Chapter 4A–Blue Cottage

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As we drove toward Lindsay Peter was understandably nervous. So was I. It’s not every day someone makes a mesh mask of your face. But not as nervous as our last visit. As we turned into the hospital parking lot Peter noticed the fare to park had gone up and started growling. “THIEVES” was his only comment. We circled the parking lot a few times till he found a spot that was just in the right location. To me, any spot would have done but Peter was driving. I’ve never fully understood about men and parking spots. I know their number one reason is “I don’t want the car door to get dinged” but it seems to me you run the same risk of getting “dinged” no matter where you park. After Peter put the car in park he took a deep breath before he said anything. Then he turned his head and faced me. “Thank you for come coming and thank you for being here” he gurgled. I thought he was finished. He wasn’t. He put his hand on top of mine.

Afterwards, we got out of the car, walked into the hospital and went to Dr. Willowbys office. After we walked in I announced our arrival to his secretary. Dr. Willowby took us promptly at 10:00 AM which really impressed Peter. Before we arrived he told me of his philosophy regarding medical appointments. “If I have an appointment for ten I expect to be seen at ten.” I didn’t think it was a very realistic attitude but I decided not to say anything. We were asked to enter the examining room. In it was Dr. Willowby and an orderly. Today Dr. Willowby was more relaxed. And he treated me like a daughter which was a big surprise.

“Good morning to both of you. This strapping young fellow to my right will take Peter to wear the masks are made.”

Dr. Willowby indicated the gentleman beside him. However, the term “gentleman” might have been a bit of a stretch. He looked like he was fifteen years old. An extremely well built fifteen year old who just happened to be six feet tall. The orderly was a fellow named Dean who wore bright orange scrubs. He then ushered Peter out a door. Dr. Willowby ushered me down a different hallway. “Cassie, you can watch the whole thing if you want”. I told him I wanted to know as much about what Peter had gone through and what he was soon to experience. But before anything happened Dr. Willowby made a stunning admission.

“Last time we met I made a few erroneous assumptions about the relationship between you and Peter. I thought you and Peter were…closer shall we say. I also did a little research about you. And I need to ask you a few questions. So I apologize ahead of time if any of these make you uncomfortable.”

Oh brother. Just what I needed. Questions about my love life. But they weren’t about me, at least not directly. They were about more about Peter.

“I don’t know how close you two are, but in the short time I’ve known Peter I’ve learned that he’s been burned emotionally…very, very badly. And he trusts very few people. So that makes you a very special person. And I’d like to know why you think he likes you?”

I explained I was on indefinite suspension from CKMT for putting the mayor in a head lock, and that I moved into the cottage next to him. However, I didn’t know who he was until I introduced myself. Dr. Willowby asked about our feelings.

“That is the sixty-four million dollar question, Doctor. I know he has feelings for me. Just what they are I can’t say. He has said they are not romantic but just between you and me I just don’t know what they are. But one thing I do know is that he wants to concentrate on getting better. He desperately wants to put this cancer business in the past and get better. Becoming emotionally attached to anyone at this time is out the question for me. My situation at present is best described as awkward. I don’t know if my career is over or simply changing from one thing to another. I just don’t want to see Peter hurt or cause him to be hurt. Right now I think our relationship can best be described like  a brother and sister that care a lot for each other. Nothing else.”

Dr. Willowby bowed his head, put his hands in his pockets, frowned a bit and paced in the hall. He looked like someone struggling to say something without sounding intrusive at the same time. Suddenly he looked up.

“You and I will be working together, though not side by side, for some time. I want to make absolutely sure you understand this is not a short term commitment. Do you prefer the name Cassie or do you want me to call you Cassandra?”

I was used to this question. I had been asked it a hundred times.

“My given name is Cassandra, but I only use it professionally. My friends call me Cassie and that’s what I would like you to call me.”

“Cassie, you’ve put me in a bit of a spot. As Peters oncologist I’m going have to hurt him to heal him. Some of the cancer has been removed surgically but now we have to kill the cancer cells below the skin we can’t see. With razor like lasers. And that won’t enjoyable for Peter at all. But from what I’ve seen and heard he’ll need your friendship and your strength. Are you prepared for that?”

“What would like me to do?”

“Great! Glad to have you on the team.” Dr. Willowby suddenly extended his hand in friendship.

“I’m glad to know you, Cassie Carter. I’m Dr. Bill Willowby. When we’re talking in a group I’m just Dr. Willowby. If it’s just you and me please feel free to call me Bill. But if we’re talking on the phone and Peter is about please call me Dr. Willowby if you can. Peter doesn’t know my first name and I want to keep our relationship as professional as possible till he’s out of the woods which should be-“

“In five years.” I interrupted. Dr. Willowby studied me silently and wondered how much I already knew.

“May I ask just how you know that?” he asked puzzled that I would know the answer.

“Peter read the binder you gave him the last time we were here. He didn’t take the news at all well. He cried I think.”

“Is he in that much pain already?” asked Doctor Willowby.

“Most of it was pent up anger and extreme frustration. Peter’s a wordsmith. His life revolves around words. And right now it’s difficult and uncomfortable to talk. That’s how a writer checks his or her work.”

“He’s a writer? Can’t say I knew that. Say…he wouldn’t be the Peter James Christopher? I’ve got all three of his books. Great stuff! I’m going to ask him to autograph my copies. You’re sure it’s him?”

I nodded vigorously in the affirmative.

“As far as I know there’s only one P.J. Christopher.”

Dr. Willowby suddenly began smiling.

“Well, you just made my day my dear. It appears we’re treating a celebrity” he said with a certain amount of pride.

“It might be a good idea to keep that under your hat. His publisher hasn’t said a word as to why Peter suddenly stopped writing. From what he has said about them they don’t sound like the forgiving type.”

***

“Would you like to see how Peter is doing Cassie?” asked Dr. Willowby as he walked towards a large glass window. He described what was going on. I looked through the window in fascination.

Peter was scampering over a cold floor while holding on to his clothes with one hand and attempting to close the hospital gown at the back with the other. He let his clothes drop to the floor when he tried to get on a long dark table while trying to retain a little of his dignity. A technician has handling something. Dr. Willowby knocked on the window and indicated he wanted to see the mask.

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The technician brought the mask over to the window so I could see it. It didn’t look all that menacing but from what I’ve learned the experience of creating a mask can be most unpleasant. Dr. Willowby then gave the technician the thumbs up sign to proceed and pointed at Peter. Dr. Willowby then stuffed his hands back inside the pockets of his white lab coat.

The technician then said something to Peter. I couldn’t hear what was said but Peter probably said something like “On with the show so I can put my pants back on. It’s freezing in here.”

Dr. Willowby kindly told me what going on.

“The mask you just saw is now soaked under some warm water to make it pliable. Now this is the hard part. The techs have twenty seconds to make the mask before the resin cools down to the point where it becomes useless. If that happens they have to start all over. Peter will soon feel hands all over his face. His eyes will be closed during the treatments so they’re closed now.”

Hands were soon patting down the rapidly cooling resin. Peter was either very obedient or anxious for this to be over because the mask was created on the very first try. The mask was then screwed to the table to make the fit even tighter. Everyone but Peter left the room for a few moments while a CT scan of Peter was done at this point.

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“The purpose of the CT scan is to pinpoint the exact location of the cancer cells. We don’t want to kill any healthy cells. Peter will need those when he’s recovering. And that’s where you come in. The lasers will dry up the skin in and on his throat. In it’s simplest terms his left vocal cord is going to get an intense ten and a half hour sun burn. I want you to put Lubriderm on his throat daily even if he says he doesn’t need it. When the skin starts to break stop putting on the Lubriderm. I’ll show you how to make bandages for the outside of his throat. If we do our job right we’ll zap those cells silly and they’ll die. Peter will be very weak because of the radiation. He’ll also become very forgetful. Don’t be surprised if you have to remind him of a single event several times. And he’ll get angry at you too. He won’t like what’s happening to him, he’ll get angry and frustrated. When that happens you’ll have to use your best judgment on how to handle the situation. His anger is a side effect of the radiation. Try not to take it personally. He’ll experience a lot of pain during the treatments. Swallowing will become difficult for him”

I asked him to elaborate on that.

“You and I have a straight pipe that leads from the back of our mouths to our stomach. During radiation the interior of Peters neck will swell and that pipe will become narrow and bent making eating difficult and painful. We usually prescribe a liquid meal replacement for those tough days. You have to remember the pipe that leads to our stomachs is about about two inches wide. Peters will shrink to a fraction of that. During radiation therapy its imperative the patient not lose any weight. Try get him on the scales as often as you can. Make a chart of his progress. You may have to remind him to eat. If he refuses tell him you’ll call me. It has been my experience that if the patient knows the only alternative is a feeding tube in the stomach they’ll try drinking little bits a time. Sometimes a little fear is useful. It takes a lot of patience but I think you can do it. Do you?”

“Ask me again when this really bumpy ride is over”.

All of a sudden he hugged me. Not a lot but just enough to call it a hug. It was a gentle fatherly hug.

“I know you can do it. I’ve coached spouses and significant others for over twenty years. And I know you can do it. I sent my number to your phone if there’s any trouble. What do you say we go retrieve the local scribe?”

We were back at the window. Soon Peter was sitting up with the mask off. One of the technicians pointed to me. Peter waved and was soon clutching his hair. With two fingers he pretended to cut the hair. We agreed before hand that this would be the signal if he had to get a haircut. When he emerged he whispered that he was going to “save a mint on haircuts”. Even Dr. Willowby chuckled. He said it was always a good sign when a patient could joke after this. It also indicated that we shouldn’t expect any problems during the actual therapy. When Peter re-emerged fully clothed Dr. Willowby asked how he felt. “Now I know how the man in the iron mask felt.”

To celebrate getting the mask done we went on a small shopping spree. I wanted to get a dress for our dinner in Gelert the following day. Peter wanted to get something but was being secretive about it and would simply say “it’s a surprise”. What lurks in the minds of men and writers? I certainly didn’t know. But he needed my body for one of the surprises. We passed a small SCUBA shop where I got fitted for my very first wet suit. A woman fitted me out so I could help Peter put in my dock. The outside was made of black rubber. Inside was a substance called neoprene. It was the neoprene that kept you from turning into an icicle. When she handed me a twenty pound weight belt I tried to say I didn’t need it. But before I could say one word in polite protest Peter put a finger to his lips. “If you don’t have it you’ll float all the time. Shh.” Two other “surprises” awaited me but I’d have to wait one more day. And it was killing me!

…still more to come

Chapter 3B – Blue Cottage

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Cassette 2 Entry 1

After listening to Dr. Willowby talk we both needed a change of atmosphere so we went to a bookstore. I hoped a book there might pull Peter out of the depression he was in. It wasn’t a funk he was in and certainly wasn’t a rut. It was a full-blown depression. But didn’t it work. After about five minutes he simply walked out of the bookstore. I was in a blind panic that I had lost sight of him. I ran out the store and looked for him. I spotted him about a block away. After a vigorous jog I caught up to him and pushed him him towards the door of a bar. After we were both seated in a booth Peter leaned towards me and whispered in my ear.

“What are we doing here? I don’t drink,” he whispered. He looked at the tacky decorations.

“Maybe you don’t but I most certainly do. After hearing all that stuff you’re going to experience I need a drink. I’m going to have a rum and coke. What would you like to drink?. My treat” was my only answer.

“Mineral water. My throat really didn’t care for Dr. Willowby poking around with that damn scope. It’s sore as hell.”

The endoscope had gone up Peters’ nose and dropped down into his throat. Dr. Willowby directed where the camera went and it gave him a view of Peters vocal cords. A view that could only be called up close and personal. I watched Peters face while the scope was inside him. He clearly didn’t care for the experience. Dr. Willowby asked me if I wanted to take a look at Peters vocal cords. Just the idea gave me the creeps. And I shook my head rather stiffly.

Just then a waitress arrived and asked for our orders.

“I’ll have a rum and coke. Go light on the rum. And my talkative friend here will have some mineral water.” I was trying to lighten the mood. It didn’t work either. The waitress smacked her gum, rolled her eyes, and vanished with the speed of summer lightning.

When she disappeared I leaned towards Peter. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say but I but I needed to say thank you.

“Peter, I want to say something and I don’t want you to interrupt me. I want to thank you for asking me to come along. You have no idea what it meant to read your letter. I’m on indefinite suspension. And I’m not allowed to do anything a journalist can do. I can’t even write a grocery list on toilet paper-”

Just then Peter smiled for the first time in a very long time and started to chuckle albeit silently. He leaned forward to say something, pushing the dessert menu aside. Peter whispered that he was trying to imagine me writing on toilet paper. When I tried to imagine myself writing on toilet paper the image made me chuckle too. Then he said something I hadn’t thought of and it really made me think.

“Who is going to know if you write anything?” he whispered slowly trying his best to say every word correctly.

Buddha, had probably said those things to scare me silly, which he did, and to get me to think. He probably knew I’d discover there wasn’t any way for CKMT to know if I was writing anything.

“I just want you to know what you that what you said in your letter meant a great deal. You gave me a reason for being”. I didn’t know it at the time but I put my hand on top of his.

***

As Peter forecast, he was too depressed to drive. So I drove. He soon learned I tended to speed. And every time I did he tapped on the dashboard. He had every reason to tap. As his primary caregiver, my job was to keep him alive. Plus it was his car. I decided not to say anything as he studied the contents of the binder Dr. Willowby gave him. Suddenly he slammed the binder shut and cursed. I pulled the car over to the side of the highway and tried to get him to tell me what was wrong but he was in a foul mood. He wouldn’t say anything. He put the iPad in his lap and started typing. When he was finished he held it up and pointed it at me. “I’ll tell you at home.” For some reason, the words “at home” felt somewhat comforting.

When we got home he got out of the car he slammed the car door with murderous fury and almost tore the screen door off its hinges. When he was inside he stomped into his study and slammed its door shut. The part that worried me the most was when he locked the door. I moved towards the door with the intention of knocking. When I was just inches away from the door I heard what sounded like sobbing. I knocked on the door and called out.

“Peter! What’s going on? You can talk to me. I really want to know. I need to know. Please unlock the door. You’re scaring me.”

After a few minutes passed I heard some sounds from inside that I really couldn’t identify. Then I heard a clickity-click sound of the door being unlocked. When the door opened Peter almost fell into my arms. He was exhausted and his eyes were red. I held on to him as strongly as I could. We slowly walked over to the couch. After Peter sat down he leaned forward and started typing on the iPad. When he was finished he pushed the iPad into my lap.

I just can’t take it. It hurts so much. The last straw was when I read I was going to be Dr. Willoughby’s patient for another five years. But the thing that hurts the most right now isn’t physical. It’s emotional. I want to say something really important to you but my voice won’t let me and it’s infuriating. Plus its frustrating as hell.

Was he falling for me? It sure sounded that way to me. And the thing that scared me even more is that I think I was starting to have feelings for him. Did I want to get emotionally involved with another person right now? Short answer is no. Or did I? My career was in tatters. I had nothing to offer. But I couldn’t deny I was starting to feel something.

***

My aunt Heather loved leaving notes. She made notes for everyone and just about covered every subject imaginable.

A few days after Peter got scoped he found a manila envelope behind his computer that was stuffed full with them. I was hiding out in my cottage, terrified he might ask me to marry him or something when he suddenly appeared at the sliding glass door. After knocking he entered and made his trademark “Hey You” sound. I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when he lowered the folder into my line of sight. The envelope was addressed to me yet it was in Peters cottage. It would seem my aunt was trying to play matchmaker in her final days. One the many notes were on how to lower the deck into the water. It seemed perfectly simple, and it was. I could lower the deck with an electric winch while somebody stood in the water to position it properly. Peter had a wet suit which allowed him to stand in the water without freezing to death. He offered to help me position the deck. I usually wore jeans but with the sun out and deck down I went into my bedroom put on my bikini. I got a copy of a J.D. Robb novel from the bookshelves and lost myself in the pages. While I lay in a deck chair trying to figure out who the Traffordville killer was, and soaking up as much sun as I could, I couldn’t help but notice Peter was looking at me. When he came out of the water he stood beside me. As he peeled off the wet suit some of the water droplets fell onto my back.

“Christmas that’s cold! Is the water always that cold this time of year?”

Peter picked up the iPad from my chair and typed his response.

“Water in May is usually cold. Sorry for losing my cool when we came home. I’m just not used to feeling like hell.”

There was it was again. The “we” word. Only this time it didn’t sound quite so frightening. It almost sounded normal. But I still didn’t know how I felt.

“You certainly look comfy. Are you?” asked Peter who was looking down at me and drying himself off.

“The sun is warm and the book is yummy. What about you? How’s the throat today?”

“Well, the cold water has numbed most of my neck. Do you mind if I say something personal?”

“Go right ahead” not expecting anything remotely scandalous.

He took the iPad and wrote something very long. Something I wasn’t expecting at all.

“One of the side effects of throat cancer is you can’t verbally tell a woman she looks like a million dollars. And you look like a million dollars.”

My jaw dropped open. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Then he typed something I was totally unprepared for.

“May I take my gorgeous next door neighbor to dinner? Gelert Gardens has Chinese food that is out of this world. Interested?”

I looked up at him. With the wet suit off he didn’t look as poorly as I originally thought.  But even though he obviously had feelings about me I was still unsure about how I felt about him. We needed to talk before we took the next step – whatever that was. “Can we talk?” I suddenly felt like Joan Rivers.

Peter sat in the shade while I moved beside him. I wanted to know what he was feeling yet at the same time, I didn’t. Plus I didn’t want to risk hurting his feelings. He’s too sweet a guy. He had been dealt a really lousy hand of cards by life and he really didn’t need any more pain in his life.

“I need to know how you feel about me. I don’t want to say or do anything to cause you more pain. Heaven knows you’ve already had more than your share. Is this invitation between neighbors or between potential lovers? I feel something but right now I don’t know what I’m feeling. Do you understand?”

I didn’t know it at the time but I was trying to make my point with soggy end of a towel. Peter opened his mouth, croaked out a few words and started looking foe the iPad.

Peter took the iPad from my chair and started writing his reply which seemed to take forever and a day. And I was getting antsy. Peter noticed this and moved closer so I could see the iPad. I put my head on his shoulder so I could see his answer as he wrote it.

“I will admit I have feelings for you. I feel something for you that I haven’t felt for any other woman. But right now the feelings are not romantic. Right now my invitation is from one neighbor to another neighbor and nothing more. The fact that I think you’re extremely attractive has nothing to do with the invitation. Now, if the friendship between the neighbors blossomed into something else I wouldn’t mind it. But right now my attention is centered elsewhere, on getting better. You’re new to this area. And you’ve expressed curiosity about this area. I want to show you a part of it before I get sidelined for a few months. Neighbor to neighbor and nothing more.”

The last line of his answer clinched the deal. Gelert Gardens here we come.

…more to come

Chapter 3A–Blue Cottage

Story by Tom Austin  Written by Tom Austin  Revised by Meg Sorick

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A few days later we made the trip to Lindsay and the hospital. Dr. Willowby, a kind-looking fellow with wisps of gray hair, outlined the treatment schedule Peter would have to adhere to.

“You have a type-two cancer. That means you’re only going to get radiation treatments. However, they will be six times per week for seven weeks. Once on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. But on Wednesdays, you get it twice so those will be early morning appointments. The weekends will be your own. I don’t want you to push yourself once the treatments begin. You’ll need your all your strength for the week. I’m not going to sugar coat this for you. You’re going to feel pretty lousy for a few weeks.”

The doctor gave me a pointed look when he said “pushing yourself.” I piped up and said, “I’ll make sure he behaves himself.”

With a nod, Dr. Willowby continued, “If you can’t make it for some reason, any at all I want you to phone my office as soon as you know. Radiation has a number of nasty side effects. It can affect your memory, so don’t be too upset if you can’t remember something. It is usually something simple, almost trivial. We call it brain fog. Since the area being treated is your neck, I want to start wearing loose fitting shirts. You may have trouble swallowing. If you do, make a note of it and tell me. If you find you can’t swallow, we may have to insert a feeding tube into your stomach.”

I looked at Peter. This was news to him. He went a little green around the gills.

The doctor droned on and on for a bit, but he eventually looked at me with such intensity that I knew what he was about to say was gravely important. He faced me directly and said, “This last part is really important. Since you’re the primary caregiver, Miss Carter, I want you to make it your life’s mission to make sure Peter does not lose any weight during treatment. His life may very well depend on it. He can’t lose a kilo.”

Primary caregiver? What? Evidently, the doctor had made some assumptions about our relationship. Even more surprising  —Peter didn’t correct him. I decided not to say anything. Doctor Willowby went to his desk and pulled out a three-ring binder with the title “Cancer Journal – Patients Copy.” In it was everything Peter had to know ahead of time. It also had suggestions for meals that would be easy to swallow. There was a DVD that explained that lasers would be involved. Dr. Willowby wanted Peter back in a months time so he could be fitted for a resin mask. The mask would hold his head and neck absolutely still during the treatments. The mask would also be screwed down to the treatment table so tightly that Peter would have the impression of a small “x” on the end of the nose. The “x” would disappear within a few hours after each treatment. Dr. Willowby asked Peter if he had any questions.

“How long is each session?” he croaked.

“Each session is only fifteen minutes. The lasers are going to be firing from different angles. You’ve already had the surgery but you should know we may have to do the surgery/radiation combo three or four times.”

Peter blew out the breath he’d been holding and cursed.

“This is a particularly rare form of throat cancer. You see, most people who get throat cancer are usually heavy smokers. You don’t smoke at all. Which is good. Did anybody in your immediate family smoke?”

“My mother smoked like a chimney. I also had a brother who used to smoke unfiltered French crud. He passed away a few years ago. His appendix burst.”

The doctor made a note of this on Peter’s chart then placed it back on the counter.

“Since you don’t smoke, I’ll have to presume the cause of your cancer is second-hand smoke and possible environmental factors like air pollution. Now, do you have any questions for me?”

“Not right now but give me time. I’ll think of a few dozen”. 

“Alright. Your treatment room is two floors below this one. You’ll be in treatment room five. If you have any favorite music, burn it onto a CD and bring it with you. I’m sure the nurses in charge of Room Five will play it for you while you’re undergoing treatment. Well… If there aren’t any more questions, I’ll see you in a month’s time for the mask and a possible CT scan.”

Blue Cottage- Chapter 2A

     Story by Tom Austin   Written Tom Austin   Revised by Meg Sorick

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Chapter 2 – Blue Cottage

Cassette 1 Entry 2

I’m dictating this as I drive to Norland. I want to learn about the people in Norland, and Coboconk. I want to find some of the characters my aunt told me about. Eric the Pirate is the primary person to find. Men talk to their mechanic like they talk to their bartender. I also need to find a place where I can get my hair done. I’m going to park outside the A & P store.”

As I walked in, a gigantic rack of picture postcards caught my eye and I had to stop to look. Some of them showed Norland the way it was fifty years ago. It was fascinating to see how little the town had changed. I purchased one copy of every postcard. As I shuffled through the pile, I stopped at one with a photograph of the town sign, reading ‘Norland, Population 200’ and nothing else. But I didn’t recall seeing this sign when I drove through the town the previous day.

An old man approached the counter and stole a glance at the card in my hand. “Yep, that sign was up for almost fifty years. People could never understand why the population never changed. They always thought it stayed at two hundred. Someone actually started a rumor that Norland was inhabited by witches and warlocks, and whenever the population got over two hundred, we held sacrifices to keep the number in check!” He chuckled. “Excuse me, where are my manners. The names Mervin Lemay. Say, you look kinda familiar. You one of those TV types?”

“Guilty as charged. My name is Cassandra Carter, I’m a reporter for CKMT.”

“Is that so? What brings you to Norland?”

“I’m the new owner of Blue Cottage on Shadow Lake. My aunt left me the cottage in her will.”

“You mean you’re related to Heather Carter?”

“Again, guilty as charged. I haven’t been up here in twenty years. Do you think you could tell me about a bit about the town, my neighbors, that sort of thing? It would help me get a feel for the place. You see, I’m trying to decide if I should move up here permanently.”

After wiping his hands on his apron, Mr. Lemay came out from behind the counter. “Now where did I put those blasted reading glasses of mine?” he grumbled while patting himself down in a futile search.

I stifled a smile. Obviously, Mr. Lemay was a bit forgetful —he was wearing his glasses. I tried to think of a polite way to tell him, but diplomacy has never been my strong suit so I just blurted, “You’re wearing them, Mr. Lemay.”

Reaching up to feel the frames grasping his head, he started to blush. “Well, what d’ya know.” He waved a hand and continued, “Let’s start your education by taking a look at some those postcards.”

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I handed him my pile. He tapped a finger on the first one. “This shows the store and gas station next door as it appeared fifty years ago. As you can, see not much has changed.” He shuffled through the cards telling a little story of each scene. When he had finished, he handed the pile back to me.

“Now, your neighbors. You have P.G. Webb on the one side and Peter James Christopher on the other, but you probably knew that. Mr. Webb and his wife started off as weekenders. But then Mr. Webb decided to move here shortly after Mrs. Webb passed away. Such a shame… Anyway, Mr. Christopher is another story. He and his wife moved up here not long before your aunt died. Mrs. Christopher didn’t care for this lifestyle and the two split up.” He leaned in close, “Between you and me, she was a nasty piece of work. Never satisfied and always expected things to happen at the snap of her fingers. Now, him— he’s a completely different breed of cat. Keeps to himself. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve seen him in almost two years. He even has his food delivered to the cottage. The orders come in through email, can you believe it? Must be some kind of recluse or something. A writer, I think. And a pretty good one from what I gather.”

Now that had to be the understatement of the year. If this was the Peter James Christopher, then he was the author of three books of fiction, two of them wildly popular. His most recent book didn’t do as well as the first two. Critics all agreed that something was missing. It just didn’t have that Peter James Christopher feel to it, that special something that made you want to buy the book, then devour every word. What had happened? Had he lost his touch? Mr. Lemay interrupted my thoughts.

“Now, your late Aunt Heather. She was my definition of a lady. Old fashioned manners and what not. She always said please and thank you. Let the fellows open and close the door for her.” He held up a finger. “But I should add that she was a bit of a free spirit too. Wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and if the moment called for it, she would say damn. Though I can’t say I ever heard her use those other four letter words that are so popular these days—”

“Oh, she used them,” I cut in. “Very rarely, but she had her own special collection of colorful words. Damn was her favorite. Once, when I was ten, I watched her change the oil in her car. She’d say “futz” instead of the other F-word a lot, most likely because I was there. If she only knew… By then, my vocabulary of swear words was already pretty well established. I even knew a few she never used.”

Mr. Lemay studied me for a few seconds, then took off his glasses and proceeded to clean them with the hem of his apron. “I can’t imagine you swearing like a sailor Miss Carter,” he said.

I blushed a tiny bit because he was clearly flirting with me.

“I try not to but I do have my moments.” Then, to change the subject, I asked, “Is there anything else you can tell me about the reclusive Mr. Christopher?”

“That’s pretty well it. Since you’re one those journalistic types why don’t you simply interview the guy, or whatever it is you do?”

The man had a point. A very good one. I might be a journalist without standing at present, but I could still conduct an interview. With that, I thanked Mr. Lemay for his time and the information and headed back to the cottage. Only this time the trip would be more memorable. As I drove along highway 45, I spotted a family of raccoon’s crossing the highway. Apparently, Mama raccoon was teaching her brood a hard lesson. It appeared that Papa raccoon had been leading the pack when he got clipped by a car. As Mama approached his lifeless body, she slowed, clearly mourning him, and turned to the little ones as if to say, ‘you see what can happen?’ before hurrying them across the road. I slowed down to allow the parade of nocturnal bandits to pass. Despite their recent tragedy, they weren’t terribly intimidated by my car. I guess I don’t blame them. A cute little chipmunk eyed my car as I drove into town yesterday and I swear he was laughing at it. Okay. It’s not a great, nasty muscle car that gets four miles to the gallon and belches out fumes like there’s no tomorrow, but it gets me where I want to go.

As I turned onto Buller Road, I began to dread another run-in with the bull. Looking around, I didn’t see him, but it was clear he had been there recently. His left his calling card was smack in the middle of the road. Great. A load of bull crap under my tires. Literally. I managed to drive around it, but couldn’t help but think he had done this on purpose just to screw up my day. Once again, I tested the limits of my suspension on the way back to Blue Cottage, but made it there without incident. After stowing my few parcels, I set out for the cottage next door.

I knocked on the screen door. Nothing. I could hear the faint sounds of the radio playing. As I opened the screen door, I realized my hands were shaking. I was as jittery as I was on my very first job interview. I curled the fingers of my right hand and knocked. Still nothing. I was about to knock again when the completely unexpected happened— a knock from inside. Then the ‘thunk’ of a bolt lock moving and the ‘scrape’ of a tiny chain lock sliding open. I held my breath. A gravelly, almost unintelligible voice rasped, “Hold your flippin’ horses. I’m coming!” And, an angry, “if this is a survey I think I’ll spit nails,” probably not meant for me to hear.

The door opened to reveal a man in his forties wearing dark jeans and a blue shirt. His brown hair complimented his hazel eyes. When he saw me, he held up one finger as if to say “just one moment” and handed me a card that said:

“Squamous cell carcinoma – throat cancer”

The delay gave me a chance to take a good look at my new neighbor. His skin was the color of ash, and his gaunt figure made the blue shirt hang on him. He had obviously lost a significant amount of weight. Nevertheless, I tried to put a positive note in my voice.

“I’m Cassie Carter, your new neighbor. I own Blue Cottage.” I extended my hand. He shook it but the handshake was pretty weak.

Mr. Christopher stepped back to let me enter, then put his hands in his pockets and looked me up and down. I felt very uneasy —like a piece of meat might feel being sized up by a butcher.

“Turn around, please,” he growled. At least that’s what I thought he said. And for some reason, I did turn.

“Good. No recording devices. Sorry, but I had to check. I know exactly who and what you are Miss Carter. Even though CKMT has yet to announce it, I suspect they either let you go or put you on some sort of leave. I have nothing against you or your profession. I’m just not terribly fond of some other journalists.”

Most of my instincts told me to leave but the journalist in me told me to stay. I stayed.

Mr. Christopher tried to speak, but it seemed that he had very little control over the pitch in his voice. With obvious frustration, he tried again. Words with two or more syllables were the hardest. When he said my last name ‘Carter,’ the ‘car’ sound came out high in pitch while the ‘ter’ sound came out very low in pitch. It conjured an image in my mind of a barrel-chested operatic tenor on helium. I started to snicker. He politely ignored it.

“Coffee, Miss Carter?” he asked slowly and gesturing towards the coffee jar.

“Yes, please,” I said, with relief. And to break the tension, I went on, “That bull at the top of the road seems to think he’s king of the world. And I think he has it in for my car.”

The author busied himself in the kitchen, making the coffee. While the coffee maker gurgled, huffed and chuffed, he typed on an iPad. When the coffee was ready, he prepared a tray with cups, cream and sugar. He brought it over while handing me the iPad. It read: “please have a seat.” I sat on the sofa. He set the tray on the table in front of me and made a strange sound.

“How do you make that sound with throat cancer?” I asked meekly. I added cream to my coffee to avoid meeting his eyes.

He picked up the Ipad. His hands just flew over the built-in keyboard. After he finished typing he handed the Ipad to me.

That damn bull may think he’s king of the world, but he’s also a damn big coward. If you get a whistle he’ll get out your way really fast. As for that sound you heard me make it’s my version of saying “Hey you”. I simply push my tongue against the skin of my lower jaw. You have to push the skin on the inside of your mouth outwards at the front of your lower jaw.

“That’s really good to know. I’ll get a whistle when I’m in Coboconk. That bull has messed with me for the last time.” I sipped my coffee. It was good. Then mustering up my courage, I asked, “Since you know I’m a journalist, would you mind if I interviewed you?”

He leaned forward, took the Ipad from me, and typed his answer.

I don’t want to be interviewed by a journalist, but I wouldn’t mind chatting with a neighbor. Feel free to ask me anything.”

He had put me on the spot and I positively hate when that happens. Not this time, though.

“Peter, you just put me on the spot. I’m not sure about being your neighbor. Yet. I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep Blue Cottage or sell it.” I paused to sip again, then blurted, “I’ve been suspended, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

He got out of his chair, crossed the room, and sat down beside me on the couch. He tried saying something, cursed and put his hand on my knee. Again the Ipad came into play. Again his hands flew over the keyboard. Then he handed it to me.

Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. I’ll give you an interview where you can ask me anything you like. In return, you agree to stay in Blue Cottage one week. I may need a favor. I’ll know in less than one week. Does that sound fair to you?”

I couldn’t believe my luck. I found one of the most reclusive men on the planet and he’s offering to be interviewed by me!

“Can I let my editor know about the interview?” I asked. After pausing for a few seconds he nodded his head slowly. He pointed at the iPad and I handed it to him. When he handed it back I read:

I’ll consent to your editor knowing about the interview as long as it is published in full. And any mention about my divorce will be limited to “we realized we made a mistake and divorced.”

“I better call for his consent.” I almost ripped my pants getting the phone out. When I dialed his number, it rang for a long time —he must have been screening his calls.

When he finally answered, he said, “I figured you’d call. Look, when I said indefinite suspension I meant—”

“Listen! I’ve got Peter James Christopher in front of me right now. And he’s willing to be interviewed. All you have to do is agree to publish it in full. The deal’s on the table for the next thirty seconds.”

There was nothing but aching silence from on the phone. I glanced over at Peter. His face was a mask of pain. His throat was really beginning to smart. Peter pointed at his watch and held up ten fingers.

I whispered,“What does that mean …ten seconds left?”

Finally, there was an answer. “OK, you got me. But put him on the line. I want to hear him.”

“He wants to talk to you.” I handed my phone to Peter, who looked like he going to be violently ill. Buddha started talking.

“I just wanted to say that this isn’t the way we normally conduct business. We have standards and—”

Peter cut him off. “I have throat cancer you big baboon. This could be my last interview. Do you really want it to go a competitor?”

As the ramifications finally hit Buddha, he asked Peter to hand the phone back to me. Peter held it out and croaked out the word “talk”. He winced in pain and got up to take some yellow medication. Morphine.

“We’ll honor the deal,” Buddha said, realizing he’d almost made a colossal mistake. “How bad is he Cassie?”

I turned my back on Peter and whispered into the phone, “Look chuckles. The guy’s in rough shape. He has to take Morphine. You know the phrase: “he’s a shadow of his former self”? Well, there’s so little of this guy left he’s barely got a shadow. Listen, I’ve got to go.”

Peter tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the iPad. “I’m going to bed. Morphine always makes me sleepy.” I nodded in understanding. Five minutes later, I heard his soft snoring coming from the bedroom.

Peter probably expected me to leave, but I felt responsible for his pain. I couldn’t leave him like this. I lit a fire and selected one of the many books he had on the shelves. The cozy fire and the warm blanket combined to make me sleepy and despite my best efforts to stay awake, I fell asleep on the couch.

……..and more to come!