It was understandable that tutoring Vincent and Jas came with long lists of rules from their families. Vincent could not be allowed to wheedle his way out of lessons to play, and Jas could not help him in that regard. They could not bother anyone at work, be it the new curator Gunther or Lewis during his mayoral wandering. Money for lunches was provided, but she was asked very politely to not let Gus sneak in treats.
Penny thought the rules were very sensible and never questioned them. However, her acceptance of the rules did not translate to an easy enforcement. The first year was the worst, as Vincent constantly took advantage of her love of reading and tendency to get lost in words. He snuck out of the museum when she wasn’t looking, Jas never far behind him. They would race each other to Cindersap Forest, and if they managed to reach Marnie’s ranch there was no getting them back to the museum.
“I don’t need books!” Vincent said from his perch in a tree. “I’m gonna be a soldier like Dad!”
“But wars are scary!” Jas protested. “And your dad’s away all the time!”
Vincent looked at them, thought, and eventually asked, “Should I be something else?”
“You could be a woodsman, since you like trees so much,” Penny said with a smile.
He began to climb down. “Do woodsmen fight monsters?”
“Wha—monsters? There are no monsters in the forest.”
“Sam says there’s monsters in the cave by the lake!”
“And Aunt Marnie said the man in the tower is weird,” Jas added, pointing to the tower in the distance. “Like he’s a wizard.”
Penny sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “You two have been hiding storybooks in your lesson books, haven’t you.”
“Nuh uh!” they chorused.
“Sam says there’s monsters, so there’s monsters!” Vincent said.
“And I’ve seen purple smoke come out of the tower’s chimney!” Jas said. “How can you get purple smoke if you’re not a wizard?”
“Well…I’m sure there’s a book back at the museum about fireworks and how to get those kinds of colors.”
Their eyes widened. Grinning, Vincent said, “First one there gets the nice reading cushion!” He ran off, Jas close behind, but they went in a different direction. They headed north, running dead center up the path past Marnie’s silo.
“Wait!” Penny called, but they did not hear. She hurried after them, picking up speed when she heard both of them yelp in the distance. Simply by luck and a longer stride did she avoid tripping on the tangle of tall grass and fallen timber, and she found them on the ground by a pond.
“Are you all right?” she asked. Vincent sniffled, rubbing his face, but did not cry as he nodded. Jas nodded as well and sat up, but her eyes widened.
“Miss Penny, look!” she said, pointing at the pond. “Tadpoles!”
“And a rabbit!” Vincent said, pointing to the grass on the pond’s other side. “Can we look for rabbits?”
“We can look for them back in the forest, but this is private property. Come on now.” She offered her hands to help them up, letting them hang on as she turned them around to head back.
“I thought no one lived there,” said Jas. “Aunt Marnie said the last farmer passed away a long time ago.”
“He did,” Penny said. “About fifteen years ago, when I was six. But the Amundsen Farm is still private property, so we really shouldn’t trespass.”
“Why doesn’t anyone live there?” Vincent asked.
“I’m not sure. I never met the farmer’s son. He might live very far from here.”
Pouting, Vincent kicked a rock. “I wish someone was there so we could ask to play with the rabbits.”
“Maybe someday,” Penny replied. “You’ll have to keep making due with asking Miss Marine very politely.”
He nodded without protest, and he and Jas both were diligent in their studies for the rest of the day. Spring passed with fewer and fewer runaway moments, fall had almost none, and winter saw them staying inside for lessons instead of escaping for snowball fights. When the Feast of the Winter Star came, she was surprised and happy to receive presents of a dried sunflower from Vincent and a crocus from Jas. She gave Gus his present before going to gather something warm to eat.
She had enough time to turn and see Maru hurrying over before she was caught in a hug. She gladly returned it, if only for the warmth, and rubbed her hands together when Maru let go.
“Come sit with me and Sebastian for a bit,” said Maru. She lowered her voice to add, “Mom and Dad went to talk to the mayor and Sebastian’s not talking.”
Penny nodded and followed Maru back to one of the tables. Sebastian, staring at the table rather moodily, looked up on their approach. He returned the wave Penny gave him, leaning back with his hands behind his head as they sat.
“Happy Winter Star, Sebastian,” Penny said.
“You too, he replied, smiling briefly but honestly. He looked around and sighed as he looked at Maru. “Are they still talking to Mayor Lewis?” When she nodded wearily, he groaned. “This sucks.”
“Why are they with the mayor?” Penny asked.
“Apparently,” Sebastian sighed, “someone’s coming to the farm at the start of spring. Mom’s talking to Lewis about the cottage out there and if it needs repairs.”
“I think Dad’s asking about that cave on the property,” Maru said. “He’s wanted to do some experiments in there for a while now.” She sighed as well. “We keep telling him isn’t not even up the Mayor Lewis, but…” When she added, “Dad,” Sebastian muttered, “Demetrius,” at the same time.
“Someone’s really moving in? Do you know their name?”
Maru and Sebastian looked at each other, mouths slightly open.
“Did Mom get their name?” Sebastian asked.
“Um…if she did, she didn’t tell me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Great. So we get to be awkward when Lewis makes this guy introduce himself because we don’t know his name.”
“Or hers,” Penny said.
“Or hers,” he said. He bounced one leg under the table. “Can they get back already? I want to eat and go home to my warm room.”
Penny caught the dismayed look on Maru’s face and leaned in slightly to say, “Sam said you’re working on a new project. What’s it for?”
He stopped bouncing his leg, looking mildly surprised, and then sat up properly to speak. The conversation continued easily until Robin and Demetrius returned. Penny left them then to find Pam in the small crowd, entirely distracted while they picked warm, hearty food. The last few days of winter passed by with more and more wondering about who was coming to the farm. For all their bluster of the prior year, Penny saw shy anxiety rising in Vincent and Jas when the topic came up.
“Do we have to go say hello?” Vincent asked the Friday before the farmer was set to arrive.
“I think they’re going to be too busy for visitors right away,” Penny replied. “Remember how overgrown it was up there?”
“Chickens would clear out the grass,” Jas said. “Cows, too.”
She smiled. “That’s true, but chickens need coops and cows need barns. It’ll be them doing everything for a while.”
“Do you think that they’ll come to the museum?” Vincent asked.
“Maybe. We’ll have to see.”
Monday arrived, but there was no time to spare to look for the farmer. The laundry and cleaning had stacked up far too much to stand any longer. First came an argument with Pam about her not doing her portion of the chores, which quickly escalated into a fight. It ended with Pam storming out of the trailer, leaving Penny to clean everything alone. Any curiosity about the farmer was driven clear out of her head through the day, and through Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
Thursday brought with it the clearing of Pam’s unemployment check and Jodi and Marnie giving her her tutoring fees. The thought of shopping in the JojaMart and running into Shane or Pam, surely at a tie for their hangovers, made her grimace. Thus, she cleaned up, put on one of her nicer sundresses for the warm day, and made her way to Pierre’s.
“Hello!” Pierre sang from behind the counter, his voice matching the bell over the door. “Time for groceries?”
“Time for groceries,” she replied with a smile. She picked up a basket and started down the nearest aisle. Though a few items were tempting, ideas for recipes she’d seen on Queen of Sauce on their tiny TV, she stuck close to her list. So focused on checking prices and expiration dates was she that she walked right into someone after turning a corner.
“O-oh my gosh!” she said, taking a step back. Because she saw a dark blue sleeve first, she started to say, “Sebastian, I’m sorry, I didn’t see—”
She stopped because she looked up properly to find a woman looking back at her. The woman’s eyes, already deep, dark brown, seemed black with the bags under them. Her hair was brown as well, but much lighter; a patch of blonde started at the top of her head and traveled all the way down into her short ponytail. Her skin was almost as brown as her eyes; Penny wondered how much time she spent out in the sun.
“Uh,” said the woman. She looked Penny up and down, looking confused and awkward as she rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s okay. You’re too little for that to have hurt.”
Penny stared back, brows slightly raised. “Are you the new farmer?”
“Yeah,” the woman said quietly, sheepishly. She turned to face Penny properly and offered her hand. “I’m Finley Amundsen.”
The nervousness was too much to ignore. Penny smiled kindly and took Finley’s hand. “I’m Penny Bernard. It’s nice to meet you.”
Finley smiled back, but it was slight and small. As they let go, she pointed at Penny’s basket. “I have to admit that I really miss cooking. Not that I knew how to cook very well.”
She stared. “Don’t you have a kitchen?”
“Nope. My grandfather never built onto the cottage to have a proper kitchen. But I’ve got a hot plate and a camping stove, which is all I really need for the stuff I can make.” She hummed laughter. “It’s good enough to warm up leftovers from the saloon, and that’s a lot better than my cooking. I know how to make mashed potatoes, so…that’ll be good once those come in.”
Penny chuckled and leaned closer to whisper, “Don’t tell Pierre I said this, but you should go to Marnie’s ranch for good butter.”
Her smile widened, one brow rising. “I won’t tell him. Thank you.” She started to turn away; Penny caught sight of the massive stack of seed packets in her other hand.
“I’m sorry to run off this soon, Miss Penny,” she said, “but I’ve gotta get home if I want to plant these before dark.” She lifted her hand, said, “I’ll see you around town, then,” and headed off before Penny could answer. She headed to the back of the store with long, quick strides and returned quickly at the same pace. In an instant she was out the door, her small gray rucksack stark against her dark coat. Penny boggled at the door. She turned to look at Pierre; he laughed.
“I’ve got no clue how she’s got that much energy when she looks dead on her feet if she’s still for five seconds,” he said. “I think she lives on coffee instead of water.” He hid a yawn behind his hand. “I could use some coffee right now.”
Penny looked at him a moment long before glancing at the door. She sighed, murmured, “I hope she doesn’t work herself into exhaustion,” and returned to her shopping. She looked around when she left the store, unsurprised at finding no one in sight. Thought she glanced toward the road leading off to the farm, she did not look for long. She went home without another thought for Finley.
For the most part, rain was less common in spring: the winter storms had gone north with the sea breeze. The rain that came to the valley tended to be light, steady showers that passed in a day’s time.
Because of this, the downpour that started before dawn the following Tuesday was nothing less than startling. When Penny came out of her room to make breakfast, she found Pam diligently repairing the bent parts of their umbrellas.
“You don’t need Gunther mouthing off at you for being soaked to the bone when you get down there,” she said. “Or for you to catch your death.”
Penny smiled and said, “Thanks, Mom. Give me a bit to make breakfast.” She turned slowly enough to catch Pam’s small smile; it made the pancakes they shared taste all the better. When it came time to leave, Penny put on her raincoat and boots and did her best to avoid puddles. She could imagine Vincent doing his best to jump in every single one and chuckled at the image.
The museum was empty save for Gunther pottering about the collection displays past the library. He nodded to her after she’d set her rain gear near the door, letting her pick books for the day’s lesson without interruption. Vincent and Jas arrived soon enough, hanging up their coats dutifully before hurrying over. To her surprise, Jas went right by their usual table and over to the displays.
“Miss Penny, look!” Jas said. “There are things on the shelves now!”
“Really?” Vincent asked. “I wanna see!” He went to join her, Penny following with little else to do. Her eyes widened at the sight of artifacts and minerals occupying spaces that had been empty on Friday. She turned to Gunther as he came around one side of the shelves in the middle of the room.
“Where did these come from?” she asked. “I thought the entire collection was lost.”
Gunther smiled, tipping his hat back slightly. He said, “It’s the strangest thing, but have you met the new farmer?”
“Finley? She looked at the shelves again. “She had all of these?”
“Well,” he said as he rubbed his chin, “I don’t think she had them in her own collection. But she’s been donating things left and right.” He chuckled. “I have to admit it’s pretty impressive.”
“This one’s pretty,” Jas said, pointing at an uncut yellow gemstone.
“That’s a topaz,” Penny said. “Wow, and a pretty big one. Gunther, where’d she even find that?”
“The ones in the cave by the lake?” Vincent asked.
“Yep,” said Gunther. “Joja finally got rid of that boulder blocking the way. There’s no telling if she’ll find more gems, but I’ll take whatever she wants to donate.”
“Wow,” Vincent and Jas said in breathless unison. They looked at the topaz with longing.
“Do you think she’d give us cool rocks if we asked nicely?” Vincent asked.
“If she’s finding them to sell, that might be impolite,” Penny replied. “Come on now, we need to start today’s lesson.”
“Okay,” he said, dragging the word with moodiness. He went to their table, taking the book she’d set in his spot at the table. Once Jas had taken her seat and book, they both looked at Penny to pay attention.
She’d gathered books for a history lesson, aiming toward recent and current events to stave off boredom from the rain’s drone. It worked marvelously, even keeping Vincent’s attention the entire time. When she set them to their reading assignments, he looked eager to start.
There was no bell over the door, but the hinges were unreasonably loud no matter how they were oiled. The rain nose was jarring, making all of them look up and turn. The hinges squealed again as the door closed; a faint sigh wavered through the air. A few squelches sounded off, timed to footsteps from mud-covered boots.
Finley, drenched and dripping, stood holding the straps of a bright red backpack. The bags under her eyes were even worse than last Penny had seen them. Finley had been looking around, mouth opening to speak, but she went still upon seeing Penny. She looked confused for a moment before recognition hit her.
“Miss Finley!” Gunther said, opening his arms as he walked through the library. “Have you come to make a donation?”
“A few, actually,” Finley said. “Minerals and a new gem, I think.”
“Well, come on up to the counter with me and we’ll see what you’ve found.” He went behind the counter as she went to its front. Before Penny could stop them, Vincent and Jas scurried over to peek around a bookcase. With a small sigh, Penny went to join them in spying.
Finley was on one knee, digging through her backpack. She pushed her wet hair out of the way when it fell in front of her exhausted eyes. One by one, she took five mineral clusters and one deeply purple gem from her backpack and set them on the counter. Gunther whistled, tilting his hat back again as his brows rose.
“Would you look at that!” he said. “Let’s see…we’ve got…malachite…nekoite…alamite…a petrified slime…and a tigers-eye! I haven’t seen raw tigers-eye in years! And this is a gorgeous piece of amethyst here!”
Finley hummed something that sounded like laughter. “I got pretty lucky on finding the amethyst.” Distracted, looking as though she was unaware of what she was doing, she rolled and stretched her left arm and shoulder. “Lucky after a bunch of slimes and bats, anyway.”
It was then that Penny saw the sheathed sword on Finley’s back, held steady by the stiff leather holster that crossed over it and held a pickaxe. A pair of holsters were on a wide belt that sat low on her hips, but only one was occupied by a long-handled spade. Penny stared, mouth opening but words failing. Vincent, on the other hand, gasped aloud and stepped out from behind the bookcase.
“There’s monsters in the mine?” he demanded.
Finley turned, both brows raised. Hesitating, she said, “Um. Well…I wouldn’t really call the slimes monsters, but…I’ve got a sword.”
“Where on earth did you get a sword?” Penny asked.
Finley looked at her as she came around the bookcase. “It’s Penny, right?” She smiled crookedly with visible weariness. “It’s nice to see you again. And I got my sword at the Adventurer’s Guild.”
After a moment, Penny asked, “Why?”
“Better safe than sorry in the mines. It’s definitely come in handy.”
“So you fight slimes?” Vincent asked.
“Isn’t it scary?” Jas asked.
“Yes,” said Finley, “but not really.” She looked at them more closely. “Sorry, I’ve seen you two around town, but I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Finley.”
They both froze up. Penny took pity and put her hands on their heads.
“This is Vincent and Jas,” she said. “I tutor them here.” She laughed through her nose. “No school and all.”
“It’s nice to meet you two,” Finley said.
“Nice to meet you,” they said together, looking down.
She hummed laughter again. Looking to Penny, she said, “Sorry to do this again, but I should get back home. I need to make sure my cat isn’t going nuts from the rain.”
Penny felt her eyes widen and did not care. “You have a cat?”
“Marnie brought me a stray tabby,” Finley replied. “He loves running around in the grass.” She leaned down to pick up her backpack. “If you’d like to see him, you’re free to visit.”
“Sure. He wouldn’t mind a visitor after the rain stops.”
“I—wow, thank you!” Penny said, smiling brightly.
The sight of her smile made Finley go completely still, brows up and eyes wide. She looked down quickly, shy and startled, and grabbed her backpack. She straightened up and pulled the backpack on in the same moment, but she had to take a step forward when her left knee buckled. Only Penny seemed to notice, as Gunther lifted a hand without comment.
“Here,” he said, offering a bundle of seed packets. “For helping the museum get back on its feet.”
She stared at him a moment, clearly baffled, before quietly saying, “Oh. Thank you.” She took the packets, looking at their labels. She smiled crookedly. “Wow, for melons? These’ll help me get started next season.”
Jas tugged on Penny’s sleeve. “Miss Penny, don’t you like melons?”
Finley heard her and turned to Penny again. She asked, “Do you?”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
She blinked slowly. She looked at the packets and rubbed the back of her neck. Shyness rose in her eyes again when she met Penny’s gaze and said, “Then…I’ll write your name on one of these packets and give you whatever grows from it.”
Her cheeks flushed as she smiled. “Really? Thank you!”
Once again, Finley froze up at the sight of her smile. She put the packets into a side pocket on her backpack, mumbling, “You’re welcome.” When she tightened the straps on her backpack, it was with such anxious force that she stumbled again. Gunther spotted it, and he heard how her feet dragged when she turned. Penny saw how her eyes started to grow unfocused and how her shoulders slumped.
“Finley?” she said.
Finley did not seem to hear her as she started away. “See everyone later.” Her shoulders sagged further as she reached for the doorknob.
“Finley, do you want to sit down for a while?” Gunther called to her. “You look exhausted.”
“‘M soaked,” Finley said. “It’s fine.” She turned the doorknob and opened the door. Pulling the door inward made her stumble yet again.
“Finley, hang on a second!” Gunther said. He came around the corner at a swift pace, but she did not pay attention. Finley walked outside, took five steps, and tripped on a rock. She landed facedown in the mud and did not move, only groaning. Vince and Jas shouted in panicked surprise as Gunther ran outside. Penny followed after grabbing her umbrella, holding it open over Gunther and Finley as Gunther rolled her over and sat her up.
“Finley, are you okay?” Penny asked.
“Ngh,” Finley mumbled with her mouth shut. She blinked hard, wiped the mud from her face with an unsteady hand, and tried to stand up.
“Nope, no you don’t,” Gunther said. He caught her under her arms, heaved her up, and all but dragged her back inside to sit back down against a wall. He turned to Penny and asked, “Can you head over to the clinic and see if Harvey will come down here?”
“I’m fine,” Finley grumbled, but her hand was still unsteady when she pushed her hair out of her face.
“That’s a horrible lie and you should feel ashamed for lying in front of children,” Penny said.
Finley looked up, saw her stern frown, and looked down again with a twist in her mouth. She sighed and asked, “If you’re going to the clinic anyway, can you get an energy tonic?”
“I don’t have enough for that.”
“I do,” Finley said. She reached back to dig in a different side pocket on her backpack and retrieved a wallet. She took several bills from it and offered them to Penny. “Please?”
Penny and Gunther shared a look. Tentatively, Penny took the money and put it in her pocket.
“You’ll have to hurry over there,” Gunther said. “They’ll close sooner than later.”
“I know,” she replied, putting on her boots and jacket. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She hurried off, unable to care about puddles as she went. Despite the chill in the air, the humidity from the rain made her blouse stick to her back and her skirt cling to her legs. She reached the clinic and burst inside, earning startled looks from Maru and Harvey both.
“I need to buy an energy tonic!” Penny said, hurrying to the counter. “Finley collapsed at the museum!” To her shock, neither Maru nor Harvey looked alarmed. Instead, Harvey frowned and Maru sighed.
“Is she conscious?” Harvey asked.
“She…is,” Penny said.
“I don’t think so, but I don’t think she can stand up.”
He sighed heavily, pushing his glasses up to rub his eyes. He grumbled, “Third time since she came here.” He adjusted his glasses and to Maru said, “Ring up a tonic while I lock everything. I’m lecturing her this time.”
Penny stared at him as he went into the back, but Maru took an energy tonic from a shelf and opened a ledger.
“It’s a thousand,” Maru said in a sigh, looking half as irritated as Harvey.
Penny swallowed hard and reached into her pocket. For the first time, she looked at the money properly to count it. She went pale and wide-eyed when she saw, at a glance, that Finley had given her far too much.
“What on earth?” she whispered. “Why is she carrying so much money?”
“I’m not sure,” Maru said. “Sometimes it feels like she’s saving everything for tonics. Here, let me get the change.” She took the money, counted it, and handed back change and the tonic. After putting the ledger and cash lockbox away, she went into the back to fetch her coat, boots, and umbrella. “I’ll come with. You look frazzled.”
“Thank you,” said Penny, tucking the money and tonic in her pocket. “I really appreciate it.”
“Let’s head out,” Harvey said as he came from the back with an umbrella in hand. “After you.” He left the clinic last, locking the door, but led the way with an impatient stride. They went in silence across town, reaching the bridge by Lewis’ house before Harvey started grumbling.
“Of all the short-sighted behavior,” he said. “Makes me worried she’ll have a heart attack at twenty-seven.”
“She’s twenty-seven?” Penny whispered to Maru.
“That’s what she put on her paperwork when she registered as a patient,” Maru replied. “Which was…the first time she collapsed in town. It was by the community center while Harvey was on a walk.”
“She’s really been working herself to exhaustion?”
“Yeah, but she’s not saying why. And she barely ever comes into town except for food and supplies. Sam told Sebastian that Haley is really annoyed about it.”
Words failed, and so she followed behind Harvey to go inside the museum. Finley was still sitting against the wall, staring into the middle distance through her feet. She did not blink until Penny knelt beside her and offered the tonic.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. She took the tonic and unscrewed the top, starting to drink it down without breathing.
“Finley, I told you not to chug those!” Maru said. “Energy tonics aren’t easy on the stomach!”
She slowed down, but barely. When she finished, she grimaced, shuddered, and grumbled, “These taste awful.”
“Then maybe you should stop needing them,” Harvey said, arms crossed and foot tapping.
Finley did not look at him.
“I have never,” said Harvey, “in all my years as Pelican Town’s doctor dealt with a patient who’s so driven to work herself to an early grave.”
Vincent and Jas went pale, eyes widening. Gunther gently guided them away and out of earshot when Penny looked at him pleadingly. Finley still did not raise her head.
“I can only do so much for a patient who throws herself into poor health and danger like you do. What’re you trying to prove by going into the mines when you must already be exhausted from farm work?
She remained silent.
“As your doctor, I am ordering you to get a week of proper rest. No mines, proper meals while you farm. If you come in for an energy tonic, I am going to charge you triple the cost.”
She remained silent.
“Don’t make me pay Demetrius to keep an eye out for you near the mines. I will and I’ll charge you for it.”
Finley sighed. She muttered unintelligible sound.
“What was that?”
“Fine,” she said clearly.
“Fine, I’ll get a week of rest. No mines and I’ll eat properly.” She got to her feet without wobbling, putting the empty tonic canister in her coat pocket. “If you’ll excuse me.” She started toward the door.
Penny rushed to put her hand in her pocket. “Finley, your money—”
“Keep it,” Finley muttered, and she was gone.
“I don’t think I even trust her to go home at this point,” Harvey said, rubbing his brow.
Penny thought, biting her lip. She inhaled deeply, looked at Maru, and said, “Can I ask you for a favor?”
“Can you take Vincent and Jas home? I’ll make sure Finley doesn’t go to the mines again.” When Maru and Harvey looked at her, she added, “I have to give her money back and she said I could visit her to see her cat. It’s a good excuse.”
“I can get them home,” Maru said with a smile.
“Thank you for the help,” Harvey said. “It’s always appreciated with difficult patients.”
“Sorry for the panic, Gunther,” Penny said.
“You’re not the one who brought it in,” he replied, chuckling weakly as he brought Vincent and Jas back.
“Thank you again,” Penny said to Maru. Looking to Vincent and Jas, she said, “Please be good for Maru. She’ll get you home.”
“Yes, Miss Penny,” they said.
She nodded to them all before heading outside. She crossed the bridge and headed toward the saloon. Though she fully intended to go inside, she stopped short when the door opened.
“Sorry for the water, Gus,” Finley said, looking back into the saloon. “Are you sure you don’t want me to clean it up?”
“It’s fine!” was the faint reply. “That’s what happens when it rains!”
Finley smiled slightly, but without real humor. “Thanks again. I’ll probably be back tomorrow.” She closed the door and turned. They both froze when they saw each other. Finley turned away first, going down the few steps and heading around the corner.
“Before this grosses you out,” she said over her shoulder as she lifted the trash can lid, “I’m just throwing away the tonic.” She took the canister from her pack and tossed it in the trash. She dropped the lid with a clatter and walked off without looking back. Penny squared her shoulders and followed quickly, catching up and keeping pace to walk beside her.
“Isn’t your house the other way?” Finley asked, voice flat as she went toward the road out of town.
“It is,” Penny replied. “But you said I’m welcome to visit.”
“After the,” Finley started, and she gave up. “Fine.”
They walked along in silence for a long while. When the break in the fence for the bus stop came into view, Penny swallowed.
“Do you want to share my umbrella at all?” she asked. “You bought food, right?”
Finley hesitated, slowing down. She held out one hand and said, “Let me carry it so you don’t have to stretch.”
The hesitation carried into Penny. She handed Finley the umbrella and moved closer to her. They reached the farm in short order, going into the farmhouse immediately.
“Let me get a fire going,” Finley said. “You can put your stuff on the coatrack.” She went to the fireplace, taking several pieces of wood from a crate nearby and stacking them to light. Because the coatrack was near the fireplace, Penny went behind Finley cautiously. She hung up her coat and umbrella as Finley got the fire going.
“I don’t have an armchair, but you can sit at the table,” Finley added. “I need to get my gear off.”
“All right,” Penny replied, and she went to the table. Unable to suppress her curiosity, she watched Finley take off her backpack and start unbuckling the belts holding her tools. They were all set against the wall by the fire before she worked her coat off. Her gray t-shirt was soaked through as well, clinging to her.
The first thing that startled Penny was the overt definition in Finley’s back, shoulders, and arms. It had been hidden by her coat, but Penny could now see every movement her muscles made. The second thing that startled her was how patched and stitched up her shirt was.
“Why is your shirt so ragged?” she asked.
“What?” Finley asked in turn, hanging her coat up.
“Why is your shirt torn up if you have so much money?”
“Oh. This is my mining shirt. It’s easier to patch up one shirt instead of all of them.”
“Patched up from what?”
Finley looked at her over her shoulder. She turned away. “Just stuff in the mines. Can you turn around for a minute so I can change into dry clothes?”
“Yes, of course.” She turned to look out the window and watched the rain drench the trees and the hillside past the fence. A long, whiny meow made her jump and turn around. A tabby cat, sleek and slim, stood on the pillow on the bed, stretching with its front paws on the headboard. It peered at her with amber eyes, head tilted and tail raised.
“Finley, is that your cat?” Penny asked, turning further. Her eyes widened because Finley was in the middle of pulling on a button-down shirt, right arm covered but left arm only half in its sleeve. Finley did not pay her any mind, but it still felt as though time had slowed down. Penny could not take her eyes from the long, dark scar that started at Finley’s elbow, went up the back of her arm, and curved over the top of her shoulder blade. It was intersected by smaller lines in a regular pattern, but Finley had pulled her shirt on properly before Penny could try to think on it further.
“What?” Finley said as she started to button the shirt.
“Is…that your cat?” Penny repeated.
The cat meowed again, drawing Finley’s attention. She smiled wearily.
“Arthur, were you hiding under the covers?” she asked.
Arthur meowed and hopped down from the bed. He trotted to Finley to wind between her ankles, purring, before making his way to Penny. She stretched out a hand for him to sniff, smiling eagerly when he rubbed his cheek on her fingers.
“He’s so sweet!” Penny giggled.
“Less sweet when he whacks me in the face with that baseball bat of a tail.” She rolled her left shoulder again, looking at the floor. After a moment, she asked, “Can I get you anything?”
“I bought a lot of coffee and I have an extra mug. Would you like some?” She glanced at Penny and looked away. “I’ve got some sugar, if you don’t take it black.”
“I’d love some,” Penny said quietly. “Thank you.”
Finley nodded, rolling her sleeves back, and carried her backpack to the table. As she set about brewing coffee, Arthur leapt up into Penny’s lap to purr at her.
“And here I though he’d be puffed up under the bed,” Finley sighed, leaning back in her chair.
Penny giggled as she scratched under Arthur’s chin. “He’s very sweet.” When he rumbled pleasantly at her, eyes closed, she laughed again. “You silly little guy.”
“It’s nice to have him here when I come home for the night.” She went quiet in favor of watching the coffee pot on the hot plate. Penny did not press, instead looking at Arthur to pet and scratch his cheeks. They glanced at each other out of sync, never catching the other looking. Eventually, Finley poured out two mugs of coffee, pulling over a covered sugar dish and a spoon.
“Sorry,” Finley said quietly, picking up her mug.
Penny stopped in the middle of stirring in a spoonful of sugar. “What? For what?”
“Take your pick,” she muttered. “Making you worry about me, asking you to go buy me something when it made you feel awkward, actually letting you walk me home. There’s plenty for me to apologize for.”
Penny sat still for a moment. She finished stirring in her sugar and took a careful sip. As they both drank, Penny considered her words. She set her mug down, took the money from her pocket to set on the table, and looked at Finley directly.
“I accept your apologies about making me worried and asking me to get you a tonic,” she said. “But I don’t need an apology for coming to visit.”
“This isn’t a visit. This is you doing Harvey a favor and making sure I don’t sneak off to work.”
“It’s doing you a favor,” Penny said, frowning. “I thought you had passed out completely before. I just—figured you’d be happier to stay home and get some rest if someone was here to pass the time with.”
Finley gave her such a startled, confused look that Penny blushed and looked down.
“I—I mean,” she stammered. “Th-there’s no reason to work yourself so hard. And—I know how unpleasant it can be to go home and stay there if you want to be somewhere else. S-so…never—never mind.”
Silence answered; her ears burned. She opened her mouth to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” Finley said first.
Her head snapped up, mouth remaining open for a question. The sight of a blush on Finley’s sheepish face made her freeze up. Finley’s eyes were locked on the table as she rubbed the back of her neck.
“It’s been a while since I’ve lived around people who were nice to their neighbors,” she said. “My last place was…not like Pelican Town.”
“What was it like?” Penny asked, gentle but curious.
“I was in a flat in the city.” She looked up and gestured around the cottage. “This is about the same size, actually, but it’s nicer here. And no more getting gouged on rent.” She took a slow drink of her coffee. “That was the least of my problems, though.”
“Was it really that bad?”
She smiled ruefully. “I once had a neighbor threaten to drag me to the landlord because I was playing an acoustic guitar in the middle of my day off and it woke him up from a nap.”
Penny put a hand over her mouth. “Oh my gosh, what did you do?”
Finley smirked. “I put my guitar away, went to the door, and discovered that the guy was tiny. Shorter than you, I think, and really scrawny. Since it was summer and I hate paying for A/C, I just had a tanktop and shorts on. I’ve never seen a guy turn tail so fast, but I guess he’d never seen a woman who had bigger biceps than him.”
Penny stared, and then snorted with laughter as she started to giggle. Finley snickered as well, but fell into laughter when Penny was unable to stop giggling. Arthur rumbled with displeasure before hopping out of Penny’s lap to lie in front of the fire.
“Oh wow!” said Penny. “I bet you were able to scare off anyone you wanted with how fit you are!”
Her smile faltered, but she cleared her throat to bolster it. “Well…here I probably can, but not everyone back in the city. Heck, you should’ve seen some of the other women at my gym, not to mention some of the guys.”
“So they’d put Alex to shame?”
Finley boggled. “Is he the guy in the letterman jacket?”
“Oh—yes, on One River Road with his grandparents.”
She sighed, rubbing the back of her neck again. “Right. I haven’t gone to introduce myself to them.”
“Can,” said Penny, “I ask why?”
“Why aren’t you introducing yourself to more people? It sounds like you’ve only met a few people so far, but you’ve been here over a week now.”
Finley met her gaze for a moment. She looked at her coffee. “I’m…not that interested in being around people.”
“You came here to be alone?”
“More or less.” She sighed. “It’s not working out like I’d planned.”
Penny hesitated, looking at the unreadable expression on Finley’s face. She thought, and then asked, “Really alone? I’m sure Alex would be happy to be a workout buddy.”
“Not interested in hanging around an athlete. Last thing I need is another tough guy flipping out at me when I tell him I’m not going to be any guy’s girlfriend.”
Penny’s brows rose. “What?”
Finley did not look at her in favor of rubbing her face. She muttered, “It’s nothing. I don’t want a buddy.”
“But you said you’re not going to be any guy’s girlfriend.”
Her shoulders tensed visibly. She looked away even further. “It’s really nothing. I’m just—I’m not looking for a new g—never mind.”
“Finley?” said Penny, keeping her voice soft. She started to reach across the table. “Are you—”
Finley saw her hand approach and, panic flooding her eyes, jerked away. They both froze. Though Penny felt her face burn, the blood drained out of Finley’s face. Hand shaking badly, Finley pushed her hair out of her face and hid her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
Penny could not help but to ask, “Finley, are you g—”
“Yes,” Finley said as her voice began to shake. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
After a moment, she said, “But it’s okay.”
“Yeah right. In a tiny old town in the valley? It’s asking for another—never mind. Never mind.”
Her eyes widened. “Are you worried someone will—”
“I always am,” Finley whispered. She lowered her hand to pick up her mug and drink the last of her coffee. She stood then and said, “I’ll walk you home before I make you more uncomfortable.”
There was such finality in her voice that Penny could not argue. She retrieved her coat and umbrella; Finley dug an umbrella out of a chest. They left, Finley keeping a gap between them. The only sounds to hear were the rain on their umbrellas and the noise of their boots in the mud. They reached the stairs that led up to the playground before Finley spoke again.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“The trailer by the river,” Penny said, eyes on the ground.
“Okay,” Finley replied. She led the way by a full stride, neither of them looking at the other. Finley came to a stop at one side of the trailer, out of sight from the windows. Penny stopped before the front window in her room, turning around.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said. “And walking me home.”
“Mm hmm,” Finley said, looking away. “See you around.”
Gritting her teeth, Penny reached out and caught her hand. Quiet, soft, she said, “It’s really okay. No one would even care.”
A moment passed. Finley looked at her and asked, “Would you come out here?”
She went still. She let go of Finley’s hand.
“Thought so.” She looked away, turning on one heel.
Penny closed her hand into a tight fist and, in a rush, said, “I’ve only wanted to tell Maru so far.”
She looked back, eyes wide as she stared.
“But—I know it’d be fine to tell her entire family. Or Jodi. Or Marnie. Or even Mister Mullner, Alex’s grandfather. No one would judge you.”
Finley’s eyes narrowed. “Says the girl who’s lived here her entire life. Why wouldn’t they let it slide for a sweet girl like you?”
“But you only just moved here!” she protested. “You shouldn’t write us all off as a bunch of uncultured bigots because we live out here!”
“Just—” She closed her eyes tight and sighed. “Forget I said anything at all. You don’t deserve me being such an ass to you.”
“Finley, I’m not angry, I just want you to—”
“Forget it,” she said, turning away once more. Despite it, she hesitated. “I’ll still give you the first melon I harvest next season, okay? It won’t mean anything special. I’m not here to find a—girlfriend. Not again. Ever.”
She walked away. Penny watched her go. When she lost sight of her, she went inside. She hung up her coat and set her boots and umbrella on a rubber mat near the door. She thought about going to her room and decided against it in favor of sitting at the table.
For a long time, Penny’s mind was blank. She looked at her hands on the table. The first thought that came to her was that Finley’s hand was far more calloused than she would’ve expected for someone fresh from the city. The next thought that came to her was realizing that Finley had called her a sweet girl. Every word before and after them had been tinged with bitterness, but those two words had been honest in the utmost.
“Finley,” Penny murmured, and replaying the memory took all the words she had for the rest of the night.