Authors: Cynthia J Stone
“A powerful debut novel . . . Stone skillfully propels you through the truth of a family tragedy that reverberates from one generation to the next, as she unravels a complicated mess, trying to right the wrong with memorable characters you feel you know from somewhere. Possibly your own family.”
was a captivating read. I couldn’t put it down. First-time novelist Cynthia J. Stone is a great storyteller. She captures the flavor of family secrets and small town Texas class warfare in a tale that both delights and surprises. I can’t wait to read her next book because this rich story left me anxious to learn more about the past and future of this cast of lively characters. The surprise ending would make O. Henry proud, so don’t read it before the beginning, or you will spoil your reading pleasure!”
Gloria Gene Moore, 3rd generation native Texan
entrepreneur and voracious reader of fine fiction
Sally Edwards’ teenage son Colton is headed for a major meltdown, and she is desperate to avert another disaster by proving her husband’s recent death was an accident, not the suicide determined by the coroner. Everyone in town, even Colton, seems to know something particular about Jack’s last days, but no one in Mason’s Crossing wants to help her put all the pieces together.
On the morning she discovers secret notes in Jack’s appointment book, she finds something else to convince her she’s right. But the deeper she digs for the truth, the more destructive Colton’s behavior becomes, until Sally is left with one choice: ask her father what really happened.
The problem: Sally hasn’t spoken to him in fifteen years.
Includes a Reading Group Discussion Guide
Cynthia J. Stone
This is a work of fiction. None of the characters, business establishments, or events is based on actual people, living or dead, or their lives or circumstances. All material is a product of the author’s imagination. If you think you recognize someone or some place and want to make something of it, go and write your own damn book. Seriously, any resemblance to actual people, businesses, or places is just a coincidence and purely unintentional.
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia J. Stone
“Readers Guide” copyright © by Cynthia J. Stone
Cover art © by Kim Greyer
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission from the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Also Available In Paperback
Violet Crown Publishers
Printed and published in the United States of America.
For Gerald and for Jordan
It took the county sheriff less than two days to investigate my husband’s death, and when the ruling came back suicide, I didn’t believe it, not for a moment. If it hadn’t been for the angry note we found later, we all might have been persuaded Jack simply wasn’t paying attention. It still pains me to think it, but lack of focus described him better than despondent or vengeful. Besides, Jack was too cheerful to kill anything, especially himself.
All of which makes me wish I had been kinder to Jack while he was alive. If I’d shown a little more enthusiasm in our relationship, maybe I wouldn’t spend so many sleepless nights now. Guilt has proved a miserable companion in the wee hours.
He never complained, but I can try to make it up to him, starting today.
Just after sunrise I plop on a long redwood bench against the back wall of my greenhouse, always the most peaceful place I can find. Maybe because geraniums don’t make any noise.
With Jack’s appointment book in my lap, I take a sip of coffee from Grandmother Mason’s heirloom Limoges cup and settle it in its delicate saucer. This morning, I finally feel bold, recovered enough to take a peek at what occupied him during his last year. I open the book to March 1975, the month Jack died, and try to concentrate.
His loopy handwriting makes me smile. All his random notes look like he had jotted them down while racing out the door. Typical Jack. Nothing in his mood or his outlook ever hinted of despair.
Today, on the first anniversary of his death, I am determined to search for anything to prove Jack hadn’t taken his own life. Despite the official version, my husband is worthy of a peaceful ending. And more important, our young son Colton needs to feel better about his dad.
Nothing like a family suicide to make you hang your head in public. Especially in a small town like Mason’s Crossing.
And shame is just the tip of the community iceberg. It won’t be long before I go broke paying for Colton’s recent mishaps and pranks. A wrecked bicycle and wanton application of spray paint have already made a dent in my checking account.
I am not very good at recognizing emotions or judging what’s behind them. But his destructive behavior is a cry for help too loud to ignore, which tells me I have to try to change our past. Finding a different truth between the covers of Jack’s appointment book would be powerful alchemy.
Leaning forward, I flip the pages ahead to the week of his death. The exact date burns my eyes until mist covers the page like a spider web and it turns blurry.
Jack loved me much more than I deserved. He had no clue I married him for reasons other than love and passion, hoping those feelings would eventually develop. In our fifteen years together, Jack never fussed that the best I could manage was friendly affection. Well, at least it was better than what either of us saw in our parents’ marriages.
At the sight of Colton’s name written over several evenings and the weekend, I sit upright and my eyes fill with moisture. Jack had intended to show up for Colton’s pony league tryouts. They missed more than baseball that week.
“Your thumb turned anything brown yet?”
With a quiet laugh, I look toward the greenhouse entrance. “Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”
When had Colton grown so tall? Blond like me, but with Jack’s dark eyes, his sturdy thirteen-year-old frame fills the doorway. He turns to leave.
I wipe my cheeks with the heels of my hands. “Hey, come take a look at this.” Maybe it would reassure Colton to see his father’s entry about his basketball game the Friday night before they moved on to baseball the next day.
He saunters down the aisle in my direction, a man-child who ducks his head to avoid the hanging baskets of angel wing begonias, and stops in front of me. “What’cha got there?”
I pat the seat next to me and wait for him to sit down. “How’s your ankle?”
He tilts his face toward the ceiling, but can’t hide the rolling of his eyes. “I have to leave for school soon.”
Pursing my lips, I look up at him and tap the bench with my fingernail.
He whirls around and sits down in a huff. “You’re always springing stuff on me at the last minute.”
I hand Colton the appointment book and point to the pages with his name and sports activities. “I thought you might like to see how much Dad enjoyed being part of your life. He was always so proud of you.”
Colton spreads the book open on his lap and studies each entry. He runs his fingertips over the ink as if he can feel ridges on the letters. I watch his expression for any trace of sorrow, but he shows not the slightest hint.
He turns the pages and reads more, flips back, and starts over. After a moment, he asks, “What did Dad have to do with your father?”
“What do you mean?” I grab the book. He might as well have spritzed me with my garden hose.
“Here’s Nate Wallace’s name and phone number in his book.” He jerks his thumb toward the Monday after Jack’s funeral. “Am I ever going to meet my other grandfather?”
We hadn’t spoken to my father since our wedding day. Jack and I agreed never to contact him, even after Nate became a grandfather, and I had kept my end of the bargain.
Jack had deceived me. The bastard.
While my face grows red hot, I scan the pages for clues that will make sense. “I have no idea–”
Colton snorts and crosses his arms. “What are you hiding? Aren’t you ever going to talk about him?”
“Not if you badger me.” My empty stomach churns acid. “I’m sure Jack didn’t . . . make that call.” What will I say if Colton asks me why Nate has never been introduced to him? Or even allowed in our house. I hold my breath. “This is too strange, well, even for Jack.”
“Dad must have been working on something.” Colton shuffles the pages forward. “Look what he wrote.”
I stumble through the words ‘submit proposal/spreadsheet,’ grateful for the change of topic. Jack might have written them in Turkish for all the logic they conjure. How in the world could someone who had trouble sitting still for more than five minutes come up with a business plan? Is that why he tried to contact my father, who uses his millions to manipulate people? Jack should have known better.
Taking a deep breath, I try to stay calm. “Dad evidently had some ideas he was floating. You know how optimistic he was.” I cannot tell Colton his father hatched one half-baked plan after another. If I hadn’t stepped in two years ago, Jack would have blown all our hard-earned savings on a fish scheme. How anyone can make money by feeding fish instead of catching them, he could never explain.
“Looks like he tried to get everybody he knew involved, even your cousin Charlie.”
“You’re kidding.” I grimace at the thought of Jack exposing his lack of business sense to strangers. Each daytime and evening time slot reveals outside appointments with people whose names I don’t recognize, except for Charlie Cromwell, our banker. “Who are all these people?”
As a popular salesman in his father’s sporting goods store, Jack had always worked at play and played at work, never more so than his last two weeks. He loved the store and counted on its long family history and local appeal as part of his identity. “How could he take so much time off to meet with all those customers at their places of business?”
The coffee has turned cold by now and my hand trembles, so I set the cup and saucer back on the potting table. My gaze wanders to the rafters while I struggle to remember my last conversation with Jack. I sit up straight and catch the book just before it slides off my lap. “You know what this means?’
Colton shakes his head.
I snap my fingers. “It means Dad made plans for the future.”
“Guys who look forward to events and getting together with people for future projects don’t usually do away with themselves.”
“How do you know?”
“It just makes sense. Now everything will fall into place.” I stand up and turn to face him. “Jack didn’t intentionally take his own life. It had to be an accident.” I hand him the book.
Colton shuffles to his feet, lays the book on the table, and walks toward the entrance. “I have to get to school.”
Balancing the china cup and saucer with care, I follow him out of the greenhouse, around the garage, and through the back door into the kitchen. He doesn’t want to discuss his father’s death, and no one could blame him. But surely the possibility of changing the coroner’s ruling will be worth the pain of opening old wounds. How much trouble could I get into by asking a few questions? And perhaps I can wriggle enough answers out of people without telephoning Nate Wallace.
“All I have to do is call those numbers Jack scribbled in the margin.” I fill a plate with cheesy scrambled eggs and pass it to Colton. “Maybe you can help decipher his handwriting, so I get the names right.”
“Don’t ask me to do that.” He sits hunkered at the breakfast table, gulping down the eggs, drowning them in a river of milk, barely swallowing. When his plate and his glass are empty, he announces, “Get Charlie to help you, because I won’t.”
“This is your crazy idea. I don’t want to go through all that again. You can’t make me.”
I sigh and realize it’s time to call retreat. Again. It does no good to stir up Colton’s anger and grief. Except I also have to find a way around it. “All right. But I’m making the calls, just the same.”
“I’m going upstairs to brush my teeth.” I rinse out my coffee cup and set it upside down on the drain board. “Meet you back down here in five minutes.”
“Stop digging all this up. It won’t do any good.”
“But it will. Don’t you see?” I raise my voice to his level.
“All I see is you wanting to change what happened,” he yells. “You can’t change it, so just drop it.” He grabs a piece of dry toast and tears off a corner. Without another word, he stalks across the kitchen and halts near the back door.
“Five minutes.” I don’t wait for his answer or his argument. “After you take your dishes to the sink.”
When I return to the kitchen, Colton is still standing in the same spot. The back door gapes open, letting in the cool morning air, but he doesn’t move.
What gut-wrenching memories he must have. Is he remembering a year ago when he walked through the same door out to the garage and discovered Jack’s body slumped over in his truck?
Colton lowers his head and his shoulders shiver, but no sound comes out. When the shaking subsides, he turns sideways and whispers, “Mom, don’t make me–”
“I realize you feel very sad, and I’m sorry this has upset you.” No one can say I’m not trying to understand. I step toward him. “My eagerness, or let’s say, my hope, has carried me away. We should have talked about it later. Do you want to go wash your face before I drive you to school?”
“I’m fine.” Little puffs of morning mist curl around his head as he crosses the patio. Before I can suggest he needs a jacket, he opens the side door to the garage and presses the garage door opener. Once it rattles up all the way, he walks around the back of my car and climbs into the front seat.
He didn’t limp, but he is broken all the same. When bones don’t heal properly, as a last resort, someone has to break them once more to reset them right. Otherwise, he’ll never be able to stand up straight and walk normally again. Same with emotions.
I pick up my purse, follow him, and settle into the driver’s seat. Before starting the engine, I turn toward him. “Colton, you know what a happy-go-never-mind kind of guy Dad was. He wouldn’t ever have . . . well, if I can prove Dad’s death was an accident, we’ll both feel better.”
He stares at me with his huge brown eyes, murky pools, bottomless and impenetrable. “I wish you were the one who died.”