Chapter One excerpt…BEFORE AND EVER SINCE
There is a distinct moment when you know that your day has gone down the toilet. Mine was before lunch, and after my fourth cup of coffee, when an unexpected knock on my front door brought me face to face with my ex-husband.
Not that he was a horrible troll, or lying in wait to machete me in a weak moment, but he just wasn’t one to drop by and say hello. Which was good with me. Child support and visitations came to a legal end three years prior, so daddy-pick-ups were off the table. I stood in the doorway, wondering who died as I ran a hand through my unbrushed hair and then crossed my arms over my chest to disguise the no-bra action I had going on.
He gave me a once-over and frowned. “Are you sick?”
I started to protest that not having to get dressed was a perk of working from home, that until someone wanted to look at a house, talking to potential clients on the phone didn’t require me to brush my hair or put on shoes. But I didn’t feel like having that long a conversation with him. So I fake-coughed into my hand.
“Little bit. What’s up?”
He shrugged, “I was wondering how much she’s selling it for.”
I blinked a few times, thinking I’d missed something. “Um—she, who?”
He tilted his head with widened eyes like he was humoring me. “Your mother?”
I opened my mouth but then just air came out. Maybe it was the coffee. Maybe I needed to eat something, or go for a walk. Use the treadmill that was collecting dust in a corner of my office.
I shook my head. “I—I give up, Kevin. What about my mother?”
“Her house, Emily,” he said, impatience lacing his tone. “How much is she selling the house for?”
I laughed then, which I knew would piss him off. “Selling her house? What kind of crack are you smoking?”
My mother would sooner sell one of us than sell that house. She and my dad lived in it their whole married life. Raised two kids there, multiple dogs, a couple of birds, and I think there was even a brief stint with a ferret. She didn’t leave after my dad died in the living room, and if anything could have shoved her out, it would be that.
Kevin’s dark blue eyes glazed over at my comment. He held his hands up in front of him and shook his head as he turned. “Never mind. I forgot how crazy y’all are.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait,” I said, still laughing. “What are you babbling about?”
He took the steps two at a time, and waved a hand behind him. “Never mind, Em, I’ll just call Dedra. Although why it’s listed with her beats the shit out of me.”
I felt my smile start to fade, and stick at the confusion point. Something was off. Something didn’t make sense. Starting with him saying that sentence.
“Dedra?” I said. “What are you talking about?” My tone combined with her name was enough to tweak his attention because it turned him around. His expression changed to wary and unsure.
“Your mom’s house? Her name’s on the sign.” He looked uncomfortable and pointed randomly at the air behind him as if to prove it. “I had nothing to do with it. I passed it this morning on my way out.”
Another leftover piece of a laugh kind of popped out, but with much less confidence. I shook my head as I turned and walked away, knowing he’d follow me in.
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Has to be a joke or something. I just had lunch with my mom last week, I mean, come on. Don’t you think she’d have mentioned that? She talked about her garden.”
I landed back on the squeaky swivel chair in my office, as Kevin found a spot on the couch among scattered manila folders. He moved a few aside, turning one over to read the name.
“829 Montgomery—why does that sound familiar?” he asked.
“It’s one street over from my mom’s,” I said, clicking through the links that would bring me to the multiple listing database. “And quit snooping, it’s not listed yet.”
“Oh yeah. The Landry place,” he said, and I ignored the snide change of tone.
“Bobby’s finally unloading it, huh?”
I blinked and sighed and continued to ignore the shiny object he was dangling to get a rise out of me. “Guess so.”
“About time,” Kevin continued. “It’s been one strong breeze away from blowing over for years.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” I said, scoffing. “Just needs a little attention. Vacant houses get that way.”
“Well, I don’t blame him,” he said. “Ben left him high and dry with that place when their mom died. Never even came back for the funeral.”
The old dig that used to stab me, barely felt like a pin prick. “You don’t know that.”
“And you do?”
I cut my eyes at him. “This town can make a lot of noise when it wants to. You believe everything you hear?”
Kevin tossed the file over with the others, and I was grateful for the change. I watched him take in the overflowing bookshelf, the three different colored jackets hanging on the treadmill, the row of file boxes stacked against one wall.
“I assume there’s a method, as usual?” he asked.
“Ha ha, very cute.”
In our eleven years of marriage, he never learned to appreciate my version of décor or organization. Kevin preferred empty space. Like moving into a house with no stuff, kind of empty. No pictures, no decorations, no curtains, no coasters or vases or magazines. Give him a chair and a rug and a TV and he’s good. In fact, the rug would probably be pushing it.
“So, dating anybody?” he asked.
I hit a button and gave him a look. “Really?”
His face went all innocent. “What?”
Kevin was a very good looking man, as long as you never had to have a real conversation with him, or a life. The pretty wore thin with the constant perfection and micro-managing.
“You really want to know about my love life?”
He looked away with a smile. “I want you to be happy, Em.”
I coughed again, this time for real. “So, what’s the deal?” I asked, changing the subject as I waited for the zip code filter to update. “You looking to move again? Sherry want to simplify and rub elbows with the common folk?”
He gave me a look and leaned back, his brown leather jacket making noise against the wanna-be leather of my couch. “I’m thinking about buying some rental property.”
“Ah, you want to be a land baron, now.”
“It’s easy money,” he said with a shrug.
“Not with old houses like—”
My words died on my tongue as the page populated, and there it was. Three listings down. A familiar address and equally familiar picture of my mother’s house. Listed by Dedra Powers.
“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” I said under my breath, and I heard Kevin and his jacket sit forward.
“So, how much is it listed for?”
I tore my eyes from the screen to glare at him. “Seriously?”
He lifted a hand. “What?”
I swiveled around in my chair to find my phone, and leapt up to grab it off the top of my treadmill, hitting speed dial number two. Three rings led to voicemail, and my mother’s voice telling me how sorry she was that she couldn’t answer my call.
“Mom!” I yelled, then bit my lip and let my mouth work for a second. “Mom?” I tried again. “Please call me.”
I hung up and stared at the listing again as I hit speed dial numbers one and three, both of which went to voicemail as well. “Jesus, where is everybody today?” I muttered as I tossed the phone to the couch next to Kevin and smiled not-so-patiently at him.
“I’ve gotta go change clothes and—interrogate my mother,” I said. “So—” I did a little hand flourish that I felt encouraged his exit.
“You didn’t know.”
“That’s pretty clear,” I said, not enjoying his smirk.
He stood up and leaned over to view the page on my laptop, which I then flipped closed.
“Ninety thousand,” he said, narrowing his eyes in that financial thinker’s expression of his, and I shook my head before another second could pass.
He blinked and met my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, no,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going on with this, but regardless, you aren’t buying it.”
My head was spinning. I wanted answers and I wanted Kevin to be gone so I could go find them.
“Because.” He tilted his head again, and I made a sound of disgust. “God, you look like such a girl when you do that. Stop it.”
“You aren’t answering my question.”
“And I’m not going to right now,” I said, taking him by the arm and walking. “Come on. I have to leave. I have to get naked first. And unless Sherry-bom-berry is okay with that, you probably shouldn’t be here when I do.”
We made it to the door and I pushed him gently out. Just as he turned back around. “Oh, I almost forgot. Do you know if Cassidy sent in any of those business school applications yet?”
I sighed as I slowly guided the door closed. “She’s twenty-one, Kevin. She’s across town and doesn’t run her day by me anymore. Call her.”
“I have, and she doesn’t call me back.”
Shocking. “Gotta go.”
I felt a dull headache forming behind my eyes as I rounded the block to a house I could find blindfolded and drunk—not that I knew that—and saw my sister’s car snuggled right up behind my mom’s. My gaze went from there to the FOR SALE sign looming gaudily on one side of the sidewalk, and instantly went hot over the prospect that my sister, Holly, was in on it. Of course she would be. First to arrive, last to leave, always doing the right thing, always there for my mom, always the suck up .
FOR SALE. By realtor, Dedra Powers.
I pulled up alongside the ditch, and took a series of cleansing breaths on my way up the uneven sidewalk and concrete porch. I will not raise my voice…I will not raise my voice…
I’d called my daughter for backup, but I wasn’t sure how fast she would get there. She kind of laughed when I told her that Nana had lost her mind. I don’t think she truly got the urgency of the situation.
When I opened the heavy wooden door with the fifteen pound metal door knocker, the knocker bounced loudly like it always did with the momentum, announcing door movement to the entire neighborhood. It announced it to Tandy, as well. Her ancient Dachschund with a smoker’s bark and a long lost sense of smell came in a blaze of glory ready to take out my shins until she saw it was me and backtracked to her beanbag chair, uninterested.
I steeled myself for the confrontation when I saw my mom and sister sitting at the elongated bar that served as the dining room table, but faltered a little when they looked my way and I saw the anxiety in my sister’s eyes.
My volatile words kind of died on my lips and came out instead as, “So, this is new.”
My mom sighed, and my sister just shook her head. Suddenly, I had the impression maybe they hadn’t been in on it together. Holly had that fired up look going that her red hair just amplified.
“You didn’t know, either, I take it?” Holly asked.
I smiled. “No, I just found out from my ex.”
“Oh shit,” Holly said under her breath.
I zeroed in on Mom. “Yeah. Care to know how wrong that conversation was?”
“Sorry, girls, it was just easier to make this decision without the two of you breathing down my neck,” my mother said.
My mouth dropped open. I had no words.
“Mom, this isn’t like deciding to sell baskets instead of candles,” Holly said, holding back her hair like she always did when she was upset. “This is your home.”
“Exactly,” my mother said, rising from her stool. “My home. My decision.”
“Why?” I asked, watching her go through the motions of rinsing out her coffee cup and setting it back next to what was probably the first Mr. Coffee coffeemaker ever made. I remembered when my dad bought it for her and she balked and made a fuss, claiming that coffee percolated on the stove was a hundred times better.
“Why not?” she said, her back to us. “Maybe I’m tired of dealing with this old house, ever think of that?”
“This old house raised your family,” I said, suddenly feeling weirdly defensive of buckled paneling and ancient shag carpet.
“All your memories, your life—” Holly began.
“The plumbing, the settling, the cracks, the piers that are crumbling under my room, the wiring that’s held together with duct tape,” she countered. “Who’s here to deal with all that? You?” she said to me and then looked at Holly. “You?”
My phone rang from my pocket, and I dug it out. It was a text from a client, wanting to reschedule their walk-through until the maid came. Jesus.
“I’ve told you, Greg can help—” Holly said, but Mom cut her off.
“Oh please,” she said, flipping a hand. “Greg would spend more time analyzing a nail than pounding it. That man’s too soft for real work.”
I bit my lip as Holly’s face went scarlet. She laughed sarcastically as she got up and carried her glass of tea with her to the den, which was really just an extension of the kitchen.
“Wow, Mom, don’t hold back.”
“And by the way,” Mom said, turning attention to me. I suddenly had a flash to when I hid my fifth grade report card and received a similar expression. I tucked my phone back into my pocket. “This old house didn’t raise anybody. The people paying the mortgage did.”
“Okay then,” I said, wanting to get back to the real topic at hand. “Why the big secret? Why suddenly sneak this out there without even telling us?”
I noticed then as I waved a hand around that things were already different. Holly had stopped to look in a box that sat on the ottoman in front of Mom’s chair, and I saw for the first time that the wall of family pictures was—just a wall. I joined her as she fingered through the frames gently, as if touching them wasn’t allowed.
“Yeah, Mom, why the rush?” Holly asked, not looking up from the black and white picture of our parents, young and kissing in front of the county courthouse the day they bought their marriage license.
“Oh, for pete’s sake, there was no secret, there was no rush,” Mom said, pulling a metal container of cookies from the cabinet and setting it on the bar. “What there is now is a whole bunch of hullabulloo, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid.”
Holly abandoned the pictures and faced Mom square on. “Avoid? What—did you think we wouldn’t notice someone else living here when we come over next month for your birthday? Were you just going to mail us a change of address card?”
“We’re just saying you might have mentioned it—oh, like last week when we met for lunch at the chicken place?” I said, turning in a circle to see what else wasn’t in its preordained place. “Speaking of which,” I said, stopping to face her straight on. “Dedra Powers?”
It wasn’t speaking of that, but it had to be said. My mother let out a heavy sigh that said I was wearing her out, and turned back to the cabinets for a glass. “I need some tea.”
“That’s all you can say to that?” I asked.
“No, I’m gonna splash a little Captain Morgan’s in there, too. That better?” At my likely bug-eyed look, she continued. “What do you want me to say?”
I scoffed and even Holly, for once, looked put out on my behalf. “Maybe that you’re aware your daughter is a realtor?” I said, hands on my hips as my phone went off again.
“God, I know that,” she said irritably. “But you would have taken over.”
I nodded like a crazy woman. “Yes! That’s the whole point, Mom. A realtor takes over. Your realtor will take over.” I felt the sneer shaping my lips without my input. “Dedra Powers will take over.”
“And not be all up in my business, telling me what to do and what not to do,” she said, perching back on her stool with her iced tea.
“Yes, she will,” I said, the sneer turning into a smile. Probably not a nice smile. “She will be more about your business than anyone could ever be, Mom. And what kind of charge do you think she got over you bringing the listing to her instead of me?”
Mom held her head up defiantly. “I told her that I wanted to keep it out of the family so you wouldn’t be burdened with a freebie.”
I just closed my eyes and mentally switched gears. The current ones were going in circles. I pulled my phone out again and read as I spoke, asking the question I could ask in my sleep. “Okay, Mom, how does the contract read? Please tell me there’s a contingency on you finding a home first?”
“I’m not getting another home.”
You could have heard crickets in that silence. Holly and I both stopped breathing as we stared at the woman we once thought so wise. I wondered if Holly’s panic journey included what room she’d have to give up in her house. I, for one, saw my messy office go up in a frenzy of silk flowers, craft glue, and Tandy’s bean bag chair. Aside from that, the fleeting seed of doubt about her state of mind was skipping around in there, too.
“I think I need some rum in my tea, too,” Holly said quietly.
Mom pulled the bottle from a box in the pantry, since the alcohol was evidently already packed. She poured some in both their glasses, and then held it out for me. Not having a glass was beside the point.
“That’s okay, I think I need to be sober for this,” I said, holding up a finger.
“All right,” Holly said, gulping down her happy tea and sucking in a deep breath like that would prepare her for war. “Explain.”
Mom gave each of us a look and began, “Your Aunt Bernie has that big Winnebago—”
“Oh dear God, tell me no—” Holly started.
“Mom, please say you’re not selling this house to live on the road with Aunt Bernie,” I said, finishing the thought.
Any sentence that began with Your Aunt Bernie was a preface to some kind of lunacy. Mom’s sister, Bernice, had been widowed for ten years and had done the very same thing. Sold her three-bedroom house with a pool and lived out of a powder blue Winnebago, traveling the states and landing wherever the whim struck her. When it struck her to visit home, she’d take up half the street and you could almost hear the neighbors groan.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Jesus, this is ludicrous,” I said under my breath, turning around to find some normalcy in the pictures next to the TV. They weren’t packed yet. They still sat in the same place they’d always sat, nestled together on the table I’d tried to paint with watercolors when I was five. It still had a green spot at the bottom of one leg where the grain absorbed the pigment.
“Seriously?” Holly asked. “You need reasons why you need a real home? Not one with wheels and a port-a-potty?”
My mom grabbed a cookie from the tin and broke it in two, then halved those as well before popping a bite into her mouth and holding one down for Tandy who suddenly sprang to life again at the potential for a snack.
“You know what?” she asked around the cookie. “I’ve been puttering around this house by myself for a long time.”
“We know, Mom,” I said.
“I’m still talking,” she said with a look that I knew too well and could instantly make me feel eight. “Now—I’m a grown damn woman. My kids are grown, hell, my grandkids are grown. I have no reason to lie around this house, baking cookies or planting flowers and waiting to die. And if I want to ride around in a big ugly tank eating Cheetos with my sister, then I can damn well do it. I don’t need you two little mother hens telling me what I can and can’t do.”
“We’re not doing that,” I said, glancing at Holly, who looked dumbfounded.
“The hell you’re not,” Mom said. “You two say more with your actions than you think. You come flying over here to see what this crazy old woman is doing, selling your precious childhood home out from under you, but where are you when everything breaks, falls apart, leaks, or when the taxes come due? You act like I’m senile or something, like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She held her glass out, pointing it at Holly. “You make fun of me for my little side businesses, selling baskets instead of candles, but it’s those damn baskets that paid for those straight white teeth of yours, little miss all that. It was the scrapbooking classes and things you don’t even know about that kept the electricity on when your dad’s store went under.” Then she shifted to me and I wanted to duck. “And you. You get all uppity over me going to another real estate agent, but did it ever dawn on you that maybe I just wanted to do things my way, by myself for a change?”
I felt like we’d just gotten grounded, like I was in that uncomfortable place of not knowing if I was supposed to answer the question or stay shut up. I waited for Holly to pipe up like she always did, claiming some type of injustice or unfair point, but she said nothing. It felt like a huge chunk of silence before she moved to the bar and set her glass down, then she plucked her purse from the floor and walked out the front door without a word. When the knocker banged against the door, I met Mom’s gaze. The fire in her blue eyes had fizzled a little. I was sure she had imagined or at least hoped it would go smoother than it did, but the element of surprise was just a little over the top.
I walked over and picked up Holly’s glass, filling it with sweet tea from the pitcher and sitting down.
“What do you need us to do?” I asked, realizing she was past the point of talking down. It was going to happen. I grimaced as my phone went off yet again from the same person who was emailing since I didn’t answer my text, and clearly didn’t understand boundaries.
“For starters, turn that damn thing off.”
“It can wait five minutes. Now for here, you can start going through your stuff that’s still in your rooms,” she said, tracing a circle of condensation on the bar. “Throw out what doesn’t mean anything, keep what you want.”
I looked at her, trying to understand this woman that had taken over my mother. “Don’t you want anything?”
She shook her head. “I’ve already got boxes put away of the things I can’t live without,” she said. “It’s time for y’all to sort through what’s left.”
“Put away where?” I asked. “What are you doing with all your stuff?” I gestured in a circle.
“I paid for a storage unit the other day,” she said. “For the important things. Pictures and stuff.”
I was gaping. I knew I was. Maybe it was a full moon and it had rendered ex-husbands and mothers stupid. Or the world was ending. Or…
“Are you dying?”
She coughed on the tea she’d just swallowed. “Holy crap, girl, I hope not. Where’d you get that?”
I was relieved at her surprise, but it didn’t fix anything. “Well, last month you were worried about your gardenias, Mom. Planting banana peppers in the corner by the swing. Looking for Dad’s secret box. Now, you’ve got the house up for sale, getting rid of everything important to you, hitting the road with crazy Aunt Bernie—are you bringing Tandy with you?”
She chuckled. “Of course.” She leaned forward as the dog put her front feet up on Mom’s leg. “Like I’d leave my baby girl behind.” She looked up at me. “Scared I’d leave her with you?”
“She doesn’t like me, Mom, it wouldn’t be pretty. Actually she doesn’t like anybody but you and Cass.”
“Oh, she likes you just fine,” she said, scratching Tandy’s ear.
“No,” I said, smiling at Tandy when she turned around to gloat. “I think she sees all the rest of us as competition.”
Mom sighed and sat back up. “Well, us old girls will stick together.” She leveled a gaze at me. “Emmie, I’m just tired of the same old ordinary. I don’t want to get to the end and say I grew flowers in my old age. Maybe Bernie’s way isn’t stylish, but at least it’s doing something.”
I nodded. On anyone else, it made a new age-artsy kind of sense. On Frances Lattimer, it was like she was possessed by aliens.
“You know, you could have just gone on some trips with Aunt Bernie without selling the house.”
“I know,” she said. “But then I’d be worried about the house, or y’all would have to worry about it, and honestly I’m tired of all that. This house has more aches and pains than I do. And I do plan on finding that box before I go, by the way.”
I rubbed my temples. “Oh lord.”
For as long as I could remember, my dad talked about going to faraway places. He and my mom planned trips that they never went on, but he always said he was tucking money aside for them. Somewhere. For someday. It was their game.
Then he died. And my mother spent the last decade looking for some allusive box of money. Because he said there was one.
“Oh lord, nothing,” she said. “Think what you want.”
“So what about Dad’s stuff upstairs?” I said. “Any of that part of the things you can’t live without?”
She blinked away the sadness that appeared in her face. “I still have to deal with that. I’m talking about your things. All that stuff you conveniently forget is still here, tucked away in closets and the attic like your own little private storages?” She nodded with a knowing smirk. “You have houses they can go to now.”
“Okay,” I said, changing the subject. “Two things.”
“Don’t sell it to Kevin.”
She physically jerked back. “Kevin! What on earth?”
I held my hands up. “He came by my house wanting to know what the asking price was. He’s looking for rental property.”
“No way in hell.”
I flicked one finger. “Done. Now two—you could have gone to any of fifty different realtors in the area,” I said quietly. “Why Dedra?”
Mom smiled. “I’ve only had the house listed for two days and I’ve already called her—” she reached for a nearby pad and peered through her glasses. “—eighteen times to ask questions and change my information.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“To be the client from hell,” she said, bringing an unexpected laugh from me. “You know how I don’t sleep, right? Well, I figure since I’m her client now, she doesn’t need to either.”
I covered my mouth, marveling at the level of shit-stirring my used-to-be-gardener-mother could conjure. It was her way of getting back at the woman Kevin had thrown our marriage away for. Or the one he got busted for, anyway. A little delayed, since that’d been ten years earlier, but hey, who was I to split hairs. Personally, I’d made peace with it long ago. Sort of. Watching him go through one bad choice after another definitely helped.
The door knocker banged, not as an opening but as an actual knock, and I did a double take as Tandy made a fire trail to the door and started raising hell. “Oh, I forgot I called Cassidy on the way here. Although I don’t know why she’d knock.”
“Actually, that may be the carpenter I called to come do some updates around here.”
I paused in mid-rise. “You have somebody coming to do work?” It made it more real. Less of my mother having a mental break. My stomach did a little wiggle.
“Yeah, my realtor told me there was a lot of work to be done,” she said. “Figured I’d get on that right away so there are no hold-ups. Bernie’s coming through in about a month, and I want to be ready.”
I laughed. “A month? Mom, it may be several months before this sells. It may be that long before it’s fit to sell. Maybe even a year.”
“Oh, I know, but Bernie’s ride has internet and fax and that video thingy where you can see people—I don’t need to be here when it actually goes down.”
I sighed. No, I would. With Dedra. Joy. I got up to answer the door. “So, who’d you call for all these fix-ups?” I yelled over the dog’s ruckus.
“Some guy that had a sign on the grocery store bulletin board. I think he said he went to school with you?” she said as I opened the door. “Name’s–”
“Ben,” I said.
“Emily,” he said, with an guarded but incredibly sexy almost-smile.
Forget the toilet. My day went straight to hell.
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