Vacancy – Chapter One

Hollis Jeffries wasn’t exactly a religious person. She had gone to church a few times as a child, mostly holidays, and attended a Lutheran grammar school, but that was it. She seldom prayed as an adult, yet now, as the curtains of the large window overlooking Tomales Bay were ripped open to let in the ruthless light of late morning, she found herself offering up the same feeble plea she was certain so many other “heathens,” as her grandmother would say, cried in similar situations.

Dear Lord, please make this jackhammer going off in my head stop and I promise never ever ever to wash down an entire bag of cheese popcorn with two bottles of Prosecco again.

She wasn’t sure why they bothered, she or the other heathens, because God had no time for poor little privileged pity parties. Hopefully, God was busy with bigger, more far-reaching issues, but as Hollis raised her forearm to cover her eyes, she wished this once he, or maybe she, would make an exception.

“Rise and shine, Tiny Tots. You didn’t check into the Betty, and even if you had, your twenty-eight days are up,” her uncle said in a voice that sounded a lot like the jackhammer, but more madras shorts and springtime flowers. Come to think of it, even without a hangover, her uncle often sounded like springtime flowers. The man was entirely too peppy, entirely too positive, and entirely too much. Hollis once again called on her recently rediscovered deity.

“Dear God!” She gingerly rolled onto her side.

“Shower’s running, and once you’re dressed, we’re heading to the market.”

Taking in a breath and letting it out slowly, Hollis precariously opened one eye to find her uncle holding out sunglasses—big, obnoxious sunglasses with rhinestones on the sides. Where would a person even buy those?

“Water,” she croaked.

“Put these on first and then we’ll get you sitting up for water. No sense drooling on yourself.”

Hollis thought she nodded as she took the glasses, but she couldn’t be sure. By the time Uncle Mitch hooked his arm through hers and began pulling her up like a child after a long nap, she was swatting at his hands until he stepped back.

“Yeouch, you’ve got claws.”

“What time is it?” Hollis asked as her legs now dangled over the side of the bed. With her toes barely grazing the warm wood floor of her beach cabin, she tried to rationalize how at the age of thirty-four she was still stupid enough to drink too much.

“Eleven thirty,” her uncle answered, now keeping his distance.

“In the morning? As in almost afternoon?” Easing the sunglasses onto her nose, Hollis was certain her head weighed a hundred pounds all by itself. She once watched a documentary and learned that the brain was 2 percent of a human’s body weight, and it was a testament to the neck and the spinal cord that it managed to hold the whole thing upright. This morning, her spinal cord was struggling through the haze of wine and white cheddar because she felt like one of those bobbleheads vendors peddled at sporting events.

When she could finally lift her head, Hollis found her uncle surveying what she already knew was a hot mess. She scratched her head and took a slow drink from the water glass he’d carefully placed in her hands. At some point, she was going to need to get her shit together, get back to her life. It had been over a month since the second biggest failure of her thirty-four years, but this time, no amount of wine or junk food could disguise that she had no one to blame but herself. She continued to check in with the office, but she didn’t have a plan. She couldn’t recall a single moment in her life when she had not had a plan.

Yesterday, she’d spent the better part of an hour-long conference call listening to Reese Winterford, one of their project managers who liked to think he was the boss, confirm that the lead programmer for the game Fat Pigs, Zeke Walderblast—she couldn’t make this stuff up—had, in fact, not been arrested as previously reported. He was “hanging” in Mexico with some friends and detained for possession ofAuntMary.

“I’m sorry. Did you say he was detained with his Aunt Mary in Mexico?” Hollis had asked, rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“No, he was in Mexico when he was busted for possession of Aunt Mary,” Reese clarified over laughter.

Hollis searched her brain then quickly Googled Aunt Mary. A type of marijuana. Right.

“Hollis, do you know what Aunt Mary is?” Megan liked to lurk in the background during conference calls, sort of like a sulking, bitchy party guest. She was Reese’s boss.

“Yes, thank you, Megan. I may not smoke it, but I’m well aware. While he was puffing on his Aunt Mary, did he find any answers? Did it help him figure out why a nine-year-old was able to discover a flaw in his game after one afternoon of playing?”

“No. He said he’s doing a lot of meditation and has a massage scheduled for tomorrow. He’s hoping that will clear out his chi.” Reese had to be smirking. Hollis could actually feel the bastard through the phone.

“His what?”
“Chi. His life force.”

“Fan-damn-tastic.” She bit into her second oatmeal cream pie.

“Any idea how blocked his life force is?” “He said he’d call us in a few days.”

“He said he’d call us in a few days.”

Hollis licked her fingers, having finished the entire cookie, pie, whatever in less than three bites. “Anything else? How are the investors holding up? I spoke with Greg on Monday. He’ll be on vacation for a couple of weeks. I bought us some time. How are the rest of them?”

“We’re burning platform here,” creepy, lurking Megan added. “Zeke needs to finish this and fast. If we can’t do something to move the needle on this soon, they’re pulling out. They want it all function- ing and the disaster-recovery plans in place by the end of the third quarter or they’re pulling funding.”

“That gives us about four months to get our ducks in a row. I sup- pose the silver lining is that he’s not in jail. I’m guessing jail is not good for the chi.”Strained laughter again.

Strained laughter again.
“How long will you be out of pocket?” Reese asked.
Hollis, who had been pacing her cabin, finally caved under the stupidity spilling from her phone. She’d used the “out of pocket” in e- mails before but never understood the phrase. If she was “out of pocket” when she was away from the office, did that mean when she returned she was “in pocket?” Why did all of this corporate crap sound so ridiculous when her feet were bare? Dropping to the edge of the bed, she rubbed her face. “I’m not sure.”

“What? It’s a few days,” Hollis said, trying to deflect.
“Thirty,” bitch-face Megan clarified.
“Whatever. I’m working remotely. That guy in accounting was out for three weeks while his damn dog had surgery. Back up.”
“Should we be worried, Hollis?” Megan had become a ginormous pain in the ass ever since she’d lost the partnership position to Hollis about a year before. Hollis was entrenched in the corporate culture as much as the next pair of expensive shoes, but Megan Tiffany was on a whole other level. She was known to say things like “in the brown” and “let’s not boil the ocean” instead of “let’s not waste time.”

She was the true definition of kiss ass.
“Megan, you can worry if you’d like, but I would direct your angst toward making sure the Plimpton and Inc. merger goes through without a hitch. You don’t need to worry about me.” Hollis heard some mumblings and was certain she’d hit her target.

Megan cleared her throat. “I suppose you’re right. With the hot water you’ve landed us in, we need all the leverage we can get.”

Hollis opened the wrapper of another oatmeal cream pie and felt the “go screw yourself” perched right on her lips, but since her “leverage,” as Megan put it, was in short supply these days, she decided to chomp into her junk food instead. Hollis had worked hard to make sure she always had the upper hand, but this last bump had shaken all she knew to be normal. Megan was right—it was not something Hollis would ever say out loud, even alone in her cabin— but it was true. Hollis had screwed up royally, taken her eye off the ball, failed to “see the granular,” as Reese enjoyed saying.

After a few less-heated exchanges and an agreement to “circle back around” again on Friday, Hollis ended the call and walked to the restaurant to see if her wine order had come in yet. The box had been sitting on the bar, and that was precisely why she was now playing host to her uncle and his jackhammer backup singers dancing around her cabin.

“Someone likes oatmeal snack cakes.” Mitch plucked the wrappers from Hollis’s bedside and threw them in the wastebasket. “All right, let’s get you up and at ’em.” He handed Hollis two Tylenol, which she promptly swallowed. She hoped there was a way to fix this mess and fast because there was no way she was failing without a fight.


Matt Locke opened The Bean fifteen minutes early because Mr. Trumble had been standing outside for almost a half hour holding three jars of something. Even though he had been helping out with his parents’ coffee shop for a little over two months now, Matt still couldn’t predict what bounty from Mrs. Trumble’s garden would end up in the jars, but it was guaranteed to be interesting. He’d asked Poppy, the manager who was currently out on maternity leave, the first time Mr. Trumble handed him jars and was told, “It’s a weekly thing. You’ll get used to it.” He had gotten used to it and had even grown to like Mr. Trumble, so with the coffee brewed and pastries arranged in the three glass-covered displays, Matt pulled the dairy from the refrigerator and flipped the sign.

“Morning, Matt.” Mr. Trumble handed over the three jars.

“Morning.” Matt had no idea what Mr. Trumble’s first name was, and it was never offered.

“The missus did something crazy cool there for you. Spicy cauliflower and carrots in one and the other two are smoking hot okra. Do you do okra?”

Matt smiled. He’d never quite thought of it as “doing” okra, but according to Poppy, since Mr. Trumble retired a couple of years ago he’d been watching way too much reality TV and enjoyed being “hip with his lingo.”

“Yes, I like okra. Thank you.”
He nodded. “Welcome. So, what’s good in the pastry case, bro?” Matt walked behind the counter and set the jars down. He would

add them to the others he’d placed out of sight in the storage room later. A mother and daughter arrived, accepting the “after you” gesture of a cop in uniform as they filed in behind Mr.Trumble,who appeared like he might take well into the afternoon choosing his breakfast.

“Scones. There are a couple of orange cranberry ones that I think you and Mrs. Trumble might enjoy.” Matt tried to move him along. When his mother called him to ask a “little favor,” he had agreed to stop by and help out in Poppy’s absence, but once his dad hurt his hip, stopping by had turned into nearly full-time. Most of what Matt was working on at his own company could be done remotely, so he didn’t mind, but the pace of things, the slower, lazy-day way that floated freely throughout the cove, was an adjustment. He’d grown up around coffee but never worked a shop for any extended period of time. Matt was reluctant to return, especially to Tomales Bay, but now that he’d been at it for a while, he had to admit he was enjoying himself.

Mr. Trumble hesitated for a minute and then smiled. “Sweet, those are it. Two of ’em and your usual brews.”

“Great. Be right with you, folks. Good morning, Officer Hernandez.”

“Morning. Do you have any coffee cake today?”

“I do.” Matt put the scones in two separate bags, knowing that was Mr. Trumble’s preference, and poured two medium roast coffees—one with a Sweet’N Low and a splash of cream, the other black.

Paying with singles and change as he usually did, Mr. Trumble commented that he and his boys played poker and he was nearly “baked,” but he managed to pull through. Matt knew “baked” meant something else entirely, but he wasn’t going to say anything. Instead, he smiled as Mr. Trumble gathered up his bags, stuck brown plastic plug sticks in his coffee, and left.

Matt met Officer Greg Hernandez for the first time the summer he turned seventeen, the year he was allowed to drive his own car up to the cove for their summer stay. His parents wouldn’t be up for another week, but Matt had worked the roaster with his dad the Saturday before and convinced him he could be trusted. Matt could still conjure up the restlessness of seventeen, a time when hours felt like days and one week was a lifetime.

He’d finished his last final early and used his lunch period so he would be done by Thursday. The old blue Nissan, with the dent on the rear bumper, a little reminder from backing into a cart pole in the Safeway parking lot when he was learning to drive, was packed to the windows. He drove the first hundred miles listening to a playlist she’d sent him and the last forty-five minutes with his windows down feeling the ocean breeze on his face as if she were sitting right next to him. It was one of his best memories made perfectly movie worthy when the lights and sirens appeared in his rearview mirror about fifteen minutes from Mitchell’s Cove.

Officer Hernandez, then quite a bit younger, had requested li- cense, registration, and proof of insurance. It was all painfully professional and Matt’s heart was drumming in his chest with equal parts nerves and frustration at being so close to seeing her. As Matt impatiently waited for the inevitable ticket, Officer Hernandez informed him how fast he was going and asked why he was in such a hurry. It had felt pointless, glancing up into the officer’s dark, almost machine-like, neutral face, his eyes invisible behind the standard- issue mirrored cop glasses, but back then Matt was more compulsive. He remembered rubbing his neck as he tried to decide how much to share, and also because one of the springs of his seat poked through the upholstery and into his back. Matt never missed that car, not one day.

“I’m sorry. I know it’s wrong to speed, but I finished all of my finals and I’m excited to see my girl.” He had tried to maintain eye contact even behind the mirrored shades. His father had drilled into him that eye contact was the key to winning a person over and when Officer Hernandez spoke again, Matt offered thanks to his dad.

“Understood. These turns can be tricky as I’m sure you know, Mr…. Locke”—the officer glanced at his license and then back at him—“so if you’re planning a long life with this girl, you might want to take it easy.” He handed back the paperwork with a stern nod followed by a smile.

Matt had been stunned. He sat waiting for something else: the reprimand, the call to his parents. No way it was this easy.

“You better get going. It’s never good to leave a pretty girl wait- ing,” he said and then patted the top of the Nissan.

“Yes, right, sir. Thank you.” Since a cop was watching, Matt checked left and then right, exactly the way the driving manual had instructed, and pulled back out onto Highway 1. After kissing Hollis that night and then kissing her some more, he had told her all about being pulled over as they walked to the pier. Matt knew it was one of the few moments growing up when he’d looked at an adult and known they must have been a kid at one point too.

About a week into that summer, Matt had noticed Officer Hernandez’s patrol car parked in one of the cutouts in the road near the 76 gas station one night. He brought him a cup of coffee and some of his mother’s maple cake, and that was the beginning of their friendship.

Nothing too heavy, it was simply a mutual understanding of the journey every guy took toward becoming a man. Matt learned over time that Officer Hernandez was married to “the love of my life” and they had a son and a daughter both in high school too.

Matt stood facing Officer Hernandez on the other side of the counter and was struck by how many years had passed. He still slowed down when he saw that patrol car, but lately it was to wave. Matt wondered if Greg, that was his first name although Matt never used it, saw the years too, if he noticed that Matt had grown into— what exactly had he grown into? Annoyed at the tension his moment of reflection stirred, Matt returned to the present because most of the past, anything that took place in this little corner of the world at least, reminded him of her. It was an ache that had dulled to manage- able but never quite went away.

“How was Ruby’s wedding?” Matt asked, warming up the coffee cake.

“Great, she looked beautiful and I managed to get her down the aisle without disgracing the father-of-the-bride title.”

Matt smiled. “I’m sure you made her proud.”

“It’s a tough business. I read some article that this guy in Florida started having a heart attack while he was walking his daughter down the aisle.”

Matt’s eyes widened.

“The man finished the walk, handed his girl to her fiancé, then walked to the side of the church and quietly called 9-1-1.”

“I know, wedding heroes, right? Who knew?”
Both men laughed, and Matt handed him his coffee and cake. As

was routine, Greg tried to pay and Matt wouldn’t take his money. “Thanks, Lead Foot.” He turned back right before the door. “Hey,

I noticed your girl is back in town.”
Matt tried to smile, unable to meet his eyes. “She’s not my girl anymore and you know it.”
“Eh, you never know where that road out there will take you.”

Their eyes met and Officer Hernandez lifted his coffee cup in a toast.

“Tell her I said hello.” He flipped his sunglasses down over his eyes, smiled, and was gone.

Matt shook his head and turned to wipe the counter.

His girl. Had Hollis ever truly been his girl? All these years and Matt still couldn’t answer that question. It had seemed about as perfect as a love story could be, but great love should be effortless, shouldn’t it? There was never anything effortless about Hollis and she eventually left him, or he stopped trying. Matt was never sure which it was and it certainly didn’t matter anymore. Between Hollis arriving at the cove and his father coming home from surgery next week, things were bound to get complicated. Matt didn’t do complicated. Even with his business back home, things were streamlined and he liked it that way. Poppy would be back part-time next week and he’d be closer to wrapping all of this up and getting back to a life he understood.

By the time the door tinkled again with arriving customers, Matt slipped the memory of a time so simple, so happy, back where it belonged.

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