She could see her breath.
Hayden wasn’t one of those home maintenance or mechanical gurus, but she was fairly sure that seeing one’s breath wasn’t a good sign.
Slowly, she opened her eyes a bit wider and looked around the dimly lit bedroom, seeing the puffs of her warm breath in the now-freezing air. The pre-dawn light filtered into the room through the ancient, filmy curtains covering her single pane windows.
Moonlight. Good. Pre-dawn light. Good. Breath condensing in that pre-dawn chill? Nope. Definitely not good!
Hayden groaned, pulling the covers higher, as much to hide from reality as to keep warm. She didn’t want to know. The dimly lit windows revealed that morning hadn’t yet fully arrived.
“I just turned it off somehow,” she whispered to herself prayerfully. “That’s all it is. The heater hasn’t died, I just stupidly shut off the heat last night before coming to bed.”
The groaning, mechanical sounds that followed her assurance didn’t bode well. Loud clanking came next and Hayden’s whole body tensed as she waited for something. She wasn’t sure what. An explosion? A flash of light?
Wouldn’t it be nice if a whoosh of warmth surged through the early morning air? She pulled the rough, wool blankets higher over her head, groaning again.
A magical rush of warmth? Yeah, like that was going to happen. That would require a bit of good luck and Hayden accepted that her luck was mostly bad lately.
When the cold air penetrated even the blankets, she knew she was going to have to take some sort of action. She couldn’t just stay here under the covers forever.
Hayden pushed the four blankets off of her legs, shivering in the cold air. No use waiting for bad news to come to her, she thought as she carefully stepped onto the wood floors of her bedroom. Unfortunately, the holes worn in her wool socks allowed the brutal cold to cause pin pricks of pain to shoot through her feet. Already shivering, she silently cursed the cold, early spring morning as she hurried from her bedroom, down the stairs and into the living room where she could check the thermostat.
“Please don’t let it be broken!” she whispered as she tugged her thick, terry cloth robe over her arms, belting it securely while she shuffled down the stairs to the main level. “Please, please no broken furnace!”
Unfortunately, all of her prayers were for naught. The thermostat had the old-fashioned levers and it was clearly still set to “heat”.
Another groan, this time her own, had her shoulders slumping in defeat. A temporary solution struck her at that moment and her head popped up with hope. “Oven!” she gasped and hurried into the kitchen in the hopes of turning on the oven to find a small bit of warmth. She could drag her mattress down to the kitchen if it came to that, she told herself.
Clicking on the stove, she rubbed her hands together, then grabbed her winter coat, which was hanging on a peg by the back door. Rushing back to the stove, she once again rubbed her hands together, trying to ease some of the pain from the cold.
Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was just after four in the morning. Not the best time to be making life-changing decisions, but at this point, Hayden didn’t have anything else to do.
Her eyes moved over to the cork board set up by the phone. A corded phone. She couldn’t even afford a wireless one. Nope, her phone was the old princess style. She didn’t really care about the phone. It worked. It accomplished all of her needs and it was a whole lot cheaper than a cell phone, although none of the convenience of a portable phone.
The expensive-looking business card pinned to the cork board taunted her. Laughed at her.
She should have thrown the card away but now, sitting here in the dark, cold kitchen that hadn’t seen a new appliance in about thirty years, she was oddly relieved that she hadn’t followed her initial instincts to toss the card away.
One month. Thirty days. That’s how long she’d held out.
Perhaps if she hadn’t received the tax notice yesterday on the house and land, she might have held out a bit longer. But her electricity bill was past due, she’d paid the phone bill, but she didn’t have a whole lot of food left in the fridge. And she was tired. Tired of trying to make ends meet, tired of struggling to fix everything around this old house by herself, and tired of restless nights because she was worrying about what would break down next.
If she accepted the man’s offer, she could pay off the taxes and all of her past-due bills and still have a large chunk leftover to invest. Her mind quickly calculated the rate of return on some of the investments and possible income she could earn from those investments. If her calculations were correct, she might have just enough to purchase a small piece of land and start her business over again, but on a smaller scale. No employees this time though. She loved her crew of workers, but she wouldn’t be able to afford them if she had to start over.
Hayden accepted that her plan over the past five years hadn’t worked out. She needed a new plan. Plan A, the hope that she could build her own business by growing plants and selling them to the landscaping companies or other nurseries, just hadn’t worked out. After her parents had died suddenly in a car crash five years ago, she’d been desperate to hold onto anything left of her old life. All of her childhood memories were captured within the walls of this house. All the laughter, the warmth, the good times and bad…everything was wrapped up in this house.
But she couldn’t keep going like this. She knew that she had to do something. Something drastic.
Sell the house. Sell the land. Her father and grandfather had farmed this land for decades. She’d grown up in this house, learned to grow things as her father taught her the secrets of botany. What he hadn’t been able to teach her was the fine art of business management. She was a miserable business woman, as was her father. After their death, she’d barely been able to afford the funeral expenses and the taxes on the farm. Over the past five years, she’d sold off the larger farm equipment to help make ends meet, but now…there was nothing left to sell.
She had plenty of money. Theoretically, at least. Several contractors who bought her plants owed her thousands of dollars. But every time she went to them, trying to collect on those debts, she realized that they were in a bad situation as well. Some of them in even worse states than she was.
So yes, they owed her a great deal of money, more than enough to pay the taxes and cover many of the repairs that were needed to this house. But the contractors couldn’t afford to pay her, and that meant she wasn’t able to afford this life.
It was time. She had to face reality and accept that she could no longer afford to preserve her memories.
Yes, she’d most likely lose her business as well. She loved growing things and her plants seemed to thrive under her care. People came to her for advice about saving their plants and she loved helping people.
Unfortunately, that expertise wasn’t paying the bills.
Maybe if she sold the house and farm, she could get a small place in the city, get a degree and…work at another nursery?
Yeah, she’d have to figure this out. Plan B didn’t seem very exciting.
One thing was clear though. She’d have to sell. She couldn’t live like this any longer. She was in debt up to her eyeballs, she was hungry and she was a horrible businesswoman.
Intellectually, she knew that she shouldn’t be embarrassed by the failure of her business. Other people failed every single day and went on to do extraordinary things. But her friend Kate was about the same age and her little coffee shop in town was thriving and her other friend, Nikki, was one of the best teachers at her school.
With a flick of her wrist, she turned on the stove. Coffee was needed first. No point in making decisions without coffee. Besides, her fingers were still frozen. Coffee meant heat. Heat meant happiness. See? She wasn’t a complicated person! Heat was all she needed.
At the moment.
A muffin would be pretty nice too. Oooh, a chocolate muffin…the kind with icing on top! Yeah – the kind of muffin that was really just a cupcake in disguise!
Hayden walked over to the fridge and peered inside. Nope. No chocolate muffin. She had stale bread. A cup of yogurt well past the expiration date. And condiments.
Grabbing a piece of bread, she shuffled back to the open stove, wondering what her bank balance looked like. She hadn’t checked it in a few days, worried about the bills coming out versus the nothing going in. Grocery shopping was necessary.
Her eyes moved over to the cork board again, staring at the hated card with the name and phone number on it. She was going to have to sell. There was no other solution.
Hayden nibbled on the bread as she contemplated life without her childhood home. It wouldn’t be so bad, she told herself. She had the memories stored up in her heart. Yes, she’d dreamed about having children of her own, bringing back some of the traditions she’d had with her parents over the holidays. Traditions she hadn’t contemplated in years.
Because she hadn’t had anyone to share those traditions with.
When a fresh gust of cold air hit her, Hayden’s head swung towards the kitchen doorway. “Why are you sitting in the dark?” Natalie asked, shivering as she slammed the door, then shoved her body against it. Unfortunately, a body shove was the only way the ancient, warped door would close. After decades of the wood contracting and expanding in the heat and cold, the old wooden door wasn’t the best defense against the elements. The sides were damaged and the bottom and top weather-stripping were shredded, leaving a gap where the cold air could seep in. The summers weren’t a problem since Hayden couldn’t afford to use the air conditioning system. But when the heat was on during the winter months and on these early, spring mornings…that was a different story.
“And why is it so cold in here?” Natalie asked, looking around. Suddenly, her friend noticed Hayden in her robe and winter coat, the oven acting as the only source of heat. “Oh honey! What’s going on?” she gasped, rushing over to kneel in front of her friend. “Why are you crying?”
Hayden hadn’t realized that she was crying, but she discovered her cheeks were wet when she lifted her hand, wiping the tears away in surprise. “Oh, just….” she shrugged, unable to explain how she’d finally hit rock bottom. At least, she hoped she’d reached rock bottom. Hayden sincerely hoped that things couldn’t get worse than no heat and no food, nor the money to fix either predicament.
Natalie hugged Hayden. “Honey, talk to me. What’s going on? Did Norman come by again? I told you not to sell those trees to him. He won’t pay for them. He just keeps coming up with one excuse after another.”
Hayden laughed, a bitter sound as she stared up at the ceiling. “No. Norman hasn’t come by. At least, not yet.” She didn’t admit to her friend that the local landscaping manager had called yesterday, asking to come by and pick up more shrubs for another job. Hayden hadn’t called him back to confirm or deny the order, not wanting to sell him anything since he was past due on so many of the previous orders she’d filled for him.
“The heating system broke down.”
Natalie’s eyes widened slightly and she shook her head. “When?”
Hayden felt even worse when her friend put warm hands on her knees. It might not have been so bad if she weren’t hungry. And cold. And devastated by her new decision. But all three? No, she couldn’t handle that.
“I’m going to sell the farm.”
Natalie gasped, her eyes wide as she stared up into Hayden’s tear-drenched eyes. “Not to that man! Please tell me that you’re not selling to him!”
Hayden laughed again. “I don’t have any other buyers, Nat. It’s not like there are people knocking down my doors to buy up this old farmland and a house that needs more repairs than it is worth.”
“You know that’s not true!” Natalie replied with a vehemence only a good friend could conjure. “This place is filled with good memories! You’ve told me so much about your childhood.”
Hayden smiled but had to wipe another tear from her pale cheek. “You’re sweet, Nat. But just because you want a house and a family, a father for Alejandro, that doesn’t mean that anyone else would want this old pile of sawdust. It just isn’t a solid house anymore.”
Natalie started to open her mouth to argue and Hayden knew exactly what was coming next. “No!” she stated firmly. “I’m not taking your money!”
Natalie was a Spanish teacher over at the high school. She might have a good, steady income, but her adorable toddler son was a handful and was brilliant. Natalie was trying to figure out how to pay for the advanced education the boy’s teachers were urging.
Natalie bit her lip, trying to come up with another solution. “Come on. Go pull on some clothes and we’ll head over to Kate’s café to grab a cup of coffee.”
Hayden laughed, but it was more of a hiccup. “I can’t afford coffee, Nat. I can’t afford coffee, or food or taxes or a new door or…” she stopped, her hands covering her face as the reality of her situation sank in. “I can’t even afford heat!”
Hayden felt her friend’s arm on her back and knew that she needed to pull herself together. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she sniffled but sat up straighter. “I’m sorry,” she sighed, then ruined her attempt at strength by sniffling. “I’m okay. I promise.”
Natalie shook her head. “You’re not okay. Come on. Go get some clothes on. We’re going to Kate’s and grabbing a cup of coffee. You know she refuses to let us pay for coffee anyway. Then the three of us are going to talk through the pros and cons of your plan and maybe come up with another.”
Hayden shook her head. “No, really. Thanks for the hug, but you have Alejandro to deal with. You have your own problems and don’t need to worry about mine.”
Natalie laughed and squeezed Hayden’s shoulders again. “First of all, Alejandro is at preschool, so he’s taken care of. Secondly, it would be wonderful to worry about someone else’s problems for a change. I’m sick of trying to figure out my own. So come on,” she told her friend. “You go get dressed and I’m going to steal some strawberries from your plants.”
Hayden stood up, her mind confused for a moment. “What about your strawberry plants? I had them going strong last week.”
Natalie lifted her hand into the air and wiggled her fingers. “Never mind about those plants. Yours are better. Go get dressed.”
Hayden stared at her friend for a long moment, her mind whirling as she tried to put the pieces together. When she noticed her friend’s sheepish expression, Hayden knew that something was very wrong. “Natalie, what did you do to your strawberry plants?”
“Nothing!” her beautiful friend replied, pained and embarrassed, not to mention exasperated. “I followed your instructions perfectly! I watered for exactly how long you told me to. I spread my coffee grounds around and crushed up the egg shells, tossing them into the dirt around the strawberry plants.”
Hayden wasn’t fooled. Something was wrong. She looked at her friend sternly. “What did you do?”
Natalie’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t know!” she sighed. “I really don’t know. I thought I followed your instructions perfectly. But…” she shrugged as she bowed her head. “Well, yesterday morning I woke up and they just looked…brown.”
Hayden was stunned. “Nat! There were berries on the plants that just needed to ripen the last time I was there! That was two days ago!”
“I know!” she cried out. “I told you not to plant them in my yard! I have a Plant-Bermuda-Triangle around me. I told you this! I told you and you refused to believe me. Even Kate understands that plants die when they enter my domain. You heard her the last time you offered to plant something in my yard. She laughed! She laughed and told you not to do it!” She threw her hands up in the air, not sure how to explain the unexplainable. “Everything living thing seems to just…die on me! I don’t understand it either. It’s weird!”
Hayden rubbed her forehead and chuckled. “Nat, I really don’t understand how you can have a thriving, brilliant, precocious three year old son and yet, you manage to kill perfectly healthy plants within weeks, sometimes days, of taking charge of them.”
Natalie huffed for a moment, then rested her head in her hands. “Well, in my defense, Kat and I both warned you about the strawberry plants. I told you that I couldn’t grow anything.”
“The bushes around your cottage are doing fine!”
Natalie threw up her arms again. “Because you take care of them! I don’t touch them. I walk into the house and look away from the plants, shielding them from my negative aura. I’m like a plant Medusa! I swear I don’t do anything to the plants. But when I come around, they just…shrivel and die!”
Hayden covered her mouth, trying not to laugh but the reality was, her friend was right. Plants did seem to shrivel up around Natalie. It was the strangest thing. It was like her friend was plant-toxic. “Well…”
“NO!” she held up her hand and shook her dark curls. “Enough about my plants’ hatred of me. We’re solving your problems today. Mine tomorrow. Go get dressed. Alejandro loves strawberries and I promised him strawberry shortcake for dinner tonight. So I’m going to raid your garden. You’re going to shower. We’re heading over to Kate’s place for coffee, and then the three of us are going to figure this whole thing out.”
Hayden understood when she was defeated and bowed her head. “Fine,” she muttered, almost cursing her friend’s bullying. But it wasn’t really bullying. More along the lines of tough love. Natalie was strong and confident and, if anyone could figure out the next step, it was this woman. “I’m going. But…”
“No buts! Don’t show your face down here until you are somewhat properly dressed. Understand?”
She emphasized her order by pointing her finger towards the stairs. “Go!” she commanded when Hayden opened her mouth to argue.
Hayden smiled, but she also turned around and headed up the stairs. “You’re not so tough, you know,” she called out.
“Go!” Natalie called out.
“I’m going to put a jasmine vine by your front door!” Hayden called back, halfway up the stairs.
“No you won’t!” Natalie yelled. “Because you would never put one of your plants in danger again. You protect them like they are your children.”
Hayden laughed the rest of the way up the stairs, and as she took a lukewarm shower, she said a silent prayer to God, thanking him for good friends. She, Kate, and Natalie had gone through a lot together over the past few years. Natalie had moved into the small town of Lisdeer, Virginia when she was pregnant with her son. Ever since the kind, gentle, loving woman had moved in, they’d been the best of friends and Hayden felt as if Alejandro was a nephew or a step son. And if that horrible, despicable man who had donated sperm ever came back into Natalie’s life and tried to take Alejandro away, Hayden was going to…, well, she wasn’t sure what she would do, but it would be horrible!
Kate had arrived in Lisdeer about two years ago and took over the small coffee shop, growing it into a thriving business in a short period of time. Hayden had often thought about asking Kate for advice on business issues a few times, but a coffee shop and a plant nursery were just too different. Whatever Kate was doing to increase traffic in her coffee shop probably wouldn’t help in getting Hayden’s customers to pay their bills.
Unfortunately, she didn’t really have any other ideas on how to improve her business. So she shut off the shower, trying to figure out an alternative to…well, an alternative to selling her land to him!