Autumn settled over quiet Poe County suddenly and sneakily. One night all the residents of the sleepy town went to bed, sun setting on green leaves and warm evenings. A few stragglers enjoyed the last late summer breeze on the porch, watching the bright country sky stars burn overhead. That very morning, crisp, bitter air pushed them further into their blankets and the sharp smell of fall greeted them as they began their commutes. The children came home from school with their collections of red and orange leaves that had been spied and adopted on the way home. Hammocks were tucked away, fire pits reemerged from the backs of dusty sheds. Overnight summer was over, and fall had begun.
Poe County rested in historic Rhode Island. It was a small community, with two schools and a dozen churches. There was a small downtown strip that combined modern stores and old taverns and a stately library. Families lived there, and a few older couples as well, residing in Victorian homes that were mostly apartments now. A river ran through the middle of the county, and two bridges connected the West Edge and the East Edge.
There were not many new residents in little Poe, so when there were, it was important to know the circumstances by which they arrived. Erma Mercer, wife of Peter Mercer of the Poe County staple grocery store, Mercer Market, took up post at the fence at the end of her driveway the minute she saw the moving van. The moving van slowed to a stop just past Mercer Manor at 611 Maple Lane, and settled into park next door. 613 Maple Lane was on the smaller side, compared to the sprawling three story Victorian masterpiece that was Mercer Manor.
Erma shoved her glasses further up her nose. A car parked behind the moving van. A lanky, sharply dressed man with wildly curly hair and wiry glasses that perched on a crooked nose hopped down from the driver's side. From the passenger door, a small woman with dishwater blond hair gingerly set her feet on the pavement. She was petite, slight, and the skirt she wore billowed around her pale calves. Her grey eyes took in the imposing monstrosity of Mercer Manor, and when she crinkled her nose, a pair of tortoise shell frames readjusted themselves on her face. Erma watched as the delicate woman leaned into the tall man's side.
"Welcome home," he said, and his voice was heavy but soft, the words content.
The woman nodded timidly. "It's got character," she managed.
"Their names are Travis and Cassandra. Cassandra, such a sweet name but such a shy girl," Erma informed her husband, spooning green beans onto his plate. "He's an absolute gem, and very smart. He studies birds, you know. What is it he said? Orthodontist? Ergonomist?"
"Ornithologist?" Peter supplied.
Erma nodded deeply, sloshing some carrot juice into a glass. "Yes, ornithologist, yes. He's writing a book just about Poe County, can you believe it? They've bought the house, they're newly married. First anniversary was three months ago. A young couple, too, you don't see many young couples anymore getting married! Travis is so kind, I introduced myself and, you'll have to excuse me this part… I saw their mail, so I said 'So nice to finally meet the new neighbors, Dr. Never!' and this sweet thing, he goes, 'No, no, call me Travis!' he said! Can you believe it? Is that enough, did you want some more potatoes?"
Peter raised a hand in objection as a healthy scoop of mashed potatoes landed on his plate. "So anyways, I asked him what brought him to Poe County and he told me all about his book. He said he and Cass – he calls her Cass – were looking for a place to settle, they'd been living in his parent's rental home in New York. Cassandra, from what I gather, is a little timid, very shy. The city didn't fit her so he brought her to the most quiet, most serene little county. What a sweet husband! They've been dating since high school, since sophomore year, he said. Do you want to know how they met?"
Peter's mouth was full, which meant he was unable to object.
"He said he'd always thought she was so kind and clever, and smart, but he never knew how to talk to her. So this spring musical comes around and he hears she's going to be in it so he auditions and gets cast in the ensemble – a genius and a musical man – and it turns out, she wasn't in the cast at all! She hadn't even auditioned, she was playing her flute in the orchestra pit! Well that's how they met, dated through high school. Got engaged his first year of college, married his third year, and do you know how quickly he got his doctorate? I'm telling you, we're living next door to a genius, and such a kind man, too. Haven't gotten to talk to her yet. She doesn't come out much –"
Life in Poe County was easy to adapt to, even for a woman who was hesitant to adapt to anything. Cass kept the old house clean and warm. Their little home had more bedrooms than they needed, and Travis looked forward to filling them up with toys and cribs and other things for children. Eventually, hopefully, some day. The big move from rural Wood County to the small, quaint Poe County had been a traumatic degree of change to a woman who took months transitioning from one brand of pasta sauce to a new one.
"Tea?" Travis asked, setting the old kettle on the stove. Cass nodded, not looking up from her book. Travis took two mismatched mugs down from the cupboard and leaned against the counter.
Cass felt his stare and glanced up. "Yes?"
"You've been quiet lately," Travis observed. "Is anything the matter?"
His wife folded down a page in her book (a habit he detested) and crinkled her nose to readjust her glasses (a habit he adored). "I guess I just haven't been feeling myself."
Ever since moving to Poe County for Travis's book, Cass had been in a rigid routine of walking the block to work (the library—her favorite place), walking the block home, occasionally stopping in at the grocery store, and little else. Of course, she'd never been a very adventurous person. Suggestions to go to out to the pond had been combated with the very real concern that the docks had not been replaced in decades, the wood would be soft and rotted and they'd fall into the water below. Suggestions to take a trip to the new restaurant uptown were dismissed with a single poor review from years before, when one woman one day claimed to have found a fly (good for nothing but spreading germs) in her soup. Suggestions to go see a movie at the local theater were turned down with an apologetic shrug accompanied by a murmured anxiety about choking on popcorn or going into a fit from all the sporadic lighting effects in the film. The tension after each calm dispute was growing. Cass felt selfish. Travis felt helpless.
Now, Travis wasn't the most adventurous soul either, but he did enjoy trips and surprises as much as anyone. "Well, is there anything I can do? You've been holed up in here since we arrived, more than a month now. I'm worried."
Cass shrugged and pulled her sweater more tightly around her shoulders. "I don't think so." Noticing the concern on her husband's face, she smiled to ease his worry. "I'm fine though, really. How about… how about this weekend we go out to pick a pumpkin? We can carve it for the porch." She was surprised that the words came out of her mouth, and immediately regretted them.
The kettle whistled. "That sounds like a good idea. A fun, safe idea. You'll like the pumpkin patch," Travis promised. She'd never been. Farm animals were very dirty, and she didn't want to risk getting sick from their germs. He poured their tea, setting hers in the refrigerator to cool it so she wouldn't burn herself.
"I'm sorry I am the way I am," Cass murmured. "I promise, I'll get better."
"I know," Travis said quietly, sitting beside her on the couch. Sadly, he realized that when he had met her seven years ago in high school, she'd been saying the same thing. She'd get better. He squeezed some lemon into her mug and handed it to her. "You're great the way you are. I've always thought so."