IN WHICH we find out whether I can stick the landing at the end of this story.
Happy New Year! We’ve come to the end of things here today, on a day symbolizing the beginning of new things. May this new year bring you many amazing new stories, to read or even to live out.
I hope you’ve enjoyed following along with these posts and reading this story . . . this story that was meant to be a short story and ended up being a 27,000-word novella, the first in a trilogy.
Ah, well, these things happen.
If you want a copy that isn’t broken up into eleven blog posts, a copy you can read straight through in one sitting, I do intend to publish it on all the various online sites in a week or so. I’ll let you know once I do that.
This story was offered here as a gift, a thank you to my long-time readers, my imaginary internet friends who seem to have an endless inexplicable supply of faith in me. Granted, it’s been sort of like those gifts of dried beans and macaroni glued to construction paper in the shape of the words “I love you” that your kids bring home from kindergarten and you put up on the fridge for a couple weeks and then shove into a cupboard and hope the ants don’t get into it. But it’s the thought that counts, right? And my thoughts are filled with gratitude.
If it made you smile or laugh or even tear up a wee bit there at that one part, if it distracted you for a few moments from the reality of daily life, then I’ve done my job and am absolutely delighted. If you liked the story, my fondest hope is that you’ll tell someone else about it, share it with a friend who you think might also like it, in whatever manner suits you.
Because stories, by their very nature, are meant to be shared.
Here it is, the eleventh and final installment of this particular story.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
Mac arrived back in town just ahead of the next cold front. He stopped off at Charlie’s place to return the propane canister and couple extra water bottles he’d borrowed. Everything else he needed for a few days hiking and camping, he’d already had in his Jeep.
Charlie was sitting on the front porch cleaning one of his rifles when Mac drove up. “See you had the sense to come down ahead of the snow.” He paused to spit and then went right back to what he was doing.
“Just barely. It’s already pretty heavy west of the ridge.” He set Charlie’s gear on the table and leaned on the porch railing, facing him. “Thanks for the loan.”
Charlie grunted in acknowledgement. “You manage to clear your head?”
“Hell, Charlie, I don’t know. Life used to be so simple. No responsibilities, no obligations. No guilt.”
“Aye. No death on my conscience.”
“You’re takin’ on burdens that ain’t yours, son.”
“It’s there all the same, Charlie. There’s no turning back from it, no denying it.”
“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”
“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”
“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”
Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”
“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”
Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”
“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ‘em.”
“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.
“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”
“I’m not ready for love, Charlie. I’m not even sure I know what it is.”
“Hell, Mac, ain’t a man alive was ever ready for love. Women, now, that’s a whole different story. They’re all the time lookin’ for it and know it when they see it. It’s one of the many things they’re right good at, thank the good Lord. Though it ain’t much use if you’re not payin’ attention.”
Mac wasn’t sure about Charlie’s assessment of women. He knew plenty of women who weren’t looking for love. Didn’t he? It’s not like he went around asking them about it. How would he know? Bloody hell, he didn’t care about other women. The one woman he did care about had told him, literally and emphatically, to leave her alone. He wondered what Jo was looking for.
Charlie stood and picked up his reassembled rifle. “Snow’s started. Best get on back to town.”
“I’ve got one stop to make, then I was planning to drive straight though. Back to Atlanta.”
“Not in this, you ain’t. You’ll be lucky to get down as far as John’s old place ‘fore this catches up with you.”
Mac turned to look at the snow, falling heavily now at this altitude and already accumulating, and swore under his breath when he realized Charlie was right. Looked like he’d be spending at least one more night in his cabin after all. No one would be going anywhere on the mountain tonight. And he suspected the old man had distracted him with conversation just long enough for it to be true.
Charlie’s next words confirmed it. “If you’re lucky, once it stops, I’ll wait and plow that place out last.”
Mac scowled, ready to set the man straight about where he’d be staying, but decided to just let it go when he saw the sudden relief on his friend’s face. “And there’s my woman, now. Best get dinner started.”
Mac saw Maybelle’s truck pulling into the drive and gave Charlie a teasing grin. “You cook? When you could eat your wife’s fine cooking instead?”
“Hell, yes, I cook. Man don’t stay married long as I have, he don’t learn how to cook a few meals.”
“You’re one lucky bastard, Charlie, to have found a woman willing to put up with your ugly mug and your cooking.”
The old man let out a cackle of laughter. “Damn, son, you know that woman was the one what found me. Get on with you, now. And try to pay attention.”
Mac would be paying attention, all right. But he didn’t think there were enough apologies in the world for Jo to forgive him for the way he’d deceived her. Or for his arrogance. That door was closed and he’d best get used to it. Still, he owed it to her to say the words in person.
He owed it to himself to try.
* * *
Jo had just returned from her daily run and was doing cool-down stretches outside in front of the cabin when the snow started falling. Thick heavy flakes that looked like they meant business. Unlike the first storm, the old men at the diner had been predicting this one. Unlike that first time, this time she was prepared.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the sight of Mac’s Jeep driving up the road toward the cabin. He parked and got out, hesitating before he walked over to her.
He scowled at her. “You’re going running? In the snow?”
“No, I just finished.” God, she’d missed that scowl. “You came back.”
“Aye. Headed up onto the trails, hiked and camped a bit.”
He looked good. Actually, he looked better than good, with a three-day beard and tousled hair and something fierce in his eyes. She cleared her throat. “Thank you for the rabbit. And the apology.”
He gave a brief nod of acknowledgment and started to say something. Then stopped. Then said it anyway. “Steve? You named a rabbit Steve?”
She felt her cheeks flush. “Yeah, I did. I first started writing a simple version of those stories after I left here that summer. As a way to remember. There was a boy in school that year named Steve and I sort of, you know, had a crush on him.” She shrugged. “I was nine. The boy moved away, the name stuck.” And she was rambling on again, nervous.
“That story and your characters struck a chord with me, Jo. Reminded me of things I’d forgotten. Good things that deserve to be remembered.” He paused. “So, did they survive the encounter with bears, then? Your characters?”
“You’ll have to read it and find out.” She smiled as she said it, flattered that he’d asked, but it wasn’t what she’d hoped he might say to her.
“Aye. I’d like that.” But he looked uncertain. Like maybe he was nervous too. “I’ll say it again, Jo, so we’re clear. I’m sorry. Sorry I hurt you. It was wrong of me to deceive you and try to make you want to leave.”
She huffed out a breath of surprise. “Is that what you were doing? Trying to make me leave?”
He nodded and then stood there, rigid and silent, as if he had braced himself to accept the onslaught of her anger.
“Mac, those days in your cabin . . . I’ve never felt so cared for, so pampered, in my entire life. There wasn’t a single moment when you made me want to leave. Believe me, if you had, I would’ve been gone in a heartbeat. Not from the mountain, but from your cabin. You made me want to stay.” She studied his face, considered his actions. “It’s like you’ve got this huge protective streak and don’t even know it.”
His posture, his tone, everything about him was unrelenting. “I don’t enjoy seeing people suffer.”
She saw the shadows in his eyes and ached to lighten them. “I heard about what happened to your fiancée. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She watched as the shadows gave way to surprise and disbelief.
“Fiancée? Is that what people are saying? Bloody hell. Carly and I weren’t engaged. In fact, we had words about it that night. She’d driven up as a surprise, wanted things to be more serious than they were between us. I thought she had gone outside to walk it off, but she got in her car.”
“And you blame yourself.”
“I should have stopped her.”
“You can’t always stop people from making foolish decisions. That doesn’t make it your fault, Mac. And one accident doesn’t mean this is a dangerous place.”
Mac looked down at his boots, his jaw tight with emotion. “It’s not just that.” He stopped and stared up at the sky, seeming oblivious of the snow swirling around his face. He exhaled a long breath and looked out over the mountain. “I have two younger brothers. But I also had a sister. She was the baby of the family and had always been frail. One winter, she came down with a cold she couldn’t shake. It settled in her chest, like it did with John. It was icy that winter. Maddie died before the roads cleared enough to get her to the hospital.”
His voice cracked a bit on the name and Jo put her hand on his arm. “Oh, Mac. I’m sorry.”
“But it’s not just the weak and elderly, Jo. This place is tough on everyone who lives here. My dad, he worked with the crews building the Parkway. It’s why he and Ma settled in this area. There was work here, even for immigrants.”
“The Blue Ridge Parkway?”
“Aye. It was hard work, but it paid well enough. He was a master carpenter and he took odd jobs on the side. He worked harder than any man I’ve ever known. And one day in December, a week before Christmas, he came home and ate his dinner and sat down in the big easy chair he’d made with his own hands and died. Just like that. Massive heart attack.”
Jo felt her eyes tearing up at all the loss this man had endured in his life. But it didn’t feel right to let him blame it on this place.
“Mac, people die everywhere, all the time. You know that. My dad was shot in a convenience store in Atlanta, a statistic in a robbery gone horribly wrong.”
“John told me. But your dad was a cop, Jo. That’s different.”
“No, it’s not. He wasn’t on the job that night. He was off duty, stopping for a soda and a bag of chips on the way home. The entire world is harsh, Mac. There are no safe places.”
He put a hand over hers where it rested on his arm. “I can’t help that I’m not comfortable with you staying up here alone, Jo. I won’t be apologizing for that.”
She made a sound that was a mix of laughter and the pain of remembered of loss. “Hardly alone.”
He pulled his hand away and took a step back, horrified. “You’re involved with someone?”
“God, no. That’s not– no. I meant no one could ever really be alone up here, not with all these people, this community.” She watched the hard planes of his face soften with relief and let herself hope that maybe he cared.
“Aye, that’s the truth.”
“Besides, I won’t be living here year round. Just coming up for long weekends and holidays when I can get time off.”
“Time off? But you’re a writer. You could work anywhere.”
“Yes, well.” She ducked her head briefly before looking him in the eye. “I am a writer. But you’re not the only one who hasn’t been completely honest. I’m also an accountant, a CPA.”
Mac frowned, his confusion apparent. “Is that a thing you’re ashamed of, then?”
“I’m not ashamed. I make a good living with it. It’s just— you know how they say to dress not for the job you have, but the one you want?”
“Do they.” He seemed amused by this information.
She smiled. “Yes, they do. This was sort of like that. When you asked what I did for a living, I told you what I want to do. Like, if I said it, out loud, it would come true.”
He seemed to think about it and then nodded seriously, as if her wishful thinking made perfect sense. “And if I were to say, out loud, that I’d like to see you again once we get back to Atlanta, do ye think that would come true as well?”
Oh, God. She was falling for this man beyond the point of no return. “I think there’s a very good chance that it would.”
“That’s good to know.”
They stood there for a moment, quiet and awkward at the prospect of a first date after what they’d already shared.
He reached up to gently brush the accumulating snow off her knit cap. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell? John knew your mom wouldn’t want this place. He intended for the two of you to have the money from it.”
She tensed, wanting to trust his motives. Desperately wanting to trust her instincts about the man. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
He simply nodded, accepting her decision. Confirming her judgment of him. “I’m going to miss this place. I surely miss the man.”
“You loved him.”
“Aye. John was a friend. A good friend.”
The sadness and loss he felt were almost palpable. “He loved you too, you know. He shared this place with you.”
“That he did. It’s just a place, lass. And it belongs to you now. Maybe one day I’ll build another.”
But it was more than just a place and she knew it. For both of them. It seemed too soon for what she was feeling, for what she wanted to say. But she felt a sudden sense of urgency, a certainty that if she waited it would be too late. And, for once, she didn’t stop to consider all the possibilities. “Or we could share this one.”
“Yes, share. It’s a simple concept. Most of us learned it in kindergarten.” She tried for insouciance, but she’d never felt a more gut twisting apprehension than she did in that moment.
“Ach, but we’re not five years old any more now, are we?” He attempted a smile but the look in his eyes was full of pain and longing and regret. “It’s a generous offer, but I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
The thing was, now that she’d said it, now that she’d taken that chance, she was sure it was the best idea she’d ever had. She refused to let go of the possibility, the opportunity, the reckless hope. “You shared this place with my grandpa.”
He ran a hand over the back of his neck and turned away to stare out over the mountain again, his jaw clenching with tension. “I didn’t want to kiss your grandpa.”
She exhaled a short laugh of relief. He still wanted her. “I suspect my grandpa didn’t want to kiss you either.” Her expression grew serious as she pulled on his arm until he turned to look at her. “But I do.”
“Do ye, now.”
“Yes. Very much so. Right now, in fact.”
His look was hesitant, uncertain. And at the same time, threaded with promise. “Jo, ye can’t mean–“
“I do mean it. Kiss me, Mac. Share this place with me. It’s a start.”
She saw emotion flare in his eyes and it looked like desire. It looked like the seeds of hope and love and a future and in that moment she felt herself let go of all her careful plans. And then his hands were on her, pulling her into his embrace there in the falling snow, and it felt like coming home.
“Aye, lass, that it is. A fine place to start.” And then he kissed her.
As beginnings went, it was pretty spectacular.
* * *