The prompt for the latest episode of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast asked that we use April in the setting AND the picture below, taken by friend and fellow writer, Bill Kirton.
My story inspiration
I write a lot about women, loneliness, and murder. They are themes that haunt me daily as I work on my current trilogy. For a short story, however, it’s not practical to squeeze in too many ideas; it can become convoluted. For “The Cottage Life,” murder is not a central theme, but an ambiguous by-product. I hope you like how it turned out.
You can also listen to me reading the story on episode 65 of R.B. Wood’s podcast.
Spring in this part of the world could hardly be called warm. The snow has melted due to monsoon-like rains, but it’s left a chill in the air. The dewy, mild temperatures normally associated with this time of year are buried along with the crocuses.
My fingers tap against the steering wheel as I grip more tightly than necessary. Classical music intended to soothe begins to irritate me. I turn off the radio, preferring quiet. The four-hour drive outside of the city gives me time to reflect on last April. The cues from family and friends indicate they think I’m still grieving.
I wear my mask well.
A year ago, I lived with my husband, Mike, in a small cottage on a lakefront property. The house wasn’t much to look at, compared to other homes on the lake, but the land it sat on was worth a great deal. All the lakefront homes within five miles of where we lived had appreciated two, three, four times over the last decade. We held on to our investment despite numerous offers to sell from greedy realtors and other interested buyers. I knew that if I was patient, the real estate market would work in my favour.
I put up a fight initially when my husband suggested we sell our suburban bungalow in the city. He brought up the subject as we sat down for dinner one night, a home-cooked meal of steak and potatoes, fresh baked garlic bread, and a side of green beans.
“Come on, Beth,” he said. “We don’t take advantage of half the things the city offers. Let’s sell while the market is hot and use the profits to winterize the cottage. That way, we can live up north all year round.” He slathered more butter on his bread, his fourth slice.
“How about our friends?” My brows furrowed.
“Our friends will just have to make a trip to visit us. They love coming to the cottage in the summer. Everyone hibernates during the winter, so what’s the difference if we live here or at the cottage?”
“I suppose so …,” I said, “But we’d have to downsize. The cottage is tiny.”
“So, we downsize.” Mike cut into his fatty steak and swallowed the piece, barely chewing it. “Besides, we’ve finally finished paying off our debts. Why carry the expenses of two properties? We can only live in one place at a time, anyway.”
Yes, we had finished paying off our debts, but what he neglected to say, was that they were his debts, not mine. Months earlier, we made the final payment on a loan that was used to pay off legal fees from an investment that had gone sour. That was after I cashed out my retirement savings to offset the bills. I resented using my funds to pay off his mistake, but we were married. What was his was mine, and that included his debts.
“I don’t know about selling,” I said. “It’s a big change at this stage in our lives.”
Mike finished off his steak and potatoes. The beans on his plate remained untouched. “Sure, it’s a change, but you’re always saying we need to be open-minded, so I’m taking a page from your book.”
I sighed. “How much do you think we can get for this place?”
My husband burped and wiped a napkin over his double chin. “I’ll call Bob tomorrow and ask him. What’s for dessert?”
Living in a cottage highlighted the issues in our marriage. The problems existed before, but the self-imposed isolation magnified it all the more. Mike loved sports, so he spent most days glued to the television. It amazed me how he could seamlessly change the channel from hockey to football to basketball. It was endless. I would putter around the six hundred square foot space doing odd jobs, reading when the TV wasn’t on full blast, and cooking. The biggest part of my day was preparing Mike’s meals.
And so we lived in that cottage, though lived would be too strong a word. Existed might be a better word. Or rather, coexisted. If Mike and I said a hundred words between us during our waking hours, that would be an interactive day. We tolerated each other, but that was it. After nearly forty years of marriage, should I expect more?
When an agent offered us $1.5 million for our cottage after we were there less than a year, Mike suggested we sell.
“We’re still settling in here and now you want to sell? And where are we going to go?” I said.
“With that much money, we can go anywhere. How about Southwest Florida? You know Murray and Betty love it in Fort Myers.”
“I’d rather die here than move to Florida with all of those blue-haired ladies. All they do is wait for their 5 PM buffets. I wouldn’t fit in with them.”
Mike must have heard the annoyance in my voice. He grabbed the converter and switched on the TV, didn’t even look at me as he spoke. “You know, you’ve never fit in with my friends’ wives. You think you’re better than them because you’re a vegetarian?”
“What?” I shouted. “That’s ridiculous!”
“Is it? We hardly ever get invited for dinners because they’re all worried about what you can’t eat. You need to eat more, Beth!”
That was one of our last conversations before Mike dropped dead of a heart attack a few weeks later. The doctor said his lack of activity and overeating was a lethal combination. You may say I killed him slowly with my cooking. You may say that, but it wasn’t against the law to make sure my husband ate well.
I pull up to the unmarked area where there is a clearing of conifers that offer light and shade in varying degrees. There are large rocks nearby, but they won’t be a problem to remove.
I step out of the car and breathe in the crisp, fresh air. The sun streams through the canopy of trees, and I tilt my head toward a warm ray of light. A few minutes later, the sound of snapping twigs draws my attention down the hill. A tall man approaches, carrying a folder. “Beth?”
I recognize his face from his realty listings. “Nice to meet you, Jim.”
He shakes my hand firmly. “I parked below,” he says, pointing in the general direction from where he came. “I thought to check out the surrounding area for you. You never know what might offer you the best view.”
“Yes, of course. This is very different from Lake Mishog, where I sold my old cottage,” I say.
Jim looks at me with empathy in his eyes. “True, and I’m sorry to hear about your husband.”
I nod, but say nothing.
“Well, you won’t be disappointed here,” Jim says, as if to reassure me I made the right decision. “This area is underdeveloped and a much better deal than anything you will find on Lake Mishog. You can build the cottage of your dreams here.”
I lower my gaze. “I’m looking forward to it,” I say.
Thank you for reading and/or listening. Feel free to leave a comment or question. Feedback, whether good or bad is always welcome.