Part Three of The Mansion in The Mountains by Stella Brians
She had made up her mind about a month ago that she wanted to find Leon, but was afraid to call the retreat, and didn’t know how to tell Vincent. Vincent was a dear friend to her, and considered him a family member. He helped her beyond what most friends did, and at times she felt ashamed of that. Ashamed of being so poor, living hand to mouth, having the state pay for her food. Several times Vincent had offered Eloise to live with him but she knew it wouldn’t be right. How he loved her was how she felt about Leon, and nothing could change that, so Eloise made sure to keep boundaries clear. Tonight was the night that she would speak with him about it, and tomorrow she would call the retreat. She exhaled as anxiety washed over her, a dozen different questions building themselves up in her stomach.
What if Leon had taken another? He could be mad at her, he was certainly very hurt. What if the retreat had closed, or they flat out refused to even speak to her.
“Come on, Eloise, let’s sell some makeup okay? Today? It’s not going to sell itself, how many customers have you had?” demanded the grating voice of her least favorite manager. Eloise turned to confront Savanna, the loud mouthed bitch who breathed down her neck every shift to sell this, do that, and nag.
“Iv’e had thirty customers, and now I have a headache.” She snapped.
“Well gee, I’m real sorry honey but you’re going to have to get more people. I need at least fifty per shift so get to it.”
Eloise resisted the strong urge to choke her out, so she stormed off to help the dwindling array of customers scattered around the store. Most of what her job was, was to drag people unwillingly to the cosmetics counter and force them to buy things so Savanna would be happy and shut up.
“Well miss I really need to pick up my prescription…”
“Yes, but if you follow me over to the beauty department I will give you coupons…”
“I don’t want or need any damn coupons for makeup, I’m a man. Just leave me alone okay?”
Under the florescent lights she lived this retail hell nightly, wondering why she had chosen this path of life for herself, and why she had run away. Eloise had worked through some of her anxiety, but knew it would always be a part of her. She hoped Leon would love her despite being so broken and imperfect. That had been the only problem, how she felt about herself. She felt worthless, ugly, and messed up. They had lived a beautiful life together for two years in the retreat, nothing could be closer to heaven. The men and women there were kind, peaceful, giving. ‘Joy and freedom to all’ was the slogan of the retreat and nothing ran more true. Eloise allowed herself to shine through, wore flowers in her hair, let Leon teach her the guitar. Life was like a neverending dream and because it was as such, she feared one day Leon would leave and it would all be gone.
Eloise had grown up in a small New Hampshire town with her mother and younger brother, very poor, and with a bleak outlook on life. Sandra Baker worked as a waitress, her tips fed them and her menial wages paid the bills. They lived in a tiny trailer park, surrounded by neighbors who were all elderly and lived with their cats. Her brother Lyle, who was six years younger was her only best friend and playmate. Things could have been worse, she often thought looking back. They had food, shelter, and each other. The main difficulty in their lives was that they did not get along with Sandra; she was miserable, chain smoking, and neglectful. But to that, there was a good side as well. Sandra usually left them alone at night to either work or shack up at a girlfriend’s house. If their mother was home, they tried to be elsewhere. For Eloise, childhood was bittersweet. She and Lyle spent long summer evenings under tree sheltered skies listening to Beatles records and making grilled cheese sandwiches, creating fantasy worlds for just the two of them. The age difference usually wasn’t problematic, both kids were mature for their age and learned how to survive together. The only time they were truly apart was in school.
One October evening, Sandra slammed Lyle up against a wall in a rage and spat in his face, smelling like an ashtray and liquor. Lyle was fifteen, and already taller and stronger than his sister. He pushed his mother and she fell on the floor, landing on her fat ass in her waitress uniform. She sat there and glared at her children, in that moment looking like how they imagined Satan to look. Her eyeliner ran down her sweaty cheeks, lips twisted into a snarl, and raggedy hair fell to her withered breasts,
“Get out, or I’ll kill both of you…and no one will care or think to even look.”
The next moments could have been three minutes or thirty, Eloise never could say. She grabbed Lyle, and they went to their room while she grabbed their suitcases from under their bunk bed and stuffed clothes and belongings in them. She mixed up her stuff with his, blindly throwing things in each while fear and rage nearly blinded her. She handed him a suitcase, and whispered, “We are taking her car.”
He tried to protest in fear, but she shook her head.
“She’s insane if she thinks we are walking miles and miles on foot to the nearest city. It’s dangerous and stupid. I have a little money saved from working after school. Gas and food until I find a regular job and can find us somewhere safe to stay.”
“Follow me, Lyle.”
Sandra was waiting in the kitchen, a smoke hanging out of her mouth like a dead fish, sitting at the kitchen table. The keys to her Ford wagon lay next to her ashtray, but Eloise took them in front of her eyes.
“You want us gone? We’re taking your car, and you’ll never see us again.”
“I’ll call the police. You just got your licence, and you’re a terrible driver.”
“I’m a safe driver. If you don’t call the police, or report the car stolen, we won’t tell anyone about your threat to kill us. We’re both getting what we want, Sandra.”
“You stupid bitch, you’ll never make it out there.” Their mother laughed, smoke escaping her nose and mouth. Eloise saw a bloated dragon on the floor, lying there broken.
“We’ll make it better than you.” She had the keys in her hand, Lyle’s hand in the other.
Freedom felt so sweet, and the car keys were their ticket out of there. She remembered climbing into the tired blue leather seats with him in the passenger seat. Everything after that moment seemed clear and vivid–what they wore that day, what was on the radio, how the trees bowed down over the streets as she drove.
Eloise knew full well what she was doing was technically a crime, taking her twelve year old brother out of school and becoming his unofficial caretaker. They did what they had to do to get away from a mother who wanted to kill them. What Sandra had did was worst of any crime, greater than any they had committed, Eloise told herself. She had threatened to kill them, and that was what was really stopping her from calling the police.
The nearest city was Laconia, and that was fine with Eloise because she had been there before on a field trip. Lyle was unusually quiet, and fiddled with the radio now and then. His auburn hair stuck out everywhere in the September heat, the old Ford’s air conditioning nonexistent.
“Let’s go to Funspot Eloise, please?” He asked, peering at her through his glasses.
“I’m not really in the mood for fun…I think we should just get some food and find a motel. We can go tomorrow, in fact, I could even apply for a job there.” She responded, all adult, eyes on the road.
“Dude, what we need is fun. And they have food there, lets just relax for awhile.” Lyle persisted.
“Hmph, okay. You do have a point there. Do you remember where it is? I haven’t been there since middle school.”
Eloise did it for Lyle, forced herself to go into the dark atmosphere plagued with too many people, and the sounds of hundreds of arcade games. Usually she would have enjoyed herself, but today she just wanted to be alone and cry. They ended up downstairs eating at a small restaurant close to some superhero games Lyle wanted to play. She knew this was how he dealt with overwhelming situations, he drowned himself in fantasy so he could have the strength to deal with things as an adult just like his older sister. Eloise just made herself do things because she was older, and that was what she was accustomed to doing.
Lyle finished his hamburger and fries, and went off to go play a Superman game promising to stay where she could see him. The place was so crowded, it made her nervous. Eloise picked at her food, looking at the menu but not reading it. She just needed to rest so she could gather strength to apply for jobs the next day, and even before that they needed to find a motel. She wanted to give Lyle an hour to blow off some steam and be a kid for once before things turned truly serious.
It had been fifteen minutes since he had left her sitting there, picking at her food. Eloise happened to look back where Lyle had been, playing an arcade game when she noticed he wasn’t there. By instinct, she got up and began hurriedly searching, calling his name. She became immersed in crowds of kids that looked like him, asked people if they had seen him. Fear clenched her heart as she ran up the other two flights of the monstrously large place looking for him. Finally, she found someone who worked there and grabbed him.
“I’ve lost him…have you seen him? My little brother he’s about five nine, he’s fifteen and his hair is the same color as mine and his name is Lyle.” Her words piled on top of each other in a long string of slurs while the man in front of her stared.
“Ma’am..um..hmm. I can begin a search party for you. I haven’t seen the person you are describing.” The employee was no older than herself, horn rimmed glasses, beginning of a beard.
“Yes, we should do that.” she managed to get out.
He nodded, and after gathering several other employees they went together to look.
Eloise wandered with them through the throngs of people, eyes darting here and there like an owl searching for prey far below the trees. Nothing was to be found, just children, teenagers, and parents. If Lyle had seen her he would have ran to her and hugged her, told her not to worry. Her first thought was that Sandra had found them, or called the police, maybe had kidnapped and tortured him. After three hours of searching the arcade, the parking lot, the area around the arcade, and talking to everyone to no avail, Eloise began to cry. The police had to be called, and she explained to them what had happened, why they had run away. Surprisingly, the cops were more understanding than she anticipated, and were angry and concerned when Eloise told them of her their mother’s threat.
“You are welcome to sleep at the police department, we have a cot.” One of them offered.
Eloise thanked them, but shook her head. She wanted to be alone, to have a hot shower, to regroup and cry in private.
An attractive young officer told her of a safe motel in the area for her to stay at, and he said they would call the motel if they found Lyle or if any evidence surfaced. Eloise doubted that they would find anything, because the stupid arcade didn’t have any video cameras. It was midnight when she opened the door to her room, a halfway decent place with a fullsize bed, lit dresser, and large shower. There was a color television, and she turned it on for company, pretending Lyle was there. While she was awake she cried, and only stopped when she finally fell asleep.
She stayed in that motel for weeks, paying for it with a waitressing job that would end when she saw a flyer pinned to the bulletin board in the customer area.
The flyer was handmade and colorful, flowers and symbols she had seen before drawn around the edges framing the words; Rainbow Dreams New Age Retreat.
There were photos of men and women with flowers in their hair encircling a huge tree in a forest, of a dark haired man smiling, playing the guitar.
“Live your dreams alongside caring people, learn the way of the God and Goddess, find acceptance, peace, and love.”
Eloise took the flyer and called the number.
“Hello, this is Rainbow Dreams New Age Retreat.”
“Hello, this is Eloise. I was thinking of joining your retreat.”
“Of course, and you are welcome. May I ask you a few questions?” The voice sounded English to her, as well as very soft and kind.
“Do you practice or study herbalism, or earth magic?”
Eloise paused before answering this question, she had heard of these terms before, and with interest, but had never ventured into the pagan craft.
“I have not, but I am interested and am open to learning.” She answered carefully, feeling her breath against the receiver wondering if he could feel it too.
She heard his soft chuckling which gave her butterflies, surprising herself. Eloise hadn’t felt anything on an emotional level since Lyle had disappeared.
“What?” she asked him, hoping he wasn’t laughing at her.
“Your’e very cute, you know. You can be honest that you’ve never tried before, and you need somewhere to stay. Many people come to us in this way, and end up following the path.”
“Are you a cult…because that just won’t do…I…”
“No, we are a group that studies paganism together. Not a coven, not a cult, but a retreat of people that worship the God and Goddess of the Earth together. If you decide at any time you want to leave, I will pay for your plane ticket home.”
“So, this retreat is in upstate New York?” She asked.
“Yes, we are located in the woods of upstate New York, I can even send you a brochure so you can get a better idea. In fact, I’ll rush it to you. Can I have your address?”
“I live in a motel..so you’ll have to send it to the office.”
She gave him her full name and address, and told him that she would call him after looking at the brochure.
“Wait, what’s your name so I know next time I call?”
“It’s Leon, call anytime you need anything, Eloise.”
As the telephone in her motel room went silent and she was fully alone again, her demons and shadows crept up on her and she thought about Lyle. There wasn’t much about this room she really liked. The bed was old and itchy, probably had bed bugs. The paper was peeling off the walls, the lights were dim, and the shower was full of mildew.
Sandra’s voice rang in her ears. Stupid bitch, you’ll never make it out there alone.
And Eloise’s promise, We’ll make it better than you.
It was both a promise and a challenge, but so far she had ruined everything and proved Sandra right. She had lost her brother, lost him. Eloise had a feeling that the police wouldn’t find him, and what she was even more sure of was that she felt suicidal. The waitress job, and living in this shady place without him gave her less and less of a reason to live.
The brochure had came, and she looked over it while sitting on her bed eating Chinese takeout. In full color photographs, the place looked like a faraway fantasy land. They lived in what they had converted from a community center to a spiritual building that held about eighty people. The building was nestled in a forest shouldered by waterfalls and large areas to perform ceremonies and rituals. Photographs continued with people in circles together, holding hands, laughing. There were some depicting rituals, and tools or herbs that were used.
“Rainbow Dreams New Age Retreat
Focusing on Green Magic
Harm to none, blessed be,”
Was what the brochure ended with, above a photo of two young dark haired men standing in front of the retreat smiling and wearing comfortable clothing. Eloise wondered if one of them was Leon. That night, she decided to call Leon and tell him that she would give the retreat a try. After she did that, she found herself calling the police department, and trying to explain.
“I need to get away for awhile, I am extremely depressed and alone. Lyle was all I had. I don’t know what to do, and I am really scared. I found somewhere to go with caring people..I..I..just need to regroup.” Her words came out in such a mess, that she was sure the officer thought she had lost her mind.
“Miss Baker, I truly do understand. Living in a motel is never a long term plan, and I can sympathize.I would advise to go somewhere safe while you take care of yourself and let us call you.”
Eloise felt strange about giving them the retreat’s phone number, but had no choice. She felt better after getting off the phone with the officer, and spent the night packing and getting ready to drive there. Leon had told her that she could keep her car at the retreat as long as it was insured, so she made a mental note to get a job once settled. He had mentioned that most people didn’t keep cars, and he admired her for being independent as she was.
The next morning, Eloise put her bags in the trunk of her car before getting into the driver’s seat. She had quit her job, and planned on using the rest of her money to get herself there. She would be happy, with or without anyone or outside necessities. Most of all, she would be strong and disprove her mother while finding her own happiness. Many things could go awry, and this enchanted looking place had the possibility of being a cult after all, but if there was one thing about Eloise is was that she was very brave.
Leon had told her that it would take about six hours but she arrived in the small town of Saranac Lake in four and a half. The autumn evening pulled its shadows across the quaint buildings of the town, complimented by a backdrop of trees reaching towards the setting sun. Having grown up on New England, this eclectic natural beauty was well known to her and quickly felt at home. Everything seemed smaller than she was used to, and it felt as if she were driving through a dollhouse town. Older people walked the streets, accompanied by young people assumingly their grandchildren. After what she had been through all her life, and the loss of Lyle this place felt like it could heal her just by being there. As Leon had explained, the retreat was through the town and up a winding forest path graced with birds and woodland animals.Through the windows of her car Eloise spotted bluebirds, chipmunks, and squirrels.
The building looked even more inviting in person; it was a large brick building with long factory windows that the members had decorated by painting flowers and symbols. Next to the door, a well crafted sign read “Rainbow Dreams New Age Retreat, Blessed Be.”
Around the building was a full forest with windchimes and decorations that were unknown to her, which hung from nearby trees. She was unsure where to park, so chose a clear area out of the way and got out of the car. Eloise felt naked, standing in front of her car dressed in old jeans and a flannel shirt that had belonged to Lyle.
Thousands of questions hung in the cool autumn air, which felt heavy around her. She waited, as Leon had asked her to, outside in front of the building.
For a few moments, it could have been five or ten, and the door to the building opened to reveal a man in his twenties with olive skin and long wavy black hair. He wore clothes similar to hers; a clean tshirt with the name of the retreat above a rainbow, and bellbottom jeans. The man was very handsome, with a foreign hippie look to him. Like his kindnesses towards her up to this point, his smile and welcome that he gave her were genuine.
“ Hello, I’m Leon. Welcome to the retreat, I hope you find that you like it here,” He paused and smiled before adding, “Nice car.”
Eloise laughed, “I know, it’s a boat more than it is a car. Is it okay if I park it here?”
He watched her quietly, his black wavy hair tucked behind one ear almost shyly.
“I wish I had a car…we walk everywhere. One of the kind souls here has a van, which we use for errands.” She could see how much he liked her from his eyes which said what his words didn’t.
“Thank you for accepting me into the retreat, it’s beautiful here.”
“Of course, we are open to all. So, you said that you were interested in learning green magic? That is what we do here, mainly.”
“Yes, I am. It’s peked my interest before, but due to past circumstances I was unable to get into it.”
“I understand completely, you wouldn’t believe some of the backgrounds people come from that prevents them from seeking the path. May I take your bags…do you have any?”
“They’re in the trunk, I’ll help you.” said Eloise.
Their first day together was spent walking some of the ten acres that Leon and his brother Elijah, whom he called Eli for short, had bought along with the retreat building. The building itself was immaculate in both aesthetics and cleanliness. They had restored and rebuilt the inside so that there were many small rooms for people to stay in, as well as additional bathrooms. The floors were hard wood, and the walls were painted a dark indigo, and there was incense burning. Someone was smudging the building with sage, Leon told her it was a cleansing. He introduced her to people sitting on rugs in circles, some very silent, some whose faces spilled over with smiles.
“Where would you like to sleep? There are usually two to four to a room, but we have one that is vacant with only two beds.”
“How much will I owe you?” She asked.
He looked at her teasingly and said, “There is no cost. We are a family here, not a hotel. What happens is, everyone has some kind of part time job in the village and we split bills and food. It costs next to nothing, dear Eloise. I will let you get rest and get settled into your room, you look exhausted. The nearest bathroom to you is two doors down, so feel free to use it whenever necessary. I will see you in the morning, when do you wake up?” He asked her.
She thought for a moment, thought about how much she wanted to see him again and hear his British accent all day long.
“Why don’t we meet for breakfast at seven?” she asked.
“That’s fine with me. It’s been a pleasure Eloise.” He winked before leaving, and she watched him walk down the hall and towards the stairs of the big place.
Before going to sleep that night, her last thoughts were about what it would feel like to kiss his soft lips and touch his dark curly hair.