Continued from Sneak Peek: Sunset at Catoctin Creek, Chapter One
In this dual POV romance, each chapter alternates between Rosemary and Stephen. It’s my favorite way to showcase two peoples’ different experiences in the same situation, without jumping between characters throughout a chapter.
Chapter Two: Stephen
“This town goes to bed too damn early,” Stephen muttered, squinting into the night over his steering wheel. The street-lights on Main Street were widely scattered and wanly lit, orange globes which seemed to cast the tiny town into a more profound darkness than if he’d been seeing it by starlight alone. Stephen had been living just outside of town for four weeks now, and he was still put off by the deep darkness on the roads between Catoctin Creek and his late father’s house.
He was also put off by the lack of dining options. Stephen had pulled into the Blue Plate Diner’s small parking lot at precisely eight-oh-five p.m., only to find the Closed sign hung lopsidedly on the door. His knock had gotten the attention of the curly-haired young woman who seemed to be both waitress and manager, based on his past visits, and the look she gave him over her cash register was an expression he associated more with Manhattan than Maryland.
A look which said: knock one more time and see what I do to you.
This was fine. Stephen could respect attitude from a business owner when he tried to get something he wasn’t due. He’d lived in New York City for his entire life; attitude was not a problem for him. Sleepy-eyed villagers, who wouldn’t put a little hustle in their step when he needed a coffee to go or an answer to his questions, they were the issue. The sooner he got out of this mountainous corner of Maryland, the better. These people were slowing him down.
And starving him, apparently. Stephen considered knocking a second time, knowing the only other option for dinner was whatever bounty the shelves of the small gas station at the other end of Main Street could offer him, but he decided to respect the curly-haired woman’s glare out of the reasonable conclusion that hers was the only restaurant game in town, and if he pissed her off too much tonight, he might not be able to get dinner from her tomorrow.
Gas station gourmet, it would be.
So it came to pass that hungry Stephen Beckett turned his father’s old brown sedan back towards his father’s old brick rancher with a large styrofoam cup of Coke to keep him alert in the darkness and a box of Hamburger Helper rattling on the passenger seat.
He was feeling unenthusiastic about both. He would have liked a latte over a soda, or at the very least an Americano, but Catoctin Creek’s gas station offered only a large metal box with the word cappuchino stenciled on it in a looping script, and the nearby hot plate of “freshly-brewed coffee” had long since turned to an oil-slicked pool of heartburn.
Stephen could appreciate that a farming community would not require a lot of late-night caffeine, but surely a few long-distance truckers or second-shift factory workers must pass through the town in the wee hours from time to time? Or perhaps not—he had not seen anything approaching even the lightest of industry since he’d driven through the outskirts of Frederick, the bustling county seat. He’d seen no tractor-trailers around Catoctin Creek, other than the early morning milk tankers, at all.
He had never understood why his father had moved out here, choosing to retire amongst the moo-cows and the baa-sheep and the rocky fields of waving corn, and leaving behind New York City, his only son, and every connection he’d ever had. The Becketts were not a vast family by any means, but there were cousins in Woodside and in Woodlawn (was it a coincidence, that the twin Irish enclaves in Queens and the Bronx were named so similarly?) and there were old friends from the force who all got together regularly at bars with names like Tierney’s and Sullivan’s, the sorts of places where you grabbed a beer in a styrofoam to-go cup on your way out.
Not unlike the giant cup of Coke currently sloshing in his cupholder, Stephen reflected.
The point was, there’d been no reason for his father to leave the city. There was plenty waiting for a guy once he retired from the police department, plenty. Friends meeting up at union fundraisers; get-togethers with the cousins who had the backyard and the nice barbecue. Watching ball games on hazy summer afternoons in Coney Island; long, slow evenings swapping stories with old buddies in dark bars.
So when Gilbert Beckett sold the old apartment in Sunnyside and moved to western Maryland to rusticate in an unappealing, unhistoric ranch house, everyone had been stunned. Stephen, most of all. This was his father. Sure, he didn’t see the guy much, but it was good to know the old man was in the same town as he was, living in the same slightly ratty two-bedroom where he’d always lived, the rectangular brick apartment house with its three narrow living room windows overlooking the honking cars on Queens Boulevard. Stephen didn’t even understand how his father had learned to sleep in the uncanny silence of Catoctin Creek. How did a man born of asphalt and gasoline fumes adjust to damp clay and cow manure?
Stephen certainly hadn’t made the adjustment yet. He’d come here just before Christmas to nurse his sick father, and found himself planning a funeral almost immediately. He’d meant to pack up the house, put it up for sale, and go straight back to the city. Life had proven to have other plans.
The headlights of his father’s car lit up a deer along the side of the road. It seemed as big as a moose and he cursed, slamming his foot down on the brake pedal. The box of Hamburger Helper went sailing onto the floor, the dry pasta within rattling like pebbles, and Stephen thought wistfully of past pleasures, of ordering in Thai food and settling down to watch HBO in his flannel pajamas.
Instead, he had another ten minutes of driving on dark country roads surrounded by killer deer which leapt from the forest like four-legged agents of mayhem, hoping against hope for the house’s finicky furnace to have remained operational while he was out all day pursuing financial security and a ticket back to his Manhattan existence.
Amazing how a perfectly good life could go so wrong, so quickly, he thought grimly.
Well, he only needed this land deal to go through and he’d be set to go back to New York. Once he had the zoning adjustments pushed through and the artist’s renderings drawn up, would-be suburbanites would pay Stephen richly for the privilege of living in Catoctin Creek. Sure, it was a long drive from D.C.’s sprawl, but once they saw that pretty mountain view from their future backyards, they’d be able to justify the extra time in their cars. All Stephen had to do was buy the property, push the county zoning boards to do his bidding, and get the ball rolling on clearing and construction.
Then he could go home and get his life figured out.
The thought was all that got him through the long, quiet days here.
Stephen had spent this day down in Frederick trying to iron out details with the bank. He was ready to make a final offer on the piece of land he’d been eyeballing for the past few weeks. The fields were overgrown and the outbuildings were beginning to crumble, but the property boasted an incredible view of the twin mountains the locals called Notch Gap, a lovely fieldstone farmhouse, and a broad, stream-fed pond. Really just a widening of the creek, he’d been told—apparently Maryland had no natural lakes, which was a bizarre stat if he’d ever heard one—but it was still pretty. It would make a lovely entryway for a subdivision. He could imagine a rock-faced bridge arching gently over the pond, the rumble of Land Rover tires on its old-fashioned paving stones as residents drove home each night, eyes dazzled by the sensational sunsets they got up here.
He had spent several similar days in Frederick and was growing used to the little city; it was a pretty enough place, if a little choked with traffic from the D.C. commuters. There were decent restaurants and the people he dealt with were generally soft-spoken and kind, which had been a nice change of pace from New York when he was forced to work through funeral arrangements, hospital bills, and estate matters. There was a green park in the middle of town with a stately bandshell, an impressive carillon tower, and a lake filled with geese. There was a brick-walled college, and streets lined with stately Federal houses. Stephen went into well-appointed offices brassy with antiques, and spoke with courteous professionals. Maryland felt northern but had dabbled with being southern, and it showed in the way everyone moved a bit more slowly, and spoke a bit more gently, than their cohorts in the northeast.
Catoctin Creek, on the other hand, was not like Frederick. It wasn’t like anything Stephen had ever experienced. Barely two roads, hardly any businesses to speak of, with only the Blue Plate for dining out and a grocery store which was five short aisles and one bored cashier reading paperbacks. He didn’t even really live in Catoctin Creek, but fifteen minutes outside of the village by way of lonely, winding roads. Catoctin Creek was simply the closest town to his father’s house, and the ZIP Code where his mail was directed.
Stephen still couldn’t quite believe he was living out here, at the top of a steep driveway which was still pitch-black with the fresh asphalt his father had laid down in the fall. The emptiness of his acre of green lawn and his three bedrooms of brown-carpeted house still spooked him. He’d been uneasy enough visiting his father here over the past few years, but the past month had been a true trial, and not just because no one, doctors included, had expected Gilbert Beckett to get sick so suddenly, go into the hospital so suddenly, die so suddenly. Stephen wasn’t callous enough to say out loud that his father’s death couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time… but he wasn’t strong enough not to think it.
Suddenly, there wasn’t just one deer in his headlights, there were four of them, wandering across the road on their spindly legs, unconcerned by the passage of time. Stephen slammed his foot down again, said a few blue words, braced for impact, closed his eyes, hoped for the best. When he opened them a few seconds later, the car was stopped and the deer were watching him, their big eyes startled, as if no one could have expected a car to appear on this stretch of road.
Stephen supposed they were probably right. He sat for a minute watching the deer, who finally decided he was harmless and shuffled off through the brush along the roadside. A worrisome thought occurred to him: he’d been driving for a while… shouldn’t he be home by now? Stephen picked up his phone and tapped the map app, but the little wheel began to spin and he had a feeling it was just going to keep on spinning. He’d stopped deep in a little valley, a glen between two steep-sided foothills.
Well. He knew the driveway turn was definitely somewhere nearby, simply judging by how long he’d been driving out of town, but he couldn’t remember which little unmarked gravel lane belonged to his father. Belonged to him, now. If he could find it in the dark, he could keep it another night.
He tapped his phone a few more times. Nothing.
Apparently the mountains and forests weren’t about to let modern technology tell him how to get home. What was he supposed to do now, consult the stars? Stephen looked up through the moonroof of his father’s old Toyota. The Milky Way twinkled faintly through the tinted glass, and gave away no secrets.
“I’m lost in the woods with a box of Hamburger Helper,” Stephen said aloud. “How long can I last on dried noodles?”
Eventually he got up the nerve to start driving again, but now it was more clear than ever: he was lost. These desolate country roads all looked alike, their curves dipping into hollows and running briefly along the shores of stoney creeks, cold water shining in his car’s headlights. Sometimes there was a guardrail when water appeared, but occasionally the creek seemed to run right alongside the pavement, the cracked surface slowly succumbing to the rushing water. Stephen began to suspect this was the only way to tell if he’d left the actual road for some old farmer’s right-of-ways. He wondered how trigger-happy the locals were out here in the Catoctin Mountains. The place seemed pretty civilized, all plaid shirts and blue hair in the diner, old Volvos alongside the battered trucks in the gravel parking lots, but what did he, Stephen, actually know about life in western Maryland? Nothing.
Finally Stephen turned up a gravel lane which he thought seemed vaguely familiar. The driveway twisted a little like his father’s, cut through trees a little like his father’s, even went uphill a little like his father’s, but instead of opening onto a broad bald hilltop where his father’s ugly little house sat like a toad with a prince’s view over the valley, the driveway dipped again and took him over a wide, rushing stream. The wooden bridge rattled alarmingly beneath his car’s tires. Stephen held his breath until he was on the other side.
Ahead of him, Stephen saw a farmhouse. White paint spread sparsely over old bricks gleamed gently in the starlight, and a second-floor window formed a yellow rectangle of light. A middle-aged Ford truck was parked in front of an old garage nearby, and he could just see the hulking shadow of one of those big two-story barns built into the hillside beyond.
Stephen sighed and pulled his car up behind the truck. He saw a shadow move to the window and move the curtains aside for the briefest of seconds. There was a moment’s pause after the curtain closed again, then a new light flipped on, lighting a window at the center of the house. The hall light, he figured, watching the tableau unfold before him. Next came the downstairs hall light, and finally the porch light.
At last, once the icy yard was illuminated, the front door opened and a figure swathed in a heavy coat stepped onto the porch.
Stephen surveyed the figure. No gun, he decided. Unless it was a little one hidden in that coat—but he liked his chances better without a shotgun hoisted in the air. He opened the car door and slowly got out.
“Hello?” the person on the porch called. It was a woman’s voice, Stephen noted, feeling even better about his chances of escaping unscathed by bullets. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Gilbert Beckett’s son,” Stephen called back, hoping the name meant something to her and he hadn’t accidentally driven to the next town, or into Pennsylvania. “You knew him? Everyone knows everyone out here. Anyway, I’m Stephen.”
“Oh,” the woman said, sounding confused. “Why are you here?”
“I got lost,” he admitted, walking towards the porch. “I’m not used to these twisty roads, and it’s really dark out tonight. Am I anywhere close to my dad’s house?”
The woman laughed. She had a pretty laugh, light-hearted and musical. The moment Stephen heard it, he wanted to make her laugh again, just to savor that sound one more time. “I was going to ask this pack of deer,” he went on, trying for a lame joke, “but they all just stared at me like I was the crazy one for being lost in their woods.”
She did laugh again, and he felt a warmth rise up beneath his ribs, a happiness which transcended the evening’s wanderings and the joyless box of Hamburger Helper awaiting him. As he neared the porch steps he could see her face, oval-shaped and creamy in the porch light, and he immediately wanted to see the rest of her.
“You’re actually really close,” the woman told him. “But it’s cold out here. Come on in and I’ll draw you a little map.”
Stephen couldn’t believe his luck. Not shot, a woman with a pretty laugh, and she lived this close to his father’s house? Maybe things were turning around. Maybe the rest of his time here in Catoctin Creek would be enjoyable, after all.
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