I hope you enjoy this sneak peek of my upcoming release, The Patron.
I was eight years old the summer I found home. I’d come to Emerson Pass, Colorado, sickly and pale from the Seattle mist and nagging gray to the land of indigo skies, deep rivers, and the sound of tall grasses rustling in morning air that smelled of wild roses and sunshine.
At the beginning of that summer, on a sunny day in June, Nan and I had already eaten our lunch, thickly sliced ham layered between pieces of homemade peasant bread slathered in butter. We’d washed them down with lemonade so cold it had made my throat ache. After we’d had our rest in the shade, Nan suggested we bring home a bouquet of wildflowers to decorate the kitchen table. My grandmother wasn’t one for lounging around. If the sun was up, so was she. A rule I’d learned after only a week in Colorado.
Nan and I walked along the bank of the river collecting brightly colored flowers that I had no name for in her worn wicker basket. I didn’t have a name for any of the trees or plants I saw. The trees seemed to come in many varieties here. There were some like the ones we had at home with green needles that smelled of the Christmas tree lot around the corner from our apartment during December. Here, my favorites of all the trees had leaves shaped like hearts. Breezes whispered through the leaves and made a sound like tiny hands clapping. They clapped for me.
Narrow as a board and strong as an ox, Nan wore a blue cotton dress that flapped around her long legs. A straw hat covered her silver hair, which she wore in a blunt bob cut just below her ears.
The river flowed gently and was a color of green I’d never seen before. “Why is the river so green?” I asked.
“Because the waters run deep. Like you.”
“Deep like me.” I didn’t know yet what that meant or how true it was. I hadn’t yet learned of metaphors or analogies. All I knew was that Nan talked that way sometimes and I loved it. I loved her.
Her arm, tanned to a golden beige from her summer work in her garden and alongside Pop in the horse barn, rippled with muscle as she dipped to clip a daisy for our bouquet. I looked at my own arm. Next to her, I was pale and sallow of skin. All winter and spring, I’d suffered from head colds and a recurring eye infection. I could not escape the chill no matter how much money my mother spent on the electrical bill in an attempt to warm our drafty Seattle apartment. Finally, blaming the cloudy, misty weather for my poor health, she’d packed me up and shipped me off to my Nan and Pop. I was to spend the entire summer on their small horse farm. Soaking up sun and my Nan’s hearty cooking, I’d come home transformed, Mom felt sure.
For the first few days I missed my mother. But Nan loved me fiercely and made me feel safe and known in her warm, sun-drenched kitchen. “We’ll dry you out and fatten you up before we send you back to your mother,” she’d said to me that first morning.
“Nan, what’s the reason Mom didn’t come here with me?” I asked now as I plucked a purple flower from the ground.
“This place makes her sad.”
“She loved a boy very much and when he broke her heart, she had to run away to the city to try to forget all about him.”
The idea of my mother loving a boy was impossible to picture. She raised me alone with no mention of why I didn’t have a father like most of the others in my second-grade class. “Did she forget all about him?”
“I don’t think so.” Nan set down the basket and squinted her eyes, looking at something across the river.
I followed her gaze. I couldn’t see anything other than the sparkle of the sun on the gentle ripples of the river.
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“Not as well as I thought I did.”
Another riddle. Later, I’d understand. At least I figured I would. Mom often said I was too young to ask some of the questions I asked her. Maybe I was also too young to understand everything Nan told me.
I observed her strong, broad hands as she adjusted her hat. My mother’s hands were the same, only they were always stained with clay because she made pottery in her wheel. She sold her pieces at summer art fairs, but most of our money came from her job at the department store downtown that smelled of rich ladies.
“Nan, will I ever grow strong like you?”
“Oh, yes. You’re a sunflower. Do you know about sunflowers?”
“They start out from a small seed. But once they break through the ground, they tilt their face upward, and the sun makes them taller and taller until they explode with a glorious yellow flower as big as my hat brim. Then, after they’re all grown, they make hundreds of seeds. In that way, they make sure the next generation will also be able to grow toward the sun. Always tilt your face toward the light, my love, and you’ll be fine all your life.”
“Have you been fine all your life?”
“I’ve had the most glorious life of all. Do you know why?”
“Because of tilting your face up at the sun?”
“That, yes. But also because of your Pop. We’ve loved each other very well for forty-five years. That’s the most important thing, Crystal. The love of your partner. You must choose wisely. When he comes, the idea of love might scare you, but you must do it anyway.”
“Was my mom a sunflower?”
“The most beautiful one I ever saw. Like you will be someday.”
“Will you still be here then?” I asked. “When I’m beautiful?”
“I hope so. I’m already old. Did you know I was forty when I had your mother? We didn’t think the good Lord would bless us with a child. We’d been married twenty years by then. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor told me.”
“Is that old to have a baby?” I didn’t know anything about babies. All I knew was that my mom had only been nineteen when she had me. I’d overheard her tell someone that once.
“It’s pretty old but not impossible. I had a friend who had a baby at forty-four. We thought we should have a club for geriatric mothers of babies.”
“You won’t die soon, will you?” I didn’t even want to think about my world without Nan.
“I will eventually but not any time soon, God willing. Watching you grow makes me want to stay here as long as I can. I sure would love to live long enough to see you all the way grown. But whether or not you can see me here on earth, I’m always right there.” She tapped my chest. “In your heart. Whenever you need me, just call out and I’ll answer.”
A shadow passed overhead, covering the sun for a moment. Nan put her dry, warm hand on my arm.
“Look up, Crystal. That’s a bald eagle.”
A bird with wings as wide as I was tall seemed to ride the wind. Mesmerized by her graceful flapping, I watched as she swooped low over the grasses that swayed in the breeze and made the music of the meadow.
“I’ve never seen one this close,” Nan whispered as she took my hand.
The powerful creature dived into the grass and came up with a small field mouse in its her beak. We squeezed each other’s hands as she soared up and into the blue.
“Isn’t she something?” Nan asked.
“Yes,” I breathed. The strength and power of the eagle reverberated inside my own body. I grew robust as I stood there in the aftermath. She was there inside me just as the deep river and wild roses were. From then on, they lived inside my body and soul. They were me and I them.
On the way home, the warmth in the car made me drowsy. Nan didn’t believe in naps. She said they kept a person from sleeping properly at night. I fluttered my eyelids to stay awake. “Nan, what’s it like here at Christmastime?”
“Magical. They put lights up in all the trees and the storefronts. And it’s all white with snow. The skiers come, of course, which we like because they bring money to the good folks who live here.”
I peered out the window at the northern mountain. The wire and posts of the chairlifts seemed lonely hanging over the snowless brown ski runs. I turned back to look at the quaint, orderly main street of town. Hanging baskets with purple and yellow flowers hung from the brick buildings. People roamed the sidewalks as if they had no place to be other than exactly where they were.
“Did you know that no two snowflakes are alike?”
“How do you know?” They were so small, how could anyone see the differences?
“They put them under microscopes. I think, anyway.”
A little girl with a golden braid sat on a bench outside an ice cream shop. Her cone had a scoop of pink ice cream. Next to her, a blond man ate one with chocolate. My favorite. I sighed, wishing I could taste that sweetness on my tongue.
Nan must have noticed my covetous gaze. “Should we stop for a scoop?”
“Sure. We’ll bring a bowl back for Pop, though, or he’ll be sad. He loves ice cream.”
“Who doesn’t?” I asked.
Nan parked on the street, and we hustled over to the shop and each ordered a cone. She got a weird kind called rum and raisin, but I went with chocolate. She asked the clerk to set aside a scoop of maple nut for Pop. “It’ll melt if we bring it out with us.”
I nodded, then licked my cone. My eyes widened at the creamy, rich flavor. “This is the best ice cream ever.”
“Everything in Emerson Pass is better,” Nan said.
We walked outside. The little girl and her father were still seated on the bench. The man called out to Nan. Everyone knew her here. “Joy, how are you?”
“Jack Vargas. I haven’t seen you in months.”
“I’ve been working in Denver during the week. The company has an apartment there.”
“Brandi, you’re getting so big,” Nan said to the girl.
The little girl ducked her head. Shy, like me.
“This here is my granddaughter, Crystal. She’s here all summer, Brandi, if you’d like to come over to the farm to play.”
Brandi raised her gaze to inspect me. “Where do you live normally?” Her voice was as creamy and sweet as the ice cream. She had round eyes like a doll. Her skin was tanned and her yellow hair had white streaks in it as though she spent a lot of time outside. A pair of jean shorts and a peach-colored tank top were probably a lot more fashionable than the overalls Nan had pulled out of a box of my mother’s old things. Brandi was pretty. Too pretty to be my friend.
“Seattle,” I answered between nervous licks of my cone.
“That’s far away,” Brandi said.
“I had to come on the airplane.”
“All by yourself?” Brandi asked.
“Yes, but they made me stay with a lady the whole time. She was kind of mean. She gave me a pin, like a pilot has on his uniform.”
“Really? I’d like one of those. I’ve never been on a plane.”
My earlier envy of her beauty lessened. I was a city girl who had been on a plane. That gave me a little something anyway, even if I was skinny and pale as a ghost. “You can come over and see it if you want.”
Brandi looked up at her dad. “Can I?”
“I’d have to check with your mother, but I don’t see why not.” Jack Vargas looked a lot like his daughter, tanned and blond. His hair was cut as if he’d be on TV delivering the news. Actually, now that I looked at him more closely, he kind of looked like a Ken doll. Even his tan shorts and blue T-shirt seemed like something I would dress my Ken doll in.
He turned to Nan. “She looks like Jennifer at that age. I think I remember those overalls.”
“You know my mom?” I asked, so surprised I almost dropped my cone.
“They were friends when they were little,” Nan said. Why did she have the “Don’t ask for another glass of water and it’s bedtime” voice?
“Sure, right.” Jack tossed the rest of his ice cream cone into the trash can next to the bench. “How’s your mom? Is she here?”
“No, she just sent me. Nan says this place broke her heart.” Is that what she said? I had a feeling I hadn’t quoted it quite right.
Jack Vargas looked down at the ground, as if there might be something on his shoe.
“All right, then. We have to go.” Nan motioned toward the car with her chin. “I’ll get Pop’s ice cream.”
I gave Brandi a shy smile. “Guess I’ll see you around.”
“Not if I see you first.” Brandi giggled. “My dad always says that.”
I walked away, still smiling. Maybe I’d made a new friend?
I’d had no idea then that Brandi would become my very best friend in the world. That first summer turned into many more more with my Nan and Pop. They were killed in a car accident the year I turned twenty, just shy of their eightieth birthdays. Everyone in town said they went out together, just as they always had for most of their lives.
Four years after their death, the richest man in Seattle came into the restaurant where I worked and asked me out; I said yes. I’d said yes again when he asked me to marry him. Even when the trolls of the internet tried to take me down, I stayed tall and sure like a sunflower. I knew I had not married him for his money. He’d been my heart. My true companion. My soul mate.
Then he died. Then I lost our baby.
A part of me died with them.
I could no longer breathe in the city of grays and mists. So I went home. Home to Emerson Pass and its indigo sky and snowflakes and Brandi. If someone had told me what awaited me there, I wouldn’t have believed them. The secrets of the past rose from the ashes to change my life.
The Patron (Emerson Pass Contemporaries, Book 2) coming May 18. Preorder here