“Harold would have known what to do,” Aggie said to Ugly.
She tossed the unopened envelope into the junk drawer on top of the batteries and rubber bands, old keys and more unopened envelopes.
“Let's go sit and ponder,” Aggie said.
She scooped up the little black cat and shuffled across the dirty orange carpet. Years ago, the carpet had been thick and fluffy, but now it was thin and flat, with a path worn from the bed to the bathroom.
From the bathroom to the kitchenette.
From the kitchenette to the door.
Aggie pushed the screen door open and sat in the aluminum
lawn chair outside Room 5. The cat looked up at her with his one eye, twitched his torn ear, and purred.
“That is one ugly cat,” Harold had said the day Ugly had strolled out of the woods and sat outside their door, meowing and carrying on something awful.
Aggie had never cared much for cats, but there was something about this one that was different. So she had fed him tuna fish and he had been there ever since.
“Okay, Ugly,” Aggie said. “What should we ponder today?”
But Ugly just closed his eye and went to sleep, leaving Aggie to ponder alone.
She looked out at the road. Waves of heat floated up off the steamy asphalt. The air was thick and still. Every now and then a car whizzed by, making the Queen Anne's lace along the roadside bob and sway.
Aggie took a deep breath and let out a sigh that made Ugly stir a little on her lap. She could feel the empty lawn chair next to her, like something big and heavy and dark, pulling at her. And even though she didn't want to, she looked at it.
Harold's empty chair.
And then Aggie started to ponder how in the world Harold could be gone. One minute he had been here with
her at the Sleepy Time Motel. And then the next minute â¦
He was gone.
Just like that.
Keeled right over in the tomato garden without so much as a goodbye.
Then Aggie began to ponder what in the world she was going to do about all that mail in the junk drawer. Mail from the phone company and the electric company and the tax office.
Then she moved on to pondering how she was going to fix that clogged drain in Room 4 or what she was going to do about the wasp nest up under the eaves outside the office door.
And before long, Aggie felt so weighed down with sadness and worry that she couldn't stand to ponder another thing.
She picked up Ugly and went back inside.
She opened the blinds so her begonias could enjoy the noonday sun. Then she pushed aside the curtain that hung over the doorway between her room and the motel office.
“Maybe I should tidy up in there in case someone comes today and wants a room,” she said to Ugly.
Aggie spent the whole afternoon tidying up the little office. She dusted the countertop. She straightened up the postcards on the rack by the door. She polished the little silver
bell that guests rang to let her know they were there. She checked to make sure the room keys were in the right order on the cup hooks on the wall. Then she checked to see if the YES, WE'RE OPEN sign was still in the window.
She washed the coffee mugs she used for the free coffee. (That had been Harold's idea.) Then she straightened the stack of complimentary maps of the Great Smoky Mountains. (That had been her idea.)
“There,” she said to Ugly. “Now we'll be ready if somebody comes.”
But nobody came. Nobody had come for a long, long time. Nobody had come since â¦ when? Aggie wondered. She flipped open the motel guest book and looked at the last entry. Nearly three months ago. Mr. and Mrs. R. J. Perry from Ocala, Florida. They had gotten lost on their way to Lake Junaluska and had been so tired they couldn't drive another mile.
Aggie had put them in the nicest room. Number 10. The corner room with three windows. Outside the door was a rocking chair that Harold's brother Frank had made out of tree branches.
The next morning, Aggie had given the Perrys free coffee and a complimentary map, and then they had left, and nobody had stayed at the motel since.
Aggie looked around the little office.
“There,” she said again. “All tidy.”
Aggie was surprised to notice it was already getting dark outside. She shivered as a cool mountain breeze drifted through the open windows. She took Harold's old brown sweater off the hook behind the door and slipped it on.
Then she used a red marker to put a big X through
on the wall calendar.
She had made it through another day.
Before she left the office, she flipped the switch that turned on the spotlight that lit up the Sleepy Time Motel sign.
The spotlight flickered once, twice, three times.
Then it went out.
Aggie shook her head. Harold would have fixed that old spotlight. He would have opened up his rusty toolbox and found just the right tool and gone straight out there and fixed it. Then the sign would have been all lit up for passersby to see.
SLEEPY TIME MOTEL
But now the sign was dark.
And now Aggie knew what she had to do. She took a piece of paper out of the drawer.
she wrote, and felt a jab in her heart.
Sleepy Time Motel. Shawnee Gap, North Carolina.
Ten lovely rooms with mountain view. Swimming pool. Tomato garden.
For sale by owners, Harold and Agnes Duncan.
Then she felt a jab that nearly knocked her over. Her hand trembled so much she could hardly keep the pen on the paper as she scratched out Harold's name.
She folded the paper, turned out the lamp, and pushed aside the curtain over the doorway.
“Come on, Ugly,” she said.
She shuffled along the orange carpet pathway to the kitchenette to make some toast and warm milk.
Ugly blinked up at her.
She put the toast on the chipped plate that she and Harold had gotten as a wedding present all those years ago. She poured the milk into the china cup that had belonged to Harold's mother.
Then she sat at the little table by the window, listening to the ticking of the kitchen clock, the low hum of cars zooming up the interstate behind the motel, the croak of a bullfrog out in the woods somewhere.
She stared down at the dry toast. Every now and then she took a sip of the warm milk.
Finally, she got up and dumped the toast into Ugly's bowl. The bowl that had
written on the side in red. The bowl that Harold had bought at a yard sale.
She poured the milk over the toast.
Ugly made little slurpy noises as he lapped up the mushy milk toast.
Then Aggie followed the orange carpet path over to the bed and lay down on top of the flowered bedspread, pulling Harold's old brown sweater snugly around her like a blanket.
Ugly sauntered over, licking his lips, and curled up on the pillow next to her.
Aggie watched the sun sinking lower and lower behind the mountains until the sky was totally dark. Then she closed her eyes and waited for another day.
Willow had an almost perfect life. She had her own room
with a silky white bedspread. She had a collection of little china horses. And she had a friend named Maggie who loved to play with her china horses and was always very careful.
have was two parents who loved each other.
Which is why her life was only
“We just don't love each other anymore,” her father had said the day her mother left.
“But why not?” Willow had asked.
Her father hadn't answered. He had set his mouth into a
straight hard line that told Willow he had locked the door to his heart and thrown away the key.
When Grannie Dover came by, she said, “I knew Dorothy was trouble from day one.”
Red splotches formed on Willow's father's neck and moved all the way up to his forehead.
“I don't want to hear that name in this house ever again,” he said.
Grannie Dover lit a cigarette, tilted her chin up toward the ceiling, and blew out a thin stream of smoke. “Fine with me,” she snapped.
But it wasn't fine with Willow.
She began to whisper her mother's name over and over inside her head.
She liked saying it so much, she decided she would say it a lot.
Just not out loud.
Sometimes, when her father was sleeping on the couch, Willow would tiptoe down the hall to his bedroom that used to be Dorothy's bedroom, too. She would peek in the drawers and on top of the closet shelf and under the bed, hoping to find a trace of her. Any little thing would do.
But there was nothing. Her mother had taken every teeny tiny little thing. Sometimes Willow took the calendar off the kitchen wall and flipped back to March or April to look at her mother's writing there in the little squares.
Aunt Lurlene's birthday
Haircut 2 p.m.
Willow's school play
Willow would trace her mother's writing with her finger.
Up and around and down.
Up and around and down.
Most every afternoon, Willow lay on her bed and pressed her cheek against the cool, silky bedspread. Except for the thick, heavy heat and the steaming asphalt road out front, it didn't feel much like summer vacation. Sometimes her father went to work and sometimes he didn't. On the days he didn't, Willow wished he would take her swimming at the Y or let her make lemonade or set up the sprinkler for her and Maggie to run through.
Like Dorothy used to do.
But he didn't.
He just sat on the couch watching
, stroking the stubble of beard on his chin, and looking like the most miserable
person on earth. His misery grew and grew until it filled up the whole house and seeped out of the doors and windows into the yard. It floated over the patch of weeds that used to be flowers that Dorothy grew. It circled the swing set where Willow used to play while Dorothy pinned wet sheets on the clothesline. And it snaked around the mailbox where Willow waited every morning at ten o'clock.
“Hello again, Willow,” Juanita Lawson said when she pulled up in her rusty old station wagon to deliver the mail.
Willow heard the
I feel sorry for you
tone in Juanita's voice and saw the
aren't you pitiful
look on her face, so she kept her eyes on the ground when she reached for the mail. Then she dashed around back and sat on the steps and looked carefully at each envelope.
But there was never, not ever, anything from Dorothy.
So Willow took out her box of stationery with the roses around the edges and she wrote herself a letter.
How are you? I am fine. Do you miss me? I miss you. I have decided that I love your daddy, after all, so I am coming home.
See you soon.
Your loving mother,
Willow sealed the letter in the matching envelope and wrote on the front:
Miss Willow Dover
101 Lancaster Lane
Hailey, North Carolina
Then she rummaged through the drawer of the rickety table in the hall until she found a stamp.
The next day, she rode her bike to Hank's Quik Stop and dropped the letter into the mailbox out front.
Two days later, Juanita Lawson pulled up next to the Dovers' mailbox and said, “Ta-da!” as she thrust the rose-bordered envelope at Willow.
is what you been waitin' for,” she said.
Willow took the letter and ran around back and sat on the steps. She looked down at the envelope in her lap.
And then she got a bad, bad feeling because she realized she had been wrong.
You can fool a person.
You can fool a dog.
You can fool a cat or a horse or a teacher or a friend.
But you cannot ever fool a heart.
No matter how many letters from Dorothy she wrote, Willow's heart was still going to ache.
So she took the letter out to the patch of weeds that used to be flowers that Dorothy grew. She pushed the weeds aside and nestled the letter down in the middle where the sweet William and the gladiolus used to be.
Then she went inside and lay on her bed and wished everything were different.
Not all messed up like it was now.
Then, the very next day, Willow got her wish.
She sat at the kitchen table and poured milk on her cereal and watched her father's droopy face. He sipped coffee from a mug that said
Over the Hill
and read the morning paper. Suddenly, he slammed the cup down, sloshing coffee onto the table and making Willow jump.
He jabbed a finger at the paper and said, “That's it!”
“What?” Willow said.
He took a pen from his shirt pocket and circled something on the newspaper page.
“This is what I've been waiting for,” he said, grinning down at the paper.
“What?” Willow asked again.
Her father began to pace, back and forth, from one side of the tiny kitchen to the other, muttering to himself and stroking his whiskery chin.
Willow cocked her head and tried to read what he had
circled on the newspaper. The only words she could read were the first two:
“Are you gonna buy something, Daddy?” she said.
He stopped pacing and looked at Willow.
“Yes, I am,” he said.
“A new life.”
“A new life?”
He nodded. “A new life.”
Willow's stomach was starting to squeeze up and her heart was starting to thump. “But what about our old life?” she said.
Her father yanked the newspaper off the table.
“Our old life is history,” he said.
“So, is Dorothy history, too?” Willow asked in a tiny little voice because it felt scary saying
out loud like that.
Her father's face softened a bit, but he didn't say much of anything that Willow wanted to hear.
“I'm going to the bank,” is what he said.
And then he added, “I think I'll shave.”
When he left the room, Willow picked up the newspaper and read what he had circled:
Sleepy Time Motel. Shawnee Gap, North Carolina. Ten lovely rooms with mountain view. Swimming pool. Tomato garden. For sale by owner, Agnes Duncan.
Willow felt a little ball of worry forming way down inside her. She went out back and sat in the middle of the weeds that used to be flowers that Dorothy grew. She closed her eyes and thought about her old life that was about to be history.
Then she said, “Dorothy. Dorothy. Dorothy,” right out loud.