Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shenandoah Dreams by Lisa Belcastro

Shenandoah Dreams
OakTara Publishers (July 1, 2014)
Lisa Belcastro

Chapter 1

The aroma of popcorn filled the air as Melissa Smith strolled through the entry gates of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. She’d made a habit of stopping in on opening day alone to see how her fair entries had done and relish the moment. But, first thing first. Melissa followed her nose to the vendor selling her favorite snack, gladly avoiding the longer lines at the ice cream sundae and cotton candy booths. As she munched on the buttery goodness, she chuckled at the irony of kids filling up on sweets and goodies and then running to the carnival rides that were sure to mix and tumble the snacks in their unsuspecting bellies. Shaking her head, she slid her camera bag around to her left side and started back toward the Ag Hall.

“Miss Smith. Miss Smith.” Enthusiastic young voices shouted from the Ferris wheel. “Come ride with us!”

Melissa turned to her right and waved as the silver gondola carrying two of her English students ascended into the bright noonday sky. “Maybe next time,” she called. Melissa watched the girls make one round, waved at them again, and then made her way across the grassy field to the large, weathered building that housed all the non-breathing, non-shedding fair entries. She had entered six photos in the adult amateur divisions, all of them taken last summer while she chaperoned the Holmes Hole student cruise aboard the schooner Shenandoah.

The Shenandoah had captured Melissa’s artistic eye. Once aboard, she’d rarely been without her camera in hand or within arm’s reach. Photographing the students, the crew, the sails, the rigging, the sea and shores in the changing light throughout the day had added to her ultimate pleasures during last year’s weeklong voyage. And she was eager to see if any of her images had won a prize.

Inside the hundred-year-old reconstructed barn, Melissa paused and took in the beauty of the post-and-beam building. Just as she was with the Shenandoah, Melissa was impressed with the care taken to maintain the old barn. In 1995, a team of fifty or so Vineyarders had gone to New Hampshire to disassemble the century-old structure, pack it carefully onto numerous trucks, transport it back to the Island, and then re-assemble it.

Captain John Roberts had done something similar when he purchased the original Shenandoah from a shipyard in southern Maine. The centuries-old ship was not seaworthy, but many of the original beams and planks were salvageable. Every board in good condition was re-used, fastened, and hammered to create an impressive replica of the eighteenth-century Shenandoah. And Melissa would be on her soon.

Smiling, Melissa moseyed past the cakes, cookies, and brownies, past the arts and crafts, and around the corner to the photography walls. She wadded up her empty popcorn container, then she nervously tossed the glassine bag from one hand to the other while she searched the panels for her pictures. Her portrait of Captain Roberts, his gaze focused on the horizon and a long stretch of sea visible behind him as he sailed Shenandoah across the Vineyard Sound, had won an honorable mention.

Her favorite image, a tight shot of the sails aglow in the morning light, had taken second place. A great sense of accomplishment filled her. She’d been toying with the idea of shooting specific angles and images and then creating a line of stationery to sell at some of the Island gift shops. Between these awards and the new wide-angle lens she’d ordered in July, she felt a surge of confidence to set and achieve her new goal.

“Congratulations, Melissa. I love that shot of the sails.”

Melissa turned to see her neighbor Alexandra Simmons and realized the striking blonde had been glancing over her shoulder. “Thanks, Alex. It’s easy to take a good picture on the Shenandoah. Everywhere you look there is beauty and magic.”

“Would appear so from your viewpoint.”

Melissa smiled, but not being one to focus too much on herself, she brought up the next big event most Islanders and tourists attended on the third Friday of August. “Are you going to the fireworks in Oaks Bluffs tomorrow? I’m hoping to capture the flavor of the event. I’d love to shoot your famous blanket buffet, the essence of an Islander’s love of the event.”

“Wouldn’t miss them or the chance to cook for the masses.” Alex was known for laying out a veritable feast, turning her picnic blanket into a five-star dining event. “I’m trying a new lemon-blueberry tart recipe with candied lemon peel. Might be a magazine cover in the making. See you by the gazebo?”

“I’ll be there—with my appetite and the camera,” Melissa said, tapping her wadded-up popcorn bag on her camera case.

“See you then. Time to find my boys so I can get home and start cooking.” Alex bent over and picked up a grooming box filled with brushes, ointments, and baby oil. “One day Brendon or Kevin will remember their supplies,” she said with slight exasperation and marched toward the animal barns housing the Holsteins her sons would show on Saturday.

Melissa stifled a giggle. If parents only knew how many excuses and creative stories a teacher heard throughout the year when homework wasn’t done, a book wasn’t read, or a test wasn’t passed. That Alex lugged their brushes instead of insisting one of her sons run back to the truck and gather his own tools was one of the reasons the boys expected to get away with late homework or missing books. But Melissa didn’t want to think about the complexities of how the home environment affected the classroom. Not today, not with the fair in full swing, not with her photos of the Shenandoah garnering a few prizes.

Shifting her focus back to her pictures, Melissa realized she was counting the days until she was back on the Shenandoah. Stepping onboard was like stepping back in time. The ship sailed by wind power . . . only wind power. No electricity, no hot water, no showers, no twenty-first century conveniences. Leaving behind her computer, answering machine, television, and all electronics was a break Melissa delighted in. A couple of kids would complain for a day or two about their lack of cell phones, games, and gadgets, but they all came around by week’s end.

A week isn’t long enough. She ran her hand over the mat of the sail picture. Shenandoah was beautiful, serene, and calling her name. Melissa walked over to the nearest trashcan about five feet away and discarded her empty popcorn bag. Time for an ice-cold drink before a visit to the animals.

“Leaving so soon? Gloating over those ribbons, I bet.”

A frosty pall covered Melissa. She knew that voice. Gayle Burroughs. Her ex-husband’s third wife. The woman who blamed her for Bryce’s death.

“Don’t be feeling too high and mighty. We both know you should be in jail for murder.”

Melissa sucked in her breath. Fear chilled her body, freezing time and her ability to move. Gayle’s words wrested the warmth of the summer air and stole the oxygen out of the barn. Melissa struggled to draw a shallow, ragged breath before turning around to face Gayle.

“You should be behind bars, not winning blue ribbons!”

The accusations weren’t new, but Melissa dropped her gaze to the floor. There was no truth to Gayle’s bitter allegations, but Melissa’s fear of what her ex-husband’s widow might do was real. Almost three years had passed since Bryce’s car crash and death two weeks later, and Gayle appeared more intent on blaming Melissa every time their paths crossed.

The woman stood clutching an old purse under her left arm, her right arm pressed against her chest as her fingers clung to the shoulder strap. Her eyes darted left and right in a frenzied, non-stop movement. Menacing was the first word that came to Melissa’s mind when she came face to face with Gayle.

Melissa couldn’t help but wonder if there was a gun in the grungy yellow bag. She wasn’t going to stick around and find out. Faking a calm she didn’t feel, Melissa took a step away from Gayle.

“Not so fast, goody two shoes.” A surprisingly strong hand clamped onto Melissa’s left forearm. She stopped and looked back to find Gayle glowering at her.

“I know you were jealous when he left you.” Gayle’s voice rose another octave. “I know you wanted him back. I know you probably lured him away that night. I’ll prove it too—just you wait.”

The last sentence came out in a shriek. Melissa wanted to jerk her arm free but saw the vehemence in Gayle’s murky brown eyes. Without glancing around the photo area, Melissa was certain fair-goers were now witnessing and hearing Gayle’s crazy claims.

“Gayle! Melissa! What’s going on?”

The knot in Melissa’s stomach unwound a bit when she spotted her friend hurrying toward her. Kendra Natale stepped between them, forcing Gayle to release her grip on Melissa’s arm. Kendra placed one hand on each woman’s back and gently guided them closer to the wall of pictures.

“Oh, Miss, you won. Well done. No wonder I heard you two shouting,” Kendra said with a smoothness Melissa wished she possessed. Kendra could negotiate her way out of mousetrap and leave with the cheese.

Gayle’s eyes narrowed and zeroed in on Melissa. “We’ll finish this another day.” She patted her purse with her right hand.

“Kendra,” she said with a curt bob of her head and then strode off.

Melissa reached out to steady herself on Kendra’s shoulder. The five-foot, seven-inch tower of strength wrapped her arms around Melissa and rubbed her back.

“Shake it off, hon. She’s a whacko, a certified loon. I feel sorry for her. What’s it been—three years? And she’s still looking for someone to blame,” Kendra said in a soft voice.

Stepping back, Melissa said, “I know, Ken, but why me? I don’t doubt for a second Bryce was out cheating on her, but why does she suspect me?”

“Who knows? Probably her own guilt. She cheated with him when he was married to you, so it makes a weird kind of sense that she’d fear he would go back to you.”

“I wouldn’t have done so much as shaken his hand. Forgiveness is one thing. Letting him back into my life was not ever going to happen.”

“Ha! You got that right. You were the lucky one. You kicked his butt to the curb. Poor Gayle bore the shame of pitying glances and awkward condolences.”

A shard of painful memories pierced Melissa’s heart. “Bryce was a train wreck.”

Kendra frowned. “A train wreck? Bryce was multiple train wrecks. You know it and I know it. And you are sworn to secrecy.”

Protectiveness squashed her own upsetting recollections. Melissa reached out and gently squeezed Kendra’s right hand. “My lips are sealed. Forever.”

“I know they are. Now let’s get out of here and get on with enjoying this beautiful day.

The two friends walked through the Ag Hall and back to the entrance by the carnival rides, where sunlight welcomed them. Kendra paused just outside the large barn doors. “You got time for lunch before you sail off into the sunset?”

“Other than packing and some errands, next week is wide open.”

Kendra smiled. “Monday, then? Twelve-thirty at Owen Park?”

“Perfect. You in a rush or can you hang out for a bit?”

“Let me go tell Jamie that I’m going to have lunch with you and I’ll meet you back here in five minutes,” Kendra said.

“Great.” Melissa hadn’t gone but ten steps when her two Ferris-wheel-riding students called her name once again, ponytails flopping as they ran.

Melissa grinned when the two girls raced to a halt in front of her. At age eleven and just entering the sixth grade, Mya, pronounced me-yuh, and Lizzie were still excited about school and their teachers.

“Hi!” they said simultaneously with great enthusiasm.

“Hello, girls. Looks like you’re enjoying the fair.” Melissa smiled as she listened

to their bubbly banter.

“It’s awesome!” declared Mya Wright, her large brown eyes alive with excitement. “We’ve ridden the tilt-a-whirl five times, the scrambler three, and now we’re gonna try the rockets. Well, maybe the rockets. Lizzie’s afraid she’s going to be sick when we go upside down.”

“You could come with us—or go with Mya if you want,” Lizzie said, her unspoken plea for help quite clear.

Melissa shook her head and scrunched up her face. “No, thanks, Lizzie. I’d be sick in two seconds if I rode that machine.”

Lizzie Rubello nodded, the grimace on her face a dead giveaway to her fear and dread. “I love rides, Miss Smith, but even some high school kids have puked their guts out on that thing. ”

The poor girl. Melissa pointed left to the stretch of arcade games on the back part of the field. “Maybe you girls should save your tickets and play a few games instead. The fair is here for another three days. There’s plenty of time to try a new ride.”

Kendra walked over and joined them. “How’s it going girls?”

Lizzie grimaced.

“Did you ride that horrible thing?” Kendra asked pointing to the rockets.

“We were just discussing their other options,” Melissa said.

“Such as avoiding anything that goes upside down for the next three days?” Kendra joked and pretended to gag. “Every August Islanders and visitors flock to the Fairgrounds from the time the gates opened until late-night closings, and even though we’re small compared to many fairs, they always manage to bring in two or three terrifying rides that I wouldn’t be caught dead on. Why can’t we all enjoy the food and animals and games and forget the stomach-tossing disasters?”

Everyone laughed. Melissa thought Kendra made a fine point. She loved the hometown feel of their fair and how Islanders entered everything from vegetables to artwork to baked goods for judging. Crowds cheered for their favorite pot-belly in the pig races, clapped during the dog show, gasped as the draft horses pulled unbelievable weights, and then hooted and hollered as women competed with fervor in the skillet toss.

“I’m with you, Kendra. I don’t need to go on another ride for the rest of my life,” Melissa said.

While she loved the tamer aspects of the Fair, most kids of all ages loved the rides. Many of the younger ones could be found at the steamship dock, watching the big flatbed trucks roll off the ferry with the carnival rides secured on the back. “Ooohhs” and “Aaaaahs” were common exclamations, as were bets on who would ride which ride first.

“What do you say, Lizzie, should we hijack the ferry next year and take the Rebel Rockets over to Hyannis?” Melissa jested.

“Yes!” Lizzie agreed with a shout.

Mya winked at Lizzie and gave her an affectionate bump. “Come on, I’m hot. Let’s split a sundae and go see the pigs. We can pick our favorites for the races.”

Lizzie beamed at her friend. “Yeah, ice cream would be soooooo much better.”

Mya glanced into the Ag Hall. “Did you enter a pie or cake, Miss Smith?”

Melissa shook her head. “No. I submitted a few photos from last year’s Shenandoah trip.”

“How’d you do?” Lizzie asked.

“She won a couple of ribbons,” Kendra bragged.

“That’s cool. Maybe you’ll take one of me next week,” Mya said with a grin. “I’m gonna own the Shenandoah diving contest. I’ve been practicing off the bridge every time we go to State Beach.”

“I’ll have my camera ready.” Melissa patted her camera bag.

Lizzie walked over, leaned toward Melissa, and whispered, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Melissa whispered back. “I wouldn’t go on that ride if you paid me.”

Lizzie stepped back. “I can’t wait for our school trip. It’s going to be the best week of school.”

Though school was not officially in session until the Wednesday after the incoming sixth graders returned from their class trip, Melissa knew that Holmes Hole students considered their Shenandoah trip to be the start of the school year. Each of the five Island elementary schools sent their graduating fifth graders on a summer sail. Holmes Hole was the final school to go during the last week of summer break.

Melissa had signed up as the woman teacher chaperone the summer after her divorce was final. She’d needed to get away and couldn’t afford a weeklong vacation. Working as a chaperone, she’d been paid to sail aboard the two-hundred-year-old schooner. Not a bad way to make money. This would mark her fifth year.

She smiled at Lizzie. “My favorite week too. Best week of the year. You girls are going to have a fantastic time. “

“Can’t wait! See you next Sunday. Bye Mrs. Natale,” Lizzie said, then skipped off with Mya.

Melissa and Kendra meandered through the rides, waving to a few students and friends before they got in line for her frozen lemonade and gyro sandwiches. A couple of Melissa’s sixth-grade students from last year were working the garbage detail, earning free entry into the Fair every day they volunteered.

She sipped the cool beverage, allowing the chilly sweet and sour flavors to melt in her mouth. No frozen lemonade on the Shenandoah. No frozen yogurt, ice cream, or ice cubes two hundred years ago, at least not at a store or fair booth.

Melissa could live without a few luxuries for the daily peace she felt while sailing with students for that one week. After the encounter with Gayle, she was doubly ready to go. If that week could become two, or four, or even fifty-two, Melissa wouldn’t complain.

She was looking forward to the cruise more this year than ever before. Captain Roberts had called two days earlier to let her know they’d changed locations of the boys’ and girls’ cabins because they had far more boys than girls going on the Holmes Hole trip. The new sleeping arrangements gave Melissa an additional reason to anticipate the journey. She’d have her own cabin—a first. Even better, Cabin 8 was the only cabin onboard that was completely intact with its original boards from over two hundred years ago. The boys and men who’d bunk there before probably never appreciated how close they were to history. Melissa thought she would.

During the past sails, she’d gotten a taste of what life might have been like two hundred years ago, and she liked it. This year she’d be one step closer to that romantic notion being a reality.

“Those two are really looking forward to their Shenandoah trip,” Kendra said.

“Me, too. It’s going to be our best school trip yet.”

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