One Night On Champagne Bluffs
Jessie had the radio blasting as she cleaned Cabin #3 (The Blue Oyster). In the spring/summer months, she paid one of the local teenage girls in town to help with the cleaning, but during cooler weather, she took care of most everything herself. She had lived here, near or on, the bluffs her entire 46 years and owned Bluff By The Bay Cabins for 20 of those. She enjoyed meeting new people and the scenery could not be beaten in her little corner of the world. Her last guest had checked out early this morning after a month-long stay for work. She was thankful for that stay because business started slowing down after October. Champagne Bluffs, VA was a popular spot in the summer and even briefly during the fall when the leaves turned brilliant shades of orange, yellow and reds, but the winter months grew quite lonely up here. Many tourists were confused, and some even scoffed, at the name ‘bluff’. Coastal Virginia isn’t exactly known for being mountainous and in reality, most bluffs are merely rock faces worn with erosion and only resemble a ridge from a distance. Champagne Bluff was not a mountain, but it was a beautiful piece of rock overlooking the back portion of the Chesapeake Bay. And not without a story to tell.
Jessie was just locking up and heading back when she saw a middle-aged woman exiting a car and heading towards the office. Jessie didn’t have any reservations and walk-ins this time of year were rare. She picked up her pace and walked up as the woman was peering into the front window, hand shielding from the mid-morning sun. “Hello! Welcome to Bluff By The Bay Cabins. I’m Jessie, the owner. Can I help you?” “Oh!” The woman stood back up and turned around. “Yes, please. I need a place to stay for me and my….grandson.” There was a slight hesitation at the word grandson and both women looked towards the car. Inside was a boy about 9 or 10 with his head buried in some electronic device. School had been in session for several weeks now, but Jessie had learned years ago to mind her own business. “Sure! I actually have all three cabins open at the moment. #1 and #2 have 2 bedro….” The woman cut Jessie off in mid-sentence. “I want to stay in #3; the one nearest the overlook.” Bluff By The Bay Cabins was located right where the bluff leveled out and provided a beautiful view of the bay. An overlook and clearing had been built decades ago with picnic tables, benches, a few chairs and a fire pit. It was the go-to spot in the evenings for many of the guests. Cabin #3 was the closest to this overlook, but it only had one bedroom. Jessie was surprised at her choice, but since it was available, she had no objection. “That’s fine.” Jessie unlocked the office door and walked in to start the paperwork. Her home (Cabin #4) was attached to the back of the office, so she was literally almost always available.
The woman filled out the paperwork as Marie Stanley from Lindsay, Ohio. When the form was completed, she asked, “How much for a week’s stay?” Jessie gave her the total and Marie pulled out the cash from her wallet and paid the entire amount in full. Jessie started her usual speech. “I don’t serve breakfast, but there’s a coffee maker with a starter pack in each cabin. There is a grocery store in town where you can stock up, and a couple of restaurants scattered around. I recommend Rosemary’s Diner.” Marie looked up sharply at the mention of the diner like the name jogged a brief, unpleasant memory. This threw Jessie off for just a moment in her monologue, and about that time the door opened again and the young boy walked in. This time it was Jessie who had a nagging feeling. She knew no one from Ohio and had never heard of Marie Stanley, but this boy standing at the door looked vaguely familiar. Like she knew him or had been around him. She recognized that was a crazy notion however and brushed it off.
Marie cleared her throat and said, “Evan, this is Ms. Jessie. We are going to stay in one of her cabins for a few days. Jessie, this is Evan.” Jessie said, “It’s very nice to meet you, Evan. I hope you enjoy it here. If you ever need anything, I live in the cabin right behind the office, ok?” Evan smiled shyly, almost sad, and turned to go back outside. Marie watched him walk out and looked back at Jessie, seeming to
struggle with her next words. “His mother, my daughter, died about six months ago in a car crash. We are both still dealing with the loss and adjusting to our new normal. I’m fro….familiar with this area and thought coming here might help.” Jessie automatically reached out to offer a comforting touch to Lisa’s arm. “I’m so sorry. I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through. These bluffs can be very soothing, at least for me. Hopefully, they will be of some comfort for you both as well. Again, I’m right here if you need anything.” Marie nodded slightly and walked out without saying anything further. Jessie felt terrible and decided she would do what she could to make their stay comfortable and that started with some of Rosemary’s famous chocolate chip and pecan muffins.
Rosemary and Claude Rainey had owned and operated Rosemary’s Diner for as long as Jessie could remember. It was just a small family-style restaurant, but the food was delicious and there was always a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Sadly, there was a connection between Jessie and the Rainey’s that truly had nothing to do with her, but she often wondered what they thought when they saw her. Thirty-three years ago, when Jessie was only 13, their oldest son, Patrick, who was 19 at the time, fell to his death off Champagne Bluff one cool October evening. The cabins had not been built yet, but it was a common hangout for teens in the surrounding areas. There was a bit of a mystery though because no one claimed to have been up there with him even though his truck was found parked at his home. It would have been odd for him to go alone and it was unclear how he even got up there. There were whisperings of suicide, but there was never any outward sign of depression or any note left and his family swore he would never jump. The local paper ran a story on the incident and Rosemary kept it framed and hanging on the wall behind the front counter in the diner as a haunting reminder.
On this day, so many years later, Jessie made her way to the diner in search of delicious muffins, and whatever other comfort food she might find for her new guests. It was just after lunch and still buzzing with people, but not completely full. She walked up the counter to browse the display of freshly made goodies. Her eyes lifted up and caught the familiar newspaper clipping she had seen so many times. This time, though, it made her unusually sad. There was just something in his eyes, so full of life and joy, and knowing his life ended so tragically at such a beautiful place weighed on her heart. Rosemary walked in from the back and up to the counter. “Good afternoon Jessie. What can I get for you today? My blueberry pie is probably still warm!” “Hey Rosemary, that sounds awesome! Actually, I came looking for some of your chocolate chip/pecan muffins. I had two guests check in today and they looked like they could use some cheering up. Nothing does that for me like one of your muffins!” Rosemary smiled. “Well isn’t that just the sweetest thing to say. I do happen to have a couple of them left. I’ll wrap them up for you. What makes you think they need cheering up while on vacation?” Jessie sighed. “I don’t think it is a normal vacation. It is an older woman traveling with a young boy, around 10 or so. She seemed sad and said she thought this place would help. She is caring for him now because his mother, her daughter, died about six months ago. I just cannot imagine.” As soon as those words left her lips, she glanced back up at Patrick’s picture and immediately regretted saying anything. Rosemary noticed her discomfort. “It’s alright dear, and yes, it is terrible to lose a child at any age. Almost unbearable. I’m sure seeing him every day is a blessing but also a heartache because he reminds her of what she lost herself. I’m not sure my muffins will help with that, but please take them, on the house! And tell her I said to come down one evening. Maybe we can sit and talk a spell. Sometimes that helps.” Jessie smiled warmly. “Thank you, Rosemary. That is very kind. I will most definitely extend that invitation. And while you’re at it, I think I will take a piece of that blueberry pie after all!”
There was no traffic on Jessie’s drive up the winding road back to her place. She loved the peacefulness up here and was quick to shut people down when they encouraged her to sell the place and move back into town. She had gotten married fairly young and actually lived right outside of town for a couple of years. He left almost before the honeymoon was over she never really found it within herself to try again. That was just about the time the cabins were built and Jessie’s father was hired to do the maintenance and upkeep for them. He worked there for several years and Jessie would ride up with him from time to time to help, or just sit at the bluff and enjoy the view. She made a living in the loan department at the bank, but when the owners decided to sell the cabins, she knew that was her next adventure. Her parents were worried about such a huge undertaking, but Jessie was confident in her dream. She had never regretted it for even one day.
When she got back to the cabins, she walked up the trail to deliver the muffins. When she got closer she noticed Marie was out alone on the bluffs. She had walked around the open fence barrier and was sitting on the ledge. Jessie was surprised to see her there and didn’t want to startle her. Most people stayed behind the fence especially since Jessie had a warning sign posted about slippery rocks. There weren’t really any slippery rocks, but she never wanted another person to fall like Patrick had, especially on her watch, so she had posted the sign the day she took ownership. She coughed and kicked a few rocks to announce her arrival. When Marie turned and saw her with a tray in her hand, she got up, walked back around and met Jessie in the clearing. Jessie said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I went into town for a few things and while I was there I stopped and got the last two chocolate chip/pecan muffins from Rosemary. I thought you and Evan might enjoy them for an afternoon snack.” Jessie had decided not to mention Rosemary’s invitation to talk with Marie. She felt bad for sharing Marie’s story as it was not really any of her business. Marie replied, “Thank you. That was very sweet. I’m sure Evan will appreciate it as we didn’t go anywhere for lunch. I will run and stock up on some groceries soon. I just wanted to walk out on the bluff a minute. It’s a beautiful place.” Fighting the urge to just go back home, Jessie kept talking. “You said you were familiar with the area. Have you ever been up here before?” Marie breathed in sharply at that question and took several seconds to simply reply, “Yes”. The two women stood there in silence and Jessie decided her new guest did not wish to elaborate. “Ok, well, I have some things to do back at my place,” Jessie piped up and said. “I’ll leave you guys alone to enjoy your stay. You know where to find me.” With that, she turned quickly and headed back down the trail. She resisted the urge to look back and Marie never said anything to her as she walked off.
Jessie grew more restless as the afternoon wore on. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. It wasn’t like her to pry and yet she truly believed there was more to Marie’s story. She threw herself into some projects she had been putting off and before long the noticed the shadows forming on the wall. It was getting dark sooner now and there was a nip in the air. No other guests had shown up so Jessie fixed herself a light supper and then decided to go the clearing, start a small fire and relax a bit.
Marie’s car was gone when Jessie passed it on the way to the clearing. They must be getting supplies and possibly dinner Jessie thought. She put the kindling and wood in the fire pit and lit it. Soon there was a nice little fire going. She had some hot apple cider in her thermos and was enjoying the cool night. The stars were brilliant and occasionally she could hear the water lap up on the shoreline below.
After about twenty minutes she saw headlights and heard Marie’s car doors open and shut at the cabin. She wanted to check on her but felt that would be too pushy, so she stayed where she was. Jessie never had any children, but she knew the loss of her daughter and being thrust as the caregiver to her grandson had put a tremendous weight on Marie’s shoulders. She got up to stoke the fire and when she turned back around Marie was standing in the clearing. “Marie, you startled me a sec,” Jessie said. “Is everything ok?” Marie nodded. “Yes, we are fine. Settled in I guess. Evan wanted to watch TV and I saw the fire. It looked inviting. Do you mind if I join you?” “Not at all,” Jessie said. Both women sat down in the chairs in front of the fire, the warmth blanketing them. “Do you want some cider? I can run get you some.” Jessie offered. “No.” was the only response. The two sat there in silence for several minutes, both seemingly lost in their own thoughts. Marie spoke first. “What do you know about the boy that died here?” Jessie figured Marie had seen the news clipping at the diner. She slowly took a sip of cider before answering. “Honestly, not much. I was only 13. I didn’t hear about the accident until school that next Monday. I was still in junior high and didn’t hang out with the older kids. I knew of Patrick, but only as the son of the couple that owned the diner where my parents took me to eat sometimes. I never even talked to him that I remember. It was big news though for a while though. His parents took it hard, obviously. They never found out what happened. Some thought it was suicide, but his family said no way. He could have just fallen, but it would be odd that he was up here alone. No one said they were with him.”
Marie visibly braced herself, took a deep breath and said softly. “I was with him.”
Jessie wasn’t sure she heard what she just thought she heard, so she just sat there a minute. Marie was with him? Why didn’t she ever say anything? Did Jessie know Marie? She was older, but only by a few years. How did Jessie not remember her? Where did she go? She couldn’t stand it any longer. “I’m sorry Marie, did you say YOU were with him that night? The night he died??” Marie started her story slowly.
“My full name is Lisa Marie Wilkins. My parents had just moved us here about five months before it happened. We moved around a lot. My dad had trouble keeping a job. I turned 16 the second week we were here. I didn’t know anyone so there was no sweet sixteen party for me. It was a hard time in my home. Then I met Patrick. He noticed me. Really saw me, at least that is how it felt at the time. He asked me out but I had never really dated anyone. I was afraid to ask my parents, but he kept asking to see me. I finally started meeting him out behind the diner after it closed. I snuck out when my parents went to bed. At first, we just talked. Sometimes he took me for a ride in his truck. One night he drove us up here. He had a blanket in his truck and we spread it out in the back and laid on it watching the stars and listening to his radio. I loved him. As much as someone my age could I suppose? I guess you know what came next. Not that first night, but one soon thereafter, we had sex. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I certainly didn’t have any protection. If he did, he never mentioned it. I just knew for once I felt safe.”
Marie stopped talking. Jessie had not moved or interrupted. The fire needed some attention, so in the lull, Jessie got up and added another log. She sat back down but still did not say anything. There were a million thoughts running through her mind, but she didn’t want to bombard Marie with questions and cause her to shut down, so she just sat there listening to the fire crackle. Soon Marie started speaking again.
“So yes, I got pregnant. Me. The scared girl with no one to turn to in a strange town. There was no way I could tell my parents and I was terrified to tell Patrick. I wasn’t even sure at first, but skipped school one day, took a bus to the next town and bought a test. I couldn’t eat or sleep for days. I told my mom I had a stomach virus and stayed in my bed and cried. Patrick and I had a date planned that Saturday night. I hadn’t canceled it and I decided I would tell him and whatever happened, would happen. Little did I know what would really happen.” Her voice started to break a little. It was the real first emotion she had
shown since starting her story. “Anyway, he wanted to come up here again. It was starting to get cold and he didn’t know how many more nights we could make our truck bed dates. He knew something was wrong as soon as I got in the truck. I wouldn’t talk to him until we got here. Then I told him. And he started freaking out.” Her demeanor became more animated and her voice got stronger and more urgent. “I mean, I understand the shock of it all. I was still in shock myself, but he was just so upset. Talking about not being ready for this, how could this happen, etc. He was cursing and yelling at me. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to calm him down, but he just started pacing back and forth. The fence wasn’t here then. It was dark; the only light came from the radio that was still playing. It all seems like a blur now. I was crying and I walked up to him. He shrugged me off and backed up…too far...way too far. The next thing I knew he was gone. I heard the splash and then silence. An awful, deafening silence.” Marie ended sadly, looking up for the first time and meeting Jessie’s gaze. Jessie didn’t move but softly responded. “Marie, I’m so sorry. I really don’t know what to say. What a scary and awful thing. What did you do next? Did you try to find him??”
“I was too terrified to look over the edge. I had no idea how to get to the water itself. I panicked. I got in his truck and drove it to his house and left the keys inside. Then I walked back to mine, climbed back into my room, and I guess went into some sort of shock. My mom finally checked on me around noon the next day and was chirping away. The town was buzzing. Did I know Patrick from the diner? He had jumped off the bluff. She was rattling on and on. I just sat there frozen. There was no way I could explain what happened. They had no idea I was seeing him. They certainly didn’t know I was pregnant. Who in the world would believe me even if I did tell the truth? And it wouldn’t bring him back anyway, so I never said a word. All these years……..never told anyone. Until tonight.”
Jessie sat there stunned. All those years. All the unanswered questions. All the anguish Rosemary and Claude had endured never knowing the truth. All the anguish Lisa Marie carried around. But there was still more. “So what happened with the baby? Did you have it? You had to have told your parents at some point, right??” Jessie knew she was pushing, but she wanted to know.
“Yes, I eventually had to tell them. It was weeks later when I couldn’t hide it anymore. They yelled and demanded I tell them who the father was, but I never did. The town was still raw with the mystery about Patrick, but if they ever thought it was him, they kept it to themselves. They never mentioned his name to me. My father had a sister who lived in Kentucky. They called her and shipped me off there. They couldn’t stand to look at me anymore. She took me in. I stayed with her, had the baby, got my GED and did my best to forget what happened. My parents didn’t stay here long after that either. They never put down roots anywhere really. My dad died years ago. I hear from my mom occasionally, but we aren’t close. The only one I ever really had was Haley, my daughter. And now she is gone too.” Marie stood up and started walking around the fire pit. She no longer appeared to be talking to Jessie, but just rambling into the night air. “I did my best by her. I was so young. We had some tough times, but she grew into a beautiful young woman. She got married. They had Evan. He divorced her a few years ago and they came back to live with me. We didn’t have much, but I was happy. Most of the time. Except when I looked too closely at Evan.”
The light bulbs in Jessie’s head started going off like street lights at Grand Central Station. Evan! Looking familiar! The newspaper clipping hanging at the diner. Patrick’s eyes. Evan’s eyes. Evan was Patrick’s grandson! And Rosemary’s great-grandson!
While Jessie was processing this information, Marie had moved from pacing around the fire pit to around the fence, back out on the edge of the bluff staring out into the night. As soon as Jessie noticed, she quickly got up and walked towards her. “Marie...or Lisa...please come back and sit by the fire with me.” Marie didn’t move. Jessie went on. “I will not pretend I know what to do, but I’m guessing you came back here to try and make things right, talk to Rosemary and Claude and provide Evan with family.”
Marie still stood facing the water. “Not really. I am not sure why I came back exactly. Didn’t really have a plan. I just knew I needed to come back to this spot. One night on these bluffs so long ago changed my life and the lives of so many others. I have hurt so many people, I don’t really deserve to be happy and I am reminded of that every time I look at Evan. It just seems like the pain should end where it started, right here.”
Jessie started to panic. She had never been in this type of situation. She certainly couldn’t leave and call for advice. Was Marie actually considering going over the side of the bluff? “Marie, listen to me. Please come back to the fire and let’s talk some more. Please do not cause Evan any more pain or loss. He needs you.” Marie’s head lowered and she started crying softly. “I can’t do it anymore. I’ve carried this guilt my entire life. It has followed me around like a ghost, haunting my dreams. I let Rosemary believe her son jumped to this death. When Haley died, the pain was like nothing I had felt before. Knowing I had caused Rosemary that pain and the added grief of not knowing why or how is more than I can handle.”
Jesse moved closer to Marie. She rarely ventured out beyond the fence, and never at night, but she knew Marie needed her to. “Marie, Patrick’s death was not your fault. You did not cause it. It was a terrible accident. Yes, you guys both made bad decisions, but you were so young. You had no way of knowing that he would slip and fall. I wish you had the strength then, to tell the truth, but I can understand why that was so hard. But, Marie, you are strong enough now. You know the right thing to do. For you and for Evan. Tell Rosemary and Claude.” Jessie walked up beside her and touched her arm. Marie looked up at her “They will never forgive me.” Jessie turned Marie to face her. “Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that you need to forgive yourself. You need to tell the truth and get rid of this weight you have carried so long. Give them the chance to grieve the right way. To know what really happened and give them the chance to know Evan. He’s a connection to Patrick and I am almost positive they would love to meet him. I’ll go with you. You don’t have to do it alone.” Marie asked, “Why would you do that? Why are you doing this?? You don’t know me. Why do you care what happens now?” Jessie replied, “Because you deserve someone in your corner and you do deserve to be happy. Because I know how loving Rosemary is and I truly believe you and Evan could find a new home here. And because I don’t want these bluffs to be remembered as only a place of pain. I’d like to think they could also become a place of forgiveness.”
Spring cleaning at the cabins was Jessie’s least favorite job. Everything washed inside and out, fresh paint where needed, minor repairs; it was all done to ready the cabins for the new season. At least this year, she had help. Jessie had hired Lisa Marie to be her part-time assistant and she was also working at the diner. After the emotional confession on the edge of the bluff, Lisa Marie finally agreed to speak with Rosemary. It took a couple of days to set up the meeting, and Jessie did go with her as she said. It was a difficult couple of hours with a few very tense moments, but in the end, Rosemary and Claude did want to meet Evan as Jessie had predicted. Lisa Marie also went to the police to give her official statement. With Rosemary and Jessie both at her side, she retold the night’s events. She said she was willing to face whatever penalty or charge that might result, but the Raineys were not interested in that. They just wanted to move forward. The case was finally closed and ruled an accident. Lisa Marie and Evan stayed on at the cabin until Christmas. During the holidays Claude had fixed up an older home in town and the two moved in after the first of the year to be closer to their new family. It was not always easy. There was still much pain to work through on both sides, but Evan was the glue that held it all together. Once her secret was out, Lisa Marie started to slowly bloom. She became a better grandmother to Evan and worked very hard to help Rosemary. She began to smile more and even made some friends; and counted Jessie as one of her dearests. Jessie was forever grateful for wanting to sit by the fire that night six months ago. She often wondered what would have happened if she had not been out there. The entire episode solidified her love and commitment to these bluffs. They were a thing of beauty and peace. They had been marred by tragedy, but on one night, they became a place of healing.