Elvis had not left the building. He had, in fact, not left the chair he'd been sitting on all afternoon. The chair, an oak, midcentury modern lounge style with cushions upholstered in a rich burnt orange fabric, was a find from one of two storage units I'd bought the contents of back in September.
"Let's go," I said.
He yawned then looked expectantly at me.
"Absolutely not." I folded my arms over my midsection. "I'm not carrying you."
He made a huff of annoyance.
"You're perfectly capable of walking."
Since the I'm-so-tired yawn and the don't-you know-who-I-am indignation hadn't worked on me, he switched back to the I'm-so-cute head tilt. That particular move worked on pretty much everyone who walked into the store, probably because this Elvis was actually a green-eyed black cat with a long, rakish scar that cut diagonally across his nose and just a bit of an attitude, not the King of Rock and Roll-which is not to say that the head-tilt thing wouldn't have worked if he were the King of Rock and Roll hanging around my shop charming people.
I picked up my canvas carryall. It was heavy, packed with ten glass milk bottles, carefully wrapped in newspaper so they wouldn't break or get chipped on the ride home. They were filthy, covered in dirt, sawdust and some things I didn't want to think about since I knew the containers had been found in an old chicken coop. Once they were cleaned up I was certain that the bottles would sell. One of the things I'd learned from owning a repurpose store was that people collected just about anything, including linen tea towels circa 1964, department store mannequins and glass milk bottles.
"I'm serious, Elvis. Let's go." I made a hurry-up gesture with my free hand. "Did you forget we're having Charlotte's shepherd's pie for supper?"
The cat straightened up and his whiskers twitched. It seemed that he had forgotten. But now that I had reminded him what was waiting for our dinner, he jumped down off the chair, shook himself and headed purposefully across the floor in the direction of the workroom door. He paused when he reached it, looked over his shoulder at me and meowed sharply.
"Oh, so now you're in a hurry," I said.
Now it was his turn to narrow his eyes at me. After all, we were talking about Charlotte Elliot's shepherd's pie: chunks of beef and carrot in a rich, meaty gravy topped with fluffy mashed potatoes and a crispy crust of Parmesan cheese. I might have drooled a little just thinking about it.
Elvis was right. We needed to get home.
I locked the back door of the building and Elvis trailed me across the parking lot to my SUV. I opened the passenger door and he hopped up onto the seat before I could lift him. I set my messenger bag next to him and placed the bag of milk bottles carefully on the floor.
The sun was warm on my shoulders and the back of my neck as I made my way around the car to the driver's side. It had been the kind of fall day the state of Maine was known for. The leaves were almost at peak-colors from russet to scarlet to vibrant yellow and intense oranges that rivaled the pumpkins piled up at roadside stands. The sky overhead was azure blue with just a few clouds starting to roll in from the bay.
There wasn't very much traffic driving home, but that didn't stop my furry backseat driver from intently watching the road through the windshield and giving a sharp meow when I made a left-hand turn he seemingly didn't approve of. Finally I pulled into the driveway, got out of the SUV and walked around to the passenger side to grab my bag and the bottles. Elvis jumped out the moment I opened the car door. He headed up the walkway to the front door as I wrestled with the tote full of milk bottles, which had somehow gotten wedged under the edge of the seat. It didn't want to move. I gave a groan of frustration. I didn't want to pull too hard and break something, but I didn't want to have to carry the bottles inside one by one, either.
"Hello, Sarah," a voice said behind me. "Is there a problem with your car seat?"
I straightened up and turned around. My elderly neighbor, Tom Harris, was standing by the back bumper of the SUV, a frown creasing his forehead. He was a small, round man, no taller than five eight or so, with thick iron gray hair and small black frame glasses that gave him the stereotypical appearance of a college professor.
"Hi, Tom," I said, brushing my bangs back off my face. "No, it's not the seat. I brought home a bag of glass milk bottles. I set it on the floor and now the darn thing's stuck. I don't want to pull too hard because I don't want to break them."
"May I take a look?" he asked. His voice still held a trace of his Scots accent even though he'd lived in Maine for more than fifty years now.
"Absolutely." I held up both hands and took a couple of steps backward. Tom was a particular, exacting man and I knew there was no chance that he'd break any of the bottles. The lawn around his gray-shingled, story-and-a-half house was the most perfectly manicured one in North Harbor, Maine, probably in the entire state. No weeds dared poke their heads up in the two planters that flanked the front door and ran the length of the house on either side.
Tom leaned into the truck, his head almost touching the floor mat as he peered under the seat. He slipped a hand beneath the canvas tote. "A-ha," I heard him say almost under his breath. Then he backed out of the truck and handed the bag of bottles to me.
"Thank you, Tom," I said. I gave a sigh of relief. "You're a lifesaver."
He smiled. "You're welcome. The strap had just gotten caught on a piece of metal on the frame of the seat." He reached over and tapped a bottle, which was half poking out of the bag. The newspaper I'd wrapped around it had come loose. Inside it, I could see a couple of dried-out, pointed-edged leaves and several deep red, wrinkled berries. I had no idea how long the bottles had been stored in the old chicken coop where I'd found them. I wondered how the leaves and berries had gotten inside. One of the chickens, maybe? "Make sure you dispose of those very carefully, Sarah," Tom said. "Those are holly berries, Ilex opaca. They're toxic to cats. And dogs, too."
I nodded. "I will." I realized then that Tom didn't have his Corgi, Matilda, with him. I glanced over at his little gray-shingled house. There was no sign of her. "Where's Matilda?" I asked. "Is she all right?"
He nodded. "She's over at the Burnses' house visiting Molly." He gestured toward the house diagonally across the street. "I'm on my way to get her."
"How is Molly?" I asked. Ten days earlier, the five-year-old had fallen out of the maple tree in her backyard and broken her right leg.
"When I left she had Matilda wearing a cowboy hat in preparation for painting her portrait," Tom said.
I grinned. "I look forward to seeing that."
He smiled back at me. "As do I."
I thanked Tom again for his help and he made his way across the street as I headed for the front door, where Elvis was waiting more or less patiently.
My big 1860s, two-story Victorian house was within walking distance of North Harbor's waterfront. The neighborhood, with its big trees and old houses, had felt like home from the first time I'd turned onto the street. My house had been divided into three apartments about thirty years earlier, and it had been let go over time, but both my dad and my brother, Liam, had agreed with my belief that it had good bones, and after a lot of work it had turned into the home I'd known it could be.
My grandmother and her new husband, John, lived in the top-floor apartment while Gram's friend-and mine-Rose Jackson, had the small main-floor unit. Elvis and I shared the other first-floor apartment. It was a living arrangement that, in theory, shouldn't have worked, but it did. Gram stayed out of my personal life-not that I exactly had one. And while Rose wasn't quite as hands off, she was very open-minded.
It also helped that they were all very busy. John was teaching a history course at University College at Rockland. Gram was working on a project for the Emmerson Foundation, which was run by her friend Liz. She was tracing the past of the charitable organization, rooting through dusty boxes of records and talking to past board members and employees. Eventually all of that information was going to be turned into a book on the history of the foundation. The idea of writing a book had begun as a bit of subterfuge on Liz's part, a way to ask questions about an incident in the charity's past, but after a recent scandal Liz had decided to turn the "fake" book project into a real one and had convinced Gram to organize everything.
Rose was probably busier than any of us. She worked for me part-time in the shop. She volunteered at the library and the elementary school. And she ran a detective agency, Charlotte's Angels, aka the Angels, with a couple of her friends. She kept us all in cookies and coffeecake and she had recently decided to play matchmaker for my brother. As she'd explained to Liam, "You haven't reached your expiry date yet but you need to be moved up to the front of the shelf." Since that meant Rose was no longer trying to play matchmaker for me, I thought it was a great idea.
I checked my watch as I unlocked the apartment door. I had just under an hour before I needed to collect Rose and Mr. P., her "gentleman friend." We had been invited to a reception to celebrate the rejuvenation of North Harbor's waterfront-a project that had taken years to get under way. For me, the highlight of the evening was going to be the chance to see the various items-mostly photographs and a collection of tin toys-that had been unearthed in several of the old buildings that had had to be demolished.
Liz was an investor in the project, although that wasn't common knowledge, and Liam was acting as a consultant, advising the builders on how to best incorporate all the materials that had been saved from the structures that had been torn down. Because of my brother's efforts, the new buildings would have some of the character of the ones they were replacing.
After a lot of back-and-forth, everyone involved with the harbor front project had agreed that any items that were found in the old buildings that couldn't easily be reunited with their owners would be sold, with the money going to the hot lunch program in the elementary school. I had a feeling that Liam had been the driving force behind that idea. The lunch program was one of our grandmother's pet projects.
I was looking forward to seeing some of the old photos. According to my brother, a box of class pictures from the elementary school had been found in one of the old warehouses. Neither Liam nor I had gone to school in North Harbor, but our friend Nick had and so had Gram and Rose and Liz. I was hoping for one or two slightly embarrassing pictures, considering that the latter three had more than a few photos like that of me.
I took the bag of milk bottles into the kitchen and lined them up in two rows next to the sink, making sure that the stray holly berries went into the garbage can. Then I washed my hands and took Charlotte's shepherd's pie out of the refrigerator. Elvis watched from a stool at the counter, whiskers twitching.
The shepherd's pie was as good as I'd expected it would be. Charlotte was an excellent cook, so good that she'd been able to help Rose teach me to cook, something no one else including my mom, dad, Gram, three teachers and two (small) kitchen fires had been able to get me to master.
After we'd eaten, Elvis made his way to the top of his cat tower, where he began meticulously washing his face. I decided on a shower. I was just pulling up the zipper of my black sweater dress when Elvis padded into the bedroom.
"What do you think?" I asked, doing a slow turn. The dress had three-quarter sleeves, a flared skirt and two rows of a delicate eyelet design at the neck. Rose had actually picked the dress out for me. It was a little shorter and a little tighter than I would have chosen. She had taken the dress off a rack in the store, handed it to me and made a shooing motion in the direction of the dressing rooms. I knew better than to argue.
Elvis cocked his head to one side and gave a soft "Mrr."
It sounded like approval to me. "Thank you," I said.
I finished my makeup, slipped a couple of gold bangles Gram had brought me back from her extended honeymoon trip onto my right arm and then set the timer on the TV so Elvis could watch Jeopardy! I'd never been able to figure out if the cat was an Alex Trebek fan or just liked trivia with the answers given in the form of a question. He was a quirky little guy. (Elvis, not Alex Trebek, although to be fair, I didn't actually know the game show host.)
Rose and Mr. P. were just coming out of her apartment when I stepped into the hallway. She smiled at me. "That's your new dress."
I nodded. "Yes, it is."
"Let me see," she said, making a circular motion with her right index finger.
I did a slow twirl.
She nodded her approval. "I knew that dress would look perfect on you."
"You do look lovely, Sarah," Mr. P. added.
"And you look very handsome," I said.
"Thank you. The credit goes to Rosie." He turned and smiled at her.
Alfred Peterson was a small man with just a few tufts of gray hair and warm brown eyes behind wire-framed glasses. He may have looked like the stereotypical grandpa who showed up in life insurance ads, but he had a keen, curious mind and computer skills that rivaled hackers a fraction of his age. Most of the time he favored knit golf shirts and pants that tended to creep up to his armpits, but tonight he was dressed in a pair of charcoal gray trousers with a lighter gray turtleneck sweater and a black tweed blazer.