Mavis Walker and her dog Sprite slogged along the nearly deserted bay loop of Wolf Neck Woods State Park. She was happy to call mid-coast Maine home after years of living elsewhere. Her new job as a college counselor suited her well. It all seemed so perfect. Yet even now, after all this time, she still asked herself why she had not simply walked away at the very beginning and avoided all the subsequent grief.
Suddenly she was startled out of her melancholy by a stranger who appeared out of nowhere. Mavis felt a prickle of fear along her spine as the man strode purposely toward them, and she gave an involuntary jerk to the leash. The little hound rumbled a deep growl and the hair on her back bristled straight up. Her whole body tensed as she inserted herself between Mavis and the approaching man.
“Hey, girl, take it easy,” Mavis said to Sprite. She looked apologetically at the man, hiding her own fear, and said, “I don’t know what got into her. She never does this.”
The stranger gave a curt nod to her and a wide berth to Sprite’s bared teeth. Sprite stopped growling and posturing as soon as the man veered away, but her hackles were still raised. Mavis bent down to run a hand soothingly over the dog’s head. “It’s okay, girl!”
She wondered about her intense reaction to the stranger. Perhaps it was the combination of his size, the baseball cap pulled low over his brow, and the dark glasses. Mavis chided herself for profiling and shook off the frisson of flight-or-fight at the nape of her neck. She set her negative thoughts aside and resumed her hike over the gnarled tree roots and marshy ground with Sprite at her heels.
She thought about how the name Sprite suited her dog so aptly. She was mischievous with a magical charm. And she delighted in hound-dogging in the surrounding woodlands, brushy fields, and along the creek banks. Sprite was tagged with her nom de guerrein a naming contest staged by Mavis and her children. After a few minutes of not reaching an agreement, her daughter Marsha grew bored with the process. She cavalierly offered the name Sprite, meaning the bubbly soda. It was a unanimous choice. Mavis loved it! Not because of the soda analogy, but rather, because of the sprightly connotation.
Sprite ran with her nose to the ground, while Mavis breathed in the white pine and hemlock scent wafting on the wintry salt air. Ocean air exhilarated her. The crashing surf stirred up positive endorphins and created a natural euphoria.
Five miles of hiking trails threaded through Wolf Neck Woods’ two-hundred-acre biome of conifers, salt marsh estuary, and craggy coastline. Towering lodge pole pines dominated the climax ecosystem.
Mavis usually preferred the drama of the craggy bay coastal trail over the Harraseeket River ramblings. This day was no exception. She completed the outward swing of the bay loop and climbed the wooden steps down to the rocks with Sprite at her heels.They stood for a moment, dog and woman, staring out across the water. Mavis wondered what is it about the ocean that beckons to me? She thought perhaps it was the endlessness of it, the feeling it elicited of being connected with everything else in the universe.
Wolf Neck Woods was one of Mavis’s favorite spots for pondering this connection. It was usually just Sprite and her these days, along with the memories of adventures with her children. It had also been a hiking destination for her best school chum, Alice, and her when they were teens. They would munch on Fig Newton cookies as they hiked along and giggled about this boy or that boy.
With the wind at their backs now, Mavis and Sprite retraced their steps to her red Jeep. She smiled at the memory of her niece dubbing the Jeep’s hue chili pepper red. Mavis felt recharged and ready for the week ahead. She savored the lingering hint of sunlight as the Jeep came into view on the shoulder of Wolf Road. And she sensed that appreciation in Sprite as well by the tilt of her head and the bounce in her step.
When she was close enough to read her GOT-MUDlicense plate, Mavis drew a sharp breath and exclaimed, “What!” She stopped abruptly. The Jeep was skewed at an odd angle, even more than the down tilt of the sandy shoulder would normally warrant. A closer look revealed that her right front tire was totally flat and resting on its rim.
Mavis approached her vehicle with caution, as if it were booby-trapped. Nothing else seemed amiss, just the tire. A feeling of trepidation replaced her initial shock. She felt the first tears of frustration forming and her throat constricted. Gone was her feeling of a larger connection with the universe. A new reality overtook her. She was alone at near dusk on an isolated road in the middle of nowhere. Mavis took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She took another calming breath. She muttered to herself, “Get a grip, silly. Don’t be a wimp.”
She took stock. She had a spare tire in the hatch, but the Jeep was tilting precariously on a sandy shoulder. Changing the tire herself was not an option. However, calling AAA was. She connected with the emergency twenty-four-hour towing service immediately and was told that the wait would be approximately thirty minutes. Thank goodness for cell phones and AAA.
Mavis opened the front passenger door for Sprite and clicked her tongue. “C’mon, girl.” Sprite jumped up onto the seat. Mavis gave her dog an appreciative hug and said, “Good girl.” She closed the Jeep’s door and walked around to the driver’s side, giving the flattened tire a frustrated kick in passing.
She slid into her seat and rummaged in her small clutch purse for a stick of Eclipse polar ice sugar-free gum. She finally found it nestled amongst the driver’s license, money cards, medical cards, AAA membership card, and cash reserve. Strangely, chewing gum helped to calm her.
Mavis generally carried reading material to while away any unexpected waiting time. So as long as there was some residual light, she had a reasonable diversion. What more could she want than a James Patterson book to read and her trusty dog for company?
The sound of scattering pebbles startled Mavis. She glanced up as a black truck gunned past her. She had taken her glasses off to read and had to squint to focus on what looked like a dark green insignia with some kind of gold design in the center of the rear window.
Sprite raised her nose and gave a deep rumble. Mavis rested her hand reassuringly on her dog’s shoulder. “It’s okay, girl. I guess we’re both kind of edgy today.” Sprite was thirty-five pounds of protective energy.
Mavis had trouble concentrating on her book after that and her thoughts wandered. She thought of the years she had lived in Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania. She was more than half-serious when she referred to those years as living in exile. Mid-coastal Maine had been the place she sought out whenever she felt troubled or depressed, or both. Her childhood home had been a source of spiritual renewal, as well as her refuge from the turbulent other world that was her life.
Now that Mavis was living in Maine again, that place of renewal was her home. She had made the move both physically and metaphorically. She liked to think that she had evolved from a person at the mercy of circumstance to a person who took responsibility for her own life and avoided her previous pitfalls.
It was nearing full dark when the tow truck arrived. The driver did a U-turn at the park entrance and pulled up in front of the Jeep. Mavis walked over to greet him and discovered that he was a shein the form of a tall, lean woman with spiked black hair and a right ear jazzed up with a string of studs and hoops. Mavis showed Ms. Mechanic aka Barb Beribeau her AAA membership card and signed the work sheet for her.
Barb checked the flat tire and shook her head. “This tire isn’t just flat, it’s slashed.”
Mavis frowned. “You mean someone did this?”
“Yeah.” Barb hesitated a moment and then said, “Let’s getcha outta here.”
She instructed Mavis to turn the ignition key to the OFF position, unlocking the steering column and gear shift linkage. Then Mavis shifted the transmission into P(ark) and the transfer case to N(eutral). Barb winched the Jeep’s front end onto her flatbed, and Sprite and Mavis climbed up into the truck’s cab.The women covered the usual civilities, and then Barb ventured, “Ya know, when you’re talking about a slashed tire, ya really outta fill out a police report.”
“What good would that do? I’m sure they have bigger crimes to pursue.”
“At the very least, ya’d have a report on file in case something else happens.” She paused for a moment before adding, “This kind of deliberate act is usually personal.”
“I think it more likely some kids were just looking for trouble, and my Jeep was convenient.”
They were quiet as Barb drove through Castle Cove. The community was really part of Freeport, but the locals wanted a separate identity. They named it after a stone tower which survived the Casco Castle fire of 1914. The tower was a prominent land-mark for fishing boats and pleasure crafts that frequent the bay.
Some say the reason for choosing the name Castle Cove was its association with Murder She Wrote’s“The Sins of Castle Cove” and its intended lack of appeal to outlanders. Quite to the contrary, the name seemed to offer a certain cachet for the curiosity seekers. It’s not that the locals were unfriendly. They just wanted to distance themselves from the commercialized bustle that was now Freeport. And they wanted to discourage the encroachment of condominiums, housing developments, and the offensive mansions of the pretentiously rich into their peaceful community. However, contrary to the intent, the legend seemed to offer a certain cache for the curiosity seekers.
As they pulled up behind Barb’s garage, the mechanic said, “It may seem like I’m overreacting to ya. But ya coulda been in a bad spot if ya hadn’t found a tow.”
Mavis thought she may have hurt Barb’s feelings, and she felt bad about that. She was eager to make amends. “You’re right. I really appreciate your help—and your advice.”
“I’ll bet,” Barb said, half jokingly, as she opened her door.
Mavis reached over to shake her hand. “No, really, I do. I apologize for coming across as contrary. I sincerely do meanthank you.”
Barb laughed. “Then I sincerely do mean you’re welcome. She sat at her desk and drew up the paperwork for a ’94 Ford Ranger loaner vehicle. “Our daytime mechanic will check your vehicle for any other possible tampering. It should be ready for you to pick up during your lunch break tomorrow.”
When Mavis was preparing to leave, Barb offered, “Perhaps this was a random act. But if ya ignore it, whoever did this might strike again. Maybe ya could save someone else from this kinda grief.”