Thanks to the Hip and Knee doctor of editing assistance.
The mist completely covered the whole valley in front of the cabin. According to Monica, it was the most beautiful sight in the world. It was easy to see why she had requested that her ashes be scatter there. It was just the three of us; my son Robert and daughter Logan stood by my side as the wind picked up bits of ash from my hand and carried them off.
The cabin was on 120 acres of land that was a little bit North of Hytop and close enough to the Walls of Jericho that we could walk to it on a good day. Upon my death, it would all belong to the Nature Conservatory to become part of one of the greatest natural areas in the Southeast. It was what Monica wanted and I could never refuse her anything.
The homestead still didn't have any power. Forty years ago, I installed a water gathering system using the tin roof and a series of cisterns, but I never did get around to having electricity brought in. We did fine with kerosene lamps and an antique kerosene refrigerator that I kept running for over ten years. Monica never complained. Even after we moved to our new place in Murfreesboro, I always knew that she missed the Hytop cabin.
Monica and I married when we were both in our teens. I had a good job installing aluminum siding for a home builder in Huntsville. It was a long drive, but the money was good. The cabin and the land was a wedding present from Monica's grandfather. I am not sure how long the property had been in her family, but all of the children got a piece when they married. We lucked out and got the only part that had a dwelling.
Robert and Logan were quick to come and were a great comfort for Monica while I was down the mountain at work. It was a wonderful place to raise kids even though they hated the long walk to catch the school bus. At one point, I was going to install a generator for the house, but Monica didn't like the idea of that noisy thing ruining her peace and quiet. I never brought it up again. Running a service line to the cabin was just too damn expensive and we opted to use the funds for other things.
We had a small garden and a few fruit trees. Game was plentiful and Robert and I both became quite proficient at bow hunting. It was a lot quieter than firearms and seemed to be a little fairer to the critters.
While all of this was going on, I managed to teach myself how to play guitar. Actually, I couldn't really play it, but I simply strummed a few cords. I found myself making up little songs that I would use to entertain the kids. As I got better, the tunes got longer and a little more complex. Before I knew it, I was an actual song writer.
I kept installing siding after my first song sold, but in less than a year, it just didn't seem to be a good choice any more. I was spending more time in Nashville than Huntsville. We rented a small house just East of Franklin for about three years, before buying the place in Murfreesboro. It was larger than Monica or I had ever imagined having, but I got it for a good price. The previous owner was one of the living legends from the Grand Ole Opry. His widow was happy to know that we were not planning on changing anything that she and her husband had so carefully built. Monica used to joke that we had become caretakers of an historical monument. It was a marvelous house.
About ten years after Logan and Robert left to start their own families, Monica was diagnosed with cancer. She fought it for a while, but eventually gave up and let it take her as gently as possible. As far as she was concerned the cure was becoming worse that the disease. I was now well established in the music industry, so money was not a problem. A full time hospice staff made sure that her last few months were as comfortable and stress free as possible. I was pretty sure that she felt worse about leaving me alone than she did about dying.
It was a week before she passed on that she told me that she wanted to go back to Hytop without her hospice staff. She insisted that it must just be the two of us. She knew that her time was close and wanted to spend the rest of it alone, with me. I reluctantly agreed with her wishes, but only after spending several hours with the medical people getting briefed and, more or less trained, in my obligations.
Five days after we arrived at the cabin, Monica went quietly while she was sleeping. A friend at the local funeral parlor was able to discretely take care of the cremation for me. There was no viewing and no death announcement as per Monica's final request. My children understood and supported their mother's decision.
After spreading the ashes, we spent the rest of the day at the cabin before Logan and Robert left to rejoin their families. Logan was married to a doctor in Savannah and Robert taught school with his wife, in Fort Collins. They both made the trip to Alabama without their families at my request. It was the way that I felt it should be.
It had been a perfect farewell for the woman that I loved more than anything.
The house in Murfreesboro was in good hands. Our live-in housekeeper, Rose, and her husband Hector assured me that I could take some time away with no concerns. I didn't want to return to the empty shell that Monica and I shared for the last few years. The good memories were clouded by the dismay that I felt after she got sick. All of our friends were somehow connected to my work. They were more acquaintances than anything else. Monica was my only true friend.
I headed south towards Pensacola and the gulf. There were plenty of condos available to rent on a weekly basis, especially if you were not interested in being on the beach. I spent some time at the Naval Air Museum, but that was about it. I wasn't a sand man, so I didn't enjoy the beach or the water. The first week that I was there, I drove over to Alabama three times to enjoy the gumbo at Wolf's Bay Lodge. I used up the evenings trying to find a place to get oysters on the half shell that I felt comfortable with. No luck. The more time that I spent trying to entertain myself, the more depressed I seemed to become. The plus side was that I felt I had a lot of fodder for my next few songs, which I didn't feel like doing right now.
The condo had a small kitchen and I was getting tired of eating out by myself all the time. I decided to hit the local Winn-Dixie to stock up on staples.
It was Wednesday. The sign at the door was advertising that it was 'senior citizens' day and all old farts would get 5% off their total bill. I smiled when I realized how fortunate I was to have picked today. Little did I know that it would actually prove to be quite lucky for me.
I was a little confused the first time that I saw her. She seemed like a proud woman that had been beaten down. As I walked around the store, I couldn't help but watch her and wonder about the relationship that she was having with her escort who was pushing the grocery cart. He was a large man who appeared to be several years older than she was. He wore a flannel shirt and jeans that were two sizes too small for him. A beer gut was trying to hide the John Deere belt buckle that was struggling to hold up his pants. His mouth seemed to be in a nasty snarl that went perfectly with his squinty eyes. She walked an obedient two steps behind him, although it seemed to be by choice rather than as a required position.
I had no trouble at all figuring out that this was not a loving relationship. Of course it was none of my business and if I hadn't found the woman to be so striking, I would have forgotten the whole thing. I was not looking for a relationship. I was still grieving Monica's death and had no intention of replacing her, but something was not right here.
Mister Nasty turned toward the woman and growled something at her which I couldn't fathom. I stopped while she swiftly moved passed me towards a refrigerated counter. As she returned with two cartons of eggs, she looked in my direction. I smiled and she gave me a small, cautious smile back and then quickly looked away. She carefully placed the eggs in the cart, returned to her subservient position, glanced my way, and smiled again when she realized that I was watching her. She seemed coyly embarrassed but flattered.
I was hooked. My shopping trip had suddenly become a lot more interesting. A plain woman, with no make-up and no apparent outstanding virtues, had grabbed my attention and brightened my day. I spent the next hour following them around the store. The more that I watched them, the more I hated the guy. Any woman that allowed a man to inflict that much fear and control over her must have a severe lack of confidence.
I had remembered a fellow when I was young who always wanted a Dalmatian dog. When he finally got one, he was determined to train it properly, but had no idea how to go about doing it. I saw him with his dog a few months later and the dog had now been completely ruined. Every time he raised his hand or his voice the dog would whimper and cower away from him. He had used a newspaper to beat the dog when it didn't do what he wanted or as quickly as he wanted it to do, and now he was stuck. The Dalmatian did end up living with an old widow lady who never scolded or raised her voice. My friend never got another dog.
Today's shopping trip never got any better for 'the Dalmatian' lady. The bastard leading her around was just as ornery when they drove away in his old F100 pick-up. She smiled at me three more times before they left.
That night, I had a hard time falling asleep. All I could think about was the woman at the market. How did such a fine lady end up with that miserable man? Why did she stay with him? In some ways, she reminded me of Monica. When my thinking drifted in that direction, I found myself feeling guilty. My wife had just passed and I was thinking about another woman. There was no connection. I tried to convince myself of that. I wasn't looking for a companion, I was just trying to save a mistreated dog. Then I felt bad that I was putting my market lady in the same class as a dog.
Scrambled eggs and microwave sausages tasted good the next morning. I even made some coffee in a $9.99 coffee pot. As I was finishing my eggs, I found myself making a grocery list for the next week. When I realized what I was subconsciously doing, I couldn't help but snicker.
It was a long week. I bought a new shirt and pants, but couldn't convince myself to buy shoes. Everything that I was doing was based on the assumption that the Dalmatian family shopped each week on senior discount day. If I was wrong, I would probably never see my mystery woman again. I had no plan. I realized that I was actually a stalker. I was preparing to spend a day following a strange, probably married woman around a grocery store with the hope that something would happen. It was stupid and juvenile, but I was starting to enjoy it.
I put on my new clothes and carefully placed my mini shopping list in my shirt pocket. Then I patiently waited for over an hour until the Ford pick-up pulled into the parking lot. She had on jeans and a blue Oxford shirt. I waited until they got close to the store entrance and then I followed them in.
There was nothing to indicate that she was being abused or mistreated, other than the harsh way that she was being spoken to. I guess that was what they usually call verbal abuse. I held back and watched, fascinated by the way she carried herself despite being subject to his constant and repeated barbs. After a while, I got the feeling that most of what I was seeing was an act. Something did not seem real. Was she putting on these subservient airs or were they true?
I was trying my best to be inconspicuous, but I wasn't doing a very good job. She spotted me in the first five minutes. I dropped back some and felt like a school boy who had just been caught trying to look up a girls dress. I was lingering in the canned vegetable aisle chiding myself for being foolish when she suddenly surprised me. I froze as she reached past me and grabbed two cans of garbanzo beans.
"Are you stalking me?" I was shocked and dumbfounded. She was looking directly at me with a stern look on her face, waiting for an answer.
"I think so." I believe the most obvious answer to that question would have been an absolute 'no.' I never did follow the rules, so I didn't give the most obvious answer. I was expecting her to follow up by asking me 'why?,' but she didn't.
"He is a very dangerous man. Be very, very careful."
She turned and rapidly walked away. It was not the reply that I might have anticipated. I thought it was interesting that she didn't tell me to stop, but just to be careful. This was getting curious. For some reason, I no longer viewed her as an abused wife, but as something that I could not define.
I was in a position to watch as she placed the beans in their cart. She quietly spoke to him, but there was no response on his part. I knew that he heard her. I guess a normal man would have gathered up his wits and quietly left the premises. I was not normal.
At one point, I thought that I saw Mister Nasty check me out, but I was not sure. Twice, the object of my eye looked my way, squinted her eyebrows, and shook her head 'no.' The second time. I smiled back at her and gave her the same non-verbal reply. I was rewarded with a frown.
I could tell that they were almost finished and then she suddenly appeared beside me in the dairy department.
"Why are you doing this?" She stood toe-to-toe with me and stared directly into my face.
"Are you being abused or mistreated in any way?" I was trying my best to act serious as well as concerned.
"What? Are you crazy? No. I am not being abused. Don't do this again. It can be very dangerous for you."
"Dangerous? How can it be dangerous?"
She didn't answer. As she started to walk away, I asked another quick question.
"Are you happy?"
She stopped, turned, and paused. "No, I am not happy, but I am safe. That is all that matters."
"I can help you."
By the time that came out of my mouth, she was rapidly walking back to her escort. She did turn and give me a slight smile before going to the checkout counter.
I watched from inside the store as they loaded their groceries. I finished gathering my few meager items and left also. I couldn't tell if it had been a productive use of my time or a complete waste. As I started to back out of my parking spot, I spotted the Ford pick-up in my rear view mirror, a few rows away. Mister Nasty was taking pictures of me and my truck through his windshield. All of a sudden I knew that I would be back again next week with the senior citizens shopping crowd.
It was a long week. I called Rose and assured her that everything was all right. Then I called the kids, just to let them know that I was not going off the deep end in remorse. I tried the fried oysters at Wolf's Bay Lodge instead of the gumbo. I don't know why, but I just felt that I needed a change. I was anxious for the next shopping day, but I had no idea what I was going to do.
Things took an unexpected twist that week and I was not prepared for it. The Dalmatian family showed up as usual and I tried to stay inconspicuous, but did a lousy job. Ten minutes after they arrived, she approached me, alone in the produce department. She didn't confront me, but rather stood beside me picking through the avocados as if we didn't know each other.
"Arland, listen carefully. Can you be ready to leave next week?"
What the hell was going on? How did she know my name and what was I getting ready for?
In a desperate effort to maintain my self-composure I replied with confidence. "Yes."
"Good. Park your truck in the loading area behind the market and meet me here, in the produce section at 9 AM. Any questions?"
I was caught totally off guard. Yes, I had a million questions, but I wasn't ready to ask them now. I smiled and shook my head 'no.'
"Now leave before anyone sees us." She said that with an air of authority that I was unfamiliar with. As she turned to walk away, I couldn't help myself any longer.
"What's your name?"
She turned with a small smile. "Morna. My name is Morna."
Was it a joke? Was she shining me on in some fashion? I would have to wait until next week to find out. In any event the stalking game was over. If it was a ruse to get rid of me, I decided to take the hint and just return to Tennessee. If she did show up, I would be going back home anyway. It did not take long to prepare for the move. I decided to take my $9.99 coffee pot with me.
I was only in the produce section for ten minutes when she slowly walked past me.
"Count to twenty and follow me back to the rest room area."
The rest rooms were located in the rear of the market as you enter the warehouse. As I walked past them, a young girl, dressed exactly like Morna was coming out of the ladies room. She smiled at me and entered the main market. Morna was standing across from the warehouse area by the rear entrance. She motioned for me to hurry, but I couldn't help glancing back into the store. Her double was now standing beside of Mister Nasty helping him select some Grapefruit. I was snickering to myself as I walked out the back to catch up with Morna. What the hell was going on?
At some point, a soft-sided duffle had been placed in the back of the truck. I assumed it contained Morna's things. I noticed it, but didn't say anything. Ten minutes later, we had left the city limits, heading North. Neither of us had said a word since leaving the store. I still had a million questions, but felt overwhelmed by the whole scenario; so I didn't ask any of them. Morna looked straight ahead, occasionally glancing in her side view mirror. After another ten minutes, she sighed slightly and seemed to get a little more comfortable in her seat.
"So, Mister Hawke. Now that you have me what are your intentions?"
All of a sudden. I realized that I had never thought this far ahead. What the hell were my intentions? What was I doing and why had I gotten involved with this woman? I felt a little foolish because I had no answer for her simple, straight-forward question. She was looking at me with a pixie smile, as if she was pleased with the question. For the first time, I noticed that her eyes were green. Not greenish, but actually green. Although her hair was close cropped, I could also tell that it had a natural reddish tint to it; more auburn than red. She had freckles.
"Mister Hawke? Do you have an answer for me?"
"I'm sorry. My mind was wandering for a moment. What was the question again?"
I had remembered what she asked, but I was trying to stall until I could come up with some sort of explanation.
She repeated the question and I detected a slight giggle.
I replied in my most serious voice. "I am going to take you to my home and make you my sex slave."
I have no idea what made me blurt out such a ridiculous thing. As soon as it left my mouth, I regretted that I had said it; that was until I heard her giggle again.
"Is that the home in Tennessee or the one in Alabama?"
Who the hell was this woman? She knew my complete name and where I lived and had lived. I didn't answer, but gave her an inquisitive look which got me another pixyish smile. She seemed to be enjoying my discomfort. Actually, I was enjoying it somewhat. I was a poor judge of people's ages, especially women. She seemed to be in her mid to late thirties. Her nails were cut very close and there appeared to be scars on her hands and arms. The scars didn't seem to be from abuse, but from work of some type.
She didn't say anything else until we hit I-65 North. She had the upper hand in the conversation department. Up until she called my bluff, I had felt in control. Now I felt that I was being used in some fashion, but it didn't bother me; in fact I kind of enjoyed it.