Hannah Hickok was not having a good day.
It started when she left her small apartment in Roseville, Michigan. She didn’t live in the best neighborhood as it was — gang activity was creeping into the Detroit suburb, moving north, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to hear a gunshot or two at night — but she wasn’t expecting a high-speed car chase to force her to hop into the gutter during her two-block walk to the bus stop.
The gutter, of course, was full of dirty water from the storms the night before. The drainage system was clearly blocked thanks to the discarded newspapers, fast food wrappers, syringes, condoms, and any other number of abandoned items that people were too lazy to see properly tucked away. Because of that, the one nice pair of dress shoes Hannah owned were soaking wet and had bits of things she kept telling herself couldn’t possibly be as bad as she was imagining clinging to them.
Another bout of rain the forecaster promised wasn’t coming hit when she was waiting for the bus. She didn’t have her umbrella — the forecaster swore up and down she wouldn’t need it, after all — so she was caught in the open when the sky opened up. Since her blond hair, which she thought of as her best attribute on a good day, curled in humidity and rain, she looked disheveled when she finally made her way to the law office where she worked in the Renaissance Center, which was located in downtown Detroit. It was actually half-curly and half-straight, which gave her a deranged sort of look.
She was still lamenting her bad luck when she crossed the threshold into the Renaissance Center — a building she used to love when she first started working inside of it, but now hated — and her security pass alerted. Confused, she knit her eyebrows and watched as the guard, Clyde, a man she’d known since her first day, placed a call to her boss. He looked grave as he listened and the smile he shot her was almost pitying as he handed back the pass.
“You can go up.” He patted her hand, which she should’ve caught on meant something bad was about to happen. She didn’t, though. She was too busy feeling sorry for herself.
“What was wrong?” Hannah asked as she shoved the identification card into her purse. “Did it get wet or something?”
“Probably. You should talk to Mr. Dawson about getting you a new one.”
To Hannah, that sounded like the worst possible idea in the world. Archibald Dawson was more than her boss. He was the man who was supposed to be her father-in-law. That was the plan anyway. He was a senior partner at the firm Dawson, Scruggs and Butler — one of the premier law firms in the state — and he had massive power. His son, Michael, was working his way up the ranks. He was also working his way through the paralegal pool ... and the temp pool ... and the cleaning staff as well, apparently. That’s the reason Hannah and Michael called off their engagement. She caught him cheating on her for the third time (although she suspected that number was much higher) and finally found the strength to kick him to the curb.
She had plans. She thought marrying into a rich family was simply the next step on the way to achieving those plans. It turned out she was wrong. Oh, so very wrong.
Archibald was waiting for her in his office — which was the same size as Hannah’s tiny studio apartment — and he looked busy as he flipped through a file. Hannah had never been comfortable around him. He was a hard man to like because he was curt, cold, and often clueless when it came to conducting conversations with individuals who couldn’t drop ten thousand dollars a day on random purses and watches. He was bad when it came to chatting with people outside of his financial window or the courtroom. That’s why Hannah was surprised he wanted to talk to her. He’d barely looked at her since she’d broken up with his son.
Uncomfortable, Hannah made a weak throat-clearing sound, causing Archibald to look up from the file he was reading and fix her with an unreadable expression.
“Ah, Hannah.” His smile was tightlipped and it made her nervous for some reason, although she couldn’t put her finger on why. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
On instinct, Hannah flicked her eyes to the clock on the wall and frowned. Despite her terrible morning, she was on time. She prided herself on punctuality. She always built twenty extra minutes into each day to make sure she made it to work on time. “Is something wrong?” she asked, licking her lips nervously.
“Something has come up,” he clarified, causing the sense of doom in Hannah’s stomach to spread. “Please shut the door and have a seat.”
That was the last thing Hannah wanted. She wasn’t in the mood for more upheaval. That’s how she ended up in the crappy apartment in Roseville in the first place. She decided to travel to Traverse City to surprise Michael when he was on a special trip and she was the one who was surprised when she let herself into his hotel room and found him naked and panting with a woman she didn’t recognize. Oddly enough, Michael looked more annoyed at the interruption than sorry ... and that’s what sealed it for her.
Michael hadn’t been faithful throughout the duration of their relationship. The first time she caught him cheating was when they first started at the law firm. They went to the same school together — Michigan State University (Archibald bled green and white so he insisted his son attend his alma mater) — and she’d been three-quarters of the way through a public relations degree when Michael declared his love and proposed.
In her head, Hannah knew it was a mistake to quit and follow her boyfriend. Her mother, who died when she was sixteen, would’ve been mortified to think of her only daughter tossing everything she worked so hard for out the window. Hannah thought she knew best, though. She thought she’d found her soulmate. Romance novels and Hallmark movies influenced her decision, and she dropped out.
She and Michael immediately moved in together, a ritzy townhouse in Birmingham, Michigan, serving as their home. Archibald paid for it, of course. Michael was fresh out of college so he didn’t have piles of disposable income like his father. Still, they had a private driver and groceries showed up in the refrigerator like clockwork. Because she didn’t want to sponge off Michael and his family, she went to work as an administrative assistant at the family law firm not long after leaving college.
The money was good. The hours were normal. The work was tedious, but she had no trouble wading through it. She thought things had lined up.
Then she caught Michael with one of the stenographers from the Macomb County Circuit Court. They were having a private lunch at the townhouse Hannah and Michael shared. She only discovered they were together thanks to a flu that had her going home sick early.
Michael apologized, claimed he thought it was allowed because they hadn’t discussed only dating each other, and feigned ignorance of societal norms. Since they were living together, Hannah was under the assumption that meant they were dedicated to one another. Apparently Michael had other ideas.
In hindsight, Hannah realized she should’ve run right there. She didn’t, though. She stayed. Then she caught Michael cheating again, this time with one of the interns working at his father’s law firm. His explanation after that “slip” was that he had a sex addiction. It was all the rage on television, what with Charlie Sheen and TigerWoods spouting off about it left and right. At the time, Hannah convinced herself it was a real thing and agreed to stick by Michael as he worked his way through rehab at a posh resort. It was wrong to abandon a loved one in need. At least that’s what she told herself.
The next few years, he was a good — if distracted and sometimes distant — fiancé. Hannah convinced herself that was normal because they’d been together so long. By now she was five years out of college. She was twenty-six, with no degree, but making a good living as an administrative assistant. They’d yet to set a date, though, or make any plans. She started pushing for it ... and that’s when she caught him with another junior lawyer at the firm.
Laura Madison was twenty-five, perky, and hungry to move up the corporate ladder. Hannah had seen the way she looked at Michael and forced herself to keep from dwelling on the possibility of Laura going after him. Michael had been good for years. Hannah was convinced of that ... kind of. Okay, she wasn’t really convinced of it. She told herself he wouldn’t dare cheat on her again. He was a good man. She wanted to believe that ... until the good man turned into a dog. This time when he was caught, all he did was shrug. He said she should get used to it because it wasn’t going to change.
That’s when she snapped. She lost her cool, threatened him with a pair of scissors, and then headed home. There, she proceeded to shred every expensive suit he owned with said scissors and threw them on the front lawn. She smashed his expensive cologne, stabbed the tires of his luxury sports car, and broke his beloved flat-screen television. She felt better afterward, calm.
And then the hammer dropped. Michael’s was the only name on the lease. She had to move. She looked unbalanced for the way she retaliated. He started rumors that she was crazy and people believed them because of the way she reacted to the betrayal. Everyone asked why she didn’t simply leave with a little dignity. She was so fed up by that point she wasn’t even sure she knew what dignity was. Still, she understood the whispers and did her best to ignore them.
That was three weeks ago, though. She moved quickly, found a terrible apartment she could afford, and tried to ignore the way everyone at the office looked at her … and whispered. She didn’t want to engage in gossip and figured the talk would die down after a few weeks.
Apparently she was wrong.
“Am I in trouble?” Hannah asked, chewing on her bottom lip as she nervously fidgeted in the chair Archibald indicated he wanted her to sit in. “I mean ... am I about to get yelled at?”
Archibald’s expression was bland. He was always hard to read, but today he looked especially taciturn. “Yelled at? No. I don’t think that’s necessary.”
That was an evasive answer, Hannah realized. She didn’t like it. “But I’m in trouble, right?”
“Trouble? I don’t know that I would use that word. It’s more that you’re in limbo.” Archibald leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers on his stomach as he regarded the young woman. At only twenty-six, Hannah had her entire life ahead of her. She felt as if she was suddenly running out of time under his studied gaze, though.
“I’ve given your future with us a great deal of thought,” he started, causing Hannah’s mouth to go dry.
“Meaning ... what?”
“Meaning that I’ve always considered you a diligent, if uninspired, addition to our team,” Archibald replied pragmatically. “You’re one of those women who manages to get the job done even if it takes you six hours to do a task that should only take two.”
Hannah frowned. “I always do everything that’s put in front of me.”
“Of course you do. To be fair, though, you’ve always only done the bare minimum. You’ve never gone out of your way to seek out extra responsibility.”
Hannah could sense where the conversation was going ... and she didn’t like it. “I didn’t realize I was supposed to do that.”
“That’s another problem. You have no initiative.”
“Excuse me?” Despite the serious nature of the conversation — and Hannah had no doubt where it was ultimately going, the security card screw-up should’ve been a giveaway — her temper came out to play. “I don’t see why I have to sit here and be insulted. Your son is the one who should be in here.”
“My son is going to be a senior partner one day.”
“So ... he’s important to the future of this firm,” Archibald replied, not missing a beat. “That’s not a distinction you can lay claim to.”
Hannah understood without reservation what was about to happen. Honestly, she should’ve seen it coming. She knew that. However, it was too late to go back in time and shore up her job prospects. She simply had to stand strong and take it ... if she didn’t pass out from the lightheadedness threatening to overwhelm her.
“I take it I’m being fired,” she croaked out, wringing her hands.
“You’re being relocated,” he corrected. “We have a satellite office in Warren. That’s closer to your new home, I believe. You can either work there or take a severance package we’ve drawn up. It’s completely up to you.”
The old Hannah would’ve made the move to the crappy job in an effort to not make waves. The new Hannah was having none of that, though. Things might not have gone the way she predicted, but she had no intention of just taking the crap Archibald dished out.
“Let’s talk about the severance,” she suggested, taking control of the situation. “I’m guessing it’s not going to be acceptable. I bet we can get it there by the end of the day, though.”
Archibald arched an eyebrow. “Perhaps. I guess we’ll find out.”
IN THE END, HANNAH NEGOTIATEDsix months’ worth of severance and continued insurance. It wasn’t easy — Archibald dug his heels in on the dental and vision — but she ultimately got what she wanted when she reminded him that Michael would be free and clear once she was completely gone from the company.
“As long as I’m here, I’ll always be the woman you had to keep around because you were afraid I would sue — and with cause,” she reminded him. “Once I’m gone the whispers will turn to how well you treated me with the severance package. You won’t be the bad guys.”
Archibald’s lips slowly curved. “You’re much better at this than I’ve given you credit for,” he noted. “You should’ve shown similar initiative before it came to this. I might’ve found a reason to keep you.”
“You’re assuming I would’ve found a reason to be kept. I very much doubt there’s any scenario where that would’ve happened.”
In the end, Hannah was jobless but no longer tied to anything (or anyone) in the area. She had no family in Michigan — her older brother moved to New York after college to be near their father, who relocated after the death of his wife — and she had no idea what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. That’s what made the envelope she found in her mailbox all the more intriguing. It was from some place called Casper Creek, Kentucky.
“I’ve never heard of that,” Hannah muttered as she threw herself on the couch. It was something she picked up from the thrift store and it had a distinctive smell. Her black-lab-mix dog, Jinx, panted happily as he joined her. He didn’t seem bothered by the smell. Of course, he was so happy-go-lucky that almost nothing bothered him.
“Hi.” She smiled at the two-year-old bundle of energy. She and Michael adopted him together. Michael wanted to buy a purebred dog — something that could be shown off and serve as a conversation starter — but Hannah insisted on adopting an animal from a shelter. He was the one thing she took with her when she was forced from the townhouse, although Michael didn’t seem to mind that she took the dog with her when she left. “How was your day?”
Jinx merely tilted his head to the side and regarded her with soft eyes. He was happy to see her when she came home. That was his normal reaction. He didn’t seem to think she was uninspired.
“Should we look inside?” Hannah tore into the envelope and exhaled heavily. Now that the deed was done, she felt better. Of course, she still had to find a job. She’d also negotiated a job recommendation from Archibald and a promise that he and Michael wouldn’t badmouth her to prospective employers. Since Archibald wanted her to be nothing more than a bad memory, he readily agreed to those terms in an effort to make sure they both got what they wanted.
Hannah wasn’t sure what she expected to find in the envelope. She thought Casper Creek was probably some sort of spa resort that would want to tempt her with sugar rubs and mud baths. Those were the sort of things she could occasionally indulge in when dating Michael. She very much doubted they would be in her future moving forward. Instead of a brochure, though, she found a copy of a will ... and a whole new adventure she was never expecting.
“What the ... ?” Her misery from earlier in the day forgotten, Hannah leaned forward and peered at the documents she’d removed from the envelope.
Jinx might not have been able to read, but he recognized the change in her demeanor and gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek as he expectantly waited for her to explain what she was looking at. There were times when Hannah was convinced that he knew exactly what she was feeling ... and saying. He was a goofy dog, but he was also intelligent. She never doubted that.
“According to this, I’ve inherited a town,” Hannah muttered. There was nobody to talk to besides Jinx, so that’s exactly what she did. “A town. It’s some sort of themed town.”
Jinx bopped his head, seemingly excited.
“It’s like a role-playing town. One of those cosplay towns. Everyone dresses up like gunfighters ... and saloon girls ... and rides horses and stuff.”
Jinx merely continued to stare.
“Someone left it to me. A grandmother ... although, I don’t really remember having a grandmother. Do you think I had a grandmother who was still alive after all?”
Jinx couldn’t answer that, so he didn’t.
“This has to be a mistake.” Hannah was certain of that. There was no way she could’ve inherited a town ... especially at a time when she had no job or prospects. That was simply too coincidental. “I’ll call the attorney listed on here and talk to him tomorrow. I’m certain it was a mistake.”
When I was a kid, I was torn between whether or not I was going to grow up and be the Incredible Hulk or Wonder Woman. I flirted with being a Jedi Knight for awhile, but I wasn't up for the intense travel associated with the gig. In my teens, I settled on being a writer -- although I had no idea the effort that would entail.