Where the Hearth Is

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Part One of the Project was now complete and Malcolm could relax and fully enjoy his daily walk, which today was also a victory lap of sorts. Malcolm loved his daily walks through his woods. On the trails he cut and he maintained. As he took a deep breath in, he appreciated the crisp fall air that had recently moved in. All was good, he thought. Indeed, sometimes he felt like he knew every tree and every rock in that forest. His old friends. Friends he could depend on. The leaves might change but the same trees would still be there. He corrected himself, mentally noting that, of course, there is a lightning strike now and then. One has to allow for that. A lightning strike might take down a tree. But then a new friend would grow its place.


As he passed the six-foot tall granite boulder alongside the trail, Malcolm knew he was just five minutes from his home. Ah, the sweetness of coming home. Margaret would no doubt be waiting for him in the kitchen, a nice pot of tea all hot and ready to sip. She was a fine woman, he thought.  Always there for him, a woman you could depend on. Thirty years now. They met young but it was one of those lucky matches, he thought. When she got pregnant at the end of high school, Malcolm was sure what the honorable thing to do was. That didn’t mean it would all work out. He knew plenty of couples that were always at each other’s throats. Never us, never Margaret.


Malcolm was correct, as usual. Margaret was at home, in the kitchen, fixing Malcolm a pot of tea. Theirs was a modest home, but it was surely what one would call a home. Built in colonial times, it was a classic but small farmhouse. Outside, its clapboard walls painted a slightly off white. Inside, a nice big fireplace in the living room and another in the kitchen. Margaret stopped tending to the pot and looked at the old photograph of the young couple they once were hanging on the kitchen wall. Holding their baby son, Jim. He turned out to be a fine young man. It would be nice if he settled down, Margaret thought. Wouldn’t mind some grandchildren. Just then, she heard the outside door creak. Malcolm must be back.


She heard the door to the hallway open. Malcolm threw his jacket onto the rack and tromped into the kitchen without missing a beat.


“I’m home,” he announced.


“Can see that,” she said, “welcome back.” He took a step towards the kitchen table.


“Malcolm,” she said. He knew that tone. He stopped dead in his tracks.


“Yes?” he replied.


“Boots.” He looked down at his muddy boots.


“Sorry.” He went back to the bench in the hallway and took off his muddy boots. She took the broom out of the closet and swept the mud out of the front door.


“You would think I could remember the boots,” he remarked.


“Well, you said it, not me.” He took off his boots.


She went back to the kitchen and took the glasses out of the drying rack and put them neatly in the cabinet next to the sink. She looked over to the hall and called out, “What about the rifle?”


“What about it?” he answered.


“Did you put it in the closet?”  He looked at the rifle that he had leaned against the wall under the coat rack.


“Oh, sorry, forgot to do that also,” he said.


“You men. Come on now, put it away and let’s get to your tea before it gets cold.”


“Thanks, honey.”


He walked into the kitchen and sat at the table.


She got a mug out of the cabinet. “So, did you finish?”


“Yes, right on schedule before I leave tomorrow,” he answered.


“Good for you! Maybe you should celebrate.”


“What do you mean?” he said. Margaret took a bottle of scotch out of another cabinet and held it up for him to see.


“Wow, now there’s an idea,” he said.


“I have one now and then,” she said.


Margaret put a healthy splash of the scotch into the mug, poured the tea over the scotch, stirred the mug with a spoon and brought the mug over to him. “Congratulations,” she said.


“Could not have made the schedule without you, hon.” As he considered that statement, he knew that truer words had never been spoken. The Project was conceived a year ago before he retired from his 20-year service as sheriff of the town of Jefferson, New Hampshire, population 1,107. That would be to the north of New Hampshire, past Mt Washington, tallest mountain in New Hampshire, and a good ways towards Canada.


Malcolm read the newspapers and watched the 6:30PM news every evening. So, he considered himself pretty knowledgeable about where his country was headed. He didn’t like the trends. He wasn’t sure what bad thing might happen whether due to a foreign or domestic threat, but he knew he owed it to himself and Margaret to be prepared. That was when he conceived of the safe house. To be located in a spot in the middle of his woods. This was a secret project and it had to have a secret location. In fact, Malcolm decided that, henceforth and forever, he would only refer to his secret project – on such rare occasions when there was cause to speak of it aloud – as the Project. He did not even tell his best friend, and only really good friend, Barry, about the Project. He had known Barry since he was a child but he figured that if things went south, who knew who you could trust, even your most trusted friend. So, he decided to tell only Margaret.


The safe house would actually be an underground house that he and Margaret could retreat to if need be, with food, water and weapons to hide out. Kind of like a bomb shelter, although he thought that it was not particularly likely that bombs would be dropped on Jefferson. He discussed the idea of this safe house with Margaret who said that she was not sure she saw the need, but if it didn’t cost too much, it sounded like a good retirement project. Fortunately, they had a very nice pension set up from Malcolm’s many years as the sheriff. And while she didn’t say so to Malcolm, she thought the Project would keep him busy for some time and, most importantly, out of her house.


To build the safe house, Malcolm would need to dig out a good-sized hole in the ground. Maybe 20 by 30 feet around and some 12 feet deep. Fortunately he already owned a Serie 6 John Deere utility tractor with a backhoe attachment on one end and a heavy-duty all-season plow on the other. This baby, more than 14 feet tall at the top of the cab, was more than up to the task. He had purchased it some six years earlier, to move chopped wood around and stuff like that. Of course, the five-foot tall Series 2 sub-compact John Deere tractor Malcolm already owned could do that, but as Malcolm knew and the fellows around town all said, you can never have enough tractor.


Sometime after conceiving of the Project, Malcolm also conceived of the Trip. Some several months before he was set to retire, one of his deputies asked Malcolm what he would do to celebrate his retirement? At 60, he still had plenty of energy and things ahead of him. Now Malcolm was not much of a celebrating guy, but he thought a celebration in this once-in-a-lifetime circumstance might actually be in order. So, he set his mind on the celebration question. Malcolm finally arrived at the answer, a bear hunt in Wyoming. He would drive his Renegade Trailhawk Jeep with a winch attachment to Wyoming and hunt one of the public lands there during bear-hunting season. He would camp out. Not too expensive. May take a month altogether. But he wanted to get the foundation dug for the safe house before the ground froze up. So that meant he really needed the foundation to be dug before he left for his Trip. As he told his plan to Margaret, she listened intently.


The next day, Margaret told Malcolm that she thought the bear hunt was a good idea and he should do it before he got too old.  She also said that she would be glad to help him out with the Project so he could make his schedule. If he trained her how to use the Series 6, they could work two shifts each day and get more done. She knew he had many other tasks still to do before he left for the Trip, including cutting wood for the upcoming winter.


Malcolm thanked her for her support. He considered the matter of her potential assistance for a week. Well, he thought, she was correct that two people could get a lot more done than one and he was already questioning whether he could really get the hole dug before he went on the Trip. But what happens if she can’t learn how to operate the Series 6 and he wastes his time on her training? It did indeed take him a month to feel competent on the behemoth that was the Series 6. Even worse, what if she breaks the Series 6 because she doesn’t know what she is doing? Then, he would be really screwed. After weighing all the factors carefully, he came to the conclusion that he should try to train her but he would watch her carefully to see if she really had the competence to learn the Series 6 and would also watch her like a hawk to stop her from breaking it if he saw her making a wrong move.


Malcolm told Margaret that he would train her on the use and operation of the Series 6, but that she would have to be very careful. She agreed. As it turned out, Margaret took only one full day to become a wizard on the Series 6’s dozen levers and pedals. Malcolm was in shock. She took to that machine like a duck to water. The second day that she was on the 6, she was taking soil out from the hole like some demon master excavator. Maybe he would make his schedule after all, he thought.


After giving Malcolm his cup of tea and scotch, Margaret put on her plastic kitchen gloves and went to work scrubbing the sink.


Malcolm took a sip from the mug. “I was thinking,” he said. Margaret raised her eyebrows involuntarily and stopped scrubbing the sink for a moment.


Malcolm continued, “Seeing how it’s my last night before my trip, you think tonight could be a special night?” Margaret started scrubbing the sink again, even more intensely.


Margaret responded, “Well, wasn’t it a special night this past weekend?”


To which Malcolm replied, “Actually, I was wondering, especially since I will be away for a whole month, whether we could have a special, special night.” Margaret stopped scrubbing the sink and looked over at him.


“You know, it’s not your birthday, is it?” she said.


“Yes, but I was hoping,” he said, mustering the closest he could to a sheepish smile.


“Oh, my Lord, yes then, I guess that would be fine under the circumstances,” she said. She went back to scrubbing the sink.


Malcolm smiled and took another sip from his mug. “You know that this is quite tasty, but it has a bit of a bitter taste.”


“That so?” said Margaret. “When’s the last time you had scotch?”


“I guess it would be about a month ago when Barry came over for scotch and smokes.”


Yes, she thought, Barry visited the house about once a month. Barry and Malcolm would go down into the basement to the den and light up their cheap cigars and start drinking and recounting all the great adventures they have had together. Next morning, the whole house would smell like cheap cigars. The day after that, not so much. That’s not to say the den doesn’t smell bad. That smell never goes away. And that was not the only problem. Margaret had to walk through the den to get to her washer and dryer. For many years, Margaret waged a campaign to have the washer and dryer moved to the garage. A colder place to do the wash, but a small price to pay. Malcolm never saw the sense in it, so moving the washer and dryer to the garage always sat at #10 on Malcolm’s important List of Things to Do.


“Well, maybe it’s because you haven’t had scotch in a while. Scotch has a bite you know,” she said.


“Could be,” he said.


“And, when you drink scotch when you’re smoking cigars, I would think you might not taste the scotch as well,” she said. “Not that I would know.”


“You are thinking, aren’t you?” he noted.


She stopped scrubbing the sink and took a deep breath.


“I’m tired,” Malcolm proclaimed.


“Well, you are drinking scotch,” she said.


“No, I’m really tired,” he said. Suddenly, Malcolm perked up a bit.


“Hey, where’s my treat?” he said. “You know, I never forget.”


“Yes, dear, you never forget your treat.”


It was Malcolm’s custom to have a dessert every afternoon with his tea and Lord help the world if he did not get one. Knowing this, Margaret kept several sweet treats in the freezer just in case she forgot to make a new one or had appendicitis or some other act of God occurred. She just hoped that if she had appendicitis she would still have the strength to crawl to the freezer to get him his treat. Or, almost just as bad, ask him to get the treat out of the freezer himself, which was doubly bad because he had to do it and he would realize that his treat had been frozen and was not freshly made.


“Your treat is right here. I’ll bring it right over,” she said. Indeed, resting on the sink, on top of her most treasured possession, her hand-made Delft tiles, was his treat, a sugar frosted almond croissant on a small plate, all wrapped in Saran Wrap to protect the croissant from getting stale. She knew he would appreciate that touch. As she looked at the croissant, Margaret couldn’t help but notice the slightly red grouting between the tiles. The grout had been white once, to match the blue and white scenes of Dutch village life on the tiles. Margaret had in fact laid out, cemented and grouted the tiles on the counter-top herself, which took hours of pain-staking labor. It did not take but a few minutes for Malcolm to stain the tiles with blood when he was carving up a deer at the beginning of one hunting season some 10 years ago.  She spoke to him about this and he agreed that he could carve the deer up elsewhere. So, she scraped the stained grout from between the tiles and laid in new white grout. That all worked out very well until the next deer came along. She was out shopping and, well, that was the end of the white grout from then on.


Margaret stopped scrubbing the sink, quickly dried off her gloves, and brought the croissant over to Malcolm and unwrapped it for him. She saw he was looking suspiciously at her. “Don’t worry, I didn’t get any dishwater on your treat.”


He picked up the treat and took a bite. “Delicious! You can really taste the almonds,” he proclaimed.


“Glad you like it, I made it specially for you,” she replied.


“Hmm.” He polished off the rest in short order. His eyes started to droop and he put his head down on the arms, resting all on the table. “I’m going to take a short nap now.”


“OK, dear, you do that,” she said. Margaret went back to scrubbing the sink. After a few minutes, she turned around and looked at Malcolm. “Malcolm?” And louder, “Malcolm?” And now shouting, “Malcolm, can you hear me??” Malcolm just lay there. She went over to him and poked him in the side and then put her fingers under her nose. “Well,” she said, “I guess that worked.”


She put her fingers to his neck, feeling for a pulse and felt nothing. “Yup, looks dead to me,” she said.


Margaret’s Plan had come to her the night she heard about the Trip. She did some arithmetic in her head and calculated that the Project plus the Trip equaled an Opportunity. Yes, there were some details to work out but she had some time for that. And, in time, she did indeed work out the details. Malcolm would be proud of her; well, that is, if he wasn’t dead.


Killing Malcolm didn’t seem so difficult. Sodium cyanide would do the trick pretty quick. Margaret fooled around making some jewelry and she had read how sodium cyanide was used in metallurgy to extract gold. Margaret drove down to Boston to get some, paying cash of course. She mixed the almond-smelling cyanide with some sugar and sprinkled it generously on an almond croissant made at her favorite bakery in town, Well Bread.


Indeed, Margaret thought of herself as a humane person, so just killing Malcolm with sodium cyanide all by itself seemed a bit cruel from what she read on the Internet. Seemed like some pain killer like Percocet might ease the way. The only trick was how to get some. This took a bit more considering but she figured that out too. She got a 16-ounce, 12-inch Stanley rip claw hammer out of Malcolm’s tool chest one day when he was at work and, while looking in the mirror, whacked her lower teeth, and chipped just one, which in fact was perfect. She went to the dentist and complained mightily about the pain. Next thing she knew she had 10 Percocet’s which she hid away until the Day. And on the Day, she ground them up and put the powder at the bottom of one of Malcolm’s favorite tea mugs.


The second-to-last part of Margaret’s Plan was to finish old Malcolm off the night before the Trip began. The Trip was well known to a good number of people in town, including Barry, who could not accompany Malcolm because, well, he was still employed and could not get a month off for such extravagance. Were Malcolm to go missing on a one-month bear hunt in the back woods of Wyoming… Well, she figured folks would just be scratching their heads, wondering who knows what happened. In fact, she was guessing there would be no less than hours and hours of idol talk amongst the town folk speculating on what fate Malcolm met.


Which brought Margaret to the last part of the Plan. Getting rid of the body. And it was going to be a heavy body. Malcolm stood some 6 feet 2 inches and weighed in around 210 pounds. Fortunately, Malcolm was the proud owner of a Renegade Trailhawk Jeep with a winch attachment which could be used with the snowplow attachment to clear the driveway (when Malcolm didn’t want to use his John Deere Series 2 sub-compact tractor with plow attachment that could do the same), or could be used to pull one’s Jeep out of a ditch (which seemed kind of unlikely on their property), or could be used to drag a dead body out of a kitchen. Which is exactly what Margaret used it for.


Margaret drove the Jeep over to the front door of the house, let out about 30 feet of woven steel cable from the winch, attached its hook to Malcolm’s belt and then let the winch do the rest. Once his body was outside Margaret got the John Deere Series 2 with plow attachment and lifted Malcolm’s body into the back of the Jeep.  She grabbed Malcolm’s favorite hunting rifle, his Ruger 77 Bushmaster bolt-action 30-odd-6 outfitted with a Z8 Swarovski matte-black reticulated long-distance hunting scope, plus two boxes of his favorite Nosler Custom Trophy Grade 165-grain ammo, and threw them in the back of the Jeep with Malcolm. She then grabbed her broom and threw that on the passenger’s seat. And not to forget, she ran back inside to get Malcolm’s cell phone and blood pressure medicine which she then stuffed into Malcolm’s shirt. Fortunately for the Plan, Malcolm stopped using his cell phone after he retired. Left it turned off in fact. So, no tracing him with that.


Next, it was a quick drive over to the garage where she picked up Malcolm’s already-packed duffel of hunting clothes, hunting backpack, tent and large cooler. All of which she threw on top of Malcolm’s body.


From the garage, it was a quick drive to the safe house foundation. Margaret drove up to the edge of the foundation hole. She got out of the Jeep and grabbed the broom. She put the car in gear and then jammed the end of the handle of the broom against the gas pedal. The Jeep flew into the massive hole and landed with an explosive thud, the sound of which was immediately swallowed by the surrounding trees, bushes and miscellaneous vegetation. Margaret pulled the tarp off the Series 6 that was sitting next to the foundation like a sentry and fired the giant up. Now Margaret had never observed Malcolm to do any outdoor night work with the Series 6 or otherwise. Nonetheless, Malcolm, not one to be stingy with his attachments, had outfitted his Series 6 with the premium Gator lighting package that included a massive stadium array of 65-watt halogen bulbs that provided 360 degrees of unfettered visibility. Indeed, when Margaret activated the lighting system – and it would be unfair to call it anything less than a system – the woods were lit up like Fenway Park for a Red Sox’s night game. Margaret had been to such a game once as a child. What fun it was.


Turns out that pushing dirt into a hole was a lot fasting than pulling it out. In no time at all, the hole was filled. Margaret ran the Series 6 over the dirt a few times to flatten out the mound filling the hole. Margaret took comfort in the fact that Malcolm was buried with some of his favorite possessions, excepting, of course, herself. Not that she was deluding herself that under any circumstances would she come out ahead of the Bushmaster. Nonetheless, her happy thought was that these things might accompany him to the afterworld or the underworld or wherever he was going. Then again, even if he was not going anywhere, she was sure he would be perfectly content where he was, in “his” woods.


Margaret thought about saying a few words over Malcolm’s massive grave, but she was tired and wasn’t sure what to say. The only thing that came to mind was that Malcolm would have died a happy man had he been around to find that he was correct that a foreign or domestic threat was something that he should have been concerned about. On the other hand, he did not see the specific domestic threat that would become the end of him. So, in the end, Margaret concluded that she really had nothing worthwhile about him to say out loud.


Margaret decided that this was enough for one evening and she drove the Series 6 back to the house. On the way, she thought about next steps. Tomorrow she would do some landscaping. First, she would put the harrow attachment on the back of Series 6 and eliminate all the tractor tire marks over the foundation. The harrow attachment was at first a mystery to her when Malcolm purchased it. A metal bar about eight feet wide, it had a series of chains that were about 10 feet long hanging from it. The chains had metal spikes attached from the beginning to the end of the chain. Had this harrow bar been hung like a curtain rod over a window opening at say at a medieval castle, it would made for a crazy window treatment that approximated a blind. Of course, more of a window decoration than a blind but that was all that came to mind for Margaret when she first saw the harrow. After a few days, curiosity got the better of Margaret and she asked Malcolm about the harrow. He was only too glad to expound upon its purpose. It was a sort of a hoe that one dragged across a field at the beginning or end of the season to aerate the soil or turn it over. Now that was interesting to Margaret since their garden was only about 10 feet square.  So, as she figured it, the whole process might take two passes over the field and a maybe a grand total of five minutes to accomplish. Not that she was complaining. This day as it turned out the harrow would be quite useful.


After sweeping the dirt with the harrow, Margaret planned to use the Series 6 to drop a dead fallen tree or two on the dirt and maybe drop a few small boulders on it as well to restore it to more of a natural forest look.


The following day Margaret would drive to Burlington, Vermont and buy a few bags of shady woodlands ground cover seed mix, using cash of course, and then throw the seeds over the soil at the foundation site to get things back to normal a little faster. Finally, she would use the harrow to eliminate all the Series 6 and Jeep tracks between the site and the house.


Well, that was tomorrow and the next day. For now, Margaret would relax. As Margaret sat in front of the crackling fire in the large fireplace in the living room, covered by her favorite red plaid blanket pulled up to her neck, sipping a glass of Malcolm’s most expensive scotch, Glenfiddich 18, neat, she thought to herself, “Huh. Finally, I know. This is the feeling of true peace.”


The End




J.T. Edelson was born in Kansas but now lives in New Hampshire.  When he’s not writing, you might find him working at a biotech company. His favorite book is without doubt Where the Wild Things Are.


Copyright belongs to the creator. .


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