Wild Ice

By: Rachelle Vaughn

Scott wasn’t the only one who eventually stopped visiting Cora. Lauren’s visits had dropped off and then stopped altogether when she went away to college and had been too wrapped up in her own life and with her relationship with Daniel to make the trip down to California. Lauren hoped Aunt Cora understood her absence. She was never one to hold a grudge, but Lauren still felt bad about it. No one should have to die alone. They said Aunt Cora went peacefully. That was all Lauren had heard about her aunt’s passing. No one knew if she’d been sick for a while beforehand, or if her death was sudden and unexpected. She just went to sleep and didn’t wake up again.

Lauren should have been there for her aunt. Instead, she’d been standing in a church staring down the barrel of her future. She should have at least stayed in touch with Cora. After all, Lauren wouldn’t have pursued her dream and went to work for the South Oakdale National Wildlife Refuge if it hadn’t been for her dear aunt. But Lauren had allowed herself to get caught up in her other goals and focused on the future much more than the present. She had her heart set on a quaint little wedding ceremony followed by children and…

Well, those things wouldn’t be happening now. At least not with Daniel anyway.

Hey, no more coulda, shoulda, woulda, remember? Lauren reminded herself. It might be easier said than done, but she was bound and determined to stick to her new motto. She shook away the feelings of sadness and made the turn off of the county road onto Blue Heron Lane.

Actually, there was something else Aunt Cora left behind besides the cottage. Marshmallow, or Marsh, as her aunt called him because of the marshlands that bordered the cottage, sat on the passenger seat growling angrily inside his plastic pet carrier.

The poor kitty had been boarded in a kennel ever since Aunt Cora’s death. It would be nice to have a cat around to keep Lauren from being completely alone, but Marsh didn’t seem very companionable. At least not right now. He looked like he was angry enough to gnaw right through the metal bars on the carrier’s door. Not that she could blame him. She wouldn’t want to be cooped up in a confined space either. She would have let him out, but she feared losing him under the seat. He’d have plenty of space to prowl around inside the cottage.

Lauren wouldn’t let Marsh’s foul mood ruin today for her. She was excited to see what kind of bird activity was in August County compared to South Oakdale. Speaking of birds, Lauren turned down the volume on the stereo and rolled her window down. The cool air from the air conditioner competed with the sweltering heat outside. Ah, there it was. The sounds she’d been looking forward to hearing.

Outside in the warm summer air, a plethora of bird songs competed for attention. The sound was music to Lauren’s ears. As an ornithologist, Lauren could easily pick out each individual species and match them to their song. The gurgling song of a marsh wren could be heard in the distance, the secretive bird probably clinging tightly to the reeds. And there was the loud kill-dee of the killdeer and the cheerful twitter of a tree swallow…

Lauren took a deep breath and sighed. Whatever doubts that lingered about her decision to move into the cottage fluttered away like the red-shouldered blackbird outside the car. When her little car bounced over a pothole, Marsh growled low in his throat. He wasn’t happy about riding in the car or about life in general. The look he gave her from behind the metal bars—whew!—suffice to say that if looks could kill, then Lauren would be flat on her back.

“We’re almost there, I think,” Lauren reassured the frightened kitty. In fact, she wasn’t entirely sure how far they were from the cottage. She hadn’t been there in years and all she had was a blurry printout of the directions in case she got lost.

Marsh hissed his reply.

When Teal Manor came into view, Lauren knew she was close. She slowed the car and admired the beautiful architecture of the sprawling mansion. Its gable roof jutted into the sky and what she could see of the manor beyond the gates was imposing. Oak, laurel and alder trees dotted the front yard. She remembered the spectacular mansion from her childhood visits to the cottage. As a child, she had marveled over its tremendous size and had pretended a princess lived inside its walls.

Lauren wondered who lived there now, if anyone. It looked vacant and the landscaping was overgrown. There were no cars parked out front and a giant rusty wrought iron gate stood guard. What a pity for such a regal place to sit empty and neglected! Oh, well, it could have been haunted for all she knew. A small shiver crept up her spine and she shook away the silly notion. The last time she’d been to visit Aunt Cora, the mansion didn’t seem so mysterious.

Marsh hissed and Lauren kept driving. Immediately past the mansion, Aunt Cora’s mailbox came into view. There it was. 22 Blue Heron Lane. The cottage was a lot closer to the mansion than she remembered.

While everything else was overgrown and deserted, the cottage’s mailbox remained as cheerful as Lauren remembered. The numbers were painted bright yellow underneath a hand painted silhouette of a sharp-shinned hawk. Her aunt’s doing. Lauren remembered the summer Aunt Cora had painted it there like it was yesterday.