When the divorce finally went through, Bill ended up with both the house and car. In exchange, Chondra gained a hefty sum of money and a brand new, nothing-to-lose outlook on life. So she drove halfway from her broken home in the Florida Everglades towards her parents’ house in Hershey, Pennsylvania before ending up at a dead-standstill in Hopewell, Virginia.
There weren’t a lot of options for Chondra. Staying in Florida, even if she had moved to a different city across the state, would have felt too close to Bill. Moving in with her parents, ‘until you’re back on your feet’ as mom had put it, seemed like a good plan when the verbal jabs from Bill were still fresh bruises on Chondra’s ego and the ink on the papers was still wet, however, after a day on the road, bus jostling like the gentle rock of a mother’s arms, Chondra’s mind was clear enough to sow her mental fields with doubt. She realized she couldn’t face her parents’ mollycoddling with all its implied “we told you so’s”.
Emotionally stuck, Chondra decided on spending a few days in Hopewell to begin the long, arduous, and inevitable task of sorting out her life. She took refuge at the Misted Rose, a beautiful bed and breakfast formed inside the gutted shell of a historical colonial mansion.
On her first evening there, stumbling in like a bedraggled cat caught in a storm, the proprietor, a cantankerous woman called Madame Sophie, had looked her over appraisingly, though it seemed more looked into her, those piercing blue eyes searching, white hair splayed wildly round a weathered face. Then Madame Sophie had taken Chondra’s hand in her own, wrinkled and slender like a gnarled twig, and stated firmly, “I know a kindred soul when I see one.”
She then insisted that Chondra take the largest room, the only room with a balcony, at half the regular price. So, flabberghasted but still coherent enough to know a good deal when she heard one, Chondra stayed.
Chondra spent mornings walking the waterfront. There was a tiny coffee vendor along the way where she would purchase a double latte, swearing from the first sip it was the best damn coffee she ever tasted. In the afternoons, Chondra toured Hopewell’s older neighborhoods. She wandered labyrinthine streets, admiring the stately houses and quiet, familial atmosphere. Around sunset, she walked the length of Main Street, peering forlornly in the windows of little shops and stopping at one of the cafes in the area for dinner. It was there, on the corner of Main, that Chondra found Balmony&Wormwood; a Victorian, two story with a ‘For Sale’ sign plastered in its front window.
Every evening after, Chondra found herself staring at the building, mesmerized by its curling gray paint, its surrounding wrought iron gate, its Doric columns supporting the lattice overhang, its faded wood sign with the lettering “’Balmony&Wormwood” swirling across in pale, yellowing paint.
It was once a photography studio, Madame Sophie informed Chondra when prompted, one of the first in America. It operated for over 150 years until Lionel Balmony passed away last spring. The inheritor, Lionel’s distant cousin, had no interest in continuing the family business and promptly put it on the market.
“It’s a shame…” Madame Sophie lamented, “Another forgotten piece of history.”
“Truly a shame,” Chondra replied but her thoughts were altogether elsewhere.
The next day Chondra put in a bid for Balmony&Wormwood using her divorce settlement as down payment.