Maggie sighed and tossed her home renovation magazine aside. The glossy pages of beautifully decorated rooms seemed to mock the idea that she would ever get the beach house that she longed for. She was doomed to listen to Audrey and Maude burble on at the book club about their beach properties for ever. It was not for want of trying to convince her husband Tom that it would be a great investment for their retirement. She pushed the magazines under his nose, made him sit through hours of reality television about flipping houses and buying real estate and even dragged him to some open houses. Easy-going by nature, he rarely objected, but also showed no sign of acquiescing with her ideas. She looked at the clock. He should be home any moment now. She headed off to the kitchen to start dinner.
An hour later, she was beginning to worry. He worked in construction, and she tended to go to worst case scenarios whenever he was late. She was equally irritated and relieved when she heard his key in the door. He came into the kitchen, beaming, and swept her off her feet into an extravagant hug. Maggie extricated herself and stepped back, surveying him anxiously. She hadn’t seen him this excited since their son was born thirty odd years ago. His usual greeting consisted of a peck on the cheek as he passed her on the way to the fridge to grab a beer.
“Tom? Did you win the lottery?”
He shook his head, grinning.
“I wish. Next best thing. We’re going to look at a house at the beach tomorrow. That’s why I’m late. I was setting up an appointment with the realtor.”
Maggie dropped her dish towel and flung her arms around his neck.
“So, you were listening to me after all,” she said. “What’s it like? Where is it?”
“It’s a surprise,” he said proudly. “You’ll see it all tomorrow.”
Maggie tossed and turned that night, picturing herself admiring ocean views from the balcony, a glass of chilled chardonnay in her hand. She finally fell asleep with color schemes running through her mind. Sky blue, turquoise, azure and mint green perhaps, but absolutely no kitschy shell decorations. She woke early and heard Tom singing in the bathroom as she packed a lunch. It was a beautiful spring day. It occurred to her that she couldn’t remember the last time they had gone on an outing like this.
Traffic was light and they made good time, singing along to the country music blasting on the radio.
“Here we are,” said Tom as they reached the outskirts of the coastal town. Maggie eagerly gazed at the tourist shops, palm trees and seagulls, straining for a glimpse of the sea. She kept her eye open for ‘For Sale’ signs, but he continued past all the fancy, pastel colored ocean front houses with cute names like ‘Captain’s Rest’ and ‘Sea La Vie’ and turned down a residential street three streets back from the ocean. Parking the truck in front of a modest older home, he waved at a slim, well-dressed woman who appeared on the front porch.
“This is Jenna, the realtor who’s been helping me look for properties,” he said.
Jenna proffered her hand and smiled.
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “Let me show you around. This place has so much potential.”
Maggie’s heart sank. She knew what ‘potential’ meant from all the reality shows she’d watched. Inside, her worst fears were realized. There was peeling vinyl on the kitchen floor and dirty green shag carpet in the living room. The trim was dark brown. The kitchen appliances were avocado green and at least thirty years old.
“Was this the only place you could find?” she said. “It’s going to be so much work.”
Jenna, who had been hovering in the background, cleared her throat.
“You could always tear down and rebuild,” she said.
Maggie turned to Tom, a gleam of excitement in her eye.
“What do you think?”
“Excuse us for a moment,” he said to Jenna, who scurried outside. “This is the only thing I could find that fits our budget. It’s solid. I’ll renovate the kitchen and bathroom. You decorate to your heart’s desire. We’re not in the same income bracket as your fancy book club friends and I’m not going to get into debt to compete with them.”
Looking at Tom’s hurt expression, Maggie flushed with shame at having been so transparent.
“I’m sorry,” she said, hugging him. “You’re right. No point having champagne tastes on a beer income. We can make it special.”
The next few months were a blur of activity. Tom was as good as his word and worked wonders with the kitchen and bathroom. Maggie was so busy stripping and repainting walls and sewing curtains and cushions that she had no time to hanker after her dream house. The result was cozy and eclectic, and if they didn’t have an ocean front balcony, they did have a screened back porch where she could enjoy her chilled chardonnay and Tom his cold beer. Even Maude and Audrey were impressed when they came to visit.
“We thought about ocean front, you know,” said Maggie airily as she showed them around. “But this place has more personality than those cookie cutter McMansions.”
Tom, in the background, smothered a grin.
A few days later Tom and Maggie awoke to the sound of heavy equipment grinding away at the house next door. The house seemed to gradually double in size as a large extension was added. Tom followed the process with interest, chatting to the workers as all his old construction skills resurfaced.
“Must be nice to have money like that,” Maggie said, with a pang of envy as they watched a large moving van pull up, followed by a car, a few weeks later. A tall, slim woman got out of the car and began directing the movers.
“Beware the green eyed-monster,” Tom said, chuckling, as he headed out to the back garden where he was building a gazebo. Finally empty, the van left and the woman emerged from the house, stretching and looking weary. Maggie waved at her over the fence.
“Hi, won’t you come in for a coffee? You must be exhausted.”
“That sounds wonderful. I’m Val,” said the woman, smiling. “I’d love a cup and I’ll be glad to reciprocate whenever I can get unpacked and find my coffee maker.”
Tom gave Val what he called the five-minute tour of their house while Maggie served cakes and coffee.
“Your construction people did a good job,” he said. “That’s my line of work, so I know what I’m talking about.”
“After seeing what you did here, I know that’s true,” Val said, gazing around at the house. “It’s so cozy.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” said Maggie wryly. “Having the extra space with your extension will be wonderful.”
Val sighed and looked down at her coffee.
“I’m glad you mentioned that. My husband was in a bad car accident a few years ago. It’s a miracle that he survived, but he sustained permanent brain damage. He has a mental age of about five.”
Tom and Maggie stared, flabbergasted.
“I am so sorry,” said Maggie, hurriedly passing Val the tissues as her tears welled.
“You weren’t to know,” said Val, wiping her eyes. “Imagine a five-year-old six-foot-tall former football player and you’ll get the picture. He was in a private residential place for a while, but they claimed they couldn’t manage his behavior. The only other option was to send him to a state institution, but I wouldn’t keep a dog there if I could help it. We already had this house, so I used the insurance money from the accident to modify it and I’ve hired a nurse’s aide. I didn’t want you to be alarmed if you hear yelling or commotion from time to time. He would never hurt anyone intentionally, but like any child, he sometimes has a meltdown if he gets tired or his routine is changed. He’ll be fine once he gets settled.”
“It sounds so inadequate but let us know if there’s anything we can do to help,” said Tom.
Val smiled wearily.
“I will. Thanks for the coffee. Now I’d better get going. He’s arriving later today, and I have a lot to do.”
That evening, as they sat on the porch, Maggie looked from their house to the house next door as if seeing the scene for the first time.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” she said. “I’ll be very careful what I wish for from now on.”