I started this LONG story (fair warning) last week as a response to OLWG171 prompts. But, once again, I was inspired instead by TNKerr’s preamble story and its title. That, and a scene from a movie I recently watched of a man and woman walking through an abandoned house reminiscing about their childhoods.
—— —— —— ——
It was a bright, clear-sky summer afternoon when Helena pulled off Interstate Five into Chehalis. The valley’s sun-scorched grasslands glowed gold against the dark greens and blues of the tall trees and foothills. Helena rolled down her windows, letting the warm breeze wash over her.
Your destination is ahead on the left, GPS declared.
The large bungalow was weather worn and waist deep in an overgrowth of blackberry, morning glory, cheatgrass, thistle and heather. A monstrous rhododendron on one side of the house looked more like a tree with its thick trunk and branches. Three-foot tall dandelion and coltsfoot sprouted up from the myriad of cracks in the concrete driveway. Heavy moss covered practically the entire roof. The windows were boarded up and the graffiti that sprawled across the front of the house read Tina Chopp is DEAD. Helena shook her head. Last time she saw a Tina Chopp tag was sometime in the 80s.
She entered a search for Lewis County Sheriff in the GPS and headed back into town.
—– —– —— —–
“Hello. I’m here to meet Sheriff Aldridge.”
The Police Clerk gave Helena the once over. Her appraisal made Helena wonder if should have worn a suit and blouse instead of a t-shirt and jeans. Maybe even curled her hair instead of going with the plain bob she’d grown accustomed to over the years. She brushed her bangs off of her forehead. The clerk punched numbers on her phone.
“Yeah,” a baritone male voice answered.
“Someone’s here to see you.”
There was a pause and then, “Dammit, don’t make me guess. Who is it?”
“Boss, you’re on speaker.”
The call disconnected.
“He’ll be out in a sec.”
The clerk indicated a bench across the lobby with nod her head just as the door next to the front desk opened. Holding the door ajar, Sheriff Aldridge impatiently asked, “Yes, hello, ma’am, how can I help you?”
The Sheriff was shorter and a much more handsome man than Helena expected. She felt awkward when she realized she was staring, but then recognized he was giving her the same once-over as the clerk had. Now she really wished she had worn her dark suit and done something with her hair.
“Sorry if this a bad time, but you said I could stop by when I got to town today.” Helena stepped forward, holding out a hand. “Helena Stockbridge.”
Sheriff Aldridge’s expression changed and he visibly relaxed. “Yes, yes. Sorry,” Sheriff Aldridge said, this time with a broad smile as he shook Helena’s hand. “Come in, come in.”
Aldridge stepped aside to allow Helena pass. As he closed the door behind them, he leaned over the half wall that separated the front desk from the rest of the office. “Next time?” he said in a rough whisper to the clerk, “Please ask the person’s name and announce them, right? And, no more speaker phone. A little effort goes a long way with me, OK?”
“Is she new?” Helena asked as she took a seat in a chair in front of the Sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff rolled his eyes and gave a dismissive wave in the Clerk’s general direction. He took the seat next to Helena, which surprised her. The expression on her face gave her away.
“Um, hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Making folks talk to me from across a desk is a cheap power play in my book. Either they respect me and the authority of the office, or they don’t.”
“I never thought of it in that way, but I agree. It’s friendlier.”
“So, Ms. Stockbridge, your email said you need help from the Sheriff’s office with your parent’s property. How so?”
“Helena is OK, Sheriff,” she said, “since we’re being friendly. The property is actually still in my grandparent’s name, which is the problem.”
“Gil is OK with me, too. As you can see, I’m not that formal.”
“Gil is fine.”
“Actually, I remember you. We called you Gilmore in those days, right?”
“At my mother’s insistence, yes, when I was a kid.”
Gil sat back, and this time, he really took Helena in. There was something about the obsidian colored eyes and similarly colored hair set against the virtually glowing alabaster skin. Was she one of the Offenbach family? People said you always know an Offenbach just from the look of them. Her hair might be colored, though, Gil thought. A woman her age would probably color her hair. He guessed Helena to be at least as old as he. Then his eyes brightened.
“Hells Bells? You’re little Hells Bells!” he exclaimed, sitting forward again.
Helena smiled. “That’s me!”
“Well, I’ll be damned…You look…ha! I was going to say, ‘all grown up,’ but then, of course you would be!”
“You as well!”
Gil smoothed his grey hair and gave the bit of middle-aged paunch a sympathetic pat. “Happens to us all. Jesus. How’s your folks? Damn. Caleb? How’s your brother? My God, haven’t thought about Cabe in a long while.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, but none of them are with us anymore.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Huh. Cabe, too?”
Helena nodded. Gil took a moment to process the news. Caleb was one of his favorite boyhood friends. “Well, then. That’s too bad. Sorry to hear. But, tell me, what did Cabe end up doing with his life, anyway?”
Helena shrugged, not really wanting to go into details. “He was a sales director at Boeing for a long while.”
“Impressive. Married? Kids?
“Not really. Just about everyone worked for Boeing or Weyerhaeuser back then. But, yes. He did marry, eventually, for a while. They split up. They have a daughter. She’ll be 12 this year, I think.
“Boy, that would have made him pretty old, as a father.”
“He was forty-three when they had her.”
Gil whistled. “By forty-three my youngest was just about out the door. Tell you what,” Gil stood up. “Let’s go to Bakers for a cup of coffee. We’ll finish catching up and you can tell me what I can do to help. Carl and Helen Offenbach’s place. Of course! I was wondering what property you were referring to, since you didn’t mention it in your email. I’ll take you the scenic route to Bakers.”
The drive through Chehalis old town was certainly a treat. While Gil talked on his cell phone to someone Helena assumed to be a fellow officer, she happily took in the passing sights of the places where so many of her childhood memories were formed. As they drove by one block after another, her early life came back to mind as vividly as if she had never left.
“Oh my God!” Helena suddenly exclaimed, “Swenson’s Confections is still here?” She turned to look at Gil, who smiled and nodded, then pointed at his Bluetooth earpiece.
‘Sorry’ she mouthed.
As they pulled into the parking lot of Baker’s Pancake Haus, Gil finished his call and then asked Helena, “Remember this place?”
“I don’t think so. Actually, no.”
As the waitress showed them to a booth in the back, Gill continued. “Well, not everybody came to Baker’s, I guess. Just a couple of large coffees, Trish, thanks.” The waitress gave Gil a wink, which Helena pretended not to see. “Mostly truckers come here, come to think of it. And the kids, of course, on Friday and Saturday night, as always. Families and such mostly went to Mary McCrank’s, I suppose.”
“Oh, now, I remember that place. You had to drive a while to get there. At least it seemed like it. Somewhere on the way to Rainier?”
“That’s the place.”
Gil thanked the waitress when she set down the two large mugs of coffee. Helena guessed Gil was being quick about cutting the waitress off from an attempt to make conversation. The woman walked away with a wry smile she flashed at Helena.
Gil continued, “The last folks to own Mary McCrank’s tried to change it up, make it a steak house, and, well, it was also the recession, so,” Gil shrugged. “Simple fact? People loved the old place as it was. Can’t mess with the history of a place like that. A local couple bought the property a couple of years ago. I know them. He was a county prosecutor, retired now. Anyway, they turned it into a wedding venue.”
“You are right about the history of a place. I can hear all four of my grandparents turning in their graves.”
Gil nodded. “But, we should get to why you’re here. Your family’s property.”
“Yes.” Helena took a moment to refocus her thoughts. “As Sheriff, you probably know the place has been vacant for years now.”
“Can I say, I’m surprised no one ever tried to contact anyone in our family about it.”
Gil did not reply. He had transformed from being chatty to circumspect. Helena reasoned it was his professional demeanor, now that they were talking business, and a good skill to have as an elected law and order official. Still, it made her uncomfortable. She preferred him talkative.
“Caleb was looking after the place, or so I thought,” Helena continued. “I assumed, when our dad died, that the place was left to him. I really didn’t know. I didn’t talk to my family for a long while. We…sorry. Never mind. I won’t go into all that. Anyway, my point is, Caleb named me his executor. I didn’t know he’d left the place vacant, and now I find out he’s not even the owner.”
Gil remained silent. He kept his gaze on her with a polite expression that gave away nothing of what he was thinking.
Helena shifted in her seat. “So, the reason why I contacted your office, is, I didn’t find the keys to the place, I mean, for starters. Initially I thought I’d just come down here and, well, break in, I guess. But then, I thought I better come armed with the deed. That’s when I discovered that the place is actually still in my grandparent’s name.”
“So, you want me to let you in the place.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m asking. Better to have an official escort.”
“What are your plans for it?”
“Well, I guess I’m in for some sort of litigation because the title is in my grandparents name. If they ever had a Will, I couldn’t find it. It’s so strange to have this thing that is your family’s home, but not legally yours. I did find records of property tax payments Caleb made. Not that that would make a difference.”
Gil looked out the window, clearly sorting through whatever thoughts he had on the matter. Helena wished she could read what he was thinking. He turned his attention back to her and cocked his head.
“Why’d they call you Hells Bells?”
Helena sat back. The non sequitur threw her off. “Uh, well, because I was kind of a rambunctious kid. So they tell me.”
“I don’t remember that. I recall, you seemed OK to me.”
“I doubt you gave me that much notice. Caleb’s kid sister? And, what, four, five years younger? I can tell you that a little girl is nothing more than some strange alien being that just happens to be in the same place at the same time as her big brother. An annoying gnat, at best.”
Gil laughed. “OK, fair enough. My youngest is a boy, so, what do I know. Tell me about Mr. Stockbridge.”
Redirecting the conversation back to the personal was frustrating. Helena glanced at her watch. She hoped to be back to her hotel shortly, preferably with a plan in hand. “He left. I kept Stockbridge for the kids’ sake, I guess.”
Gil waited for Helena to continue.
“Three boys and a girl. Which is the other reason I know older brothers and their friends don’t notice much about a little sister, except that they are annoying.”
“Do they all live near you?”
“Gil. I would like to get back to my folks place if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, of course. Sorry. Um, so. The problem is that you don’t have legal access.”
“What are my options?”
Gil frowned and then waved, as if telling someone to leave. Helena realized he was looking somewhere behind her. She turned to see the waitress, coffee pot in hand, standing stock still in the middle of the aisle between the rows of tables. The woman frowned back and walked away.
“She’s a friend, I assume?” Helena asked.
“This is a favorite place of mine. I am here a lot.” Gil hesitated and then chuckled. “She probably thinks you’re a date.”
Helena noticed Gil did not wear a wedding ring. “You mentioned your kids. Mrs. Aldridge is…?” Helena ventured.
“She racks up ex-husbands for a living. Back to your problem. Actually, I have a solution. Let’s go see someone at the courthouse.”
—— —– —— ——
The next morning, Sheriff Aldridge picked Helena up at her hotel. The warm, sunny weather had turned to a typically cold, damp, and gray Northwest day.
“Got you a latté, hope you don’t mind,” Gil said as Helena got into his cruiser. He handed her a large white cup. “Didn’t add anything, so I had them give me some sugars.”
“No sugar. This is actually perfect. Thanks.”
As they drove off, Helena said, “You are very good to take all this time with me. I’m sure you have more urgent, and definitely more important things that need your attention.”
“Here’s the thing about being Sheriff: I have a staff of pretty great officers, most I hired myself. Besides, the number of times I’ve covered for them…” Gil drifted off with a shake of his head. “Let’s just say, a few of them owe me.”
“Is that how you got the, whatever, warrant? Someone owed you?”
Gil smiled. “No, ma’am. I have a legitimate reason to search the premises. You called, concerned about trespassers, and property damage. Worried that the place might be a meth lab. Asked we take a look.”
“Which goes back to my question yesterday. Why hadn’t anyone from the county ever contact any of us about the place being empty for so long?”
“If an abandoned place isn’t a nuisance, then there’s not much we can do. It’s private property. Look, I know the place my whole life. One of my boyhood best friends lived there. I spent time playing there. Of course I drove by from time to time. For a while, a family I know lived there. About 10 or so years ago. They said they paid rent to a Mr. Offenbach.”
Helena frowned. “Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?
—– —— —— ——-
When they arrived at the old house, Gill pulled the cruiser all the way up to the front, driving over the tall weeds in the driveway. Helena got out and took closer look around. This time she noticed that nothing much had changed about the surrounding neighborhood. While the rest of Lewis County experienced growth, change, and modernization, the neighborhood around her childhood home remained pretty much the same as when all the bungalows were built in the beginning of the last century.
“Shall we?” Gil asked.
They picked their way through the overgrowth that shrouded the stairs to the front porch. Gil expertly picked the lock and opened the door. He instructed Helena to stay on the stoop while he checked things out. Helena noticed he had unlatched his holster and the safety on his gun. She waited until he returned, about ten minutes later.
“Well, the place is trashed, I’m sorry to say, but no one is here, and from the looks, it’s been a long while. No worries about squatters.”
Helena began to cry when she saw how damaged the house was. It was in that moment she realized the tears were for the memory of how happy her family had been during the time they lived there; how happy hers and Caleb’s childhood had been.
What she could not recall was how tough things were back then for her parents. They never gave away their fears or concerns. It was not until well into adulthood that she learned what her parents were up against. What Helena couldn’t understand is why they felt so strongly that their only choice was to leave.
Nothing after her family left Chehalis went right. They moved to Seattle for what her mother said would be a fun adventure in the big city. Her mother got regular work as a school bus driver, but her father bounced from one part-time minimum wage job to another. He slipped into alcoholism. Then her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and they tried to survive on her mother’s disability benefits and welfare. After her mother’s death, Helena deliberately lost touch with her father and brother, until the day Caleb called to say their father had passed away.
“You haven’t told me what you do for a living,” Gil said, pulling Helena abruptly out of her reverie.
“You know, you have a bizarre knack for changing the subject,” she snapped.
“Hmm. OK, then, tell me about the accident.”
“How Caleb died.”
Helena looked for a place to sit, but of course there was none. She walked into the kitchen and Gil followed. Helena took a swipe with her hand at the accumulated dirt on a corner of a counter, brushing the residue off on her jeans. She leaned back, wiped her residual tears off with the back of her jacket sleeve, crossed her arms and took a long look at Gil.
“How’d you find out Caleb died in an accident?”
“After I dropped you off yesterday, I looked up the record of his death. It shouldn’t surprise you have access to that sort of thing.”
“Not that it’s any of your business. Look, Gil, I am grateful for letting me in to the house, and taking all this time with me, truly, but now I have to figure out what to do…” Helena buried her head in her hands, only to instantly remember they were covered in god-knows what. She furiously wiped her face again with the sleeve of her jacket.
“I am a bank manager, since you asked. And a really good one, too. Raised my children on that job, no thanks to their father. Of course, they love him to bits. He’s fun! But, my eldest, Denny, he’s finally wised up. Keeps his father at a distance, as he should. As they all should.”
Gil repositioned himself opposite Helena against the other counter. “I’m sorry. Life always has a habit of getting in the way of living. And I’m sorry about Caleb.” Gil paused. “I also looked up the accident report. I just want to say that I’m sure you weren’t deliberately reckless.”
“But possibly criminally liable, only there wasn’t anyone to press charges because Caleb was dead, and my parents were dead, and his ex…. she didn’t give a crap…” Helena gasped. She let out a long moan and slid down the cupboard to the floor in sobs. “What business is any of this of yours, anyway? Just because my brother was your childhood friend? Because I came here, asking for help?”
Gil crossed over and sat on the floor next to her. He placed a gentle hand on her arm. After a while, Helena calmed. She lifted her head, rubbed her face again with her sleeve and tried to smile.
“OK. That day. It…it had been…” Helena began, but the tears came back.
Gil pulled off his coat, took off his badge and gun belt and placed them on his coat. He pulled his legs in and wrapped his arms around his knees.
“It’s just me now. Me, Gilmore, your brother’s friend, sitting in your parent’s kitchen, on the floor, on a soggy, cold day, talking with little Hells Bells. Pretend I just bullied you into telling me a secret.”
“Asshole,” Helena grumbled.
“Every bit of one, my entire life. Makes me the best Sheriff a man can ever hope to be.”
“And single one, apparently, which goes with the territory, I bet.”
Gil deflected Helena’s insult with the same flat, professional, non-expression she noted the day before.
Helena took in another deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“It goes with the territory,” Gil joked, which made Helena laugh.
Helena reached out and gave Gil’s arm a squeeze. “Caleb really missed you. Your gang of boys. I think he missed Chehalis, too. Maybe that’s why he kept paying taxes on this place. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe he thought he’d retire here? But then, why let it go like this?”
Gil sighed. “I thought a lot about those days in this house last night. I wondered why neither Cabe nor I ever got in touch. I suppose, for my part, I just got too used to people moving away. Moving on…”
“I was driving. That night.” Helena interrupted, “which you would have read in the report, I guess. We were on our way home from my college roommate’s birthday party. She throws one every year. It was the first time I went by myself, without my kids, and I hadn’t seen Caleb in a while and was worried how he was holding up after his divorce, figured he needed to be around people, so I asked if he wanted to come along.” Helena shook her head to fight back the tears. “How do you flip a car six times?”
“You would have been going pretty fast. And, January? Probably icy roads, though there was nothing in the report about that.”
“They said he had massive internal injuries. I was pretty badly injured, too. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, but he had a bad brain aneurysm, so….”
Gil looked surprised. “You didn’t know? The autopsy found a burst brain aneurysm.”
Helena was stunned. “Is that what they mean by massive internal injuries?”
“No. He had that, too, but the Coroner could not conclusively determine whether the injuries sustained in the accident or the aneurysm was the cause of death. It’s possible he died before the accident.”
“He…. had a lot to drink that day. He was out within minutes after we left. I thought he’d passed out. And then the next thing I knew, we were tumbling over and over across over the road.”
Helena stared at Gil for what seemed to him as entire lifetime. He took it all in, remembering every time the girl with the dark brown hair and nearly black eyes set against alabaster skin looked up at him, wide eyed, inquisitive, and so, so pretty… before punching him playfully in his gut and running away in peals of laughter.
Everything about Gil’s first crush came back to him, and it warmed him through and through. No one ever since caught his attention, or his heart like her.
Helena. All these years, he never knew her name was Helena.