Thanks to all my loyal fans who have been waiting more than a couple of years for the sequel. Here’s a peek:
August 25th, 1998
I pound on the console, threatening and cajoling the car. “Don’t you dare quit on me! I know you can do it! We’re almost there!”
The check engine light defiantly flickers in my face one last time, and then the engine perishes. I rock all one hundred and five pounds of me forward and backward like a mad woman, hoping the momentum will keep the car moving; but this object in motion doesn’t care about Newton’s law, because it’s not going to stay in motion. Maneuvering the vehicle onto the shoulder, I stomp on the brake and throw it in park.
I don’t have a cell phone. I’m stranded two miles from the church, and the ceremony has already started. And the cherry on top of my day? A wicked thunderstorm is brewing. Impressive stacks of robust clouds stretch across the sky like a defensive line. Poised and ready to tackle, they’re throwing off bolts of lightning as a warning.
About the only thing I have going for me is that the car has conveniently managed to break down next to a horse farm. Galloping through the doors of Grace Lutheran Church on a white steed would make quite a statement. However, my equestrian experience is limited, and I’m fairly certain the owners would frown on me jumping their fence and thieving one of their mighty stallions.
All I know is that I have to get there in time to take the pastor up on his invitation to speak now, because there’s no way that I can forever hold my peace. Not in this instance. I don’t have it in me.
Three Months Earlier
The apple-green walls of my apartment bedroom are riddled with holes that remain from push pins and nails. All my treasured photographs, framed movie posters, and semester schedules have been boxed up or tossed recklessly in the recycle bin. The map of my college life has been tightly creased, folded up, and packed away.
Now that the pomp and circumstance are history and the tassel has been hung on Justice’s rearview mirror, the culmination of my four years at Northern Illinois University in the middle of farmland USA seems irrelevant. Have I accomplished anything at all?
I can’t say for sure. I easily recall many titles of books that I’ve read and studied: The Canterbury Tales, Beloved, Pride and Prejudice, Iliad, Beowulf, The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, Dante’s Inferno. Yet, it’s superficial recollection. I only see the image of a cover and an author’s name. The stories themselves have gone missing. Afflicted with post-traumatic graduation amnesia, I’m panicked that I haven’t learned a thing and won’t be able to prove to myself or anyone else that I have educated worth. Tragically, the stories I do remember are the brain-candy romances filled with smut that I would never admit to liking let alone reading. Four years of tuition and I couldn’t pass a quiz about Shakespeare. But give me one about any of Danielle Steel’s or Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s books, and I would ace it.
Yesterday, Frank gave me a silver compass that had belonged to his mother as a graduation gift. Featured in a glass display case in his office, I’d admired it for years.
I told him the gift was too much, that I couldn’t take it, but he said, “I insist. You love it, and you should have it. It belongs to you now. It will come in handy someday.”
He’d spoken as if I would need it in the future, but I need it now. I pull it out of my front pocket and flip it open, hoping that it will give me a sense of direction.
The magnetic needle rotates right, pulling north hard and fast, and points directly at the fist-shaped hole in my wall that’s barely visible thanks to a patch job. I shuffle over to the spot and push my fist against it, hoping against hope that it won’t line up, but it’s a perfect match.
The bruises and swelling along the bony ridge of knuckles had long ago faded as had the pink scars from the stitches. The wall, my hand, and my relationship with Justice—they had all been repaired lickety-split.
See, it’s as good as new my roommate, Caprice, had said after helping me mud, sand, and paint the spot seven months earlier. The truth is that nothing is ever as good as new. The damage is merely disguised underneath a thin layer, out of sight but never out of mind.
“Sugar Cane, where have you gone to?” Grandma Betty shouts from the living room.
“Bedroom,” I answer. I slip the compass into my pocket and spin myself south. She doesn’t know about the wall or what had happened between Justice and me to prompt such an act of rage.
“Are you sure you have everything?” she pops her head in the room.
“I’m sure,” I respond wearily and plop down on the floor, sitting cross-legged.
Dubious, she furrows her brow.
“I’m positive,” I say more forcefully, but I still haven’t convinced her.
“We’ll see about that.” Nervous as a sparrow, my grandmother darts from room to room checking for anything I might have forgotten and critically eyeing the floors to make sure everything’s spic and span the way she likes it.
At last she lands in my bedroom and runs a hand down the north wall, right near the patch, causing my diaphragm to seize up. I don’t want her to notice it, because her inquisitions are insufferable. With the wiliness of an attorney cross-examining a defendant, Grandma Betty always gets the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Thankfully, she doesn’t notice. Her thumbnail works on a spot of tape I had missed. When she finishes with that, she bends over and pinches a stray piece of lint from the carpet. “Maybe I should have Frank bring the vacuum up from the car. We should give it a once over.”
“I’ve already gotten my portion of the security deposit back. We’re good to go.”
Flicking the piece of lint into her purse, she folds her arms and inspects the ceiling, looking for a stray spider web. “Still, how you leave a place says something about you, and I want to make sure everything is spotless.”
“And what does this place say about me?” I ask Grandma Betty, batting my eyelashes. “Does is say that I’m a fabulously beautiful woman with a college degree?”
Focused solely on making sure I leave the apartment in better condition than when I rented it three years ago, her smile is tolerant at best. “If the walls could talk—it just might say that.”
“Doubtful,” I mumble under my breath as she scurries out of the room once again. I’m afraid of what these walls would say about me. They’d seen the good, but they’d also seen the bad and the ugly.
She returns to my bedroom and folds her arms. “Did you empty all the closets? The shower? How about the kitchen cupboards?”
We’ve tripled checked; I know for a fact there isn’t anything left. The last of the boxes had been thrown in the trunk of Frank’s beefy Lincoln thirty minutes ago.
Let’s get the show on the road, he’d said three times before realizing that Grandma Betty and I weren’t ready to take the show anywhere just yet. He’d left us alone and went out to the car to reload his Nikon camera and make sure my new video camera, another of my graduation gifts, had full power.
“It’s all taken care of.” I give her a sunrise kind of smile even though my patience expired long ago. “And when it comes time to unpack, I’ll know exactly what’s in each box thanks to your label gun. You would be proud of how organized everything is.”
“I love that gadget! It has so many options compared to the old one you gave me so long ago. And since Frank and I have been packing like crazy, I’ve had to replace the cartridge four times.”
Grandma Betty and my step-grandfather, Frank, sold their house in Savage, a rural farm town in the middle of nowhere northern Illinois, and are flying south to St. Petersburg, Florida with no plans to migrate back. Frank says he wanted his golden years to be somewhere golden, where he only has to worry about the salt in the water and not the buckets of salt he has to dump on his long driveway in the harsh northern winters.
I don’t want them to leave. Although I’ll miss Frank, I can live without him, but I’m not sure how to survive without Grandma Betty. The only family I’ve ever known, she’s been the anchor in my life. Without her, I fear I’ll get lost at sea.
“Are you ready for the big move?” I ask her.
“As ready as I’ll ever be; but honestly, it’s going to be so hard leaving. Have you changed your mind? A few months of relaxing might do you some good.”
She wants me to stay in their new beachfront condo for the summer, but I’ve declined the invitation. “My internship starts a week from Monday. I can’t.”
“Oh, Sugar Cane, please think about it. Ocean, sand, and sun! Frank could take us out in the new boat every day. I heard they have the best snorkeling only a little ways from our place. You could run along the beach and wouldn’t that be divine! You wouldn’t even have to wear shoes. Samson won’t mind if you don’t start right away. You know he’ll hold the job until you get back!”
“I know.” Samson Schaeffer, a long-time family friend who will become genuine family once I marry his nephew Justice Price, owns the prestigious Schaeffer Dairy, a company worth millions. Given my long-standing history with the Schaeffers and the fact that I’ve worked on the farm from the time I was eleven, Samson has generously carved out a position for me in the marketing department where I’ll be in charge of ad campaigns, press releases, and developing and implementing other marketing strategies. A well-paid and auspicious offer, over which my fellow English majors salivated, I want to start immediately.
“Tell me you’ll at least think about it. You don’t have to make up your mind today.”
“I have thought about it, but I just can’t. I want to get started with my life,” I say stridently. I have to keep focus. It feels like the rug is being pulled out from under me, and I’m on my hands and knees holding on to the fringed edges of that rug for dear life. If I go to Florida and loaf around, I’ll lose what little grip I have.
Adjusting one of her clip-on earrings, Grandma Betty shakes her head and smiles wistfully as she looks at me. “How did we get to this place? You’re all grown up, a lovely, young woman who has her whole life ahead of her. And me? I’m a wrinkly old retiree who will spend her days knitting, crocheting, collecting seashells, and going to Friday night bingo with Frank.”
I click my tongue. “Come on now. You’re going to be a rich beach bum. You look the part.” She does look like the quintessential Florida senior resident. Her snow white hair, perfectly curled and sprayed into place, makes her cornflower blue eyes pop. She prefers to dress her petite top-heavy body in pant suits. Her shoes, handbag, and even her lipstick and eye shadow must coordinate with whatever pantsuit she’s wearing. By coordinate, I mean match. She dunks herself in a vat of the same color. Today she’s wearing a silky lavender getup and has rounded out the look with lavender pumps, lavender eye shadow, and plum lipstick. Even her blush has a purple hue. I call it her purple people eater look, which she doesn’t appreciate.
She’s aghast at my suggesting that she looks the part. “Have you seen how old some of those people are? I don’t look a thing like them!”
“You look better than them! And, you’ll have the most amazing life down there. Martinis on the beach. Beautiful sunrises. Fresh seafood. I’m going to visit all the time.” Part of me wants to move with her, but just as she had let me go, I have to let her go. She can’t be a mother forever; she deserves her freedom as I deserve mine.
Teary eyed, she tightens her mouth until her chin dimples from the effort. After sobbing at my graduation ceremony, and disgracing herself and me, her words not mine, she’s vowed not to shed one more tear. “You better,” she says resolutely.
“I will. I promise. And, for the record—you aren’t wrinkly.”
Chuckling, she pats my hand. “Don’t lie. I am a tad wrinkly and worse for the wear. I ran into Samson the other day at the drugstore. We talked about how fast the time has gone—how it seems like only yesterday you were sixteen years old. He said something that stuck with me. He said that whatever age you are is how fast you move through life. I’m going a whopping seventy miles an hour! Before I know it, I’ll be a toothless, doddering old woman, and you’ll be married to Justice with children of your own. I’ll be a great-grandmother.” Her eyes scan the undressed walls and take in the empty closet. “I’m not ready, but I know you are. You’ve always moved through life at full speed ahead. I admire that in you.”
Too much of a good thing usually backfires, and because I always travel at full throttle, I sometimes can’t avoid running into brick walls at a hundred miles an hour.
“What about your cap and gown? Are you sure you have those? I don’t want to leave those behind! We can put the cap next to your diploma in a shadow box. Wouldn’t that be lovely! You could hang it on the wall in your new place.”
“Justice packed them. They’re in his truck.”
“Oh, good. If we have time we should stop at that hobby store on the way out of town and see if they have any display cases. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could find some artwork for your walls? And, I still want to give you that couch, you know the plaid one in Frank’s den, it will be darling in the living room of your new place. I’ll crochet some blankets to match and then—”
I half listen as Grandma Betty makes plans for my new apartment. This coming Monday, I’m signing a lease on a two-bedroom unit in my hometown of Savage, Illinois. What Grandma Betty doesn’t know is that Justice recently ditched his apartment and is planning on moving in with me; a Christian traditionalist, she won’t think that’s darling at all.
The place I’ll be renting is in the same building where my newlywed parents had lived. It seems dangerously circular. Am I tempting fate by repeating history? By following closely in their footsteps will tragedy find me as it had found them?
“How does that sound to you?” she asks.
“Fabulous,” I respond, not knowing what I’ve agreed to.
Easing myself off the ground, I walk over to the open window and place my fingertips against the screen. I survey the back lot of the apartment building. It’s a mass exodus. Half the students in the building, including me, just graduated. Everyone is in such a hurry to leave, and all of them seem relaxed and confident in the direction they’re heading. I can’t say the same for myself.
Frank must have tired of waiting for us. I hear the front door of the apartment open and then close. The shift in pressure pulls in air from outside, bringing the sweet perfume of late blooming lilacs. The smell reminds me of childhood springs, when Mikayla, my best friend since infancy, and I would sit beneath Grandma Betty’s blooming lilac bushes and play with our Barbie dolls, creating fantasy families. Mikayla, who grew up with a pilot father who not only flew across the country but from one woman to the next and a mother who cared more about appearances than relationships, needed the fantasy families more than I ever did.
Grandma Betty inhales deeply. “Would you smell that? Isn’t it divine? Lilacs smell of heaven itself. I do hope they grow in Florida. I can’t imagine living without that scent in the spring.”
Frank strides into the room. He’s a stocky man with short gray hair, watery brown eyes, and compact mustache that nearly hides his thin lips. His friendly face reminds me of a worn baseball glove; it’s creased in all the right places. Unlike Grandma Betty who matches to a fault, Frank, who’s a little zany, prefers to spice up his wardrobe with socks that don’t match (he says this is a great conversation starter), loud ties, and plaid golf pants. Today he’s sporting a bright green tie that’s covered in miniature lightning bolts and green and white plaid pants. “How are my two ladies doing?”
“We’re just about ready.” Grandma Betty hoists her shiny, lavender purse onto her shoulder and looks at me. “What do you think?”
As soon as I turn around from my station near the window, Frank, ever the prepared photographer, snaps a photo of me. In the last two days, he’s taken enough pictures of me to fill an album. He lowers the camera and adjusts the lens.
“I’m not happy with how this is focusing,” he grumbles. “Everything blurs at the edges.”
Grandma Betty laughs. “It’s because you aren’t wearing your glasses again! They’re in your front pocket.”
Grinning self-consciously, he pulls them out, gives them a shake, and then slides them into place. “Ah, much better. It’s amazing how the world looks with a new set of eyes.”
“I need a new set of eyes—things are looking kind of fuzzy right about now.”
Grandma Betty slides her arm around my shoulder and kisses my cheek. Frank captures the moment on film.
She peers into my face. “Your eyes do look a little bloodshot. You can’t see straight because you’re exhausted! Finals. Graduation. The parties with your friends. The moving. Why I’ve only been here for a few days, and I’m pooped. You have to be dead on your feet. And last night I heard you tossing and turning in your bed at the hotel!” she exclaims. “You can give your eyes a rest and nap on the way home.”
Lack of sleep has nothing to do with my poor eyesight. My life’s moving so fast that nothing is coming into focus. Maybe I need to blindfold myself—maybe then it would be easier.
“Yes, a snooze will do you good. You’ve run yourself ragged these past few days, and so has Justice,” says Frank. “Speaking of which, I hope he’s made it back safely.”
Justice left a few hours ago, his pickup truck filled to the gills with miscellaneous furniture and boxes. I tried to talk him into putting some of the boxes in Frank’s car so that I could ride with him, but he adamantly insisted I ride back with Grandma Betty and Frank.
“Bless that young man’s heart,” Grandma Betty says, taking my hand in hers and squeezing. “I have a feeling someone will be getting a ring soon.”
I smile. My happily ever after with Justice. That’s all I’ve wanted from the moment I first saw him six years ago when I was fifteen and he was twenty-one. Only hours after that initial meeting, a tornado devastated my town, my house, and my life. Grandma Betty, critically injured during the storm, was taken by helicopter to a hospital and nearly died. She was in a coma for more than two months. Justice stayed by my side through it all, driving me to the hospital daily, talking with me for hours, and spending time with me when I’m sure he had better things to do. I fell in love with him, a man who not only looked like a superhero with his dark hair, aquamarine eyes, dimples, and muscular physique, but acted like one as well.
Our love story officially began when I turned eighteen. I’ve always known that I would get my fairytale ending. Yet now that I’m so close to having it, I’m spooked. They don’t have any articles in Seventeen magazine, which embarrassingly enough I still faithfully read, that deal with female-based commitment issues. It’s always the other way around. But lately, when I hear the word proposal or engagement, I have the urge to put on my running shoes and head for the hills. It doesn’t make any sense, because I love him. I adore him. I’m not sure I can live without him.
Or can I?
“He should be home by now,” I remark.
“Speaking of home, we need to get the show on the road.” Frank taps the face of his gold Seiko watch. “Justice, Samson, and the whole gang are going to meet us at Sorrento’s. We don’t want to be late. If we leave now, we’ll make it with only a few minutes to spare.”
“Do you think I could have a minute alone?” I shrug. “It’s hard to leave.”
“Of course, Sugar Cane,” says Grandma Betty. “We’ll wait for you in the car.”
“Take your time,” Frank insists and then adds, “but hurry up!”
I proffer a wry smile. “Very funny. I won’t be long.”
When they’ve gone, I explore each room, lightly dragging my hands along the textured walls, because I don’t want to just remember the things that happened here, I want to feel them. The matters of the heart are tied to all the senses—even touch.
And as I run my palms across the vertical and horizontal planes of the apartment, so much comes rushing back: Trouncing my friends in late night Trivial Pursuit games. Fitness competitions with my best friend and roommate, Caprice, which included everything from push-ups and sit-ups to sprints around the collegiate track and even arm-wrestling contests. Celebrating the end of track and field season by running the infamous naked mile on a chilly spring night where I had a distinct advantage over Caprice and my other big breasted friends. Having midnight dance parties in the dead of winter with all the windows open. Waking up in a drool puddle after a marathon studying session. Picking up the phone and having Justice tell me that his estranged father had died in the very same way that my parents had been killed—he was struck by a drunk driver. Sitting on the bathroom countertop with my legs drawn up to my chest with a pregnancy stick balanced on the crest of my knees. Offering Jocelyn Ryanne Schaeffer, Samson Schaeffer’s daughter, a month of reprieve last summer from her overbearing mother and seven siblings. Splitting a six pack of beer with Mikayla when she came to see me last fall and lying through my teeth when the subject of her mother’s affair came up. Thinking suicidal and homicidal thoughts when Justice told me he wanted me to have my senior year free and clear because he wanted me to experience life without him.
I’m leaving behind much more than I’ve wrapped and placed in a labeled box. My wild, sweet mess of youth is inside these rooms and around campus. This is where I rode the roller coaster of late adolescence into my early twenties, sometimes strapped in and other times barely hanging on. The memories will come with me, but much more will remain here.
I turn off all the lights, place the keys on the counter, and walk out the door of my personal time capsule.
“About time. I think the summer semester is almost over.” Frank jokes as I climb into the back seat of the car.
“Don’t give her a hard time,” admonishes Grandma Betty.
“Here.” Frank hands me my new video camera. I flip the power switch and point it at the back of Grandma Betty’s head.
She swivels around and frowns when she sees the camera pointed at her face. “You aren’t recording again, are you? You’re getting to be as bad as Frank with all those gadgets.”
“I am recording. You’ll be on film for all of time. No pressure, though. Just be yourself.”
“Oh, schlop!” she exclaims, this being her rather demure version of the word shit. “Turn it off.”
Frank’s brown eyes find mine in the rearview mirror and gives me a thumbs-up. “Get a close up of her.”
“Working on it,” I tell him as I push the zoom button.
Grandma Betty huffs in protest. “No! I don’t want a close up.”
“It’s not that close.”
“Well, how close is it? I don’t have my lipstick on.” She self-consciously covers her mouth.
“You don’t need any. You’re as lovely as ever.”
“I’m your grandmother—you have to say that.”
“She’s right, though, you are as lovely as ever,” Frank chimes in.
“Stop,” she orders. She turns back around and buckles her seatbelt.
“Come on. Be a sport. I want to record this moment,” I tell her.
Frank starts the car and eases away from the curb.
“Why would you want to do that?” she asks impatiently.
“Because now that I’ve graduated college, I want to know what you wish for me and my future.”
Looking over her shoulder, she gives me her don’t you already know the answer to that smile. “All I’ve ever wanted for you is to be happy, and I know that you are.”
I flip off the power button and tuck the camera against my chest. Staring out the window, I watch the squat profile of my apartment building shrink and then disappear. I feel many things, but not one thing that comes close to happy.
Thanks to screenwriter, Michael Schilf, The Ugly Tree has been turned into a movie script called Cane. Killer script. Fast read. Lots of fun. We’ve submitted it and are waiting to hear back!
The Ugly Tree is now on Kindle…or it should be by the end of the day today! Also, landed a gig as the keynote speaker at Whitewater High School this coming September 1st!
The Ugly Tree snags another prestigious award. It was named a 2011 Eric Hoffer Award finalist Very thrilled. The past three weeks have been amazing. I’m trying to book more speaking engagements, and hoping these awards help the process.
The Ugly Tree was a finalist in the Midwest Book Awards! Also received news that it was a 2011 New Generation Indie Award finalist! I’ll be knock, knock, knocking on an agent’s door come this fall in hopes that my next novel, The Peel and Stick Heart, will be nationwide on EVERY shelf from Walmart to Barnes and Noble.
Fixing Forever Broken is now available on Kindle, so all you tech savvy readers will have to check it out!
I never stop dreaming, and as 2011 begins, I’m setting new goals and am striving daily to reach them. My new novel, The Peel and Stick Heart, will be rough draft complete come March. Check back as I will soon post excerpts for my fans. I’m looking forward to more speaking engagements, high school appearances, and book clubs.
I’m dreaming big, and I hope that you are as well!
Hey everyone, for those of you who have the blog address at www.blog.tamaralyon.com it’s permanently MIA. Not sure what happened exactly because I’m not fluent in techno speak, but when we transitioned to a new website the blog disappeared. Bottom line: you can’t access the preview for The Peel and Stick Heart! Sorry about that. I may repost after the New Year! Merry Christmas!
Book Club tonight, December 6th near Middleton. I will be talking about The Ugly Tree and Fixing Forever Broken! Thanks to Laurie Wood for making it possible!