At 5:54 am the woman in the pale blue silk scarf pulled the door shut at 503 Southshore Drive. She turned the bronze key in its lock and, dropping it into the pocket of her thin overcoat, briskly walked away from the beloved cottage for the final time.
“Ann, come and help me open these chairs on the deck. They are rusted again,” Helen called from the wide veranda that overlooked Lake Wawasee. She had driven up to the lake cottage earlier in the day, desiring to get a jump start on preparations for the rental season that would soon be upon them. Her sister, Ann, had just arrived from her home in South Bend and was loitering, as usual, around the property.
“I’m coming, Helen,” Ann responded but did not move from her spot on the old, worn sofa, the davenport as their mother had called it. She looked around the living room, taking in all the familiar artifacts. There was the old Davenport itself, where she, and later her own children, would fall asleep as they listened to the waves from the lake through the surrounding open windows. Her parents spared no expense when decorating their beloved cottage after it had been built in the 50s. It was no surprise that the old couch was still in good condition though recovered from its original fabric.
Across from her were the old armchairs where her father would read the newspaper and drink his coffee. On the wall above her father’s armchairs were family photographs dating back for decades. She could see her parents in their youth along with pictures of her and Helen as children and teenagers. Still more photographs of Ann with her own family after she had married. Helen, having never been married, did not have quite as many photos on the wall. Her parents needed more room for the six grandchildren that Ann had given them. “Six grandchildren that should be able to enjoy this cottage,” she wistfully thought as she sat on the davenport and her thoughts gave way to The Arrangement.
“Really, Ann, these chairs are giving me quite a time,” Helen called again.
"I’m coming,” Ann said as she finally rose from her spot on the sofa, walked through the adjoining sunroom, and out onto the beautiful wide veranda of their family’s lake cottage.
She stepped over to where Helen stood trying her best to open up the chairs that would be used by this week’s tenants, and leaned over to help her. “There,” she said as she easily clicked one into place and the chair opened up before her.
“Goodness! Why did it take me so long,” laughed her sister. Helen, the oldest Wilson sister by five years, looked across the veranda and out upon the sparkling waters of the expansive lake to avoid looking directly at her younger sister. She was grateful for her help this weekend but also twinged with guilt in knowing that it was her side of The Arrangement that would soon cost the two women their most sacred place.
Ann, sensing the burden that her sister carried, leaned in close and said, “You know I am not upset at you, right?”
Helen, suddenly feeling the chill from the early season air, wrapped her arms around herself and stated, “I trust that you aren’t. But nevertheless, I apologize.”
“There is no need, Helen, it simply isn't your fault.”
Helen nodded briefly, allowing a hmph to escape from her lips before sauntering back into the screened room where her to-do list sat waiting upon the wicker table top. “Where is Jerry this weekend?” she asked as her sister followed her into the room.
“He went to visit Danny at Purdue,” Ann told her. Danny, the youngest of Ann’s brood of children, was not only the last to leave home, but also the most fond of his summer upbringing upon the waters of Lake Wawasee.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Helen said. She was quite enamored with her youngest nephew and paid close attention to anything pertaining to him. “How did he recover from his football training accident?” she asked her younger sister.
Ann laughed, “It’s called an injury, Helen, not an accident, and he is fine. The worst part is the chipped tooth. We weren't able to get an appointment with the dentist until after finals. We may have to wait for more extensive work to be done after....” her voice trailed off when she realized what she was about to mention.
“Nevermind,” Helen said, waving her sister off as she stared down at her list, “I’m fully aware how The Arrangement will end up being of some help to you and your family, Ann.”
“Oh, Helen, I didn’t mean...”
“No,” Helen interrupted, “It’s ok. None of us are happy about it, but it will benefit us to some degree once it is all finished.”
“I suppose so,” her sister softly responded.
Helen, attempting to change the mood, added, “What do you say we finish this list and head down to Turf’s for lunch like we used to. It will be my treat.”
Ann smiled at her only sibling, placed her hand upon her arm, one of the few forms of affection that Helen would allow, and said, “That would be lovely. What shall I do next?”
The two sisters worked together the rest of the morning before heading off to the old familiar restaurant they had frequented since they were young girls spending every moment of their summer days upon the glistening waters of the Indiana lake.
Three days later, Detective Gilbert sat across from the distraught younger sister in one of the old armchairs beneath the wall of family photographs. Jerry, who had driven the two hours from Lafayette as soon as his wife had called him, was resting his hand upon his wife’s shoulder. “Tell me once more, in person now, everything you can remember from the last day you saw your sister,” the detective said.
Ann, twisting her hands in her lap, proceeded to tell the detective about meeting Helen at the cottage three days before, “I met her here to help get ready for the rental season. She always has an extensive list of things she wants done,” Ann relayed, “but I must admit I’m not always the biggest help.”
“The rental season?” questioned the detective. “Is this an agreed upon arrangement between the two of you?”
Jerry and Ann winced noticeably at the word choice, “Yes,” Ann responded. “We’ve rented the cottage out for several weeks each summer for a number of years now. The taxes on a property like this are quite something. Taking in renters helps us to manage it all.”
“Yes, I’d imagine they are quite high,” the detective replied, taking a moment to look around and observing the stunning lake views from the wall of windows across from him.
“Ann, just go ahead and tell the man about The Arrangement.” Jerry interjected.
“The arrangement?” the detective quizzed.
“Oh really, Jerry,” Ann said, seeming quite shaken, “I was hoping to not divulge all that.”
The detective pressed further, “With all due respect, Ann, your sister has been missing for three days now. I haven't seen any sign of foul play, but nevertheless, the time has definitely come to divulge everything.”
“I understand,” Ann whispered as she placed her hand upon her husband’s. “My father, who built this cottage, was a good, loving man, but also a bit peculiar. ‘I love my girls the same,’ he would say, ‘and I will treat them the same.’” Ann continued, “This led to what he affectionately called, The Arrangement. I honestly think it started as a bit of a joke. But once it got going, he either genuinely liked the idea or he was too prideful to end it. We could never tell.”
“So what does the arrangement have to do with the cottage and your sister?” the detective inquired.
“It has everything to do with Helen and this cottage,” Jerry retorted.
“Jerry, please,” Ann interrupted, “Detective Gilbert, in The Arrangement the cottage was to be inherited equally by my sister and me, provided we were both married with children. If one of us did not marry the cottage would need to be sold before Helen turned 65. Most of the profits are to be given to charity after we each receive a small inheritance of 10%. Detective...Helen never married and will turn 65 this summer. The cottage will be sold.”
“I see,” the detective responded thoughtfully and added, “Has a lawyer looked over this arrangement before?”
“Extensively,” Jerry said, “it is airtight. There is only one way for The Arrangement to be null and void.”
The room immediately grew somber. Detective Gilbert looked from Jerry to Ann and observed the realization that came over her.
“You dont think…” Ann gasped and buried her face into her hands, as her shoulders started to heave with the rise and fall of her tears.
“That’s ridiculous!” Jerry exclaimed, “Detective, there are some odd things about this family, I will agree, but my wife would never do anything to harm her sister!”
Detective Gilbert straightened in the armchair, “No one is accusing her, Jerry. It’s alright, Ann. Let’s get back to the details of the day.”
Ann wiped her nose with a kleenex from the nearby end table and shook her head in agreement.
Detective Gilbert went on, “After you finished the to-do list, you went to lunch at Turf’s, is that correct?”
“Yes, it is,” Ann responded.
"And what did you do after Turf’s?”
“We came back home and played several rounds of Five Crowns out on the veranda together,” Ann said as fresh tears welled in her eyes from the memory, “that was always one of our favorite games when we were little girls. After Five Crowns, we came back inside to read for a while and then we locked up for the night. I went upstairs to my bedroom and Helen stayed down here. She preferred the main floor room that had belonged to our parents.”
“I see,” the detective said as he scribbled some notes on his small steno pad, “and you never heard a thing through the night?
“Not a single thing,” Ann replied, “I woke up the next morning around eight and came downstairs to make my coffee. I did think it was a little odd that Helen was not awake yet, she is usually such an early riser. I noticed her car in the drive as I poured my morning cup and I came right here to these chairs to drink my coffee and read the paper.”
“When did you notice that Helen was missing?” the detective inquired.
“It was close to nine,” Ann said softly as she looked down on her hands.
“It’s okay, Ann, just tell the detective what you remember,” Jerry gently encouraged her.
“Well, it suddenly hit me that I hadn't even heard her stirring and when I looked at the clock on the wall and realized the time -- I leapt from my seat and spilled my coffee.”
The detective looked again at the stain of coffee on the carpet that he had noticed when he arrived, “What made you jump?” he asked.
“I guess I was fearing the worst,” Ann said, “when I realized how late in the day it was...That's not like Helen at all. I was afraid that I might find her just as we found daddy,” Ann said as she leaned forward to rest her forehead in her hands.
The detective and Jerry looked at one another above Ann’s slumped figure before the detective gently said, “Ann, we are nearly finished here. Can you tell me what happened next?”
Ann sat up in the chair again, wiped her eyes with another tissue and replied, “I opened the door to her room and found her bed freshly made. I sat here all day waiting for her to return. When she did not return by dinner, I called Jerry and then we called you.”
“Thank you, Ann, I know that wasn’t easy.” Detective Gilbert said, “Jerry, where were you when Ann called?”
“I was at Purdue with our son, Danny. I left as soon as Ann called me.”
“I see. What about Danny or your other children?” the detective inquired.
“Most of our children live out of state. They return for two weeks every summer for our annual reunion at the cottage,” Jerry responded before quietly commenting, “It’s a lovely place for them all to come home to.”
“Yes, indeed,” the detective said, glancing around again at the lived-in, but beautiful summer cottage that had remained in the family for so many years. He could imagine that it would be quite heartbreaking to envision losing it.
“One more question, folks, and then I'll be on my way.”
“Yes, go ahead,” Ann said.
“You said most of your children live out of state but Danny is at Purdue. Were Danny and his aunt very close?”
“Oh, extremely!” Ann replied, “My sister was a wonderful aunt to all of my children, but her bond with Danny was special. Helen would have made a wonderful mother had she been given the chance.”
“And Danny, where is he now?” the detective asked.
“When I left him he was studying for his final exams,” Jerry said, “otherwise he would have come right away. He loved his aunt. We told him to stay put to finish his studies,” Jerry glanced down at his watch and said, “He should be on a bus to Ligioner right now.”
The detective nodded and said, “If you think of anything else, please call.” Then rising from the armchair, he added, “ I will do my best to find your sister, Ann.”
“Thank you, detective. She is very dear to me, to all of us. We need her to be found.”
The three of them shook hands and Jerry walked the detective through the living room towards the back of the house.
“One more thing, Ann!” the detective called out.
“Yes, detective,” Ann replied from the doorway.
“This door. Was it locked the morning you noticed Helen missing?”
Ann shrugged slightly and slowly said, “Well, yes, I believe it was.”
“Hmm.” Detective Gilbert said, thinking to himself.
“Is that a good thing?” Ann questioned.
“More of a neutral thing,” the detective said, “But I recall you saying that you locked the house up before going to bed at night. When you awoke in the morning, it was still locked?”
“Yes...yes, it was!” Ann said, following the detective’s logic that a break-in seemed all the more less likely.
“That’ll be all,” the detective said as he walked through the back door of 503 Southshore Drive.
At precisely 4:45 pm a bus from Lafayette, Indiana rolled into the Ligonier bus station and a tall, muscular looking young man stepped off the platform. Rubbing his jaw, he felt the side of his duffle bag, ensuring the bottle of Advil was still inside. His chipped tooth was beginning to be a nuisance. He walked over to the vending machines, as the woman on the phone yesterday morning had instructed him.
Nearby, obstructed behind a newspaper, was Detective Gilbert who had checked the bus schedule from Lafayette to Ligioner upon leaving the cottage that morning.
The young man nervously fed his dollar into the vending machine. He was making his selection when a woman, many years his senior and wearing a wide brim hat that concealed much of her face, came up from behind and embraced him while dropping a bronze key into the pocket of his jacket.
The young man turned towards her. They stood for only moments but long enough for him to hear that he was adored. Grabbing his hands, the woman implored him to be happy and to spend as much time at the cottage with his family as he possibly could, being sure to bring his own children there one day. He was hugged again and the woman departed, a pale blue scarf lifting slightly in the wind as she went. She left a broken-hearted college football player standing at the vending machines with a secret to carry for the rest of his life.
Detective Gilbert rose from his chair and trailed the woman outside of the station. She walked through the quaint town with soft but determined steps. He waited until he was within earshot and then called out, “It was the key that gave you away.”
The woman stopped.
“You locked the door behind you,” the detective continued, “either out of habit or out of concern for your sister’s safety who was asleep upstairs. Nevertheless, it implied your disappearance was planned.”
The woman slowly turned to look upon the detective who was now just a few paces behind her.
“Detective Gilbert,” he said, interrupting Ann’s older sister.
Helen, looking forlorn and defeated, stared down at the sidewalk for only a moment and then full of resolve looked up at him and spoke, “If a person is missing for five years a death certificate will be issued in their absence, Detective. I am nearly sixty-five years old and I am going missing. This is the only way I can beat my father’s silly arrangement and ensure that my beloved nieces and nephews do not lose their cottage.”
“What about losing you?” the detective questioned.
Helen, nearly losing her composure at the inquiry, dug down deep to find her resolve again, “I’ve made my decision, Detective. I want to provide a way for my sister and her family to keep the cottage.”
The detective, sensing the determination and loyalty from this stalwart of a matriarch, asked one final question, “Where will you go?”
Helen, almost regal looking, replied, “Now detective, why would I make it easy for you to come and find me again?”
She started to turn but stopped once more and said, “Detective, let Danny know that you are aware of our secret too. He shouldn’t have to carry the burden alone. I knew it was foolish to call and ask to meet. My dear sister could have easily been there to pick him up, but I just couldn't bear not to see that boy one last time.” She turned and resumed walking away, the blue scarf lifting on the breeze as it trailed her.
Detective Gilbert watched her until she turned the corner at the end of the street, grabbed his steno pad from the pocket of his jacket and simply wrote: Helen Wilson, confirmed missing person.
Nikki Hurt is a wife and mother of five who finally began her life long dream of becoming a writer after turning 40 years old. She lives in Northern Indiana with her family where her husband pastors their church. She works part-time in the Writing Lab and Library at the school where most of their children attend.