She gripped the pen tighter when she noticed the line of her signature resembled the scratch of a lie detector test. She flipped to the next page marked with a sticky tab, breathed in through her nose, then signed on the line as she breathed out through her mouth. Each time she wrote her signature it became smoother and she took one more step toward independence.
One more step away from the cockroach in khakis, previously known as her husband.
She finished signing the contract and placed the pen down on the worn wooden desk. Mr. Tanner smiled beneath his bushy brown mustache. The watery winter sun beaming through the tall windows behind him bounced off his dark shiny pate as he leaned across his desk to shake Ivy’s hand.
“Congratulations, Ivy May. You are now the proud owner of Buttercup Cottage.” His tongue made a circuit across his teeth behind his upper lip, plumping his mustache. “How do you feel?”
Ivy inwardly winced when she shook his hand. It was hot and moist. She offered him a small smile while she surreptitiously wiped her hand on her wool sweater. “Like I’m about to jump off the high dive.” Her stomach dropped to the floor even as she said it.
His caterpillar eyebrows shot up. “I’m sure. Not many people would take on a fixer-upper like Buttercup Cottage, let alone someone who bets it all, so to speak, on a rundown old house.” He leaned his forearms on the scattered piles of papers that covered his massive desk and squinted at her.
Ivy squinted back, fingering the black obsidian pendant at her throat. “You don’t win the bets you don’t place, Mr. Tanner.”
Moving to Mistwick, West Virginia, and buying Buttercup Cottage was the first independent act Ivy had undertaken since her divorce. Mr. Tanner’s question threatened to bring up a whole heaping of self-doubt, along with her breakfast, if she didn’t stick with her plan and get out of his office as fast as her shaky legs would take her. She inhaled, counted to three, breathed out and said, “Is there anything else?”
“Just the keys.” Mr. Tanner dug through the contracts and forms on his desk until he found a small manila envelope. He pushed off the arms of his chair to stand, his belly hanging over his giant brass belt buckle. “Here you go. I wish you the best of luck.” He held the envelope across the desk. It was damp where his fingers clutched it, but his smile was genuine and his brown eyes were soft with kindness.
Ivy swallowed past a hard lump and took the envelope from him. She shook out two tarnished keys into the palm of her hand, and was surprised to feel tears prick her eyes. Pressing her lips together forced the tears to slide down her cheeks. She ducked her head and made a fuss of putting the keys back in the envelope, then sliding it into the pocket of her jacket.
Buttercup Cottage wasn’t far from Tanner Realty. Nothing was very far from anything else in Mistwick. It was a small city in West Virginia that ran along the Ohio River. During its heyday, the river had brought riches to Mistwick. Coal, steel, and iron had moved in and out of the busy port during the industrial boom of the 19th Century. The city was full of beautiful architecture, including the lovely little Victorian cottage that Ivy would now call home.
However, the reason Ivy had been able to buy Buttercup Cottage for a song was because Mistwick had been on a decline since the same industries that made it rich had dried up decades ago. The people of Mistwick were trying to revitalize the city and attract tech companies, but without the infrastructure to support them, it was a hard sell. Ivy hoped she was adding to the revitalization effort, even if her contribution was small.
Children playing kickball in the street, their jackets flapping in the chilly wind, forced her to drive at a snail’s pace when she wanted to race to her new home. Scarlet buds on the maple trees that lined the street were reflected in her windshield. The pale gray sky provided a stark backdrop for overgrown pink cherry blossoms and rangy yellow forsythias in the front yards of grand Victorian homes that stood high on the hill that overlooked Mistwick and the river.
Rather than take time to stop for dinner, Ivy spun through the drive-through at the local Biscuit Barn, a chain restaurant known throughout West Virginia. She bought a beans and cornbread platter to go, as well as a pack of biscuits and butter for breakfast in the morning. The food would be cold without a working microwave or oven, but as hungry and tired as she was, she wouldn’t mind.
The GPS app notified her that Buttercup Cottage was coming up on the left. She drove past her new address, turned left at the next light, and circled back. She wasn’t sure which driveway was hers, so she parked on the street, which wasn’t a problem, because it was nearly empty.
Ivy startled and nearly cracked her head on her steering wheel when the opening guitar licks from “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” sent her phone buzzing across the passenger seat of her car. She’d changed her ringtone to Joan Jett before leaving Charleston to pump her up when she needed a little adrenaline to stay on course. She had plenty of adrenaline racing through her veins now. She groped for the phone and turned down the ringer before checking to see who was calling.
She held the phone in her lap and let Joan finish singing about the kid standing by the record machine. Ivy didn’t want to decline the call because cutting it off too soon would lead to questions, like, where are you? and why didn’t you pick up? Letting the call go to voicemail on its own saved Future Ivy a lot of aggravation. Past Ivy had learned that trick after many tedious arguments over the years.
She waited a minute. Two. The cockroach didn’t call back. She put her phone away and sent a mental thank you to the fates.
The driver-side door creaked as Ivy climbed out and and peered up and down the street. Potholes pockmarked the asphalt and the center white lines were faded. The buildings alternated between newly renovated homes with fresh coats of paint and neat front gardens, and rundown houses with peeling exteriors and crumbling porch steps. Two houses over, a fluffy, brown mixed breed dog who was leashed to a hook screwed into the front yard lifted its head, blinked at Ivy, then went back to napping on its white paws.
She’d been putting off looking at her own property, like a kid who waits until she’s gathered all her birthday presents so she can tear into them all at once. Too many times in her life she’d gotten excited about something that seemed too good to be true. She was terrified that her house was a total dump and she’d been duped by photoshopped images on the real estate website. Her stomach clenched and her heart hammered against her ribs.
The moment of truth had arrived.
(Copyright 2022 Nancy Basile)