Maple Lane Manor, by Cree Walker
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Author's Website/Blog: http://creewalker.com/
Maple Lane returns to the retirement home where she grew up, after ten years away, and must face the music. How can she rebuild the dilapidated building, repay a massive mortgage, and restore her residents’ faith in her with her arch-nemesis – Stacy Three Names – breathing down her neck, hungry for an artifact said to grant immortality? As Stacy sabotages Maple’s efforts, the gorgeous new handyman Derek complicates matters with his demon blood and hot attraction.
How can Maple and her residents fight Stacy, find the artifact, and save their home with the rich and powerful of the town arrayed against them?
…And can she trust a demon to help her?
I stepped off the little twin engine plane, feeling the first flutter of nervousness. Though I loved my Granny Nan dearly, I hadn’t actually been home once since I started my lengthy college experience nearly ten years ago. Part of the reason I’d chosen to attend school nearly two thousand miles away was because I was living in the now, not sitting in a retirement home waiting to die and talking about the good old days. I told myself the night I left that I would not go to one more funeral. I would not attend one more wake and I would not read one more obituary. For those of you who don’t know, these make up some very intoxicating pastimes for the elderly, and though the current crew of the Manor was pretty healthy, I wasn’t going to risk sticking around to find out if I was wrong. Up ’til now I believed they’d had their lives, so it was my turn and, unlike my Granny Nan and a long line of her predecessors, I wasn’t wasting mine on them. A decade of wasted reality had altered that perspective and I found out the hard way where my fate truly lay.
I snorted as I grabbed my pink leopard-print suitcase. It was vintage Louie and a gift from Vie on the night of my high school graduation. It was the only old thing I owned and I only kept it out of respect for Vie and her history of traveling around the world with it. Otherwise, old things had an expiration date just like people, and since I had yet to make my own history I refused to own anything that the factory had more than one of.
Walter was waiting for me in the house car. The car was a vintage nineteen twenty-three Mercedes-Benz. It was a very cool car but not very practical in eastern Massachusetts during the winter months. Fortunately, tonight was a humid eighty-seven degree June evening.
I tried not to react to how shockingly old Walter had grown in the ten years I’d been away. He grumbled something about moving my ass because The Wheel was about to start. The Wheel – better known to the rest of the world as Wheel of Fortune – made that small half hour slot a religious gathering for its residents. I wasn’t sure if it was all the lights and glitter or if it was Vanna White, an eighth vampire by the way, strutting her stuff and pressing buttons, but the residents of Maple Lane didn’t miss it. Ever. Events were scheduled around that sacred half hour, even seeing me off when I’d left the Manor for the last time ten years ago. I remember walking out the door with Granny Nan and waving over my shoulder as they all sat hypnotized by the glowing television screen. Nobody even moved.
“Nice to see you too, Walter,” I said sweetly. Walter’s appearance might have aged, but his unwavering grumpy scowl was steadfast as ever.
He grumbled again and peered out at the road through impressive Coke bottle glasses.
Walter had always been a man of few words, but since I’d left, even those words had become non-existent. Werewolves are nothing if not a loyal bunch, and to Walter I’d abandoned them because I didn’t respect or love them anymore. At least that’s what Granny Nan told me when he refused to talk to me on the phone.
I would have continued to push for conversation, but I was too busy gripping the door handle for the duration of the ride. His vision had been pretty bad ten years ago, and I was pretty sure he was now legally blind. I would have offered to drive, but that would have entailed him pulling to the side of the road and I wasn’t sure if I should risk that proximity to the ditch or the telephone poles.
We screeched to a halt in the Manor’s driveway safe and sound, if you didn’t count my elevated blood pressure, and Walter got out and went inside without so much as a hello. With shaky hands I fumbled the door open and angled out of the low-riding antique automobile. I lugged my bag out of the tiny backseat and looked up at the not-so-splendid wonder of Maple Lane. I blinked up several times at the ramshackle mansion and sighed. Even in the twilight I could see it needed paint and a new roof. The lawn needed serious help, and the overall appearance of the house was that it looked haunted. Ironically, the one thing Maple Lane lacked was a ghost.
The door slammed behind me, and I cringed at the noise. But everyone was seated in the parlor staring slack-jawed and wide-eyed at the colorful screen as the ratcheting sound of the sacred wheel was spun. I couldn’t help but smile at the sight before me. Vie sat in the faded orange, overstuffed wingback chair she’d dubbed “the throne.” Walter had plunked himself down in a beat-up brown La-Z-Boy less than four feet from the screen so he could see, and Willow and Alex shared the couch. Both had their legs crossed in lotus position.
I waited patiently for a commercial before announcing a friendly hello to everyone.
Walter ignored me, Willow nodded, Alex flashed me a peace sign, and Vie sighed and rose to her feet to give me a welcoming hug. She patted my hair and whispered how sorry she was that my Nan had passed so unexpectedly.
Willow and Alex scooted to the ends of the couch so I could sit between them and suddenly I was a little girl again, watching The Wheel with my strange extended family. I enjoyed those few moments of remembered bliss until Jeopardy came on and Alexander clicked off the television.
“So are you going to sell this old heap?” Walter snapped suddenly. This was rude even for Walter.
“Why would I sell this place? It’s our home.”
“Walter!” Vie said sharply.
“We’ve got a right to know what she’s going to do, don’t we?” Walter countered.
When nobody else spoke and every eye in the house focused on me expectantly, I cleared my throat. “I love this old house.”
“How do you plan to maintain it?” Walter asked. “Your grandmother sank most of her savings into your college experience. I supported her at first, thinking maybe one day you’d wise up and get your head out of the clouds, but you’ve managed to be the only person on Earth to attend college for a decade without getting a single degree in anything. How does one do that, exactly?”
One drops out of classes before completing them, I thought to myself.
“Walter!” Vie hissed again.
“No, woman. She needs to hear the truth of it. If she’s ever going to grow up she needs to be treated like an adult.”
Vie hissed at him and it sounded like a protective mother cat standing over her kitten.
The elderly werewolf snarled back at her, but broke into a cough and wheezed from the effort.
I sighed as I waited patiently for Walter’s temper and coughing fit to dissipate. “No, he’s right.” I nodded to the group. “I hadn’t realized that Granny had sacrificed so much for my schooling, but it’s time for me to grow up.”
“Too little, too late,” Walter barked. “This place is too far gone for some flighty little girl without a degree – or a job, I might add – to fix it. You’ll never get this old dump up and running again and the longer you wait, the lower its market value will go. Time is no longer on your side, young lady.”
I narrowed my eyes at his challenge. “We’ll see about that, you old dog,” I said, throwing a little of his venom back at him.
He glared his optically enlarged eyes right back at me. “You haven’t finished a thing in your life, little girl. I don’t expect the biggest challenge of it to be the first thing you manage to complete.”
I crossed my arms. “I’ll take your bet.”
There was an audible ugly gasp as everyone in the room sucked in a breath. My grandmother had very few rules in her house, and “no betting” was number one on that list. But Granny Nan wasn’t here.
“If I do get this place up and running again, what do I get in return?” I asked the group.
“How about the satisfaction of knowing you’ve finally accomplished something?” Walter sneered.
“How about that collection of baseball cards you keep under your bed?” I countered with a raised eyebrow.
Then I looked at Vie. “And I want Marilyn’s shoes.”
I looked to the wizard next. “Alex…you’ve got to shave your beard and cut your hair if I do this, and, – ” I turned to Willow, who reeked of peppermint schnapps, “ – I want you to stop drinking before noon. How’s that sound?”
“What do we get in return?” Walter argued.
“How about the satisfaction of knowing you have a place to live and a bed to sleep in at night?” I shot back.
Walter thought on it long and hard. “We need to come up with a time frame to decide if we’re just fighting a losing battle or if you’re here for the long haul.”
“A year,” I said.
Walter snorted. “The way the housing market is crashing I wouldn’t give you a month before you decide it’s too hard and quit.”
“Six months,” Vie interjected. “We have to give her a fighting chance to actually do something.”
“We’ll vote on it!” Willow announced suddenly in her soft little voice.
In the end I got six months, but I think it was only because half of them hoped to be dead and gone by the time my trial period was up. The deal was I had to improve the house and catch up on the bills.
Oh, and not quit.