Clarice James

Smart, Fun, Relatable Fiction

The Least of These: Chapter 1

Chapter One

Carley: Present Day

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Carley Rae Jantzen’s only connection to her extended and distant family was a great-aunt named Geneva Kellerman on her mother’s side. Since she’d barely heard of this sixty-two-year-old woman, never mind met her, she didn’t feel indebted to her at all. Carley had only agreed to the live-in position with this elderly relative for two reasons: she needed a job and a place to hide. Maine was as fine a place as any.

Her aunt’s attorney, Vern Beckham, had tracked her down through an online ancestry program. The timing of his proposition was pure serendipity—at least for Carley. She couldn’t speak for the older woman. Nevertheless, she’d answered before another of Geneva’s relatives could jump at the offer.

To secure Mr. Beckham’s approval, Carley had had to share some of her secret with him. He was agreeable enough to accept her condition: Other than him, no one—not even her aunt—was to know her real name or why she was there.

Now, for an alias … She refilled her water bottle and got comfortable in front of her laptop.

Over the past week, she’d tried on a few monikers for size, but they’d itched. Her new name needed to be simple enough to be believable, yet not too plain or cool as to sound fake. Tonight, a quick search of “Andover, Maine families” brought her to the surname Merrill. Surely, the town residents couldn’t argue with that.

Before she could decide on a first name, her phone rang. By now the number was familiar—Attorney Beckham himself.

In his smooth baritone he said, “Hello, Carley. I’m calling to confirm your arrival next week.”

She surveyed her furnished apartment. Her personal items were packed in boxes, bags, and her three-piece luggage set, a high school graduation gift from her dad. “I’m leaving early Monday morning. Can I call you when I see how the trip goes?”

“No problem. One more thing, what name should I give your aunt?”

Scanning the scribblings on her pad for a name, she decided to stick with something she couldn’t mess up. “Carley. Carley Merrill.”

“Very good, Ms. Merrill. See you soon.”

***

She didn’t want to risk getting lost without GPS, so on Friday, her final day of work at Key State Family Medical, she logged onto her travel club’s website to download and print directions to keep her on the backroads and off the highways. If the trip had to be long, at least the route could be scenic. Covering the five hundred miles from Philadelphia to Andover, Maine—population 826 in its last census—would take her at least ten hours if she drove straight through.

Carley was diligent to delete her browsing history.

Of course, she had no reason to believe she’d be tracked by Dr. Full-of-Himself. He’d accepted an invitation to speak at an exclusive medical conference in Los Angeles that week. By the time he got back, Carley Merrill would be ensconced in a new life.

Her fraud case attorney had cautioned her to keep quiet and not to trust a soul. Of course, Carley would have made an exception for her dad if she could have reached him in Bolivia. She waffled about confiding in Roxanne Ingram, Key State’s office administrator and her best friend in Philly. They’d become even closer while babysitting Roxy’s four-year-old nephew every Friday to give his parents a date night. Carley would miss the little guy’s bright eyes and crooked smile. In the end, she decided not to tell anyone so they wouldn’t have to worry or lie.

After weeks of watching detective shows and reading mystery novels, Carley’s “going on the lam” to-do list became a bit unwieldy. Trade my car in. Disconnect the new car’s GPS. Get a burner phone. Get a fake ID. Dye my hair red. Pay in cash. Avoid street cameras.

In the end, she had no choice but to pare down the list.

Her plan to trade in her two-year-old red VW Beetle convertible for a twelve-year-old Hyundai hatchback went south when the questionable Cash & Dash car dealer offered her an insulting amount of cash. No trade meant no GPS to disconnect.

Carley did buy a prepaid phone with an untraceable number. Instead of dying her dark brown hair red, she lopped her locks off with pinking shears for a more natural look. She had no idea how to get a fake ID, so her fake last name would have to suffice. As for street cameras … she’d wing it.

Besides, who will be looking for me if they don’t think I’m missing?

Early Monday morning, the last thing she did before cutting off her old cell service was leave Roxy and Dr. Nichols the same message: “Sorry. There’s an emergency with my father in La Paz. Not sure when I’ll be back.” Since everyone at work knew her father was a missionary in Bolivia, her excuse would sound plausible. Besides, she hadn’t exactly lied. There was always an emergency in La Paz.

Hours of driving gave her plenty of time to get used to her last name. Over and over, she recited, “Carley Merrill, Carley Merrill, Carley Merrill” until the name rolled off her tongue with ease.

Somewhere along the way, paranoia set in and picked up a couple of hitchhikers—loneliness and fear. Around the halfway mark of her trip, she skirted a heavy rainstorm and found a two-star B&B in a small town in Massachusetts, one that accepted cash. After a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast hearty enough to satisfy her until supper, she was back on the road.

I can do this … because I have no choice.

***

Andover, Maine

Tree lines thickened and roads narrowed the further north Carley drove. Rustic camps, log cabins, and new builds were interspersed among sprawling homesteads. Junk piles and heavy-duty plastic garages adorned yards. One or two vehicles with no license plate seemed to be parked at every fifth house. Accustomed to an urban environment, she wasn’t used to all the yard clutter. Did the neighbors ever complain about one another?

Maybe Mainers mind their own business … or do they call themselves Mainites or Mainiacs?

She reached South Main Street in Andover proper around two o’clock. Banners welcoming bikers, cyclists, campers, and Appalachian Trail hikers were posted all around town. A sign outside the fire department read, “Volunteers Needed.” The parking spaces at Sawmill Market & Tagging Station were filled. Across the street, the Red Rooster Diner and Bakery boasted of homemade kale soup and fresh rhubarb pie. She stopped at Andover Country Store to refill her water bottle. Lame excuse. The truth was, she was close and needed a bit more time to compose herself.

While waiting in line behind a couple of hunters bragging about the wild turkeys they’d bagged a few weeks back, she spotted a well-used phone directory on the counter near a pay phone. Do they still have working payphones? She thumbed to the M’s, where she found a half page filled with the name Merrill. Satisfied, she smiled and closed the book.

A short middle-aged man approached her—his torso almost the length of his legs. He stroked his scrubby chin. “Hope ya don’t mind me askin’, are you Miss Geneva’s niece comin’ to visit?”

She nodded. “I am.”

Okay, so maybe Mainers are nosey like everyone else.

“I ’spected so.” He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Dubbah Polaski. Welcome to Andovah.”

She shook his hand. “Carley Merrill.”

“Merrill, huh? Any relation to the Merrills ’round these parts?”

She tilted her head as if she were thinking. “I don’t think so, but you never know.” She was pleased with her answer.

“Anyway, we got us a nice town. People’s real good to each other, ’specially Miss G.”

She made a move to leave. “Well, I’d better get going before my aunt thinks I got lost.”

“You say hi to her for me. Tell her me and Warren’ll come by anytime to take one of those ol’ John Deeres off her hands in trade when’s she’s ready.”

“I’ll do that.”

South Main Street turned into North Andover Road. An old, white New England church sat adjacent to a quaint village common complete with a gazebo. Carley found South Arm Road easy enough, but with all its twists and turns and hills and valleys, she almost missed the driveway.

A good-sized, well-kept farmhouse and two-car garage sat at least a hundred feet back. Two substantial greenhouses and a large barn stood off to the side on the large parcel of land. A few smaller outbuildings, too.

Not outhouses, I hope.

She had called ahead to give attorney Beckham her guesstimated time of arrival. Other than a golf cart off to the side, hers was the only vehicle in sight. Oh, well, I’ve introduced myself to new patients before. Though moving in with one was not quite the same.

She exited her car. The most noticeable thing about the campestral setting was the panoramic mountain backdrop. Having lived in the city the last ten years, she couldn’t help but stare. Carley had promised herself once she paid off her student loans, she would vacation in places like this. Places where brooks babbled, wind whistled through trees, and the sun dropped behind mountains in the evening.

But her fifty-plus-hour work weeks never left her the time—an excuse she’d repeated so often she even believed it herself. Now, depending on Aunt Geneva’s health and disposition, this might not be so bad.

The farmhouse and its wraparound screened-in front porch looked freshly painted. Evergreens served as a backdrop to a collection of colorful perennials. Did hired help or kindly neighbors pitch in to keep the place up?

“Hidy-ho!”

Carley spun around to see where the voice came from.

“Up here!” A slight figure dressed in jeans and a straw hat, holding a long pole with a curved blade on the end, called from a ladder. “I’ve got to cut the branches back to keep the squirrels out of my chimney.”

Your chimney? Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought this was the Kellerman house.”

“Last time I checked it was.” The woman climbed down a few rungs. “You must be Carley Merrill, my long-lost niece, the one Vern found.”

Carley stumbled over her words, “Yes, um, I thought … I mean … you’re on a ladder.”

“Observant, I see.” The woman chuckled. “As long as I’m able and have no one to boss me, I pretty much do as I please.” She squinted at her. “Is that what you think you’re here for? To boss me around?”

“No, not at all.” She fidgeted with her handbag strap. “I was told, well … I thought … you see, I’m a nurse practitioner.”

“Did Vern lead you to believe I was an invalid?” She stepped off the last rung.

Mr. Beckham’s words flashed before her. Getting on in years … not as agile as she used to be … could use some help. “Um, uh, not in so many words. More like I was needed, I assumed, in my capacity as an NP.”

“That old worrywart is a sneaky one.” She removed a garden glove and extended her hand. “I’m Geneva Kellerman, your aunt on your mother’s side. My brother Waylon was your mother’s father. Most folks call me Miss Neva. If you’re comfortable, feel free to do the same.”

“Miss Neva, sure.” The familial ring of “Auntie Geneva” seemed off-key anyway.

“Now, how about we get your luggage out of your car and settle you in your room? You can rest a bit, or we can sit on the front porch and enjoy the blueberry lemonade I fixed this morning.”

“Blueberry lemonade sounds nice.” Not that she’d ever had any before. Carley had a more pressing question. Why am I here if not to nurse this woman into ‘the sweet by and by.’?