The next morning Earl arrived on the stage coach with a haggard looking man about his age he introduced as his friend Mark. The stage coach was the quaint way guests had of arriving to Recovery Ranch. Earl said he had been through quite a harrowing experience, but his friend had requested that he be among the first to greet him when he arrived in the hereafter and he did not want to let him down. I had never thought about spirits having to stop whatever they were doing to go greet their friends passing into the hereafter.
Earl asked Solange and me to meet around the table for an informal discussion with Mark. He said Mark was convinced he should go to hell, but did not not know how he could go about getting there. I could not believe I would be asked to participate in such a bizarre meeting when I had so recently arrived in the hereafter myself. What did I know about directions to hell?
Mark was quite an earnest man and he explained that he had been a multi-millionaire and had come to the conclusion that he had robbed the poor to become rich.
"I told him he could not bring it with him, wasn't that punishment enough," laughed Earl. I was shocked. I had no idea people would be talking so casually about their sins in the hereafter. I supposed I had taken bible stories too seriously.
"Are you sure you were such a bad man?" I asked. "It looks to me as though people just need to acknowledge their excesses in order to turn a corner. I, for one, don't want to see people actually burning in hell's fires for the sin of making too much money."
"Never argue with a man who says he has been bad," said Earl sharply.
"Oh, no, I never underestimate a man's capacity to be bad," I said, "and I admit I have not been keeping company will multi-millionaires but you said you wanted our input. I thought you meant it."
"Well, maybe, I don't really wanted your input, after all," said Earl perversely. I could see he thought I was a typical woman who spoke before she thought. I started thinking about the stage coach with some longing. Perhaps I did not belong at Recovery Ranch after all. I recalled taking the stagecoach on an impulse, but the driver had driven his four horses at a fast clip, careening around every bend. I thought for sure he was going to lay the stage coach on its side at one point. I yelled to the driver to slow down. I could not help myself.
Where was my family? Only now did I remember that I had been talking to my sister Coral who had greeted me when I first arrived in the hereafter. I had not seen her for many years. In fact I hardly remembered her since she died when she was nine of a sudden illness. Nobody even knew what she had. She was just coming down with whatever it was and died before she could break out with something.
She was the only member of my immediate family who had proceeded me in death. Well, of course Mother and Dad, but when Coral asked me if I wanted to see them, I was horrified, and said, oh no, I was not ready for them.
To my surprise Coral burst out laughing. She said, "Oh you are not so different. Relatives who go to greet their beloved family members who have passed from earth often have second thoughts. Some will go hide behind trees so their relatives can be interrogated as to whether they want to see them, as they just remembered how mad so and so got at them, probably had not forgiven them, and may not ever want to see them again."
I thought her irreverent marks were rather inappropriate and said, "well, of course, I will want to see Daddy if I am sure he can control his temper now. I don't want to start talking to him in the hereafter if he still as onery as he was before he died."
"Onery, how could anybody say that about Daddy?" said Coral. I looked sharply at this pert young woman with sort of reddish hair who did not even look like the kid, Coral, that I remembered. I would not have known if she was an imposter. But she said she was Coral, so I had accepted her. She could hardly stay nine years old looking. As though time had stood still for her, could she?
That was when I sat down, saying I was very tired, and Coral told me to sit right there, she would be back in a few minutes. I think I took a very brief nap, I was so tired, and when I opened my eyes I saw the stage coach with the name written on the side, 'Recovery Ranch'. I had never felt so compelled to do anything in my life as I was compelled to take the stage coach. It almost seemed like it was there for me. I could not even stop myself. I went over and opened the door and climbed in.
"I have just had the most terrible thought," I told Earl. "I think I went off and left my sister Coral at the greeting station without a word."
"Oh yes," said Earl. "I meant to tell you. She called and asked me if by chance a woman of your description had taken the stage coach to Recovery Ranch. She said she liked horses, so there was a good chance she had been so fascinated by a real stage coach she jumped aboard. I was very amused and told her I thought she was here, all right. I described you to her and said you told me your name was Shadra and you used to live on a ranch and ride horses. Your sister Coral said yes, that would be her sister. She told me she needed to see about a few things and then would it be all right if she came out to the ranch. If you still wanted to recover a little longer, she would just leave you here for a while, but she wanted to take a look at the ranch to see if you were in good hands."
I still felt so troubled after he told me all that that I said, "Well, I don't know that I belong here either." In the meantime Solange had not said a word. At first she did not seem to know what to say. When I said what I did she got up and announced very emphatically, "I know I don't belong here!"
"Oh yes, you do," said Earl, "where you know it or not, you are my grand daughter. You could at least stick around and find out what kind of place I am trying to run here."
"Recovery Ranch!" sneered Solange, hardly rattled by Earl's announcement he was her grandfather. "What do you know about recovery from death by drug addiction? Are you a doctor?"
"Do you think you need a doctor?" asked Earl.
In the meantime Mark began to squirm restlessly and broke in, saying to Earl, "I am sorry, man, but I am in no shape to listen to these people. Don't tell me you can't direct me to hell."
"That's nonsense, Mark," said Earl sharply, "And you know it. Believe me, I know a lot about trying to turn your life around. I quit a very successful business to come west. I bought this ranch and I did absolutely nothing I had ever done before. I was a no good man, too damned self important for my own good."
"You keep saying you were a bad man," I broke in, "but you were publishing books. How could you be any more civilized than that?"
"I would never have published your writing," said Earl quickly. "You sound like the kind of woman writer I always avoided."
"Why is that?" I said, surprised. "I did not know it showed. How do you know what kind of a woman writer I was?"
"Let me guess," said Earl, "a good woman, a woman who loves lost causes. Who hates war, hates death, hates crime. You told me you were the victim of a crime when you were a mere child. I would have shuddered had I received your memoir for consideration. I would have rejected it before ever reading it."
"I don't know. Do I have to have a reason? I stuck to a formula in becoming an extremely successful publisher. I liked strong male writers. I knew they would make me a lot of money and they did. I fancied myself their kind, and then I could not do it any more because one of these strong male writers beat me up when we went on vacation. For no reason. He almost succeeded in killing me. He pleaded temporary insanity after I recovered and charged him with assault. And then I found out my accountant who I had employed for a long time and paid extremely well had been stealing from me for years. He actually stole and squandered a large sum of my money. A very predictable story. My wife had long since divorced me. I was always a hot date, but never married again. Not long after the beating I left my business and went west."
"He was always a good friend to me," said Mark, "but I remember you telling me we were both ruthless men."
Earl directed his next remark to me, "The worst kind of man is one who should be able to understand and appreciate your talent and does not. I should have been able to appreciate women writers like you, then maybe I could have stayed in the business with some semblance of integrity, but I had some kind of hardened stubbornness in me that rendered me incapable of being sympathetic enough to anyone who had been a victim."
"But you said the greatest memoir writers are those that tell the truth."
"I know that axiom to be the truth," said Earl, "but to be a highly successful publisher I did not live according to my belief. Instead I avoided the more truthful writers. The most popular best sellers are just a bit off, not quite the truth. They are more what fit people's fantasies. I could always tell the difference. I knew what book would be hugely popular, and I stopped wasting my time with the others. I opted for making money, not for furthering the progress of mankind. Nothing was obviously too hard for you to do. You lived your life in the shadows. Poor. Unappreciated. Am I right?"
"She lived in the same kind of neighborhoods I did!" Solange broke in. "Only I was in the gangs that shot up her neighborhood where she was trying to survive."
Earl stared at Solange, as though she was some kind of creature from Mars, almost.
Solange laughed, "Whatsa matter, Gramps. Don't you know me? Your son, my father, and his wife, my esteemed mother, finally found me after months of searching and put me into a locked rehab facility. I finally played along with their games so I could come east to 'Recovery Ranch', earth style, only you were no longer alive, so hee hee, guess what, I had the bright idea of coming to find you via a potent overdose. Oh, I could get drugs wherever I went. Someone was always going to supply Solange."
"A very predictable end," said Earl. "Now you are here with me, are you happy? Of course not, for what could possibly be the lure in a place like this for a young beautiful girl like you?"
"There was no lure," said Solange, "No longing for death. It was purely accidental, miscalculation, a terrible mistake. Do you know what I said when I felt myself going out? Oh Shit! But then somebody knew it was a fatal dose. Somebody thought it would be a thrill to kill the bitch, just for fun."
"Now you are stuck here," said Earl.
"My sister died when she was only nine years old," I said brightly, "of an unknown childhood disease. Coral. She is the one who is coming on the stagecoach to check out this place. Solange, I am sure she can give you good advice about how to handle death at a very young age."
"In the meantime, what are we going to do with me?" said Mark. "I hate to keep calling attention to myself, but I am extremely nervous. I need to get settled some place."
"Don't you feel a tiny bit recovered since you arrived to Earl's ranch?" I asked hopefully.
"No," said Mark.
"Mark," said Earl, "You are as bad as some of these people looking for their particular heaven. Mormon heaven, Baptist, Catholic. What religion are you, by the way. Do you have a Baptist hell in mind by any chance?"
"Lutheran" said Mark, with the faintest smile.
"My parents worship Mammon," said Solange, "I am sorry to insult you, Grandpa, although it doesn't sound as though you were a good example by your own admission. I have always thought they were really savages dressed up in expensive clothes, driving expensive cars, living in expensive homes. But they should have sent me to you while I still loved horses. Then you and the horses might have saved me. The only good thing I have heard here was a wolf howling in my dreams last night."
"Oh that was real, Solange," I said eagerly. "I heard the wolf howling last night, too."
"No shit!" said Solange, jumping up and running to the window. "You have got to take me out there, Grandpa, to find the wolves. They have something to tell me, I know. I have always had dreams that I was running with wolves."
"I always dreamed I ran with horses!" I burst in. I could not help myself.
"You want to go riding out there, Solange?" asked Earl
"Yes, yes, I do. I want to go looking for the wolves."
"All right," said Earl, "Tomorrow morning. Do you want to go, too, Shadra?"
"No, I will stay here with Mark. Do you play scrabble, Mark?"
"Play scrabble?" said Mark, stupidly.
"Haven't you ever heard of scrabble?"
"Yes, but I never thought of playing it here."
"Besides I need to stay here and watch for Coral, my sister. She could come anytime. Besides I am going to have to take very short rides in order to get broken in. I haven't ridden a horse in years."
"I thought I would feel better if I could just find hell and accept my eternal damnation," moaned Mark.
"What a nut case!" said Solange. "I never even thought of asking directions to hell, and I have committed enough crimes to deserve a long sentence."
Earl looked worried.
"Oh, don't worry, Gramps," said Solange, "they will have to come and get me. I will not surrender. In the meantime, take me to the wolves."
"Tomorrow morning," said Earl. "We have to leave early. We may have a long ride before the wolves will come out of hiding."
"You mean they will hide themselves?"
"Oh yes, we will never see them unless they decide they can trust us. If they want to meet you, Solange, they may show themselves. And then you will see something I can guarantee you have never seen before."
Solange's eyes flashed. She laughed. "I want to look at the horses, Gramps. I want to check out the one I will be riding. Come on!"
They left at once for the corrals. Mark looked at me distracted. "I am going to take a nap, Mark," I said. "I don't know what you are going to do, but I advise you to take a nap, too. I think you badly need a good night's rest!"