Carolyn Ecklund leaned against the greasy divider at the international arrivals gate of MSP, clutching a coffee in one hand and a limp piece of paper on which she'd hastily scrawled 'Amanda Blore' in the other. The sign was an afterthought, a worry that, despite having 'met' several times on Skype, that her new tenant wouldn't recognize her when they finally met. Carolyn wasn't the most memorable person.
The drive from Westerberg to Minneapolis took two hours, which meant she'd woken five hours early and left three and a half ago, fearing dad's battered pickup would give her some guff along the way. It had a tendency to stall in cold weather, but it was also the only car she had that would fit all of Amanda's suitcases. Small favors, but her drive had been smooth, the truck chucking along gamely and few commuters clogging the confusing city streets on an early weekend morning.
When she pulled up to the terminal, she had only herself to blame when she couldn't slide into the short-term lot, and was instead stuck paying for a full half-day's parking.
Her mother had always said, "Waste begets waste", and she had always been right. Not only was Carolyn out ten bucks, but she also had to shell out another dollar-fifty for coffee to keep her heavy eyes open. Early mornings weren't new to her, but she was more used to stumbling out to the barn to feed her ladies, then back into bed for another few hours' doze.
The coffee wasn't even good. It was just before seven, and it already tasted like burnt dregs.
She sighed, sipping it anyway.
An elderly man standing next to her suddenly threw up his arm, nearly jostling her cup out of her hand. Carolyn's silent glare did nothing; she was nothing beside the man's son—or grandson, he looked baby-faced enough—who was striding through the automatic doors, a rucksack slung rakishly over one shoulder. The two men embraced over the divider and walked off together, their loud voices booming in harmony.
Carolyn had turned her head to avoid their reunion. She was no eavesdropper, no matter how easy they made it. Yet their easy reunion sent a shudder through her heart. Would she and Amanda fall in like that?
They'd spoken face-to-face four times in all, even though their emails had flown across the globe dozens of times. On paper, they knew one another pretty well.
Amanda—or Mandy, she wanted to be called Mandy—had replied to Carolyn's Craigslist ad with her resume and a two-page introduction letter. Carolyn knew where she was from (Massachusetts), what she did for a living (English teacher), how old she was (seven years older than Carolyn, but a lady never tells), and where her eclectic life had led her (to a dozen countries Carolyn knew, and twice that number she had had to Google).
But what did any of that mean?
Carolyn wasn't good with strangers. She'd known her newest friend for eight years already. So how in heaven was she going to manage living with a total stranger, even if only for the next six months?
At least her time to worry about it was finally done. The figure coming through the gate now was unmistakably, undoubtedly, indubitably Amanda Blore.
Tall, she'd said she was. 5'11" was an easy enough concept to grasp over Skype—and Carolyn knew plenty of men so tall—but on Amanda it was somehow...grander.
It wasn't just that she was tall. It was that she was also...big. Not big as in fat, though no one could deny there was extra weight on those long bones, but big in the sense that each one of her limbs seemed cast from a larger mold than an average woman's, or even an average man's.
Her shoulders were broad, arms were muscled, legs were rounded, and her feet resembled nothing so much as small boats.
Yet for all that, she moved with definite lightness and nonchalant ease. She wheeled her luggage cart, heaped high with three completely mismatched suitcases, around a stalled couple with a cheerful "Beep, beep!" that sang through the terminal's quiet air. Then her course continued steadily towards Carolyn, despite the fact that she, stunned to be seeing her new roommate in the flesh at last, hadn't even thought to raise her sign.
"Carolyn, right? It's been awhile, but I remember that beautiful hair. Thanks for coming to pick me up, and you know that gas and everything is on me, right?"
"Oh," Carolyn didn't know what to say first, "No, I couldn't possibly—you're my guest..."
"Nah. Picking anyone up from the airport deserves, at minimum, a cup of coffee, a bagel, and gas money. Speaking of which, do you mind if we stop at Dunkin' Donuts? Every time I come home, the first thing I do once I'm off the plane is stop at D 'n D. I know the coffee's crap, but when you haven't had it in a year or more it tastes so good. And no matter how far I roam, I'm still a New England girl at heart."
"No, of course," she stammered, "I don't know if there's one here, though."
"There is, I checked ahead. Might be a bit of a walk, but that depends..." Amanda's bright, heavy-lidded eyes scanned the signs suspended above Carolyn's head, "Ah. I see it. Terminal 1 is this way."
With a huff and a shove, she started her cart again, winding the teetering bags through the crowd as easily as pushing a stroller. Carolyn hustled around the divider and fell into her gravity, unable to do much else than follow where she flew.
"How was your flight?"
"Ugh," Amanda grunted, "Do you ever have that moment on a long-haul flight where you think 'This is it, this is how I die'? Twelve hours on a plane is too long for anyone. But it was cheap, so you gotta do what you gotta do."
"I've never been on a plane for more than four hours. We went to Disney World once, when I was a kid."
"Hey, that was my first flight too! Boston to Orlando, the most magical three hours I ever spent. Gotta say, the rollercoasters were a let-down after the flight."
Amanda grinned down at her, and even her brilliantly white teeth seemed oversized.
"I guess it's an American rite of passage, isn't it, going to Disney when you're a kid?"
"Or maybe more like a pilgrimage," Carolyn offered, pride blooming like a rose in her heart when Amanda laughed.
"That's even better! We make pilgrimage to bow at the holiest of holies," she paused for dramatic effect, "Cinderella's Castle. God, I remember my parents saying they spent four thousand dollars on that trip, and I remember how huge that number seemed. Four thousand...like what could possibly cost that much?"
Carolyn chuckled weakly. What was a vacation to some would be a Godsend to her.
"Anyway, here we are!"
They pulled up under the striped neon orange-and-pink awning of the Dunkin' Donuts, to which Amanda had led them without so much as a single misstep. She inhaled deeply, sucking in the aromas of sugared coffee and bready bagels, and sighed, eyelids fluttering delightedly.
"God, that smell! I went to one in Bangkok, right on the river, where the taxi boats were coming and going through the water market, and it smelled exactly the same. Normally I hate fast food, but sometimes it tastes like coming home. What'll you have?"
"Oh, thank you, but I ate before I left. I'm fine."
"Come on, you said it was three hours to Westerberg, right?"
"Two or three, even if you're not hungry now, a bagel is always good. And I see you with that empty coffee cup; don't tell me you don't want another."
"Well," another would be a good idea, and at least this way she could get some creamer that wasn't clotted powder, "thank you. A small coffee, cream, no sugar."
"And a bagel? A sandwich? If you get home and really don't want it, I promise I'll eat it for you."
"Okay," her morning omelet was a quick-fading dream, "a...toasted plain bagel with cream cheese. But you really don't have to."
"Don't be silly. Can you watch my bags?"
At Carolyn's nod, Amanda strode up to the register, where the sleepy cashier's eyes widened as he watched this living statue bear down upon him. That was it, Carolyn thought. Despite her worn hoodie and sweatpants, Amanda reminded her of the classical sculptures she'd seen on traveling exhibit at Mia. Meant to be shown to crowds of hundreds, if not thousands, those goddess figures of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena towered above the onlookers; perfectly proportional, but far too large to be mortal.
Amanda came away from the register with a pair of coffees and cream-cheesed bagels for herself and Carolyn, as well as a dozen more bagels and a dozen donuts. She balanced the box and bag precariously atop her luggage, then handed Carolyn her second breakfast.
"Oh yeah," she smiled at Carolyn's dropped jaw, which she was too stunned to close, "I'm serious about my Dunkin'. And the donuts are for both of us, so help yourself anytime. The bagels I'll freeze, if I can borrow a plastic bag and some room in your freezer."
"Of course," Carolyn couldn't remember the last time she'd had a donut; probably she'd had one of Izzy's cider donuts sometime in the fall, the ones she made with culls from the harvest. She only ate sweets when work on the farm helped her burn off the calories; she didn't want the knee problems her dad used to have, brought on by the rounded beer-belly he gave himself every winter. Still, she had manners. "Thank you."
"No problem. Mmm," Amanda peeled the wrapper to her bagel and took a massive bite, "just what I wanted. Should we eat here, or do you wanna get home?"
Traffic had been light coming in, but who knew what it was be like now? Half-past seven, on a crisp, cold spring Sunday.
"Let's go home, if you don't mind."
Of course the front door jammed when Carolyn unlocked it. Damn thing, it always jammed when that bright morning sunlight hit it full-on and made the chilled beams swell. Amanda didn't notice, busy dragging her luggage down from the pickup bed after waving away Carolyn's offer of help, so she had a few moments to jerk the swollen wood in the frame and wiggle the handle just so to coax it open by the time Amanda had loaded everything onto the porch.
"I'm sorry, it's a mess," she said, just as her mother said every time a guest came over, and with the same wry inflection her grandmother had used before the house—and duties as its hostess—had become her mother's inheritance. Sometimes the echoes were too strong to resist. "I cleaned it up last night, but it's a farmhouse, so..."
"No worries," Amanda replied, easy as ever, "I'm sure it's fine."
It was fine, Carolyn had made sure of that when she spent four hours yesterday vacuuming and dusting and wafting Febreeze over every old afghan and throw pillow. She'd even dragged the ladder from the shed to wipe off the fan blades in the living room and office, and changed all the dust covers in the four unused bedrooms.
But it was shabby. Neither Lysol nor Fantastik could disguise the worn paths in the kitchen linoleum, the peeling veneer on the closet doors, or the soaked-in rings on the coffee table.
Carolyn breathed a silent prayer and pushed the door open.
"Here, let me help you," she grabbed a bag faster than Amanda could block her hand, and heaved it over the step, "Oh, and if you don't mind taking off your shoes in the mudroom, to keep the dirt down. I have some slippers if you need them."
"Yeah, thanks. Mine are buried somewhere. I'll find 'em tonight."
Amanda slid out of her boots and into the fluffy blue scuffs Carolyn offered, heels hanging out the back.
"Oh," she stammered, "I'm so—"
"Nothing to be sorry about! I've spent too much time in Asia to be embarrassed about the size of my feet. I never found a hostel that carried ones big enough for me, and every time I went to a student's house for parent-teacher conferences, I'd just bring my own!"
Together, they finished hauling Amanda's bags into the slate-tiled mudroom.
"Feel free to leave your coat and shoes anywhere," she said, "I'll help you carry your bags up in a minute; I just need to feed my ladies first."
"My chickens," she chuckled, embarrassed the nickname had slipped out. "My dad always called them that...his ladies, his girls. Just a hard habit to break."
"You have chickens?" Amanda's voice scaled up; she clapped her hands. "Can I come with you to feed them later? Right now I just want to stretch out, but I'd love to see your ladies."
"Of course. They get their evening feed around 5."
"Great, thanks. I'll set my alarm."
With a backward glance—how odd it was to see someone looking around her kitchen like it was a wondrous new land—Carolyn stepped back onto the porch, slammed the door behind her, and trudged the well-worn, icebound trail around the house to the chicken coop out back.
Family legend told that her great-grandfather had built it with his own two hands, and that there had always been at least a few hens on the farm ever since. Even though they were often more trouble than they were worth in terms of early mornings, Carolyn still liked to hear her rooster's shriek at every stray bug and falling branch, and the hens' clucking was peaceful, homey, and relaxing.
She opened the coop door to a riotous crowd of indignant ladies, who scooted around her feet, pecking angrily at bare snow.
"I know girls, I'm late this morning," Carolyn cooed, digging a scoop into the feed bag. She weighed it out hurriedly, tossed in a half-scoop extra by way of apology, and dispensed it into the feeder.
With the advent of food, all was naturally forgiven, and the ladies—and sole gentleman—fell to their breakfast with a minimum of ruffled feathers.
Carolyn watched them, watched their little empty heads bob around, watched the thawing snow churn under their sharp claws.
"A new friend is coming to meet you later," she murmured. "Amanda. Will you like her? She's louder than you're used to; you'll have to forgive that. But she's funny, smart, and very nice, I think. I think you'll like her."
Her last task at the coop—she'd muck it out later, Amanda would be fascinated—was to empty the water trough and top it up at the spigot. Her duty done, Carolyn tipped an imaginary cap to her girls and trudged back into the house.
Amanda was standing in the living room, head turned sideways, reading the spines of her books. Not all her books. They were the family's books, really. The picture-books her parents had read to her and Thomas growing up stood beside her mother's non-fiction and her father's science-fiction collections, which stood beside her grandparents' almanacs and the heaps of Reader's Digest Condensed Editions they'd accumulated over the decades. Her books were there too, the ones she'd spent her spare dollars on at every birthday and Christmas.
Even during those short few years she lived in town, it felt wrong to take them away from the family.
There were even some books—who knows how old they were—in her great-great-grandparents' native Swedish. She ought to get them appraised and put on her home insurance, if they were valuable. Selling them would be an abomination.
"I love your library," Amanda said, glancing over, before turning back to finish off the row, "It's the first thing I do in someone's house, is look at their books. Fastest way to know if you're going to like someone."
"What if they don't have any books?"
Amanda straightened up, turned, and winked. "Exactly."
A yawn split her face.
"Sorry, you must be exhausted. Let me show you the room. Your room, I mean."
"Yeah, I could do with a nap. Do you mind if I leave my bags down here? If I take them up I won't be able to sleep until I unpack, and I'm way too tired for that now."
"Of course. Here, this way."
The staircase groaned under Amanda's clumsy feet; she didn't know to avoid the second stair or the loose nail on the fifth.
"That's the bathroom there, just at the top. The shower's a little finicky, so I can show you how to use it if you want to shower now."
"No, that's okay." Amanda stuck her head into the room, gave it an efficient once-over, and pulled back out. "Anything wrong with the toilet I should know?"
"No, it's fine. And over here," she herded her to the left, "this one is yours; it's the one I showed you over Skype. If you don't like it, you can change to one of the other rooms, but they're both smaller. I like the view in here, though."
She did. It had been Thomas' room, the one that looked over the windbreak of pine trees in the backyard, their fire pit and the smaller of the two sheds. When they'd had a pool, you could see it from his window. Hers only overlooked the muddy driveway and the muddier chicken coop and run.
"Oh," Amanda sighed, "this is great. Just what I wanted."
She ran a hand over the solid oak wardrobe's doors, fingertips dipping into the carved leaves and vines. "Who made this?" she pointed to the chevron-patterned afghan on the bed, the one Carolyn always coveted, patterned in an ascending ombre of blue like ocean waves.
"My grandma. She made one for me too, but I," she chuckled, "got a really bad flu one year and threw up all over it. My mother could never get the smell out, so she threw it away."
"Mmm," she was thirty-five years old, far too old to cry over—or even dwell on—a ruined blanket. "Well, I'll let you alone, then. I'll be down in the living room if you need anything. Oh," she stopped at the threshold and turned around, "I left a notebook on the nightstand with the Wifi password, the landline number, and the address. In case you needed them."
"Thanks, Carolyn," Amanda's smile could fire the sun, it was so bright. "Hey, I just realized that I never actually introduced myself. You travel enough, meet enough people, and you forget that kinda stuff. I hung out with the same three people in Athens for two whole days before we introduced ourselves."
"It's fine. It's not like I don't know your name, after all."
"But still," she stuck out one broad palm, "it's nice to meet you. I'm Mandy Blore."
Carolyn balked. "Sorry," she reached out timidly, "my hands are always cold. But I'm Carolyn Ecklund. Nice to meet you too," she finished on a laugh, drawing her hand back from a touch so warm it scorched.
Amanda nodded, eyes dropping to a dreamy, relaxed slit.
"Okay," she sighed, "I'm gonna pass out now. G'night."