[Hey folks, just a quick note to anyone just joining us this week: a whole lot has happened this summer, and if you want to see where it all began, I'd recommend following this helpful link HERE!]
I haven’t left Prism Bay yet, readers. I mean, I’m not there now—I’m in a Starbucks a few miles out, because I still haven’t been able to find a decent non-gremlin-infested internet connection in the whole dang town—but I haven’t fled forever. Once I’ve finished posting and bought myself an iced coffee and maybe one of those cake pops, I’m headed back. There’s a lot going on these later-summer days, most of it refreshingly non-terrible.
Last week, as you might remember, I was pretty much dead set on getting out of Dodge, Dodge having gone from a placid and idyllic summer retreat to a town-sized open sewer filled with aggressively filthy derelicts, where a trio of delusional, fantasy-obsessed teenagers tied me to a chair and destroyed my laptop with a sword. I feel a bit ridiculous typing it all out, but those, readers, are the facts, and I think they qualify as adequate justification for leaving an artists’ residency a bit ahead of schedule. But I didn’t. If anything, I’m more determined to stick around and help out.
What changed my mind? Well, it wasn’t the drive home, that’s for sure. Ever since the storm, it seemed I had to navigate a new maze of fallen trees and collapsing pavement every time I left the house. By the time I got back to the Hemlocks, I was convinced I had only a few days before I’d be unable to get my car through at all. I could wait until tomorrow at leas, though, and I wanted to bid my friends farewell. One does not become part of someone’s summer family and then up and leave without a word. I had ideas of inviting my friends to Boston with me, if that would help—my apartment there isn’t large, but it is dry and (last I checked) free of jellyfish.
So I got into my slicker and wellies and set forth on my Hemlocks-issue bicycle, dodging potholes and muck-filled puddles, riding alongside tidal streams, some deep enough to host sizable fish, their fins cresting and circling through the bubbling water. The town center, readers, had become a mere shell of itself, hardly recognizable as the quaint, elegant little street I’d first driven down that early AM back in June. The pavement was a jagged shambles, the stores boarded up, the few windows I could see dark, many broken, the sidewalks empty, not a person anywhere. The place looked dead—long deceased, even; a ghost town. Nothing brought this home to me more than seeing Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, the sign reading, “Yes We’re Open but Ring Bell Because Vortex” written over with a new notice: “Closed Until We’re Not”.
The bell was still up, so I tried ringing it anyway, but no one heard. That’s what I thought, anyway, until a voice from behind me said, “She went home—held out longer than anyone, though.” I was surprised, but not as alarmed as I might have been: the voice didn’t have the slimy slurp of the hoodie-clad, purple-tongued reprobates, for one thing. Also, it was someone I knew. I turned, and there stood the man of middle years who has been successful in business. He didn’t seem to have descended into vagrancy, I was pleased to see, but as always looked prosperous if not actually fashionable, just as a man of middle years who has been successful in business ought.
“It does say ‘all-hours’,” I said. “I was hoping that included ‘darkest hours’.”
The man of middle years who has been successful in business grinned. “I think if you went to her house, she’d happily make you a donut or ten,” he said. “Out here things have become rather more hazardous than is good for business, especially considering the lack of customers.”
Sound commercial acumen, just as I’d have expected. “What are you doing here, then? If not buying donuts?”
“Surveying the damage,” replied the man of middle years who has been successful in business. “Assessing the potential for repairs.”
“Oh?” I asked hopefully. “Has there been word from the town? Are we finally going to get some help?”
“Unfortunately not. This would be more of what you might call a private initiative.”
Even better, I thought. If this man of middle years who has been successful in business had some kind of financial conglomerate behind him, or even a collection of concerned—and, hopefully, wealthy—citizens, then maybe the municipal authorities wouldn’t be needed at all. Still, that wouldn’t be enough to help local businesses like Amy’s, businesses that likely needed summer money to carry them through to next year. With this summer ending early, who knew whether they’d be able to survive until the next one?
I suddenly felt pretty cruddy about my plan to leave town, right when things were at their worst—and with no one outside of Prism Bay even pretending to care, just acting like the whole place didn’t even exist. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked. “Maybe I could make a donation or something? Or organize a crowd-funding campaign? Or, I don’t know, help local merchants post their stuff for sale online?”
“I’d recommend keeping your head down for the time being,” said the man of middle years who has been successful in business. “First let’s see if there’s anything left to save, shall we?” He glanced out over the water, toward a place where the greasy gray sky collected into a knot of clouds glistening with a dull rainbow sheen, like oil on dirty water.
“Is that another storm?” I asked. “Another ethereal vortex?” That would probably be enough sink this place, I thought, wash it away like a clump of seaweed.
The man of middle years who has been successful in business let out a little harrumphing sound. “No, not quite, but it’s just as bad,” he said. “A lot of people have packed up and gone. You might want to do the same.”
“What about the people who can’t pack up and go?” I asked.
“I’d recommend they try anyway.”
“Maybe they could stay with me,” I said. “At the Hemlocks. It’s still in pretty good shape, actually. You’d hardly know anything had happened.”
“Is that right?” asked the man of middle years who has been successful in business, with a sly sidelong glance. “Well I’m not sure how Mrs. Sylvester would feel about you inviting folks over, but that’s your business, I suppose. Care for a drink?”
This question took me off guard, but I reflected that a drink would not be unwelcome. “Is anywhere open?” I asked.
“I thought we might take the opportunity to support a local business, albeit unofficially,” he said.
The local business in question turned out to be the Dancing Squid, and after a bit of light breaking and entering (as my companion referred to it) we found ourselves at the bar enjoying gin martinis with cocktail onions (also known as Gibsons, I was informed). Impressively, there was even still a block of cocktail ice that hadn’t quite melted. We left full payment, plus a lavish tip, beneath the bottle of gin and unopened vermouth (the proper ingredients for a martini, according to the man of middle years who has been successful in business), after which I set out for the Hemlocks, now determined to stick things out in Prism Bay at least a little longer.
I was actually pretty ashamed that I’d been planning to make a run for it. Were I merely here on vacation, it would have been another matter. When you pay good money for rest and relaxation and instead have to witness the general breakdown of society, you’re pretty justified in taking off for other parts. But I wasn’t just a visitor anymore—I was part of the community. A very marginal, often confused part, it was true, but I still had friends here, friends who needed help.
By the time I got back to the Hemlocks, I had what might be called a plan, but as that plan involved speaking to Mrs. Sylvester, and Mrs. Sylvester was nowhere to be found, things stalled out pretty quickly. I must have spent half an hour walking around the house, which was dim and spooky in the fading day, before returning to the foyer, where Mrs. Sylvester scared the stuffing out of me by calling out from the top of the stairs, “What do you want, Mr. Black?”
“Oh, hi, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said, feeling oddly nervous as I looked up her, perched there among the shadows. “I was hoping I might ask you a favor, if you wouldn’t mind hearing me out.”
“A favor,” mused Mrs. Syvester, in the low, rasping register she’d assumed of late. “Yes, for all you have done, I might grant you a boon. Ask, and it shall be yours.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by “all you have done”—certainly nothing that had happened this summer would put her in my debt. I’d been staying at her house and eating her food for free, for goodness sake! But maybe she had some idea how much I’d accomplished over the summer, literature-wise, and thought I deserved a reward. That, at least, was a little more like the Mrs. Sylvester I remembered: I’d been a good boy, and now I could have a treat. Her air of a conquering general dispensing the spoils of a successful campaign, though, and her low smoker’s voice—well, these were somewhat less encouraging.
“I was hoping I could invite some friends over,” I said. “To stay, here at the Hemlocks. Some people from town.”
“Never!” Mrs. Sylvester bellowed, so loudly I could swear my hair actually blew back, as though from a cartoon lion’s roar. “Whatever else you desire you shall have, but not that.”
My first impulse, after I’d recovered from the surprise of being shouted at, was to ask why not, but something told me that would only make her angrier. “You should see the town, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said instead. “It’s bad out there. There’s no electricity, no running water. The roads are a mess. People are having a hard time.”
“So they have been brought low,” Mrs. Sylvester growled. “What concern is that of mine—or of yours?”
“We’re part of the community,” I said. “If we can help, we should.”
Mrs. Sylvester laughed at that, but she didn’t sound amused in the least—it came out almost like a cough. “Part of the community, you say? I would not have expected to hear you say so, Mr. Black—you, who have been so direly mistreated by this place.”
Well, OK, she a point there. I hadbeen ambushed and illegally detained by three Prism Bay residents only the previous night. I’d also been shouted at by a bartender for bragging about my blog, and toyed with by a computer gremlin, and stalked by a sinister ornithological society. “Yes, well, every town has its own quirks and characters,” I said, fully aware what an understatement this was in the case of Prism Bay, “but I’ve also met some really wonderful people—people who recognized me as an outsider and made me feel welcome anyway.”
“Maybe so, but I have seen no such welcome, Mr. Black,” Mrs. Sylvester snarled. “I have been shunned, excluded, barred from this community, as you call it. I came here only through cunning, and force, and now that I have arrived, I see no reason to aid those who would have kept me out, were it in their power.”
Over the course of the summer, I’d had the impression there was quite a bit of backstory surrounding Mrs. Sylvester and the Hemlocks. Now, finally, it seemed I was getting a piece of it. Was Mrs. Sylvester’s seclusion out here not entirely voluntary? Was she an exile in some sense? Was that, perhaps, the reason I was the only resident at the Hemlocks? If so, why? Was it simple prejudice? Had there been some sort of incident I didn’t know about? Curious as I was, it seemed best not to bring any of this up at such a sensitive juncture. “I know small towns can be harsh, and judgmental,” I began.
“And so why,” Mrs. Sylvester hissed, “why should I offer to them the hospitality that was denied me?”
“Because it isn’t about repaying anyone for anything,” I said. “It’s about forging a connection. You’ve done that before, Mrs. Sylvester—you invited me here, offered your hospitality. It was such an amazing act of generosity I almost ignored it—I thought it had to be a hoax. But it’s turned out to be one of the best summers of my life, despite all the strangeness, despite even everything that’s happened in the past few weeks. And it was all because you reached out to me—from nowhere, and with no expectation of repayment. I’m part of this community because you brought me here. And that means you’re part of it, too.”
This is only the general essence of what I said that night, readers. The speech I actually made involved a great many more “um”s and “er”s and assorted verbal crutches. I’m pretty sure I said, “think of the children”, apropos of nothing, at least once. But I got the point across—at least, I think I did. Mrs. Sylvester fell into quiet consideration. For a moment, it seemed like the consideration that precedes advice to go jump in a lake, but then she said, “Yes, Mr. Black, things would have been very different had you not come to Prism Bay.” Another long pause, then, “Very well. I shall grant you this boon—not because it is owed, not because it is deserved by any who would receive my hospitality, as you called it, but because you have asked.”
That was good enough for me. The first person I called was Amy—it was the first time I’d used a real phone book in I-don’t-know-how-many years. “Can I bring Pippa?” she said, when told she was being offered a warm, slime-free residence for an as-yet undetermined period of time.
“I was hoping you’d be able to find her,” I said. “She isn’t in the phone book.”
“Most foxes aren’t,” Amy said, confusingly—if, I suppose, also accurately. “I’ll be right over.”
She showed up an hour later, bringing Pippa, who looked like she’d spent the day crawling through wet hedges, and fresh donuts—nothing fancy, but that was fine by me. Both Amy and Pippa proclaimed me a lifesaver (the donuts were silent on the subject). “You should thank Mrs. Sylvester, not me,” I said, but Mrs. Sylvester was not present to be thanked.
“So,” Amy said, when I had explained a bit about Mrs. Sylvester’s offer of hospitality (leaving out her initial reluctance and lack of sympathy toward the plight of Prism Bay), “how far exactly does that hospitality extend?”
By the end of the day, we’d brought in various owners and employees from Articles of Some Considerable History, the Dancing Squid, and several other local businesses, including a few of Pippa’s fellow booksellers from Prism Bay Literary Merchants (the mysterious proprietor, however, was nowhere to be found). I sought out Mrs. Sylvester after each new invitation, always expecting her to place a cutoff on the guest list, but she never objected. Instead, she watched the growing crowd from her perch atop the stairs with what one might describe as grim triumph.
Before very long, the Hemlocks was home to some three dozen refugees, and though it still wasn’t overcrowded, it was certainly lively. I began to get a sense of what this place must have been like in summers past, when the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information Mrs. Sylvester sent to me would have been important to keep everyone’s shoes and tails from being trod upon. I did not see any horned children, but I did meet a few young people with a reputation for devilry (however figurative). By the end of the second day, Mimi, Tyler, and Elle van der Geest were all once again beneath the roof of the Hemlocks.
“We’re really sorry about your laptop, Mr. Black,” Mimi told me as evening rolled in. “All of us,” she added, with a stern glance toward Tyler and Elle, who were watching us suspiciously from across the room. “We’ll pay you back for it.”
“No, don’t worry about it,” I said. Hector van der Geest had already made a similar offer, and if I refused his money, I certainly wasn’t going to take anything from a girl whose main source of income was presumably working at her uncle’s junk shop. Nor did I care to add to these kids’ problems. I gathered Tyler and Elle had both returned to Prism Bay after being taken elsewhere by their parents—resulting, after many complicated phone calls to the households of Flavius and van der Geest, in Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium acting as temporary guardian of all three. Earl did not need more trouble, and to me, running away from home seemed like a general improvement in behavior over assaulting innocent writers, so I merely advised Elle to stop and consider next time before taking a book too seriously.
The house seemed almost to expand as needed, though cots were eventually brought out for those unable to find beds. Food, meanwhile, proved to be no problem at all: apparently the pantry and cellars had been stocked for a full house, and with only Mrs. Sylvester and me in residence most of the summer, there was plenty to spare. Of far more concern was the storm rolling toward Prism Bay—the one that, according to the man of middle years who has been successful in business (a notable absence in the growing crowd), stood to sink the town once and for all.
For days now, the storm had seemed to linger just off the coast, but when it finally arrived, two days after I first invited Amy and Pippa to the Hemlocks, it turned out the oily clouds we’d seen over Prism Bay had been only the leading edge of something much bigger. The combination of wind and driving rain that descended onto the Hemlocks was far worse than anything I remembered from the ethereal vortex, and I could only assume it was coming from a different direction, one where the sloping cliffs couldn’t shield us. The windows and shutters rattled, gusts whistled beneath the doors. At one point, Amy told me the toilets and tubs on the first floor had filled with jellyfish, and we spent a frantic ten minutes turning off the water and plugging the drains, sure the sewers must be flooding. Then, as the storm’s wailing reached a new crescendo, the lights went out.
The house’s generator must have failed—that’s my best explanation. I suppose it might have been a blown fuse (the wiring in those walls was positively ancient), but whatever the reason, we were all thrown suddenly into thick darkness, broken only by the sudden white flashes of lightning outside. Cries of alarm and dismay went up through the house as people already left nearly destitute by one storm now saw their only shelter about to succumb to another. I tried telling folks to remain calm—we had a supply of storm candles around somewhere—but I doubt anyone heard me. I could hardly hear myself. Until, that is, the glow of a single flame welled up through the dark: Mrs. Sylvester, a newly struck match in her hand.
Later, when people told stories about that night (and they have, readers), I heard several different opinions about when exactly the storm broke. Pretty much everyone agrees it was over by the time the sun came up, and we all stepped outside to the sound of water dripping from pine branches, the air fresh with the clean scent of new rain. Some claim to have sensed the weather turn at this or that point during the night, a change in the wind’s pitch, or the growing silence between lightning and thunder. But really, readers, I think it was when Mrs. Sylvester lit that one match. It sounds sappy, I know, but if nothing else, it altered the mood in the house. That little light helped us find the rest of the storm candles, and soon the Hemlocks was aglow with warm, flickering orange.
We still had a long way ahead, to be sure, but I think from that point on the night became something to be enjoyed rather than endured. People seemed to understand the best way through the storm was to wait it out together; board games and playing cards were produced, the conservatory (in this case, meaning the music room) was looted for instruments, provisions were procured from the basement, and a full-on storm party ensued.
Most of my night was spent patrolling the house for leaks or other incursions by the storm, but the Hemlocks is about as sturdy a house as I’ve ever visited; every window was sealed tight, and the roof held fast. Together, Amy and I were even able to flush most of those jellyfish. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, seemed finally to be warming to her role as host. Generally she stood apart, watching the festivities with an abstracted smile—remembering, I imagined, summers past, when the Hemlocks was crowded all season long—but occasionally someone managed to cajole her into some conversation or game. We were up all the way to morning—though as the time for dawn approached, I did notice some people dozing off, leaning on couches or propped on the house’s thick carpets.
And that, readers, was when the lights came back on. Probably the storm had been dying down for some time by then, but it was the abrupt flicker of electric light that signaled to everyone that something had really changed. People shouted with surprise and delight—and, yes, a little disappointment to see the festivities coming to an end. The snoozers were roused, the front doors flung open, the clearing skies—still dark, but shifting with the approach of dawn—greeted.
It was as everyone crowded onto the front porch and into the new day that I noticed Mrs. Sylvester sitting alone at the long dining room table, which over the course of the evening had become strewn with games of Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, and something called Canadian Boondoggle. Mrs. Sylvester had been observing a particularly heated game of Risk, now temporarily abandoned. She wore a contemplative expression, and seemed—though I couldn’t be sure from this distance—to be talking to herself.
Sitting down by the remains of a local curiosity—possibly a variation of Go—known as Quamaruuk, I asked if she was feeling all right. She blinked, like someone recalled from a daydream, and looked at me with that wry smile of hers—the one I hadn’t seen for weeks. “Yes, Mr. Black,” she said after a pause. “Yes, I do believe I am. Thank you for your concern.” The harsh, combative tone I’d come to expect, the rasping smoker’s croak—these were gone, replaced by the same refined, assured diction I’d remarked on our first meeting.
“Looks like we made it,” I said. “And you’ve got a lot of happy customers.”
“Quite,” Mrs. Sylvester said, one eyebrow arched. “Now then, I’m sure our guests will want breakfast. As you were responsible for most of the invitations, I expect you can manage the bacon.”
I did manage, more or less (I burned myself only once, readers), and breakfast was both a joyous affair and the last with a full house of storm refugees. That morning, Hector van der Geest arrived to collect a rather rebellious-looking Elle, and brought word that electricity and running water had been restored in town. As the day progressed, people began to trickle away, even as the floodwaters receded from the streets and shores. By nightfall, our collection of exiles was cut in half, and the next day it was halved again, as more and more of Prism Bay returned to livable condition. As of this writing, readers, Mrs. Sylvester and I are once again the only residents of the Hemlocks.
Mrs. Sylvester, I am pleased to say, is back to her old self. I’m not sure what exactly changed, but that air of brash, abrupt hostility I’d remarked in her over the past weeks seems to have vanished along with the storm. Perhaps it was just having a full house again, I don’t know. Certainly she had convincing proof that she isn’t really the outcast she imagined.
I’ve noticed, too, that she no longer wears that odd, gaudy pendant—the one I first spotted under my desk. Its disappearance from her wardrobe wasn’t obvious at first; I just knew something that had been there was gone. The only reason I thought of that pendant at all is because I’d noticed it the night of the storm. As Mrs. Sylvester rose from the game-board-strewn table to begin breakfast, something made a scraping sound beneath her hand: yes, readers, the pendant. She held it there, gently but firmly, as one might a captured moth, then, with a rather uncharacteristic wink, slid it into a fold in her dress. That was the last I saw of it, I now realize. All the better. I hate to speak this way of a family heirloom, but the thing really was sort of ugly.
And that, readers, is the story of the storm that nearly washed away Prism Bay. The general cleanup has finally begun, and the rather complicated local government, which involves both a Board of Selectmen and a Board of Overseers, has announced a program of repairs intended to restore public and private property both. We’ll have to see how that goes, readers, but I will say that people around here seem pretty optimistic. For the first time in weeks, hopes are high.
I expect I’ll be too busy helping out (and making the most of these summery dog days) to post next week, but I’ll be sure to tell you how it all turned out. Until then, readers, send good thoughts, and hang onto summer while it lasts!