“Ralph, get out of there immediately!”
The small dog stopped in the middle of the muddy waterhole he was exploring to look at Audrey, as if he considered listening to her command for one instant before turning away and getting his scruffy white hair deeper into the sludge. Audrey Eriksson shook her head in resignation and stood up from her comfortable spot on the large, flat rock by the river to start walking down the trail again, knowing her dog would follow. She grabbed a bottle of water and a small bowl out of her backpack and took a sip before pouring water into the bowl for Ralph. She watched as the dog drank until his whole face dripped with water, then put both bottle and bowl back into her bag so they could continue their walk. Although it was late April, snow was still melting on the higher peaks of the Parc-des-Sept-Chutes where she took Ralph for walks every morning, evening and for longer hikes during the weekend. Today was the first Saturday since mid-December that they’d been able to hike their preferred weekend route because the ground had been too icy until now. Sure, some locals would hike the treacherous trails all year long, but Audrey certainly didn’t fancy herself an adventurer and only enjoyed a day hike as long as there was limited danger of breaking her neck. Spring was her favorite season in the park. The melting snow joined the river in a rushing, almost violent flow that revealed the true beauty of each of the seven falls.
The park was made of a network of trails, timber-built stairways, and bridges. They took visitors through woodland and steep hills all the way up to the seventh fall on one side of a narrow river. Along the way, the path led over an intimidating footbridge suspended eighty feet above a cliff where the star of the park, the majestic seventh fall, roared in all its glory. The path then led down back to the first fall on the other side of the river and to the foot of the hills, where families could find picnic tables, playgrounds, a snack bar and sanded volleyball courts that were open during the short summer season.
Audrey appreciated all the park had to offer, but she especially cherished the quiet first fall, so quiet it was hardly a fall, really. More like a tiny drop. This part of the park wasn’t as crowded as the others, even in the middle of the summer, because it seemed less spectacular than the other falls. That only made Audrey love it more. She could take the time to choose the perfect rock to sit on and relax and let Ralph roam free for a little while without fear of being disturbed by anyone. She’d been there just a few minutes ago, soaking up the spring sun and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of her surroundings: the large pine, fir, birch, maple and other trees she couldn’t yet identify, the icy-cold water running fiercely through the river at her feet and the overall awakening of nature. It made her feel new and hopeful, almost giddy.
Unfortunately, spring wasn’t the cleanest season to hike the park, as she was reminded by Ralph’s mud-crusted hair and her own filthy hiking boots when she bent down to clip the leash back to the dog’s collar. She left the park and continued toward the home they shared. A water-hose treatment would be in order for both of them before they could enter the house.
Her modest one-bedroom-plus-loft log cabin was located across the quiet street right at the entry of the park, making her feel as though she was living in the middle of the country when she was right at the edge of the small town of St. Georges, with quick access to all its amenities. As she approached the house, still in a cheerful state of mind from her morning hike, Audrey couldn’t help but feel grateful for the last five years she’d lived in St. Georges. She was originally from the coast of Maine, and work had taken her to Manhattan ten years ago. She’d enjoyed her job as an account manager for a distributor of promotional products at first, but the novelty and excitement of the big city had worn off quickly, and she’d found herself feeling trapped by concrete, missing open spaces. When her employers had sent her to their partner factory in this small town just north of the border between Maine and Canada for two weeks of training, she’d fallen in love with the place. Upon her return to Manhattan, she’d immediately started negotiations for a transfer, arguing that several of her co-workers were already working remotely, although mostly from New Jersey, Connecticut or upstate New York, and that her proximity to the factory could help her and their team better understand the ins and outs of the manufacturing process of the products they sold. Whether her foolproof logic had finally won out or they’d just wanted to shut her up, upper management had finally agreed to a temporary transfer that could become permanent if her performance didn’t suffer, which it didn’t, of course.
Her departure from Manhattan had also allowed her to escape a three-year relationship with one of her two roommates. Victoria was an attorney who, like so many Manhattan socialites, went out every night to the restaurant or club du jour and dressed in the latest designer clothes, something Audrey could never get used to. She was definitely not made for the Sex and the City lifestyle. A gorgeous redhead, Victoria had been impossible to resist once she’d decided to seduce Audrey. But after a few months of what she had to admit had been unbelievably combustible passion, their relationship had settled into a convenient arrangement Audrey had found more and more insupportable.
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a short, high-pitched bark, and she looked down at the happy, dirty Maltese-Yorkshire mix walking by her side. She smirked with satisfaction. Victoria’s greatest act of kindness had been to let Audrey leave with Ralph Lauren, the small dog they’d purchased together. That’s how the twelve-hundred-dollar puppy destined for the life of a precious designer dog carried in a Louis Vuitton bag had grown to enjoy the life of a regular mutt running on hiking trails every day with an occasional roll in the mud. For that she would always be grateful to Victoria. That and the few redeeming qualities, all physical, that still fueled her fantasies at night when she had some primal needs to fulfill.
Audrey fetched a thick towel and her running shoes out of the shed and took Ralph to the side of the house, where she kneeled down and used the garden hose to quickly rinse the mud off his hair before drying him with the towel she kept in the shed for this exact function. In July she wouldn’t bother with this step, but though the sun was beaming on this warmer than usual April day, the temperature was still a bit too chilly to let him air dry without at least a little help. He didn’t appreciate it at all, of course, fighting to break free of the towel with every bit of his nine and a half pounds until she finally let him go. She studied him for a few seconds, and when the little jerk started rolling in the grass, as if being semiclean was actually hurting him, without a hint of a shiver, she was satisfied that he wasn’t cold. She moved her attention to her hiking boots after changing into her old Nikes. That’s when she noticed the U-Haul in the neighbor’s driveway.
Old Mrs. Lachance had moved out of the bungalow almost exactly a month ago. Audrey suspected she’d been sent to a nursing home. Her relationship with her former neighbor had been limited to a friendly wave when they both happened to be outside at the same time, getting their mail being the most common scenario. Mrs. Lachance had once apologized with great difficulty that she didn’t speak better English, making a conversation between them impossible, but Audrey didn’t mind. She wasn’t one to socialize with neighbors. She wasn’t one to socialize at all, actually, which her brother thought was a problem, but she didn’t share his opinion. Never feeling lonely was a strength, she thought, not a fault. She was doing perfectly fine by herself, one of the reasons she hadn’t hesitated to move to a place where she knew the dominant language was French, and one of the reasons why after five years she hadn’t made any real effort to learn it. Another reason was that unlike Mrs. Lachance’s older generation, most of the younger people knew enough English to hold a basic conversation, and Audrey had never been to a restaurant, store or gas station where she couldn’t find someone to help her in her own language. Most of the time, they were even eager to speak English, thankful for the rare opportunity to practice. They really made it too easy for Audrey. Still, one day, she would learn.
She took her time rinsing her boots off, trying to sneak a peek at her new neighbors. Being a loner didn’t mean she wasn’t curious, and she wanted to assess just how much her quiet life might be disrupted by the newcomers. The move had obviously started while she was at the park because the back door of the moving truck was already open and its built-in ramp was extended all the way to the front door. The first people she saw were two men. One was about her age, early thirties, or maybe a little younger. He had short, unruly dark hair and well-defined muscles under a faded green T-shirt and worn jeans. He was clearly fit, but not too bulky. Even she could see he was undeniably an attractive man. The other male was older but had a similar figure, with the addition of a bulging stomach. He also had much less hair and his was gray. The first man’s father, she thought. They surely weren’t professional movers judging by all the swearing they were doing trying to fit a large, beige-fabric couch through the front door. She did know some French cuss words. As cliché as it was, they were the first words she’d learned, and these two men were definitely swearing up a storm of frustration. She giggled to herself, hoping they didn’t notice.
Fortunately, the only one who seemed aware of her presence was a young boy kneeling by the truck, amusing himself with a couple of toy trucks in the driveway. She hadn’t seen him until he waved at her with a big smile, demanding her attention. She waved quickly before going back to rinsing her boots as though it was suddenly a job which required great focus.
When she dared taking another look, a woman had joined both men at the front door. She seemed to be directing them, perhaps suggesting solutions to the couch must go through the door conundrum. Audrey could only see the back of the woman, but she already liked what she saw. She looked an inch or two shorter than Audrey’s own five feet, seven inches. Her dark hair was long, thick and wavy. Falling free to the middle of her back and paired with a voluptuous hourglass shape, it made her look definitely feminine despite the fact she was wearing jeans and a plain red hooded sweatshirt. When the woman turned to point at the truck, Audrey was able to steal a quick glance at her profile. Just enough to see she was about the same age as the younger of the two men, most likely his wife and the young boy’s mother. Just enough to see she was also attractive, extremely attractive, an observation Audrey sadly couldn’t register in the same detached, almost scientific manner she’d noted the young man’s handsome physique just a moment earlier. She forced herself to look away, and she was startled by the unpleasant and just short of terrifying discovery that the young boy had abandoned his trucks and was now timidly walking toward her. Audrey knew nothing about kids, but if she’d been asked to guess, she would have said he was five or six years old. His hair was just as unruly as the dark hair of the man she’d concluded was his dad. He looked at her with huge, expressive brown eyes right out of a Japanese anime, his eyelashes long enough to be the envy of any woman, including her. His voice was high-pitched yet so soft it was barely audible. “Allo. Je peux jouer avec ton chien?”
Something about the dog, she thought, but she didn’t really try to understand more. “Je ne parle pas français, kid. Go home.”
“That’s okay. I can speak English. My daddy showed me. Can I play with your dog?”
* * *
Marielle was so mad she could feel the heat in her cheeks and the red blotches on her chest. It wasn’t even about the brand-new tear in her favorite couch, which Sam and his father Robert had finally been able to set in the living room after getting it stuck in the doorway, where the armrest was torn on one of the hinges. She would fix that. The couch wasn’t new, after all, but it was certainly newer than this bungalow Sam had insisted on buying. She agreed their duplex on the east side of town was getting too small. In fact, it had been too small since the birth of Felix six years ago. She also knew Felix would enjoy having a larger backyard. She would enjoy it as well. She was just extremely frustrated that with her nurse salary and Sam’s job at the factory, they couldn’t afford better than a bungalow built in the sixties and showing no sign of updates since then. Sam called it original charm and potential. She called is plain ugly.
Yes, it had beautiful original hardwood floors. Yes, in addition to an expansive backyard it also had three large bedrooms and an unfinished basement they could eventually turn into more bedrooms or a family room. Yes, it was just across the street from a beautiful park with playgrounds where they could take Felix in the summer. But it also had worn linoleum floors, dated cabinets, yellow appliances in the kitchen, and pink tiles all over the bathroom, complete with pink toilet and sink! The walls had probably been white fifty years ago, but now they looked somewhere between brown and yellow. Someone, at some point, had obviously been a heavy smoker. It would take deep cleaning, odor-blocking primer and a whole lot of fresh paint to make this house anywhere close to decent. And that was just a beginning. The kitchen and bathroom renovations would have to wait because of lack of funds, of course, and who knew for how long.
“Marielle, can you tell us where you want these boxes?” Sam asked with irritation, as if Marielle should have anticipated it.
“The room where each box belongs is written right on it, Sam.” She sighed, annoyed.
“Oh yeah, I see now. Look at that, Sam: kitchen. That little woman of yours sure is organized.”
Sam took the box from his father’s arms and walked heavily toward the kitchen without saying a word, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge he’d overlooked something so evident or worse, that his wife was right. She would only be too happy to rub it in his face later.
Marielle smiled and winked at Robert on her way back to the U-Haul to grab a box, grateful for his support and ashamed of the discomfort she and Sam were causing him with their constant bickering. She wondered when they’d started talking to each other that way. It seemed now as though it had been forever, but she knew better. She remembered they’d been loving and caring when they first met in high school. They’d laughed together, and they’d been excited when they made plans for their future, when they married and when they bought the duplex. They had wanted Felix with all of their beings, had been so happy when he was born and they became parents at the age of twenty-two. She could still see Sam standing nervously by her side when they placed a chubby Felix on her stomach in the delivery room. He looked like a kid himself in that moment, but she had complete faith in him. She knew they would be just fine. And they were.
Nothing really bad had happened. They hadn’t cheated on each other; Felix had never been seriously ill; they hadn’t even gone through the loss of a parent yet. Hers had moved to Sherbrooke for her father’s work, but they often made the two-hour drive to visit their daughter and only grandchild. Samuel Pomerleau and Marielle Demers had every reason to be happy. They weren’t rich, but they were blessed in every way that counted. They went to work, raised their son the best they could, paid their bills. And they argued. They didn’t even fight, really. They didn’t yell or throw things at each other. That would require a passion they didn’t seem to have. They’d just grown more and more annoyed with each other. She couldn’t pinpoint why or when that had happened, and that was the most frustrating part of it all. She would fix the couch because she knew where the fabric was torn and she could stitch it back together. But how could she fix something if she didn’t know how it was broken?
As she climbed the ramp into the truck, she automatically looked toward the spot in the driveway where her son was playing—a quick motherly check. When she didn’t see him there with his trucks, panic took over before she even had time to look around and died just as quickly when she saw him playing with a little white dog in their neighbor’s yard. It looked like dog and child were taking turns chasing each other, and Felix was laughing, having a great time. She smiled as she always did when she saw that pure joy in him. It seemed so simple. She looked to see who might be the dog’s owner and smiled again when she saw the blonde supervising the games taking place in her yard.
The woman seemed friendly enough, but she looked worried, not taking her eyes off the dog and Felix for even a second. Marielle took advantage of the woman’s fixation to observe her. Her golden hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail. Also simple were her clothes: long, gray workout pants and a blue V-neck sweatshirt tightly fitting an athletic body. Even from a distance Marielle could see her eyes were light blue. Her skin was pale, but a touch of red on her high-set cheekbones showed she’d probably been in the sun all morning. Her features looked Scandinavian, she guessed, which was rare in this region. She was strikingly beautiful, and Marielle suddenly felt painfully self-conscious in her size 14 jeans. She took a deep breath, gathered her courage and started crossing the lawn that separated their homes, dutifully on a mission to retrieve her son and save her new neighbor from the distress the six-year-old seemed to be causing her.
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