Thankful by Elsie James

Chapter One: Charles

I walk into the lobby at the Timber Logging and take a look around. The building is nice, more so than I expected for such a small town. I guess if I have to start over at this point in my life, doing it in Lumberjack Lagoon is as good a place as any.

Not to mention that as an investor, this town has a lot to offer me. The downtown area has long stretches of undeveloped parcels as well as a few vacant buildings that could turn a profit just based on location alone. It’s beautiful and quaint, not too unlike my hometown. The untapped potential here for tourism revenue is staggering.

The logging company owns most of the undeveloped plots, but today I’m hoping to change that by striking up a partnership. Timber Logging defers to its board to make financial decisions.

From what I can tell, the board is made up of locals, a few loggers, and some out of town investors. In today’s meeting, I hope to impress them with my plans to develop their town and officially throw my hat in the ring as a candidate for partnership.

I give my name at the front desk and a woman escorts me down the long hall. I take a seat on the brown leather couch outside of the boardroom ten minutes before I’m scheduled to meet with them and make myself comfortable.

It’s clear from the photos lining the walls that Timber Logging, despite its impressive size, operates as a mom and pop. There are photos of employees posing at events in the community, couples smiling next to logging trucks, and kids dressed as mini-lumberjacks. There’s a charm to it.

In fact, I always imagined that my life would look like the ones in these photos. My plan was to live a simple life, to find a job where I worked hard every day, and came home to a loving wife and a house full of children. I didn’t expect to luck into a few good investments early on, money was never my end goal.

If I could go back in time and make different choices, I would. But I was naive and I had no idea how money could complicate things. Even with the wealth aside, nothing is as I imagined. I sure didn’t plan on being divorced. I never thought I’d move out of the town I lived in my whole life but here I am, forty years old and two-hours away from everything I’ve ever known.

Buzz. Buzz.

My phone vibrates in my pocket and I let out a sigh when I see my ex-wife’s number flash across the screen. She is literally the last person I want to hear from right now, or ever really. I clear the call but when it vibrates again, I relent.

“What’s up Christina?” I answer hastily.

“You moved and didn’t tell me?” She sounds exasperated and I can’t imagine why.

“Yeah, I did.” What does she expect? We’ve been divorced for three years and we weren’t exactly excellent communicators even when we were married.

“Everyone in town knew before me,” she wines.

“Hmm, ironic,” I exhale a humorless chuckle into the phone, and can’t stop myself from shaking my head. This is so Christina, it’s always been about what people think of her. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“My dad wanted me to let you know your name is officially off of the contract,” she mumbles. “Our accountant will transfer the funds this afternoon. I think you’re being short-sighted, we’re on track to have our biggest quarter yet.”

Instant relief floods me. Finally, my name is legally detached from Winchester Investments. My former company was the last thing binding me to Christina and her family. For years I’ve fought to dissolve the company altogether and they worked just as hard to keep it. I’ve handed them a small fortune but I feel like I can breathe for the first time in four years.

“Good,” is all I manage to get out.

“I felt so dumb when I heard you picked up and disappeared,” Christina continues, “People had so many questions like where you went, and why, and I’m not even sure what to tell them.”

My relief quickly dissolves into annoyance. I don’t owe her an explanation for anything. After everything that's happened, I’m finally free. Right now, all I want is the quickest path to ending this call, a call I never have to answer again. “You know how it is in small towns, they’re ridiculous.”

A loud slam comes from behind me and I turn to see an enormous lumberjack scowling in my direction. I’m not sure what his problem is but I can’t deal with him and Christina at the same time.

“Well just so you know, we would have appreciated a heads up. Stewart and I were totally embarrassed at church,” she rambles and it pushes me over the edge.

“God forbid the thousand people in the town think less of me. You know, I’ll do what I need to and I won’t lose sleep over it. I suggest you do the same,” I try to keep my tone even but my words drip with angst.

“They do think less of you,” Christina can’t help but bait me into an argument by throwing one final blow.

Predictably, it works and I decide to deliver a blow of my own. “That’s what happens when small minds gather in the same tiny town.” I pull my phone away from my ear and end the call.

I shake my head in disbelief, a fifteen-year chapter of my life has finally come to a close. I can't believe Christina and I were ever married. At the time, we were young, and I thought it was love.

Deep down, I must have known all along that something was off because when I found Stewart in my bed with her, a part of me wasn’t even surprised. Walking away from my marriage wasn’t nearly as hard as walking away from my hometown.

I slide my phone into my pocket and shake off the call. I have a shot at a fresh start and I’m going to take it. I imagine what starting over could look like in this town. Could I become a part of this community? Will my picture ever end up among the smiling faces on this wall? I hope so.

The clock ticks to ten and I stand up, ready to walk into the boardroom and change my life. As I do, the enormous, scowling man in the red flannel appears beside me and I turn to face him.

“So that’s it huh? Small minds in a small town and you’re here to save the day?” His words come out almost in a growl and I’m completely caught off guard.

“Excuse me?” I question him.

“You heard me, I’m sick of investors like you who come in here, they don’t care about this town or the people in it and think they know what's best.”

“Who are you?” My question comes out laced with more sarcasm than I intended but it gets my point across. This dude is lurking around the hall listening in on conversations like some sort of lumberjack vigilante and he has no idea what he’s talking about.

“I am this town, I’m all the people in it. I’m on the board and I’m telling you right now, you might not want to bother walking into this meeting, it's not gonna go well for you.”

I furrow my eyebrows and take him in. “You’re interesting, man,” I say with an arrogant, dismissive chuckle before turning my attention back to my phone.

When I was younger, I may have puffed my chest, and let my ego deal with this asshole but I don’t need that in my life anymore. With the success of Timber Logging, I find it highly unlikely that they would allow some lunatic like this guy on the board. So I brush him off and ignore him completely until I’m called in.

He mumbles something under his breath but thankfully the door clicks open before I’m forced to deal with him. A woman with a briefcase walks out and a large man stands to usher me inside. I’m six-foot-three and I’ve never felt more average height than I do in this town. The man gives me a friendly nod and I step inside, the angry lumberjack at my heels.

“Hey, I’m Adler Oakes, thanks for coming today,” the man says shaking my hand.

“Charles Winchester, pleasure. Thanks for seeing me.”

I take a seat and settle into my chair. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on this side of a board meeting. Glancing around the room, I’m greeted by mostly pleasant faces. The angry lumberjack sits across the table from me and buries his face in his phone. I’m happy he’s keeping himself distracted.

“What can we do for you today?” Adler asks.

“Today I want to present a proposal for the development of your land located at the 200th block of Main and Cherry. I have a vision for this part of town that I think you’ll be interested in, the opportunity to generate sustainable revenue from tourism—” I start, but the angry lumberjack cuts me off.

“No man, this is the same bullshit as before. I heard this guy outside laughing about our town and the people in it. He has no intention of preserving our town’s character. Right dude? Tell them, tell them what you said about small towns and small minds,” his face is flushed red with anger and I’ve had enough.

“I don’t know what you think you heard, but you’ve got it confused,” I say through gritted teeth. The younger me threatens to make a reappearance and I imagine the two of us going to blows, scuffling across the floor in the boardroom.

“Asher, give him a chance to speak,” Adler says authoritatively, holding up a hand in Asher’s direction. It seems to work momentarily. Asher pushes his chair back from the table a bit and scrolls furiously on his phone.

I press on and explain the changes I have in store for the town. I paint a picture of new jobs, diversified revenue, a robust economy, and opportunities to build a life here outside of the logging industry.

I did my homework, and I know this town needs me as much as I need them. It seems most of the board members know it too. Heads nod in agreement as I describe in detail the day to day impact on the community. When I pause, the board members sit in almost stoic silence. It’s difficult to gage their reaction but if I had to guess, I’d say most are sold.

“I like it,” a woman starts. “If my daughter had a chance to work closer to home, she’d be able to move back after college. There just aren’t too many things for someone like her to do here, right now.”

“Me too,” a man adds. “It’s in line with our stated goals.”

“Yes—” a man in a hat starts, but Asher cuts him off.

“You’re Charles Winchester right?” His voice is two times louder than required and I wonder why the hell they let this guy in the room to begin with.

I nod my head and stifle an eye roll. “Yes, I am.”

Asher holds up his phone and I wince when I see the logo from my hometown’s local newspaper. He scrolls his finger across the screen and pulls up an article, my heart races out of control.

“Do y’all want another Barry on our hands? Look at this shit, I told you we can’t trust him. Look what he did in the last town that invested with him.” Asher waves his phone around.

I swallow hard. I don’t know who Barry is, but I don’t need to read the headline to know what the article says about me. A hollow feeling bubbles in my stomach and it takes the fight out of me. In fact, I think I might be sick.

“Let’s just wait a minute,” Adler says, taking control of the room. He turns to me and holds up the article glowing on the phone. “Is this you?”

“Yes,” I say simply. I’m a lot of things, but I'm not a liar. “That was a complicated situation, and if you’d like to know the details I’m an open book. It’s not what it seems and there isn’t a day that passes where I don’t regret what happened.”

“Don’t bother,” a man calls out.

“Yeah, you can go,” says a woman, shaking her head.

I can’t believe this, there’s no escaping my past. I sigh in frustration and pack up my laptop. Some kind of small-town mob-mentality is taking over and I’m not sticking around to find out how this ends for me. Adler stands and holds the door open for me.

“We’re done here,” Adler says.

“Do you need help out? I’m available, I’d love to walk you out,” Asher’s taunting voice floats above the rest.

I look back at him, smiling as if he’s saved his town. What an idiot. I turn to Adler, “I don’t know what kind of operation you all run, but I wouldn’t want any part of it at this point anyway. It’s at the very least unprofessional and we both know your town won’t be able to sustain itself for much longer without outside investors. So good luck to you if you let him guide your decision making.”

“Easy,” Adler warns me with a firm tone.

Asher gives me a cocky, mock grin. “I think we’ll be ok without your big-city dollars buying up our town.”

Fury boils in my stomach as I make my way down the hall and toward the exit. I can’t get out of here fast enough. An odd combination of rage and disappointment overwhelms me. I thought I found a place to start over but it seems I was wrong again.

I’d never come in and push big business on a small town, especially after what happened back home. If they can’t allow me the time to explain that, then my money is simply better spent elsewhere.

I tear through the parking lot and get in my truck, ready to leave but with no real destination in mind. My condo downtown is nice but it doesn’t exactly feel like home yet. So I sit in silence for a minute, angry for the loss of what could have been and contemplating my next move.

A woman screeches into the parking space next to me and her car door flies open, smacking loudly into the side of my truck.

“Ugh, why not?” I say aloud to myself.

I step out of my truck and walk around to the passenger side to look at the damage. A six-inch white scratch in the middle of my black paint job sounds about right for the way things have been going.

“I’m sorry, I’m running late,” the woman says, seemingly frazzled.

“You’re fine, I can buff that out,” I reply.

“Oh good, well I can pay for it, it’s completely my own fault,” she says.

“Don’t worry about it,” I tell her.

“Thanks, it’s been a long morning,” she says with a chuckle, her enormous wedding ring glitters in the sun.

As she turns to leave a file folder falls from her purse and its contents scatter onto the ground. The breeze tosses the papers gently from side to side and she scrambles to collect them. Begrudgingly, I help her, pinning a stack of pages to the ground with my foot.

“Your boss probably needs these,” I say, handing the pages back to her.

“I am the boss,” she stops and smirks at me, making eye contact for the first time. “I’m Lily Oakes.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to assume, it’s just, I don’t know many female lumberjacks.” You’ve got to be kidding me. One of those insane lumberjacks is married to this normal, personable woman.

“None taken,” she says with a breezy laugh. “To be fair, I inherited the company from my late father, and my husband Adler runs most of the operation from day to day. I spend more time at my bakery downtown, but I do try to sit in on the board meetings.”

“Charles Winchester, nice to meet you,” I say shaking her hand. “I’m just on my way out.”

“Charles Winchester? Aren’t you supposed to be in the board meeting right now? That’s where I’m headed. I looked over the notes you sent ahead of time, and I’m very interested in your proposal.”

“I’m afraid I wasn’t a crowd favorite,” I chuckle humorlessly and pull open the door to my truck. “Nice to meet you.”

I get in and start my engine, analyzing the contrast in the dynamics between the people in that boardroom and Lily. If I had to guess, I’d say Lily is clearly the only reason Timber Logging is so successful.

I search my phone for a local hike, or restaurant, or anything to keep me from having to drive straight back to my empty condo. Lumberjack Lagoon was my backup plan, if this isn’t going to work out, I don’t know where to go from here.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

I look up from my phone a bit startled and roll down my window. Lily’s face is kind and questioning.

“Charles, if it’s alright with you, I’d still like to talk. I have a vision for growing this town from the inside out, and I’m interested in what you have to say.”

I hesitate for a moment, am I really considering going into business with a company whose board treats potential investors with such hostility? Am I creating more chaos than it’s worth? Didn’t I move to get away from all the negativity?

As I sit there, Lily seems to read my mind. “Just us, we can step into my office and if it’s not a match, well, at least you can leave with a hot cup of coffee.”

“Alright, let’s chat.”

Lily and I enter her office through the side door and our thirty-minute discussion stretches on for three hours. By the time I leave, the sinking feeling in my stomach is gone and replaced by renewed hope. It looks like Lumberjack Lagoon maybe my fresh start after all.