THE SIGN on the side of the state route said Welcome to Dayfield, Incorporated 1783. It didn’t say a word about the town being a nice place to live, or any other trite comment, like most of the signs Andy had passed on the drive out from Boston.
When the numbered route became Dayfield’s Main Street, Andy understood the omission on the sign. The only designation the town could have claimed was “most depressing town in the Pioneer Valley.”
Half the storefronts on Main Street were vacant, many with boarded windows. A few of the buildings were badly damaged, possibly from the tornado that had devastated the area several years earlier. Some of the towns the twister had hit had yet to recover, and clearly Dayfield was one of them.
The whole place seemed dark, despite the bright May sunshine, and something about it made Andy’s skin crawl. Hopefully he’d be able to find what he was seeking quickly and get the hell out of there.
He had his reasons for coming to Dayfield, and the primary one was in a cinder block structure set between a row of brick buildings and the small but full parking lot of a faded silver diner.
Andy parked at the curb near a sign reading Dayfield Free Library and Historical Society. His was the only car in front of the library.
Taking a long breath, he shut off the engine. “What the hell are you even doing here?” he muttered. “What are you going to gain by finding out about him?”
Naturally, he had no answer.
He couldn’t sit there forever. An unfamiliar car with a stranger inside would draw attention in a town like this.
He put the key in the pocket of his lightweight jacket, then got out of the car and slowly walked up the cement steps of the library.
Inside, the place was decorated with dark wooden furniture and exposed ceiling beams, which did nothing to help the faint light filtering through dirty windows. The musty, thick air reminded him of his parents’ attic, and the cracked, worn bindings on some of the books made them appear older than Andy’s ninety-eight-year-old grandmother.
“May I help you?”
Startled, Andy whirled to face a short, elderly woman whose white-blue hair was probably meant to be spiked. Instead, it wilted over her scalp in thin strands, leaving some skin exposed. She glared at him through wire-rimmed glasses.
“Um, hi.” Andy started to hold out his hand for her to shake, but she merely glanced at it and folded her arms, so he stuck it in his jacket pocket instead. “My name’s Andy Forrest. Um, I’m here to see some of your old town records. I called on Thursday.”
The woman nodded, though her expression didn’t lighten. “I remember. Go in there.” She jerked her head toward a doorway between two ceiling-height sets of shelves. “Weston Thibeault is in charge of the historical society. He’ll help you out. I told him you’d be coming.”
“Thank you.” Andy rolled his thumb over his folded fingers inside his pocket. He should introduce himself, but the woman’s level stare kept him from speaking. Acutely uncomfortable, Andy hurried through the doorway.
This room smelled even more of old things and dust, and Andy stifled a cough. Around him, papers were crammed between books or piled in unsteady stacks. Andy saw no one else in the room.
He cleared his throat. “Hello?”
“Oh. Hang on.”
Andy waited, rocking slightly back and forth on his feet. A slim man who barely reached Andy’s shoulder walked out from between two shelving units. His brown hair was tousled, and a small gold hoop adorned each ear and one eyebrow. He had a sparse mustache and goatee, and his brown eyes gleamed even in the dim light.
He seemed as out of place in Dayfield as the elderly librarian would have been in downtown Boston.
Andy cleared his throat again and tried to moisten his dry lips. “Hi. I’m Andy Forrest. She, um, the librarian said she told you I’d be here today?”
“Yeah.” The man’s face crinkled into something resembling a smile. He held out his hand. “Weston Thibeault. Historian, such as it is.”
Andy shook hands with him. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, though I wish it was in a nicer place.” Weston grimaced. “Sorry. I tend to be a bit cynical about this town. No reason for it to spill over on you. You won’t be here long, I take it.”
“How long I stay depends on how easy it is to find the information I need.” Andy glanced around.
Weston chuckled. “Yeah, it’s kind of a mess, isn’t it? People keep dropping off stuff they figure I can shoehorn in. Which I sort of can, but it isn’t a matter of simply shoving things onto shelves. There is, believe it or not, a system, and I haven’t had much time lately to put things away.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You’re going to have to. I’m the only one who knows where things are around here.” Weston gestured at the nearest shelves. “This is what a degree in history gets you. So Mildred said you want to find out about a family from Dayfield?”
“Yeah.” Andy hadn’t given the librarian the whole story when he’d called. There were some things he wasn’t comfortable saying over the phone. And after the way the woman—Mildred, he guessed—had greeted him, Andy doubted he would ever be comfortable enough to tell her anything. “My birth father’s from here.”
Weston raised his pierced eyebrow. “You’re adopted?”
“Yeah.” Andy braced himself for the myriad questions he generally got when people found out he’d been “given away.” Questions which, for the most part, he couldn’t answer.
“What about your birth mother?” Weston asked.
“I think she lives on the North Shore. At least, that’s where she was living when I was born, as far as I know.”
“She might have moved since.” Weston paused. “What are their names? If one or maybe both of them are here in town, you could bypass all the paperwork and talk to them.”
“I don’t want to meet them,” Andy blurted. “I’d rather leave it at finding out more about my father and the family. History, you know?”
“Sure.” Weston wrinkled his forehead. “Okay, well, if you have their names, I’m sure we’ll have something about them here. At least about your father. We have info about pretty much everyone who’s lived here, at least in the past century and a half or so.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.” Andy glanced around again. There was no guarantee the shelves and piles contained anything about his biological father, and even if they did, he hadn’t decided how much he actually wanted to learn. The biggest question he had was one old books and papers probably couldn’t answer: Why had his birth parents given him up?
“The names?” Weston prompted.
Andy took a deep breath. “My mother is Elise Cummings. My father is Vardon Chaffee.”
He expected some sign of recognition from Weston. In a town as small as Dayfield, it was unlikely Weston wouldn’t have heard the name. But Andy didn’t expect the disgusted twist of Weston’s mouth or the narrowing of his eyes.
“Chaffee?” Weston spoke the name as if he were spitting out a mouthful of shit. “You’re a Chaffee?”
“No. I’m a Forrest.” Andy folded his arms and squared his feet. He had no clue why “Chaffee” was a bad thing, but he damn sure wasn’t about to let Weston insult him because of a guy Andy had never met. “My birth father was a Chaffee. And I’m guessing you aren’t too happy about it?”
Weston pressed his lips together and looked away for a moment. When he faced Andy again, his expression was blank. “Sorry. Yeah, that name tends to leave a bad taste in most mouths around here. You don’t know anything about the family?”
“Not really.” Andy’s adoptive father had tried to give him what little information he had beyond the names of Andy’s birth parents and their hometowns, but Andy had refused to listen. He only wanted to learn enough to relieve his dad’s fear that Andy might carry some unknown health condition, like the heart problem that had killed Andy’s mom.
“Wow. Okay.” Weston ran his hand through his hair. “So not only am I going to have to find you information about the family, but I’ll have to educate you so you don’t say that name in too many places around here.”
“Um.” Obviously Andy’s birth family wasn’t popular around Dayfield in general. “What about Elise Cummings? Is her name a dirty word around here too?”
Weston shook his head. “I don’t recognize her name. Maybe you’ll be able to find out something about her while we look into your father’s background.”
“Yeah, maybe. I do know what town she’s from. Right now, I’m mostly here to learn about Vardon.”
“Have a seat.” Weston waved toward a low medical-green metal table with all but one corner covered with books and papers. The folding metal chair beside it contained another stack, which Weston quickly scooped up and added to one of the tabletop piles. “Do you want me to bring you the materials first, or should I fill you in a little before you start digging?”
“Just tell me.” Andy settled into the uncomfortable chair. “Maybe you’ll save me some time.”
Weston sat on the edge of the table, his hands clasped in front of him, and didn’t say a word. Unsuccessfully, Andy tried to come up with a question to get the conversation rolling. “Why do you hate my family?” probably wasn’t the best way to begin.
“You’ve heard of Chaffee Chests?” Weston said finally.
“Yeah. Those cedar hope chests or whatever, right?” The realization sank in. “Okay. Completely oblivious here. I never made the connection before. I mean, Chaffee isn’t such a rare name.”
“No, but in Dayfield, Chaffee equals cedar chests. And wooden furniture.” Weston turned toward the dingy window barely visible between the shelves of one of the bookcases. “The factory didn’t start off being owned by the Chaffees, but they took it over around 1890. Ran it until it went out of business around 1985. ’86, maybe. Right around the end of the recession, give or take. They barely made it through the worst of the crash and closed pretty much right when things were recovering for everyone else. I was five or six, but I remember the town before the factory closed down. And you can see how it’s been since.”
“Yeah.” Andy swallowed hard. Surely after thirty years, the town should have recovered at least somewhat from losing the factory.
Then again, in factory towns sometimes the factory was everything. And sometimes if the factory closed, the town pretty much died.
“My dad worked there,” Weston said. “And his dad, and his, and so on back to when the place first opened. My great-something grandfather came down from Maine. He figured making furniture would pay more steadily than farming. The factory became our family business, so to speak.”
He faced Andy. Andy couldn’t meet his gaze. Even though Andy had nothing to do with the Chaffees, he felt guilty. The family he’d never known had apparently devastated the entire town of Dayfield by closing the factory.
“I guess old man Chaffee tried to keep the place running, but he failed,” Weston said. “Some folks left town, but most couldn’t afford to. Most of them blamed Chaffee, said he should have taken steps to protect the employees when the economy started going south. If he couldn’t keep the place running, he should have made sure there was money to give them to help get them through. Some had pension plans they never saw a penny of, and no one knew where the money went. They believed Chaffee dug into it to keep the factory running until the cash ran out.”
“I’m sorry,” Andy said.
Weston shrugged. “No reason for you to be. You’re what, thirty?”
“So even if you’d been around, you’d barely have been a toddler. And you weren’t around.” Weston frowned. “You said Vardon Chaffee was your birth father. I’m pretty sure no one was aware Vardon had a kid.” He pushed himself off the table and went over to a stack of folders on the floor in front of the window. “It’s here somewhere. Hang on.”
Confused, Andy watched Weston sort through piles until eventually he held up a yellowed newspaper. “Supposedly we’re going to get this shit put on microfilm. Not on a computer or anything. Microfilm. After all, why should we use current technology? Anyway, here.”
He held out the paper—with its large, clear headline—to Andy. “Local Factory Heir Killed in Crash.”
Hands shaking, Andy took the paper and skimmed the article. Vardon Chaffee, son of the owner of the Chaffee Furniture Company, had lost his life in a single-car crash off the state road beyond the town line. His car, a brand-new 1982 Ford Thunderbird, had hit a tree at a speed investigators estimated at over ninety miles per hour. Vardon was pronounced dead at the scene.
A black and white photo of a smiling young man accompanied the story. The man was identical to how Andy looked in his early twenties.
Andy glanced at the top of the page. The paper was dated March 10, 1985. Less than a month after Andy’s birth.
Even if he’d had any desire to meet his birth father, he wouldn’t have had the chance.
“He died,” he said slowly.
“Yeah.” Weston returned to his spot at the table. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” Andy set down the paper. “I guess I am too. I didn’t know him. I didn’t want to. But still….”
“Yeah. They said he must have hit black ice.” Weston pulled the clipping away from Andy. “It’s possible. It was a nasty winter, and we’d had a few days of freezing rain around that time, but hell. I was five and a half. All I remember for certain is my parents talking about how Vardon’s death meant the factory would definitely close, because Chaffee was getting too old and clueless to run the place himself.”
“Damn.” Andy leaned back and folded his arms.
For well over a decade, he’d refused to track down his birth parents. And now he’d learned his birth father was years dead. The news was one hell of a shock, regardless of whether Andy had known the man.
“Are you okay?” Weston asked. “I probably shouldn’t have sprung this on you.”
“I’m fine.” Andy shook his head, hoping to clear his thoughts, and forced a smile. “I appreciate your help.”
“We have a lot of information on the Chaffees here,” Weston said. “I mean, if you want to find out more. Old man Chaffee passed away about fifteen years ago, but Mrs. Chaffee’s still here in town. Maybe I could arrange for you to meet her.”
“No. I’d rather not meet her.” That was the one thing Andy was sure of. He had no interest at all in meeting any of his biological relatives.
“Okay,” Weston said.
Andy stayed in the chair, trying to come up with a reason to linger. His curiosity about the Chaffees might not be worth Weston giving up more of his time. On the other hand, the factory was part of Weston’s history, which meant the Chaffee family was as well. Andy had always been interested in history. Something he and Weston evidently had in common.
“Do you have anything on the factory?” he asked.
Weston snorted. “Do I have anything about the town’s main reason for existing for nearly two centuries? No, why would I have any materials about that?”
Andy glared. “Sarcasm, much?”
“Sorry.” Weston neither sounded nor looked repentant. “I may have mentioned the factory and the Chaffee family are sore spots for a lot of people around here. Most of us were affected one way or another by the place closing down, and by Chaffee and his minions fucking with the pensions. If the money had been available, at least some people would have been able to keep going. As it was, some families lost everything. Which is why I said you probably shouldn’t mention you’re a…. Vardon Chaffee was your birth father.”
“Yeah. I understand.”