Natalie Doelman – “An Unfortunate Town”


    “No, this is not happening. Nope. What do you mean? No, this couldn’t have happened. This is some kind of sick joke. Knock it off Maisel. Tell me you aren’t serious. He wouldn’t just do that. Not on his own accord. Nope,” Jane could feel her eyes watering and her hands were shaking as she held her phone to her ear. Jane was a petite woman with long honey brown hair and deep blue eyes.


    “I’m sorry, your brother is gone and he’s left everything to you. Even the note.”


    “Well, I guess I’ll head back to Maybelle this weekend. I’ll call Mary and tell her. She won’t take it very well and I figure it’s better if I’m the punching bag,” she hung up and took a deep breath before calling her sister.


    “Hello?” a voice from the past answered Jane.
    “Hey sis, John committed suicide.”
    “First off, never call me sis again. Second off, it’s been 5 years since you talked to me, a simple ‘How’re you?’ would be nice. And thirdly, suicide?! I am in my third trimester, a shock like this can’t be good for the baby. Good golly, not John. Not our baby brother. He was so happy. What happened?”
    “I don’t know. I guess was just the next victim of the Maybelle curse. I’m going back this weekend to deal with his house and business.”
    “Well you better. With a baby on the way, you can hardly expect me to fly all the way back to Iowa. Also, it’s been 5 years. What are you doing with your life? I take it you’ve left Maybelle.”
    “Yeah, I’m in Boston now, but I’ve travelled all over the U.S. appraising antiques and inspecting museums. And you? I assume you and Charlie got married and now you’re expecting?”
    “It would have been nice for my only sister to show up to my wedding, but I’m over that. Yes, we’re expecting. I’m in California now and I’m never going back to Maybelle. I don’t understand why John stayed. Anyway, I have to dash.”


    Jane couldn’t believe it. Mary just hung up. Whatever, she was used to it. People just hanging up on her, that is. She grabbed her cross-stitch basket, sat on the couch, and cried. In the middle of her sob session, her phone rang again. It was Joel. She dried her eyes and picked up the phone.


    A deep, comforting, solid voice said, “Hey sweetheart, I heard about John. How are you doing?”
    “I’m fine. I just need to be alone for a little while. Wait, how did you know about John?”
    “Don’t worry about it darling, Mary called me to check up on you. I’ll leave you be to process this, but I’m here if you need me.”


    Before she could protest, he hung up. They weren’t even together anymore, for Pete’s sake. She broke up with him weeks ago, and Mary never even heard about Joel, let alone get his phone number. She shook off her suspicion and focused instead on her trip back to Maybelle. Finding a flight was easy enough; facing the town would be the hard part.


    Three days later, she stepped off of the bus at the Maybelle stop after an hour and a half debate with herself over whether or not she should actually go. She was immediately consumed with the staggering smell of manure. It was a smell she could never forget and brought back bittersweet memories. It was kind of good to be back. Maybelle was the stereotypical small farm town with it’s one-room schoolhouse, hatred toward the city, and, of course, farms. It was the kind of town where everybody knows everything largely due to the gaggle of old ladies who heard the latest gossip from their various posts around the town who then spread it to the younger ladies who congregated outside the general store to talk and sip tea. Jane figured the girls she grew up with would now be of the age that they would be the young gossips, married, and most likely with one child. She knew as soon as she passed the “Welcome to Maybelle” sign with a white background and a few flowers painted on, someone would see her and before she reached the far side of Main Street, the whole town would know and a few skeptics would creep out to the only four way stop in town (the stoplight had been removed some 20 years prior), but avoid eye contact. Since it was nearing the Christmas season, everyone would be extra grumpy.


    She took a deep breath and stepped her loafer-clad foot over the line, followed by its matching pair. It had been nearly a decade since she’d seen the house she grew up in. It was the first building you came upon when walking into town. It was the classic small farmhouse with its white exterior and brown shutters. When her parents had died when she was 17, she and her sister had taken over and, when they had left, John lived there. Her parents were not the first victims of the curse, nor was her brother the last. Although it wasn’t written down, every positive person who tried to spread happiness to the people of Maybelle mysteriously died. This started all the way back in 1876 at the town’s founding. The town was started by a cult seeking isolation and they have kept many of the secret traditions and the attitude alive in the town to this day. A quiet smile crept to her lips as she passed the house. Her parents may not have been able to fix the town, but they made her childhood as happy as they could. She moved along and passed other houses all the while feeling gazes upon her from the townsfolk hidden in their homes. When she made it to town, she took the first right, onto Maple St., and walked into City Hall which doubled as the fire station, the police station, the Chamber of Commerce, and the visitors center.

    “Well, well, Mart! Look what the cat dragged in. If it isn’t Jane Clements. After all these years.” Miss Maisel, who had been the librarian, city clerk, and events planner for as long as anyone can remember, said in the fakest sweet voice Jane had ever heard.


    Mart, her nephew, replied,“I’ll be darned. Jane! In the flesh. When we was graduating, you said you would never come back come hell or high water.”
    “Yet here I am. I’m just here for a few days so don’t get your knickers in a twist. John died and I need to know what to do now.”


   “I’ll just let you get this one Mart, I can hardly stand to be in the same room as a Clements let alone do a favor for one,” Miss Maisel excused herself.
    Jane laughed, “Thank you. I’m not interested in case you were wondering. I’m just here to sort out all John’s affairs.”
    “Well shucks, I shoulda guessed. Say, while you’re here, why don’t me and you go giggin’ like when we was kids. Maybe I can get all that city outta you.”
    “I guess one or two frogs wouldn’t hurt. Sure. How about tomorrow? Remember, it’s not a date. Do I just sign here?” Jane pointed at one of the release papers Mart had put in front of her.
    “Uhh, no. Right here actually,” Mart guided her fingers with his larger calloused-yet-soft hand.

    They briefly made eye contact. No, this couldn’t be happening. Jane had left Maybelle for happiness in the city and, after ten years, she had hardly been back half an hour and was falling for Mart, her childhood best friend. Oh boy, had he changed. He had gotten taller and stronger and his eyes had turned a deep blue. Nope, she refused to let this happen. No one can be happy in Maybelle. After a few more papers and a couple awkward eye contacts later, Jane headed back to the house. In her hand was a ziplock bag of all the “evidence” from the police station. She still had her key from over a decade ago and, to her surprise, it unlocked the door. The house was almost exactly as she remembered it, just a little more run down. She went to her old bedroom and set her suitcase down. She sat criss-crossed on the bed and opened the ziplock bag carefully pulled out the contents. She unfolded the note and it read:


Dear Jane,
I hope you are well. I tried to break the curse and fix the town, but it failed. Miss Maisel dropped her bags and I tried picking the, up for her, but she hit me with her cane. Freckles face Tommy had a son who was lost but when I offered to give him a lift, he told me to bug off. These pushed me over the edge. My whole. Life has been spent on trying to fix this town, but it has been futile. I’m giving up.
            ~ John

    Jane was confident John didn’t know cursive nor would he ever use the word futile. Something fishy was going on. She felt an overwhelming urge to call Joel for reassurance, but instead forced  herself to make some oatmeal. As she was putting blueberries on top, there was a knock on the door. She answered and found Mart standing there with his backpack from when they were in school.
    “Can I help you?”
    “Uhh, yeah. Mamma kicked me out for talking to you. She said she shoulda done it sooner. I’m a man now, Mamma says. And well seein’ as I don’t got nowhere to go, I says to myself, ‘Why don’t I stay with Janey?’ And here I am.”
    “Poor little lamb. Of course you can stay.”


    She led him inside and set a bowl of oatmeal out for him. Mart was a little slow, maybe that’s why he was the only nice one in town. His mamma used to put him in the barn out back when they had company over because she was so ashamed. It wasn’t how slow he was that embarrassed her, it was the love he radiated. He used to give hugs to everyone who would let him while his family was selling their crops at the market. They had been best friends since the first day of kindergarten. He had always liked Jane. Sometimes, he would spend weeks at Jane’s house when his momma was mad. He would knock on her window and sleep on the floor after his daddy had been drinking. He didn’t seem to mind. Mart didn’t seem to notice how dysfunctional his family was and he just turned it around and loved everyone. Now things were different. Jane had a home and a job and Mart was still in Maybelle. They were adults now.


    “Jane, I love you.”
    Jane stopped short and spit out her oatmeal.
    Mart, you don’t even know me anymore. It’s been ten years and we’ve both changed. I liked you in high school, but you chose to stay here. Now I love you as a brother. I’m really sorry.”
    “So you wouldn’t marry me?”
    “What?! You wanted to marry me?! I’ve been here for less than six hours and you were going to propose?!”
    “So that’s a no?”
    “Yes, that’s a no. Here, I’ll tell you what. I turn 30 in two years. If I’m still not married, I’ll marry you only if you promise to leave Maybelle with me.”
    “I would go to Antarctica for you. I’m sorry Jane.”


    The rest of the day was smoother. John had a this-and-that shop in the next town over so Mart and Jane visited it in Mart’s square-body pickup jacked up enough to make any country girl’s heart throb. Especially Jane, who was already fighting off feelings for him. They rolled the windows down and turned the country music up just like they were in high school again. She felt genuinely happy for the first time in too long. Turned out John had left his shop to his assistant, which made things easy for Jane in that regard. The hard part was resisting the urge to tell Mart she liked him again. Back in Maybelle, they pair went to the overpriced grocery store called “Everybody’s Favorite” but nicknamed “Nobody’s” because it was nobody’s first choice. They kept their heads down and felt the suspicious glares from the townspeople as they bought their milk, bread, and Mac-and-cheese for dinner.


    “Don’t mind them Janey, they’re just jealous.”
    Mr. Warner, the owner of the store approached them and spat, “Hurry up and get outta here. Nobody wants your happiness. I’ll have you arrested for disturbing the peace with all that smilin’.”
    Feeling rambunctious and full of joy from a day with Mart, Jane put her hand on Mr. Warner’s shoulder with a big ol’ smile and said, “It’s nice to see you too. Have a fantastic day Mr. Warner. Merry Christmas.”


    The look on his face was absolutely priceless. She was used to this look of disgust, but she felt good. Leaving the store, she could have sworn she saw the silhouette of Joel in the house of Miss Maisel. Oh well, it was probably nothing. Besides, she had the Mart situation to deal with.


    Three wonderful days passed and they were filled with joy and Mart. She couldn’t stop thinking about him. Talking to him was so easy and he made her feel good. Joel had torn her down and constantly reminded her how lucky she was to have him, but Mart genuinely liked being around her and felt lucky to be with her.


    Then things crashed. There was a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Jane hissed in Mart’s ear to grab the shotgun but not to shoot unless she said so. She opened the door to find Joel standing there with flowers.
    “Sweetheart, honey, baby, I’ve missed you. Please come home. You don’t belong with him,” Joel got on one knee,“will you marry me?”
    “Two proposals in one week!? This must be a record or something. Joel, I don’t love you. I can’t marry you. Wait, how did you know where I was or that Mart was here?”
    “Don’t worry about it my sweet little pumpkin. May I come in?”
    “Sure, I guess, but I need you to leave in the morning.”

    After shaking off the strange midnight visit, she put him in the guest room and went back to bed. Tossing and turning, things started to fall into place. Maybe it really was Joel she saw with Miss Maisel. Joel wrote in cursive and used fancy words. Joel knew about Mary and John despite the fact she never introduced them. Her heart started racing, but then she realized there was no motive. Well, it was an interesting thought for sure, even if it didn’t pan out.


    Joel didn’t leave in the morning. In fact, he stayed for one whole painfully awkward and creepy week. He kept telling Jane he loved her and wanted to marry her. He eve tried to hit Mart across the back of the head with a two by four. Come to think of it, Joel and Mart looked remarkably similar. No wonder she had dated Joel.


    Jane was cleaning the kitchen when she saw an envelope poking out of Joel’s bag. Intrigued, she pulled it out and saw it was from Miss Maisel. She demanded why he had it and what his connection was to her. She pulled him by the ear to the table and sat him down. She presented her suspicions with Mart and the shotgun behind her. She read the letter and discovered Miss Maisel was his aunt. No wonder Mart and Joel looked similar, they were cousins. The town had hated John so much that Miss Maisel had offered to ask her nephew, who was a forensic scientist in Boston, to come stage a suicide. Joel had the skill to stage it effectively, but lacked the knowledge of what John was like. Fearing Jane would figure it out, he came to Maybelle to propose because once they were married, Jane could not testify against him in court.


    “Congrats, you finally figured it out, but it’ll never hold up in court. It’s your word against the whole town. Plus this dimwit,” he said, jeering at Mart.


    The rest of the day, Mart stood by him with the shotgun telling him not to try to escape. Sweet Mart tried staying up all night too while Jane went to the nearest city with unconnected law enforcement to come help. He fell asleep and Joel stole out in the night. Jane returned to find Mart frantically crying about how he let her down.


    “Shhh, shhh. Honey calm down. I’m getting you out of this town. We’re going back to my home. You’re coming whether you like it or not. But first, we have something we need to do.”


    That day was spent buying a borderline crazy amount of Christmas lights. In the night, they snuck into the town and made Main Street look like a landing strip for Santa. Maybelle was predominantly bitter elderly people who turned off their hearing aids and went to bed around seven so there was no need to be incredibly discreet in their spreading of Christmas joy. They plugged in the lights and were nearly blinded by their masterpiece.
    “Ya know what? I will marry you, Mart.”


    She took his hand and they hopped in his truck. They both knew the town would hate their new decorations, but they felt satisfied knowing they would have to take it all down and bicker the entire time about who was doing more and whose fault it was. She smiled at him and knew she was going to be just fine. Maybe the curse was broken. At least, for Mart it was. For the first time in history, something good came out of Maybelle.


    “You look good Janey, real good. A little too city for me to still be interested in case you’re wondering.”

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