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Libby Sample

 

1              

 

There are a ton of stories about it floating around on the web. Half of them are baloney. The other half—baloney and cheese.

The woman is a biologist. A trained scientist. Meaning: for her, things either stack up to the measure of the five senses or you brush them aside.

So forget what you’ve read.

Forget what you’ve read from people who say she’s some kind of New Age Messiah.

And while you’re at it forget the stuff that denounces her as a cynical fraud.

Here’s what really happened.

♦ ♦ ♦

 

She’d just bought herself a piece of land. Ten acres on the side of a hill in West Sparta, New York. You’ve never heard of it, most likely, but you’ve seen places like it. Rural, just far enough outside the nearest city to make a commute impractical, economically depressed, houses look a bit worn, roads a bit beaten, and the locals of course love it fiercely.

She was walking across one of her fields.

The last crop harvested there had been hay. For some reason whoever had cut it hadn’t taken it all. He—anyway, Libby assumed it was a he—had rolled it up and wrapped it with nylon twine into big discs almost as tall as she was, and the discs had been left to molder where they’d been bound.

And she saw something dart behind one of them.

 “Something.” That’s how she framed it back to herself—something, not someone, although for a split second she thought she’d seen a child. But it didn’t really look like a child either. Unless it was a toddler, and that was highly unlikely, plus it didn’t move like a toddler, the movement was too quick, too controlled. So on second though it must have been some kind of animal. An excellent guess, when her only evidence was a glimpse of something moving, something with a shape and a way of moving that didn’t quite add up . . .

It was dusk.

It was a trick of the mind. Seeing such things is always is. Your mind meets them half-way. Libby had once dreamt she saw a white raccoon out the window of her house and grabbed Wallace’s digital camera to take a picture of it. The camera didn’t work. Every time she pressed the shutter it gave a little explosive “pop!” and then she’d check the LED screen on the back and—no raccoon. All she could find were some other photos, photos he’d taken. Frustrating. It’s not every day you see a white raccoon. But without the photo, there was no proof—and without proof, there was no white raccoon.

So despite what you’ve read on the Internet, she wasn’t looking for them. She didn’t believe in them. Just like she didn’t believe in ghosts, either, or ESP, UFOs, any of it. Stories, inventions, pretty Tinker Bells invented to amuse the children and the gullible.

She had other things on her mind.

♦ ♦ ♦

 

The other things, specifically, being the “Posted, No Trespassing” signs.

She was looking to see if they’d been put back up.

They weren’t her signs. They were someone else’s—someone who owned, apparently, the land adjacent to hers. They had first appeared right after she closed on the property. There had been snow on the ground at the time and she’d send the foot prints—big boot prints—of whoever had put up the signs. The prints started at the road that borders the western side of her land and followed the property line. Every 20 feet or so, they stopped at a tree.

Not just “a” tree. Her tree. Libby’s trees. On her side of the property line. No mistaking that, either. The land had been re-surveyed when she’d put in her offer, and the survey markers were bedecked with fresh new blaze-orange ribbons. You couldn’t miss them. Plus the line followed a tumbled down stone wall. And the signs—at least, some of the signs—were clearly on her side of the wall. Or anyway, they were on her side of where the wall would have been, if it had still been standing.

She’d followed the prints as far as she could. They ended at another road, the one on the north side of her land. It was cleared of snow, and dry. And her with no bloodhound. Dead end.

She phoned Candace, her realtor.

“That’s not legal,” she said. “They have to be on the other party’s property.”

“Can you find out who did it?”

“They should have a name on them.”

She’d checked. The signs were signed, but the signature was illegible. “The name wasn’t written in English, as far as she could tell. Unless maybe they were signed by a doctor.”

“I’ll look into it.”

But three days later she still hadn’t heard back, and the signs were still there, so Libby took matters into her own hands. Mind you, she was still moving in. So first she made another trip to Pittsford and back, her hatchback stuffed with boxes. Carefully organized boxes—she was moving herself methodically, one room at a time, and even kept a little notebook that listed what she was moving and where she was going to put it in the new house. Then she unpacked the boxes and put everything away, checking items off in her notebook as she worked.

By then she needed a break—moving being a sorry way to spend your time even under more pleasant circumstances. So she took another walk, this time a walk with a purpose, because she was going to get rid of those signs.

It had warmed up some. The air smelled wet, the snow was lacy and crystalline and littered with bits of stick and flecks of bark. The signs had been mounted using a staple gun. It was easy enough to pry the staples loose with a screwdriver.

When she was done, she stacked them on a flat stone near the road—the place where the tracks she’d seen before had entered her property—went back to the house, tore a flap off one of her moving boxes and wrote a note on it.

If you really feel you need these, please hang them on your side of the property line, not mine.

She walked back to the stack of signs, put the note on top of them, and weighted it down with another rock.

That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. A few days later, the signs were back.

On Libby’s trees again.

By then she’d done some more exploring. She’d noticed a driveway about a quarter mile up the road. She knew it was a driveway because there was a mailbox at one end of it. Otherwise it didn’t look very driveway-ish. More like a logging road. It was deeply rutted—whoever was using it drove a truck, a car wouldn’t be able to take ruts that deep.

She walked in a little way, but about the time she lost sight of the road—and still couldn’t see any sort of dwelling—she started to feel uneasy, and turned around.

No way of knowing whether whoever lived there was the Posted sign person.

She had no choice. She went back to her place, retrieved her screwdriver, and removed the signs again. Only this time she wasn’t so nice. Hah. She threw them away.

Which tells you how annoyed she was. Libby is the sort of person who within five minutes of meeting her, the word that probably pops into your head is “nice.” She’s the sort of person who always smiles, always invites you to talk about yourself, always notices if you’re uncomfortable or restless and leans forward to offer you a cup of tea or to ask is there anything she can get for you. So nice she’s almost anxious about it.

So most people would have thrown away those Posted Signs the first time. It took her twice as much to get annoyed enough, annoyed to that point. And did she enjoy it? No, she did not. Here she was, trying to start her life over, and already headed toward a showdown at the not OK corral.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

She didn’t have long to wait. First week of March. It was still cold, and overcast, but the snow was gone so she was letting herself think that maybe spring really would come. She’d put the Posted Signs business out of her mind, was just out for a walk to stretch her legs, but when she crossed the field directly behind her house there they were. “Posted” in orange all caps lettering against a gleaming black background.

Her stomach tightened. Something there is that won’t stay on its side of the wall.

“Damn it,” she said out loud. “I really don’t need this.”

Maybe this time the signatures would be readable.

She made her way to the closest sign. Nothing doing. Just like before. The signature might as well have been a piece of yarn someone had dropped on the floor.

She wondered whether her neighbor was merely a slob, or if this was someone’s way of being deliberately uncooperative.

It began to drizzle.

She wasn’t dressed for drizzle. No hat, no gloves.

She turned to go back to her house.

But she didn’t make it. At that moment a massive bellow “ra-RAUWF” hit her body so hard it made her diaphragm thrum, and she whirled around just in time to see a brindle Mastiff galloping toward her . A huge brindle Mastiff. Perhaps it was a horse in fact, except no horse’s brow would be furled that way, his mouth was agape, all red and dark and full of long white canines.

She didn’t have to look twice. By luck, the closest tree—the one with the freshly re-mounted sign—was a half-grown white pine. She grabbed the lowest branch and hauled herself up, placing her feet close to the trunk where it was thick enough, hopefully, to support her weight. Up another few branches, moving quickly, and now the dog was below her , leaping against the trunk, his paws jabbing it, making the whole tree shake.


2

 

With his paws on the tree trunk, looking up at her, foreshortened, his head looked massive.

After a minute he put all fours on the ground and began sniffing around the base of the tree.

His head still looked massive.

Libby likes dogs. She likes petting dogs. Even strange dogs, when they are, say, on a lead at a park. But being treed by a dog—a very large dog—was, frankly, an experience she’d prefer to avoid.

She chewed her lower lip. Perhaps she and the dog had just gotten off on the wrong paw . . .

Worth a try. “Hey there—” she said in her best nice-doggy voice.

“ROUWF!” The same booming bellow and he’d jumped up again, planting his front paws, again, against the trunk.

She tightened her grip on her perch. No doubt about it. Libby was officially treed, and there was no way she was going to sweet talk her way down.

The dog was still sniffing her tree.

He was wearing a collar.

She looked around for an owner.

Libby’s land is on a hillside. To the west, looking down, she had a clear view all the way to her house—that is, to the saplings and brush that marked the border between her house and the rest of her property, and beyond the saplings and brush, the dark gray shingles of her roof. But that was all she could see. No apologetic dog owner running up the hill, leash in hand.

To the north, her two fields, divided by raggedy hedgerows. Actually, more meadows than fields. To call them fields suggests they’re big. They aren’t. Altogether, in fact, Libby owned less than eight acres of cleared land. Yet, for some reason, especially when she first moved in, she thought of them as fields, maybe because they looked so worn and tired and beaten. Not not picturesque enough to be meadows. In any case, that day the hedgerows—scraggly interruptions of buckthorn and crabapple—hadn’t leafed out yet, it was too early in the spring. So Libby could see through them all the way to Einbeck Road.

Not a soul in sight.

To the south—the visibility was not so good. Forest. Owned by the posted sign person, presumably. She twisted her neck to look. Mass of tree trunks, gray and purple and algae-green.

Nothing else. Not even a chickadee.

The dog had finished sniffing and now sat, a perfect tucked sit at the base of the tree.

He didn’t look like he was planning to go anywhere, soon.

Libby took a deep breath. She had only one choice. She needed to reach out to the creature. Negotiate a settlement.

“Hey, Mister. Doggy. Doggy, doggy.”

Ah, progress. This time he didn’t bark. Just looked up at her, ears perked forward. And his brow wasn’t quite as furled.

“What’s your name? Huh? King? Fido? Killer?”

He twitched an eyebrow.

Libby got another idea.

“Go HOME. You! Go home! Right now!”

WOOF!

Epic fail. Not only did he respond with masterful defiance, he didn’t even get up to say it.

Libby sighed and shifted her weight. Something pulled her hair and when she reached up to loosen it she discovered a clump was caught in a dollop of pine pitch oozing from the tree trunk. Great. Also her hands were stiffening from the cold. She pulled her head away from the tree trunk to free her hair, and touched the place that had gotten stuck. Her fingers came away tacky and fragrant with pitch.

“Look, I gotta get down. Are you going to let me down?”

He didn’t look at her this time. Getting used to her voice. As long as she didn’t, you know, try to order him around.

She sighed again.

“By the way, is it you who put up the posted signs?”

No answer.

She was starting to lose her patience and, logical next step, felt the tears coming on. It’s not like she hadn’t been under a bit of stress lately. But then she happened to scan the surrounding countryside again—and happy day. Someone was coming. Well, someone was within earshot, anyway. Standing on the other side of the stone wall to the east, a man, motionless in the trees.

 “Hey!” she yelled. “Hey!”

WOOF.

“Is this your dog? Come and get your dog!”

Guy didn’t move.

Libby stared. Was he deaf?

“HEY!” She waved maniacally with one hand, gripping the tree trunk with the other. “HEY, I need some HELP here!”

He was looking at her. No question about it. Why wasn’t he coming over?

Maybe this wasn’t his dog. Good chance. Lots of dogs wandering around on their own, once you get out into the country. Still, that didn’t explain why he wasn’t coming to the aid of a damsel in distress. Only then it struck her. Of course. This was the hostile sign poster. And what better way to up the hostility ante than leave me stranded, treed by a humongous dog?

No more Ms. Nice Neighbor. Libby lost it. Began began swearing at the top of her lungs.

“Gahdammit!!! Get over here and get me the hell down!”

He was too far away for Libby to tell if he was laughing. But there was something on his face when he got closer, some shred of a smirk, or maybe it was just that his lack of expression was a little too perfect, that raised her suspicions.

Yeah. She was pretty sure he had been. Laughing. On the inside, anyway. Laughing his butt off.


3

 

“’Mere, Bo.”

So. It was his dog.

Libby waited until the man had a firm grip on the dog’s collar before she climbed down.

“He should be leashed.” She was irritated and sounded it.

The man didn’t let her pique perturb him. “Bo won’t hurt you if you haven’t done anything wrong.”

Libby rolled her eyes. When you have a sciences background, few things are more exasperating than people who project human thinking processes onto animals. “He’s a dog,” she said flatly. “He’s incapable of distinguishing ‘right’ from ‘wrong.’”

Something flicked over the man’s face, but too quickly for her to read it.

“Humans, on the other hand,” she continued, “do know right from wrong, and it’s most definitely wrong to let your dog terrorize people.”

He let the dog go.

Libby braced herself, but this time she stood her ground. Partly for practical reasons—she didn’t have a big enough head start to get back up the tree. There was also the little matter of her dignity. Scrambling up a tree while you’re alone is one thing. No way was she going to let this man witness a repeat at close range.

Bo loped up to her and pushed his muzzle into her hand.

“This changes nothing,” she said, pulling her hand back. “Are you the person who’s been hanging these posted signs?”

“Are you the person who’s been pulling down these posted signs?” He snapped his fingers, and Bo returned to him. Libby pushed aside twinge of guilt. She liked dogs, she could have petted the dog. It wasn’t Bo’s fault. It was this rude person, here—this person who was, apparently, also her neighbor.

“You can’t post signs on someone else’s property.” She gestured at the pine tree in which she’d recently taken refuge. “This tree is on my side of the line. You’ve no business nailing things to it.”

“You might have said something to me, rather than just yank them all down,” he said. “I’m right next door.”

Next door. Next door, country style.

“The place with the long driveway? How was I supposed to know that? I couldn’t even read your signature, your handwriting happens to be appalling. And anyway, I left you a note.”

“A note?”

“I left a note on top of the signs. The first time I took them down.”

“You talking about that piece of cardboard? That sat outside for a week in the rain? If there was a note on that, it was long gone by the time I saw it, lady.”

Lady. “Bet it was easier to read than your handwriting,” Libby muttered.

He didn’t answer. An impasse. She shivered. The drizzle had switched to light rain and if she’d missed her gloves and her hat before, she missed them ten times more, now. Still. They’d gotten this far, and Libby wasn’t about to let her new life, there, get off to a wrong start. “Look.” She made firm eye contact again. “You are in the wrong here. You’re posting ‘no trespassing’ signs, but the only one trespassing is you.”

His face was unreadable. Obviously a man who didn’t like people very much.

“All you had to do was stop by and ask me to move them. That’s what neighbors do.”

Libby had no answer to that one. Well. She had an answer. But it would have meant admitting something she wasn’t going to admit. Not out loud. That, being familiar with the fate of Little Red Riding Hood, she wasn’t too keen on venturing into the dark dark forest on her own. Even if this wolf was, most likely, just a garden variety misanthrope woodchuck. Living in a shack with his collection of torn tee shirts and piles of Genny empties and baby pot plants growing in drywall buckets. Harmless enough if you overlook his vast assortment of firearms. Yeah. Libby knew the type.

She turned toward her house. “Look. I’m cold. Please just move the signs onto your property. If you really think you need them.”

Enough of this.

But then Bo’s muzzle touched her hand again, and suddenly she felt the man’s Carhart drop over her shoulders.

“Hey. I didn’t—”

“Your lips are blue.”

“I don’t—”

“I’ll pick it up in fifteen minutes.”

He snapped his fingers for Bo.

She decided not to argue. It seemed wisest to just accept the coat. She really wanted this encounter to be over, and besides, the warmth had already gentled her shivering.

On the other hand, speaking of misanthropes, she didn’t really want to have to talk to the guy again, either. So on the spot, she decided it would be inconvenient for her to be home in fifteen minutes for coat pick-up time. “Fine. But I have to be somewhere in . . . a little while. I’ll leave the coat on my doorknob.”

The  man nodded, pulled a screwdriver from his pocket, and waved it at her to make sure she saw it. Then he turned to the sign on the pine tree.

So he’d conceded defeat on the sign argument. He was going to take them down. Or move them anyway.

When Libby got past the hedgerow between him and her house, she thrust her arms through the jacket’s sleeves so she could get her stiffened hands into its pockets.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Libby’s side door was locked and she hadn’t brought a key with her, so she circled round to go in the front.

There was a battered old Ford Escort parked in her driveway.

Libby didn’t own a battered old Ford Escort. She drove a not-so-battered old Toyota Corolla.

The front door on the driver’s side of the Escort flew open, and a jeans-and-tee shirt-clad woman skipped up toward her. “Auntie Em! Auntie Em! I’m home, Auntie Em!”

“Maisey?”

The teenager grabbed Libby in a hug. “Wow, I bummed when I knocked and you weren’t home! I fit all my stuff in my car, do you believe it? Did you get my message? Did you talk to mom? What’s with that jacket? What happened to your hair?”

“What? What message?”

“Don’t you answer your cell phone?”

Uh oh. Truth was, Libby had been leaving her cell phone turned off. On purpose. She had no land line phone right now, being between houses. And it had been nice, skulking along beneath the radar.

Only now she was getting the sinking feeling that her skulking had backfired.

“How does Paul reach you, if he can’t get you on your cell?” Maisey hadn’t let up her string of questions.

“I call him.” No business of hers, that sometimes Libby took little breaks from Paul. “What are you doing here?”

“You’ve got room, right?” Her eyes were on the house, now, sizing it up. Farmhouse, circa 1870, obviously at least three or four bedrooms.

“Oh no. Nobody said anything to me about you moving in.”

“I gotta. Mom’s gone to Hawaii. And we did tell you, only you weren’t picking up.”

Libby groaned. “Hawaii?”

“Uh huh. With her new boy toy.”

Libby groaned again.

“Lemme get my stuff,” Maisey was calling over her shoulder.

Libby looked up at her new house. It was shrinking. Right there before her eyes.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Libby didn’t know what her niece was doing but it sounded like she was throwing sneakers onto her bedroom floor from somewhere up high. Top of a ladder, maybe.

Moving in.

Libby looked up at the ceiling toward the noise, then turned her attention back to her cell phone, punching in the code that would let her retrieve her messages.

Eight of them.

Five from her sister. They all pretty much repeated themselves, so she stopped listening to them all the way through after #2. Works of art, really. Breathtaking blend of wheedling, carelessness, and whining, with an occasional shot of blatantly insincere concern for Libby’s state of mind thrown in. It was Libby, after all, who had found herself suddenly divorced, out of a job, and about-to-be homeless. But her sister had always been indifferent about Libby’s marriage. Maybe she assumed Libby could take anything. Which would be partly Libby’s fault. For cultivating an image of firm stability. But does that absolve the rest of her family from indulging in a bit of empathy from time to time?

Hardly.

Extracting actual information from the messages, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy. Maisey had related pretty much everything that the messages did. Gina was moving to Hawaii. Was already there, by now. She had a new boyfriend who was planning some sort of business venture. A bit about how sexy the new boyfriend was, something about him being a Tantric sex coach. File that under “too much information.” And then, of course, the admonition that Libby babysit Maisey.

She didn’t call it babysitting, of course. Maisey was nineteen.

One last message from Maisey, who prattled on every bit as goofily as her mother, letting Libby know she was going to be here yesterday. Well, Maise, you hit your target within 24 hours, not bad.

Message #3 was from Paul, left last Thursday. His voice was a rock of calm in the swirling chaos of her sister’s nutsiness. “Hey, babe. Guess you have your phone off. I’ll stop by the house at 5:45.”

He meant the house in Pittsford. While Libby was still sleeping there, he’d always come by at 5:45, hitting that target within five minutes plus or minus, depending on traffic. And then he’d take Libby out to eat, him driving, either a restaurant or his place. They never ate at the Pittsford house. Paul was like that, about the Pittsford house. “Wallace’s territory,” he said. And so it was, even though Wallace had long since moved out.

Libby walked upstairs. And found Maisey in the wrong room—the one Libby was planning to turn into her office.

She braced herself against the door frame and took a deep breath. “Maisey, you’re in the wrong room. I said the bedroom on the left.”

“But . . . I like this room. And it was empty.”

“Please, Maisey? I was planning to put my office in this one.”

“Can’t you put it there?” Maisey pointed past Libby to the room across the hall.

“Please? This one’s a bit bigger . . . I need room for my desk and file cabinets and stuff.”

Maisey scowled and re-zipped her duffel bag.

Libby watched her hoist it back up over her shoulder and stood aside to let her pass. Then she thought of something else.

“One other thing, please, Maisey—no drugs.”

Maise wasn’t a bad kid, mind you. But Libby was no dummy, either

Maisey jutted out her chin. “I don’t do drugs, Aunt Libby. I haven’t in ages.”

“Good for you. Good for you, Maise. Thank you. I’m glad to hear it.”

Maisey crossed the hall and dropped her duffel bag into the smaller bedroom.

Libby leaned against the doorframe and rubbed her forehead. A small victory. But a victory nonetheless. And who knows, maybe she wouldn’t be there long. Maybe she’d decide to enroll in college or something.

Suddenly a pounding on the door thudded through the house. A loud pounding.

“Who’s that?” Maisey had re-entered the room to collect one of her boxes. “Sounds like someone’s plenty pissed at you!”

The jacket.

Libby had forgotten to take it off. Forgotten the whole plan, to leave it on the doorknob, to avoid having to stand face-to-face with that man again.

She jumped toward the stairs, too freaked out to answer Maisey. The pounding had sounded pretty loud. Can you tell if someone’s pissed at you by how they knock on the door? Of course not. And tt could be enthusiastic pounding . . . except that Libby’s doorbell was broken. Which meant the guy had been out there, standing in the drizzle, pressing the button for goodness knows how long.

Who wouldn’t be tempted to pound pretty hard after standing in the drizzle pressing a broken doorbell for awhile?

Libby yanked the door open.

“Haven’t left yet, I see.”

She pulled the jacket off and held it out to him. He took it, but slowly. He was looking over her shoulder.

Libby turned and there was Maisey, big grin on her face.

“So it’s your jacket,” she said and then squealed and practically knocked Libby over as she pushed past, through the door, and out onto the stoop, where she knelt and threw her arms around Bo’s neck.

“Maisey! Hadn’t you better ask, first?”

Maisey appeared not to hear. She Bo’s head, crooning ecstatically, while the man looked down at her, apparently amused. Maybe because of her piercings. And the tattoo—a dandelion head with a few seeds blowing away—visible on the back of her neck. Not that people who live in the country don’t know about the whole piercing and tattooing thing.

Libby pushed open the storm door again. “Maisey, the man wants to leave, now.”

“What’s his name?” Maisey meant the dog. And was asking the neighbor, not Libby. Maisey instinctively goes for the person most likely to indulge her.

“The dog’s name is Bo,” Libby said. “Now please finish moving your stuff into your room, Maise.”

The teen stood up, rolling her eyes for the benefit of her audience and saying “Bye, Bo,” in a dramatically regret-filled voice.

Libby thought about asking the man whether he moved all the signs—like telling Maisey which room was hers, it would have helped to re-establish where everyone stood. But her manners won out. Of course they were all moved. No point in suggesting he wasn’t acting, now, in good faith. Plus, she could always check them, later.

“Thanks for lending me the coat.”

“Your doorbell’s broken.”

“I know.”

“And there’s something in your hair.”

She reached up and as she did rememberded. The pine pitch. Great. So she looked like a freak. Just great.

She watched him walk down the drive.

“So who is he?” Maisey said. “He is gorgeous. And so’s the dog.” She giggled.

“Shush!” Libby closed the door. “He’s within earshot still, you ninny.”

“So? What do you care?”

Libby scowled. “Maisey. Please no bedding my neighbors.”

“Yeah right, like I’d sleep with a senior citizen.”

Ouch. Why did Libby get the feeling that wasn’t directed solely at her neighbor? Especially considering that he was probably younger than her . . . by a good five years, she bet. “Knock it off, Maisey. You’ll find out for yourself how young you still are, when you’re his age. And it will come before you know it, too.”

“Yeah, sure. And anyway, I have a boyfriend.”

That little disclosure should have set off a whole slew of warning bells, of course, but Libby was mentally exhausted, by then, and its significance didn’t register properly. So all she said was, “Do me a favor, Libby, and please finish getting your stuff out of my office. The movers are coming tomorrow and my desk has to fit.”

Then she went and put on a kettle for tea. And some mayonnaise. She’d read, somewhere, that mayonnaise would get pine pitch out of hair. Better to smell like a sandwich than pine pitch.

Gorgeous. Yeah, well, maybe. Tall enough, anyway.

She’d left her cell on an overturned box in the living room. Now she retrieved it and dialed Paul at work.