The Muses have returned, and in celebration thereof, I’m posting the first rough draft of Chapter 1 of Book #4. Comments are greatly appreciated.
The early morning explosion shook the entire town of Dunnville. It shattered the stained-glass windows of the United Church that cold December morning at precisely 2:32 am. After the flames were extinguished, emergency vehicles left the smoldering remains of what once had been HarWood’s Garage with a somber lack of urgency.
The abandoned office remained somewhat intact, containing a desk, filing cabinet and chair. The office ceiling was nothing more than a canopy of mostly broken tiles, and the few intact ones were blemished with brown water stains with ragged edges. In one corner on the debris-strewn floor lay a filthy patchwork quilt, once a cherished heirloom, now a discarded remnant of some forgotten woman’s handiwork. But saddest of all, lying just outside the office door like a child’s discarded rag doll was a body. It had been thrown against the far wall and collapsed face-down on the cold cement floor. Charred beyond recognition, its identity was presumed to be that of a homeless person seeking shelter against the bitter cold. It appeared someone had stored a leaking propane tank in the vacant garage’s bay which ignited when the homeless person attempted to build a small fire for warmth.
Homelessness had been a problem in Dunnville ever since the mid-nineteenth century, when the first locomotive chugged into town like a steam-bellowing serpent. Jeremiah Dunn had just planted a cottonwood sapling on his homestead and named the new hamlet after himself. Both Jeremiah and the cottonwood were dead now, but the decaying tree still stood reverently in the city park. Known as Dunn’s Cottonwood, it was a cherished local landmark.
After recent economic crashes, the homeless population mushroomed to the point where a small encampment established itself on the outskirts of town. Most of the homeless chose to live in this conglomeration of tents and lean-tos with the exception of one lone woman who preferred to live under the Drake Street Underpass. No one knew her name, so she was referred to by many monikers like Mumblin’ Mary, Scowlin’ Kate and Bag Lady Beth. Most people, including the police and most of the patrons at Finnegan’s Diner, referred to her as Underpass Annie. Even in blistering summer heat, she wore a moth-eaten stocking cap above strands of graying hair that hung in greasy strands like the tentacles of a dead jellyfish down her back. She muttered to herself incessantly which only reinforced the assumption that she was dangerously unstable. When she wasn’t reclining against the cold supports of the underpass scowling at passersby, she was often seen pushing her heavily-burdened shopping cart through the tree-lined streets of Dunnville proper.
During the coldest of weather, she often sought shelter in abandoned buildings. Unless, of course, another homeless squatter had already taken residence, in which case she would leave without confrontation, muttering her disappointment to no one in particular. Underpass Annie was a recluse and she preferred to be left alone.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t observant. Every afternoon she heaved her creaking cart down Applewood Drive scavenging for discarded plastic or aluminum cans to recycle while at the same time discreetly observing two homes in particular; the ugly orange stucco structure collectively known as The Peanut House because of the comma-shaped strokes of brown paint that paraded across its four walls and the Craftsman bungalow across the street and two houses down from it. Their house numbers were 403 and 420, respectively.
Underpass Annie had a particular interest in those two houses. On her daily excursions, she perused 403 beneath her worn cap with something akin to longing. A pet portal pierced the front door. Sometimes she caught sight of the elderly woman through the picture window, gray head bent over a quilting frame, expertly rocking a stubby needle between the layers of fabric and batting. A large lead crystal sun catcher dangled in the window and Annie imagined the constellations of miniature rainbows dancing across the walls. Annie loved rainbows.
When she passed 420, however, she averted her eyes. Often the homeowner of 420 Applewood Drive would burst onto his wood-planked porch, the American Flag positioned at a 45 degree angle in its sconce, and yell, “Get off my street, you scum!”
To which Annie would mumble more to herself than to the outraged homeowner, “I’m sorry, Harvey.”