Back to U (An Empty Nest Romance)



Yesterday, Back to U (An Empty Nest Romance) hit #1 on the Amazon Free List! Thanks to all the great readers, bloggers, FB and Twitter friends for helping get the word out!

If you missed it yesterday, you can still download Back to U in seconds for less than a Starbuck’s Mocha… although I’d say, “Get both! You deserve caffeine and a little reading time.”  :)

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 Enjoy the excerpt below & Happy e-Reading!

Chapter One

The addition of a powerful ingredient can change the whole recipe.

Missy loved chili. That’s what was important.

Gwen kept telling herself that as she chopped the onions and tried to ignore the sharp vapors that stung her eyes. She felt the first tear seep out and stepped away from the cutting board, chef’s knife still in her hand. And there, in the middle of her butter-yellow kitchen, two months after Steve walked out twenty years into a lifetime commitment, her eyes gave up.

A flood of tears unleashed, and flood was all she could think when the cascade began down her face. It fell over her jaw like Niagara, and along the neckline she felt lacked the smoothness she’d taken for granted until her last birthday, the sneeze away from forty, thirty-nine. She lifted her face to the farmhouse reproduction pendant light she’d shopped for all fall when Missy started her senior year. She felt the deluge of tears pour into her blouse, soak the collar, run in a rivulet between her breasts. She loved that light. That light was never going to leave her.

She lowered her face to check the time, but the clock on the Viking Stove wavered in a black and white blur. She’d have to estimate since her eyesight was swamped. She’d started the chili at four, browned the meat, chopped peppers. Had to be four-forty-five when she’d hit the onion. Missy wouldn’t be home for an hour. Gwen didn’t want her to see her mother like some kitchen serial killer, onion soaked knife in hand, unhinged and venting tears. It would be the last night to even wonder when Missy was coming home. She’d be gone too.

Gone. Gwen could cry every night alone in her kitchen. She looked at the light again, the tears not even slowing. She thought some moisture had traveled down to the waistband of her capris. That damn light. The two of them would be left there. Steve in his condo. Missy in her dorm room. She hated the stupid farmhouse reproduction pendant light, and she was going to do something about it. First, she’d stop crying and finish the chili. Missy had to come home to eat it. It was the last supper.

Gwen shifted as the tears made their way into her underwear. And after the last supper, Missy would get in her graduation car that Gwen had filled with a coordinated mini household. There was the Egyptian cotton duvet cover and poppy red towels with a monogrammed laundry basket. It was everything Gwen had wanted that first year of college. And when the graduation car and the matching hangers left the drive-way, Gwen was going to yank out that damn farmhouse reproduction pendant light and do nothing but chop onions and weep until she was dry.

She’d need a job too. She’d yank out the light and get a job chopping onions to pay the utilities for a house no one lived in. She took in a breath. Had she been breathing in the deluge? It was like getting air under water with no possibility of coming up to the surface. It was a surface where no one lived, not even her. She’d be the only one there with no company but a twelve inch chef’s knife and onions. And what would she do? Keep getting up? That had been hard enough when Steve left in the spring and there was only the occasional sighting of Missy.

For months the possibility that Missy would share a meal or at least say hi had kept her going. She’d waited for the moments Missy would sail in to grab something out of her bedroom, her first bedroom that had become her second all those nights she’d stayed with her dad. But even the chance of a Missy sighting would be gone in about fifteen hours if her water-soaked estimation was accurate.

She had to pull herself together. Her mom had suggested a new bra and a good haircut, like that had helped her mother ever steer them in a useful direction. Gwen knew she could get control of herself again. Hadn’t she held her life steady for years? She shook her head to clear it and felt the tears fly like water off a dog’s fur. It had even soaked her hair. The salt would frizz her curls for a week. She wiped the back of her free hand over her cheek, the knife still in the air. Maybe the flow of tears had slowed. Like a hard summer rain, it couldn’t last long. But her eyes were still producing plenty and her vision remained blurred, so she could just be kidding herself.

She tried to set the knife down but missed the edge of the counter. It was the same light shade as the floor, and she couldn’t trust that she could see it well enough. Maybe her eyes hadn’t slowed their leaking after all. Shuffling across the kitchen, she felt her way toward the bathroom, almost clearing the dining room before the knife knocked into something solid. She felt the back of what had been matching chairs. So she’d cut a chunk out of one, a little wood filler and it would be good as new.

Luckily, the August sun blazed through the high south window of the bathroom, and she could, thank god, follow that much light. The feel of carpet gave way to bathroom tile and she slowly lowered the knife, heard the rattle of metal on ceramic and pushed it until it stopped at what had to be the baseboard. She straightened and began to feel her way towards the shower. It seemed a better, bigger place to aim for than the sink, and she could warm up from the chill of a soaked shirt.

She grabbed at the row of towels and felt the first hunk of soft cotton. The second one she reached for fell to the floor, but she clung to the last one. If she used it like a rope, she could measure her way to the shower stall. A couple of steps and the porcelain tub stopped her progress. She felt it crack into her right shin and might have sworn on her way down to her knees. Had life come to this? The question wanted to skitter across her mind, but she stopped it because optimism could work in any situation.

She’d start with the good news. The good news? Well, despite the searing pain her shin bone radiated, she wasn’t crying any harder. It wasn’t even real crying. It might not even count since she felt like she was leaking. There was none of the hitched breathing and sniffling that had accompanied every crying spell she’d ever had, not that she could remember the last one. A couple of years before there’d been an orphaned girl movie she’d seen with Missy when her daughter had loved dark teen drama. She might have cried at the end of that one too.

Still on her knees, she unbuttoned her blouse, so clammy it made her shiver to touch it.  She’d have to get it in the washer as soon as she could see and, of course, after she’d gotten the chili simmering. Her bra, wet as well, she tried to rest on the blouse but couldn’t see clearly enough to be sure she’d succeeded. She stood, the throb of her leg reminding her to scoot back from the direction of the tub just in case. The capris slipped off, the wet waist band cold along her hips. The underwear remained mostly dry. Things couldn’t be too bad if your underwear was okay. If paramedics were called in, she’d have that going for her.

She felt for the tub with tentative sweeps of one hand and heard the swoosh of shower curtain. She pushed it aside, lifted her foot higher than the tub rim could possibly be, and stepped into the slight grain of the tub floor. She’d never noticed the texture before. Necessary, she supposed, to prevent accidents, and god knew a woman blinded by her own tears, hands covered in onion juice, husband run off, daughter running off, needed to be protected from falling on her ass.

The shower knobs were easy, a sixth sense in your own home. You always knew how far to turn the cold, the hot, to give you the right mix. She reached for and knocked over three bottles before she gripped one. A shampoo? Body wash? A conditioner that would just seal the tears into her skin? Whatever it was, pushing on the top of the bottle didn’t pop it open. Apparently everything needed to be difficult. She gave up, unscrewed the lid and threw it over the shower curtain. She squeezed the bottle and a gush of something lavender-scented filled her palm and slipped between her fingers. She rubbed her hands over her hair, face, along her throat, and between her breasts down to her waist, the path her tears had taken. She turned into the blast of water and let everything wash away.

 ***

 “Yeah, I gotta go.”

Gwen lifted the wooden spoon out of the chili pot as her head jerked toward her daughter. They hadn’t even eaten yet, why would Missy be ready to leave? She stood with the spoon in the air but felt a scary similarity to the onion cleaver and all the crying earlier. She dropped the spoon in the chili with a plop. No need to go there again. She hadn’t been that successful at de-puffing her eyes from the first round, and her capris weren’t even finished with their dry cycle.

She took a deep breath and tried to smile. “I made your favorite. It’s your last…” No. She wasn’t going to think about it. “Let’s eat, and then if you want, you can drive your car over to Dad’s. I loaded it with all the new things for your dorm. You’ll be excited to get on the road first thing in the morning, Missy.”

“M.”

Gwen flinched. She may never be able to get that right, get anything right maybe. “Sorry, it’s just habit, Mi…, M.” She tried to see in the young woman in front of her the M she wanted to be. But all Gwen could see was the Missy she’d been the first seventeen years of her life. She studied her daughter’s lovely face and felt a stab of guilt over the unhappy expression her girl wore. It looked like a different kind of unhappiness the past few months, as if early teen moodiness hadn’t solidified so much as become joyless adult.

But she still knew her child. She had to. She knew from memory the way Missy’s hair, shiny and straight held the dark of Steve’s with a touch of her own chestnut. But Missy’s hazel eyes were her very own shade, and it never failed to hurt Gwen to see the lack of warmth in them for her. She’d distract them both with dinner.

Opening the cupboard, she took out two silver rimmed bowls. It would all work out for Missy. She was a smart and talented girl. Amazing with music. Hadn’t she been the pianist and sung with the high school’s choir? Gwen scooped chili in a bowl, topped it with freshly snipped cilantro from her garden, and handed it to Missy who took it with an audible sigh. The girl just needed encouragement. “You’re going to love the university. Belmar is a great school. I loved U both years I was on campus. Year-and-a-half. I had the best time ever my freshman–”

“I’m not going.”

Gwen filled her own bowl. It was a particularly good batch. The hiccup during the onion chopping had slowed her down, but not ruined the chili at all. She led the way to the dining room, ignoring the chunk missing from one chair and admiring the table already laid out with hot cornbread and two kinds of honey. “These will be the best years of your life, hon. You’ll meet so many new people–”

“I’m not going.”

“You’ll really love…” Setting her bowl down, Gwen pulled out a chair and sat harder than she needed to. She just needed to process the… “What?”

Missy dug into her chili.

Gwen cleared her throat. “You’re what?”

“You met Dad at the university, didn’t you?” Missy laughed. “You’ll meet people. Bet you wish you hadn’t.”

“I knew your dad a little from high school. What…” What was happening? Missy looked almost happy, enjoying the meal. Gwen looked down at her own bowl and couldn’t have eaten a bite on a bet, and she never bet. She waved her hand toward the back of the house. “The car’s packed.”

“Yeah. I’ll come get it after I’m settled. It’s too small for hauling the equipment.”

“You’re…” Gwen scanned the table. It was supposed to be the last supper before Missy left for Belmar. She was registered for classes and the car was packed, and Gwen even made sure the gas tank was full. “What’s happening?”

She realized she’d whispered the question, maybe only asked herself. She cleared her throat, wished her head would follow. “Missy, what are you doing?”

“M, Mom, M. It’s even easier than Missy or Melissa or Melissa Gwen. Don’t know why it’s so hard for you. Dad calls me M.  Austin calls me M.” Missy held up her hand before reaching for more cornbread. “No discussion of Austin.”

“I wasn’t going to–”

“Yeah, you were. And what’s going on is really pretty great.”

Gwen tried to take a sip of water but felt her hand shake and put the glass back down on the tablecloth. It amazed her that Missy was smiling. When was the last time she’d seen that?

“You know Austin’s band?”

Gwen remembered hearing them at the high school talent show, but even with Missy singing lead, they hadn’t had a chance at winning. It was unlikely that Austin would parlay his video game guitar skills into a professional career. She nodded carefully to avoid saying anything like that out loud or having a yes come out as a squeak or a sob or something like begging.

“He inspires me.” Missy buttered the cornbread, shook the honey bear, and ran swirl after swirl over the bread until Gwen felt her head might pop off from the building tension in her neck. “Then there’s Makayla S., Makayla B, you don’t know her, I don’t think. In select choir she was the girl in the third riser just over from the left, sang alto, remember?”

Gwen shook her head, lips pursed, and felt her hands lose their blood flow from her grip on the tablecloth.

“Oh, and you know Katy? Well, we’re a band now and completely great. Austin knows this guy in Cheney, Washington who completely got us a gig at his club. Tuesday nights. It’s ladies night and pretty much one of the busiest nights for them. We’ll waitress a little. Just the dinner shifts and then Tuesday night the stage is ours.”

Missy had a dorm room and a college fund and…”You’re going to be a waitress?”

“I’m in the first All Female Lynard Skynard Tribute Band. It was Austin’s brilliant thing, and he’s our manager. Nobody’s ever done it before. Can you believe that? I loved that Alabama song the first time I heard it in that movie, and now we know enough for a set, eight, and we’re going to work on that smell one.”

Gwen blinked, but her eyes felt too dry now like there’d been a run on the bank and her tear ducts were out of business. “That smell one?” She looked around the dining room, heard Missy stumbling over lyrics that included lots of ooohs and smell that smell. There was some death buried in the chorus. Hey, she might not be entirely lost if she could think up a pun. Death buried. It was probably a pun. Close. Maybe she could think up better dinner conversation next, like how great college was going to be. But Missy chatted on with more energy than she’d had in months, and nothing could stop her.

“We’re leaving tomorrow. Katy’s got a van. Not hers so much as Derek’s, but he’s really great. We’ve loaded up the amps. Austin’s cousin sold them to me.”

“You bought amps?”

“I completely knew that graduation money from Grandma was going to be super useful, and it was.”

“It was–”

“Mom.” Missy reached across the table, and Gwen felt pressure on the back of her hand as it disappeared under Missy’s. When had her hand gotten so small? She released the tablecloth and wanted to grip her daughter and never let go.

“Mom, don’t go crazy. I’m fine and doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Missy was going to sing eight songs… one great one, one or two pretty good ones, and the rest with smell eighty-six times in the chorus at a bar specializing in buck well drinks to get single women out so single and cheating men could get laid on a Tuesday… and that was her daughter’s destiny?

Gwen wished she hadn’t used up a lifetime of tears already. She could sprinkle some into the disaster of a dinner.

“Mom, I think you should maybe eat something.” Missy removed her hand and took her bowl to the kitchen.

Gwen heard the water run in the sink, the dishwasher open and close. “I taught her that.”

Missy came back, awkward in the doorway as if ready to run. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, I’m gonna…”

Gwen shook her head. She needed help, someone to stand beside her and present a unified front against total insanity. “What did your father say?”

Missy shrugged. “I haven’t seen him for a while.”

He wouldn’t have missed a single day of work at the insurance agency, and Missy was living at the condo he’d moved his things into. “Where has he been?”

“Home, I guess.”

Hearing Missy say so casually that Steve had another home might have been the worst blow of the evening any other night, but Gwen felt pleased it barely registered as a punch to the gut. When she realized Missy hadn’t been with either of her parents, her heart raced and her respiration rate kicked up to the fight or flight mode. “Where have you been?”

Missy gave her the vaguely bored look of the young adult who knew things about the world an old adult couldn’t begin to comprehend. “Calm down, Mother. You’ve been giving me the warning talks about boys since I was eleven, and it’s not about that. It’s all about the music. The whole band’s been crashing at Austin’s. His neighbor Zac’s got this garage and is very great about letting us set up in it. Was. We’re on the road now.”

Gwen knew if she thought too much about any one of the details in front of her, her brain would extinguish in a puff of smoke. She had to focus on the biggest fire, and if Missy hadn’t even been seeing her father, Gwen would have to handle the blaze alone. Handle it firmly but with a dash of empathy so it didn’t smolder too long. “But you’re on the road to college, Missy. You’ve only just finished high school. You–”

“I’m eighteen.” Missy laughed. “I’m not a kid, Mom.”

Shit. She couldn’t tackle anything from that front. Technically the girl was an adult but please. There must be another approach. “The university’s expecting you, you know. There are all those new things packed in the car.”

“Like you didn’t keep receipts? Please. And the university doesn’t care.”

“I do. I care.” She felt her heart beating in panic. Seeing her child throw her education away hurt even more than when she’d tossed her own aside.

“You care about making me do what you want me to do.”

“That’s not true. I want what’s best for you. I always have, and your father–”

Missy lifted her arms, “Gone.”

Gwen felt her breath taken at the casual dismissal of twenty years.

“Gone, Mom. Not coming back. You know, he’s working on the divorce papers and everything, and I’m not staying. I’m not doing what you or anybody else wants me to do. Ever. That’s why Austin has been so completely great for me. He just lets me be. Sometimes I don’t see him for days because he’s making music. And now I’m making music. You just wait here, but Dad’s not coming back. Who are you waiting for?”

No one. She was alone with nothing, so much nothing she couldn’t even answer Missy’s question by saying no one. No one had more presence, more life than she could imagine. But Missy had so much ahead of her. “I want you to have an education, get a degree. You can do anything you want to do.”

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do.” Missy gave her a half-smile from the doorway.

Gwen wanted to leap up and hold her girl so close she could smell her shampoo and feel the warmth of her, but Missy not hugging her back right then would do her in. She waited, closed her eyes as Missy turned to leave. “You want an education, Mom, go get one.”

 ***

She wasn’t sure how she’d gotten under the dining room table, how the phone had made it too. And the wine. The corkscrew. The wineglass with her favorite charm, the silver and gold hot pepper. She wasn’t sure how long Missy had been gone, waving goodbye like she hadn’t just dropped out of college, if a person could even drop out without first dropping in. Her only child had waved goodbye like she hadn’t just filleted open her mother’s life and found the innards pathetic. There was only one thing for a woman to do, and she knew it was a mistake even as she dialed.

“Hello?”

“Mother?”

“Gwen? I can hardly hear you.”

“I’m under the dining room table.”

“You broke a hip!”

“I’m not seventy. You are.” Gwen considered she might come from a long line of women who were a little bit mean to their mothers. “Sorry, Mom.”

“Oh, what a relief. I thought you said you were under the dining room table.”

“I am. I’m sorry about the seventy thing. You could pass for sixty any day.”

“I’ll be right there.”

 ***

“Mom?”

“I’m not talking to you until you come out.”

Gwen sighed, continued to study the underside of the table. It looked like a large wheel with wooden spokes radiating out from the center. Above, where she could hear her mother’s tea cup tap periodically, it was nothing but smooth wood, all one piece and lovely. Underneath, it had the feel of a job-site, like things were a bit jimmied. But the table was quality, so all things might look like that on the underside. She had an impulse to tip over the couch just to see if she was right.

She must be right about something, anything really would do. She certainly was crazy, had become, in a matter of hours, a woman who gushed tears and… damn, had she left the chef’s knife in the bathroom? That would cinch it. Her mother probably hadn’t witnessed enough crazy behavior after being called over at dinner time to see her daughter not serving a meal but hiding under one. Gwen never thought she’d see the day her mother looked more domesticated than she did.

Ellen had even done the finger snap and used her Gwen Melissa voice, but it hadn’t been incentive enough for her to come out. She wasn’t ever coming out. Her daughter was gone and not gone in the good way she’d previously thought was the bad way, leaving for college. Missy was gone to ladies night and that smell, ooh, ooh, that smell. She had to get those lyrics out of her head and think happier thoughts. “The comforter is lovely, Mom. I don’t think you saw it.”

“No. Did you get it at Stapleton’s?”

“I looked there, but they weren’t in sets.”

“Sure. You needed the shams and dust ruffle. I don’t know why they don’t always come in sets. Nickel and dime you with buying each piece, I suppose.”

“The Linen Source.”

“Of course.”

Gwen heard a sip then the cup tap the wood. Everything was so normal, except for her hiding, which was so wrong. She was broken and couldn’t even bring herself to believe it. “I heard once that the Indians couldn’t see Columbus’ ships because they didn’t know what ships were. There was no way for their brains to get the message from their eyes.”

The tea cup knocked on the table. “That’s absurd.”

“Yeah, I thought that too.”

“It’s… why, it’s made up and makes no sense at all.”

“I think that’s the point.”

“Columbus stories are mostly untrue, although I have never doubted the sheep tales.”

Gwen laughed, surprised by the sound and the feel of it coming from low inside her, foreign and reflexive.

Her mother’s face appeared below the edge of the table, more lined leaning down, but still lovely and familiar, even the overly blonde hair and still too much cleavage gave Gwen an unexpected feeling of nostalgia. Her mother raised one penciled eyebrow. “I made a little joke, didn’t I?”

Gwen smiled, her eyes filling with tears, regular ones this time, she realized with relief.

“A nicely vulgar one. I’m surprised I got you to laugh at it.” Her mother smiled back at her and eyed her empty tea cup and Gwen’s bottle of wine.

“Come on, Mom.” Gwen scooted over to make room. “Don’t be sheepish.”

 ***

She might have dozed off, but it couldn’t have been for more than a few minutes given the level of her mother’s tea cup. Would it be called a wine cup? She felt her mother pat her leg. “There now, a little sleep makes everything better.”

She tried to sit up cross-legged but stiffness forced her to put her legs straight out in front of her. How had her mother crawled under the table and managed a near lotus posture? Reaching for her wine, she took a warm sip. She might have slept closer to half an hour. Was everything made better? “Let’s see… husband’s gone, daughter’s gone, daughter mean on her way out. I’m under a table. Outside there’s a couple hundred dollars worth of linens and supplies and an electric teakettle ten times better than mine all packed in M’s car. By me.”

Her mother sighed. “Not better.”

“You could make it better by saying that Steve is a rat, Missy is ungrateful, and I have my whole life ahead of me.”

“Steve is Steve. Missy is eighteen. And you have half your life ahead of you.”

Gwen rubbed her hand over her chest. “Ow.”

“Better than I’ve got. I squeeze ten more years out before I’m incontinent, and I’ll be thrilled.”

“Mother!”

“I have some leakage when I sneeze. I’m seventy, Gwen. I won’t always be around to sit with you under the table.”

“I’ve never asked you to before.”

“You didn’t ask me this time, did you? No. You wouldn’t. You were a competent little girl, Gwen. And you do everything so very well now.”

“Everything? I don’t do anything well anymore. I don’t wife or mother or have anyone around to even fail to appreciate my cooking.”

“You make a frittata like no one ever did.”

“And now you sound like I’m dead.”

“No, dear, you sound like you’re dead.”

“I’m only thirty-nine!”

“Did I not just say you have half your life left?”

“I thought you were being mean.”

“I was being realistic. It’s your turn.”

Her turn? She wasn’t the woman who’d spent the seventies bleaching her hair within an inch of its life and chasing down a herd of potential step-fathers. “I’m always realistic.”

“You loved Barbie.”

“I don’t even know Barbie.”

“You liked the little shoes, the car, that one pink trench coat. It was quite stylish. But you loved the house most of all.”

“Barbie’s dream house.” Gwen closed her eyes and lay back down on the carpet. She’d moved the pink and white house and the Barbies to every apartment and rental Ellen had dragged them to. “It was perfect. Remember the tiny pink sink and the tiles set on the diagonal? Perfect.”

“No one was in it.”

Gwen opened her eyes. “Barbie was. And Ken. Ha, Barbie had Ken, and Ken stuck around, and there was Skipper. Was that her name? She was a young cousin or niece. Ungrateful daughter.”

“Nope. No one was in the dream kitchen. Not even Barbie. It was always you with your hand in there setting the table, stacking the plates in the sink and making the water sounds. Remember the water sounds?”

“Shhhhh,” it still sounded a little like water. Gwen felt the tears drip along her cheekbones and into her ears. “What am I going to do?”

Her mother smiled, brushed the tears off her right cheek, shrugged.

 ***

Gwen circled around the car, its backseat packed to just below the head rests. There was unobstructed vision from the rear view mirror. She’d checked, twice. Gwen had done it all, and now the day Missy was supposed to leave for college, she had to find a way to undo it. Standing in the driveway, the morning felt not so much new as foreign. Even the sun, salmon pink on the mountains, seemed a shade off of normal, the temperature a few degrees too hot even for August.

Readjusting her handbag on her shoulder, she considered that instead of transferring everything, she could drive the little red car straight to The Linen Source. She’d try to put back what she’d set in motion. Who knows, maybe she’d find a store called The Life Source and put back what the last couple of decades had set in motion. Would she return her past if she could? What if they gave her twenty-years of store credit to live over again? It would erase Steve. But some of those years had been good, or if not good, definitely pleasant.

But Missy would be erased too, or M would be. Gwen hated to think she didn’t even know what to call her daughter at eighteen. Once she’d known every cell of her and then her first word, hi. Her first step, the couch to the coffee table quickly followed by a fall and much crying and consoling. Gwen knew how to console an eleven-month-old baby, and she’d figured out when to encourage a cranky kindergartner to take a nap, even though Missy had insisted she was much too old for that at five. As a mom, she’d never failed to throw the right kind of birthday party that made ten special, eleven, twelve… She wouldn’t take a second of that back, just the present.

What was that expression she’d loved? The present is a gift? The present is the gift you give yourself? The present is a gift; that’s why they call it the present? Whatever the hell the saying was, she wanted to spray paint it on the house and drive the college car right through it.

She stopped, hand gripping the driver’s door handle. The house she had loved and cleaned and built a life in didn’t hold anything anymore. She had no life in it and no life outside it. She envied Missy, probably not for the first time, if she were honest with herself. Missy had an inviting path laid out, and then created another one that, while completely unappealing to pretty much anybody, Missy had a lot of enthusiasm for.

Gwen reached for her own car keys. She’d take the comforter out and put it in her car and start by returning something. Errands didn’t constitute a life, but they might help her forget she didn’t have one. Missy had two lives to choose from. She should take the one Missy wasn’t using.

The thought shot through her like something electric, and she stared again into the back seat at everything she’d picked out. She moved closer to the window and peeked in with hands on either side of her face. She loved that electric teakettle and set of mugs, boxed and tied with a stretchy gold ribbon. The Egyptian cotton towel set felt like heaven. She spotted the red backpack with the slim laptop inside that would never be touched. She’d imagined Missy working steadily in the university library, happy in her concentration and learning everything Gwen had ever wanted to and not been able to because life had gotten in the way of her life.

She stepped back and saw her face reflected in the window. With her shoulders angled, it looked like she’d already entered the car, so she opened the driver’s door, got in, and drove.

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Somebody’s Having a Bad Hair Day!



BacktoU 8_Bestselling_CCbouton free download

The bad hair day (in addition to mine!) is suffered by the main character of Back To U, Gwen. The novel is a free download today on Amazon, and the beginning of the first chapter is below (and yeah, she’s having the kind of bad hair day you wouldn’t wish on anybody).

But if your Sunday is less than stellar, have a novel on me! It’s free just until midnight, so let your girlfriends know (even the ones who never have bad hair days.)

Chapter One

The addition of a powerful ingredient can change the whole recipe.

            Missy loved chili. That’s what was important. She’d just keep telling herself that as she chopped the onions and tried to ignore the sharp vapors that stung her eyes. Gwen felt the first tear seep out and stepped away from the cutting board, chef’s knife still in her hand. And there, in the middle of her butter-yellow kitchen, two months after Steve walked out twenty years into a lifetime commitment, her eyes gave up.

A flood of tears unleashed, and flood was all she could think when the cascade began down her face. It fell over her jaw like Niagara, and along the neckline she felt lacked the smoothness she’d taken for granted until her last birthday, the sneeze away from forty, thirty-nine. She lifted her face to the farmhouse reproduction pendant light she’d shopped for all fall when Missy started her senior year. She felt the deluge of tears pour into her blouse, soak the collar, run in a rivulet between her breasts. She loved that light. That light was never going to leave her.

She lowered her face to check the time, but the clock on the Viking Stove wavered in a black and white blur. She’d have to estimate since her eyesight was swamped. She’d started the chili at four. She’d browned the meat, chopped peppers. Had to be four-forty-five when she’d hit the onion. Missy wouldn’t be home for an hour. Gwen didn’t want her to see her mother like some kitchen serial killer, onion soaked knife in hand, unhinged and venting tears. It would be the last night to even wonder when Missy was coming home. She’d be gone too.

Gone. Gwen could cry every night alone in her kitchen. She looked at the light again, the tears not even slowing. She thought some moisture had traveled down to the waistband of her capris. That damn light. The two of them would be left there. Steve in his condo. Missy in her dorm room. She hated the stupid farmhouse reproduction pendant light, and she was going to do something about it. First, she’d stop crying and finish the chili. Missy had to come home to eat it. It was the last supper. Gwen shifted as the tears made their way into her underwear. And after the last supper, Missy would get in her graduation car that Gwen had filled with a coordinated mini household. There was the Egyptian cotton duvet cover and poppy red towels with a monogrammed laundry basket. It was everything Gwen had wanted that first year of college. And when the graduation car and the matching hangers left the drive-way, Gwen was going to yank out that damn farmhouse reproduction pendant light and do nothing but chop onions and weep until she was dry.

She’d need a job too. Yank out the light and get a job chopping onions to pay the utilities for a house no one lived in. She took in a breath. Had she been breathing in the deluge? It was like getting air under water with no possibility of coming up to the surface. It was a surface where no one lived, not even her. She’d be there with her twelve inch chef’s knife and onions and do what? Keep getting up? That had been hard enough when Steve left in the spring and there was only the occasional sighting of Missy. For months the possibility that Missy would share a meal or at least say hi had kept her going. She’d wait for the moment Missy would sail in to grab something out of her bedroom, her first bedroom that had become her second all those nights she’d stayed with her dad. But even the chance of a Missy sighting would be gone in about fifteen hours if her water-soaked estimation was accurate.

She had to pull herself together. Her mom had suggested a good bra and a new haircut, like that had helped her mother ever steer them in a useful direction. Gwen knew she could get control of herself again. Hadn’t she held her life steady for years? She shook her head to clear it and felt the tears fly like water off a dog’s fur. It had even soaked her hair. The salt would frizz her curls for a week. She wiped the back of her free hand over her cheek, the knife still in the air. Maybe the flow of tears had slowed. Like a hard summer rain, it couldn’t last long. She felt her eyes still producing plenty and her vision remained blurred, so she could just be kidding herself.

She tried to set down the knife but missed the edge of the counter. It was the same light shade as the floor, and she couldn’t trust that she could see it well enough. Maybe her eyes hadn’t slowed their leaking after all. She shuffled across the kitchen, one palm out and one hand led by a blade. She felt her way to the living room, jerked as her progress was stopped by the knife digging into something solid. She felt with her other hand. It would just take a little wood filler to repair the chunk taken out of the back of the dining room chair. No one would know but her.

Luckily, the August sun blazed through the high south window of the bathroom, and she could, thank god, follow that much light. The feel of carpet gave way to tile, and she knew she’d arrived. Slowly she lowered the knife, heard the rattle of metal on ceramic and pushed it until it stopped at what had to be the baseboard. She straightened and began to feel her way towards the shower. It seemed a better, bigger place to aim for than the sink, and she could warm up from the chill a soaked shirt in the air-conditioning had given her.

She grabbed at the row of towels and felt the first hunk of soft cotton. The second one she reached for fell to the floor, but she clung to the last one. If she just used it like a rope she could measure her way to the shower stall. A couple of steps and the porcelain tub stopped her progress. She felt it crack her right shin and might have sworn on her way down to her knees. Her life had all come to this was the thought that wanted to skitter across her mind, but she stopped it. Optimism could work in any situation. The good news? Despite the searing pain her shin bone radiated, she wasn’t crying any harder. It wasn’t even real crying. It might not count since she felt like she was leaking. There was none of the hitched breathing and sniffling that had accompanied every crying spell she’d ever had, not that she could remember the last one. A couple of years before there’d been an orphaned girl movie she’d seen with Missy when dark teen drama held great appeal. She might have cried at the end of that one too.

Still on her knees, she unbuttoned her blouse, so clammy it made her shiver to touch it.  She’d have to get it in the washer as soon as she could see and, of course, after she’d gotten the chili simmering. Her bra, wet as well, she tried to rest on the blouse but couldn’t see clearly enough to be sure she’d succeeded. She stood, the throb of her leg reminding her to scoot back from the direction of the tub just in case. The capris slipped off, the wet waist band cold along her hips. The underwear was mostly dry. Things couldn’t be too bad if your underwear were okay. If paramedics were called in, she’d have that going for her.

She felt for the tub with tentative sweeps of one hand and heard the swoosh of shower curtain. She pushed it aside, lifted her foot higher than the tub rim could possibly be, and stepped into the slight grain of the tub floor. She’d never noticed the texture before. Necessary, she supposed, to prevent accidents, and god knew a woman blinded by her own tears, hands covered in onion juice, husband run off, daughter running off, needed to be protected from falling on her ass.

The shower knobs were easy, a sixth sense in your own home. You always knew how far to turn the cold, the hot, to give you the right mix. She reached for and knocked over three bottles before she gripped one. A shampoo? Body wash? A conditioner that would just seal the tears into her skin? Whatever it was, pushing on the top of the bottle didn’t pop it open. Apparently everything needed to be difficult. She gave up, unscrewed the lid and threw it over the shower curtain. She squeezed the bottle and a gush of something lavender-scented filled her palm and slipped between her fingers. She rubbed her hands over her hair, face, along her throat, and between her breasts down to her waist, the path her tears had taken. She turned into the blast of water and let everything wash away.

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Kathy

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