Sneak Peak from Load Up

Chapter 1

“Larklyn Davis! I know you’re in there. Come out here!”

            I jumped at the sound of Gerald’s voice in my dream, sitting straight up before realizing that the voice bled into real life. And that there would be no going back to sleep to ignore it.

As the little house shuddered under the incessant banging on the door, I looked around my room for anything that might resemble clothing while still struggling to convince my muscles that we needed to get out of bed. Clean clothing… clean would be important. Or would it? Did I care if I smelled? Not as much as I should’ve.

            “I’m coming.” My attempt at a yell came out as a mumble, but it was what I had at that moment. Mumbles, no clean clothes, and a body that was too tired to cooperate.    

Spotting a sweatshirt, I fumbled out of the bed, tripping on sheets that seemed to have wound themselves around my leg while I slept, before reaching my goal. Bending over, I grabbed a red sweatshirt, trying to throw it over my head without smelling as I turned to the door. My pajama pants would have to do.

            And the world turned a fluffy red. Blink.

Why was it red again? Oh, right. Sweatshirt. There were three holes in the garment, just three. All I had to do was find the largest and stuff my head into it. I could do that. I was a capable adult. Also, arms were optional. I could go out there without arms. I had no shame at this point. Not at this time of the morning, not without coffee.

           Bang, bang, bang!

            Scratch that. I was a capable adult with really annoying neighbors. I might need the arms to slap him silly. I was sure Benny, the town’s chief of police, would understand. Maybe it would count as self-defense.

            “I’m coming!” This time I got more volume, forcing it out as I found the collar and pushed my head through. Once I had one hole down, the arms were easier, and I started heading in the direction of the door.

            Bang.

            Yeah, that one was me. Oww. Concentrating on getting my eyes a little more focused as I rubbed my forehead, I tried for the doorway again, that time making it through.

Bang. Bang. Rattle.

“I’m coming!” Why? Why was he at my door at this time of day? The sun wasn’t even— okay, the sun was up, but still. It was too early. I glared at the end of the hallway where the front door was supposed to be. At least he wasn’t going for the doorbell. I didn’t know if I would be able to withstand the doorbell going off like this. Oh, wait. I disabled it after my last early morning visit from Gerald. Sometimes I impressed myself.

Other days I struggled to put on a sweater. It was a give and take.

I stumbled down the hall, still trying to locate the front door. I didn’t seem up to the challenge. I did, however, find the clock that we had hung on the wall in the hallway and read the time. Six a.m. Why? Why was he here at six a.m? I hadn’t even found my coffee maker, much less made a cup of my life-saving magic brew. How was he expecting me to function?

Maybe that was the point. He wanted me nonfunctional. Son of a biscuit.

Hailey stumbled out of her room as I passed, blinking up at me through tangled blonde hair as she looked around. The last thing I needed was for her to be in hearing distance for this. Good parents would know what to do. They would… tell her to get ready for school. Yes! Even without coffee, I could parent. Go me.

“Go get ready for school, Hailey Bailey. I’ve got this,” I told her, waving at her bathroom.

“Mom. It’s too early.” She blinked at me, too rapidly to be actually focusing. More likely her eyelids didn’t want to stay open, and she was fighting them.

“Can you go back to sleep?” I asked hopefully. If she could go back to sleep, that would be great.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“Not anymore.”

Yeah, I got that.

“Then go get ready.”

She sent me a baby glare but walked toward the bathroom. I had overcome the first challenge today—getting a seven-year-old to go to the bathroom. I was killing this parenting thing. Also, evidently waking her up at six a.m. meant she was too tired to argue with me. Good to know.

After pulling my light golden-brown hair into a bun with a mystery hair tie I found on the side table, I whipped open the door to confront the glowering older man on the other side. I knew he was only sixty because I had no shame and checked after our first confrontation. Twice, frankly, because his miserable demeanor and bad posture made him look ten years older. At least. Deep wrinkles, skin that told the tale of being out in the sun too long, and a slump that hinted at hunchback, the man hit me with his best frown. Grumpy, otherwise known as Gerald Pratchett, was our Homeowner’s Association president, and since his election a year ago, he had been ruling our small neighborhood with an iron complaint log.

I’d been one of the lucky few to not gain his attention until a murderer started delivering body parts to me. An arm, leg, and a body later, we caught the killer with the help of the victim’s cousin, Detective Brecken Wilson, aka Captain America, and my daughter’s aggressively stranger-abhorrent mare, Twice. However, Gerald didn’t see my involvement as helping to make the community safer. He saw me as a body-part attracting nuisance. And not even my grandmother’s considerable influence would change his mind. I kind of respected him more for it, even while it annoyed me and everyone else in his blast zone of complaints.

“Hello, Gerald. What can I help you with today?” That was polite. Hey, look at me being all mature and stuff.

“Your lawn.”

I looked around. I didn’t see anything wrong. It was a lawn. Okay, it was mostly lawn, and a few rose bushes that had seen better days, but my gardener was keeping them alive by sheer force of will.

“My lawn’s regulation height,” I said, hoping that would be it. That he might just walk away, and we could forget—

“It’s that.” His arm came flying out so quickly I flinched back slightly. “That… hippy dippy, bohemian, evil circle.”

 My tired eyes squinted in the direction of his arm even as they still struggled to focus. Oh. That.

Coffee. I needed coffee.

He pointed at the corner of my lawn where my only tree was located. Or, more specifically, underneath, were there was a circle of stones with beautiful white and lavender flowers interwoven. Above the circle hung candle holders with purple and green glass. There were even a few fairy sculptures hidden in the plants to give it a truly magical feel. It was beautiful, a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm and my friend Annie’s gardening talents. And compliant with the HOA rules. I checked. Then had my best friend Jen check, because she was better at those things than me.

“Bohemian?” I really don’t know if I would call it bohemian. More… whimsical.

“It’s an eyesore.”

“It’s beautiful. Also, it’s all compliant. I checked.” And why couldn’t we have had this conversation at a reasonable time? Or at least after coffee?

“She’s right, Gerald. I checked when Annie was putting it in.” Edith, my neighbor to the left, waddled over, reaching the white picket fence and leaning forward to be part of our conversation. I stared for a second trying to understand why anyone would be out of their house this early, not to mention dressed.

At the ageless side of ancient, I had no idea how old Edith was, but I knew she couldn’t drive anymore because Benny took her license. Which wasn’t legal, but in Barrow Bay, we didn’t care about that so much as not dying from people whose reaction times were measured in minutes.

She always wore skirts, no matter what the weather was doing. Because real ladies always wore skirts. She gave me a pass, since I was a divorced woman supporting a child on my own. Edith might have missed whole sections of the women’s liberation movement, but she believed that real ladies did what they needed to do to get the job done. Even if that meant wearing pants. She had earned my everlasting love by including me in her definition of a lady, even if only by exceptions. Validation was rare these days.

As she got closer, I noticed that she was perfectly put together, her hair done, and in full makeup.

How? How could she be functioning so early?

“No, she isn’t,” Fitz, my neighbor to the north, called out over the fence as he joined us from his porch. He was also perfectly dressed, including a bow tie. Because who else would live near a lady but a genuine gentleman, complete with vest and bow tie? Yes, at six a.m. Why was he on his porch? Was there a six a.m. social gathering I had been missing all these years while I slept? If there was, I was comfortable missing it.

“Yes, she is. I measured the boundaries myself. No more than two yards from the base of the tree,” Edith yelled back. She really had to strain to get it across my yard to his ears, but she did it.

“It’s one yard,” Fitz countered.

“Two.”

I covered my eyes for a moment. It would’ve been easier to plant a new tree in the backyard for the circle to be under. Next time I would do just that. Getting the extra sleep back by not having this debate would’ve been worth the money. Or, maybe I could have convinced them that it didn’t really need to be by a tree. Yeah, that might have been the best idea.

Also, why did the HOA go with yards? That seemed like a weird distinction. Most people used feet.

“It blends in with the rose bushes. They are at two yards,” Edith shouted at him. Gerald, who looked proud of the chaos he had brought to my doorstep, just pulled out his measuring tape.

“The roses are at two yards. But she got a waiver because the bushes were there before the rule to limit plants to within one yard of any tree or structure,” Fitz called out, still standing behind his fence, projecting his voice across my lawn to Edith, who also stood in her own yard. “The new circle isn’t included in the waiver.”

It was too early for this. I rubbed my eyes, hoping that all three of them would disappear and I would be back in bed. No such luck.

For a second I entertained correcting Edith. Fitz was right, that the circle needed to be one yard from the tree, not including the rose bushes that did have a waiver, given by the last HOA president, to be two yards from the house. but that seemed like too much work.

“Well, let’s measure and get this over with,” Gerald said with a gleam of satisfaction. He was losing control of his glee, the corners of his mouth twitching up, already imagining the lengthy fine he was going to write me.

Too bad he was wrong. I had measured twice. All that gloating for nothing. It was almost sad. This was the closest I had ever seen him to a smile.

I watched him walk over, Fitz and Edith both still yelling around us about whether or not my garden met standards. I was somewhat disturbed by how much attention they’d paid to my yard, but this was Barrow Bay. I had to love it or it would drive us all crazy.

Oh! They measure the yard in yards. I got it now. Okay. That was kind of funny. Must have been the last president.

He pulled out the measuring tape, making sure to dig it in as far as possible. Just in case I was a quarter of an inch out of bounds. Then he carefully pulled out the tape measure to one yard and slowly put it down.

Yep. One and a half inches short of one yard. I was in the clear.

Gerald’s almost-smirk dropped into a scowl and he let the tape measure pull in with a click.

“Anything else?” I asked, trying to hold back my own grin. Gloating would only make it worse. But it was so tempting. “And next time can we please do this at a more reasonable hour of the day?” I just had to tack that on there, didn’t I? It wasn’t going to go over well.

“Not everyone is as lazy as you. Sleeping all morning when there are chores to be done.”

Yeah, because six a.m. was the only time to do chores. If we ignored the other twenty-three hours in the day.

“Yep. That’s me. Are we done?” I responded, my tone even and face blank. I was super impressed with myself. I’d been practicing.

“No. I have a noise complaint,” he said, his eyes narrowed on my face, as if he could see the gloating smile I was hiding and wanted revenge. No. That was just silly.

Or, maybe I was gloating. Maybe I should’ve practiced more.

“A noise complaint? From who—?” I tried to snap my mouth closed before I finished the surprised question, but I hadn’t closed it soon enough. I had been so sure I learned my lesson the last time. Not so much.

“You know I can’t reveal the complaint origin.” No, because even the dumbest criminal knew not to incriminate themselves. “But this is your third complaint in the past month.”

All of them were him. I knew it. Most of my neighbors were deaf, and the rest loved me. Only he would care.

“When was the complaint?” I asked, extra careful to keep my face blank this time. Take the bait, you evil cretin.

“Last night at seven.” He looked down at his notebook as if looking it up. “Loud music.”

Gotcha. Although, I was kind of happy that he thought I was cool enough to have loud music. Maybe he thought it was loud kid-movie songs.

“Hailey and I were at Gran’s last night.”

“Yes. They didn’t get home until almost nine,” Edith added.

“No, it was eight thirty,” Fitz disagreed.

“It was nine. Because my shows were just coming on.”

They were both wrong. It had been eight forty-five. But why bother correcting them?

“Your shows start at eight, you old nosy-body.”

I quirked an eyebrow at Fitz. ‘Nosy-body?’ Was that a real insult? I mean, she was nosy. And a body. I guessed it was accurate, but it didn’t sound right.

“No, that’s on Tuesdays. On Wednesday they start at nine.”

“Eight.”

“Nine.”

I was getting a headache. And a desperate need for a large quantity of caffeine.

“Are we done?” I made my voice carry over my neighbors’ bickering, trying to force Gerald to concede the field.

“No. I’ll be back.” Gerald shot me a severe frown before backing away and stalking down my walkway.

I had to say, he did the Terminator proud. Well, his accent could be better.

“He really doesn’t like you,” Edith commented.

“It’s the roses. Three yards. Blasphemy.” Fitz walked back in his house before I could ask him what God had to do with rose bushes. Too bad.

“Have you heard anything about the new neighbors across the street?” Edith asked as we both glanced over at the ‘sold’ sign. I hadn’t even known it was for sale. The sign just showed up one morning with Judy’s picture and a moving van for the leftover furniture. The whole neighborhood was atwitter with who it could be. The elderly couple who’d lived there previously had gone into a nursing home a few months back, but they had said they wanted to hold onto the house until they found the right people. I guess they found them.

“Not a thing. Gran and Aunt Helen were completely quiet on the subject.” Which meant they knew something, but I hadn’t managed to get it out of them yet.

“Interesting. I guess we’ll find out soon. Judy told me that the moving van was coming tomorrow.” She nodded to me, then leaned closer. “And don’t you listen to those two, Lark. A bunch of fuddy-duddies. You go ahead and keep your goblin circle.” With that rousing show of support, she also turned and went back inside her house.

I guessed the nosy neighbor show was done for the morning.

“Gerald! Oh, Gerald!”

I was wrong.

Nancy, who lived four houses down from me, right next to Gerald, shuffled down the street in what I was sure was meant to be a run, away from Ruth, who lived on the other side of her. Being near to legally blind even with corrective lenses, Nancy no longer took long confident strides, but instead took short, choppy steps, each meant to brace the other in case she ran into something. Today she wore a large-rimmed purple lady’s hat, with a red dress that looked more like a muumuu from Hawaii. Gerald, seeing her coming, tried to flee, but she moved quick, if not confidently, and she rapidly overtook him.

I also might’ve followed a little, hiding behind Fitz’s boxwood hedge bushes so I could hear them because I loved watching him wince.

“Gerald. Whew. I thought I might not catch up with you. Didn’t you hear me calling? I would think that the HOA president would be able to hear well, if for nothing else than to be able to address our complaints. Maybe you should get your hearing checked.”

I love Nancy. Love her!

“That’s because…” He stopped, taking a deep breath as his eyes rolled up for a second before dropping to look at Nancy again. “What can I do for you, Nancy?”

“It’s the raccoon. It was in my backyard again last night. This is my fifth complaint. When are you going to do something about it?”

“Nancy, you are the only one complaining about the raccoon. No one else has even seen it. There isn’t any raccoon this far into town. You probably saw someone’s cat.”

“I didn’t. I saw a raccoon. Are you saying that I don’t know the difference between a cat and a raccoon?”

Yes. That was exactly what he was saying. Because she was blind as a bat. But he couldn’t say that. Ooh, this was getting good.

“No… no, I am not saying that. It’s just… it’s the kids…” He stopped and took a deep breath. “Fine. I will… call the exterminators out.” He waved her away from him as he tried to turn, but she stopped him with a warning look.

“You said you would do that last week.”

“I got busy. I own my own business, you know,” he snapped.

“Maybe that’s a problem.” She sniffed at him and turned away. “Maybe we should find a president that takes care of the complaints of his constituents instead of picking on innocent single mothers.”

Note to self: I needed to hang out with Nancy more.

Gerald flushed red and started sputtering.

“If you don’t do something, I am going to take things into my own hands. And tell everyone how you refused to handle it.” She shook a fist at him, and he turned another shade darker.

Yep. It was time to run before he saw me.

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