Mel squinted into the rain and darkness, creeping along the narrow, twisting, muddy, treeenshrouded road, and for the hundredth time thought, Am I out of my mind? And then she heard and felt a thump as the right rear wheel of her BMW slipped off the road onto the shoulder and sank into the mud. The car rocked to a stop. She accelerated and heard the wheel spin but she was going nowhere fast.
I am so screwed, was her next thought.
She turned on the dome light and looked at her cell phone. She'd lost the signal an hour ago when she left the freeway and headed up into the mountains. In fact, she'd been having a pretty lively discussion with her sister Joey when the steep hills and unbelievably tall trees blocked the signal and cut them off.
"I cannot believe you're really doing this," Joey was saying. "I thought you'd come to your senses. This isn't you, Mel! You're not a small-town girl!"
"Yeah? Well, it looks like I'm gonna be?I took the job and sold everything, so I wouldn't be tempted to go back."
"You couldn't just take a leave of absence? Maybe go to a small, private hospital? Try to think this through?"
"I need everything to be different," Mel said. "No more hospital war zone. I'm just guessing, but I imagine I won't be called on to deliver a lot of crack babies out here in the woods. The woman said this place, this Virgin River, is calm and quiet and safe."
"And stuck back in the forest, a million miles from a Starbucks, where you'll get paid in eggs and pig's feet and?"
"And none of my patients will be brought in handcuffed, guarded by a corrections officer." Then Mel took a breath and, unexpectedly, laughed and said, "Pig's feet? Oh-oh, Joey?I'm going up into the trees again, I might lose you?"
"You wait. You'll be sorry. You'll regret this. This is crazy and impetuous and?"
That's when the signal, blessedly, was lost. And Joey was right?with every additional mile, Mel was doubting herself and her decision to escape into the country.
At every curve the roads had become narrower and the rain a little harder. It was only 6:00 p.m., but it was already dark as pitch; the trees were so dense and tall that even that last bit of afternoon sun had been blocked. Of course there were no lights of any kind along this winding stretch. According to the directions, she should be getting close to the house where she was to meet her new employer, but she didn't dare get out of her swamped car and walk. She could get lost in these woods and never be seen again.
Instead, she fished the pictures from her briefcase in an attempt to remind herself of a few of the reasons why she had taken this job. She had pictures of a quaint little hamlet of clapboard houses with front porches and dormer windows, an old-fashioned schoolhouse, a stee-pled church, hollyhocks, rhododendrons and blossoming apple trees in full glory, not to mention the green pastures upon which livestock grazed. There was the pie and coffee shop, the corner store, a tiny one-room, freestanding library, and the adorable little cabin in the woods that would be hers, rent free, for the year of her contract.
The town backed up to the amazing sequoia redwoods and national forests that spanned hundreds of miles of wilderness over the Trinity and Shasta mountain ranges. The Virgin River, after which the town was named, was deep, wide, long, and home to huge salmon, sturgeon, steel fish and trout. She'd looked on the internet at pictures of that part of the world and was easily convinced no more beautiful land existed. Of course, she could see nothing now except rain, mud and darkness.
Ready to get out of Los Angeles, she had put her resume with the Nurses' Registry and one of the recruiters brought Virgin River to her attention. The town doctor, she said, was getting old and needed help. A woman from the town, Hope McCrea, was donating the cabin and the first year's salary. The county was picking up the tab for liability insurance for at least a year to get a practitioner and midwife in this remote, rural part of the world. "I faxed Mrs. McCrea your resume and letters of recommendation," the recruiter had said, "and she wants you. Maybe you should go up there and look the place over."
Mel took Mrs. McCrea's phone number and called her that evening. Virgin River was far smaller than what she'd had in mind, but after no more than an hour-long conversation with Mrs. McCrea, Mel began effecting her move out of L.A. the very next morning. That was barely two weeks ago.
What they didn't know at the Registry, nor in Virgin River for that matter, was that Mel had become desperate to get away. Far away. She'd been dreaming of a fresh start, and peace and quiet, for months. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a restful night's sleep. The dangers of the big city, where crime seemed to be overrunning the neighborhoods, had begun to consume her. Just going to the bank and the store filled her with anxiety; danger seemed to be lurking everywhere. Her work in the three-thousand-bed county hospital and trauma center brought to her care the victims of too many crimes, not to mention the perpetrators of crimes hurt in pursuit or arrest?strapped to hospital beds in wards and in Emergency, guarded by cops. What was left of her spirit was hurting and wounded. And that was nothing to the loneliness of her empty bed.
Her friends begged her to stave off this impulse to run for some unknown small town, but she'd been in grief group, individual counseling and had seen more of the inside of a church in the last nine months than she had in the last ten years, and none of that was helping. The only thing that gave her any peace of mind was fantasizing about running away to some tiny place in the country where people didn't have to lock their doors, and the only thing you had to fear were the deer getting in the vegetable garden. It seemed like sheer heaven.
But now, sitting in her car looking at the pictures by the dome light, she realized how ridiculous she'd been. Mrs. McCrea told her to pack only durable clothes?jeans and boots?for country medicine. So what had she packed? Her boots were Stuart Weitzmans, Cole Haans and Fryes?and she hadn't minded paying over a tidy four-fifty for each pair. The jeans she had packed for traipsing out to the ranches and farms were Rock & Republics, Joe's, Luckys, 7 For All Mankind?they rang up between one-fifty and two-fifty a copy. She'd been paying three hundred bucks a pop to have her hair trimmed and highlighted. After scrimping for years through college and post-grad nursing, once she was a nurse practitioner with a very good salary she discovered she loved nice things. She might have spent most of her workday in scrubs, but when she was out of them, she liked looking good.
She was sure the fish and deer would be very impressed.
In the past half hour she'd only seen one old truck on the road. Mrs. McCrea hadn't prepared her for how perilous and steep these roads were, filled with hairpin turns and sharp drop-offs, so narrow in some places that it would be a challenge for two cars to pass each other. She was almost relieved when the dark consumed her, for she could at least see approaching headlights around each tight turn. Her car had sunk into the shoulder on the side of the road that was up against the hill and not the ledge where there were no guardrails. Here she sat, lost in the woods and doomed. With a sigh, she turned around and pulled her heavy coat from the top of one of the boxes on the backseat. She hoped Mrs. McCrea would be traversing this road either en route to or from the house where they were to meet. Otherwise, she would probably be spending the night in the car. She still had a couple of apples, some crackers and two cheese rounds in wax. But the damn Diet Coke was gone?she'd have the shakes and a headache by morning from caffeine withdrawal.
No Starbucks. She should have done a better job of stocking up.
She turned off the engine, but left the lights on in case a car came along the narrow road. If she wasn't rescued, the battery would be dead by morning. She settled back and closed her eyes. A very familiar face drifted into her mind: Mark. Sometimes the longing to see him one more time, to talk to him for just a little while was overwhelming. Forget the grief?she just missed him?missed having a partner to depend on, to wait up for, to wake up beside. An argument over his long hours even seemed appealing. He told her once, "This?you and me?this is forever."
Forever lasted four years. She was only thirty-two and from now on she would be alone. He was dead. And she was dead inside.
A sharp tapping on the car window got her attention and she had no idea if she'd actually been asleep or just musing. It was the butt of a flashlight that had made the noise and holding it was an old man. The scowl on his face was so jarring that she thought the end she feared might be upon her.
"Missy," he was saying. "Missy, you're stuck in the mud."
She lowered her window and the mist wet her face. "I.I know. I hit a soft shoulder."
"That piece of crap won't do you much good around here," he said.
Piece of crap indeed! It was a new BMW convertible, one of her many attempts to ease the ache of loneliness. "Well, no one told me that! But thank you very much for the insight."
His thin white hair was plastered to his head and his bushy white eyebrows shot upwards in spikes; the rain glistened on his jacket and dripped off his big nose. "Sit tight, I'll hook the chain around your bumper and pull you out. You going to the McCrea house?"
Well, that's what she'd been after?a place where everyone knows everyone else. She wanted to warn him not to scratch the bumper but all she could do was stammer, "Y-yes."
"It ain't far. You can follow me after I pull you out."
"Thanks," she said.
So, she would have a bed after all. And if Mrs. Mc-Crea had a heart, there would be something to eat and drink. She began to envision the glowing fire in the cottage with the sound of spattering rain on the roof as she hunkered down into a deep, soft bed with lovely linens and quilts wrapped around her. Safe. Secure. At last.
Her car groaned and strained and finally lurched out of the ditch and onto the road. The old man pulled her several feet until she was on solid ground, then he stopped to remove the chain. He tossed it into the back of the truck and motioned for her to follow him. No argument there?if she got stuck again, he'd be right there to pull her out. Along she went, right behind him, using lots of window cleaner with her wipers to keep the mud he splattered from completely obscuring her vision.
In less than five minutes, the blinker on the truck was flashing and she followed him as he made a right turn at a mailbox. The drive was short and bumpy, the road full of potholes, but it quickly opened up into a clearing. The truck made a wide circle in the clearing so he could leave again, which left Mel to pull right up to?a hovel!
This was no adorable little cottage. It was an A-frame with a porch all right, but it looked as though the porch was only attached on one side while the other end had broken away and listed downward. The shingles were black with rain and age and there was a board nailed over one of the windows. It was not lit within or without; there was no friendly curl of smoke coming from the chimney.
The pictures were lying on the seat beside her. She blasted on her horn and jumped immediately out of the car, clutching the pictures and pulling the hood of her wool jacket over her head. She ran to the truck. He rolled down his window and looked at her as if she had a screw loose. "Are you sure this is the McCrea cottage?"
She showed him the picture of the cute little A-frame cottage with Adirondack chairs on the porch and hanging pots filled with colorful flowers decorating the front of the house. It was bathed in sunlight in the picture.
"Hmm," he said. "Been a while since she looked like that."
"I wasn't told that. She said I could have the house rent free for a year, plus salary. I'm supposed to help out the doctor in this town. But this??"
"Didn't know the doc needed help. He didn't hire you, did he?" he asked.
"No. I was told he was getting too old to keep up with the demands of the town and they needed another doctor, but that I'd do for a year or so."
She raised her voice to be heard above the rain. "I'm a nurse practitioner. And certified nurse midwife."
That seemed to amuse him. "That a fact?"
"You know the doctor?" she asked.
"Everybody knows everybody. Seems like you shoulda come up here and look the place over and meet the doc before making up your mind."
"Yeah, seems like," she said in some self-recrimination. "Let me get my purse?give you some money for pulling me out of the?" But he was already waving her off.
"Don't want your money. People up here don't have money to be throwing around for neighborly help. So," he said with humor, lifting one of those wild white eyebrows, "looks like she got one over on you. That place's been empty for years now." He chuckled. "Rent free! Hah!"
Headlights bounced into the clearing as an old Suburban came up the drive. Once it arrived the old man said, "There she is. Good luck." And then he laughed. Actually, he cackled as he drove out of the clearing.