The HOA From Hell

Chapter I: In which Bex has an existential crisis and falls down

Rebecca Fortnight stood on her slightly dilapidated deck staring out at the snow-capped mountains in the distance.  She sipped her tea and let out a heartfelt sigh.  She truly was no longer sure how she felt about her own life.  Now that both the children were in school, Bex spent most of her day feeling redundant.  Because her mother-in-law, Maple, was the ultimate morning person, and never failed to get up, feed the children, and get them dressed while Bex was still struggling to open her eyes every morning, she wasn’t even really a full-time mom.  Every morning, Bex got up and tidied the house—a task that had to be stretched to fill more than an hour, after a decade of regular care under her carefully cultivated daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning schedules.  By ten a.m., the house was back in order, and Bex was left with six hours to fill until the children got home from school and the calming routine of dinner-bath-stories-bed.

Bex would never say she regretted inviting Maple to come and live with her and Walter after Penelope was born.  She just couldn’t shake the feeling her family didn’t really need her anymore, for all that she was certain they still wanted her around.  Maple was just so much better with the girls, making sure they had cute outfits, doing their hair, engaging in all the giggly girl talk Bex herself had never quite figured out.  Left to her own devices, she would probably have cut their hair short and dressed them in jeans and t-shirts every single day.  It was, after all, her personal uniform, although Bex kept her own hair shoulder-length because she thought she still looked super cute with a ponytail, crow’s feet be damned.

Bex had been somewhat surprised to give birth to two small female people who seemed to embody every feminine stereotype in existence.  She and Walter were both extremely low maintenance and took no interest in fancy haircuts or fashionable clothes.  But Penelope and Esmerelda had inherited their grandmother’s love of pretty clothes, and the three of them definitely had a little club of their own.  Bex had tried to join her family on one of their frequent excursions to the outlet mall but found herself bored and unable to maintain a mental presence.  Eventually she just let the ladies of the house enjoy their outings without having to worry that she was having a good time and stopped inviting herself along.

Bex had no doubt that her family loved her deeply and would never even think of calling her useless, but she couldn’t seem to talk herself out of feeling unnecessary to the whole operation.  Walter had asked if she wanted to look for a job, but since Walter’s work as an independent music producer often took him away from home for several weeks at a time, Bex wasn’t yet comfortable committing herself to being unavailable to the children, even for just a few hours a day.

Besides, even if she did want a job, what would she do, exactly?  She had been in her third year of college when she met Walter, and though she finished her degree, there weren’t many jobs for people with a B.A. in English and a few years of experience as a freelance obituary writer paid by the word.  Walter, of course, had responded to this by asking if she wanted to go back to school, giving Bex yet another option for potentially ending her funk without getting her any closer to figuring out what exactly she was longing for in the first place.

Releasing one final sigh, Bex turned and went back into the house.  As she passed through the living room on her way to put her empty mug in the kitchen sink, she noticed Maple’s bathroom door was ajar.  Maple was standing at the sink, curling her hair.

“Where are you off to?” Bex asked, leaning against the door frame, empty mug dangling from her fingers.

“The grocery store,” Maple replied without turning from the mirror.

“You’re getting all done up at 9:30 in the morning to go to the grocery store?” Bex asked, genuinely perplexed.

“To each their own, Madam Judgeypants,” Maple quipped, catching Bex’s eye in the mirror and smiling.  She put the curling iron down and turned, smoothing a final errant lock into place.  “You seem out of sorts today, dear.  Why don’t you go for a walk down to the beach?  You always feel so much better when you come back from a walk down by the water.  I’ll have the kids home by four, then I’m going to pop out for a quiet dinner on my own.”

With that, Maple kissed Bex on the cheek, gave her arm a squeeze, picked up her handbag and glided out the door.  Maple had been going out for a lot of “quiet dinners” lately, and Bex suspected the dinners weren’t as solitary as Maple claimed.  Bex was truly thrilled that her mother-in-law seemed to finally be ready to start dating again, over ten years after the death of Walter’s father, Martin.  Still, it made Bex sad in a way, because it was clear that everyone but her was leading full and joyous lives.  Bex, on the other hand, often felt like a spectator in someone else’s fairy tale.

Bex wandered down the kitchen stairs to the main bedroom in the finished basement.  Like everything else in the lovely old house, the carpet on the stairs was worn and somewhat shabby, forcing Bex to carefully lift her feet to avoid another tumble from tripping on a tear.  The stair carpet was actually the next item on the never-ending list of pending repairs and updates, but Bex couldn’t seem to motivate herself to start the project.

Bex tugged on her favorite jeans and pulled a worn pair of hiking boots from the closet.  The tide was on its way out, which meant the bay would be emptying of water and she could follow the rocky path around the bottom of the cliff to the Rookery.  Bex loved the rocky, driftwood strewn beach on the southeast side of the island that the island residents mockingly called “Painter’s Beach.”  Accessible only at low tide, when the water in the bay pulled away from the cliff face exposing a slightly treacherous footpath, the beach was frequented during the summer months by intrepid tourists willing to risk a sprained ankle for the opportunity to look at some dead trees piled up on some rocks.  Otherwise known as artists.

Although she herself was not an artist of any persuasion, Bex far preferred Painter’s Beach over the smoothly pebbled expanse of Ravenshead Beach on the southwest side of the island.  When the Fortnight family had first moved to Ravenswood Island, Bex had marveled at the natural phenomenon that pushed all the driftwood over to Painter’s Beach, leaving Ravenshead Beach pristine and perfect for lounging tourists.  She was rather disappointed to later learn that twice a year the Ravenswood Homeowner’s Association paid a crew of high school kids to clean up the beach and get rid of anything that washed up with the tides.  

In recent years, the project had come under the dominion of the art department of the Ravensbrook Village High School.  Every spring and fall a team of teenaged artists descended on Ravenshead Beach and collected six months’ worth of flotsam and jetsam.  Every summer, the RVHS art department hosted street art fairs, selling their wares to tourists.  Every December they held a holiday craft fair, selling their beach art to the locals.  Overall, Bex approved of the arrangement, and last year she had done most of her Christmas shopping at the craft fair.

As Bex rounded a bend in the road at the bottom of the hill, she saw a flash of orange and groaned aloud.  Since hunting was banned on the island, one rarely saw the lurid orange designed to scream “don’t shoot me” through the pre-dawn gloom.  Rarely, that is, unless one had the misfortune of catching the attention of the Secretary/Treasurer of the Ravenswood HOA, Luanne Wilcox.  Luanne was nearly six feet tall, slender as a scarecrow, and—for reasons known only to herself—she kept her short grey hair covered at all times by a neon orange fur-lined trapper hat with green reflective high visibility stripes.

On overcast February days such as this, Luanne’s ridiculous hat gave a much-appreciated warning of an impending encounter.  Without changing her pace, Bex slipped her bright red Raycon earbuds out of her pocket and into her ears.  As she drew closer to the yard where poor Ethel Jablonski was being berated by Luanne for the state of her mailbox, Bex fiddled with her phone and said loudly, “That’s all well and good, Mike, but the numbers don’t match the projections.”

As she passed by the mailbox in question, which bore a huge dent and was listing precariously on a cracked and splintered pole, Bex met Ethel’s beseeching gaze and mouthed “so sorry, phone call” with an apologetic wave of the offending device.  Without breaking stride, she said aloud “it’s all about synergy, Mike.  SIN-ER-GEE” and continued on her way.

When she was safely out of sight, Bex put the earbuds back in her pocket.  She had forgotten to charge them the night before, so this walk would be one of quiet contemplation.  As she descended the steep dirt road that connected the main road to the Ravenshead Beach parking area, Bex was pleased to see that the main beach was deserted.  She passed the empty picnic area with its weathered cedar tables dotted with outdoor brick ovens and grill pits.

It always made Bex feel slightly odd to see the paraphernalia of the town’s summer tourist trade in the quiet chill of the winter months.  A crawling sensation began between her shoulder blades and snaked down her spine.  With a spooked shiver, Bex hurried toward the rocky path that led around the bottom of the cliff to Painter’s Beach.

As Bex carefully picked her way around the base of the cliff, mindful of stones loosened or shifted by the last tide, she gradually became aware of a cacophony of cawing echoing above her head.  Bex looked up as she rounded the point of the cliff face, and was immediately distracted by the sight of scores of ravens circling and diving, flying in and out of the old, abandoned lighthouse known to the locals as the Rookery.

While it was well known that thousands of ravens wintered in the old lighthouse—hence the name—and the surrounding woods, she could not recall ever seeing so many of them acting so agitated all at once.  With her eyes on the air rather than the ground, her foot landed on something soft and unstable.  Her ankle rolled, her knee twisted, and Bex tumbled to the ground, landing on her right side on top of a bulky pile of canvas.

Shaken and a little disoriented from her fall, Bex rose to her hands and knees and carefully climbed off the pile of fabric.  She felt the cold seawater wicking into her jeans, the dampness climbing higher on her legs as her befuddled brain struggled to make sense of what she was seeing.  Abruptly, the colors and shapes snapped into focus, and Bex realized she was kneeling next to the smashed and shattered remains of a human being.

With a guttural cry of horror, Bex fell backward.  Frightened and slightly frantic, she crab-walked backward until she collided with the driftwood piled haphazardly against the cliff face, unaware of the sharp rocks and ocean debris that scraped at her flesh and tore at her clothes.  Her bloody hands scrambled against the massive logs worn smooth by countless waves, as she managed to pull herself upright.

Bex turned her face toward the cliff and vomited the lovely breakfast Maple had cooked her all over the weathered wood artistically strewn about by Mother nature.  When her stomach was empty and her breath began to slow, she turned back toward the bay, sat down on the ground, and began to cry.

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