GHOULS' NIGHT OUT
It was the week before Halloween and Lilly Carlsen had bedecked her jewelry shop in swaths of burnt orange and black. It was a look she liked to call “rustic elegant” and she achieved it by using yards of tulle, witch silhouettes, art deco pumpkins, and a small wooden black cat named Whiskers. He sat sentry in the front window of the shop, an orange gingham ribbon tied in a bow around his neck.
Though Halloween afforded Juniper Junction merchants a bonanza of marketing opportunities, Lilly didn’t love the unofficial holiday that fell every October thirty-first. For one thing, it reminded her that her kids, Tighe and Laurel, were growing up. Now that they were both in college, it had been many years since they had held her hands to go trick-or-treating or begged to wear their Halloween costumes everywhere they went. And second, she didn’t like masks. She knew a psychiatrist would have a field day with that, but it didn’t matter because she didn’t have a psychiatrist.
Maybe I should get one, she thought. I’ve got loads of things we could talk about.
She stood back to survey her decorative handiwork and turned around when she heard a knock on the front window. Her boyfriend of almost two years, Hassan Ashraf, stood on the sidewalk carrying a cardboard tray with three coffees and wearing a scowl.
She hurried to unlock the front door and stood aside to let him in. She leaned over to kiss his cheek and he kissed the side of her head in return. He set the coffees on the display case and gestured toward them for Lilly and Harry, Lilly’s assistant, to help themselves.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head, his lips a thin line. “It’s Michelle. She started in on me early this morning.”
Lilly groaned. “What’s the matter this time?”
“She said that she can’t possibly work in her house while the landscapers are working at my house. The leaf blowers give her migraines, she says.” Hassan puffed his cheeks and let out a long sigh.
“You know if you didn’t take care of the leaves, she’d be complaining about them. There is no pleasing her.”
Harry was watching the exchange and Lilly turned to him. “Michelle Conover is Hassan’s next-door neighbor and she’s awful.”
“Yesterday it was the smell of the wood smoke from the fireplace outdoors. I built a fire out there last night and she came over and said the smell from the smoke was giving her bronchitis.” Hassan shook his head. “She’s been like that since I moved in, but lately it’s gotten much worse.”
Lilly smirked. “I wish she would find another place to live.”
“She’ll live next door to me for the rest of her life.” Hassan reached for a cup of coffee and took a long sip. “I’ve got to get back home because I’m expecting a call from New York, but I wanted to stop by and vent. And bring coffee for you two.”
“Thanks for the coffee, Hassan,” Harry said. “It’s too bad about your neighbor. Isn’t she married to the guy who’s going to open that tearoom across the street?”
“She was,” Hassan said. “Their divorce was final a couple months ago.”
“I haven’t seen him around too much,” Harry said.
“He’s probably spending all his time in therapy after being married to her,” Hassan replied.
“I hope your day gets better,” Lilly said. She checked her watch and moved to the front door to unlock it. Hassan took his coffee and followed her.
“I’m sorry to be such a downer first thing in the morning.” He pulled her to him and kissed her forehead.
“And I’m sorry you have to deal with Michelle,” she said. “I’ll call you tonight. Ignore her if she comes to the door today.”
Hassan left and Lilly finished setting up the display she had been working on.
“Having a lousy neighbor is the worst,” Harry said.
“I know. Michelle makes Mrs. Laforge look like Mother Teresa.” Mrs. Laforge, Lilly’s neighbor, had been a thorn in Lilly’s side for years. She criticized Lilly’s parenting skills, complained about Tighe and Laurel, and didn’t like Barney, the Carlsens’ dog. Those were three big strikes against Mrs. Laforge.
“What is Hassan having done at his house that’s making Michelle so mad?”
“He’s having a fence put in—you know, because good fences make good neighbors—and a lot of landscaping done. Since he’s been spending more and more time in Juniper Junction, he’s got the time to oversee things like that.”
“Do you know Michelle well?”
Lilly shook her head. “No. I’ve been around when she’s lodged some silly complaint with Hassan, but I barely know her.”
“Do you know her husband? Her ex-husband, I mean.”
“Ted? I’ve met him once or twice, but I don’t really know him.”
“The tearoom looks like it’s going to be nice.”
“That reminds me, yesterday we got an invitation to the soft opening of the tearoom next week,” Lilly said, turning to go back to the office.
“You and me?” Harry called after her.
Lilly disappeared into the office and came back again just a couple seconds later holding a piece of card stock. “That’s what it says here,” she said. She glanced at the card and handed it to Harry. “It looks like we’re both invited and we can each bring a guest.”
He looked at the invitation. “Tranquilitea. Cool name. I’ll see if Alice is busy that afternoon. Are you taking Hassan?”
“I don’t know. From what I’ve heard, Ted and Michelle’s divorce was pretty acrimonious, so I don’t expect Michelle to be there. But if there’s even a small chance she’ll show up, Hassan won’t want to go. The trouble is, I don’t know if there’s a polite way to find out. I’ll ask Noley if she wants to be my plus-one. Or maybe Mom.”
“I hope there’ll be food at the opening,” Harry said.
Lilly laughed. “I’m sure there will be. Ted’s going to want to serve food so we can tell prospective customers how good it is.”
“I suppose that’s the point of the soft opening?”
“Probably. Ted wants the Main Street merchants to help him spread the word about the tearoom.”
After work that evening Lilly stopped at her mother’s house on her way home from work. Her mother, Bev, had been on a slow, steady decline from dementia for a couple years, but she was lucky enough to still be living in her own home. She had two nurses who stayed with her. Nikki, the day nurse, opened the door when Lilly knocked.
“Hi, Nikki. How did today go?” Lilly asked.
Nikki shrugged. “Not bad.”
“Did you take her shopping today?”
Nikki nodded. “I asked her if she wanted to go shopping, to the park, to visit Mildred next door, everything I could think of. She didn’t want to go. That’s normal, Lilly. People with this type of dementia often turn inward and don’t want to go anywhere.”
“I was invited to a tearoom opening tomorrow. Maybe I’ll see if she wants to be my plus-one. Do you think she’d be interested?”
Nikki’s eyes lit up. “You know, that might just get her out of the house. Let’s go ask her.”