The story so far: After finally arriving in Herald Rock, a guild dinner got derailed and Catrin has decisions to make.
Lead in story: Cats don’t own things
Catrin was grateful for the hotel, but a little annoyed at the fact that Jack had kept this a secret. First, there was the fact that she had to walk instead of drive. The walk had been nice for the most part, until the bats. Even if she had chosen to walk, it would have been nice to leave the sleeping bag, blanket, and tent at home. She might even have brought a little makeup. Still, it was nice to know that they weren’t going to be sleeping on the ground, and that the rooms had been paid for by Jack.
The walk into the town had been surprising. A fire had taken out several buildings on the edge of the town, and there were a few collapsed or listing wooden houses, but there were several houses that seemed intact and perfectly habitable. Herald Rock had clearly been a working-class town, with most houses created for utility rather than beauty. The encroaching of the wilderness, however, had surrounded many of the houses with long green grass, climbing vines, and moss. This had added some charm to their otherwise straightforward construction.
When the group reached Front Street, however, it became clear that someone had been working to improve things. While the road was in need of repaving, the potholes had been filled and any grass growing up through the cracks had been trimmed back. Someone had also taken time to repair the storefronts along the quarter-mile main stretch of road. A closer look would confirm that the buildings were still abandoned, and that the paint had been more or less a quick cover-up, but the effect was to make the street look like a functional downtown street in a small town.
The Herald Rock Hotel was a cut above the surrounding repairs. To begin with, the exterior facing the street was filled with potted flowers, most of which were blooming in the early April sun. The hotel façade was painted a vibrant turquoise with white trim, and the windows were clear and most likely brand new. There were several Adirondack chairs on the front porch as well, and a sound system was playing the same sort of music Catrin remembered playing at the yoga studio she had gone to back when she had a little more money.
Dinner had been interesting. Jack had started to explain about the effort to revitalize Herald Rock, when Aadi had gotten upset about cats for some reason and had stormed off. To her surprise, Tilly had followed. To her further surprise, Nick had not followed Tilly. He had, in fact, barely seemed to notice they had left. Catrin was still unsure what happened in the tunnel. Nick had said he’d gotten lost, but how do you get lost in a tunnel that only had two directions? He’d been friendly when they met up again, and a little contrite, but since then he’d barely said a word. Dinner broke up soon after Aadi and Tilly had left, and Catrin took the opportunity to take Nick aside. She convinced him to go out to the porch, where they sat in the Adirondack chairs and listened to the yoga music.
“Are you OK?” Catrin asked.
Nick took a sip of his rum and cola and sighed. “I got some news from Jack earlier. My Uncle Carlos died today.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s terrible.”
“I don’t even know if anyone else knows yet. That’s the advantage of knowing a reaper I suppose.”
“Is it an advantage?” Catrin asked.
Nick took another sip of his drink. “Uncle Carlos is the one who got me my job. He always tried to look after me, after my parents died, at least to the extent that I would let him.”
Catrin reached out and put her hand on his hand. “Had he been sick?”
“No, no. He was attacked… murdered.”
For a moment, neither of them said anything. The music continued to play and a cat walked by out in the road. Catrin asked, “Does Jack know who did it?”
“He said he doesn’t. I’m not sure if I believe him though. I don’t really want to be here anymore. I tried to convince him to drive me back in Betty tonight but he said he didn’t think it was a good idea. He said I’m better off here, with witnesses.”
Catrin thought about that. She said, “When my brother died, we were suspects: my mom, my dad, even me. Not officially, but people question everything you did, and everything you do. You get accused of not reacting right. If I cried too much, I was feeling guilty. If I pretended I was ok, I was cold-blooded. One girl cornered me in the school library once and insisted I must know something. What was I hiding? It seems a little distasteful, but Jack is probably right.”
Nick looked at Catrin and said, “I’ve been through this before too. Not as bad as yours, but…”
Catrin nodded. “We should start a support group.”
Nick nodded. “I think that may be what Jack did.”
“Let’s not give him too much credit. I don’t think that was his primary motivation.”
“Probably not,” Nick said. He finished his drink. “Here we are though.”
The two of them sat for a long time, not saying anything. Marshall came out. Catrin quietly removed her hand from Nick’s.
Marshall took the chair on the other side of Catrin. He said, “It sure is a beautiful night. I hope you guys are having a good time.”
“The best time,” Nick said. His voice was almost convincing. Catrin smiled but said nothing.
“Jack wants to know if you guys want to go exploring. He says he’s going to do a sweep of the town, look for any wandering spirits. He figured you might be interested.”
“Pass,” Nick said. “Have fun though.”
“Yeah,” Catrin said, “Eighteen miles of walking is about all my feet can handle. I’m going to sit here and have another cocktail.”
“Fair enough,” Marshall said. He paused for a moment. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I’ve started dating someone.”
“Really?” Catrin said, “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations,” Nick added with zero inflection. “Anyone we know?”
“Yes,” Marshall said. He paused for a moment, “Shelby Weatherly.”
Nick’s voice showed some amusement now. “You’re dating Aunt Shelby? Wow. I guess I’ll see you at family dinners.” He added quietly, “if they still happen.”
Catrin said nothing. Marshall seemed to be waiting for her to talk, but she was busy cursing in her head. The silence reached the awkward point, passed it, then looped around again. Marshall stood. “I guess I’ll go meet up with Jack. You two have a good time.”
“You too,” Nick said, his voice flat again. Catrin and Nick watched him go. Once Marshall was inside Nick said, “I take it you used to date that guy.”
“For a while,” Catrin said, “but that was a long time ago.”
“There’s lingering feelings there though.” He said.
Nick laughed. “Another thing we have in common.”
Catrin laughed. “If you like Tilly, just make a move.”
“Tilly,” Nick said. “Right.”
“So it’s not Tilly? Agnes then?”
Nick laughed a genuine laugh. “Believe it or not, my past goes back farther than Tilly and Agnes.”
“Of course.” Catrin said, “I’m being silly. It’s just that you have a tendency to kiss members of our guild.”
“Technically only Agnes,” Nick said.
“And me,” Catrin said.
“I kissed you?”
“Seventh grade in Cindy Harvey’s basement. We were spinning the bottle.”
“I don’t remember that,” he said, “Sorry.”
“That’s ok. It’s probably for the best. You were kissing a lot of girls that night. You were Mister Popular. Besides, I told Tilly we hadn’t.”
Nick was silent for a minute. “I wish I remembered. There was other stuff going on. Stuff I don’t like to think about.”
Catrin nodded. “I really don’t mind.”
“Yeah but I do,” Nick said.
Nick went in and got them both another drink. While he was gone, Catrin pulled out her phone and listened again to the message Han had left her… “Hi. I wish you would answer the phone. I understand this is hard, but we both knew I’d be getting reassigned at some point. My offer is still open. Come to Los Angeles and stay with me. We can be happy.” She had listened to the message a dozen times. At this point the words were just words. It was the tone and the pauses she listened to. In those pauses and in that tone, she tried to determine if Han loved her. It was important, because she did not love Han, and for something like that to work, one of them at least should be in love.
Catrin put the phone away. “Damn you Marshall,” she said quietly to herself.
Nick came back out and gave her a bottle of beer. “I left the cap on because I didn’t want you to worry. I can unscrew it for you if you like.”
Catrin unscrewed it with a practiced motion. She raised the beer and he clinked it against his glass of rum and cola. “To lingering feelings,” she said.
As they sat there drinking, Catrin spotted Tilly and Aadi walking up the street. The two of them were holding hands. They both looked to be in a good mood, much better than when Aadi had left. Tilly looked over at them too. For a moment, Catrin thought she looked embarrassed, but then she smiled.
“I hope you’re having a good night,” Aadi said and the two walked past them into the hotel.
After a long moment, Catrin said, “I think someone else may have made their move on Tilly.”
“Good for them then,” Nick said.
“If she had known about your Uncle, I’m sure she would have stayed with you.”
Nick shrugged. “But that isn’t what happened. I got to talk to you instead.”
The two sat in silence for a while. The breeze off the street got cooler and Catrin shivered a little. She thought about going inside, but she felt like it was important to stay with Nick. She thought again about Han and his offer. She knew he had a condo in one of those Los Angeles high rises downtown. He’s sent her pictures. He wasn’t near the top, and it wasn’t a huge place, but it was nice and she’d be living a block away from Pershing Square, right in the heart of the biggest city on the West Coast. She could go places there. Han was a good guy too. She liked him, but she only liked him. Did it matter though?
“If you had an offer to leave Santa Creda and go live somewhere new, would you do it?”
Nick seemed to think about it for a moment, then he said, “I could leave if I wanted. I have some money, and I’m sure I could get a good price for my place. I could go wherever I wanted. I’ve thought about it plenty.”
“But you don’t do it. Why?” Catrin asked.
“I don’t know. I could come up with a lot of reasons. I have a nice place. My family is here. It’s what I know. I’m not sure any of them are really the reason though. I just don’t think moving would fix what’s wrong in my life. I’d be lonelier.”
Catrin nodded. “I get that.” She paused. “I have this offer though, to go live with someone in Los Angeles. He’s a decent guy. I don’t have a nice place here, or any family for that matter, so I guess the main thing is that this is what I know.”
Nick was quiet for a bit, then he said, “Are you renting here?”
“I am,” Catrin said, “It’s a crappy little studio apartment. The fountain in the courtyard doesn’t even work and half the washing machines are broken.”
“How much do you pay in rent?” He asked. Catrin told him. Nick said, “I have a spare room if you want it. Pay me what you’re paying now and you can trade a shitty studio apartment for a cute little place by the beach.
“Are you serious?” Catrin asked.
“If you’d like. I’m relatively neat and I don’t walk around naked or anything. I spend most of my time on the patio reading. I hope that gives you another option, better than a shitty apartment or moving away. Still, I get it if you want to go.”
“Why would you want me to move in with you?”
“It might be nice to…” he paused. “I think my life is going to get more complicated, and it would be good to have an ally. Like I said, I’m lonely.”
Catrin thought about Han, then thought about Marshall. She thought for a while. “If you mean it,” she said, “I’m interested.”