For most of the year, Lydia Coulter was able to enjoy living amidst the tall cedar pines of Vermont rent-free, watching nature pass her by. Every day she got up around dawn to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee - her alarm clock actually made drip coffee for her which was hot and ready right when she got up. She’d head down to the kitchen and fix herself a modest breakfast, likely consisting of oatmeal, and then take care of each of the bedrooms in the lodge. Once things were clean, she would head outside if the weather was nice and roam one of the trails, armed with her gun in case an animal got too close. She told all her guests about the time a grizzly bear had come within ten feet of her before being scared off by the sound of her rifle. Her guests generally had better things to do than listen to her stories, however; they went their own ways after breakfast, perhaps down a trail themselves, or, if it was winter, over to the ski slopes just a hundred yards away from her lodge.
On this morning, Lydia Coulter was enjoying a cup of coffee by a small fire in the living room, where various pelts and furs, almost all fake, were draped over the wood furnishings, adding to the coziness of her environment. Sure, it troubled her that even now, in the depths of winter, there were no guests skiing on the local slopes, or even going for the midwinter hikes some crazy Canadians always cherished, but on a morning like this, it was hard to get peeved at the world which had given her so much. Besides, she thought, a pandemic will do that to tourists… it makes ’em skittish.
Lydia cracked open her book - Analyzing Hamlet, and felt like a true academic, smiling at the thought of her being some hoity toity professor in a study with its own fireplace, sipping cognac instead of coffee and pretending like he was working to avoid spending time with his distant family. A sense of warmth spread through her when she realized that she wasn’t like a professor at all; she’d failed out of business school twice before getting her degree, and now she ran a successful business. Could life get any better?
She turned a page and settled deeper into the soft couch. Suddenly, the doorbell rang, causing her to jump and spill some coffee on her hand. “Ah, damn!” she said, putting the drink down and sucking on her burned finger. Her mind raced faster than her hammering heart. Did she have a reservation for today? Surely she would’ve remembered - she hadn’t even cleaned the place yet! Lydia froze and waited for the bell to ring a second time, which it did. And then a third time, with pressing urgency. She gathered herself and got up to check the door, reaching it by the sixth ring and peering out of the peephole to find a strange sight.
A man stood outside in naught but a blanket and some torn pants. His breath misted up in great wafts before him, and frozen sweat could be seen in his scraggly brown beard and his mid-back length brown hair, which looked as though it hadn’t been washed in some time. He was quite thin, but had the air of lithe strength. Her focus moving back up to his face, she noticed he had a puffed up nose with blood caked under it and in his mustache, and his eyes, startling crystalline blue against his tan skin, were both blacked and bruised.
“Please,” he called, his voice strong yet thin on the winter wind. “Is anyone in there? I need help!”
Lydia did not respond at once; after all, this man looked absolutely deranged. From the blood to his disheveled and unruly look, everything about him told her to keep the door closed and walk away. His pockets were empty, from what she could tell, but she knew very well that drug addicts can find interesting places to hide their dope before swindling innocent homeowners. What this man could do to her… Why would she even think about opening the door? And yet… there she was, with her hand on the knob. Something about his demeanor calmed her nerves. She found herself breathing with him, every muscle in her body relaxing.
“Hello? Anyone? I have nowhere else to go!” he cried, shivering for the first time.
Lydia couldn’t stand it anymore. She threw open the door, half-cringing with her hand on an umbrella. “Yes?” she said, her voice smaller than she would’ve liked.
He smiled, showing white teeth through brown hair and thin lips. “Thank you. My name is Jordan Clemence.”
“What can I do for you, Jordan?” she asked, wondering why she hadn’t gotten her rifle from the safe in the living room.
“I just need a place to regain my strength for a little while,” he said, his eyebrows arched and earnest. “I’ve been… wandering in the forests of this country for some time, and I… I just need to rest for a while before I depart again.”
“You’ve been wandering the forests dressed like that? You should be dead!”
He gave her a wry smile. “Indeed. I am not a doctor, but I feel fine, health wise. I just need a place to escape this bluster and put my feet up.”
She looked into his eyes and again felt that deep sense of calmness. However, before it could overtake her, she said, “Why don’t you try the ski resort, just about a mile west of here. You’ll see the slopes first - you can even catch a ride there on a snow-mobile. That’s what most of my clients do.”
He shook his head. “That… that is from where I come. I went to the lodge and earned these… reminders,” he touched his face gingerly, “that not every door is as welcoming as the doors of those who I have come to love.”
“People at the lodge did that to you?” she asked, horrified.
“I’d like to tell you the story,” replied Jordan, “but would it be possible to do so inside?”
There was a trickle of uneasiness left, but she stepped aside and Jordan took a few steps into her lodge, his shoulders relaxing as she closed the door. “Here,” she said, “let me get you some clothes. My guests leave things from time to time… I’m sure something will fit. Please, make yourself at home in the living room - just down the hall and to the right.”
Before he could reply, she dashed off in front of him and up the stairs, taking the fastest route to her bedroom, where she closed the door and began hyperventilating. “Why, why, why did I do that?” she asked herself, slapped in her forehead, “Oh God… Alright, breathe, don’t panic… breathe… don’t… breathe…” She paced around her room, trying to find something to use as a concealed weapon. She had a pistol there, but it was just a .22 caliber and Jordan was a large man. Lydia cursed under her breath and grabbed it, proceeding to her closet where she had a drawer full of things guests had left behind and never claimed. She found an extra long pair of sherpa-lined joggers and a large sherpa-lined sweatshirt. She shrugged and then said to herself, “You’re giving clothes to your murderer…” She laughed in a manic sort of way and pushed open her bedroom door quietly, tapping along the floor so she could get a view of the strange man from the second floor balcony overlooking the living room and parlor of her lodge.
Jordan, as Lydia observed with a frown, was sitting contentedly by the fire, a warm smile on his face as the ice in his beard melted. He was so still that Lydia could’ve sworn he wasn’t breathing, but a quick sigh alleviated that fear. She went to the bathroom and got a first-aid kit, walking down the stairs with more force so Jordan heard her coming. Sure enough, as soon as she turned the corner into the living room, the man turned his head and smiled.
“Thank you so much for your hospitality,” he said, his voice as warm as the fire.
“Uh… Don’t mention it,” Lydia brushed curly blond hair from her face. “Here, why don’t you go put these on - the powder room is just over there.”
“Powder room,” he said, getting to his feet, “I’ve never heard that term. I wonder where it comes from.”
“Oh, women used to call it that when its purpose was for them to reapply makeup and… well, to be frank, do drugs.” She blushed and added, “I read it in a book.”
His eyebrows sailed into his hairline. “Really. Well, that’s quite interesting.”
There was a moment of silence that Lydia felt uncomfortable breaking, but as he turned to leave she asked, “Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, tea? Maybe something stronger since you’ve been ‘wandering’ for so long?”
He laughed, the sound filling the room with a jovial sentiment. It lightened Lydia’s heart and made her smile widely as well. He replied, “Just tea would be lovely.”
So she went to the kitchen while he changed, and soon she was back with a steaming mug of Earl Grey tea. He took his old place on the floor, the sweatshirt and sweatpants quite baggy, but looking as though they fit. “Here,” she said. Upon witnessing his face again, she quickly added, “Oh, I’m so sorry! Let me take care of those!”
He touched his face and nodded, his eyes suddenly troubled. She tried to ignore this as she took an alcohol wipe to the bloodied areas around his nose, softly applying some ointment to his bruised eyes. She noticed another cut near his hairline, which she cleaned and applied antiseptic to before standing back and saying, “All done. Please, enjoy your tea.”
Jordan smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“What happened at the lodge?” She asked, “If you don’t mind telling me that story.”
“I suppose I did promise it to you,” he said. Jordan paused for a few seconds and sipped his tea. “I should warn you, it disturbed me deeply.”
Lydia frowned and sat down next to him on the fake fur rug she had in front of the fire. “Please, go ahead. A lot of my guests go to that ski lodge on my recommendation, and I’d hate to be leading them anywhere… disturbing.”
He took another sip and then said, “It began early this morning. I was seeking refuge from the gale as I was at your door. I spotted this large… large mansion from the top of a hill, with warm yellow light spilling out from its little windows on the snow. I couldn’t picture a better place to take a break from my journey. Well, I got to the doors and they were closed. I knocked, but before I could knock thrice a woman dressed in a funny uniform came up to greet me. She looked severe, and when she saw what I was wearing… Well, I didn’t press the matter, but as I was leaving, these three odd looking men came up to me. I tried to turn the other way, but before I knew it, they hit me to the ground. I tried getting up, but they hit me again. I stayed in the snow long enough to hear their footsteps fade away, after which I got up and staggered around the woods until I found your lodge.”
“Really? These guys just… hit you out of nowhere?” Lydia tried not to smile. Jordan had gotten security called on him, that was all. She’d just have to tell her guests not to tempt the night guards.
Jordan nodded gravely. “I… It troubled me deeply. Why would these men hit me like that? I was going on my way.”
She pursed her lips and said, “It’s not fair… You mentioned a journey? Where are you headed?”
“That… even I do not know. I came to a house some months ago… They told me I had amnesia, and they were right.” Jordan took a long draft and continued, “I cannot remember where I’m from, who my family are, and, to my dismay, where I am going.”
“You… don’t know any of that stuff?” asked Lydia incredulously. “You should go to the authorities. Like… The police, or a hospital at least. They might be able to guide you in the right direction.”
“I… don’t like authority very much,” said Jordan sheepishly. “I may now know where I am going, but some things I know in my heart. I know my home was beautiful… warm, with a loving family very much like some of the people I have met here. I know that I must keep moving forward. And… I know in my heart that it would be wrong to go to the authorities. They will not find any answers, and I will be only slowed in my mission.”
“Which is…” Lydia’s eyebrows arched over soft brown eyes.
Jordan shrugged. “I only know that I am searching for something, and I sense urgency in my soul. Something, a faint memory perhaps, tells me I have much more to my life than I know - that I have experienced that which only a few have, and that I must find… something in this world.” His hand shook a little as he sipped his tea again. “It… It’s really frustrating.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Lydia, understanding only in the vaguest sense what Jordan was going through.
“I’m sorry, I feel like I’m burdening you with my problems.” Jordan looked back into the fire, the troubled light not leaving his eyes. The fire dimmed and churned uncomfortably. As Lydia went to stoke it, Jordan said, “So you own this lodge?”
“And you invite people in here to share in the warmth?” Jordan nodded. “That is a noble cause.”
“Well, it’s for a price,” she said, smiling abashedly.
“That may be, but you took me in and I have no money to pay you, as I’m sure you could tell by my… ragged appearance.”
“Yes, well… I’m not going to make you pay, if that’s where you’re going,” said Lydia with a smile, gesturing to a couch, which Jordan gladly sat in while she took an adjacent armchair.
“Thank you,” said Jordan.
These simple words filled Lydia with hope and pride such that she had not felt in many years. In a normal season, she’d accept a few hundred people into her lodge, counting each dollar and making sure every guest was paying their dues. When she’d first gotten the place, she had never even entertained the idea of allowing friends or even family to stay for a discount. It was a heinous notion to her. Once, a guest of hers had not been able to pay her in full when it came time, and so she went with the man into the city where he withdrew everything he could from a bank and paid her for the stay and the gas. Yet now she couldn’t imagine a better payment than Jordan’s pure gratitude.
She cleared her throat. “Well, are you going to stay the night?”
“Why do you think they did it?” asked Jordan suddenly, his eyes unfocused and on the fire once more.
“The men,” he turned to her, “I know what you think - the thought has crossed my mind as well. They were not security. In my heart, I know this. I saw a security guard out by the back of the mansion, and he was dressed differently than these men. Which means-”
“They attacked you for no reason,” finished Lydia, her expression darkening.
There was a tense silence interrupted by the crackling of the fire. At last, Lydia sighed and said, “I don’t know, Jordan. I’m being honest, I just don’t know. If those guys were… stragglers from the lodge, or people illegally skiing on the slopes… there’s plenty of explanations of who they are, but I don’t know why they hit you.”
“You don’t?” Jordan sounded even more troubled.
“I’m sure some psychologist could talk to them and figure it out,” said Lydia, “but I can only tell you what I think.”
“That’s all I need to hear,” replied Jordan, leaning forward.
“Sometimes,” she began, her eyes glassy and recalling the sharp mulch of a school playground, “Sometimes, people do things, and we can’t explain them because they’re born in a place of irrational and reckless anger. These men, they came at you for some reason even they probably aren’t wise enough to understand. I can only apologize on their behalf.”
“I accept,” said Jordan, whose eyes cleared up. “But I’m afraid I can’t stay the night-”
“You’re staying,” interjected Lydia firmly, “I’m not turning you out in this wind storm.”
Jordan relaxed and said, “Thank you again.”
She nodded. “Now, I’m going to get started on lunch - you look like you haven’t eaten in days. Why don’t you go wash up - full bathroom’s on the second floor. You’ll find towels in the cabinet by the toilet. There should be soaps already there.”
He got up, finishing his tea. He stared at the fire for a long moment, and then smiled, as though realizing something important. With a nod to Lydia, he headed upstairs, and she was left to marvel at the strange turn her morning had taken, Analyzing Hamlet laying spine-up on her coffee table.
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Hi Dhruv, really enjoyed this story and the development that Lydia clearly displayed. I see from the other comments that you've written more about Jordan, I'll be sure to check your other stories out as he really intrigues me. Keep up the good work!
Hi Dhruv! Good work here! I'm a big fan of kindness-of-stranger stories and stories of personal growth, and you delivered on both of those here. I also really like how you bookended this with Analyzing Hamlet - it was a great open and shut for the story. I got loud and clear Christ vibes from Jordan, but have a lot of questions about him as a character - not the least of which is how he remembers his name but nothing else? Also, just being careful that the factual details of your story are accurate - for instance, there are no grizzlies i...
Hey Hannah - thanks for the comment! You're absolutely right about the grizzlies and the cedar pines, and I'll definitely keep regional consistency in mind for my future work. I generally strive to make stories as tight and believable as possible (even if they're pure fantasy), so I appreciate learning more about an aspect of that which I could work on. With regards to Jordan, his character is mysterious to me as well, and I'm sure we'll learn more about him in the future. As I mentioned in the other comment thread with Keya, I have written...
Ooooh I had no idea Jordan wasn't unique to this story! I'll definitely check him out. Thanks!
hi great story - and grizzlies are cousins of black bears, its fiction right anything goes I loved this one good job
your welcome I am still learning how to write too - Hannah was right though about accuracy it's important, someone told me once that alligators don't live in Tennesee but they do now, apparently they have migrated - probably looking for food. It helps to do a little googling for facts. I had written a story that took place in Tallahassee, TN.
Wow Dhruv, this is incredible. Being honest, this week's prompt got me scratching my head but you pulled it off so amazingly. The story is well constructed with great description, it had me intrigued the whole while. There were turns hard to guess. Looking forward to a sequel (You can't leave us like that. I mean who were those people? Why did they hit Jordan? Is Jordan actually a good character?)
Thank you so much for the comment, Keya! Actually, I have already written a few stories featuring Jordan Clemence. His first appearance was in "The Guest", published in Contest #56. He's also featured in "The Host's Confession" (Contest #96), whose other main character has his backstory told in "A Chance Encounter" (Contest #64). That last story is one of my most popular. I'm somewhat constricted by the prompts of the week, but I'm definitely not done with his long, enchanting story. Thanks again for taking a moment to comment - I really a...
Oh great. I'll check out the stories you mentioned. This was really very good, just the piece I wanted to read :)