Inside, sun oozed through cracks between the slats of the boarded up windows. Dry, stale air tickled her nose and Lexie sneezed. Leaving the door open to let in sunlight and fresh air, she surveyed the dim interior
Barlow called the place “basic.”
Lexie would’ve gone with “primitive.”
Even knowing there was no indoor plumbing, she’d still expected a place her great aunt spent time to be more.... Well. Comfortable.
Beside the door stood a pair of tall green rubber boots. Faithful old boots, waiting for Martha. Opposite was a field stone fireplace. A cast-iron kettle hung from a hook over the hearth and a dingy poker leaned against the stone. Beside the fireplace sat a rough wooden crate sat with a few pieces of firewood remaining in the bark littered bottom. To the other side of the wood box was a battered copper bucket.
A narrow bed with a wooden frame pushed up against one wall of the single room and a large trunk crouched at its foot. A table, two sturdy looking chairs, and a worn rag rug completed the scant furniture.
In the center of the table was an old-fashioned oil-lamp, the reservoir half-full, but it was the other items which drew Lexie’s eye. The only personal evidence of Martha, a manual typewriter with a neat, if dusty, stack of paper alongside and a chipped mug that said “World’s Best [Writer]” on the other side of the typewriter.
Lexie picked up the mug. The glaze on the letters was cracked, and the inside was stained with years of coffee. Eight-year-old Lexie had given Martha that mug for her birthday forever ago. Adult Lexie couldn’t believe Martha still had it so many years later. She replaced it carefully in the clean ring left in the dust on the table.
There were no pictures or decorations on the plain wooden walls. In one corner leaned a small collection of garden tools with a bit of canvas beneath. Presumably to protect the scarred plank floor from dirt and sharp edges. Though Lexie didn’t see why anyone would bother.
There was no electricity. No phone. Not even a battery powered radio.
Lexie lifted the heavy lid and poked around in the trunk for a few minutes, but there wasn’t much. Spare blankets, some old clothes, and a packet of ancient rhododendron seeds. Martha always had a knack for plants—the windows of her Tanooki City apartment had been full of them.
By the time she’d finished investigating the cabin, her eyes burned with the dust she’d stirred up.
It wasn’t much. But it was all hers.
She sneezed again. It was time for some fresh air.
Outside, Lexie sat on the edge of the sagging porch next to her bag and opened the letter the [Solicitor] had given her along with the key. Maybe it would explain why Aunt Martha had left her this place.
If you’re reading this, I’m gone now and you’ve come to Starfish Island.
This cabin isn’t worth much on paper, nor is the land, though to me it ~~is~~ was without price. Nathan assures me it would find a buyer should you choose.
But now that you’re here, you must be wondering what this place is and why I left it to you. The first is easy: Albatross Bay was my retreat, a place where I could escape to focus on my work undisturbed.
As to why you. You were always the most like me, of any of our family. I suppose it came from the time we spent together when you were a child. That’s why I think if this place were to mean as much to anyone in our family as it did to me, that person would be you.
Albatross Bay has been an inspiration to me, and I think it will be good to you, if you give it a chance.
Starfish Island is a special place. A magical place. If you spend enough time here, you’ll understand what I mean. But know this, Lexie: Albatross Bay is not all apple pie and friendly neighbors. It has its own dark secrets.
Martha always did have a flair for the dramatic. It was what made her such a popular writer. And this read like the opening of one of her novels: young woman moves to surprise inheritance house on a remote island, receives deliberately obtuse, vaguely ominous letter.
If she were a character in one of of Martha’s books, it would be in her best interest to turn around and head for the mainland now.
But Lexie’s life wasn’t a novel, and anyway she’d quit her job, given away or sold everything she owned and now she was here, sitting on a mildewed porch, listening to the waves crash against the cliffs.
The breeze was sweet and green with the smell of new coastal grasses and tangy with salt spray, and the spring sun warmed her skin. Lexie didn’t know exactly what she was going to do now she was here.
The letter hadn’t answered any questions for Lexie, only created more. But they would wait.
Her eyes stopped itching and the cabin wasn’t going to clean itself. Lexie was sleeping here tonight—if there was an inn in Albatross Bay, she hadn’t seen it. And anyway, she didn’t have the gold to spend on an inn. Not when there was a perfectly good bed right here to sleep in.
At least, it would be perfectly good after a serious dusting.
The cliffs were high, protecting the cabin from the surge or the waves, but there was no windbreak. If the boards were protection from storms, eventually she might need to replace them with some kind of storm shutters. She should ask in the village.
But first, prying those boards off and getting the windows open would be a good start.
Lexie sorted through the tools in the corner. Shovel. Axe. Hoe. Rake. Even a pickax! No hammer.
That was something she’d need to get, then.
There was a broom, though. So windows later, dust now.
The paint on the handle flaked and its straws were cracked and bent, but she managed to move most of the dust from the floor out of the cabin. She even swept off the table and chairs.
Trading the broom for the rake, Lexie scraped the years of decaying leaves from the corners of the porch where the wind had piled them. The wood felt soft in places, and she stepped carefully, but it held her weight.
She made a mental note of which boards were rotten. Boards and nails added to her growing home improvement shopping list. That was probably a repair that needed attention sooner rather than later.
Once the cabin floor and porch were clean, Lexie dragged the mattress off the bed and out of the cabin, grunting as she lifted it and half-rolled, half-carried it down the steps.
She dropped the mattress on fresh spring grass and a large cloud of dust rose. Coughing, Lexie backed away.
“I guess that really needs airing!”
After the dust dispersed, she tugged the awkward, heavy mattress up on its end and dropped it with the other side down, hopping backward as it fell. A slightly smaller cloud of dust rose.
Back to the cabin for the pillows and what bedding there was. She carried it out and shook the blankets energetically, then spread them on the grass around the cabin.
That took care of the bed.
Inside, a fine layer of dust still lingered in corners and crevices. The place really needed going over top to bottom with soap and rags. There were some grubby old t shirts in the trunk which she could tear up, but Lexie found no soap. More for the shopping list.
She turned her attention to the fireplace. The spring sun was warm but it could get cold at night.
Ashes and blackened bits of charred wood piled up in the inner hearth. That would have to go before she could start a fire. She looked around for some kind of container or dustpan, and finally settled on the shovel to scoop out most of the ash. It was a little awkward with the long handle, but worked well enough.
She meant to dump the ashes in the bucket, but, dusty though it was, it otherwise looked clean. Maybe Martha used it for water to fill the kettle.
Instead of dropping the ashes in what might be her water bucket, Lexie bore them carefully out of the cabin on the scoop of the shovel. Tremors as she walked caused tiny avalanches and a little fell to the floor. That would need sweeping again.
Once outside, the light breeze was enough to raise clouds of fine powder from the scoop of the shovel. Squinting and trying not to breathe in the ash, she hurried to dumped the load of ashes onto the ground by the porch.
The ash cascaded down and immediately Lexie realized her mistake. A cloud billowed into the air, and, carried by the breeze, straight toward the bedding she’d spread out on the grass.
Lexie sprang toward the bedding, trying to beat the ash. She grabbed as many pillows and blankets as she could, and carried them safely downwind, where she again spread them out on the ground.
The cloud of ash subsided quickly, but not before filming the remaining blankets, the mattress, and the surrounding grass with a light powder of ash.
“Crap. Crap. Crap!”
Lexie shook the blankets vigorously, away from the other bedding. Luckily the grass had been dry and the ash didn’t stick. No harm done.
She returned to the mattress.
She couldn’t pick it up and shake it, and the broom would probably leave as much dust as it removed ash. Instead she heaved the mattress up until it rested on its side, then let it drop again, sending the ash, and more dust, rising into the breeze. Lexie cartwheeled the heavy mattress end over end, letting the small poofs of dust rise and be carried off, until it joined the other bedding in the ash-free zone.
Lexie dusted her hands on her pants. Her face was sticky with sweat and gross where the ash and dust stuck to it and her throat was dry.
And she had to go to the bathroom.
The outhouse was about twenty meters behind the cabin, at the treeline, nestled between two tall pines. Their low hanging branches kept it in perpetual shade. Lexie hoped they would also help shelter it from snow in the winter. If she didn’t have a bathroom by then.
“I really need indoor plumbing before winter.”
It didn’t smell bad, at least. Probably because it hadn’t been used in several years. She brushed aside a few cobwebs and removed an empty bird nest from the corner roof support. Some enterprising avian had taken advantage of the heart shaped hole cut in the door to allow light to make their nest in the safety and shelter of the small building.
“I need to find a screen for that, too.” She could only imagine the mosquitoes.
Once she finished in the outhouse, Lexie returned to the cabin, circling it, searching for some kind of faucet or water spout.
There must be water. Aunt Martha couldn’t have toted all her drinking and washing water from town. Could she?
Finally, she spotted what she was looking for—an old hand pump, half hidden in a clump of last year’s tall grass. A few opportunistic saplings had grown up around it, further obscuring the metal stem. Those would need to be cut away later. More for her to-do list.
Lexie retrieved the bucket from inside and set it under the spout. Bucket in place, she tugged on the pump handle, trying to lift it from its downward position.
It didn’t budge.
She braced her feet in the weeds and leaned back, pulling as she hard as she could.
The handle resisted.
She tugged again, harder, fearing it had seized from disuse.
SKREEEEEK! The handle moved and Lexie staggered backward, caught off balance.
Now that it moved, Lexie levered the handle up and down a few more times, wincing at the squeal of rusty metal, before a gush of water poured into the bucket. Grateful the pump worked at all, Lexie added oil to her growing mental shopping list.
The bucket had been as dusty as everything else in the cabin, so the bucketful watered the saplings.
“Enjoy it while you can.”
She pumped the lever again.
This time she washed her dusty face and hands in the cold refreshing water. It felt good now, but Lexie could see bathing with cold water getting old fast. She poured out the remains of her washing water and pumped a fresh bucket. Lexie scooped the water into her mouth with cupped hands and was delighted to find it tasted clean and fresh.
Her stomach rumbled.
“I guess I should be getting some lunch too.”
The sun was past its zenith, and Lexie still needed supplies from town. Albatross Bay didn’t seem like the kind of place that stayed open late.
Lexie carried the bucket full of water into the cabin and set it back in its place. She dropped her duffel, still unpacked, on the trunk at the end of the bed, and locked the door behind her.
Outside she gathered a few rocks to anchor the bedding, still airing on the grass. Just in case the wind picked up.
Then she set off for town.
On her way to the cabin Lexie had passed a sky blue building with a sign that read Sprübeck’s General Store and Mercantile. It was there she headed now.
Outside, the shop was dominated by two large windows displaying the goods within. On the left were a few bins of fresh produce: spring carrots, new onions, and radishes. All were arranged so they could be seen from the street, but easily accessible to shoppers inside. There were two large barrels labeled sugar and flour, and neatly packaged sacks on a shelf above.
The other window displayed household goods. In pride of place stood an old fashioned pedal-style sewing machine draped with a measuring tape. Spools of thread lined up like a rainbow army on the table, and boxes of pins were arranged in a pyramid. Colorful bolts of cloth on long spindles lined the angled glass wall. On the other side, an assortment of garden tools leaned against a wooden rail.
She pushed open the door. A bell jingled.
Inside, the store smelled of warm sun on old wood and clean citrus-pine. The floor and shelves gleamed with polish. The left half of the shop, like the window, was groceries. An assortment of basics, with a few luxuries mixed in, and in the middle of the wall, an old-fashioned cooler with glass fronted doors contained a small selection of cold products.
A tiny woman stood behind the counter at the back. Her white hair was thick and full, and pulled into a loose bun on her head, but her skin was lined and spotted like parchment. “You must be Martha’s relation!”
“I am! Lexie. Archer. But how did you know?”
The elderly woman laughed. “Oh, no secrets on Starfish Island. Word travels fast here. I’m Euphagenia Sprübeck. Your aunt was one of my best customers! You staying out at her cabin?”
“Yep, I just came in to grab some supplies.”
“Place’s been closed up a while. Well. Holler if you need help finding anything.”
Lexie spotted a stack of tall aluminum buckets by the tools. A quick check of the price told her they were suitably affordable at two gold. It would be nice to have a second bucket for drinking water so she didn’t need to use it for washing and hope she’d cleaned it well enough between. Plus, she could carry the rest of her shopping home in it.
She added a hammer. Ten gold. A bottle of machine oil for the pump followed, a box of nails (who knew how many small repairs she’d need to make), and a bottle of all purpose soap. According to the label, in addition to cleaning floors, walls, and furniture, it could also be used as dish soap, laundry soap, for washing woolens, and as a hand soap. Handy stuff.
From a shelf with a small assortment of kitchenware, Lexie added a plate, a bowl, a glass, and a box of cutlery. The only dish in the cabin was Martha’s mug.
She moved on to the groceries.
A box of instant oatmeal, some instant soup mix, a loaf of bread, a tub of hazelnut spread, a few other food items, and a jar of instant coffee made their way into the bucket. Nothing that needed cooling or cooking.
Spotting a box of instant cocoa mix, she added that as well.
Carrying her bucket of purchases, Lexie approached the counter where the ancient woman stood behind a heavy brass cash register nearly as old as she was. The top of her head barely came up to Lexie’s shoulder.
“Find everything okay?”
“I did.” Lexie put her bucket on the counter.
A small deli counter with cold cuts and salads was adjacent to the register and a menu of prices was on a chalk board above.
“Could I get a sandwich too? Swiss on rye?”
“Sure thing, dear.”
Mrs. Sprübeck set to work.
“Nathan said you’re thinking to live on the island? I don’t know what’s here for the young people, myself. Fishing’s gone. Not much in the way of opportunities now.”
“I didn’t really have anything special in Tanooki City either.”
A catalog stood on a stand near the counter and Lexie flipped idly through while she waited for her sandwich, admiring the dazzling assortment of goods. Furniture, everything from foot stools to a fifteen-piece dining room set. Clothes. Engines and generators. Sports equipment. Tools. Household appliances too. She paused at the bathroom section with deep tubs and chrome faucets and shiny porcelain sinks and toilets.
“I only have room to carry the necessities, but anything in that catalog I can special order from the mainland.”
“Thanks. I’ll probably need some things eventually.”
Lexie turned the pages of the catalog again and landed on the garden section.
She hadn’t come to Albatross Bay with a clear idea what she’d do there. See the lawyer and claim her inheritance. After that, the plan was a big question mark.
Her meager savings wouldn’t last forever, and… there were so many different kinds of plants. Lexie perused the offerings in the catalog, not just vegetables and flowers, but herbs and grasses, berry bushes and fruit trees too.
The blooming white flowers and red and green and yellow fruits of the apple trees caught her attention. Maybe an orchard would be nice. Lexie could see herself in overalls, picking baskets of red ripe apples. She could turn them into pies and apple butter and press her own cider. If she ever got a kitchen.
Then she looked at the prices. And swallowed.
Lexie gently closed the catalog. The least expensive sapling cost more gold than she had to her name.
An orchard, even a single tree, would have to wait.
Okay, apples were out of the question. At least for now. But maybe she could still grow something?
She had plenty of land around the cabin to make a garden patch. At least it would help with the food bill.
Next to the register stood a spinning rack of seeds. The handwritten label read: 5/10 G.
She couldn’t afford a tree, but she could afford that!
Lexie picked some lettuce and spinach, tomatoes and carrots, beans, melons, and pumpkins. From the herbs she selected thyme and basil.
She quickly counted the envelopes. Nine.
On impulse, she took package of poppies, attracted by the picture of their flame-colored heads.
A small pile of bags of seed potatoes sat in a basket on the floor. 5 G. She added one of those, too.
Mrs. Sprübeck set her sandwich on the counter, neatly wrapped in butcher paper. As she rang up the purchases, Lexie stacked them back into the bucket.
“Growing a garden?”
“I think so. I’m gonna try anyway.”
“If you get extra I’ll buy it at a fair price, hard to get good fresh veg up here.” The old woman inclined her head toward the front of the store and the meager selection in the window.
Lexie left Sprübeck’s General Store with her bucket full of purchases.
By the time she returned to the cabin, Lexie was exhausted. Small wonder. She’d come all the way from Tanooki City, walked what felt like half the island, and cleaned house. Her house
She sat on the porch and ate her sandwich and washed it down with a glass of cold, clean water from her pump.
When she finished, she gathered in all the bedding that was still airing and dragged the mattress back inside to make up the bed.
Inside, the floor was swept, and the bed was made. She set her food and new dishes on the table. The rest of her purchases she left in the bucket.
“I’ll finish tomorrow.”
Before bed, she took the last of the firewood from the crate and arranged it on her newly swept hearth, ready for boiling water in the morning.
Outside, twilight lingered. In the cabin, boards still on the windows, it was dark. Lexie changed into a t shirt and sleep shorts without bothering to light the lamp and crawled into bed. She was asleep in a matter of minutes.