It was bizarrely chilly for early June, and Madeline pulled her jacket tighter, then zipped it up against the breeze—a rare thing for her always-running-hot perimenopausal self. She paused on the sidewalk in front of the new, not-yet-open shop. Her shop. She tried to see the place through the eyes of potential customers. If there’d be any. Please let there be some!
First, she studied the sign hanging from a wrought iron post near the stone walkway that led to the old-fashioned wraparound verandah and entranceway. The Second Chance Shop, it announced. A line below read, Whimsical gifts for the practical heart. Beneath that, a vertical row of creamy placards linked by delicate chains formed the following list: New ~ Used ~ Antique ~ Vintage ~ Upcycled ~ Recycled ~ Consignment.
Madeline smiled. She adored the name and concept and was delighted she had come up with them all by herself. At that thought, the pain she carried everywhere now, as much a part of her as her lungs, heart, or liver—pain that dozed occasionally but never slept too deeply—stirred and raised its fanged head. Then bit, hard. She’d thought the ideas up all by herself, all right—but only because she had no other choice.
Feeling the strike as if it were a physical blow, Madeline inhaled sharply and pressed her hand to her sternum, where all her stress and sorrow formed a hard knot, like a rock that might eventually crush her once and for all.
She forced herself to breathe. It was a ragged, panting attempt at first, but at least it was something.
You’re getting stronger with the load, she encouraged yourself. It will never disappear, but you’re getting better at carrying it. You are.
When she could inhale like a normal person again, not a suffocating animal, she forced her attention back to the sign. It was pretty and piqued curiosity—or it would hers, anyway, if she came across a similar one somewhere. That was good. And the rundown heritage house, in danger of being bulldozed when she’d scooped it up, had surprised her and the contractor who did the renovations by being remarkably solid. The necessary work had mostly been cosmetic. Well, except for the bathroom, which had ugly water damage, including a soft spot by the toilet that suggested the subfloor and maybe even a supporting beam might need replacing. She’d tackle that pricey job in a year or so, though, when business took off. Postponing it meant she wasn’t completely broke . . . yet.
The little place was as charming and picturesque as she’d imagined it could be with its butter-yellow siding, cream trim, big porch, and cherry red benches placed here and there. The big lilac bushes edging the property were finished blooming now, as were the bright scattering of tulips and daffodils. In a few weeks, however, the flowerbeds would be full of new summer color, or so the realtor had told her, and the antique half barrels would be bursting with nasturtiums—which Madeline had planted herself, about the limit of her gardening ability and know-how. Even on this gray, borderline stormy day, the effect of the whole was . . . lovely. She still couldn’t quite believe it. And yes, people would come, she was sure of it. But was that a good thing?
Madeline shook her head with frustration at herself. Only seconds since she’d made the fervent inner wish for customers, and here she was already waffling. But seriously, who up and quits their life, flees to a small town they’ve never even visited before, and decides to call it home and start a business out of nothing there? A complete lunatic, that’s who.
Or perhaps, a softer, kinder voice whispered, someone deeply mourning and trapped in a limbo of depression for three years. Someone who no longer had a life to quit and who needed to do something radical to keep going on at all.
“Yeah, yeah,” Madeline muttered out loud, but a familiar sense of disbelief trembled through her. Three years. Had it really been that long since the car accident that stole her husband, daughter, and sister, who was also her best friend? It seemed impossible that Lyle, Lauren, and Ronny had been gone so long—and that she’d endured this long without them.
As this latest assault of grief mercifully ebbed away, Madeline pulled a ring of antique keys from her pocket. They were mostly for fun, collected through the years, and unlocked who-knew-what—or nothing—anymore. Yet two of the old keys did actually open something at The Second Chance Shop. One was a large, decrepit two-bay shed in the back corner of the lot that she would’ve had knocked down and taken away, except her money was better spent elsewhere at the moment. Plus, it acted as a trellis for an equally ancient, massive rose bush covered in big fuchsia blooms.
The second lock that took an old key was a door inside that led to the basement, which was really more of a crawl space that provided access to the hot water tank, plumbing, and electrical. It had five-foot ceilings—and ducting for natural gas heat installed many years after the house’s original construction made that “height” even lower in places. Still, it was dry, at least, and she could see herself using it for overflow storage in the future. In the meantime, she’d keep its antique door with its cut crystal knob locked at all times. She didn’t want curious treasure hunters to be tempted by the cobwebby staircase.
She held the heavy ring up near the front door. It had been retrofitted to meet current security needs but not replaced because she wanted to maintain as many of the house’s original features as possible. The smart fob hanging beside the skeleton keys worked its magic. There was a quiet click and a metallic whirr as the lock released the deadbolt. Then, with the bells that hung above the door jingling merrily, Madeline was inside.
Pausing a moment, she inhaled deeply, reveling in the shop’s scent, a soft mixture of all-natural, non-perfumed organic soaps, traces of citrus that reminded her of Lauren, but were due to the environmentally friendly lemon cleaner she used, and peppermint from the glass jar of scotch mints she kept on the counter. At least those were the hints Madeline picked up today. Sometimes the air carried notes she didn’t quite understand, though it always smelled good and never failed to make her feel . . . lighter.
As she neared the front counter and set her purse down, something brushed against her leg. She looked around and saw—nothing. And nothing moved nearby or seemed out of the ordinary. Great. In addition to mental ghosts, now she was going to start thinking there were literal ones. Good times! It wasn’t all bad, however. If it led to gossip, it would be one more thing to bring people around the place.
A quick press on the fob and the door relocked behind her.
Madeline left the lights off. She knew the shop’s layout like the back of her hand. Plus, she didn’t want any of the lookie-loos who drove past frequently to stop, thinking the store was finally open—because that would be a terrible thing, right? Having people show up, interested. She shook her head at herself and continued her critique in the dim natural light that reached through the windows and touched what it could. It was a gray day—fitting, she thought—and the light was the same.
There was a ton of merchandise out on the floor already, including a whole wall of all-natural bath and beauty products and shelves of intriguing doodads and artfully arranged knickknacks and home décor items. Adding to this eye-catching welcome was an antique general store counter, purchased because it was gorgeous—and practical. She wanted the till across from the door, so it was easy to watch who entered and departed from the shop.
She walked deeper into the house, silently applauding her decision to keep the original layout—kitchen, dining room, bathroom, bedrooms, etc.—as themes for organizing and displaying stock. It worked very well, creating a natural flow and desire to move room to room, but would also be handy for customers in a hurry, seeking a specific type of gift or household item. They could head to the kitchen directly if they wanted cooking or food-related goods, for example, or to the dining room for dishes and flatware, tables or chairs. One bedroom held romantic gifts, another was office-themed. Madeline stopped her internal inventorying there, though she continued to caress the odd object or stroke this piece of fabric or that as she walked past them. She knew what each room held, after all, and had gone over them again and again. Her stock was more than satisfactory; it was beautiful—and varied and eclectic—so what was the holdup? Why hadn’t she flipped the closed sign to open? Why did her website and social media pages still exclaim “Coming Soon” instead of “Visit Us Today”?
She stopped when she reached an arched doorway that opened into a large, empty whitewashed room with old-fashioned, multi-paned windows showcasing the rose bush by the shed. She wished she believed her own line: that this was her reason for stalling. That she needed this space to be full before she could open for business, but she knew better. It was a shame that it wasn’t properly utilized, but she had more than enough treasures for people to paw through. Besides, if she’d really wanted to, she could’ve stocked this room already, no problem.
No, the issue was that she wanted this room—and had from the moment she’d first seen it—to carry Lauren’s creations. And it never, ever would. She pressed a clenched fist to her mouth, so hard her teeth hurt. And the damned space didn’t even have a door she could shut against it. She should’ve walled it off—or painted it bubblegum-pink or some other shade her daughter would’ve loathed and put lawn furniture in it or something. What was the point of a new start in a “memory-free” place if you created an empty shrine to one of the shining hearts at the center of your mourning? And yet . . . it still felt right to be holding it for something. Or someone.
“And that’s why you haven’t opened yet,” she whispered with a half-laugh that was dangerously close to a sob. “Because you’ve officially lost it.”
She felt her family’s absence so keenly just then it was as if they were a physical presence. They would want her to have a life again, to find a way to be happy—or, at least, a way to survive—the same as she would’ve wanted for them if she’d been the one to die. And it was past time to start working toward that on their behalf. But Lord, it was hard. Maybe not even possible—and perhaps it didn’t matter what they would have wanted for her. Maybe even thinking she could go on to find new meaning for her days, a reason to look forward to waking up each morning was . . . wrong. A betrayal. A step toward forgetting them.
Somewhere behind her in the empty shop, something scuffled. Startled from her thoughts, Madeline whirled around. It sounded for all the world like the footstep of someone trying to be quiet.
The instant Madeline moved, the noise stopped. She saw nothing but shadows.
It wasn’t the first time she’d heard odd sounds while alone in this building. The Second Chance Shop was an old house, after all, and places creaked and shuddered under the weight of their history, much the way people did as they aged. But something about this noise was . . . different than the others. She was certain it wasn’t merely the sound of the house’s old bones settling. It sounded . . . alive. Someone or something had made that noise.
“Hello?” she called, stepping away from the empty room that tortured her so badly. Not a sound greeted her, but the silence seemed heavy as if something was waiting, holding its breath.
And then she saw it, a ripple of movement in a rack of vintage gowns by the entrance to the bedroom that showcased clothing. She froze. Despite her earlier mental joking, she didn’t believe in literal ghosts—or if she did, she didn’t think they had any bones to pick with people who were currently alive. They were no doubt as self-obsessed and consumed by their own everyday reality as flesh and blood folks were. No, she froze because she wanted the thing, whatever it was, to move again.
No further noise or flutter of dresses occurred, and she felt like a loon standing there in the gloom fixating on . . . nothing. But what of it? She didn’t have anything more pressing to do. She was new in town and operating a business that hadn’t opened yet. No one around here even knew her name, except the warehouse guys at the building supply shop and Otto, the carpenter who’d done the work she couldn’t do herself.
I have nothing but time. I can stand here all evening, she wanted to crow.
Like the intruder heard her challenge, the fabric finally moved again—much more noticeably—and the scuffling sound repeated, louder this time.
Madeline advanced quickly to the rack. The top of a gently swaying gown barely moved, but its hem swung a couple inches, and the cause of the shuffling noise was immediately evident. The green velvet dress had a heavy leather fringe—a 70s marvel if there ever was one!—and as it grazed the floor, it did indeed sound exactly like a shoe skimming the ground. The dress was heavy enough that movement ceased on the backswing—then something white flashed against the floorboard, and the scuffle-swing commenced again.
Madeline lifted the green gown and looked into the circular cavern formed by the hangers of dresses. A cat!
“Silly thing,” Madeline whispered. “How on earth did you get in here?”
Not knowing whether he’d be friendly or try to claw her to bits, Madeline gingerly reached in to scoop the animal out. He was utterly docile, however, and as she straightened, holding him against her chest, more for his security than out of affection—he was a big cat and needed the support—he commenced a loud, rumbling purr.
“It’s only fair to warn you,” Madeline announced as she strode toward the front of the store and deposited the cat on the counter, “I don’t like cats.” To her surprise, he sat like he owned the place, making no sign of feeling nervous or trying to flee.
She turned on the lights and realized that the shop had been darker than she thought. Now it glowed a warm yellow.
The cat was a deep, smoky gray, with massive white paws and a small white bib—like an old man’s cravat, Madeline thought, then shook her head at herself.
“I don’t like cats,” she repeated. The cat stared at her with brilliant sea glass blue eyes, and the tilt of his broad head was decidedly skeptical. He didn’t believe her.
“I don’t . . .” She drifted off, realizing she was about to repeat herself for the third time. That was embarrassing, even when just talking to a cat. “I don’t have any experience with cats,” she amended, then gave a dramatic sigh. “But apparently, that doesn’t prevent me from acting like a crazy cat lady and talking to you as if you understand me.”
The cat purred, and Madeline picked him up again. He really was lovely and soft, with fur as thick and plush as velvet—and such a great color.
“You’d make a gorgeous coat,” she mused.
His eyes widened again, making her laugh out loud.
“Don’t worry. I’m only teasing. Besides, you’re a bit small for me.”
His distinctly unamused expression made her laugh again, then sigh as she realized how nice it was to share a laugh with someone again. Even a four-legged someone.
“But I know nothing about cats! Lauren always wanted one, but Lyle was allergic.”
The cat blinked. He really was strangely communicative. Were all cats like this?
She lifted him by his armpits and looked into his face. Up close, he wasn’t as perfect as he appeared at first glance. He had an old scar across his nose and a line on his muzzle—probably from the same injury—where no fur grew. And the tip of one of his ears was gone. It was healed over but had a slightly ragged edge like it had been bitten off.
Still, Madeline felt he’d had a good home sometime in the not-so-distant past because, although his belly sagged as if he’d lost weight, he wasn’t emaciated. Also, a quick check of his back end revealed he was, as she kept referring to him, a he—and neutered.
“You’ve fallen on hard times, hey, fella?” she whispered. “Don’t worry. We’ll get your feet under you again.”
Madeline liked a plan. Orchestrating this move and designing this store had been her savior after the initial chill and stupor Emily Dickinson referred to in her famous poem about loss finally lifted. She had yet to experience “letting go” and wasn’t sure she ever would—as the random, out-of-nowhere attacks of despair reminded her all too often—but she could mostly function now. Have moments of reprieve in which she wasn’t completely overwhelmed by her grief. Even go stretches of time with something almost like optimism energizing her. She wasn’t her old self and never would be, but she was no longer a complete shell either. But enough of all that for now. Back to plan mode. She would take pictures of Boots here—Aw, Boots, yes, that was a perfect name for him!—and print posters and hang them up around town. And she would, by hook or by crook, open the store . . . soon. Someone would be missing this friendly guy, and with any luck, somebody would come into the shop who knew who that someone was.
So that’s it? All your crises of faith and nerves are suddenly behind you because a raggedy cat showed up? Madeline closed her eyes against the mean inner sneer. Sure, it was paltry motivation, but hey, she’d take anything that kept her moving forward, no matter how small.
When she opened her eyes again, Boots was studying her intently, his furry head cocked to one side. He had a warm, kind gaze.
She tucked Boots under her arm—his rumbling purr kicked in again—and got ready to vacate the shop for the night. She needed to grab him food, treats, and a bed, so he’d been in good shape when his family returned to him.
Grant circled the block for the umpteenth time, his mood growing fouler by the minute. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any place to park his recently departed dear old dad’s beater of a truck. Despite its extended cab and long box, there was plenty of room in front of The Second Chance Shop, situated as it was on this quiet side road a few streets off the main drag. No, his stalling was down to the fact that the last thing he wanted to do was discuss his situation with the woman who owned the place. He didn’t want her to be privy to personal details about his life. And he especially didn’t want to have business dealings with her when she was obviously an amateur, or worse, a bored housewife opening a shop for a hobby or out of “passion” on her husband’s dime.
What else could explain her lollygagging around and failing to open for weeks? It was abundantly clear to anyone who’d been keeping an eye on the place, which Grant had been—but only because it was en route to his favorite burger place and because he needed its self-professed services—that it was more than ready to open its doors. If you were running a business as a business, you opened as quickly as you could. Or, at the very least, you updated your bloody “Coming Soon” signs with a date, so potential customers had some clue about when they could expect to be graced with your services.
And he was sick to death of the hyperactively cheery voicemail message he got every time he called the phone number on the sign. “Opening day’s just around the corner. We can’t wait to meet you!”
Yeah, right! He’d called every day for almost two weeks.
“You could leave a message, jackass,” his conscience reminded him—and thanks, Sherlock, obviously he could—but that would mean possibly getting a call back when he couldn’t handle talking to anyone. He needed to be in a particular headspace to field calls or speak to someone face-to-face these days.
The shop’s lights flicked on. Grant slowed the truck’s roll. That was new. As far as he could tell, she usually spent hours in the closed shop with the place as shadowy as a tomb—just another thing that made him shake his head. He braked harder, coming to a full stop and letting the truck idle in the middle of the road. There was no traffic anyway. Add that to his list of flaws about this stranger and her business. What a stupid, out-of-the-way location. Sure, it was only a five-minute walk from the rest of the downtown’s core shopping area, but in a small town, that few minutes might as well be a few miles. If you asked him, anyway.
He rubbed his chin—noting with some surprise that his failure to shave had far surpassed five o’clock shadow. He was well on his way to having a scruffy beard.
“So, what’s it going to be?” he mumbled, checking his rearview mirror to make sure no one had driven up behind him while he was lost in his stalker-like deliberations. “Piss or get off the pot! Are you going to talk to the old bat today or not?”
Beside him on the bench seat, Grover raised his head and gave Grant the kind of reproachful, long-suffering look that only a distinguished old yellow Lab could pull off, as if he was well-used to his owner’s rants, but found them tedious, nonetheless.
For a fraction of a second, Grant’s mood lifted. He rubbed Grover’s thick neck, right behind his brown leather collar, just the way the dog liked it. “Sorry, boy. Just remember, though. The old saying is ‘dogs are good company—not men.’”
Grover sighed and settled his noble head back onto his paws, his point made. Shame made Grant wince. Despite how Grover always forgave his bad temper, Grant was acting like a complete loser, and he knew it. Holding his misery and bitterness against some unwitting entrepreneur just because he had issues with his ex-wife was more than unfair. It was pitiful.
He rolled down his window so Grover would have fresh air, planning to leave him resting in the cab. It was cool out, and he wouldn’t be long. Grover would be fine.
Will steeled, Grant climbed out of his truck, crossed the road, and headed toward The Second Chance Shop. He was nearing its eye-catching sign—a nice piece of workmanship, actually—when three rough-looking characters slinked around the corner of the store. Grant halted in his tracks. Oblivious to—or pointedly ignoring—him, they ambled up the wheelchair access ramp on the far side of the verandah, flat-brimmed ball caps pulled low and baggy clothes worn like disguises. Was he about to witness a break-in or something?
You could’ve knocked him over with a feather when the shop’s door flew open and he heard—couldn’t see because of the youth blocking the door—the same cheery voice from the shop’s voicemail message. “Oh good, the muscle is here! I only have a few things for you guys to rearrange for me, and then, believe it or not, we’re done.”
The hoodie-sporting guys cheered, and one mumbled something about pizza to celebrate. Another laughed. “You’re nothing but stomach, man.”
The woman, still out of view, laughed too—a low, raspy sound. “Pizza can definitely be arranged.”
Suddenly, the dodgy-seeming crew was just a trio of lanky teenagers helping someone out. Grant was torn between feeling defensive—if they didn’t want to be mistaken for ne’er-do-wells, why dress the part?—and being ashamed of himself for jumping to the worst conclusions about them just because they were young. When had he become that guy?
Shaking his head—at himself this time, not the irritating Second Chance lady or the misunderstood youths—Grant beat it back to his truck and roared off in an angry belch of diesel exhaust. If she hadn’t opened by next week, he’d bite the bullet and leave a message with his contact information. He had to get a move on things.