Authors: Karen McQuestion
OTHER TITLES BY KAREN MCQUESTION
A Scattered Life
The Long Way Home
For Young Adults:
Life on Hold
(Book One of the Edgewood Series)
(Book Two of the Edgewood Series)
(Book Three of the Edgewood Series)
Celia and the Fairies
Secrets of the Magic Ring
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Karen McQuestion
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union are trademarks of
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Cover Design by Paul Barrett
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014905954
To my beautiful niece, Michelle, who always brings the levity
The little dog waited, ears rising expectantly with the passing of every car, her eyes never leaving the door. Dan stood and watched her for a second before whistling to break the spell, but she still didn’t move. “Come over here, girl,” he urged. “No point in waiting.”
Anni heard him; he was sure of it. He even suspected she understood every word. She was one smart dog, more intuitive than a lot of people. Anni was a mixed breed, with the floppy ears and nose of a beagle, and the short coat and tan coloring of a dachshund. A mutt by design, but a champion at heart. If Anni knew the futility of waiting by the door, she just didn’t want to believe it.
Dan crouched down and rubbed behind her ears, and when she looked up at him with her big, compelling liquid eyes, there was understanding between them. “It’s okay, girl,” he said. “It’s okay.”
But it wasn’t okay. The idea that Christine was never coming back just wasn’t right. His wife had been the hub of their lives; the house had been ingrained with her footsteps, the walls still held echoes of her laughter. And there had been a lot of laughter. But that was before.
Proof of her existence was everywhere: the grocery list stuck to the front of the refrigerator; her jacket on the hook by the back door; the book she’d been reading still askew on the end table, a tasseled bookmark holding her place. He’d flip the kitchen calendar and see appointments written in her handwriting and reminders to visit her former boss Nadine, a difficult woman who’d had a series of strokes and now lived full-time in a medical care facility. Christine was good that way, loyal, always thinking about others. “It’s no big deal,” she’d say when Dan would call her a saint. But he knew it was a big deal. Most people couldn’t be bothered, but Christine wasn’t most people.
The funeral had been unreal, a nightmare he hadn’t been able to wake up from. Life wasn’t supposed to go like this. He’d always envisioned that he’d be the first to die, and with that in mind had made sure there was enough life insurance for Christine and their daughter, Lindsay, to be financially secure. But of course, he’d also imagined that would be far in the future, when they were old. Very old with hearing aids and walkers—not while they were still young, or youngish anyway, Christine only thirty-nine and he a year older.
She would always be thirty-nine now, while he would grow older every day, always alone, every passing year a little further from when they’d been together. The grief came in waves: sometimes so intense it almost kept him from functioning; other times lurking in the background, like a dull headache.
A year. More than a year, really, since she’d been gone. Unthinkable that time kept passing without her. In the evening, Anni still waited by the front door for Christine’s return, and whenever Anni was outside, she would wander to the end of the driveway to look down the road. The sight of the dog sitting patiently, watching for the sight of Christine’s car, was a real heartbreaker.
Dan understood what Anni was waiting for because he wanted the same thing. If life were fair, any minute they’d hear Christine’s key in the lock, and she’d come through the door, just the way she used to. It would turn out that she hadn’t really died at all, that there’d been a mix-up at the hospital. Some other patient, one who looked a lot like her, had died, while Christine had made a miraculous recovery.
You thought I was dead?
Christine would say incredulously, dropping her purse to the floor. They’d laugh and then cry and finally feel terrible for the other family, the one who’d been on the other end of the mix-up—those poor people who’d really lost a mother and wife, but didn’t know it yet. Dan knew the pain those people would feel when they found out the truth.
The day after Christine had died the seasons changed, like nature itself had acknowledged her passing. Summer was over. The autumn air was brisk, the leaves changing color before dropping to the ground. Winter loomed ahead.
There was a time when dinner on the table at six o’clock was a given. Now he couldn’t remember if he’d eaten that evening. He wasn’t hungry, though, so it didn’t matter. Lindsay was at a friend’s house working on a group project for her psychology class. The house felt empty, the air heavy. His arms hung uselessly at his sides. What did he used to do on weekday evenings back before the funeral? He couldn’t remember.
It wasn’t really cold enough to light a fire in the fireplace, but it was something to do, so he set to work painstakingly arranging the logs and putting kindling beneath the grate. He crumpled some newspaper and shoved it underneath. Lighting a match, he held the flame to the paper and watched as the fire flickered and spread. Once he was sure it wouldn’t burn out, he closed the glass doors. Still facing the door, Anni whined and lowered her body, her nose over her front paws. The sight was like his own grief displayed in front of him.
“Anni!” he called. “Get away from there.” It came out harsher than he’d intended, but it got results. Anni got up and wandered out of the front hall. She looked like someone who’d suddenly become homeless and wasn’t sure where to go.
Watching her, he felt flooded with regret. “Anni, come here,” he said, speaking softly this time. When the dog reached his side, he dropped to his knees and hugged her neck. “I’m sorry, Anni. I didn’t mean to yell at you.” He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against her side, tears sliding down his cheeks.
After his wife’s death, time went at a different pace. Dan and Lindsay went to grief counseling sessions to learn a new normal. Life without her still felt wrong, but it was all he had. Eventually he was able to find joy in small things, like seeing Lindsay perform in the high school play or having a productive day at work. He was lonely, though. The worst part was when Lindsay was gone in the evenings. As a senior she had a lot going on—a boyfriend, plans for college, drama club, a part-time job at the local Walgreens. Some days he only saw her in passing.
Without Anni, the hours would have been unbearable. The dog had been a better therapist than the psychiatrist they’d seen. Dan found himself talking to Anni, confiding all his woes and telling her about his day. The dog had a habit of tilting her head when he spoke, as if she were really listening. And at the moments he felt his worst, when he felt so depressed that life seemed pointless, she invariably brought her leash, nagging him to take her for a walk. Something about being outdoors, putting one foot in front of the other, the fresh air all around, always lifted his mood. He and Anni had covered a lot of miles that way, walking the country lane in front of his house before wandering into the woods and fields beyond. He always felt more joyful on the walk home than he did when they first ventured out the door.
Yes, he loved his daughter, appreciated his friends and relatives, and respected the grief counselor, but Anni had done more to heal his sorrow than all of them put together.
Andrea wanted to believe today was the day life would change for the better, but she was afraid to get her hopes up. She stared out the passenger-side window and watched as the suburbs melted into farm fields and woods. They’d gone by fields of meadow grass and cow pastures, all of them ringed by thick clusters of trees. Even if the day came to nothing, it was a pretty drive anyway, the leaves in full autumn glory, red and gold and yellow. “It’s beautiful out here,” Andrea said, turning to her friend Jade. “Peaceful.”
“Yeah, if you like being in the middle of nowhere,” Jade said, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.
“I like it. I’d love to live out here,” Andrea said, admiring the houses with their clapboard siding and covered porches. Most of these places were five or ten acres, enough for the residents to play at farming, but not enough to do it for a living. Some of them just liked country life, fresh air, peace and quiet. When she’d been married, before they built their house, she’d wanted to look at houses out here, but her husband, Marco, wouldn’t consider it. It would be a half-hour commute, maybe more in winter, he’d pointed out. Besides, the people were probably hicks.
While the radio played a catchy pop tune, Jade flipped on the turn signal with a dramatic flourish and veered onto a side road. Jade did everything with flair. She gestured with gusto when telling a story and greeted everyone she met with a dazzling smile. Her speech was littered with hyperboles. Everything was “awesome” or “amazing” or “life-changing.” From the top of her curly red hair to the tips of her sequined shoes, everything about her was extreme. She was a rare thing in America, a large girl who thought she looked perfect. Jade enjoyed good food, good drinks, and a hearty laugh. Her default mood was happy. Yet she could be completely sympathetic when the need arose. When Andrea’s marriage had fallen apart, she’d had to tell Jade, “You were right about Marco.”
Anyone else might have been smug. Anyone else might have said, “I told you so,” but not Jade. “I didn’t want to be right,” she’d said, and the sorrow in her voice exactly matched how Andrea felt.
After that, Jade had given Andrea a pep talk to boost her self-esteem. “It’s his loss,” she had said, and went on to list all of Andrea’s virtues: her quick wit (something Marco had never appreciated); her straight brown hair with natural highlights; her intelligence, dimples, great laugh, and perfect skin. “And you do that shy smile thing that men love,” Jade added, dipping her head to one side and slightly lifting the corners of her mouth to illustrate. Andrea appreciated the compliments, but still felt unworthy.
And now they were driving out into the boonies to attend some weird ceremony for the kind of people who believed in druids and fairies and whatnot. If anyone else had suggested going to this woo-woo event, she wouldn’t have agreed to do it. But Jade had been persuasive. She’d gone to this very ceremony the previous year and swore that it changed her life, putting everything in perspective. It had, she said, made her life purpose crystal clear. Her eyes sparkled when she told Andrea, “You will be blown away. I promise you. It just confirms what I’ve always thought about how interconnected the universe is.” That was one of Jade’s big things. She was always looking for signs that things were meant to be. Every coincidence was proof of the way the universe was interconnected. Andrea listened, but wasn’t entirely convinced. Sometimes coincidences were just coincidental.
Andrea watched as the road became asphalt, lined on either side by deep drainage ditches. “What’s the name of this thing again?” she asked, turning away from the window.
“It’s called the Create Your Own Future Workshop.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Jade said. “You think it sounds like a load of crap.”
This was exactly what Andrea had been thinking. It was uncanny how Jade picked up on these things. There was no point in lying. She might as well agree. Andrea laughed and said, “Something like that. But I’m here, right? Present, accounted for, and prepared to be blown away.”
“Atta girl!” Jade said. “Way to keep an open mind.”
That was another thing about Jade. She always had an open mind. She’d gone to this workshop last year and swore her new boyfriend and job promotion had been a direct result. Andrea wasn’t so sure, but she was willing to give it a shot. “How long is this thing going to last?”
“Not too long. No more than two hours, anyway.”
They pulled off the road onto what looked like a gravel parking lot just off a barren field. The car bumped as it went over ruts, and Jade pulled into a space next to a Mercedes. Ahead of them a group of middle-aged women clustered together. Off to one side, a covered park pavilion sheltered several picnic tables.
“This is it?” Andrea asked, surveying the crowd. She and Jade were clearly the youngest ones there. All these middle-aged women looking for a quick fix for their lives. Gullible, that’s what they were.
“Yep. We’re here.” Jade turned off the engine and gathered up her bag. She got out of the car and Andrea followed, confused.
“Where’s the building?”
“There’s no building. It’s all outdoors. We’re communing with Mother Nature.” She gave Andrea a good-natured jab. “Relax, it’s going to be fun.”
Jade made her way around clusters of women with Andrea on her heels. When they got to the front, they found the organizer, Martina Dearhart, holding a clipboard. “Name?” Martina asked, smiling benevolently. Andrea had checked out Martina Dearhart online. In person she looked exactly like her photo, right down to the flowing silvery-gray hair and the loosely belted purple dress, its fabric draped around her arms and floating to the ground. The multiple silver bracelets adorning each wrist jangled when she lifted her hands.
“Jade Belson and Andrea Keller,” Jade said, speaking for both of them. Behind them, small groups of women chatted quietly.
Martina checked off their names and then looked up at Jade, her brow furrowed. “You were here last year, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Jade said, smiling.
“And things have worked out well for you.” It was a statement, not a question. Martina looked pleased.
Jade nodded, her curly hair bouncing. “Like a charm! I know it’s going to help Andrea too. I had to drag her here, but I told her you were the real deal and that this workshop would change her life. Believe me, she’s a skeptic.”
“Welcome, Andrea,” Martina said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
They were the last to check in, as Andrea discovered when Martina pulled a mouth organ out of her pocket and blew into it, making one sweet, loud note. After she’d gotten everyone’s attention, Martina said, “Since we’re all here now, we can begin.” She ushered them to a space farther back from the road and all twenty women followed, tramping down tall grass as they went. When they reached a clearing, Andrea saw a fire pit surrounded by a large log circle. The pit wasn’t currently burning, but the darkened remains and smell of burnt wood indicated that it had been used recently. “Sit, everyone, sit!” Martina urged, gesturing to the logs, and the group followed orders, sitting on the rough logs, their legs awkwardly positioned, their designer handbags balanced on their laps or set down on the ground. “I’m Martina Dearhart, your workshop leader today. I’m a licensed therapist, working mostly with women in crisis. Let’s go around the circle, shall we, and introduce ourselves.”
One by one, they each gave their names and their reason for being there. Many of the women were getting over the death of a loved one, but Andrea was relieved to see she wasn’t the only one getting over a divorce.
“Let’s start with a prayer, shall we?” Martina motioned for the women to join hands. “We’ll form a mystical circle. Together we’re a force to be reckoned with. Now bow your heads and we’ll begin.”
Out of the corner of her mouth Andrea sputtered to Jade, “You didn’t say anything about a prayer.”
Jade shushed her. “Hang in there.”
Even though they were supposed to have their heads bowed, Andrea snuck a peek and saw that Martina’s face was lifted heavenward. Her expression was serene. “I’m gathered here today with a collection of fabulously lovely women, all of them wanting to fill a void in their lives. All of them longing to achieve what it takes to be their best, most authentic self. On their behalf, I ask that their requests be considered and granted, and that the changes within lead to external changes in their lives. Oh Heavenly Father, goddess mother, spirits of the universe, let our vibrations be positive and our actions harmonious. We will watch for your signs and proceed confident in the knowledge that everything happens for a reason.” She raised her arms, and around the circle the women followed suit, grasping hands until they’d made the points of a crown. “Amen!”
Arms dropping, hands releasing, the women lost their physical connection, but the energy in the group had heightened. Andrea shot another look at Jade and raised an eyebrow questioningly.
Oh Heavenly Father, goddess mother, spirits of the universe, let our vibrations be positive and our actions harmonious
Jade frowned and flashed her a just-go-with-it look.
Once Andrea gave in to the woo-woo-ness of the occasion, she found herself melting into it. There was singing, complete with tambourines, and an opportunity for them to take a turn to tell their story, if they so desired. Andrea did not desire a turn of her own. Who wanted to hear another sad story about a defective wife whose husband had left her for a younger, prettier woman? It was nobody’s business, frankly. And besides, she didn’t think she could talk about it without crying, and she hated crying, the way her face got so blotchy and red and her nose began to run. Not happening.
It occurred to her, as she listened to each story in turn, though, that there were a lot of brave, strong women in this group, and she felt a flush of shame recalling how she’d judged them when they’d first arrived, thinking they were middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites looking for magical solutions to their almost certainly insignificant problems. She’d been so wrong. One by one, the women revealed tales of tragedy that would have kept Shakespeare busy. Problems so seemingly insurmountable that Andrea wondered how some of these ladies got out of bed in the morning.
There was depression and divorce and cancer and disaster. One woman’s house had burned down three years earlier. “It was horrible, so horrible. But this is the lucky thing,” the woman said, twisting her hands. “We all got out safely. It was a miracle, truly.” She nodded her head. “But I still smell the smoke at random times. It’s only my imagination, but it makes me crazy. That’s why I’m here today. I want to not smell it anymore. I want it
I want to be able to move on.” She looked down at her shoes, her voice cracking. “I know it seems silly.”
But it didn’t seem silly to any of them.
When the last participant had spoken, Martina cued a round of applause for everyone there. “And now,” she said, when the clapping had died down, “for the most important part of today’s session. Letting the universe know what we want. Making our wishes known.” She approached the lady whose house had burned down and said, “I don’t want to cause you any pain, but usually we write out our wishes, make a bonfire, and burn them, but if that’s a problem, we can think of some other way to release them into the universe.”
“Oh no. I’ll be okay.” The woman’s face broke into a sly grin. “A fire here wouldn’t bother me. You can’t do it anywhere near my house, though,” she added, which brought a few laughs from the group.
Martina handed out large index cards, two apiece. As she distributed them, she called out, “For now, just hang on to these. I’ll be giving you directions in a minute. This is a simple exercise, but it can be life-changing if done right, so I’ll need your complete attention.”