The Last House on the Hill
Melissa Davis loved this time of year. The tourists had packed their cars and exited the state, returning the roads to the natives–leaving them in peace after a long, hot, and far too crowded season. Best of all, the trees had cast off their summer finery leaving only their naked skeletons dancing in the chilly onshore breeze.
She loved this shedding of disguises the most; seeing the hillocks and gullies that made up the town, the twisting brown-black branches of the majestic oak, the swaying golden cascade of the willow tree, the white birch trunks flecked with black. Nothing hidden. The bones of the land revealed.
If only people had a season like this; one that showed the true person beneath the public persona. Then no one would ever be disappointed because they’d know what they were getting. The divorce rate would plummet because marriages would be happy unions, not hit or miss affairs.
She shuffled loudly through the crispy leaves gathered against the curb, breathing in their sweet, dusty scent, leaning into Fletcher’s’s Hill until her calves began to protest over the steep climb and she had to stop to give them a break. A spectacular view of Cutty’s’s Harbor lay spread below her, lit by the warm golden light that only came in the late fall.
Mother’s Light glowed in the middle of the harbor surrounded by the Three Sisters; three small islands that were popular fishing and picnic destinations when the striped bass were running. Nothing but gray granite and gnarly scrub pine, only Mother’s had ever been inhabited–primarily by a succession of coast guard lighthouse keepers who boated into town once a week for fresh supplies and a little human companionship.
The cement block coast guard station’s fresh coat of white paint shone like a beacon on the opposite side of the harbor. South Cutty’s, the side where the wealthy had their summer compounds; the part of town where the locals–the working, year-round members of the community–couldn’t afford to own even the land for a tiny shack.
She sucked the breeze carrying tar, brine, and the faint stink of bait fish greedily into her lungs, pushing out the greasy odor of fried foods and sugar from the restaurant where she served the breakfast and lunch crowd.
Turning her back to the breeze, Melissa resumed her trek up the hill. Cutty’s’s Harbor had started out as a tiny fishing village on the Maine coast in the early 1800s. Some of the families living there–including Melissa’s family–could trace their heritage back to those early settlers. It was a point of pride that was often carried to the extreme. A child could move to Cutty’s as a day old baby and never be considered a native Mainer.
Route Six, the only way in or out of Cutty’s Harbor other than by boat, bisected the Cutty’s Neck peninsula for thirty-seven miles, ending abruptly at the North Atlantic Ocean. With only the one long, narrow, winding road in or out, progress had mostly missed Cutty’s and much of the fishing village retained its early charm.
Stacks of lobster traps, buoys, and fishing nets decorated the weathered wharves. Newer souvenir shops, estate agents, and restaurants occupied century-old wooden buildings–their walls saturated with the smell of brine and tar and a mustiness that comes from living on the water– alongside the businesses every town needed: a bank, a lawyer, a dry goods store, the local grocer, a hairdresser. Police and Fire had moved into a modern, white cement block building on the southern edge of town, a concession to the south side summer people who demanded full services nearby.
Melissa paused at the head of Nearly There Street, a narrow dirt lane that held only one house. Officially the street was called Second Street, but the locals had created there own name and it stuck, despite the official street sign that had been erected when Melissa was a young girl. Nearly There Street meant she was nearly home, nearly at the crest of the hill.
She was surprised to see a gray Sequoia hauling a rental trailer parked in front of the street’s only house. Mac Jones had been dead nearly a month, his house empty. He had been an eccentric artist whose family had moved away and never returned for a visit. Melissa had persisted in checking on him, especially during Mac’s last few years when his health began to fail.
She hesitated a brief second, then turned down the lane. If this was a robbery then whoever owned the Sequoia needed to know that someone was watching after the property. That someone was her.
Mac’s Shack, as the owner had named it, was a single story structure built into the side of the hill. It reminded Melissa of the nursery rhyme about the crooked little man in the crooked little house. Each room was a different height with different colored walls and roofs. A shiny metal stove pipe with several right angles added to the illusion. The stove pipe was fake of course, added for whimsy’s sake. Mac’s working stovepipe was unobtrusive, mostly hidden unless you looked for it.
Clever sculptures made from found items littered the yard, all of them steampunk in character. There were animals and insects and impossible creatures; a menagerie of companions, each one oozing personality. Melissa hesitated by the majestic lion that stood nearly shoulder height. It looked at her through its one monocled eye and gave no hint as to who had invaded its territory.
The main door into Mac’s house was covered with a carved dragon with a heavy brass ring through its nose. She lifted the brass ring and knocked briskly. When no one answered she pulled out her phone, punched in nine-nine-nine but didn’t hit send, and let herself in with the key Mac had given her.
The inside of Mac’s house was even more eclectic than the outside. Every room other than his bedroom and the kitchen were given over to his art projects. The place smelled of wood and turpentine, stain, and oil paints. A half-finished painting sat on his easel, a section of cedar stump stood stripped of its bark on the low stand Mac used for carving.
There was no sign of the intruder.
Holding her phone in one hand, Melissa made her way quietly from room to room. She was about to look in the kitchen when she heard a thump and swearing. Taking a deep breath, she stepped through the kitchen door and saw a jean-clad rear end and legs sticking out of the sink cabinet.
“Hold it right there,” she said loudly. “I’ve got the police on speed dial so don’t try anything funny.”
The intruder jerked, banged his head, and swore. “What the hell?” He backed out of the cabinet and stood. They stared at one another for a long minute. Melissa swallowed. She knew exactly who the intruder was. She’d had a crush on Steven Jones her whole life–until his mother packed up the kids and left Mac when Melissa was eleven.
He looked good. Real good. Mouth-watering good. Steven had been a skinny thirteen year old bean pole with black-rimmed glasses when she’d last seen him. He’d morphed into a broad-shouldered, lean-hipped man over the last seventeen years and exchanged the black-rims for gold wire frames that emphasized his smoke gray eyes.
Her heart did a little tap dance in her chest until she realized that those eyes were looking at her with a mixture of anger and–nope, just anger.
“Who the hell are you and how the hell did you get in? Whoever you are, you’re trespassing. Get out.”
It hurt that he didn’t remember her, but then, why should he? She’d been his younger sister’s friend and Steven had pretty much ignored them both.
“My name is Melissa Davis. I looked after your father the last few years of his life. I thought you were a thief.” She killed the uncompleted call to the police and slid her phone back into the canvas backpack she used for a pocketbook. When she looked up again she saw Steven studying her.
“You hung around with Deb, didn’t you.” He nodded. “Yeah, I remember the hair. That still doesn’t explain how you got in here. I locked the door.”
“Your father gave me a key.”
Steven held out his hand and wiggled his fingers. “I’ll take it.”
Melissa dug out the key and handed it over reluctantly. She visited Mac’s house every day, even after the artist’s death. It soothed her to see his works–both finished and in progress–scattered through the place. It made her feel as if Mac was just out to have a beer at his favorite watering hole and would soon return.
“I guess I’ll leave you to it.” She turned away, then stopped and turned back. “What will you do with all your father’s pieces?” She wanted to ask if she could take one but didn’t dare. Steven Jones didn’t strike her as a generous man. If he sold them off maybe she could afford something small.
A look of doubt and puzzlement crossed Steven’s face. “I’m not sure. I-I didn’t know he was an artist. I wasn’t expecting this.”
That was interesting, but really none of her business. “I guess I’d better be going. I live in the last house if you need anything or have any questions.” She squared her shoulders and left the house as quickly as she could without breaking into a run–not that anyone could run up Fletcher’s Hill.
The last house sat at the top of the hill. Melissa’s great grandparents had bought the one bedroom, no bath shack in the mid 1800s, the only place they could afford in Cutty’s’s Harbor. The house had been dirt cheap at the time because no one wanted to have to hike the steep hill to get home. Living close to the water was far more convenient for the fishermen.
As the Davis family grew, rooms were added on until the house grew into a ramshackle hodgepodge that often housed multiple generations. Now the only family member living in the old place was Melissa. Her brother had taken a job with an investment firm in London five years before and planned to stay there permanently. Craving a more temperate climate, her parents had moved to the mountains of New Mexico after the death of her grandfather four years before.
The complexion of the hill had changed over the years as the families who once made their living from the ocean moved to the cities and sold their small homes. Fletcher’s Hill became an artist’s community during the forties and fifties, until they saw the need to be closer to the galleries who displayed their work and sold to the summer folk and retirees. The more recent residents tore down the old to build new–modern glass and steel, or glass and wood houses; homes that took advantage of the view from Fletcher’s Hill.
Mac and Melissa’s homes were the last two original places on the hill.
Every few months Melissa would receive calls and visits from real estate agents with offers on her house. The place that nobody wanted because of its location had become the place that everybody wanted–because of its location. She wondered how long it would take for Mac’s home to sell and be replaced with another soulless, modern place. The thought made her feel sad and weepy.
After changing, Melissa poured herself a glass of white wine and settled into the cushioned rocking chair in the center of the deep porch that ran along the front of the house. Her grandfather, Papa James, had added the porch when he first married Mama Bernita. According to Papa James, his new wife refused to live in the house at the top of Fletcher’s’s Hill unless she had a place to sit and enjoy the view once she got there.
Melissa loved the story because it was a story of how well James had loved Bernita. Mama Bernita had died when Melissa was seven so all her memories of her grandmother came from the stories her grandfather told. The house at the top of the hill might only have one occupant, but it was filled with generations of love and memories.
Unlike poor Mac, who had spent too many years alone and then died of cancer with only Melissa at his side.
She sipped the cold, crisp wine, rolling the flavors of melon and grapefruit around her mouth. She wondered if she was destined to end up alone like Mac. There had been a few casual boyfriends but nothing that stuck. She thought about Steven Jones; a boy she had loved with all the surety of her eleven year old heart. And sadly, beyond.
She had to be honest, at least with herself. She’d never gotten past that young crush. Steven Jones had been the boy by which she measured all others.
While Melissa sat on her porch, Steven wandered through his father’s house and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. The old man had been an artist–a very good artist, skilled in several media. Why hadn’t his mother ever told him?
He pulled out his phone and hit speed dial. “Deb. You won’t believe this place. It’s nothing like we imagined it would be.” He reached out and ran his fingers over the curves of a woman’s torso carved from a pale wood. It felt smooth as his baby niece’s bottom and almost alive.
“I haven’t found a single bottle or can. No sign of drinking at all. The place is neat and clean and filled with his art. He was an artist, Deb. Why didn’t Mum tell us?” While he listened to his sister he examined a painting hanging near the torso depicting the hill as it looked in the old days. His father’s house was there, sitting below the ramshackle Davis place.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be. It’s going to take a while to sort this and decide what to do with it. I know. I know I said I’d only be here a day or two, but things have changed. Oh, before I go, do you remember that redhead you used to hang with? Melissa something. I met her here. She still lives in that place at the top of the hill if you can believe it. She’s not a scrawny little kid anymore. What? Right. I’ll keep you posted.” He tossed his phone onto the wrought iron plinth that displayed the torso and went to look out the window.
A low privet hedge separated his father’s yard from the house below. Fortunately the town fathers had had the foresight to restrict the height of buildings on the hill to two stories. Because of that, he could see the harbor over the roofs below. It sparkled in the afternoon sun in a way that was different from the light of the Pacific.
The sight of Mother’s Lighthouse sparked long-forgotten memories from his childhood; swimming off the wharves, watching the boats bring in their catch at the end of the day, catching flounder on the flats with his father, the stink of mud flats at low tide and the feel of the wet, black mud oozing between his toes when they dug clams.
Sitting on the rocks next to the water and drawing.
Drawing had been his refuge from his mother’s constant complaining; a refuge that grew into his passion and finally his livelihood. It had sustained him when his mother uprooted the family and moved him and Deb to the opposite side of the country, leaving his father behind. She had poisoned their minds and hearts against Mac Jones and cut off all communication.
Looking behind him at the beautiful pieces his father had created, Steven felt a great sadness fill him. He was an artist like his father, the only difference being he made his living creating comics and illustrated novels. His father should have been part of his life.
He decided to shower off the road dust and get something to eat before he began the job of sorting and packing up his father’s life. Too late, he discovered there was no hot water. Standing naked outside the shower stall he dropped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.
It was all too much. This was all too much. He felt uprooted, afloat. He had built his life on lies. He wasn’t prepared for this. Dammit. Was a hot shower too much to ask?
He pulled his clothes back on and grabbed a towel and the clean clothes he’d intended to change into and headed barefoot to the last house on the hill.
Melissa watched Steven approach from her seat on the porch. He looked sad and confused and defeated and tense. He looked like a man who could use a friend. She ran into the kitchen and grabbed another wine glass and the bottle and settled back outside.
Steven stopped at the bottom step and looked up at the woman who had been a friend to his father. Her long, tanned legs were tucked beneath her hip and she wore a faded blue oversized sweatshirt that made her look like a young teen. Her thick, shiny hair tumbled past her shoulders in a profusion of red and gold that reminded him of a glorious sunset.
“There’s no hot water,” they said in unison. Melissa grinned and he couldn’t help but grin back at her. It was the first time he’d felt like smiling since receiving the letter about his old man’s death from his father’s lawyer. He felt some of the tension leave his body.
“Share a glass of wine with me. You can shower while I put together something to eat.”
Steven settled into the rocker next to Melissa’s with a sigh and accepted the glass of wine. “Thank you.”
He examined her face, looking for the eleven year old girl he barely remembered. Her eyes were large and clear, the color of turquoise, her lashes thick and muliti-colored like her hair. He liked that she didn’t try to color them dark with mascara. They were filled with intelligence and something else. Pity? No, not pity. Sympathy. Patience.
He looked away and took in the incredible view. Below them seagulls wheeled and called over the water. A large blue lobster boat steamed in and pulled up to a dock. The figures on board looked like toys from that distance.
“Thank you for looking after my father. I’d like you to tell me about him.”
“He was wonderful. Easy to talk to and be with. He was clever, creative, always working on something. Full of ideas. I used to tell him he could keep an entire workshop of elves busy round the clock.”
She glanced at Steven, unsure of how much to say. “He was also lonely. He talked about you and Debbi and your mother. Do you know–I mean, why did your mother leave? Mac loved her. Really loved her. There was never anyone else, even casually. I think she broke his heart.”
Steven shook his head. He stared out at Mother’s Light and tried to explain something he’d never understood. “I think-I think Mum wanted my father to make a grand gesture, to come after her, to prove how much he loved her by giving up everything he had here. She told us that he was an alcoholic and she had to leave to protect us.” He turned his head to look at Melissa.
“I know that isn’t true. Now, I mean. I didn’t before. I believed her, and because I believed her I let her cut him out of my life and I never made an effort to get in touch. I’ll never have the chance to make that right.” His throat tightened up. He felt Melissa’s surprisingly strong hand grip his and laced his fingers with hers. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.
“I’ll tell you everything I can about Mac,” she said quietly. “He was my family for the last five years. I saw him every day. We often ate supper together and nearly every evening–unless it was too cold and nasty–we sat here in these two chairs. I’d have a glass of wine and Mac would smoke his pipe.”
Steven squeezed her hand. “You miss him.”
“I miss him terribly. He was my best friend and I loved him dearly.”
They finished the wine in silence. Melissa showed Steven where the shower was and its quirks–the old house had acquired a number of them over the years–and she left him to clean up while she pulled together a meal.
Steven was toweling his hair when a thought struck him. He was in a strange house with a woman he’d barely known more than seventeen years before, and yet he felt more relaxed and comfortable than he’d felt in a long, long while. He probed for the tension that he always carried just beneath his skin but found nothing.
He felt . . . he felt at home. Like he’d finally arrived at the place where he belonged.
He finished drying and dressed, then went looking for the kitchen. The rooms he walked through were spacious, with lots of natural light and a variety of decor from many decades. Some rooms had oak flooring, some pine, some were wallpapered, some had bead board paneling. It smelled of old house: faintly musty wool rugs and lemon polish.
He heard soft singing from the far end of a long hallway and headed towards it.
Halfway down the hall Steven stopped to take a closer look at the series of black-framed artwork on the wall. Stunned by what he was seeing, he went back to the beginning of the hall and slowly checked out each piece.
“Oh. I was just coming to see if you needed anything.” Melissa stood awkwardly in the far doorway. She looked from the art to his face.
“These are yours.”
“They’re incredible.” He pointed at the one in front of him. “This is you flying around Mother’s Light. To combine local landscapes with Japanese manga–it’s absolutely brilliant.” He pointed to the next one. It showed a red-haired teenaged boy diving for starfish. “Your brother?” Melissa nodded.
“Where did you learn how to do this?”
“You inspired me, actually.” He watched two red spots appear on her cheeks.
“I, ah, I used to have a big crush on you. You were always drawing, so I started drawing too, hoping you’d notice me and decide we were destined to be boyfriend/girlfriend.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Anyway, Mac encouraged me to keep it up. He gave me pointers, suggested the manga when I got bored with landscapes. I used to bring my sketch pad down to his house and sit and draw while he painted or carved.”
Steven moved toward her again, stopping in front of each piece. When he reached the next to last one Melissa turned away. “I’ll be in the kitchen,” she said over her shoulder, and hurried off.
He looked at the painting in front of him. Melissa’s manga character held the hand of a tall boy with brown hair and gray eyes framed by black glasses. They flew together over the house at the top of Fletcher’s Hill.
Thoughtful, Steven made his way to the kitchen, a bright, airy room with pale yellow walls and white curtains at the windows. A bouquet of late season purple and white asters filled a cracked blue pottery jug in the center of the round wooden table. Two blue and white woven placemats had been placed opposite each other and set with spoons and glasses.
“There’s a pitcher of ice water in the fridge if you could grab it and put it on the table.” Melissa carried two pottery bowls carefully to the table and set them down. “Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s the best I could come up with that was fast and easy.”
“I love tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches,” Steven assured her. “Thank you for cooking.” He bit into the thick, sourdough bread and tasted sharp cheddar and stoneground mustard. The soup was smooth and creamy with a rich tomato and basil flavor. “This is delicious. Have you sold any of your work?”
“Sell my work?” Melissa shook her head. Steven hadn’t said anything about the painting of her and him holding hands. She had confessed to the crush she’d had on him, although that didn’t explain why she was painting pictures of them together now. Pictures. Yes, there were more. She had followed Steven’s career, eagerly looking for recent photos of him; something she hadn’t even told Mac about. She had drawn dozens of pictures of them together, a whole series of adventures.
That girlhood crush had never gone away.
“Mac is the only one who’s seen my art. Well, and now you. I’m not good enough to put it out there for the world to see.”
Steven leaned back in his chair. “I think you could have a career in manga if you wanted.”
“What? Get real.” Melissa shook her head. “I’m not that good.”
Steven looked at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and wondered if she had a boyfriend. He sincerely hoped not. He wanted to get to know her, wanted to see if the attraction he felt for her could lead to something he’d never dared to contemplate before because of the failure of his parents’ marriage.
He almost laughed out loud. He barely knew Melissa and yet he felt one hundred percent positive that she was the one he was destined to marry. He’d have to be careful not to push too hard or fast and scare her off.
“You’re definitely good enough, Melissa. Trust me. If you’re interested, I can help.”
Melissa looked into Steven’s smoky gray eyes and knew she was seeing the man beneath the public persona. “Push the boundaries,” Mac used to tell her. “Experiment. See what happens. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes they lead to glorious discoveries.”
“Aren’t you leaving after you finish cleaning out Mac’s place?”
Steven’s gaze was steady on her face. “I can work from anywhere. I thought I’d stick around. See what develops.” The kitchen seemed to brighten and he could swear he felt his father smile down at him with approval.
Melissa reached across the table and touched Steven’s hand briefly. “I’d like that.”