Last Chance Farm, a short story

Photo of a sugar shack

Welcome to Brighton Bits, short short stories about the people, places and things in and around the fictional village of Brighton, New Hampshire. Last Chance Farm serves up maple syrup, and a possible murder.

Last Chance Farm

Back door opened to a view of his maple trees, every bone tired from restless sleep, Hector Lachance soaked up a new day—the quiet, the nip in the air, the calm before the herds of boisterous kids arrived at his sugar shack for a tour and a taste of maple taffee snow.

March was his favorite month, and Maple Weekend his favorite two days. He got to show off his hard work, how he’d harnessed the trees to collect their sap and turned that sugar water into liquid gold. March made or broke his year. He’d done all he could tending the trees and sap lines. Mother Nature had been generous this year. He wouldn’t spend next winter scrounging up change for scraps of food.

Hector brushed a hand through his scrub of gray hair and jammed his woolen tuque on his head. Maple Weekend wouldn’t be the same without his granddaughter Joss. She was everywhere as he made his way from the house to the sugar shack. Her songbird voice, warbling as she helped him check the lines. Her colt-like legs skipping through the snow to the storage tanks, checking the levels. Her sparkling blue eyes and wide smile as she tempted kids to try hot maple syrup poured over snow. He grinned at how she’d whisper to the kids that they should ask their parents to buy gallons of syrup so they could make the same treat at home.

He’d let her tend the farm store for the past six years, since she was eleven, because she always managed to get customers to buy more than they’d planned. But he’d had to cut her off this year. He couldn’t let her shoot her share of the profits into her veins. He wouldn’t abet her self-destruction—not like he inadvertently had his daughter Annaleigh. He hadn’t known better then.

Moving as if he carried all his trees on his shoulders, he opened the door to the wooden shack and sniffed the sweet smell of syrup. No better aroma in the world. He’d MacGyvered every piece of equipment, because he’d had nothing but this piece of land to his name when his father had kicked him out of the house. You’re wasting your life with all your cavorting, his father had said. It’s time for a reality check. Hector’d had no purpose back then, but he’d found it here, communing with the trees, building this business sap line by sap line, upgrading his equipment piece by piece over the year, sharing a life with his beloved wife Aubrey. She’d made him see the good in the world.

All this—all his riches—had been for Aubrey. And now for Joss.

He didn’t know what had happened, where he’d gone wrong with Joss. How could she have gone from happy-go-lucky over the summer to almost dead by March? He’d kept her busy. He’d kept her accountable. When had she even had time to find that kind of trouble? Why would a beautiful girl with her whole life, with world of possibilities ahead of her choose to pollute her body and mess up her mind with drugs?

Worrying about Joss had made sleep next to impossible. Now he was getting a late start after tossing and turning right past sunrise. He had to hurry to get everything ready before visitors started showing up at the gate.

In the sugar shack, he fed wood into the fireboxes under the evaporator and finishing tank, so his visitors could see the sap cook. How was Joss doing at rehab? No contact, that was the rule. But couldn’t they see how hard waiting was on those left behind? He’d done the right thing, taking Joss straight to rehab after her overdose, spending his life’s savings to make sure she got the help she needed. He was salvaging her future, her life.

In the end, she’d thank him, the way he’d thanked his own father for the tough love he’d shown him when Hector was eighteen. Being on his own, having to build a life from scratch, it had shaped him into a better man. As hard as it had been to watch the hatred in his granddaughter’s eyes when he’d left her at Whispering Pines, the last thing he wanted to do was go to the morgue to identify another loved one, the way he’d had Annaleigh. He had to keep reminding himself of that.

Joss would kick her drug habit. She’d get healthy. She’d get a fresh start on her life.

Hector had barely opened the front gate when the first carloads of guests arrived. He wrangled up a smile and waved them to the roped-off parking area, then walked the three families through the tour of his kingdom—the trees, the lines, the storage tank, the reverse osmosis filter, the evaporator, and finally the finishing tank.

“This is the finishing tank,” Hector said, back to the tank, facing the guests, steam heating up the room. He reached for the handle on the flat cover over the steel tank the size of a small bath. “It’s where we make the final adjustments before packaging.”

He lifted the cover. Screams erupted around him, banshee keens echoing in the wooden shack as the adults tried to shepherd children outside.

Hector turned to face the tank.

Joss floated in the Grade A syrup, her sweet face staring up at him like a perfectly preserved fly in amber.

No, this wasn’t right. This couldn’t be. She was safe at Whispering Pines. He fell to his knees, clutching his heart to stop the sharp pain.

By the finishing tank’s leg, he spotted a syringe, and his heart shattered.

He could hear her voice assaulting him, “Don’t leave me here! I promise I’ll stop.”  His eyes had filled with tears as he’d forced himself to leave her behind at Whispering Pines. Her I hate you! I hate you! following him down the hallway.

 For you, he’d thought, each step away from her a torture. I’m doing this for you.

The last words she’d yelled at him echoed through the screams pinging around him.

“You’ll regret this,” she’d said. “I’ll take away what you love most.”

And she had.

What do you think? Should this be Ellie Hamlin’s next murder to solve?

Want more?

If you want to read more about Brighton, pick up a copy of Christmas by Candlelight and Christmas in Brighton or the new cozy mystery, Of Books and Bones. Or sign up for my newsletter.

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