The Sea Grape Inn, by C.L. Malone
Chris grips the wheel as another gust of wind drives the car across the yellow line. We’re on our way to Maine – Nell’s Harbor, Maine to be exact, to an inn on the coast where they say the salt water never freezes. It’s our first weekend away since I found the email.
The icy road winds over bridges and mountains and in an out of tiny towns: Kittery, Ogunquit and Kennebunk – Indian names adopted by settlers too tired to think of their own. Other than an occasional sign: Moose X, Dunny’s Taxidermy, Last Gas for 50 miles, we’re alone, watching the wipers and curly snow snakes. The farther we drive, the slipperier it gets. Each time Chris stops to clear the frozen slush from the windshield, I click on the passenger light.
“Turn that off,” he yells, steering the car back onto the highway. The wheels skid and for one slow second, the back catches up to the front. I jam my hand against the dashboard. The car crashes into a snow bank, smashing our headlight and spinning 360 degrees.
“Are you hurt?” Chris asks when we stop. “Do you want to go back?”
I let go of the dash. No.
Turning the key in the ignition, he sheers the gears before making a U turn and starting up again. We drive for twenty more minutes before we reach the crest of a hill. On the other side, a dozen half-buried houses appear, one after the other, and then a gas station and old diner. Finally, our single headlight lands on three gabled peaks.
“There.” I point ahead. “That’s it.”
Chris swerves in time to make the entrance, banking off the packed wall of ice marking the driveway and ricocheting inside. Then he guns the engine up the hill toward the colonial-style house.
According to the brochure, the Sea Grape Inn was built in 1795 for the sea captain, Nathaniel Philbin and his third wife Nell. Now, it’s a romantic getaway offering wine weekends for lovers. A one-way ticket to heaven – that’s what the inn keepers promise – along with elegant rooms, sea views and Godiva chocolate. The New York Times gives it a nine out of ten for its ambiance and extensive wine list.
Following the snow-covered signs, we park in the back by the barn. Chris jumps out to grab the luggage while the wind howls and the snow blows sideways. I open the car door.
“Wait a minute. I need something out of my bag.”
He mutters as I struggle with the back hatch and open my suitcase.
Where is it? I rip through the neatly packed clothes until my ice-cold fingers close around a plastic pill bottle. Ahhhh. Right where it’s supposed to be, between my bras and Dior lingerie. Slipping the prescription into my pocket, I hand him the bag and we battle the arctic storm all the way to the antique porch.
The door opens with tinkle from an old-fashioned bell. Inside, a tan man in a crisp pink shirt stands up from behind a battered desk. We rush inside anxious to shake the snow from our coats and hats.
“Welcome,” he says. “I’m Bruce, one of the owners. Are we expecting you?”
Chris extends his hand. “What a ride. I’m Chris Locke. We have a reservation.” He says it like this was his idea.
The innkeeper pumps Chris’s outstretched appendage before turning back to his computer. His face is glued to the screen.
“Is there a problem?” I say.
“Relax,” Chris says under his breath.
But Bruce isn’t relaxed. He’s scrolling frantically.
I spell our name. “L-O-C-K-E. Dr. and Mrs. Locke.”
“Hmmm,” Bruce says, still scrolling. “I’m afraid we’re full…I mean, this is a special weekend. A wine-tasting weekend for…um…. Are you sure you made a reservation?”
My throat tightens. “Absolutely. And I specifically asked for Room Nine. We want to be in Room Nine.”
“We do have some contest winners coming. Are you with them?”
He clicks the mouse. “Oh my God, here you are – Chris and Leslie Locke. Phew, that it explains it. We were expecting…oh, never mind.”
From the corner of his eye, Chris mouths, “What’s he talking about?” I shrug as Bruce unhooks a heavy brass key from the row of pegs behind the desk.
“Not to worry,” he says. “We won’t bite. Room Nine, just as you requested.” He hands the key to Chris. “Welcome to the ‘Sea Grape.’” A worn leather guest book is open to a faded vanilla page. Chris writes in our name and address.
“Is everyone here?” I ask. “I mean with the snow and everything.”
“Not quite. Room Ten is still on their way. Come on, you must be starving. Leave your bags and I’ll introduce you to the others.”
We follow him down a narrow hallway to a room with low ceilings and wide, knotty, pine floors. On the other side, a fire blazes in an old brick hearth. In between are a sea of cashmere sweaters and corduroys.
“Everyone?” Bruce raises his hand. “Meet our latest arrivals.”
The crowd murmurs hello before turning back to their conversations. From the corner, a row of silver chafing dishes emit the pungent smell of garlic. Chris tips his head toward buffet. He hasn’t eaten since breakfast. I shake my head, no. I’m not hungry. Seconds later, he takes a heaping plate of pasta over to the bar and joins a group of well-groomed men.
I linger in the doorway, catching snippets of conversation – the latest sports scores…a new celebrity disaster…a hairdresser who can’t get the color right, conversations that stop when an icy blast rattles the old panes on the three-season porch.
I turn toward the lobby. “Is someone at the door?”
Bruce looks confused. “I don’t think so.”
“I thought I heard someone.”
He turns to two women in matching green sweaters who are deciding between the meatballs and sausages. “Did you hear anything?”
“Shouldn’t you check?” I say.
Smiling tightly, Bruce disappears down the hall as the women stare, forcing me to smooth my hair.
“Leslie,” Chris calls from across the room. “Try this Merlot. It’s a Mondavi. ”
The women’s eyes burn into my back as I cross the room, dodging twosomes and threesomes, until I reach the bar where he hands me a glass of the rich, red American wine. Chris whispers in my ear. “You’re supposed to be having fun.”
I am having fun.
The massive brick fireplace runs the length of the room, its opening big enough to hold a chair in the fire pit. Stretching my hands toward the crackling logs, I feel the pressure of the small plastic bottle against my hip.
This was Nell’s kitchen.
Above the mantle, a mosaic had been built into the stonework, arranged in the shape of a bunch of grapes. The intricate design, a combination of yellow, green and blue sea glass, slices my fingertip when I touch it.
“Extraordinary, isn’t it?”
Sucking my finger, I back into the hard body of a man who smells like pine.
“They’re supposed to be grapes,” he says. “Wild sea grapes.”
“Really?” I say. His grey hair frames a full face with black eyebrows.
“Legend says that Captain Philbin used sea grape wine to seduce the local farm girls.” He laughs like it’s a joke.
“Did he make the wine himself?” I ask.
“No, no. His wife did, but it’s hard to believe anyone could actually drink the stuff. The grapes were incredibly difficult to handle. That’s how he died – from one of her homemade batches.”
I rub my hand over the lump in my pocket. “You mean she poisoned him?”
He snickers again. “Who knows?” Holding out his manicured hand, he smiles. “Makes for a great story. I’m Scott, Bruce’s partner.”
“Leslie Locke,” I say. “We spoke when I made the reservation.”
“Oh, I remember. Your magazine sponsored the contest. What a great prize. How’d you guys hear about us?”
Chris’s booming voice interrupts from the wine bar – he’s telling the one about the priest and the rabbi.
“Is that your ah…partner?” Scott asks.
“My husband,” I say. “We met when he was a resident.”
Just ten years ago. It wasn’t his chiseled face or amazing, muscular body that first caught my attention. It was the way his eyes wouldn’t let me go. As a nurse, it was easy to keep running into him in the operating room, the break room, or on the stairs, accidently of course, until the other nurse he was engaged to fell down the stairs unexpectedly.
Bruce reappears in the doorway. “Hey, look who finally made it.”
From behind him step two hooded figures still covered in snow. Scott rushes over, both arms extended. “Look at you two. You must be frozen.”
Chris doesn’t come to life until the taller of the pair unwinds an icy scarf from what turns out to be a slender neck.
“Oh my God,” he says. Following Bruce’s lead, he runs over. “Talk about a small world.”
Her name is Marie Kent. We’ve never met, but she sounded genuinely pleased when I told her she had won first prize in a contest sponsored by ‘In Your Head,’ a magazine I saw in my psychiatrist’s office.
If she’s startled, Marie recovers quickly, except for two red spots that stay on her white cheeks. “Chris Locke – are you kidding me?” She punches his arm. “I sent you an email a couple weeks ago. Did you get it?”
Chris’s pupils dilate, but I keep my eyes focus squarely on Marie. She introduces her friend. “Debra, this is Chris, my old study partner from med school. Remember? I told you, right?”
Debra takes in Chris’s good looks as I step forward. “And I’m Leslie, his wife.”
“This is so weird,” Chris says leading Marie and Debra to the couch. He shoots me a second look before taking Marie’s wet scarf and placing it on the wire screen by the fire. “How did you guys end up here?”
Pretty enough, I guess, if you like the type: tall, slim, too much long black hair.
“I’ll get us something to drink,” I say stiffly.
At the bar, bottles of all colors and shapes swirl like a kaleidoscope – ruby reds from California, dark reds from Italy, beet red from a local vineyard and Chris’s favorite, a deep red Burgundy from France.
Dr. Miller said I should talk to Chris. So, I did. I made his favorite dinner: grilled veal chops and red potatoes. I even opened a bottle of his best Pinot, a French Burgundy. But when I mentioned her name, he got up and dumped the entire bottle down the sink.
Across the room, Chris leans in. Marie giggles.
Why is he acting that way?
She waves her arms, telling some story – from their past, probably. Chris’s hearty laugh makes heads turn.
Did his hand just brush her knee?
Marie sinks into the sofa and peels off her wet socks, exposing her long legs, one at a time. Our eyes lock, just for a second, before she rests her black-pedicured toes brazenly on the grill in front of the fire.
I pick out four glasses.
Dr Miller is right. I just have to talk to him, not her.
Slipping my hands into my pocket, I twist the bottle cap open. The powdered contents pour easily into the glass and after one or two stirs, the wine returns to its normal color. The slut is just finishing her story when I get back to the couch.
“And when I called here,” she says, as if her words are magic, “Scott said the contest and the prize are completely legit.”
My husband coughs.
“To old friends,” I say, handing her the glass.
At the first sip, Chris jumps up sputtering, “What the hell?” He wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “What is this?”
My heart races. “I…I’m not sure. A Burgundy, I think. Scott recommended it.”
“Tastes like turpentine. Everyone put down your glasses. I’ll get us a grape worth drinking.” As he hurries off to the bar, Marie’s eyes trail after him.
In the quiet minute that follows Debra turns to me. “So Leslie, what do you do?”
I wipe the perspiration off my neck. “I’m…I’m a librarian in Westport, Connecticut.”
“Wow. We should get together. I’m in publishing.”
“Sure,” I say, afraid to take my eyes off Marie who hasn’t stopped staring at Chris. No one says another word until he returns with four new glasses and a 2004 Chambertin, Grand Cru. After depositing the old glasses on the side table, Chris pours the French wine into fresh ones and hands the first to Marie. She twirls the ruby colored liquid in her goblet, letting it separate into rivulets and run down the inside. Then she dips her finger and brings the coated tip to her lips.
“I can taste the raspberries,” she says.
Deb takes a sip. “It’s okay, I guess.”
Leaning back, Chris closes his eyes to sniff the bouquet. Then he sits up. “Here that?” The wind shakes the windows right on cue. “That’s a genuine Nor’easter. We’re lucky we made it up here. Scott said we can help ourselves to whatever’s left in the wine cellar. Who wants to check out the basement?”
Marie pivots toward Debra. “Oh, let’s. I’d love to see more of this old house.”
“Me, too.” I bump into the side table. “Let’s all go.”
“No, thanks,” Debra says, stretching her hands toward the fire. “I’ve had enough cold air for one night.”
“Suit yourself.” Marie turns to Chris. “Lead the way.”
I follow them across the room, listening to their discussion about the latest medical research study to make the news. Chris had already asked Bruce where the cellar was located and he leads us to the far end of the unheated porch where a rectangle is cut into the pine paneling. Chris pulls on the handle to reveal a rough wooden landing above a dark and narrow stone stairwell. Marie steps boldly over the threshold. I follow. On the other side, the granite walls smell like mold and pine pitch. We crowd together as Chris flicks the wall switch, a recent addition judging by the duck tape holding it in place.
“Damn,” he says. “Wait here. I’ll get a flashlight.”
After Chris leaves, Marie moves down one step to give herself some space. But I yank the door closed behind me, plunging us into total blackness.
Even Nell had to improvise.
“Hey,” Marie says.
I wait for my eyes to adjust.
A minute later, she cries out. “Ouch!” Her nails scratch at what must be the railing.
I shove her again.
This time she screams, “What the hell?”
Sensing her location, I tiptoe down to the third step and push – hard.
Her bones crack as they connect with each step until the tumbling ends in a thud. I hold my breath.
“You almost killed me, you stupid bitch. I think I broke my arm.”
Damn! She’s still alive.
“Leslie?” she says. In the nothingness, a foot scrapes on the stone stair. She’s getting up! Now, she’s climbing the stairs, one at a time, probably on all fours. I crouch down, waiting.
If at first you don’t succeed…
But the light blinds me. The panel door has swung open and a flashlight finds my eyes. In that moment, Marie scrambles up the rest of the stairs and races past – her long hair brushes my face. She collapses into the arms of a figure at the top.
I flatten myself against the granite wall.
“Deb, thank God. She’s crazy. Absolutely insane. Just like he said.”
Just like he said?
Chris appears in the doorway behind Debra as she helps Marie away, holding her protectively from the side. He hesitates before stepping inside and shutting the door. Moments later, the beam from his flashlight finds my face.
I hold out my hand. “I’m okay, honey. We can go.”
Chris doesn’t move. The flashlight beam travels down the rough stairs to the dirt floor. “Scott has a new American Pinot down here that’s dark and velvety. They say you can taste the earth in the wine.”
“I don’t want to taste the earth. I think we should go.”
The round beam returns to my chest.
“Did you really push her down the stairs?” he asks.
“You set up that contest. You planned this whole thing.” He drops the flashlight, and the metal clatters down the stone steps until it stops on the dirt floor below.
“Dr. Miller said you were getting better.” Chris’s voice echoes against the granite walls. “I thought you were getting better.”
I step up in the blackness smelling his position. “She’s a liar. She made that up.”
Chris pushes past me, his feet scraping on each stone step until he reaches the bottom of the stairs. He picks up the flashlight and holds it on himself.
“Promise,” I say, twisting my hair around my finger. “Promise, you didn’t say that. Or I’ll….”
“I’ll tell them. I’ll tell them what you did to that other girl. Your fiancé.”
Chris hesitates. “That was an accident. I tried to save her.”
“By cracking her ribs? They won’t believe you.”
The sound of running footsteps rush overhead and seconds later the door flies open. Another flashlight pierces the darkness.
“Dr. Locke?” Bruce shouts. “Are you down there? Please come up. It’s an emergency.”
Chris exhales, and then rushes up the stairs, forcing me to the side. “We’re not done,” he says as his fit body charges past.
Later, I open the panel door a crack and inhale the charcoal scent of the smoldering fire. Bruce, Scott and Chris are standing in the old kitchen by the couch. I can just hear their quiet voices.
“What’s wrong with her?” Bruce says, picking up the limp arm of a green cashmere sweater.
Chris retrieves a wineglass from the floor. Running his finger over the edge, he says, “I remember this glass from before. The chip on the side. ”
“Does she need an ambulance?” Scott’s voice rises.
Chris rearranges the arm so that it rests on the still form. “Not anymore. Where are the other guests?”
Bruce sniffs. “Gone to bed, I suppose. I had to give Marie some pain killers. Apparently, she fell on the basement stairs.” He reaches for Scott’s hand. “We’re going to need a good lawyer.”
“What do you think, Doc?” Scott asks. “Did she have a heart attack?”
“I…I guess so. We’ll know tomorrow when the EMTs get here. For now, let’s move her to the porch where it’s cold.”
I enter the still room after they leave and wander over to the bar. Someone has tidied up. The glasses are washed and a half-empty bottle of sea grape wine stands on the counter. After dumping it down the sink, I find the glass with the chip and give it proper washing.
“What will you do now?“ Nell asks.
I shrug. “He won’t turn me in, you know. He never does.“
C.L. Malone is a freelance writer and MFA grad who teaches creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA and at Grub Street, a nonprofit writer’s group in Boston, MA. My flash fiction will appear in an anthology Daily Flash 2013: 365 Days of Flash Fiction, published by Pill Hill Press, my poetry recently placed in the top 25 of the Writer’s Digest 2012 Seventh Annual Poetry Awards, and my fiction was recently published by Magic Cat Press, writer’s.org and the Lutheran Journal. Otherwise, my most significant accomplishment to date has been to ski Mt. Etna, a live, snow-capped volcano in Sicily.
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Tags: affairs, crime, death, jealousy, murder, relationships