The cat placed her paws carefully into the dewy grass as she crossed the lawn to the glass doors of the building. She sat down on the WELCOME TO RIDGE POINTE mat and casually washed her face with one white-mittened paw. After several minutes passed and no one came to the door, she deigned to lift her paws against the glass panel. It took another minute before she started meowing. Finally, one of the assistants saw her and opened the door. She slipped inside and past him, then trotted down the hall. One of the residents, bent over her walker, looked up, saw the cat and made kissing noises at her. The cat thought it over and decided to be amenable. She moved to the woman and rubbed against one leg.
“Oh, kitty, kitty,” the woman crooned. She would have let go of the walker if she was able to bend down and pet the cat, but she wasn’t steady enough.
A door opened at the end of the hall.
“I’ll be back after breakfast,” said the younger woman who stepped into the hallway, turning back toward the still open doorway. Her gaze was aimed downward, toward the ground. “Stay. I’ll be right back.”
She straightened, closed the door, and the cat heard muffled barking. The cat knew the dog inside that door. Once it had gotten out and chased after the cat, but the cat had slipped into a narrow alcove, too small for the dog, and hissed at it fiercely as people came and corralled the dog. This woman was one of them. She was fairly careful about letting the dog out. The cat disdained the dog, but she steered clear of it as much as possible.
The younger woman strode up the hallway. “Hi, Darla,” she said to the lady bent over her walker.
“Eh?” said Darla.
“I SAID HI,” the woman responded. “I’m Emma!”
“I know who you are.”
“See you at breakfast,” said Emma as she went on by.
The cat’s nostrils quivered. The food was in the room that Emma had turned into. The cat could not go in there and had learned to wait outside. There was a short hallway where food was brought from one room to another. The cat could not go in that room either with its heat and noise and movement, even though good smells came from that direction, too. The cat had learned to wait patiently in the hallway, which she did now.
And then another smell drifted toward its nostrils; one that she recognized. A different kind of smell. The cat followed the scent and its eyes focused on the person who’d entered the room where the woman with the dog had gone. She stared unblinking at them, nose twitching with the odor. The cat would visit her later.
Emma Whelan glanced over at the black and white cat, sitting in the hallway, its black tail curled around its white toes. It had a tiny white stripe down the middle of its forehead, white whiskers and the four white toes. Otherwise it was entirely black.
Emma wasn’t sure what she thought of the cat. It was Ridge Pointe’s resident mascot and it seemed nice enough, but Emma’s dog, Duchess, did not approve of the cat and loudly complained about it.
“Ah . . . Twinkletoes.”
Old Darla had finally worked her way into the breakfast room and she caught Emma’s stare at the cat.
Twinkletoes was not the cat’s name. Twinkletoes was a dumb name. Emma said succinctly, “The cat doesn’t have a name.”
“Just don’t have her come to your room,” Darla singsonged, turning away.
Emma would have responded but Old Darla didn’t hear well. Instead, Emma glanced one more time at the cat who was meandering away. The cat sometimes sneaked into residents’ rooms and curled into bed with them. Sometimes those residents died in their sleep.
Emma had seated herself at a table several over from where Old Darla was settling into a chair with a heavy sigh. She was the youngest member of Ridge Pointe by far and had become a resident the year before. Often Emma ate alone, which she didn’t mind at all, but today Jewell Caldwell hurried in and plopped herself down across from her.
“Sara Throckmorton is a gossip, pure and simple,” Jewell said in a lowered voice, looking over her shoulder as Mrs. Throckmorton walked in. Mrs. Throckmorton had steel gray hair, a faint hunch on her back and a slightly confused look on her face. Her brow cleared as she spied Old Darla and she lurched over to her table. “Don’t tell Sara anything if you don’t want it spread around everywhere,” Jewel went on, waving her arm to include the whole room and Emma gazed around the room at the mostly empty tables. A lot of people preferred to eat in their rooms. Mrs. Throckmorton was leaning close to Old Darla and talking loudly about the menu.
“You gossip, too,” said Emma.
Jewell looked affronted and shook her head. “I just relate the news! You know I do. Sara talks about one of the girls who used to work here all the time, but then that girl’s a little hot pants, you know.”
“Hot pants?” Emma cocked her head.
“Oh, your generation doesn’t use that term.” Her mouth pursed. “Let me put it this way. She doesn’t discriminate with her bedmates. She knows a lot of men.”
“You mean she’s a whore.”
Jewell barked out a little laugh. “Well . . . yes. You could say that. Rayne’s had lots of boys. Never’s made any move to walk down the aisle with any of ‘em, though Lord knows she can’t apparently pick marriage material, even though I’m sure she lives with them.” She turned a bright, bird-like eye on Emma. “Sara saw Rayne with her grandson – the one with the long hair? – outside, under the portico. They were kissing and there was no daylight between them, if you know what I mean. About gave her a heart attack. Right out in the portico, in front of God and everyone! But he must’ve gotten what he wanted because he hasn’t been around much since.”
“The boy with the long hair . . . Mrs. Throckmorton’s grandson?”
“But Rayne’s gone, too. She’s been gone awhile.”
“Well, obviously this was before she was told to leave,” said Jewell with a sniff.
Emma had heard some of this from Jewell before, about the girl who’d worked at Ridge Pointe before she’d moved in. When Jewell didn’t have something to say, she seemed to go back to Rayne. Emma actually kind of liked boys with long hair, and she’d met Sara’s grandson and she didn’t remember he had long hair. It was a little confusing.
She opened her mouth to say as much, but Jewell ran right on. “Sara told me she doesn’t know how many boys Rayne shacked up with, but somewhere along the way she and one of them got matching tattoos. Tattoos! I hear those are very painful to take off.” She clucked her tongue. “Oh, I know you’re young and think that’s okay. Her going from one man man to another and another . . . getting tattoos . . . In my day, there was a name for girls like that.”
Jewell pressed her lips together and allowed, “Whore is closer. And Rayne . . . well, she’s pretty enough, I suppose. But you don’t give the milk away before buying the cow, you know.” Jewell gave Emma a softer look. “Emma, I know you have trouble . . . understanding things like the rest of us. It’s not your fault. But believe me, there are good people and bad people, and I’m afraid this girl falls into the bad category.”
The waitress girl came by and told them the special was spaghetti and meatballs, then waited for their order. Emma liked pasta . . . well, she used to more than she did now, but she still really liked it so she picked the special. Jewell turned up her nose and said she would have the chicken salad.
As the waitress girl moved off, Emma decided she needed to set the record straight and so she said, “I know about good people and bad people.” Her brain might not be the same as before she was hurt, but she knew things, too. She did know about good people and bad people. She understood she had “cognitive problems” and was more at peace with her own limitations these days. She didn’t know Rayne, but she wasn’t sure that Rayne was a bad person. She just sounded like she wanted to be with someone.
Rayne drove like a madwoman to the parking lot at the base of the trail, the one in the strip mall that was right next to Ridge Pointe. Grabbing up her phone, she tucked it in her back pocket, then glanced inside the Hobo. Tucked in beside the bottle of wine were the two paper cups she’d taken from Starbucks and the wine opener from her mom’s messy utility drawer. She slung the bag over her shoulder and headed across the black-topped lot toward the trail that ran behind it. Luckily, the rain was holding off. She wasn’t wearing a coat. She wanted Chas to see her blouse and how good she looked in it.
There were small sticks and leaves littered over the trail as its popularity had waned over the winter. Also, the construction of the three big houses built around twenty years earlier and situated about halfway to the outlook had gotten rid of a lot of the naturalists. Oh, man. The brouhaha that had taken place in River Glen over the sale of that land . . . the freaking out over the demolition of the the massive house that had stood there as a landmark for years . . . the screaming crazies who couldn’t handle any change . . . they’d all gone totally batshit crazy. Rayne’s own father had howled about the injustice of it all. The neighbors had practically gotten out their pitchforks and chased down the builder, but then he’d moved on to that big development on the westside, Staffordshire Estates, and the whole thing had finally died down except for some of the oldies around town who still held a grudge.
It was crazy how she couldn’t get enough of him. All she wanted to do was make love over and over again. Had she given herself to him too freely? Nobody cared about that anymore except . . . he’d made one comment about liking a challenge and she hadn’t been sure if he meant her or not.
We’re made for each other.
He’d said that, too. And they were. They really were! And if she could give up her job at the Coffee Club and live off his income – he’d told her he’d made a fortune in the stock market and been smart enough to know just when to get out and cash in – they could be happy forever.
She thought about telling her sister she was engaged. She could just imagine the look on her face. Elise had always treated Rayne like she was an idiot when she was the one who always screwed up. Elise was so easy to mess with. She grinned, but then she thought of what her mother would say when she found out and it kind of killed Rayne’s joy.
“Three weeks? Not even?” Mama would say. “Rayne! Use your brain, girl. What are you thinking?”
“But I love him. And he loves me. HE LOVES ME.”
She made a sound of frustration and picked up her pace. She passed the side path that led to the three houses above. A massive wrought iron gate blocked access from the trail to the path that wound up the hill. Her eye followed it to a ridge above the trail before it disappeared through trees and brush. A line of Douglas firs had been planted into the hillside to screen the underlying structures of the houses from the hikers, trees that spread out at the base but were meticulously pruned higher up to keep from obscuring the views from windows that looked over the river.
Now Rayne was huffing and puffing as the trail grew steeper. The lookout was a helluva lot farther along than Chas had made it sound. It was apparently on the same upper height as the three houses but it was a good quarter of a mile along the trail past them. Jesus. Her chest burned and her thighs were killing her. She’d never been to the lookout. She hadn’t been on this trail but once. She wasn’t really into hiking.
Finally, up ahead, she saw Chas leaning against a tree. He straightened when he saw her and signaled her to hurry up. She did, though her heart was pounding. Maybe from seeing him. Maybe from the unaccustomed exercise.
“You brought a bottle of wine,” he observed with a smile, though it didn’t seem to quite reach his eyes. Her heart flipped painfully. Maybe he didn’t think it was such a good idea.
She glanced down at her bag. The top of the wine bottle was visible. “I thought we could toast at the lookout,” she said a bit anxiously.
“What are we toasting?” he asked.
“Us. Three weeks . . . almost.”
“You haven’t told anyone, have you?”
Rayne opened her mouth and tried to lie but couldn’t say anything. Chas’s face shuttered and she knew he’d recognized the tell. “Not really.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve kept it secret, like you said.”
“You told someone,” he accused. “Your family?”
“No, of course not. I just . . . I just mentioned I was seeing someone to my friend, Bibi. I didn’t tell anyone else. Promise.”
“What did you say?” he demanded tersely.
“Nothing! Really. I just said that I was . . . falling in love with you.”
“Did you tell her my name?”
“No . . .”
“Just your first name,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. Is it really that much of a secret?”
His whole body was tense. He tore his eyes from hers and stared out toward the overlook, which jutted above the river about ten yards from the trail. Rayne also gazed at the small spur of land that ended in a railed arc above the river.
Chas drew a deep breath, exhaled and shook his head. “It’s fine. Let’s open that bottle, huh?” He smiled with an effort and reached a palm toward her. She handed him the bottle with the Starbucks cups upside down on its top, worried, needing him to say everything was all right. She shouldn’t have said anything about Bibi. She should have kept it secret, secret, secret until he was ready to let the world know. God, could he have a wife somewhere? Was there some reason that had real consequences attached to it? She wanted to ask him, but bit her tongue. Now was not the time.
They walked toward the edge of the overlook and stood at the semi-circle of wrought iron rail, both gazing across the chasm to more Douglas firs and a line of native white dogwoods that dotted the opposite bank. The East Glen River wound slowly along far below, its surface ruffled by a light wind that didn’t reach upward where they stood. Chas kicked a small pebble off the edge and it rattled down the side of the cliff toward the river.
Rayne pulled the wine cork and her phone from her pocket, handing him the former. She set her phone on the ground as he gave her back the Starbucks cups, then expertly opened the wine, peeling back the foil and loosening the cork. It was a Pinot noir that she’d paid dearly for, money she’d actually stolen out of her sister’s purse because it was open and just there.
She held out the cups and he poured several inches in the bottom of each one.
“To us,” he said.
“To us.” She glanced down at her phone, her heart pounding hard. How she wanted to take a picture and share it on social media. Man, she would love to be an influencer, someone everyone else followed. But she felt kind of uncertain with Chas. Things were a little odd.
“You want a picture,” Chas said, reading her mind as he took a sip.
“I know you don’t want them. It’s okay.”
“This is our secret. You know that.”
She just didn’t know why it had to be soooo secret. The thought that he could be married again made her heart jerk painfully. But even if that was true, she wasn’t giving him up. She couldn’t. She gulped her wine.
He bent down and picked up her phone. Immediately she wanted to snatch it from his hands, afraid. She realized she’d never seen him use his phone, though its outline was in his back pocket.
“Okay. Just one,” he said.
“Hold up your glass . . . no, wait . . . stand back here.” He pointed to the railing as she’d automatically moved several steps forward. She resumed her position against the rail as he set down his cup, moved back and aimed the phone at her.
“I want one with the two of us,” she protested.
He made a face. “Let me get one of you first.”
She was ecstatic. He’d never allowed a picture before, which was silly, because he was in her junior high yearbook, maybe even her high school one from freshman year, for God’s sakes. He hadn’t been as averse to photos then.
Maybe he’s on the run.
“Okay, stay there.” He touched her arm, lightly grabbing her wrist. “Yeah. Good.” He held up the phone again.
“You’re too close,” she said. He was right in front of her.
“Yeah . . .”
He peeked over the top of the phone mischievously, then leaned in for a deep kiss. She wrapped her arms around him and he pressed himself against her. She could feel his hard-on and said, “Mmmmmm,” against his lips.
He pulled back and laughed.
“Now, take the picture so I can get one of you,” she said.
He gave her an, Oh, you. . . look accompanied by a small smile.
He lifted the phone, then slowly lowered it again.
“Chas!” she complained on a laugh.
“I just can’t leave you alone.”
He suddenly tossed the phone behind himself and it hit the ground hard.
“Be careful!” she said, shocked.
His smile froze. “What did you say?”
“I just didn’t want you to throw my phone like that. I just . . . don’t want it to break.”
“Don’t you mean, be careful, Mr. Toad?”
“Isn’t that what you said?”
She blinked. “I don’t know –”
“I hate people who talk about me,” he said with heavy disappointment.
“I’m . . .I’m sorry. I didn’t really say anything. I’ll tell Bibi we broke up. She doesn’t even hardly care. She just –”
He moved so swiftly she didn’t have time to catch her breath. Bending down, he grabbed her by her knees. Hoisted her up. Flung her over the rail. She inhaled, barely had enough air to shriek, “Chas!” as her foot caught in the rail. Her arms flailed. Her cup flew out of her hand. Then her head smacked hard into the cliff side and she saw stars.
Through a haze of pain, she felt him grab her snagged foot. She moaned and vaguely swatted around to grip the rail.
“Chas . . .” she murmured brokenly.
“Goodbye,” he said with a sigh of regret. He shoved her foot through the rail. Rayne’s fingers scrabbled wildly, touched the metal rail, never gaining purchase. She hurtled head first over the cliff’s edge, hitting the edge of cliff once, then again, bouncing against hard dirt and rock, spinning and tumbling the long way down into the slow moving river far below.