Herschel Cozine has published extensively in the children's field. His stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. Work by Herschel has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. His on-line stories have appeared in Judas E-Zine, and HandHeld Crime. Additionally he has had many stories appear in Orchard Press Mysteries. Retired from a career in electronics, he has resumed his writing career after an extended hiatus. Herschel lives with his wife, Sue, in Santa Rosa, California, close to his children and grandchildren
Marie was always a faithful wife. I never doubted that for a minute, in spite of what you may have heard. I think she was as close to perfect as a human being can get. She sure treated me right, never crossing me or going behind my back. She loved me, for certain. Dont you believe any of the gossip.
Im talking about the vicious gossip that cropped up concerning Marie and Kevin. Its not fair. Now, I can see how someone could get the wrong idea from what you may have heard. But things arent always what they seem. I think its about time you heard the truth about Kevin and Marie.
I dont know why Kevin Mills chose to settle in Ferrys End. Its not much of a town, particularly for young men. Oh, its pretty enough, and peaceful. But todays youth want to be where the action is. Kevin must have been different.
He appeared one day on the beach in front of our house, jogging gracefully, like a proud stallion, with about as much effort as it takes to rock a chair. His muscular arms were tanned, most likely from lifting weights under a sunlamp. And he was self-effacing in an offhand sort of way, which left one wondering if he was really sincere.
Marie seemed to like him a lot. Thats the way she was. People misunderstood that, I think. After all, with Kevin being young, handsome and personable, I can see why they may have thought things like that. But I know my Marie. She was justwell, friendly. You dont live with someone ten years without learning something about them.
Im forty-nine years old, looking every bit my age and then some. Marie was only seventeen when I married her, still a little girl in many ways, although well beyond her years in other, more important ways. That makes her twenty-seven now. We had no children; as much my wish as Maries. She didnt want them. According to her she wasnt cut out to be a mother. She came from a family of seven children. She saw what it could do to people. Her mother died at the age of fifty-one, worn out from trying to raise that many children with precious little help from Maries father. I, on the other hand, was an only child, and never cared much for children. Even when I was a child myself, I disliked most of the kids I grew up with.
We moved to Ferrys End right after we were married. Marie wanted to get away from her family, which was fine with me. Her father and I didnt get along. And, with her mother ailing, (she didnt die until three years ago), Marie was called upon to take care of the younger ones. It was not something she enjoyed doing. Sometimes I think that was why she married me, but she always denied that.
We bought this house by the lake for a song from a widow who wanted to move back to the city to be close to her son. I landed a job with the local grocery store, and worked my way up to manager in a little over a year. Life was quiet; uneventful, but good.
That brings us back to Kevin Mills. As I said, he just appeared one day. He had rented the old Johnson house a mile down the road from usjust for the summer, so he said when I first talked to him. He was from New York; an out of work actor getting away from the distractions of the city in order to find himself, as he put it.
I welcomed him to Ferrys End, wished him a happy stay, and went on with my life, or so I believed. But by the end of the week I realized that Kevin Mills presence was presenting distractions of their own to the relatively unsophisticated residents of Ferrys End. Most all of the women were fascinated by him. But they admired him from afar.
Marie, though, was different. She was the sociable type, always wanting to make one feel welcome. And thats what she did with Kevin Mills. She would have done it with anybody coming to Ferrys End, not just Kevin. I know. She was a loyal, devoted wife. Shed never cheated on me and never will.
Kevin, meanwhile, remained outgoing and friendly, as one would expect a worldly big city actor to behave. He came into the grocery store two or three times a week, always cheerful and talkative.
"Good morning, Don," hed say, using my first name as if he had known me all his life. "Hows that pretty little wife of yours?"
"Fine," I said, bristling at the question. He seemed much too interested in her. And the tone of his voice when he talked about her told me what he thought of our marriage. Here I am, an old man with a humdrum job and nothing to offer, married to a bright, vivacious woman who is young enough to be my daughter. Well, it wasnt any of his business, of course. But he seemed to make it so by his veiled comments and his referrals to Marie in such a familiar way.
I couldnt deny she was all of these things. But I didnt like being reminded of it by a total stranger who seemed to be laughing at me all the while he was being friendly and neighborly. It was like he was playing a game, and Im the overmatched opponent, not even familiar with the rules.
Marie seemed totally oblivious to his arrogant attitude. She literally beamed whenever she saw him; smile as she had never smiled at me, even when we were courting. And she was always laughing at his jokesmost of which I found inane or even offensive. But, who am I to judge? She was just being polite. If she seemed to pay him more attention than folks considered proper, where was the harm in it?
Kevin basked in her attention like a flower takes to the sun. And as the days turned into weeks, Marie became more attentive to him.
Now, usually people here in Ferrys End mind their own business, or at least keep their thoughts to themselves. But in this case, with people knowing about Marie and me, the age difference, and Kevins effect on the women in the town, George Harkins made an exception.
"That Mills fella seems to be taken by Marie," he said.
I grunted in response. It surprised me that George would say something like that to me. I didnt think an explanation was necessary, but I gave him one anyway. "Hes from New York. Hes used to being around pretty girls. It must be mighty dull here in Ferrys End for a guy like him. Hes just a little lonely is all."
"Maybe so," Harkins said. "But if she was my wife, Id sure keep an eye on things."
"Well, she isnt your wife," I snapped. I regretted my tone of voice immediately. "Im sorry, George. But I know Marie. And I trust her completely."
George nodded, paid for the box of corn flakes, and wished me a pleasant morning.
Things stayed pretty much the same for awhile after that. Marie came down to the store with me more often than she ever had in the past. And she spent more time in the beauty parlor, too. And the diner across the street. Thats where most of the townspeople gathered, and thats where you could find Kevin Mills almost every day. Well, I didnt mind that. After all, it was pretty lonely back at the house with my being gone all day. And, as I said, Marie was a sociable person. She loved being around people.
Then the gossip began. I heard it at work, over at the diner, on the street. About Kevin and Marie. I ignored it at first. After all, I knew what was going on, and I had no reason to believe all the lies. Thats what most gossip is, of course. Lies. People with small minds and nothing better to do make up stories.
I could turn my back on the gossip. That wasnt hard. But I couldnt turn a deaf ear when people started talking to me directly, like George Harkins had done.
Now it was Mrs. Baxter. She was almost half again my age, a widow who lived down the street, a couple of blocks from the grocery. I suppose people like that have nothing better to occupy their lonely lives, so they start minding other peoples business. I had to be polite to her, being as she was a good customer. But it wasnt easy.
"Donald Wilson," she said to me one morning, her frail body pulled up to its full height and her jaw set firm as a rock. "Its an absolute disgrace to the community how your wife is carrying on with that Kevin Mills. Why, if I were in your place, Id take a stick to her." She nodded her head indignantly. "Shades of Hester Prynne," she said.
"Who, Mrs. Baxter?" I asked.
"Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter," she said. Mrs. Baxter was a former schoolteacher, and perhaps the best-read person in Ferrys End. I didnt know what she meant, but I knew from the tone of her voice that it was uncomplimentary.
I looked around the store to see if anyone was listening. Sarah Mapes and Jonas Gardner were standing in the pet food aisle taking it all in. By the look on Sarahs face, I could tell she agreed completely. Jonas stared blankly at the dog food, trying to look disinterested.
Mrs. Baxter had marched out of the store. Sarah left right after, leaving me alone with Jonas. He brought his load of dog food up to the counter, plunked it down, and looked out the window.
"Looks like rain," he said.
I was still seeing red from Mrs. Baxters remarks. "I wish people would mind their own business, Jonas."
He nodded, picked up the bag I had thrown on the counter, and smiled sheepishly. "Guess they have nothin better to do, Don. Probably a little jealous, too."
"Jealous?" I asked. "Jealous of what?"
"Well, you know," he said, shuffling his feet. "A good lookin fella like Mills and a pretty young thing like Marie. Mebbe theyd like to be in her shoes."
"Jonas," I said. "You dont believe the gossip, too, do you?"
Jonas looked down at his feet. "No, Don. Forget I said anything. Its none of my business, like you say."
He hurried out the door before I could say any more.
As you can imagine, all this gossip about Marie, especially in a small town where most folks are your friends, can eat at a person. I couldnt get away from it. But there was nothing I could do about it either. Its a free country and if people want to talk, theres no law that can stop them.
Still, since it was all idle gossip, none of it true, I went on with my life as well as I could. So did Marie. She never said so, but she heard it, too. And Im sure it hurt her as much as it did me. But we never talked about it. I didnt want to upset her by bringing it up. She might have gotten the wrong idea that I believed it.
It was late August when Kevin Mills came into the grocery store, looking a little smug as well as a little nervous. I just nodded to him; didnt say anything in the way of a greeting. Theres no store rule that says I have to pass the time of day with the customers.
He finally came over to the counter where I was busy working on a soup can display. He watched me work for a few minutes before he spoke.
"Looks nice, Don," he said.
He shuffled his feet a minute. I put the soup cans on the counter top and leaned back. "You wanting to tell me something, Mr. Mills?" I asked. I never used his first name, and hoped the message would sink in, and he would do the same.
"Yes," he said finally. "Its about your wife."
"Marie? What about her?"
He shuffled his feet some more, not at all like him. He was usually so self-assured, to the point of arrogance, I felt. Now he was more like a little boy who had misbehaved and was trying to explain it to his father.
"Shes in love with me," he blurted out finally, his eyes fixed on the floor.
I wasnt prepared for this sudden revelation, and even though I didnt believe it for a minute, I couldnt help but be taken aback by the pronouncement, if only for a second or two. By the time I replied, he had lifted his eyes and met my own with a look of guilt, or something approaching it.
"You dont know what youre talking about," I said.
"Its true, Don. Shes in love with me. And I love her."
"I dont doubt that you love her," I replied. "But that doesnt give you the right to say that she loves you."
Mills went back to shuffling his feet, making patterns in the dust on
the floor. "I know how you feel. It must be hard to accept the fact
that your wife is in love with another man. But she loves me, and she
wants to marry me. She was afraid to tell you; afraid of what you might
say or do. So I offered to do it for her."
"Noble," I said ironically. "But if what you say is true, I want Marie to tell me herself." I turned back to the soup cans, stacking them higher than I normally would. My hands were shaking a little; more from anger than anything. Anger at being told by this upstart who hardly knew Marie or me that she no longer loved me.
Mills stood there a little longer, then turned toward the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob, turned to me and said, "Were going away together. Tonight. Marie hopes that you wont make a big scene, or cause any trouble. Shes sorry if she hurt you. Shes very fond of you, you know. But she wants a life for herself. She wont get it here at Ferrys End."
I kept my back to him and didnt reply. His diatribe wasnt worthy of a response. Id talk to Marie when I got home, and wed both have a laugh about this. But right now my sense of humor wasnt operating.
The rest of the day dragged. I couldnt get Kevins pronouncement out of my mind, absurd as it was. Why, the arrogant, conceited fool must think were all a bunch of hicks who have no sense about us. How could he think that my dear Marie would ever fall for a phony like him? She could have any man she wanted.
I drove the short distance home in my old Ford, almost missing the driveway, so preoccupied was I with Kevin and his silly talk. I climbed the steps to the front door and opened it.
"Marie!" I called.
There was no answer. I went to the kitchen. She wasnt there where she usually is at this time of day, whistling tunelessly as she fixes dinner for us.
I grew a little worried. It wasnt like Marie to be out at this time of the day. The house seemed strangely quiet and eerie. I shuddered as a chill ran through me in spite of the warm day. Maybe something happened to her. Maybe Kevin kidnapped heror worse. I wouldnt put it past him, with his big talk and fancy ways. She would laugh in his face when she found out what he had said. He knew it and couldnt stand to be humiliated. So he took her away where she wouldnt be able to let people know what a fool and a liar he was.
At the sound of footsteps on the stairs, I whirled. There was Marie, a suitcase in her hand, her purse hanging over her shoulder. Her coat was draped over the other arm. She stopped when she saw me, a strange look frozen on her face. She looked scared. Her eyes met mine briefly, then she looked away.
"Marie," I said. "What is this all about?"
"I I," she said. Then she set the suitcase on the step and sat down.
"I dont understand," I said. "Where are you gong?"
She stared straight ahead, but she said nothing.
Then I understood what was happening. She was leaving town to get away from Kevin. There was no doubt about it. He had been following her, bothering her, making a fool of himself. She had been nice to him because thats the way my Marie is. She could never be unkind to anyone, not even a jerk like Kevin. The only way she could have any peace would be to get away for awhile, wait until he left town, and then come back to me.
"Marie," I said softly as I climbed the stairs to be next to her. She stood up again, slowly, her eyes fixed on her feet.
"I understand," I said, taking her gently by the arm.
"You do?" she said. "Then Kevin "
I put a finger to her lips. "No need to talk about it," I said. "Its all right."
She smiled for the first time that night. "Oh, Don. I was so afraid youd be hurt."
I stooped and picked up her suitcase. I didnt expect it to be as heavy as it was. I staggered a little under the weight of it, reached out and grabbed at Marie in order to keep from falling. She let out a scream and pitched forward. I grabbed for her, but it was too late. She tumbled down the stairs like a rag doll, her arms and legs flailing helplessly in the air. She landed at the foot of the stairs and lay still. Her neck was at an odd angle from her body. I knew right away that she was dead. I rushed down the stairs and cradled her lifeless body in my arms. I called her name, softly, and cried.
It was my fault, I know, and I have to live with that.
The inquest proved that it was an accident, but I will never forgive myself. I should have been more careful. Those steep bare stone stairs are dangerous. I wasnt thinking clearly or I never would have been so careless.
Kevin left town shortly after the inquest, vowing revenge. He only made it as far as Yancey Cliff. His car went off the road and over the cliff. Thats a dangerous stretch of road as all the locals know, and he was driving too fast. He probably died instantly. Danny, our local police chief, thinks he was forced off, judging by the skid marks. But there were no witnesses, so its in the books as an accident.
Theres talk, of course, that I had something to do with Mills accident. Its just more gossip, coming from the same folks who talked about Marie. It doesnt bother me anymore. And, to be honest with you, I dont mourn Kevin Mills passing. But Ill sure miss my Marie. She was so young. So beautiful. So faithful.