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Starting Late book cover

Starting Late
A Tale from Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2011, ©2013

Chapter 16

After picking up the trailer, the guys made it to Shannon’s apartment building well before the women and the girls. It was a brick two-story thing in an older development with many such apartments surrounding it; not a bad apartment building, but not exactly top of the line, either. Seymour had given Henry the key earlier in the week, so Henry led them upstairs and unlocked the door.

“I hate to say it,” he warned them, “but the cops weren’t exactly real neat when they went through the place, and they pretty well went through it with a fine tooth comb.” When they got inside, they saw what he had been talking about. Mark wouldn’t have called the place utterly trashed, but there was obviously a lot of stuff that had been taken from drawers and cabinets and the like, and not put back with any degree of care.

“Looks like we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Mike commented as he surveyed the place. “But I see what you mean that it isn’t exactly top-end stuff, either.”

Mark looked around, and pretty quickly agreed with Henry’s evaluation. The furniture seemed to be comfortable, if cheap; it wouldn’t have surprised him if some of it had come from a second-hand store. Some of it was old, and looked like it might have been passed down from her father, who had died years before.

When you got past that, there wasn’t a great deal in the apartment; it seemed sparse to Mark, like Shannon knew she was going to have to move sooner or later and didn’t want to accumulate too much stuff. As Mark surveyed the scene, he realized that except for a few pieces of furniture that might not be worth the trouble of moving, it would have been possible to get the things that really needed to go into the motor home, and not bother with the trailer at all. All that added up to the feeling that Shannon and the girls had been getting along, but not much more than that.

From what he saw, and what the girls had told him, he knew that Shannon had apparently cared for the girls and had done her best to provide for them. But in the back of his mind he couldn’t help but wonder if the girls would ultimately be better off with Jackie and him. They seemed to be getting along all right, but what would happen when college years came along? He hadn’t really thought about it, but when that time came, if the girls wanted to go to college, he and Jackie would be able to provide for them, maybe not Harvard but a good state school or something. College wasn’t something that had really crossed his mind; after all, he and Jackie had never gone themselves, so it wasn’t something that had been of concern to him, at least till now. It was something he and Jackie would need to talk about sometime in the near future.

He thought back to the statement he’d made a few minutes before. While he wasn’t sure he wanted to know any more about what Shannon had done for a living, he realized he regretted not knowing more about her and what her life had been like with the girls. For the most part, he thought she’d done a pretty good job in raising them so far, and it was evident she’d sacrificed a lot to do it. Maybe she was a pretty good person who had just made a few bad choices – or maybe not even that; maybe she had just been doing the best she could for her kids with what she had to work with. Again, something else to talk over with Jackie, but not with the girls around.

“Well,” he said finally, as the others stood around in silence, possibly thinking similar thoughts. “I guess it’s good that you got all those empty boxes at the trailer rental place. I think we’re going to need them.”

*   *   *

The women – and the girls – showed up not long afterward. Almost predictably, Bree was heartsick and angry at the mess that had been made in the apartment, in a tantrum and near tears. “How could they have done this with our stuff?” she ranted. “It looks like they didn’t give a shit about us!”

Although he had an inkling of why the mess had been made, Mark pretty well agreed with her. “They could have been a lot neater about it,” he told her, “but what’s done is done, and there’s nothing we can do but pack it up and haul it out of here.”

Becca wasn’t in a much better mood about it, but at least was a little more constructive. “At least we’ll have our own stuff back,” she told her sister. “That’s something.”

Bree wasn’t very mollified by that. “Mom would never have let anything like this happen!” she screamed almost uncontrollably. “Why did she have do die and leave us? God, I miss her! Why did this have to happen?”

The tears were flowing now; she disappeared toward the girls’ bedroom, and they could hear even more sobbing coming from it. Jackie moved toward the room, but Becca held her back. “Maybe not just now, Aunt Jackie,” she said wisely. “I better be the one to talk to her.”

“Yeah, probably,” Jackie said, understanding Becca’s wisdom in the matter. It was clear this was going to be tougher all around, and especially on Bree, than they had anticipated.

“Well,” Mike said, “It looks like reality finally struck home for her.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Mark agreed. “I was afraid that was going to happen. It had to, sooner or later.”

“I suppose there’s not much we can do,” Kirsten said. “Maybe we’d better get started on Shannon’s room, just as a place to get started.”

“Might as well there as anywhere else,” Jackie agreed. There had been some discussion over the past few days over what to do with Shannon’s clothes and personal things; from what Mark and Jackie remembered of her, there probably wasn’t going to be anything that fit any of the other women. Besides, it wasn’t clear how painful it was going to be for the girls to see any of them being worn. They’d decided to just pack them all up and haul them to Spearfish Lake for now; in time, perhaps some of them could go to the secondhand store up there, after the girls had a chance to go through them after some time had passed. It might be a little less emotional for them then, but maybe not. In any case, it was something that could be put off for now.

They got some boxes and started in, trying to overlook the sobbing coming from the girl’s room. Every few minutes Mark or Jackie would look in on the girls, without being obtrusive about it, but all there was to be seen was Bree, curled up almost fetally on the rumpled bed, clutching a stuffed toy to her chest, with Becca clinging to her, seriously crying herself. It was obvious it might take them some time to get through this, and Mark and Jackie were willing to let them have the time. Reality had indeed struck home, harder than they had ever seen it hit the girls before, and there wasn’t much they could do but let catharsis work its way with them.

Mark really wanted to do something to comfort Bree and Becca, but he couldn’t think of anything. It was one of those things that went with having no experience at parenthood, not that Mike or Kirsten seemed to have any ideas. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way; at one point Cindy said in a low voice, “Can’t anyone do anything for them?” There were no responses, just an infectious sadness.

Both Mark and Henry happened to be near the apartment’s door when there was a knocking on the outside. Mark glanced at Henry, who shrugged, and went to answer it. He opened the door, to find a tall, slender older woman with short red hair standing there. At first glance, Mark thought he might be a little older than she was, but a second look revealed a deeply lined face which belied the first appearance. She had an agelessness about her that said she could be in her mid-eighties as easily as her mid-sixties.

“Oh, good morning, Florence,” Henry said. “We’d planned on coming over and seeing you.”

“I saw the motor home outside and figured you were here,” the woman said. “I’d hoped to see the girls.”

“They’re here,” Henry replied. “But I’m afraid we have trouble.” He turned to Mark and added, “Mark, this is Florence Engstrom, the woman who looked after the girls quite a bit.”

“What’s the trouble?” she frowned.

Mark took a deep breath. “I’m afraid reality just hit home to them,” he told her. “They’re both broken up, but Bree is really bad.”

“You’re the man who’s taking care of the girls?” the older woman asked.

“Yes, my wife, Jackie, and I.”

“All I knew is that a policeman said some relatives were taking the girls in,” she replied. “That’s all I knew until I met Henry here yesterday. Maybe I’d better go see them.”

“That might not be a bad idea,” Mark told her. “They know you better than they know us.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it,” she smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Mark stood back out of the way, pointing toward the girl’s bedroom, then followed behind as the woman went in and sat on the side of Bree’s bed. “Bree, what’s the matter?” she said in a soft, comforting voice.

“Mom’s gone,” Bree wailed. “I’m never going to see her again! It’s not fair!”

“It’s sad she’s gone,” Florence told her in a soothing voice. “And you should be crying. Go ahead and cry on me if you have to.” Florence held her arms open, and all of a sudden Bree was stuck to her like a leech, with Becca not far behind.

Mark noticed that the level of crying was already reduced. “Well,” he said softly, turning away from the door. “Maybe we’d better get back to work.”

*   *   *

It took over an hour of sobbing, crying, and soft voices before the girls were calmed down – not really back to normal, but more or less under control. “Girls,” they heard Florence say, “I need to go get a drink of water. Why don’t you go into the bathroom and pull yourselves together while I talk with your aunt and uncle?”

“O . . . OK, Mrs. Engstrom,” Bree said, still sad, but at least not crying uncontrollably.

Mark and Jackie were standing in the kitchen when Florence came out to see them. “I think they’re going to be better,” she told them. “Not all the way all right, but better. Have they been like that very much?”

“We’ve seen them a little sad from time to time,” Jackie told her. “But never really wasted like that until now. I’ve been a little surprised that it didn’t happen before, and my guess is that bringing them here set it off.”

“It’s not surprising,” the older woman said. “Like you said, reality hit home with them, and it hit pretty hard.”

“I guess they’d been keeping it pretty well bottled up,” Mark observed. “I half expected some sort of a crisis sooner or later but I was never expecting this. I’m very glad you showed up when you did.”

“I am, too,” Florence agreed. “Henry told me yesterday the two of you were good people and old friends of his, but that you’d never had children, so this is all new to you.”

“We’ve tried to do our best,” Mark told her. “But I see now we were in over our heads.”

“I don’t want to say everything is going to be all right,” Florence told them. “But they needed to get that out, and now that it’s out, maybe things will go more easily for you. They’re really good girls, and I’m going to miss them a lot.”

“We understand that you’ve looked after them a lot over the last few years.”

“Oh, my, yes. I think there were times that I was with them more than Shannon was. Shannon did her best to be a good mother, but she couldn’t be with them as much as they needed. I tried to fill in the best I could.”

“Looks to me like you did pretty well with it,” Mark nodded.

“I did what I could,” the older woman smiled. “My grandchildren and great-grandchildren live far away, so the girls have filled a hole for me, too. I’m glad they’re going to a good family that seems to care for them. They tell me you’re both very nice, but that you’re not their mother. I can understand that.”

“I can, too,” Jackie told her. “I lost my mother when I was about that age, and it left a big hole that my father, and later my step-mother, really couldn’t fill. I’d hoped we could do better for them.”

“At least you’re willing to try,” Florence replied. “I don’t like to think what would have happened if they’d wound up in some foster home where people just didn’t care. I think once the girls get comfortable with you, they’ll get closer to you. Both Becca and Bree say you’re trying to make things easy for them, but as I said, you’re not their mother. Give it time.”

“We’re trying,” Mark said. “But I’m very happy you happened to come along.”

“Well, I wanted to see them again. I was never very close to Shannon, but I got quite close to the girls. Like I said, I’m really going to miss them. Would you mind if I stayed around for a while? Maybe my helping out will make the transition go a little more easily.”

“We would be delighted,” Jackie replied. “I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t shown up at all.”

“Oh, you’d have ridden it out somehow,” Florence smiled. “Now, I think the next thing to do is to get the girls busy and involved in the process, and I’ll try and support them where I can. Perhaps I can help them pack up their things?”

“Sounds just fine to me,” Mark replied. “There’s still a lot to do, but we wanted to load furniture where we could before we got to hauling boxes.”

“Good,” she smiled. “We probably ought to talk again when the girls aren’t around, since there are a few things you should know. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get away from them very easily until you leave, so if we can’t talk, I’ll give you my phone number.”

Things went fairly well after that. Mark wouldn’t have wanted to call the girls happy, but at least they were helping with the sorting. They weren’t done packing by the time noon rolled around, but the end was in sight; nothing had been moved down to the trailer or the motor home yet. “I don’t know about anyone else,” Henry piped up, “But I think I could stand something to eat.”

“I looked in the refrigerator here,” Kirsten replied. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot there, and not much that would make a lunch for all of us.”

“How about a couple pizzas?” Mark suggested. “I’ll pay, if someone wants to go get them.”

“There’s a pretty good place not far away,” Henry said. “I can give them a call on my cell and get them started, then go pick them up.”

It took a bit of talk and negotiation to decide on what they wanted for pizzas, but before long Henry was on his way out the door to pick them up.

“We might as well wait until after we’ve eaten before we get hauling,” Jackie said. “There are some things I don’t know what to do with. Florence, there’s not much food in here, and some of the stuff in the refrigerator has probably gone bad. Would you be interested in anything that can be salvaged?”

“I can take it off your hands,” she replied. “That’ll be one thing you don’t have to deal with.”

“You don’t live very far away, I take it,” Mark said.

“Just a couple units over. It’s close, and it was very convenient for the girls when they were younger.”

“I’d guess you’re retired, aren’t you?” Jackie asked.

“Oh, yes, for years and years. Being able to take care of the girls for the last few years has made the days go much faster. I’m afraid I’m going to be at something of a loss with them gone.”

“Have you done anything but watch the girls?”

“Oh, I manage to stay busy. I clean the church and help a friend with cleaning a local bank. I have friends I often spend time with, playing cards and that kind of thing. And I have a few older friends I try to look in on to make sure they’re getting along all right. I try to stay busy. That’s the key to staying healthy as you get older. Neither of you are retired, are you?”

“No, probably not for at least ten years yet,” Mark shook his head. “Both Jackie and I have businesses that keep us going pretty good, although I’m in the process of selling one of mine and looking for another to get involved with.”

“And you’re going to have a couple of active young girls to keep you busy for the next few years. Don’t forget that.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’re going to keep us active,” Jackie smiled. “They’re already doing a pretty good job of that.”

Henry was soon back with the pizzas, carrying cans of soda, and they all dug into them eagerly. It tasted good, and was a break they needed. As they were finishing up, Florence said, “I’m not sure if I should ask this, but have you made any arrangements for services for Shannon?”

“Not yet,” Mark replied. “We didn’t know until the day before yesterday when the coroner would be releasing the body. I figure on having our local funeral home handle the details. There’s an empty space in the family plot in Spearfish Lake next to Shannon’s father, so we thought that would be as good a place as any.”

“How about services? When will they be?”

“Actually, we haven’t talked about it much, and we haven’t made any big plans, either. What it comes down to is that with the exception of my mother, who’s in poor health, and anyone Shannon knew down here, everyone with any interest in services is in this room. I figured we’d have our pastor come out and have a very simple, private service at the cemetery, and let that be that.”

“Shannon must have known people down here who would like to be there,” Florence said. “But I’m afraid I wouldn’t know who they were, or how to find out.”

“That’s what we understand,” Mark nodded. “Our family has gotten rather thinned out the last few years. Shannon didn’t have any real connection to Spearfish Lake, although she’d visited there a few times, but at least she’ll be buried next to her father.”

“Well, that’s something, I suppose,” Florence shook her head. “At least she had some family left. Mine is scattered across the country, and I hardly ever see anybody. We’ve become a family of strangers, I guess.”

“It wasn’t much better with Shannon,” Mark shrugged.

“I guess we’ve been lucky,” Kirsten said. “One of our daughters lives right across the road from us, and Henry is close enough here to come home once in a while. Our other daughter is in Europe right now, and getting set to go to Japan. I guess two out of three isn’t bad in this day and age.”

“No, indeed,” Florence replied. “And you’ve been lucky. In any case, Shannon was enough of a friend that I wouldn’t mind being at a service you have for her. I’m not sure I can make it, because Spearfish Lake is a very long drive for me now, but I would like to be there if I could.”

“Well,” Henry piped up, “if you were to have something toward the end of next week, say next Saturday, I haven’t been home for a while, and it would be a long weekend. I’ve got time off coming. I don’t know what Cindy’s work schedule is like, but I wouldn’t mind coming up for a few days.”

“I have to work both Friday and Saturday, then again on Monday,” Cindy pointed out. “But I’m not anxious to go to Spearfish Lake if I don’t have to.”

“Well, if we can work it out, would you like to ride up there and back with me?” Henry asked Florence. “I don’t know what the situation is at Mark and Jackie’s, but I’ll bet Mom and Dad could find room for both of us.”

“Henry, that’s quite an offer for someone you don’t really know,” Florence smiled. “I really don’t want to put you and your wife out.”

“Actually, it’s fine with me,” Cindy said, a little surprisingly to some of the others who knew her. “I don’t like going to Spearfish Lake, and if you go up there with Henry he’ll probably tell you why. It gives him the chance to get home for a few days.”

“Well, I still don’t know,” Florence temporized.

“Oh, please, Mrs. Engstrom,” Bree piped up. “We’d love to see you again and show you where we’re going to be living. Aunt Jackie and Uncle Mark aren’t exactly Mom, but they’re nice, and they have a nice place.”

“Besides,” Becca added, “We’d like to have you there for Mom. You’ll be the only one from down here who will be there.”

“We’d love to have you,” Mark said. “While the rest of us have only known you a couple hours, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all come to like you. Since next weekend is both graduation and Memorial Day weekend there’ll be some other things going on that Jackie and I will have to go to, but I’m sure the girls will be able to keep you busy while we’re gone.”

“All right,” Mrs. Engstrom smiled. “If we can make it work with your schedule, Henry.”

“We’ll make it work,” Mark said.

*   *   *

The loading went easily that afternoon, although Mark, Mike, and Henry bore the brunt of the heavy lifting. The furniture they were taking fitted into the trailer easily, and they managed to fill up the rest of the space with only a little loaded in the motor home. There were still some loose ends to clear up, like dealing with the apartment management, but Henry promised to take care of them on Monday. There were a few other details, like Shannon’s car, which had been nothing special and now was pretty close to junk after its trip into the water, but Henry promised to take care of that, too.

It was the middle of the afternoon before they were ready to go. After some discussion, they decided to head right back to Spearfish Lake, and not spend the night at Henry’s again; it would give them more time to unload at home.

So it was that everyone was standing in front of Shannon’s old apartment as they loaded the motor home. “Goodbye, Mrs. Engstrom,” Bree said. “I’m going to miss you, but at least I know I’m going to be seeing you soon.”

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