that help reassure her that he wasn’t there? Would that convince her to stay? While he was considering this, she moved into the bedroom. Ginger, sensing he was preoccupied, darted after her, and a moment later he heard the soft sound of the can rolling across the floor.
Winnie gave a sharp cry of vindication, but it was cut off by a soft “thunk.” Silas drifted through the wall between the rooms in time to hear Winnie say, “Huh. What’s that?”
The can was caught up against the edge of a baseboard sticking out a little from the wall. A thrill of recognition ran through Silas as Winnie knelt down to examine the loose board. Somehow it escaped the past century of renovations and upkeep on the cottage. Silas was surprised he’d forgotten about it, and he watched in anticipation as Winnie shifted the board and lifted it out of place, peering into the hole behind it.