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The NorthStar by Elle Keaton (1)

Chapter One

John stared at the envelope in his hand, turning it over a couple of times and reading the return address. He didn’t have to see the contents to know what the letter would say, but he ripped into it anyway, pulling out the single sheet of paper and letting the envelope fall to the floor.

Another piece of evidence, nail in the coffin, last straw . . . evidence of his own stupidity, evidence he deserved what was happening because he should have realized what kind of person Rico was from the very beginning. Instead he’d convinced himself, again, he’d finally met the right person.

In his defense, Rico’d made it easy to believe his lies at first. It wasn’t until Rico was gone that John learned the extent of his betrayal, of Rico’s inherent untruth. But he should have known. John’s father had always said, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” His parents had been happily married for fifty-five years. John doubted either of them had ever been truly lonely. And at the end they’d passed within days of each other, one heart following the other into eternity.

And now it was down to this:

Mr. John Hall,

This letter is legal notice of foreclosure proceedings on the real property situated at 15 milton avenue, skagit, skagit county, washington. As the property owner of record, you have thirty (30) days from the date of receipt to bring all property and tax payments current. After thirty (30) days the property will be foreclosed and auctioned to the highest bidder.

Please call your local representative with any questions.

Sincerely

A scribbled signature John couldn’t decipher.

It probably said, “Merry Fucking Christmas.”

With Christmas Eve a couple of days away, the bank couldn’t have waited one more week to send this? Resisting the urge to crumple the letter into a ball and hurl it out the window, John instead folded it up with great care and returned it to the envelope it had arrived in before shoving it into his back pocket. What was he going to do now?

On his TV, which John kept turned on for white noise since Rico’d left, the local weather person was standing in front of a swirling white graphic, pointing to various places and direly predicting snowmageddon over the holiday weekend.

John snorted a laugh. No f-ing way. He jammed the power button on the remote with his thumb, quieting the reporter’s authoritative tone. The Pacific Northwest rarely had snow before January. The meteorologist was trying to appease folks wishing for a white Christmas and drum up ratings for herself.

Silence fell, and John had to get out of the house. He had to do something. Glancing around, he finally spotted his car keys exactly where he always put them, in the little bowl on the kitchen counter. He grabbed them and headed toward the garage door off the kitchen. In the dim light he accidentally kicked the cat dish across the linoleum flooring. A smashing sound followed when it smacked into the baseboard. Cat wouldn’t care; he’d crossed the rainbow bridge six weeks ago, after a long, pampered life.


The only place not a zoo on the last Saturday before Christmas was the bank. John slowed, deciding if he wanted to beg one last time. There was nothing like baring your financial soul to a fresh-faced loan officer who, while nodding sympathetically, didn’t seem to want to help. He turned in to the parking lot anyway.

“We’ve been over this. With your credit the way it is, there’s not a lot the bank can do, Mr. Hall.”

As if the fucking bank were sentient. John felt his jaw twitch and tried to keep his temper under control. It was difficult with all the stress. Anger was not something he experienced often, but lately he found himself losing control of his emotions.

“I told you that I didn’t know about those charges, and the credit cards aren’t mine. I’m a victim of identity theft.” He didn’t really feel like going into what a douche his ex had turned out to be.

“So you reported. The bank is investigating.” Colin Short, according to the name tag dangling precariously from his suit jacket, tapped his desk with a cheap ballpoint pen, the kind sold by the dozen. His suit, John thought, was off the rack and didn’t fit him quite right.

“And in the meantime ‘the bank’ is planning on taking my livelihood away? The NorthStar is how I make money to pay off debts that I didn’t even incur!”

Frustration mounted; no matter how he pled his case, Short came back with something that sounded a lot like, “The bank is taking its sweet time thinking about it, but the answer is going to be ‘no.’”

When the few remaining customers in the bank lobby started throwing surreptitious glances in their direction—some outright staring—John decided it was best to leave before he said or did something stupid. Normally there would have been a show at the NorthStar that night, but he was too depressed to pretend to have any kind of cheer to spread around, and no one in Skagit would notice if the little art house shut its doors. Permanently.


John didn’t drink a lot. He enjoyed his glasses of red wine and loved champagne. Tonight he felt like a loose ball bearing, shaky and out of control, careening with no purpose. He supposed it was shock or something like it, but he wanted to stop feeling it. At least for now, he wanted to forget his troubles.

The bar on State Street was medium busy; enough customers to keep the bartender working, but not enough for John to feel guilty taking up a stool.

“What can I get you?”

The bartender was a younger guy, probably early twenties, with long hair he kept tied back in a messy ponytail. Very attractive. John noticed a silver band on his finger and felt a stab of jealousy. He’d grown up at a time when getting married to a man was just a dream, and now he’d aged past any hope of a partnership.

“Vodka martini, dirty.”

He tapped his fingers on the bar top while he waited, looking around but not recognizing anyone.

A martini glass landed in front of him.

“Thanks.”

He took a sip. The drink was perfect. The tang of olive brine set off the liquor perfectly. The glass was empty before he realized it.

“Make you another?”

John nodded. The second went down a little slower. He signaled for a third.

The bartender slid the glass across the bar, raising his eyebrows meaningfully as he did so. “Cops are out tonight. DUI patrols.”

John reached into his pocket for his keys and shoved them across the counter. “I’ll walk home.”

“How far?”

“What?” John was confused. He’d been thinking about . . . nothing really.

“How far is your place?”

“You’re way too young for me.” Then he blushed that he’d said the words out loud. He was such a loser.

The bartender laughed. He really was gorgeous, and his brilliant smile only made him more so.

“My husband wouldn’t argue with you, but that’s because he’s possessive, not ageist. If you’re walking, you can’t be too far from here. Or we can call you a cab. They’re giving free rides this week.”

“Nah, a walk will feel good. It’s maybe a mile, easy walk. I’ll pick up my car tomorrow.”

Three martinis on a stomach that hadn’t had a meal since breakfast were beginning to take effect. He finally felt loose, untethered from reality, the pain of the letter and the encounter at the bank hiding on the other side of the alcohol.

After a fourth drink and a basket of fries that somehow ended up in front of him, John paid and then made his way, only a little unsteadily, out of the bar. By the time he left he’d spotted a few familiar faces, but no one had approached him, which he was thankful for. He was there to drink and forget, not talk.

The walk did feel good, even if it was chilly, the clouds rolling across the sky chased by the wind making everything a bit spooky. He let himself in the back door with his hide-a-key and stumbled upstairs to his bedroom. Leaving his clothes in a pile on the floor, no one but him to care anyway, he fell into bed and was asleep immediately.


After spending a few hours feeling sorry for himself the next morning—afternoon by the time he dragged himself out of bed—John walked to where his car was parked by the bar. It was colder than he was used to this time of year, and he wondered if maybe they would see some snow after all. Luckily his car started right away; it needed a tune-up, but that was going to have to wait. Turning right out of the parking lot, he headed toward the U-Haul store, arriving ten minutes before the handwritten sign said they were closing.

“Howdy.” An older man behind the counter looked up as he came in. “What can I do for you?”

“I need moving boxes.”

“How many rooms are you packing?”

John tried to calculate how much stuff there was at the theater. “A lot of boxes, at least a couple dozen.”

“You get 10 percent off each twenty-five boxes, no matter what size.”

John thought a minute about the stacks of metal and plastic tins protecting his film collection, some dating back to the 1930s. The goofy souvenirs and collectibles he’d spent so much time hunting down and making places for around the theater.

“Fifty.” He’d probably need more than fifty, but that was all he could stomach right now.

“You own the NorthStar Theater, don’t cha? I’ve seen you a couple times at Chamber of Commerce meetings.”

John nodded. For now, anyway, it was the truth.

“Mac Foley.” The man stuck out his hand, smiling.

John shook it. “John Hall, nice to finally meet you.”

Mac helped him get the boxes out to his car, and then John watched as Mac went back inside and locked the door. Sliding behind the wheel, John buckled his seat belt even though it was only a ten-minute drive and backed out of the parking lot, heading toward what felt like his doom.

When he’d parked, the outside temperature had been cold and it’d started to sort of drizzle, but while he was inside the temperature must’ve dropped even further; the raindrops were now a mix of rain and slush. John flicked on the windshield wipers and defroster, driving more carefully then he might have normally.

The NorthStar Theater was located on the fringes of “old” Skagit, which was currently experiencing a rejuvenation. The theater had been built during the original heyday of Hollywood, when investors believed in magic and the future of small-town America. Its marquee featured a bright yellow shooting star hovering over the “Now Playing,” with red and yellow blinking lights. It had cost John a fortune to get the thing working again. The inside of the theater had cost even more, and both had been worth every penny.

Except it wasn’t going to be his much longer. He was gripping the steering wheel so tightly his hands hurt. He tried to relax.

Veering around several orange cones and blinking barrier lights from the ongoing construction across the street, John searched for street parking. Skagit was growing fairly quickly these days. The university was constantly expanding, and a few small software companies had set up shop, bringing with them a need for staff. Parking was beginning to be an issue; luckily he had a lot at the back of the building.

A savvy investor had purchased the building across the street from the NorthStar and was converting it to condos. It had been a hotel once, and John thought it would be pretty neat when it was done, but suffering through all the noise, construction trucks parked everywhere, and random power outages because he shared the same electrical block with the apartments had been maddening—and not great for the theater business in the short term.

He pulled to the curb around the corner from the main entrance and saw only one parking spot available near the side door. There was a clearly visible “Loading and Unloading Only” sign, but if the SkPD wanted to ticket him they could have at it—and happy fucking holidays too. Before opening the theater’s side exit, he went around to the front, unlocked the case with the showtimes, and took the entire schedule down. There would be no more showings of any movies, old or new, at least not by him.

He should keep the theater open right up until the last day he could, but it was just too hard. Even being here right now was hard. John was a proven failure, not only in his love life but in business too. It was best to let the theater go quickly. Then he’d see what he could do about putting his life back together. Maybe he’d try to sell the house, move to a different small town.

Or not. Jesus, he was almost fifty. He didn’t want to start over; he wanted a partner to share his life with. Someone who wanted to spend time with him, drink wine in the evenings and watch the neighbor kid learn how to ride her bike and the dog chase the mail carrier. Someone to share his home with.

That thought he shoved aside. The only reason he wasn’t losing the house was because he’d kept it completely separate from his business. Selling the house he’d worked so hard to bring back to livable, the home he returned to nightly for its comfort and peace—John got dry heaves. He couldn’t let the bank take that too.

Returning to his beat-up old Honda, John had just lifted the back hatch to start grabbing the boxes when something cold and wet landed on the back of his neck. It didn’t feel like rain. He twisted to look up at the evening sky. Sure enough, he spotted more snowflakes mixed in with the drizzle. It was going to be a great night on the Skagit streets. The rain would likely freeze, causing ice to form under any snow that stuck around. People mocked Skagit drivers, but nothing except sand would help keep folks from slipping and sliding. An even better reason for him to leave his car right where it was.

By the time he lugged all the boxes inside, John was an uncomfortable mix of hot and sweaty with cold, damp feet. The weather person had been right, as the rain had turned to snow that was falling thick and fast. Almost any other year, John would have been thrilled to see a white Christmas. He would have been one of the first people—child or adult—dancing in the street with his tongue out trying to catch snowflakes or grabbing his sled and taking it to the park. Joy was just one more thing Rico had stolen from him.

Inside, the theater was chilly, but John kept most of the lights off and didn’t bother turning on the heat as he began setting up a sort of staging area for himself in the lobby. He needed to keep focused on this task, packing the important things, or he would find himself lost in memories and dreaming again.

As he worked, cramming the paraphernalia of a lifetime into moving boxes and stacking them in the middle of the lobby when they were full and taped up, he became angrier and angrier. At first he carefully wrapped each item in old newspaper or bubble wrap. A few hours later he was finished with the ticket booth and concessions bar and was tossing the last random items carelessly into the current box.

Now he stood in the doorway to his office, rage boiling under his skin. Years of memories were in that room: sticky notes, flyers for festivals, a filing cabinet of tax forms and tattered job applications. In the summer months he’d hired avid high school students to learn the place and see what it was like to be in charge of a small business. It was his attempt at an internship for locals, and there’d been some really good ones over the years.

No more.

John grabbed a black plastic bag from behind the concession stand and began filling it with trash: things long forgotten and of no use. Not even the thrift store would want dusty, tattered movie posters or eight-year-old waxed-paper cups.

Several full bags later, he stopped and took them down the hallway to the back, where there was a dumpster in the alley behind the theater. Crap, he’d have to remember to stop the garbage service. John unlocked the back door and propped it open with a wooden doorstop. He’d always meant to buy a new one, but he’d never gotten around to it.

At first he was disoriented by the light outside. It should have been full dark by now. The snow hadn’t stopped; it had continued falling while John had been packing up his life. The pavement was covered with a few inches of fresh snow, and the sky had the yellow cast John had learned to associate with a Pacific Northwest snowstorm.

“Huh.”

He stood for a second, hands on his hips, letting himself be amazed instead of angry. Then he remembered his chore and turned to grab the trash bags. One by one he heaved them into the Dumpster, where each landed with an echoing clang. When the sound died away, everything was eerily muffled and quiet except for a little rustle, a sort of squeak.

His was the only trash container in the alley; the theater took up most of the small block. The other businesses shared a small trash and recycling area around the corner from him. But that’s not where the sound had come from. The sound had come from underneath his own Dumpster.

John was just about to go back inside and quit heating up the outdoors when he heard it again. With a disturbing feeling of déjà vu, he knelt down in the damp snow, getting the knees of his blue jeans wet as he bent and peered underneath the trash container. Two tiny sparks glowed back at him.

“Hey, little guy, it’s too cold to be out here—don’t you have someplace to be?”

John was pretty sure it was a kitten and not an opossum or raccoon hiding under the bins in the dark. Plucking his cell phone out of his back pocket, he turned on the flashlight feature and shone it underneath the huge trash container. As far back as it could get, shivering with cold and probably terrified from the bags landing above it, huddled a tiny, fuzzy form. Definitely a kitten.

“Well, fuck. You aren’t going to come out here on your own, are you?” John grimaced and sat back on his haunches, trying to think of how to get it out.

“Are you hungry, little one?” he asked. Wouldn’t it have been funny if it had answered him?

He stood and raced back inside, leaving the door open, trying to think of something he had at the theater that might entice a kitten to come in out of the cold. Trying not to think how he’d rescued a kitten much the same way a few years earlier. Cat was gone now, no warm, slightly grumpy form spending most of its days sleeping in the middle of his bed. No querulous meow demanding breakfast at an ungodly hour of the morning.

In the concession area he gathered a handful of creamers and a cup he hadn’t tossed yet. Quickly ripping the cup so the sides were only about an inch tall, he opened the creamers and poured them in. The stuff was gross, but the kitten had to be hungry.

Back out in the alley, John knelt and set the creamer next to him. He leaned down again and shone the light, but this time he didn’t see two little eyes peering back. Desperately he moved his phone back and forth, but the kitten wasn’t there. He wondered if he’d hallucinated it, if things had gone so wrong that now he was wishing it was several years earlier.

When he stood to go back inside, John automatically wiped his eyes. That was when he realized he’d started to tear up.

“Fucking hell, John, pull yourself together.”

Yeah, and talking to himself was a great sign too.

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