Time is running out forcing Maureen back to Maine to confront her past. A classmate's murder and her mother’s disappeance need answers that only Maureen can give.
Inspired by the cold case murder of a classmate, Lyn Eckfeldt, writing as Ruth Marston, returns to Maine with a new voice and explores the social consequences of bullying, addiction, and economic inequality in a small town strruggling to find balance. Rich vs poor, popular vs outcast, and spanning decades, Under the Lilacs is a story of what happens when one is finally pushed to the brink.
I drive by the beach, park at the end of the crescent and watch surfers bob in the waves, a reef of wetsuits. I’ve missed the ocean. It’s been ages since I have sniffed the salt of the Atlantic and if it hadn’t been for events almost six weeks ago, I might never have come back.
“Your father’s failing.” Martha had called late at night, one day after I had decided to get back on the wagon. Martha was the taciturn housekeeper who had been with him for more than twenty years, actually moving in several months ago. I didn’t care for her much, but was still grateful that she had been able to withstand my father’s demanding nature for so long.
“Come soon.” She had said. “His mind is not well.” She had been saying that for the last decade and I couldn't care less. Better for his mind to deteriorate than remember what he’s done, I thought. But when the words “pancreatic cancer” entered the picture, I knew I had no choice. I sold what little I had and made my way back East. It was time to make amends.
I had just crossed the border into New Hampshire, less than fifty minutes away, when Martha called and told me he was gone.
I regret not seeing him before he died. Our last meeting, thirteen years ago, hadn’t ended well and we’ve barely spoken since. I’m not sure what I would have said to him, certainly not “I’m sorry” but the point is moot, he’s dead. In any case, I didn’t come back for him. I’m back for Duck. I take one last look at the beach, start the car and head home. I have a lot of work to do.
On the way, I stop for coffee at a corner store advertising cold beer and subs. Several trucks loaded with ladders and paint supplies are in the lot and I pull in and squeeze between them. The bell tinkles as I open the door and I look around spotting a bank of thermoses against the wall. Grabbing a cup from the stack, I go to the French Roast and push. The carafe only burps a few dribbles into my cup so I move down the line to the Morning Blend and am rewarded with a steady stream. I add milk and sweetener, cap it and mosey to checkout, getting in line behind a large guy with a ruddy complexion. He has the bulbous nose of a heavy drinker and looks familiar, though I can’t place the name.
“Daryl, how’re you doing buddy?” The clerk greets ringing him up and putting items in a bag. “ Haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“Yeah, the wife and I took a cruise. Just got back.” He pulls bills from his wallet and sets them on the counter.
“How was it?”
Daryl shrugs. “Great! She stayed by the pool and I bellied up to the bar. It was one of those all-inclusive things.” He pockets the change, grabs the bag and laughs. “Top shelf twenty-four-seven, pure heaven. Doubt the cruise line broke even.”
The clerk laughs and greets me. “That it for you?”
I nod and hand over a five watching Daryl get in his truck and drive away.
The boxes are endless, splitting and dividing like a virus. Like cancer. I have already spent the better part of the week cleaning out drawers, cupboards, and closets. Some contained the occasional poignant memory but mostly it was junk. One carton contained nothing but cookbooks, most pristine except for the occasional blemish of mold, and I wondered where they came from though from the retro fifties covers, assumed they were wedding presents boxed up as soon as they were unwrapped. My mother was usually “indisposed” by the time dinner rolled around so it was my father who fried the burgers and chops accompanied by baked or the occasional mashed potatoes. Vegetables, though, green or otherwise, were only available at school lunches or dinner at friends.
As a young child I had worried that indisposed meant she was sick with some terrible disease which I could contract by the simple act of kissing her goodnight, though my father assured that was not the case. Little did he know, I think now. Alcoholism might not technically be contagious but it still leaves a scar on those closely associated with the afflicted and though my mother’s demons aren’t my own, I understand her resentment. I have cultivated my own lush grove of grievances that’s starting to yield bitter fruit.
Seeing Daryl has ignited memories, compelling a visit to the wreckage of that night, and I stoop under the rafters, half crawling until I reach the trunk. Covered with dust, the old footlocker is a remnant from a hated two-week stay at summer camp and contains items that, though I never thought I would want to see again, still couldn’t bear to throw away. Had I known how restricted my life would become, I might have enjoyed the camp experience more, to relish in the freedom of swimming in the pond and hiking in the woods; the freedom to make friends, as if that was an option. Truth be known it was the ungodly six am wake up time that I really objected to. I’ve never been a morning person.
Grabbing the broken leather handle, I drag the locker to an open space near the stairs, pry the rusted hasp loose and cautiously open the lid. The contents are musty, silverfish scattering, and I dig past the photo album and scrapbook until I find what I’m looking for, plucking the high school yearbook from my senior year. The first several pages are dedicated to the senior class and I pause at my picture accepting the Rotary scholarship. Pudgy with lank blonde hair, the photo is less than flattering. Even though I had traded in plastic aviator glasses for contact lenses, a triple chin swallows my smile and the tight flowery flounced blouse, that at the time I thought was so attractive, does little to hide the rolls of fat that erupt over my jeans.
Several pages over I arrive at the montage of photos; Laura and Daryl being crowned prom King and Queen, Michael and Jennifer slow dancing, and a small cropped picture in the corner showing a group laughing and pointing at something in the distance. I know what they are looking at, the part that’s been cropped, and as I study the photo a familiar anger starts to simmer. But it’s the anger itself that kills, I now know. Better late than never, I suppose.
Hours later I’m desperately craving a drink. When I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to shed my skin, to slither away unnoticed, but what I didn’t know then was that you can’t escape from what is within. Toe touches with the Twelve Steps had taught me that much. It was why I was here. I shouldn’t have looked at the yearbook, at least without having a plan to go to a meeting, but seeing Daryl took me by surprise and I’m a bit unnerved by my reaction. This isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
It’s almost six, so far I’ve had two cups of coffee and a glazed doughnut and contemplate going out to a restaurant, or at least to the store for a frozen dinner, but the thought of getting in the car and driving is daunting so I settle for the last slice of leftover pizza, bottled water and the local news. The lead-in stops me cold.
“Tonight, on Seven at Seven a look back at the unsolved 1976 murder of Laura Goodwin and a chat with the documentary crew that’s in town to try to bring answers to the decades old case including an interview with Nona Thomas, renowned psychic and former friend and classmate of the victim.”
I sip my water. Though I had been following the case from afar, particularly Duck’s involvement, the introduction of Nona throws me for a loop Strange… outspoken… friend… freak. I’m not ready to deal with her.
The irony that Laura’s murder is on the news, coinciding with my arrival, is inescapable and I watch the show transfixed. The segment is mostly filmed at the entrance to Cornerfield, the new subdivision behind our house. The campground had been parceled off years ago sprouting neighborhoods of McMansions with the only hindrance to the voracious path of progress being my father’s house. Well now mine I assume. I know that my father had many offers over the years to sell, some far above market value, but he refused, intent on making the lives of those around him as miserable as possible. He wasn’t a reasonable man to live near and nearly impossible to live with and I have a meeting tomorrow with a lawyer to settle his estate.
Duck has declined to participate in the story, along with the police who claim it’s still an open investigation, so the bulk of the segment rests with two younger women, the producers, and Nona. I’m startled by her appearance. Attractive as a girl, Nona is stunning as a woman; a wild halo of silver, full lips slightly parted in a familiar smile and luminescent eyes. Huge, almost impossibly blue, those eyes could charm and hypnotize most anyone to do most anything.
She’s dressed in an ethereal peasant blouse with large silver earrings and ropes of beads and pendants on chains... Nona, the fortune teller… and I instantly recall the grade school Halloween party when Nona went as a gypsy and told everyone’s fortunes, predicting that the school bully’s mother would soon die. Parents were horrified when they found out about it and later refused to let their children around Nona when Mrs. Johnson died in a fatal car accident the following week. After that she became Nona… the witch… the freak.