Julie Peterson was lost. At least, she was beginning to think she was. She looked for a place to pull her car off the pavement to refer to the map spread out on the passenger seat. Normally, she would have propped it up on the steering but the didn’t feel safe doing that on the narrow, windy two lane road that twisted and turned with each curve and bend of the terrain.
She glanced again at the gauge showing the amount of gas left in the tank. “I hope it isn’t too much further.” She frowned at how close the needle was to the empty end of the gauge. “I don’t think I missed any turns,” she muttered as she tried to remember. After turning off the main highway, she had seen very few side roads splitting off from the one she traveled. And none had seemed to much more than entries to the scattered homes she passed.
She was beginning to seriously doubt her directions when the landscape suddenly changed. Instead of the forested mountain slopes she had been driving though for the past hours, a wide meadow spread out before her. She smiled as a cluster of buildings took shape at the far end of the clearing, the sun glistening off the shimmering waters of a large lake behind them.
It wasn’t but a few minutes before Julie pulled to a stop next to a pair of gas pumps in front of a small country store. She stepped out of her car and removed the gas cap from her tank’s fill tube. Studying the gas pumps, she lifted the nozzle from the pump marked “unleaded” and slipped it into her tank. As the tank filled, she looked around Lake Como, the small town she had driven most of the night to reach.
Built on the banks of the lake, the town looked like any other summer tourist destination. Buildings painted in brilliant colors and trimmed in even brighter shades, the owners hoping to attract visitors and the money their pockets held. Signs, directing tourists to campgrounds, hiking trails and boat launches, occupied the corners of the town’s only intersection, a four-sided flashing red light hung above it.
Julie’s head jerked around. Over the top of her car, she saw a man dressed in overalls and wearing a wide brimmed hat standing next to a bed of blooming flowers, a water hose held in his hand. The gas nozzle’s safety valve clicked off. She glanced down at the nozzle then back at the man. “Um, sorry. Good morning.” She replaced the nozzle on the pump and screwed the gas cap back on. “Do I pay you?”
“Register is inside.”
“Is there a café nearby?” She hadn’t noticed one earlier but she was sure the town had to have at least one restaurant.
“Lakeside Café. But it won’t be open for another half hour or so. We have a counter inside. Coffee is hot and the eggs are fresh. You can park your car under those trees,” he pointed with the hose, spraying water for several feet.
Julie nodded before pulling open the car’s door. She started the engine and guided the car forward to the parking area.
“First visit to Lake Como?” the man asked after she climbed out of the car and started walking toward him. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
She looked quizzically at the man. “You know all the town’s visitors?”
He laughed. “My wife and I have been running this place almost twenty years now. We know the regulars. Everyone else is a first timer.” He tossed the hose into the flower bed then joined Julie as she pulled open the screen door leading into the store. “Has the makings of a nice day,” he said as he followed her inside. “Go on and grab a seat at the counter. I’ll see where Shirley has gone off to.”
Julie stood near the door watching the store owner disappear into the kitchen, the swinging door squeaking noisily on rusty hinges. Looking around, she saw what she expected to see. Shelving units lined up in rows holding everything from motor oil to breakfast cereal while refrigerated units at the back of the store held milk, soft drinks and beer and an assortment of prepackaged sandwiches and fresh fruit. Jammed into a corner nook was a chaotic array of clothing.
“Good morning. Conrad tells me I have my first customer of the day.” Julie turned to face a woman standing behind the counter and smiling pleasantly. “Can I start you off with a cup of coffee? The pot just finished brewing a few minutes ago.”
Julie smiled and nodded. “Sounds good. But I’d like to wash up first.”
“Of course. The washrooms are back behind the shirts and hats.”
“Thank you.” Julie waited until the woman busied herself with pouring the coffee before walking to the corner nook. She eased through the crowded racks holding various types and colors of shirts displaying a picture of Lake Como on their fronts with the words in large print under or over the water, depending on the shirt style. Shelves hung on the section of wall between the doors to the restrooms held an equally large variety of hats. She pushed open the door marked “ladies”.
Julie closed the menu. “I’ll try the special this morning.”
“Good choice. I’ll have that out to you in just a sec.”
Julie took a sip of hot coffee, a little too hot. She picked up the small pitcher of cream and added a bit to the cup. “It’s quiet here,” she said to Conrad who was sitting a few stools down the counter.
“You’re a little early for tourist season. Give it another couple of weeks and you won’t be able to hear yourself think during the day. Cars coming and going, boaters revving their engines just to prove they’ve got the biggest one, kids racing their bikes along the sidewalks.” He shook his head at the memory of previous seasons. “Makes me wonder why we stay here.”
“Why do you?”
Conrad took a swallow of coffee then spun the stool seat around. “Because of that,” he said after a long moment. “Can’t find many places as pretty and peaceful as that.” He nodded in the direction of the front of the store where a wall of windows looked out on the town and the lake beyond.
Julie agreed looking over her shoulder. “It is pretty.”
“Quiet too.” Conrad grinned as he spun back around to his waiting cup of coffee. He lifted the cup in mock salute, “this time of year, that is.”
“So what brings you to Lake Como? Vacation?”
Julie lifted a piece of toast off her plate and nibbled on its crust before answering. “I had a few days with no plans and I thought I’d drive out here.”
For the first time since she’d arrived in town, she was looked on with suspicion. “Bit out of the way for that, isn’t it?”
Julie smiled. “Yes, I suppose it is. A friend came here last summer and she hasn’t stopped talking about it since. I thought ‘what the heck’, let’s see what she’s been blabbering about.”
“Good a reason as any. If you plan to spend more than just the day, I can recommend a real nice place to stay. Good price and real clean rooms.”
Shirley walked out of the kitchen carrying a tray of muffins she had removed from the oven moments before. “Conrad, stop that,” she said having heard her husband’s comment.
Julie looked puzzled when Conrad chuckled.
“We own the motel next door,” he explained as Shirley carefully placed the still steaming muffins into a glass display case.
“But he’s right; it is a real nice place to stay.” Shirley had finished with the muffins and was pouring herself a cup of coffee. She carried the pot to the counter and refilled their empty cups.
“To be honest, I really hadn’t thought about what I would do once I got here. But maybe a room would be a good idea.”
“Good. Shirley will set you up. I best get back to my watering.”
“Don’t drown those flower beds like you did yesterday.”
“Oops.” Conrad hopped off the stool. “I seem to remember leaving a hose running.” He dashed out of the store, the screen door slamming against its frame.
Shirley shook her head. “I’m surprised any of my flowers survive the season around him.” Reaching under the counter, she pulled out a ledger. “I just need you to fill out this registration card. I’ll give you one of the units on the backside, there’s a nice creek back there with lots of shade trees. It’s a lot better than looking at the highway.”
“That sounds fine.”
“Do you want to run a tab? I can charge your gas and breakfast to your room.”
After filling out the registration card and receiving a room key, Julie made her way to the screen door. She stopped as she passed a display of paperback books, one in particular catching her eye. “Is it true she lives around here?”
She pulled the book from the rack and held it up. “Dillon Carson.”
“Another fan, uh?”
“It’s just that Dillon seems to have no shortage of fans. Some a little nuttier than most, if you get my drift. Yes, she lives here. She has the curio shop down by the docks. Don’t know why but she likes meeting the folks who read her books. If you want to meet her, you can find her there.”
Julie returned the book to its place in the rack. “Oh. I don’t know…”
“Suit yourself.” Shirley started to gather up the dirty dishes off the counter. “If you need anything, you know where to find me. And you can usually spot Conrad wandering about.”
continued in part 2
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