Out of the Ash Soars Hope

The house was so empty, so funeral-parlour quiet. My steps echoed as I wandered through, looking for – what? Forgotten shards of a life together crumbled into bits? Signs that this was a dream? There was no fog, no distorting images, only the fog in my head and the blurred vision from my tears. The squeaky floorboards grated my scraped raw soul.

“Are you coming?” Jody, my sister (and sometimes friend, mostly foe), called from the front door.

“Just go, I’ll be there in a sec.” I opened the cellar door with half a mind to go down and check no boxes or broken bits of my heart were left behind.

“You’ve been through the house twenty times already. Let’s go. I’ve got stuff to do.”

I slammed the cellar door, grief quickly becoming anger. “Fine.”

Jody waited until I’d crossed the deck before closing the door on my life. I could break windows, force my way in if I wanted, but for what? The house was a barren wasteland of what once was. “Hurry up; I swear, if you went any slower you’d be going backwards.”

Jody brushed past me and slid into the driver’s seat of her pick-up truck, loaded down with the last of my possessions. The small garden lining the front of the deck, mostly weeds for the past few years, was full of dead leaves. Not a single bloom in sight, no sign of cheer or hope.

I climbed into the truck. Before I’d even reached for my seatbelt, Jody was reversing. “Where are you going to keep your crap? I haven’t got room.”

“Dad said I could keep some in the garage.” I didn’t bother with the seatbelt. Jody was racing out of town like there was a fire to get to; if I was lucky we’d crash, and I’d burn.

“Yeah, because he doesn’t have enough junk.” Jody rolled her eyes as she swerved around a car in her path.

Our father was a hoarder. Not an exaggeration, either. A legit, defined the word, bona-fide hoarder. “Not my first choice, but –”

Jody shrugged as she slammed on her brakes for a red light. “How long do plan on staying with me?”

Translation – how long will your sorry butt be a burden. “Not long.”

“You know I’ll ride your behind ’til you actually get out, don’t you?” We’d just left town and I knew Jody hated this light because it stopped her from standing on the gas and putting miles between her and my town. Not my town anymore, I corrected myself.

I nodded, leaning my forehead against the glass and staring out the window at the countryside. My sister and my mother had fought, actually screamed and almost come to blows, over who had to take me in. Jody lost.

Jody put her hand on the centre of the steering wheel, the horn shrieking louder than a cat whose tail was pinned beneath an attacking coyote. The driver of the car she was honking at flipped her the bird but finally moved. “Most people have friends to take them in.”

My eyes burned but there were no tears left to spill. Friends? I’d thought I’d had some, but turns out doing favours for people doesn’t make you a friend. I tuned Jody out as I tried to figure out what to do next. Get out of Jody’s hair as soon as I could was top of the list, and I hadn’t even officially moved in yet. The truck bounced over a pothole and my forehead smacked the glass.

Jody snorted. “Pathetic. Look, I’ll get the boys to take the boxes and stuff to the garage, better there than Dad’s. Rick’ll bring your clothes into your room.”

I glanced at Jody, searching for the angle. “Why?”

Jody blew out a breath, her dark hair rising off her forehead. “Because anything else right now would be like kicking a kitten.”

*

I lay on the sofa, staring at the water-stained ceiling tiles. The thump-thump-thump of rap, mixed with the twang of country music was a constant, never-ending din in my sister’s basement. The only thing missing was the wailing of heavy metal. Each male in Jody’s house had a different music taste, and each played to win the contest of who listens to crap the loudest. I’d been staying in her tiny make-shift room for a week, and about all I’d figured out in life was that I could tell who was home by the noise.

“Ash, get up!” Jody banged something on the pipes outside my room.

I groaned, rolling myself to sitting position. “What?”

When Jody didn’t answer, I got to my feet. My body protested, aches on pains on stiff muscles screamed with each step. I flung back the shower curtain Rick had hung so I’d have privacy. I heard Jody in the laundry area and followed the sound of running water.

“What?” I repeated my question as Jody shoved dark clothes into the washer and reached for more.

I was about to repeat myself when Jody paused in the act of pulling men’s boxers from a pair of black jeans. “Doug called. He’s dropping by.”

I hated the flash of hope that winked through the darkness in my heart, like someone taking a picture with the flash on in a tunnel. “When?”

Jody’s blue eyes, so like my own, so like our father’s, filled with anger. “An hour or so. You’re pathetic. You’re happy, aren’t you?”

Happy? What was that? Nothing I knew, at least not for a long time. “Hardly.”

Jody put a pair of pants into the machine and slammed the lid. Grabbing the basket of clean clothes from the top of the dryer, she shoved past me. “Do yourself a favour and get mad. This pathetic wounded little mouse routine is getting old, and fast.”

Ignoring Jody, I scrounged up some respectable clothes and went into the tiny washroom beside the laundry room. With the washing machine running the water barely got warm, or else someone had used all the hot water already. I got out and wrapped a towel around me as I tried to comb my hair. The tangles from neglect were as tangled as my emotions. Doug, coming here, to see me? Why was I nervous, excited? I should be furious, like Jody said. Even Rick and the boys said I should get spiteful, soak Doug for more.

My clothes were loose. Not like I couldn’t afford to lose a few pounds, at least according to Doug. I didn’t bother with make-up because the mirror down here was cracked and hard to see in. Besides, I knew Jody would throw a fit if she saw blush on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, scream that I was gussying myself up for trash.

I slid my socked feet into a pair of Jody’s running shoes (all my footwear were either ripped or slippers) and climbed the steep stairs to the main floor. The music was down to country and barely audible. Either the boys were out and Rick didn’t need to compete, or Jody was home alone and tired of loud. I knew better than to ask Jody if I could make a pot of coffee for when Doug came, so I searched for tea bags in case he wanted something to drink.

“Don’t bother. He’s not coming in.” Jody slammed the cupboard door where I was looking, almost catching my fingers.

“I could make it and bring it outside,” I said, reaching to open the door again.

Jody shook her head. “Said he just needed to ask you something, or whatever. I wasn’t listening, really.”

“Ask me what?” I stared at Jody, biting my lip.

Jody shrugged as she grabbed an apple from the bowl. “How would I know? Why would I care?”

I opened my mouth but closed it when I heard the roar of Doug’s pride and joy coming up the drive. “He’s here.”

Jody rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”

I smoothed my long hair and wiped my hands on my pants. “How do I –”

Jody glared at me. “I’d only answer that if I thought you were aiming to make him regret life choices, but since I know better, I’ll leave it as pathetic.”

I heard the blast of classic rock music as he opened the car door. I swallowed the bile rising as I opened the screen door to step outside. “Hey.”

My husband of twenty-three years stood by his shiny car, staring up at me. He was forty-seven years old (five years older than me), handsome as sin, and got better with age, like whisky. Or so Doug said, at least. I could see the paunch hanging over his jeans, the grey at his temples, but they didn’t bother me. I’d fallen in love at first sight, never imagined such a virile and sexy guy could ever look twice at mousy me.

I went down the uneven porch steps, wanting to run into his arms and kiss him. Instead, I stood awkwardly a few feet away. He still hadn’t spoken a word, so I repeated my greeting. “Hey.”

“You need a haircut.” Doug frowned and seemed to reconsider his words. “Sorry.”

Bolstered by the foreign apology, I took a deep breath. “I know. I shouldn’t have skipped my appointment last month with Rhoda.”

“None of my business,” Doug shrugged, and I saw him look into the front seat of his car. I followed his gaze, spotted Crystal. Any hope I’d had caught fire inside me and I felt rage ignite from the flames.

“You brought her? To my sister’s house?” I squared my shoulders, fury fanning the flames. “You’re pathetic. Nearly fifty and you’re running around with a little girl.”

Doug raised his eyebrows at my tone, my words. “What?”

“You’re a sad and pathetic old man trying to feel young by running around with kids.” I pushed my sleeves up and kicked the gravel so that little stones hit his shins.

“Calm down, Ashley. Geez, you’re acting like a lunatic.”

“What do you want, Doug?” I spat his name.

Doug looked unsure what to say because of my temper. I guess he’d expected another puddle of oozing devastation. “I reconsidered – not about us, but about the settlement. I’m not bein’ fair, really. If you wanna sign right now, we can be divorced in thirty days, I won’t contest the last offer.”

I stared at him, open mouthed. He’d fought anything my lawyer asked of him, the smallest pittance I hadn’t even asked for. My lawyer, frustrated at my lack of demands, had made his own. “You want me to sign? You’re willing to give me half of everything?”

Doug’s eyes widened in surprise. “No, of course not. I just thought we could sign off on what your lawyer proposed last time. You know, half my pension and what you put into buying the house.”

The words my lawyer had uttered, over and over, during my apathy, came to me now. “No, Doug. I’m thinking we need to forget mediation and go full throttle on the divorce. I want half of everything. Half of your pension, half of your bank accounts, and half of what you sold my house for. Half your fancy car. You can have the trunk, I just want the motor. Oh, and I want alimony until I find a job that pays a decent wage. You know, because minimum wage is nothing. I gave up everything for you. Now I want you to give up everything for me.”

I started backing away when what I really wanted to do was charge him, punch, hit, maim him. Doug had never seen me mad, and he underestimated my rage. “Well now, that might be a problem, Ashley. Crystal’s pregnant.”

Hysterical laughter bubbled from my gut. “Guess you’re really in it now, aren’t you? Your lawyer fees just doubled since I don’t have a job – because of you – I’ll be demanding you pay for my lawyer, too.”

Doug rearranged his features into the mask he’d worn whenever he wanted to get me to agree to something I didn’t like. How had I never noticed how weak chinned he was? How utterly unattractive? “Babe, come on, be reasonable. You don’t want a child to be born into misery, do you?”

I glanced at the nasty young woman in the front seat, the one who’d known full well she was messing with a married man, my married man. Then I locked gazes with Doug. “I’m thinking you underestimate me, Doug.”

I spun on my heel, darted up the steps. Jody met me at the door. Her high five stung my palm, but I grinned. “Welcome back, Ash.”

“Thanks. Now get the boys to set me up a proper bed downstairs, because that lumpy sofa is gonna kill me.”

*

“I’m riding shotgun with Auntie Ash,” Clint, my oldest nephew, shouted as he ran out of the house.

“I was gonna let you drive!” Jody shouted after him.

Clint skidded on the gravel, his gaze swinging from my brand-new Jeep to his mother’s dusty pick-up truck. His indecision cost him; Brent tore past his older brother and hopped into the Jeep. Clint snatched the keys from Jody’s hand and climbed in.

I led the way down Jody and Rick’s rutted driveway, waving at Rick who was cutting the grass as I passed. “You get to pick alternative rock or eighties and nineties pop music. Or silence.”

Brent, the heavy metal lover, shrugged and started pressing preset buttons for the radio. I slapped his hand when he reached for the volume button. “No louder.”

“You’re really going to move out?” Brent asked, strumming his thigh to the music.

“Yeah. Maybe next month, if your mom agrees with me that this is the one.” I glanced in the rearview and grinned. Jody’s face was pale in the passenger seat, and Clint, new to driving, was being left in my dust. I adjusted my speed so that I wasn’t too far ahead of them.

“I can’t believe you’ve never owned a car before.” Brent stared at me as if hoping to catch me admitting I’d lied.

“Never. Only time I was allowed to drive was when Uncle Doug was drinking, drunk enough to admit he shouldn’t drive.” And then I’d been scared to death, because Doug shouted warnings every minute, scared I’d scratch his baby.

“Do I still have to call him that?” Brent asked with a scowl. “I never liked him much.”

I wondered if the aches would ever stop. I’d resigned myself to life without him, but there were still the lingering feelings that reached out to slap me now and then. “No, you don’t have to call him uncle.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of Doug. Can I call him Uncle Dung?”

I grinned at my nephew, the spitting image of Jody. I supposed of me, too, since Jody and I looked so much alike. “How about just call him Dung?”

“Can I call his new wife Dung-for-brains?” Brent considered as I snorted a laugh. “And the kid Baby Dung?”

“Maybe leave the kid out of it.” I was jealous yet still protective of the unborn baby that symbolized everything I’d lost. Doug kept promising next year, next year we’d start our family. But then he’d say stuff like we needed a bigger house, or work was too busy to think about a family — work he couldn’t have done if I hadn’t worked my tail off to support us both while he went to trade school (which he’d failed twice – once in plumbing, and then his first attempt when he switched to electrician). He’d finally ended up passing, become a master electrician, and we’d been in debt up the wazoo from student loans. Yet Doug had convinced me to quit my job because he was humiliated when his boss told the other guys I was one of the maids working for the service his wife hired. Doug wanted me home, anyhow. I’d taken over all household chores, even cut the grass and shoveled the driveway. We lived in town, within walking distance to everything, so Doug hadn’t seen the need to get me a car.

I’d been divorced for a few weeks and still trying to wrap my head around Doug’s deceptions. The only household chore Doug handled was the banking. He gave me a cash allowance every month and I kept receipts to show what I’d spent money on. He’d complain about the mortgage payments, the household bills, said we barely made ends meet. I’d offer to go back to work, but he’d say no, I wasn’t qualified to do anything outside the minimum wage bracket so what was the point? I should be grateful he supported me. Even his stupid car — I’d had no idea how much he’d spent on it, what it was worth. He’d even lied to me about how much he’d sold our little house for, offered me the money I’d put in on the downpayment and twenty thousand extra. My lawyer had laughed bitterly, even Doug’s lawyer had tried to hide his face in shame for what I was offered for settlement. When the secrets Doug had kept were fully exposed, I’d felt like I’d won the lottery. Best of all was that I’d finally felt absolved of guilt for keeping my own secrets for years.

“Auntie Ash?” Brent cleared his throat.

I glanced at Brent, jerked from my thoughts by his voice. “Sorry?”

“Uh, just that I think we’re almost there.” Brent smiled sheepishly at me and I realized he was right.

I parked in front of the building. Clint parked behind me and I flashed him the thumb’s up when he’d finished a perfect parallel park. Grabbing my purse, I slid out of the Jeep. “Good job.”

Jody, looking green, glared at me. “Don’t encourage him.”

“This is why I prefer driving with Dad. You’re like this hysterical girl or something. Too fast, too slow, too close to the ditch, you almost hit that car passing.”

I hadn’t seen anything wrong with Clint’s driving, at least not when I’d been paying attention. “Tell you what, when we leave, you can drive the Jeep home.”

“Good thing it’s got an off-road feature, you’ll need it with him,” Jody muttered in my ear as we approached the store front.

I pulled the door open, my eyes adjusting to the dim interior. The scent of stale grease and grime wrinkled my nose. “Laurie? You here?”

My realtor, a woman I’d gone to school with, came out of the back. “Ash, hey. Jody? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

Jody was swept up in a flowery scented hug and I realized my mistake. Jody hadn’t gotten along with many of the girls in our high school, and the girlier the girl, the less she’d tolerated them. Laurie had been the girliest of them all. Freeing herself from Laurie’s clutches, Jody took two steps back, her forced smile making her look constipated. “Hey, Laurie.”

“Did you use John when you bought the farm?” Laurie’s shrewd gaze pierced Jody. “Happy there? If you’re thinking of selling, I know –”

“Didn’t buy, just transferred ownership from Rick’s parents. Not selling. I’m here to scrutinize for my sister.” Jody shot me a look that spurred me into action.

“Okay, so. Laurie? Mind if I take the tour alone? I mean, alone with my sister and the boys. I want their honest opinion, but don’t want them being, er…”

“She doesn’t want you to influence us.” Brent thrust his chest out proudly. “She values our opinion and there’s nothin’ in it for us.”

Laurie covered her irritation with polished poise. “Right, well, go on then.”

Jody gave the agent a wide berth as we made our way to the back of the store. “You could’ve warned me.”

“I wasn’t thinking. It’s so weird, being back here. Whenever we came to visit, Doug never went through town. Not a lot of Brock peeps where we lived. Now, come on.”

“Show us the living area, first.” Jody averted her gaze from the filthy mess in the back. “Because if you start here, we’re gonna have to say no.”

“I can only show you the one empty apartment. It’ll be mine, but the other one is rented. A single mother with a teenage girl.” I opened the door at the back and revealed a hidden set of stairs. “There’s an outside entrance too, I can seal this one off if I ever decide to move and rent it out.”

“Who’s the girl?” Clint asked as we trudged up the narrow steps.

“I don’t know her name. The mom’s name is Beth Martin, if that helps.” I reached the small landing and put my hand on the knob. I took a deep breath and opened the door, letting the boys and Jody go in first.

“Bright, good space,” Jody mumbled as she went to the double windows where the living room would be. “Good view of the river below. You got a balcony?”

I snorted. “You’re looking at it.”

Brent peered out. “I just see the fire escape.”

Clint opened the window and climbed out. “Oh, er. Hi, Mandy.”

I stood behind Brent and peeked, wondering who Mandy was. I realized Clint had caught Beth’s daughter on their fire escape. Brent snorted. “Clint’s gonna be here a lot.”

“That’s the Mandy? The one Clint’s been raving about for months?” I took a better look at the girl. “She’s cute.”

Jody pulled us over to the kitchen. “Don’t embarrass him.”

“Yeah, Aunt Ash. He’s good at embarrassing himself, he doesn’t need our help.” Brent snickered. “Look, he keeps fixing his hair.”

Jody opened the oven, ran the water in the sink. “Cleaner than downstairs at least.”

“It’s small, I know, but –” I bit my lip as Jody searched the cupboards and small pantry.

“Mom! There’s two bedrooms, come see,” Brent called from the other end of the apartment. “We can spy on Clint.”

“Get out of there,” Jody yelled. “Where’s the bathroom?”

I pointed to the door between the two bedrooms. The bigger bedroom faced the riverside of the building and the other faced the street. The bathroom had no window. “It’s small.”

Jody ran the tap in the sink, the tub, flushed the toilet. She turned the shower on. “At least the plumbing seems decent. Good water pressure.”

“There’s an inline water heater downstairs. Each tenant pays a portion of the water and gas bills. Each unit has their own hook up and metre for hydro.” I bit my lip as Jody continued her inspection, checking closets, bedrooms, ceilings in all the rooms. “The roof is fairly new. Previous owner before the one selling did a lot of upgrades and fixing up in the past ten years or so.”

“Yeah, and current owner is some city slicker guy. Only owned it a few months. Why’s he selling?”

“He owes back taxes or something.” I averted my gaze, heard Jody’s snort. I huffed out a breath as I stared at her smug face. “Fine, obviously you know the whole story.”

Jody grinned. “Yep. The greasy spoon downstairs was a front for a drug ring. You forget the power of Brock’s gossip and news flow.”

I hunched my shoulders. “You don’t think I should buy it?”

Jody shook her head and my heart sank. “I didn’t say that.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I think, for once, you’re being really smart, little sister. I’ve heard Beth Martin’s had a rough go, she’s working hard to get ahead after a bad marriage. She’s determined to make it, and she’s got a decent job at the coffee shop so you’re guaranteed her rent. The little odds and ends store downstairs is fairly new and no one knew if it’d last but it’s holding it’s own, so you got that rent, too.”

Feeling more confident, I nodded. “Glad you think it’s a good idea. I already bought it.”

Jody gaped at me. “What?”

“I’m just here for the keys, to sign some final papers. This is mine, all mine.” I threw my hands out as I spun in circles. “I’ve run the numbers. The place is cheap because of the whole drug guy desperate to sell. The renters will cover bills and property taxes.”

“How will you eat, Auntie Ash?” Brent came out of the big bedroom, obviously bored of spying on Clint and Mandy. “That’s what Dad said, when he and Mom were talking this morning, that you’re smart except that you’ll have to go to the food bank unless you rent the downstairs quick.”

“That’s the other part. I want to open a business.”

*

Excitement and nervous energy kept me moving. Opening day, ribbon cutting with the mayor, photographer from the small Brock news outlet. Half the town would show up because everyone wanted to have first-hand gossip to spread, didn’t want to hear from anyone else what they’d missed. Jury was out on how I’d be received.

“Man, it smells great in here.” Rick stopped by the apartment door and sniffed. “Jody, why doesn’t our kitchen ever smell so good?”

Jody stuck her head out from behind the cabinet she was inspecting. “Careful, or you’ll never smell food cooking in our kitchen again.”

“Ms. Anders?”

I wiped the spotless work surface for something to do. I had slow cookers running, ovens going, stove tops with bubbling pots.

“Ms. Anders?”

“Yo, Auntie Ash. I think Mandy’s talking to you.” Brent snorted as he nudged me.

I glanced up, caught off guard. “What? Oh, sorry, Mandy. It’s been a lifetime since I’ve been Ashley Anders, I guess. What’s up?”

“The health department just finished their final check.”

I swallowed around the lump forming in my throat. I felt like I was walking to the firing squad with each step I took. “Did you, er, get a feeling?”

Mandy shook her head. “I’m sorry. That guy is cranky, hard to tell.”

“It’s fine, Ash. Go on.” Rick patted my shoulder as Jody gave me the thumbs up. Even Clint managed to keep his eyes off Mandy as he nudged me through the door.

The old guy with the clipboard was writing away when I entered the main part. I didn’t want to interrupt so I went to the desk and fiddled with pamphlets.

“Okay, Ms. Anders.” He tore off some papers from his clipboard. “Well done.”

I blinked. “Pardon?”

He smirked as he held the papers, waving them. “Go on, take them.”

I wiped my sweaty hands on my apron before grabbing the papers. My hands shook and I almost dropped them in my haste to read. The papers fluttered and I finally gave up trying to steady them. “I passed?”

“With flying colours. You know your stuff, and I like the extra temperature gauges for cooked foods, freezers, everything. I’d say you’ve gone way overboard, above and beyond, but in my line of work I don’t believe there’s any such thing as too many safety precautions. I know the fire chief gave you an outstanding evaluation, too, for all the CO2 detectors, the smoke detectors.”

Jody joined us, clapping. “I’ll let you have that I told you so.”

I grinned at my sister who’d scoffed at all the extra precautions I’d invested in. “I passed. I can open.”

“I want to be happy for you but I was kind of hoping you’d fail so we’d have to eat everything.” Rick put his arm around Jody and winced when she elbowed his ribs. “Kidding. I was kidding.”

“I’ll get out of here after I hang your certicate.” The old guy shuffled over to the wall I’d shown him. I had all my food handler certificates, my business license, everything hanging in place of pride behind the computer – the computer that I’d enter sales into, the computer I’d crash-coursed how to run a business.

“There’s a bit of a crowd out there. I think I’ll let myself out through the back.” The old guy shook my hand and shuffled into the off-limits cooking area.

“Okay, you still want to speak to the reporter for the local paper? She’d asked for an interview before the official opening, and you’re running out of time. I can tell her you’ll call her later, if you want?” Jody stood on tiptoe to see into the crowd. “She’s there, near the corner.”

“I’d rather get it over with.” I swallowed as Rick knocked on the glass near where Liz stood. She nodded her understanding as he gestured to the back.

“What am I supposed to say?” I gripped Jody’s arm as Brent raced around to let her in. “I don’t even remember her from school.”

“You wouldn’t. She went to school with Doug. Next county over.”

I groaned, feeling my shoulders sag. “Seriously? Why didn’t you tell me? Why’s she working for Brock news?”

“She lives here now, dummy.” Jody rolled her eyes. “Mom set the whole thing up and Liz agreed to leave Doug out of the article.”

“Mrs. Hague?” Liz came into the store area, her face all business.

“Ms. Anders. But you can call me Ash.” I shook her hand as I gestured to a small table. “We can sit down if you’d like.”

“It’s fine. My photographer is taking pictures in the back, guarded by your nephew. He’ll come out here, take a couple of you and the store, then we’ll be on our way.”

I relaxed. “Oh, good. I thought you wanted an interview.”

Liz grinned, pulling out a recorder. “I’m going to record our conversation and pick any relevant bits out for the article. So, Mama’s Little Helper, huh?”

I eyed the device, swallowed. “Yep.”

“Relax, okay? Tell me about your business.”

When I didn’t speak, Jody jumped in. “I’m sure our mother told you everything.”

“Yes, she told me that Ash knew how hard it was for working parents to put decent meals on the table, get chores done.”

“That’s right. Ash is brilliant, honestly.” I gaped at Jody, shocked to my core at the praise.

Liz kept glancing at me but I didn’t have anything to add. “So then, in a nutshell, you sell homecooked meals for families?”

Jody nodded, but I frowned. “It’s more than that.”

“How?”

“Being a housewife for years, I got bored of meat and potatoes. I started watching cooking shows on TV. Started preparing a variety of healthy meals for my husband, figuring one day I’d be cooking for a family of my own. My husband didn’t like leftovers, so I started giving my neighbour our left overs. She worked two jobs, and rarely had time to cook for herself.”

Liz nodded. “I can understand that.”

“When she moved away, I was stuck. I’d have a fridge full of leftovers, no matter how hard I tried to buy only enough for the two of us.” I remembered running plates of food next door when a young family moved in, how appreciative they were. “I’d help out neighbours, sometimes they’d offer to pay me to cook for them, provided the food even.”

“You started a business?” Liz asked.

“No, not really. Just helping out others.” I shrugged. “But I’d listen to them, heard the woes. How hard to find time to cook decent meals, how hard it was to get all the chores done.”

“And you figured you could help?” Liz smiled. “Mama’s little helper. I get it now.”

“But it’s more than just food. I’ve made a deal with the laundromat down the street. Parents can bring their laundry here, and pick it up the next day, folded and ironed. Joint effort, the laundromat will wash and dry when they’re not busy, I’ll iron and fold. My nephews and some of their friends, are willing to cut grass, shovel snow, as needed. I’ve got a whole list of babysitters with references I can give them, help take the leg work out of finding someone.”

“Wow.” Liz’s face lit up. “Where were you when my kids were little?”

Dreaming of a family of my own. I shook my head, pushing the negative thoughts away. “Practicing for the future.”

The photographer came in, snapping a couple of photos. “What’s in here?”

I glanced at the fridge. “Oh, those are sides, like pasta salads and things. You can buy tubs of them, or small serving sizes for lunches. The containers everything is in are microwaveable, dishwasher safe. You pay a deposit on them, and if you want to keep them, they’re yours, but if you bring them back, rinsed out, you get your deposit back. We’ve got industrial dishwashers to wash and sterilize so they can be reused. The precooked meals that can go in the oven to warm have higher deposits because they’re sturdier dishes for the oven. Basically the deposit covers my cost for them, and is refundable when returned.”

“All homecooked meals, all healthy?” Liz shook her head, amazed.

“Yes. And if you want something but we don’t have it, we’ll make sure we get it. Oh, and we also have prepackaged slow cooker meals. All the ingredients needed, with cooking instructions, so you can come home to a freshly cooked meal. We also have order forms, to order a week at a time, ready for pick up. Every day we cook fresh food, various meals, that we’ll freeze if not sold. The theory being that sometimes people end up working late and don’t want to have to grab fast food or preservative laden freezer meals from the grocery store. Call and find out what’s being cooked and fresh that day, or order a frozen choice. If really time crunched, we’ll deliver.”

“Ash? It’s opening time.” Jody went to the door, flipped the sign to open.

I swiped my hands down my sides, smoothing my clothes and wiping the sudden moisture on my palms.

“Lose the apron, Ms. Anders.” Mandy tugged the tie at my back.

“Thanks. I knew I’d hired you for a reason.” I grinned as Mandy tucked the apron under the counter.

I went to the door, unlocked it. The mayor was there, and most of the town by the looks of it. Liz and her photographer slid out beside me.

“Ready?”

I nodded, reaching for Jody’s hand. The mayor beamed at me and the Chamber of Commerce president nodded. They said a few words, none of which I could hear over the pounding of my heart and the murmurs from the crowd. Then it was done, and my little store was packed.

“Do you smell that?”

“I’m suddenly starving.”

“There’s laundry service? I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

I gaped at Jody, listening to the remarks. “Jody, is it just me, or do they sound positive?”

“More than positive. I just heard someone shouting about how you even do holiday meals, they’ll never have to cook another turkey.”

I shook hands, nodded, watched containers fly out of fridges and freezers. Mandy and Clint were running the cash, Brent helping keep the traffic flowing. Rick brought out stock from the freezers in the back when supplies ran low. Jody kept checking on the food cooking, selling almost everything I’d planned to freeze.

By closing time, I was wiped. When the last of the people left, I staggered to the small table and dropped. “What just happened?”

“Mom! Come see!” Clint hollered from the computer.

I watched Jody rush over, prepared myself for a nightmare. Jody swore. “If you’re going to tell me that the system didn’t work, can you just lie to me instead? I don’t want anything to ruin my mood.”

Jody shook her head. “Remember you’re projected totals? You had the minimum you needed to make every day, then you had your fantasy total?”

I stifled a yawn. “Yeah. What about them?”

“What if I told you you’d hit your fantasy?” Jody grinned.

I blinked, stretched. “Not bad at all.”

Jody frowned. “Your fantasy for the month, dummy. You sold your dream goal for the month in a half day.”

I stared at Jody, then scanned the room. “What are you all standing around for? Do you know how much we’ve got to cook to replace what was sold?”

“I’m out of here. I’ve got cows to milk,” Rick snorted as he bent over to kiss my head.

“You need to go through the resumes.” Jody shook her head. “I’ve got enough to do at home, I can’t keep helping you cook.”

“What resumes?” My heart was pounding. A solid week, I’d been cooking for a solid week to make enough food, round the clock, and now? I had to start over.

“These.” Mandy brought me a few pages. “I put them in order, who looked like good candidates. The top one? She’s my old family studies teacher. She retired but she’s bored. That’s what she said, anyhow. Said she never had you in her class, though.”

“I never took it. Never had any interest in cooking.” I laughed as I thumbed through the pages. “I’ll start calling once I get the ovens going.”

“Already cleaned the slow cookers and pans, so you’re set. My mom’s coming down when she’s out of the shower, said she’d give you hand prepping.”

“She’s hired. Tell her to quit the coffee shop. I’ll hire the teacher, your mom, and what’s-his-name, the retired chef guy.” I yawned, pushing myself to my feet.

“I guess now wouldn’t be a good time to discuss expansion plans?” Clint glanced at his mom, then back at me.

I squinted. “What expansion plans?”

“I kept a list of suggestions on the computer. Like housecleaning, errand runners, stuff like that.”

My bones ached. “I’ll stick to meals for now.”

“Right, I’m sure you will,’ Jody scoffed.

“Go home, or start peeling potatoes. And I need someone to get me thirty kilos of ground beef since I won’t be able to get another delivery from my supplier until Monday.” I grabbed the apron Mandy had stashed earlier, paused. “Print out the list. I’ll take a peek when I’ve got the ovens roaring.”

I heard someone rapping the glass, heard Jody curse. I spun around, spotted Doug standing on the other side of the door. I sighed, marched over to the door. The silence behind me grew as I put my hand out. Doug smoothed his hair, his grin lighting his face. I returned his smile, felt it from the depths of my soul. I reached out, flipped the sign to closed, and turned the slats on the blinds, blocking the interior from view.

“Almost forgot. Good thing Doug reminded me.”