Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser is the critically acclaimed author of book club favorites Almost Missed You, Not That I Could Tell, Forget You Know Me and A Million Reasons Why. Her newest novel, The Last Caretaker, will be available December 2023. Jessica is the editor-at-large and columnist of Writer’s Digest, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade, and is a contributing editor for Career Authors. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children.

The Last Caretaker

Katie’s divorce was humiliating. So when her friend Bess offers her a fresh start—a resident caretaking job at a nature preserve—Katie gratefully accepts.

But from day one, something feels off. Katie’s new farmhouse looks as if the last caretaker barely moved out at all, and then a terrified woman arrives late at night, expecting a safe place to hide. It quickly becomes clear that caretaking involves more than Katie bargained for.

Determined to find out what happened to the last caretaker, Katie must discover courage she never knew she had—and decide how much she’ll risk to do the right thing.

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Chapter 1

Bess had neglected to mention the guard shack. Imagine that.

Katie had pictured this so many times: the moment she’d drive up to her new home, her new job, the whole new life she’d signed on for sight unseen. She’d pored over the few photos she could find, filling in the blanks with her best guesses. And now that she was finally here, she could see right away how much she’d gotten right: The stamped wooden sign marking Grove Farm Nature Reserve. The wide, shallow creek running parallel to the entrance, and the low concrete bridge crossing it—one car width, no guardrails. The fork on the other side, separating the parking and trail access from the turnoff that presumably led to the caretaker’s residence.

That was her. The new caretaker. The lone resident on these 927 acres.

But somehow, she hadn’t envisioned her new driveway—this was more or less her driveway, wasn’t it?—beginning at an actual guard shack with a striped metal gate blocking entry, like some prison or secret government facility. No, she corrected herself. A gated community. A resort. Where nefarious experiments were not being done inside.

Her brain went to the heart of the problem: How will I order pizza?

Clearly Bess, unlike Katie, had known there was no separate entrance for the caretaker. Bess was programming director at the nature center’s main campus, and peripherally, at this less-trafficked annex. Plus, she was standing next to the guard shack now, waving her arms as if Katie were approaching by airplane instead of by car.

Katie rolled down her window and waved as she turned in. The car was packed nearly to the roof without any order whatsoever, as if she’d grabbed anything she could rescue from her burning house in a panic. Which she sort of had. The hodgepodge came to life behind her, cords flapping and jackets rustling in the rush of air.

Bess didn’t wave back. Instead, she tossed her phone into the grass with a giddy whoop and began doing an elaborate touchdown dance across the road. Not that there was anyone around to see. Katie hadn’t passed another car for miles.

Katie was already laughing, jumping out of the car before it fully jerked into Park.

Bess ran in for a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here!” she squealed. “It’s really happening!”

“It’s really happening,” Katie echoed, squeezing her tight. It was so good to see Bess. They hadn’t lived in the same town since college.

They pulled back to take a good look at each other. Twice a year they had a standing date, every Fourth of July and New Year’s, without fail. Except for this past New Year’s, which—for Katie—had been very much with fail, and only with fail. Now, in the early-spring chill, Bess gushed on about how they hadn’t seen each other for nine insanely long months. How they could have birthed a whole baby in that time.

Instead, Katie had birthed a humiliating divorce. And Bess had birthed a plan to save her.

“You didn’t mention the guard shack,” Katie said as soon as she could get a word in.

Bess glanced over her shoulder at the tiny windowed hut. It looked old and worn, but the metal stand in front was clearly new—an intercom and membership card scanner. Guests could pay to visit the main nature center, which Bess had helped grow to be one of Cincinnati’s most popular attractions on the outskirts. But access to this remote annex was a members-only perk.

“It’s not a guard shack,” Bess insisted. “Unless you feel like coming down here and standing guard. Everything’s automated.”

Katie stood, hands on hips, reevaluating the life choices that had led her to this particular Yes, sure, why not. Great idea. Who wouldn’t want to live alone in the middle of nowhere, behind a barrier? To this point, she’d focused on the positives: how badly she needed a fresh start, and how nice it would be to have Bess nearby. Now, dozens of questions flooded her mind, but she pushed them aside. She didn’t want to sound ungrateful for all the strings Bess had pulled on her behalf. Her questions were mostly hypothetical anyway. Why worry how she’d have friends over after hours if Bess was her only friend here?

“But who’s going to guard me?” she joked.

“The coyotes,” Bess deadpanned. “Also a barn cat, who’s quite friendly. A family of foxes. Rumor has it, an occasional bobcat.”

Katie held up a hand. “Forget I asked. Permanently, please. I never want to hear about any of those things again. Except the barn cat.”

Bess’s smile turned sheepish. “Okay,” she admitted. “Maybe I was a little worried you wouldn’t be able to get past the guard shack.” She brightened. “Get it? Past the guard shack?”

Katie rolled her eyes.

“Maybe too soon for that joke. But! Obviously, you can literally get past it. Anytime.”

Katie genuinely couldn’t decide if she was meant to express relief at being able to come and go freely from her own home. So she just stood there, nodding. Nodding and . . . visualizing.

“Plus, no solicitors!” Bess went on. “The kids in my neighborhood don’t even bother fundraising with chocolate bars anymore. They just straight up ask for money.”

“What if this gate malfunctions?” Katie asked. “Or the power goes out?”

“Oh, no,” Bess said quickly. “It can’t malfunction. I mean, I guess anything can malfunction, but . . .” She cleared her throat. “Even without power, you can override anything manually. You’ll have all the master keys. I hereby crown you mistress.”

“What a refreshing change,” Katie said dryly, and Bess winced. It’s okay, Katie wanted to tell her. You can laugh at that. I think I need to laugh at it. I think that’s what I’ve been missing.

Back home, everyone and everything in Katie’s day-to-day had been tied to Clark. They’d founded their company together, built their network of small businesses together—designing websites for so much of their old steel town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh that there was barely a locally owned restaurant or storefront where they weren’t known by name—compiled their friend group together. Every bit of it had been a mistake. Clark’s word, not hers. It made no sense, he’d said, when we never should have been together in the first place.

Of course, he hadn’t said any of that until he’d gone out and gotten something else. Something just for him.

“How was it?” Bess asked now. “Leaving, I mean.”

Katie had been trying, the whole, long drive here across two state lines, not to think about how it was. I’m not a mistake, she’d told Clark. I’m a person. What was leaving like when everything important had already left? It was quiet. It was sad. It was . . . anticlimactic.

“It was time,” Katie said. Bess nodded. It was true.

When she announced her plans, Katie’s friends had looked at her as if she’d decided to enroll in an IRONMAN. One that started tomorrow. No time for training.

“What?” she’d demanded defensively. “I love nature.”

“There’s nature,” they’d said, “and then there’s nature.”

It was a bit offensive, to tell the truth. And if they had a point, well, that was beside the point. So what if a running joke with Clark had been that having someone on hand to deal with spiders in the house was “thirty percent of the reason I got married at all”?

Anyway, the naysayers had done Katie a favor. Until then, maybe she hadn’t been 100 percent certain about the Yes, sure, why not she’d given Bess. Maybe she hadn’t been totally sold on the great idea. But Bess hadn’t just called it great, she’d called it perfect. Their resident caretaker had resigned without notice. Without any other staff dedicated to the annex, they needed someone now. No time for lengthy interviews. Plus, what other job came with a furnished house?

“Anyone have any better ideas?” Katie had challenged those skeptical friends. Who were also, relevantly, Clark’s friends. “Anyone think I can actually stay here? With dignity?”

They’d gotten quiet after that.

She did love nature. She loved gazing at it from mountain overlooks, soaking it up on beaches, walking through it in the park. The idea of going all in just felt a little like stamping “all natural” on a bag of cheese puffs. Simply Puffs! they proudly proclaimed, as if they’d been plucked straight from the farmers’ fields, and no one objected, really. You’d kind of snort, then buy them. Because you knew it was a stretch, but you also knew there were worse things for you—and better things for you that tasted worse. That was the compromise.

That’s what kind of hire Katie was. It might seem, at first glance, like her application had been sugarcoated by Bess’s referral. Glazing over all the stuff on the ingredients list that didn’t belong there. But Katie, though unqualified, had some things going for her. Sincerity, for one.

It was time to buck up. Her old friends might not be ready to face facts, but she was.

Besides, they weren’t really her friends anymore. How relieved they must be that she hadn’t made them choose. She’d given them over to Clark and her replacement. The woman she’d heard coworkers calling “the new Katie” on her last day of work.

That was the last straw. She’d marched right back, shifting her stack of boxes to her knee so she could see over them. “Trust me,” she’d said, interrupting. “The last thing Clark wants is a new Katie. He didn’t even want the old one.”

Fortunately, one person did want a new Katie. And that was Katie herself. Introducing the new, All-Natural Katie.

Simply Katie!

No more artificial marriage, no more processed job. No more excuses.

Now, as if in agreement, Bess pulled a glossy membership card from her pocket and waved it with a flourish toward the gate. Katie’s name jumped out at her in block letters. “Shall we?” Bess asked.

“After you.”

The gate was easy enough to work—a swipe of the card, no need to fuss with the intercom. Katie made note of the seasonal hours posted so she wouldn’t have to bug Bess about too many details. This spring, she’d ease in with a nine-to-six routine, seven days a week, but by summer the property would be humming in twelve-hour shifts, accessible from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

No one appeared to be here now, late afternoon on a chilly, overcast Tuesday, as Katie steered her crossover slowly behind Bess’s minivan. The creek crossing was even more harrowing up close; it was easy to imagine high waters submerging the road. Katie should make sure her essentials never ran low. Groceries. Wine. Sanity. Hey, if no one could get in or out, she’d get a day off, right? Once she got used to the idea, it could be a good thing.

The turnoff was marked in large letters: Private: Caretaker’s Residence. Keep Out. As they made the sharp-right turn, she craned her neck for a look at the main access area but couldn’t see much—the hill was steep, the trees thick. They rumbled up the long driveway sloping away from the creek, and seconds turned to minutes before the old farmhouse appeared through the trees.

In Katie’s view, there existed two kinds of farmhouses in the Midwest. One, where it was too easy to picture an axe murder happening any day, encompassed roughly 90 percent of Ohio’s rural homes, through no fault of their own: there was just something a little too In Cold Blood about an overturned bucket in the yard or an off-key wind chime. But the second kind—the other 10 percent?—was so picturesque you couldn’t envision anything bad happening there. Like the set of those rom-coms where someone goes home again, reclaims their hunky first love, and maybe saves a bookstore. That was the caretaker’s house. She’d devoured the photos Bess had sent, cataloging her favorite details—Focus, Katie, on things you’ll make up your mind to like—and now, her eyes checked them off one by one as she approached, verifying with relief that they were as advertised.

She liked that the century-old home was painted a dusty blue gray, a color that didn’t quite fit but that she might have chosen herself. She liked the huge corner window and the rooftop weather vane with the silhouette of a galloping horse. She liked the screened side porch, the kind her grandma reminisced about sleeping on as a girl. She liked the green canoes stacked out back, conjuring images of those sleepaway summer camps Katie’s parents had never let her go to. All the nostalgic touches made the house feel relatable, like her kind of people. And she could tell it would be beautiful in all four seasons, already picturing a postcard for each one: the way the stark landscape would soon turn floral, then dense and green in summer until the vibrant autumns gave way to snow-dusted winters.

She slowed behind Bess on the wide gravel patch dividing the house from the barn and a trio of smaller outbuildings. Katie matched Bess’s smile at they climbed out of their cars. “Hard to believe this used to be a real farm,” she called out. “I didn’t expect it to be so wooded.”

“Isn’t it great?” Bess beamed. “A little bit of everything, really. You’ll see. There are massive fields at the top of the hill, though they’re wild and overgrown now. On the perimeter trail, you can get a better picture of how it used to be. You’ll find fragments of fences and troughs—they let animals roam more freely back then.”

“How long, do you think, until I can walk around here without getting lost?”

“Not long. The creek is a good benchmark. Once you orient yourself to that, there’s no such thing as lost. I’m telling you, Katie, this place is underrated. You’re in for a treat.”

Bess had such unfounded faith in her, it made Katie want to cry sometimes. Bess wasn’t known for making safe, easy choices. She didn’t get hung up on details. She’d changed her major so often in college, it took her six years to graduate—not including her semesters in the Peace Corps. She’d set long-term goals that would start out sounding random and crazy—like not buying any clothes for a year, or eating sweets only if she’d baked them from scratch—and by the time the experiment was up, half her friends would be doing it too. “Oh, I got sucked into Bess’s thing,” they’d explain, and everyone would nod, knowing Bess’s enthusiasm was contagious.

Put a girls’ night on the calendar, and you’d either have the time of your life or end up on some wild-goose chase. Bess was the reason Katie had missed her flight to her own Vegas bachelorette party. Bess was the friend who could lose track not just of time but of the carry-on bag with both your IDs inside. She could be a loose cannon, a flake, and a ton of fun.

The older Katie got, the more she realized how few Besses there were in the world, living life like a bumper sticker, more journey than destination. And the more Katie’s own journey stalled in a construction zone, the more in awe she was that none of Bess’s choices ever seemed wrong. Even that day they’d been stranded in the airport for six hours, Katie churning mad, Bess had—after recovering the carry-on from security—struck up a conversation with exactly the right stranger in the bar, landing them VIP resort upgrades that were almost worth the trouble.

Katie liked the way Bess could make her believe that things were worth the time to get right. When Bess finally landed on Natural Resources as a major, Katie knew it would stick, even though Bess had had to redo half her prerequisites. She’d even married the hard choice, sticking with her boyfriend from that year abroad, surviving a long-distance relationship right up until they said I do. Vince had made a career of coaching youth soccer for a Christian club, though he could “take or leave” the Bible verses printed on their jerseys. Vince could take or leave almost anything but Bess, which made them a great pair. When they couldn’t get pregnant, they fostered. When they ended up pregnant anyway, they adopted too. Bess’s house was a mess, but it was the only actual joyful mess Katie had ever seen.

Deep down, this was why Katie had come.

Now, here, she was part of it again. So far, just the mess.

But she had her eye on the joy.

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