The hand painted worn words "Keep Out" scrawled on a weathered sheet of plywood at the entrance to the Washburn Ranch gave the distinct impression that the eccentric Helene Washburn Wells did not take kindly to visitors. The once picturesque Spanish style mansion now closely resembled a vacated mental asylum with boarded windows and overgrown vines. Anyone approaching the mansion without a good cause for visiting would've been frightened away by the signage, barbed wire, and massive clumps of moss hanging from the aging Oak trees lining the cobblestone driveway leading to the main house. |
Dakota Well's eyes filled with tears as she approached the ranch gates remembering the terrified look on her drunken mother's face the day she'd struggled to nail the "Keep Out" sign to the Oak tree.
The once stunning metal entry gates were shroud in thick rusty iron chains with several padlocks securing them in place forbidding anyone from entering. The barbed wire and layers of broken glass strung along the top of the old rock wall gave the impression that the property may have once been a prison. Immediately on the other side of the tall gates lay a large up-rooted Oak tree, its roots exposed and large branches rotting on the ground.
Working tirelessly, Helene Washburn Wells had unconsciously constructed barriers around the aging mansion during the twenty years since Dakota left the estate in 1986. She'd laboriously made wind chimes from bits and pieces of metal pipe and attached them here and there along the barbed wire barrier. The chimes made a chilling noise resembling the sound of a pack of wild young wolves howling in obvious distress.
Looking beyond the entry gates Dakota saw dozens of hand painted signs lining both sides of what she remembered as once being a magnificent winding cobblestone driveway. The signs threatened Go Away, Stay Out, Don't Come Any Closer, Trespassers will be Shot, You're Not Welcome. Dakota strained to read the messages scrawled on crude signs convinced that they were placed there by Helene to discourage her from ever returning to the ranch to claim her inheritance.
Dakota had suffered life-long abuse at the hands of her alcoholic, insanely jealous mother Helene, especially after the untimely demise of her father Jack Wells in 1984. The fact that Dakota obviously inherited her father's good looks only served to depress Helene more. She couldn't stand the sight of the little girl from the day she'd been born. Her hatred for Dakota became unbearable once Jack was gone. She made no attempt to shield the child from the hatred she felt in her wounded heart.
Young Dakota had been spoiled by her father, the obvious apple of his eye; however, after his death she found herself alone, feeling frightened and abandoned. Her father's death erased the only happiness she'd known in her young life. Yet, she sometimes looked at his passing as a blessing, believing that his death gave her the inspiration, tenacity and inner strength she needed to carry on without him.
His death extinguished the wealthy Helene Washburn Well's desire to live. Her world spun out of control; her dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs replaced the love she'd once felt for her handsome husband Jack. She forever lay drowning in a sea of self-pity putting up a wall that no one could tear down, despising her only child, and causing strife and destruction in the lives that she touched along the way.
Jack's death was the beginning of the end for the once outrageous Texas debutante. Her life prior to that day had been one of a fairy tale princess. She'd never fully appreciated the luxurious lifestyle she'd lived until after the love of her life was gone. Nothing mattered to Helene after Jack's death. She struggled to exist to the best of her ability all the while realizing that her life without her loving husband had forever changed.
Within months after his death she'd insisted that Dakota get out and she began her compulsive hoarding; Helene developed a obsessive-compulsive disorder compelling her to acquire and hang on to things even if they were worthless, hazardous and unsanitary.
She never sought medical attention for the problem, in-fact she told herself she didn't have a problem. She began collecting foodstuff, water, gasoline, and other essentials which she believed would soon be in short supply. Helene Washburn Wells believed that the world was coming to an end. She took her money out of the bank, closed out her retirement accounts and cashed in her stocks and bonds. Hoarding the cash she stuffed it into brown paper bags hiding it in various places around the mansion.
Helene grew uneasy and apprehensive shunning old friends and avoiding contact with everyone except Francine Walters. Francine had been employed on the ranch by Helene's father when she was a young girl of sixteen. She'd been with the family for as long as anyone could remember. Francine was the mother figure in Dakota's life, she'd taken her in when Helene booted her out loving her as if she were her own child.
Although Helene had once been a perfectionist meticulously absorbed in her health and appearance, she'd let herself go becoming unkempt, paranoid and psychotic. The idea that her thoughts and actions were irrational distressed her. She feared what she perceived to be future and present dangers constantly complaining of heart palpitations, tension and fatigue. Suffering panic attacks Helene sometimes expressed a fear that she was about to die or pass out.
Helene Washburn Wells was once a strong woman of above average intelligence who self-diagnosing her obsessive-compulsive disorder; claiming it was brought on by the significant loss in her life. She missed her husband and resented the changes she'd been forced to face in life without him. Her reliance on alcohol and prescription drugs seemed to make the panic attacks worsen as years went by.
The large rooms in the mansion began to fill with stuff. Francine managed to keep her quarters, the kitchen, a sitting room and Helene's bedroom free from clutter. Otherwise they lived surrounded by mounds of garbage and unnecessary objects purchased by Helene in her quest to hang on to the memories of her beloved husband Jack. The barns and the adjacent bunk house filled with boxes containing things that reminded Helene of Jack. The walls and floors fell in around them, the rats and mice moved freely throughout tunneling through the clutter paying no attention to the value of what surrounded them.
A key hung on the kitchen wall which Helene claimed was the magic key holding the secret to why Jack had died. There was little talk of Dakota, no memories in site to remind anyone of her childhood. No pictures hung on the walls of her as a small child. They were all packed away preserved by Francine who secretly hoped that Dakota would return to the ranch one day and save Helene from her destructive ways.
One evening as they dined quietly together in the large kitchen, the aging Helene spoke, "When Dakota comes' home make sure to give her that key."
Francine appearing startled to hear Helene say her daughter's name, "Do you mean the key on the wall by the back door?"
"Yes, that's the key. It'll unlock the mystery surrounding this ranch." Helene reached for her wine glass. "Fill it up Francine. You know I'm unhappy when I'm out of wine."
"Yes ma'am. I checked the wine cellar yesterday. We've got enough wine stored to last us at least until the day Dakota comes home."
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