If these walls could speak

In a 100+ year old house, there are traces of past history and previous formulations at every turn. Behind stairs and basement shelves, the true colours–the deeper history–of this house’s walls are revealed.

Wall 3, Copyright Silverleaf, 2015

Wall Detail – Old Stair Line, Copyright Silverleaf, 2015

Wall 1, Copyright Silverleaf 2015

Wall Detail, Copyright Silverleaf 2015

While above ground, the brick meets modern times with the same mysterious flavour of irreverent imperfection.

Library Wall, Copyright Silverleaf 2015

Library Wall, Copyright Silverleaf 2015

Unfettered

The wind howls an assault upon the walls, the cold seeps in through cracks no one can see. Space around the door, old panes in the windows; this house is frail but it is mine, like my life, unfettered, like my soul.

 

 

A House Down the Bohereen

I live in the city, in a century-old red brick house with a classically modern and minimalist interior – white walls, maple floors, clean lines, modernist furniture. There are bright pops of colour here and there, mostly red, and they bring a character and warmth to the white.

It is beautiful and works well with my husband’s and my taste, reminds me of the house I grew up in and suits our downtown Ottawa neighbourhood.

But there was a time I had a style that was completely different. I decorated myself and my home, wherever it was, in bright, sunny colours, little bells, beads and tiny mirrors.

As we grow, we change and our sense of style changes. I would feel silly now roping strands of multicoloured seed beads around my neck, wearing long, flowing silk skirts and drapey t-shirts. It’s just not who I am anymore.

As I was considering this today, I my thoughts brought me back to a house from my days in Ireland, a house I happened upon twelve or so years ago. I longed to buy it, though I never did.

It was for sale for a while, which is what started off this dream of mine. I spent a lot of time visiting houses that were for sale when I lived in Ireland. I think I was feeding my dream of finding some sort of permanence there.

I remember seeing the For Sale sign on the N72, between Killarney and Beaufort, and I had set up a meeting with the estate agent almost immediately.

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The house was a few hundred metres up a small sort-of-paved road that stretched away from the N72. It was nestled against the back of a triangular shaped piece of land which was bordered on all sides by small country roads. The triangle was overgrown and rimmed with ivy-choked trees. It backed onto open, rolling farmland with a view of  MacGillicuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s tallest mountains, in the distance.

I recall that property so clearly. I can still walk through it all in my mind.

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As the estate agent and I made our way down the road, and then onto the little bohereen that formed the back of the triangle, I saw the crumbling outbuildings before I saw the house itself. They were empty, with open spaces where the windows and doors had once been. The previous owners had poured concrete between the outbuildings and the house, likely in an attempt to gain some sort of control over the boggy, wet land upon which everything stood.

The house was on the other side of the concrete pad, facing out across a tangled mass of grasses, weeds and wildflowers, and the trees beyond. The ground was obviously very wet and needed a lot of care, but I envisioned a little pond in the centre, towards which (perhaps) the excess water could be directed.

Leaving the garden for the time being, I followed the estate agent toward the house.

I noticed that the slates on the roof were chipped, cracked and missing in some places. The door was a bit rickety, too, but the plaster walls seemed to be sturdy. They were gently curved at the corners, almost rounded, giving the house a somewhat organic appearance. I can’t remember now for the life of me whether the house was painted white or a deep blue.

Inside the house, the walls were thick and plastered by hand as well, with the same soft, organic quality, and there were dark tiles on the floor. The main level was one large, open space, with a massive two-sided fireplace standing in the middle of it, reaching up to the ceiling, and functioning not only as a heat source but as a room divider, separating the kitchen from the living area.

There were lopsided-looking stairs in the kitchen heading up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Perhaps calling it a second floor is too generous; really, it was more of an attic.

As I turned around in the kitchen, I spied the garden through the two or three windows that lined that side of the house and imagined standing at a large country sink doing the dishes and cooking on an Aga stove which would fit perfectly in the corner. I imagined a long timber table and eight chairs in the centre of the kitchen. And in the living area, I imagined an expansive white sofa strewn with cushions covered in bright Moroccan and Indian fabrics – azure and mustard and ochre and crimson – and matching plush chairs, all scattered sociably about the room, facing the hearth.

Having looked through the house and discussed its potential – “it’s a good solid base, it just needs some tending to,” the estate agent explained – I went back outside to poke around the garden.

A few months of work would have turned that garden into an oasis. Perfect for writing or painting or escaping.

I think I visited the house two more times with the agent and poked around it several additional times on my own. I really believed I was meant to live there, and there was a time part of me thought I would.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about that house. I think my style has changed significantly enough that I would decorate it differently now, but the house itself, as I remember it and as I had planned to restore it, would still be a dream come true.

In writing this post, I Google Mapped the area, to see if I could still find it. And there it was; a little triangle in the road gave away its position. Thanks to the wonders of the omnipresent Google photographers, I was even able to travel up the road and down the bohereen.

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And what did I find?

Someone has bought the land and fixed up the buildings. The outbuildings and the main house have all been connected to form a single, large home. The walls have been re-plastered and the roof slates are new and modern. The corners of the house are no longer organic and rounded; they are clean and neat and rigid. The entire structure is painted a soft peach tone.

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Outside the front door, they have built a raised, rounded patio that faces across the garden toward the Reeks.

It must be a lovely view in the morning and in the evening.

The garden has been cleaned up but remains natural and a bit wild-looking. They’ve planted the odd sapling here and there.

And I’m not sure from the angle, but it looks as though they may have built a small pond right where the land sinks down, so that the water can drain into it.

The house as it is now would probably not turn my head. It’s just not my style.

But I still love the funny little house that stood there before, the house that I can still see in my memory. I think it would always have been a structure that I could have lived in. It would forever have fit my style, no matter how much I changed.

134 Charles Street

The house is of average size, two storeys, brick, with a steeply pointed black slate roof. A short chimney juts out of one side of the roof. An oval window is nestled up at the top of the house, just under the roof’s peak, suggesting the possibility of a hidden room or a forgotten lookout from a cobwebbed attic.

Two windows look out from the second floor, facing the quiet downtown street. They survey the neighbourhood like old, mysterious eyes.

Downstairs, on the first floor, there is one window next to the front door, and both it and the door are shadowed and protected by the sturdy pillars and overhang of a roofed porch. It was constructed in that solid, useful style of the early twentieth century; square pillars, wide at the base and tapering upwards to support a black roof that matches the larger roof of the main house. The pillars, window trim and door trim were all painted a dusky green at one time, though they are peeling now in the cold sun.

The front door is a rich, oiled oak. Even from a distance, it is clear that it was well-made, built to last. Upon it, an iron door knocker rests, a curling, curved leaf pattern moulded onto its heavy metal. To the left of the door, a matching steel lantern with glass panes is affixed to the wall. Though turned off in the brightness of day, one could imagine the warm glow it would throw across the threshold and stoop in the darkness of night.

Three stairs lead from the slightly raised porch outside the front door down to a concrete walkway which in turn leads to the main city sidewalk. Scrubby grass grows on either side of the walkway, though it is now covered with a dusting of snow. Brittle, dried shrubs cling to the outer edges of the deck.

The house is one of the old, traditional family homes in a neighbourhood built around the turn of the last century for government workers and early affluent residents of the town. Back then, the neighbourhood was considered the suburbs, a distant fifteen minute walk across wide expanses of farmland from the few downtown streets where the government buildings perched. The house recalled that earlier time, the early history of the city, in its shape and its materials and the solid way it looked out at the street.

Many similar houses had been built around the neighbourhood at the time, creating a quaint village feel with their front gardens, porches and matching pointed peaked roofs. But few of them had survived to the present day. The majority of those that had been built of timber or clapboard had been knocked down, considered undesirable infill over fifty years ago as the neighbourhood had grown poorer, as families had huddled together inside cold shells, improperly insulated and without running water or electricity.

Now, those of the houses that had survived stood out as picturesque, preserved relics from another time.

What had they seen in their time? What stories did they have to tell?

Number 134 Charles Street was constructed on a narrow plot of land in 1905. Until the early 1900s, the land along the east side of Charles Street by the canal had supported abandoned warehouses, once the storage spaces for the nearby rail yards and docks that formed the important transportation arteries across the unforgiving forests in this part of Canada.

But in 1903, a prosperous, middle-aged architect spied the land and was inspired. Graham Revell was a well regarded architect in town and had designed houses for many of the  important and wealthy businessmen. He was known as being principled, upstanding, reliable. His tall, wiry frame,  greying hair and long moustache lent him an air of dignity and uprightness. His shoes gleamed, as did the lenses of his spectacles, and his glossy, black cart shone as well.

Graham Revell had been out for the day to oversee the construction of the grand, maple staircase he had designed inside the home of one of the town’s lumber barons. When the workers had finished earlier than he had expected, he sent them home, and steered his cart team toward the canal; he had some thoughts about his son, Jim, to ponder, and where better but overlooking the water?

He drove slowly up and down the small lane ways and streets by the little creek that flowed off the canal into a marsh. Children were running and shouting and throwing stones at the iced surface of the water, hoping that it had frozen enough for skating. At their outer edges, the streets in this area ended in uneven ground and crumbling warehouses. Beyond them, the canal flowed languidly by, filled with barges and other heavy boats hauling lumber and industrial products to and from town.

Pausing on one of the streets, Graham looked at this deserted land and thought, “something could be done with this. Something productive. Houses could be built. We could live here.” It would be more convenient to live in this part of town, near his office, and surely his wife would enjoy being closer to the shops and market.

The houses that lined the other side of the streets which stretched away from the canal were neat, nice, respectable houses. More were being built every day and soon it would be a prosperous little enclave. He was sure the people who lived there didn’t want to look across at the crumbling shacks and barns and at the ground littered with building materials. Surely, the land could be beautified and the same nice houses could be built along the eastern edge of the neighbourhood.

Graham went to the city council with his proposition and, in short order, the necessary deeds had been transferred, the land was cleared, the rubble buried under new earth, and work begun.

Once he had presented his proposal to the town, the land had been parcelled out into narrow plots and he knew that before long, other houses would spring up around his. But at first, his was only the one house being constructed on that block of Charles Street.

He chose the plot that looked down toward the main street and designed a sturdy porch so that he and his wife could sit out on warm evenings and read, or talk, or greet the passers-by.

By 1905, the house was complete, and Graham Revell moved in with his modest family; his wife, Martha, and his two boys, Jim and Peter.

Inside, the house was warm and bright. The sun rose at one end of the canal and arced through the sky, lighting the back of the house in the morning and the front of the house in the evening.

Though it was small, Graham had designed his house with the same meticulous care that applied to his clients’ homes and businesses. There were a number of rooms on the main floor, all separated from the hallway which led to a kitchen at the back of the house.

The first door in the hallway led to a front parlour which boasted a fine iron fireplace with an ornate, pillared mantel and a tile hearth, and a window, dressed in finest Irish white lace curtains, which gave the occupants a view down to the main street. There was a door at the back of the parlour, and another further down the hallway, both of which led to a dining room. The kitchen looked out over a small back patch of grass, the Common which was now being seeded for grass and lined with saplings, the Queen’s Road and, past that, the canal.

Stairs led down to a basement and up to the second floor, where there was a family sitting room, three modest bedrooms, a bath room and a water closet.

Graham had installed a trap door up to the attic in case there was ever any trouble with the roof. To let in some light, he designed an oval window at one end, looking out over the street. The family never used the attic and it sat dormant while they lived there, gathering dust.

The house settled and shifted but remained sturdy. As all houses do, number 134 developed a personality all its own. It gave off an aura of warmth, of solid durability, of functionality. The little oval window, though, always seemed to suggest there was something more, something intriguing, an unnoticed, unnamed presence, benevolent but mysterious all the same.

Graham, Martha and the boys shaped the house and the neighbourhood. In time, the other plots filled up with families and the street resembled all the others in the quiet residential neighbourhood, cozy in the canal’s bend.

Jim, whom Graham had been grooming to take over at the firm for several years, became one of the senior architects in 1917. His father had been feeling poorly and was happy to finally retire.

It was in early November 1917 that Graham suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep while number 134 slept soundly all around him.

Martha remained living in the house for several years, but eventually followed Graham and the boys sold the house.

Through the years, number 134 passed through several hands. A widow, Ruth Davies,  bought the house from Jim and Peter Revell and outlasted the Depression tucked snuggly between its four walls. When she passed away, a mother with three daughters moved in, struggling to get by on rations during the war, while her husband went to the Front to fight. Another family followed them, this time with a boy and a girl. They lived there when number 126 was a corner store, selling penny sweets to kids who arrived on bikes or on foot, before they ran off to play in the nearby playground.

In the 70s, the house was renovated, its windows replaced and walls knocked down to create bigger rooms and a more open appearance.

Meanwhile, the town grew and stretched and eventually engulfed Charles Street. It was now considered downtown, while the land that had once been thought uninhabitable became  the new suburbs.

The last family that lived at number 134 moved out there, out to the suburbs, taking with them their bouncing balls and their running, climbing, ruckus children. They sold the house, but no one knows who bought it. It has remained dark, empty, ever since, though a “Sold” sign did grace its front lawn for a brief time.

Now, the paint is peeling, the grass is scrubby, and brittle, dry shrubs cling to the outer edges of the deck. Some say that the house is haunted, that you can sometimes see a shadow move past the oval window up in the roof.

Perhaps it is haunted, perhaps it isn’t. But it does emanate an aura, a presence.

It is a character in its own right.

 

Related fiction:

Artifact (silverleafjournal.wordpress.com)

Artifact

The construction in the Patton garden had begun the day before, under the heat of the mid-July sun. The old paving stones had been hauled away and the workers were standing around now, scratching their heads, considering the work that lay before them. They were supposed to be building a new deck and laying sod but the century-old building rubble that was now exposed brought them up short.

Could grass survive in these conditions?

They stood and considered it some more, and then went to work removing the top few inches, hoping to find earth below.

Several hours and two feet later, they were still working with unfertile sand mixed with pieces of brick, mortar, stone and the odd old rusty nail or hinge. They would need to remove more, and to bring in a large load of proper soil.

“Have you found anything interesting?” asked Cindy Patton from the doorway of the house, taking them a bit by surprise.

She stood there, her shoulder-length red hair hanging straight, her hands in her jeans pockets so that her t-shirted shoulders rose up almost to meet her ears. She wore no make-up, and no jewellery, and had an equally straightforward approach to life.

“Well, just rubble, old hinges, a few rather long rusty nails,” replied the foreman, Chris. “Not very interesting, more annoying than anything. What kind of interesting did you have in mind?”

“Something historical?” Cindy asked hopefully. Cindy was a writer facing a severe case of writer’s block. She was looking for a diversion from her frustration.

“No, we rarely find historical items when we work on houses – there have been so many home improvements all through the city that anything of historical interest has probably already been found, twenty or maybe even fifty years ago,” explained Chris, removing his hat and wiping his face with the back of his hand, the hot sun glinting off a small bald patch at the back of his head.

Seeing her disappointment, he continued, “Sometimes we find something creepy when we’re working right downtown, on commercial sites, but nothing really historical.”

Cindy pondered this for a moment, letting her imagination run. Creepy? She assumed he meant human bones, maybe a scull? That would indeed be more interesting than nothing at all, but it wasn’t really what she had in mind.

She knew her house had been built around the turn of the last century, 1905 or so, and she was hoping for clues about what had been there before that.

Cindy shrugged and returned to her attempts at writing, closing the door behind her.

Meanwhile, the contractors moved on to the construction of the deck, giving up on the soil and the sod for the moment. They removed the old steps up to the back door, hauling them out to the truck on the street. When they returned, they took a moment to admire the old stonework of the foundation.

As with many of the houses in the area built one hundred or so years ago, this house had an impressive foundation, built skillfully by old style stonemasons using high quality local stone. They just didn’t make houses like this anymore.

It was as they were turning around to start construction on the new deck that Chris noticed something sticking out of the corner of the foundation, down near the ground. It looked like the corner of a piece of paper. He wouldn’t have seen it except that the foundation seemed to be crumbling there slightly. It wasn’t crumbling anywhere else, but seemed to be falling away from the paper.

Using his finger, he carefully tried brushing the mortar away from the paper, hoping to wiggle it loose. It was no good. He didn’t want to make a mess of the foundation and he didn’t want to rip the paper. He was curious.

He went to the truck and, after rummaging around for a few minutes, returned with some masonry tools used for repointing brick and stonework. He spent some time poking and prodding at the mortar around the paper, while the others continued building the deck.

After an hour of working at the corner, he was able to chip enough of the mortar away so he could pry the piece of paper free. It was rolled up tightly, with just the one corner sticking out. It was amazing that he had seen it at all.

He would have to remember to patch up the mortar before the day was over.

When he unrolled the paper, still white from being so tightly encased all those years, he discovered that it was a piece of old newspaper. More specifically, a collection of want ads posted by a real estate agent on April 8, 1905. As he flattened the paper out, and peered closely at the old type, his eye was drawn to one ad in particular:

FOR SALE, four solid brick terrace dwellings in a row of five, by the River at Chester Road and John Street. Each house contains halls, parlor, dining room, summer and winter kitchens, 4 bedrooms, open plumbing, hot water attachments, concrete collars, furnace, electric fixtures, solid brick wall between each dwelling.  Designed by architect Wallace Hugh, resident of no. 3 Chester Road.

This was an ad for this row of houses, it had to be. They were the only ones that fit the description. This piece of paper must have either been put into the mortar on purpose, or else somehow made its way there during construction. What were the chances?

He opened the door and called Cindy’s name.

“Mrs. Patton, if you have a second, you might want to look at this.”

Cindy appeared in the doorway a few moments later, happy to have an interruption.

“Mrs. Patton,” Chris started, “I’ve found something stuck in the bottom of the foundation, a piece of paper…”

Cindy eagerly reached for the paper Chris was holding out in his hand and scanned the text.

“Well, I’d say that’s pretty interesting, wouldn’t you?” she asked with a mischievous smile.

She followed Chris to the corner of the house, and crouched down to inspect the hole he had chipped in the foundation. Chris started to apologize for the hole, explaining he would of course patch it up, but she waved his apology away so that it died on his lips.

“Thank you,” said Cindy simply. And then she went inside and closed the door.

Chris removed his hat again and scratched his head, stood a moment considering the crumbled mortar, and then shrugged and went about fixing the mess he had made. He wasn’t sure what else he had expected. After all, it was only a piece of old paper. What more was there to do? He had handed it over to the owner of the house and would now get back to his work. He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts.

Inside, Cindy had first walked through the house, reading the description of the rooms in the paper as she went, and imagining where walls used to stand, where the summer and winter kitchen had been, imagining the house as it had been built. Then she retreated to her home office and set the paper down on the desk.

So, she thought, Wallace Hugh, an architect, had designed these houses and lived in one of them, and they were built in 1905, as the real estate agent had originally informed her and her husband.

This didn’t shed any more light on what was here before they were built, but it was an interesting piece of history. She would research the architect and see what she could find out about him, what other buildings in the city he had designed. Perhaps she would have this old piece of newsprint framed as a gift for her husband. They could hang it on the main floor and show it to friends when they came to visit.

It was as she was idly imagining the frame, the mounting, the dinner conversations that would ensue, that she happened to turn the paper over. Later, she would wonder why neither she nor Chris had thought to look on the other side of the paper when they first found it.

The newsprint itself detailed the results of a mayoral campaign and election, which had evidently taken place the previous day, April 7, 1905. It mentioned the re-election of Mayor Edward deVille and the speech he gave following the announcement of the results. It also mentioned that he was accompanied by his wife, Edith deVille, and described her attire in fascinating detail.

But this was only secondary to the handwriting. On the back of the newsprint, scrawled across the election story in elaborate, blue-inked cursive, was a note.

My Dearest WH,

I cannot get away for the next fortnight I fear. Please wait for word. We shall sail by night as planned. I promise.

Yours,

E

 

Cindy read and re-read this message, her heart pounding furiously in her ears. Could this really mean what she thought it might? A secret lovers’ message? This was more than she could have hoped for. Interesting indeed!

It was only then that she scanned the article printed underneath the scrawling writing, gasping as she pieced together the significance of what she held in her hand. WH could only refer to Wallace Hugh; it was his house after all. She wondered, though, who the E was. Could it possibly have been Edith, the wife of the mayor? She scarcely dared to believe that something so momentous had been hidden in a corner of her house for more than a century.

Cindy spent the rest of the day researching.

First, she looked up “Wallace Hugh” and discovered that he had designed a number of important buildings around town, that he had been married and had two sons, and that he had died in his house, this very same house in which she lived, in 1917. That was an interesting piece of information, one that would be appreciated, she was sure, by their future dinner companions.

Next, she searched for information on Edith deVille. She didn’t find anything particularly illuminating as far as the present mystery was concerned. Edith had been a society lady, not necessarily beautiful but very young and stylish. In 1905 she had been 35, young for the wife of a 55-year-old mayor. Much of the information online described the clothes she wore while accompanying her husband to evening soirees attended by the elite of the day.

There was one interesting paragraph in a scanned copy of a September 1905 newspaper, though. It was in the society pages. It might have been nothing, but it did mention Edith taking to her bed with an unspecified illness on April 20, 1905, and not being seen about town for several months. Her husband had been forced, then, to attend events alone and, the paper reported, people were bemoaning the fact that he was attending far fewer events in her absence.

Cindy knew that Googling the mayor himself would yield too many results, and would likely lead her on a wild goose chase through stories of little interest to her. Instead, she looked up April 20, 1905 and the name of the city. This brought her to an online archive of various historical documents. She selected “Newspapers, books & directories” and was presented with over a hundred options. She was thrilled to find that all the newspapers of the day had been scanned and were available online. What a treasure trove of stories!

Wide-eyed, she began to scroll through those that came up as part of her search, not opening any, simply reading the two sentences that appeared for each listing.

One listing, at about number thirty in the search results, grabbed her attention. It began “…persistent rumours are in circulation that Edith deVille, wife of Mayor deVille…” Cindy clicked on it.

When it opened, she found that it had been rumoured at the time that Edith was not ill but had, in fact, been unfaithful to her husband and had, as a result of the rumours surfacing, gone into seclusion in her home.

There were several other articles from around the same date and they followed the same storyline, but they did not provide any additional information.

Cindy continued to read through the newspapers, day by day, scanning them for news of Edith. It seemed, as with all rumours, that with no new developments to fan the flames of public curiosity, the story died out and others took its place.

And then, the September 1905 paper that she had come across initially, reporting that Edith had recovered from her illness and was again to be seen about town. There was no mention of rumours or infidelity.

Cindy continued to scroll through the subsequent issues of the paper, but found nothing untoward, nothing out of the ordinary. Edith seemed to have picked up where she had left off as the stylish wife on the arm of the popular mayor.

Cindy wondered whether the rumours were simply a result of idle gossip filling in the blanks when the nature of Edith’s illness had not been publicized. But, a loud voice in her mind insisted, it was quite a coincidence that the illness coincided with the note “E” had written to “WH.”

She played out the events as she imagined them in her head. Edith and Wallace had been having an affair and had planned to run away together, by boat. Edward had been re-elected as mayor and Edith had to postpone their plans for a few weeks, while she accompanied her husband to the inevitable post-election society events. But she had intended to fulfill her promise to Wallace as soon as things returned to normal and she could “get away.”

But then someone, possibly Edward, maybe even Wallace’s wife, had discovered the lovers’ plans. Edith took to her bed – either with a broken heart or because she was forced to do so by Edward who meant to put an end to the affair – and Wallace hid the note in the foundation of the home that he was constructing for himself and his family – near to him but safe and securely hidden.

Perhaps the affair picked up again, perhaps not. There was no mention of it again, though. Neither Edith nor Wallace ran away, as both passed away still married to their spouses, still living in the same city. Wallace, as Cindy had read earlier, died in 1917. Edith, she discovered, died in 1944 at the age of 74. She had outlived her husband by 28 years; Edward died of a stroke at the age of 66 in 1916. It seemed she had never re-married.

Cindy, now sitting in the dark as night fell around her, was lost in thought as she imagined what Edith might have done during those 28 years. Was she reunited with Wallace in the year after Edward’s death, the year before Wallace himself died? Did she ever travel to their secret destination, walk through what would have been their new, anonymous life together?

Downstairs, the front door opened and then closed with a startling thud. Cindy awoke from her reverie and looked around her, rubbing her arms to warm them up. Her husband was home from work and it was time to get dinner going. She stood up, stretching her stiff legs and glanced at the computer screen before turning to leave the room. She thought she might have a story to tell now.

Tomorrow, she would thank Chris properly and show him what she had discovered on the back of their artifact.