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Peony Red (The Granite Harbor Series Book 1) by J. Lynn Bailey (1)

Alex

October 1, 2017

I slide the comb through his thinning, wet, peppered hair.

Snip.

Pull.

Snip.

Snip.

We listen to the silence, and the lies that we bear.

The lie that he isn’t dying a slow death.

The lie that I’ll be fine once he’s gone.

Because, in reality, nothing will be fine, but it will have to be okay.

“Remember when I asked you to marry me, Meredith?” His voice is calm, slow.

“I’m Alex. Remember, Dad? I’m your daughter.”

Philip nods, patiently chewing on his leftover lunch that my mom prepared for him.

The next part will take my breath away. It always does. Every week that I cut his hair, we do a two-step around the fact that he’s not getting any better.

“I don’t have a daughter.”

My insides stop. Ache. Move again by going about their business, making my body work hard.

Breathe in, out.

“I’m the daughter God gave you from the stork,” I whisper. A tear slides into my mouth. It’s the story he used to tell me as a child. I cling to the memories like timeless pictures of a family that doesn’t exist anymore. And the only living proof that it did is the people who lived them. Life is different now.

“Meredith, did Kyle die? Is Alex still sad?”

I freeze. This is new. He’s never asked this question before. But I’m tired. Tired of resisting the future. Tired of clinging to what used to be. Just so tired.

“Yes, Philip, he did. Alex is still sad.” I play the part of my mother.

Silence.

Snip.

Pull.

Snip.

Pull.

Snip.

“You’re all done, Dad.” I pull him in for a hug from behind and burrow my cheek against his neck, his scent of Old Spice taking me back to when days weren’t so tender, nights weren’t so long, and things were just easier.

“Looking sharp, Mr. Fisher.” My mom, Meredith, stands as my dad unfolds out of a kitchen chair, tall. The bright blue in his eyes stare back.

He’s back. Not living in the past, not in a time that existed before my mom and me. Us. Here and now. I’m his daughter again.

“I love you, kiddo.”

I’m a thirty-two-year-old jobless writer, and he still calls me kiddo.

“I’m going to go shower.” He kisses my mom on the cheek, and she curls around it.

His faded Wranglers and old jean jacket stick to his persona as he moves through the doorway.

I fold up the apron, and my mom grabs the broom. We don’t say what we’re thinking right now. We don’t dare breathe a word, for fear, if our words leak from our mouths, it will make our worries a reality.

My mom met Philip when I was two. She’d moved away for college, gotten pregnant after a one-night stand, had me, and come back to Belle’s Hollow to get a job, knowing it would be too hard to raise a daughter, make a living, and go to school. Philip hired her on the spot at Fisher and Jones, Certified Public Accountants. He waltzed in one day with his ten-gallon cowboy hat and never left us again.

Some would call him a good old boy, raised in Belle’s Hollow after generations. He was ten years older than my mom.

But my mom always says, “You know when you know.”

Philip adopted me when I was three. I’m their only child.

“He’s gotten worse.” My mom brings me to the present.

He asked me about Kyle, I want to say but don’t.

The last thing I need is for Meredith Fisher to be worried about her daughter—again.

The diamond sits on the ring finger of my left hand.

It’s been three years, Alexandra. When will you get better?

“Dr. McGoldrick said some days will be better than others, Mom,” I remind her, dumping his hair in the trash. I want to tell her about the postcard I received, but it will wait. I know she’s concerned. I can tell by the way she’s standing. Arms crossed, her pointer finger tapping on her opposite arm, she chews her lip.

“I’m going to run home.” I give her a quick kiss on her cheek, grab my purse, and turn toward the door.

“Alex?”

I turn back.

“How’s the writing coming along?”

It’s not.

I stare at a blank computer screen, Mom, for eight hours a day, praying the right words will come, but they never do.

After submitting two unaccepted manuscripts, Bellencourt Publishing sent me a letter. It wasn’t a form letter either. It was sincere. It was from Anastasia Lucas, the vice president of Bellencourt Publishing, who flew up to our little town of Belle’s Hollow to check on me after Kyle died.

“It’s fine, Mom.”

She knows about the letter from Bellencourt. I think she asked, not really looking for an answer, but instead looking for a way to evaluate my answer, to check on my well-being.

“They don’t know what they’re missing,” says the mom who adores my work, no matter how shitty it can be.

I quietly shut the side door to the kitchen and head home.

The home that Kyle and I bought sits on an acre. It’s a single-story home with windows that overlook Belle’s Hollow, Lake Providence, and Mason, California.

Larry, my Maine Coon, is at my heels, waiting for his wet food. He pads down the hallway after me, to the bathroom. He lets out a long, pronounced meow.

“I know. In a minute.”

He curls around my legs as I tie my hair back and stare at my reflection in the mirror.

You need something different, Alex.

The dark circles under my brown eyes tell me that the four hours of sleep each night are clearly insufficient.

That night comes to the forefront of my mind, but I push it away as quickly as it appeared. My stomach grows queasy. Quickly, I turn on the cold water and wash it over my face to deter my mind from Kyle’s screams.

Wash it away, Alex. Wash it all away.

Larry wasn’t my cat to begin with. Kyle brought him home from a fire he’d been on. It was just supposed to be for a few days until we could find him a home. That was eight years ago.

“You’re a mess,” I say as I pick all twenty-two pounds of him up and carry him into the kitchen.

His green irises look as though God took light-green pieces of paper, twisted them into balls, unfolded them, attempted to smooth them out, and gave them to Larry to serve as a backdrop to his pupils.

As grab the wet food from the refrigerator, my phone vibrates against the counter.

It’s Bryce.

Bryce: Hey. How’d it go with Philip?

Me: Same. Maybe a little worse.

I lie. It’s a lot worse, not a little worse.

Bryce: Can I bring you the pita chips you like from Trader Joe’s?

Me: No, thanks. Just bring yourself. :)

I know she’ll bring the pita chips regardless of what I say. She’ll bring the pita chips because that’s what best friends do. Not only is Bryce my best friend, but she’s also my literary agent. I submitted my first book to Reedley Literary Agency, and she was the agent I queried eight years ago. We’ve been inseparable since, except she lives in Los Angeles and I live five hundred miles north in Northern California. After Bellencourt Publishing checked out, left, there she was, on my front porch with cheese puffs and a bottle of wine.

Bryce: I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you.

I put down my phone. I should text my mom and see how Dad is doing, but my stomach growls, a sound I’m all too familiar with. I set Larry’s wet food down and turn back to the refrigerator.

A half-eaten, moldy block of cheese.

Hot dogs. Probably dated.

Months old Crystal Light.

A six-pack of Downtown Brown that belonged to Kyle.

I push the cheese out of the way, so I can get a better view of the beer that’s been sitting in my refrigerator for over one thousand days.

Only three years ago, my career took a turn that I’d never expected—in a good way. Kyle was promoted to battalion chief at California Fire Tech, a state-funded fire protection agency for the state of California. The night Kyle was killed, we had gone out to celebrate our accomplishments.

Kyle and I had grown up in Belle’s Hollow. High school sweethearts, we navigated college together. Moved back to Belle’s. Started our lives as the Beaumonts, no longer Alexandra Fisher and Kyle Beaumont.

Kyle had a way about him. Like, when he spoke to you, you were the most important person in the room. Whether it was Stacy down at Belle’s Hollow Grocery or Eddie, who took our trash from the curb, or Mrs. Allen, sitting behind the desk at Dr. McGoldrick’s office, it didn’t matter. He listened intently. Made sure you knew you mattered.

Kyle was great with people, but he was an even better husband. I think that’s what attracted me to him in the first place. He said he fell in love with me when we were in the third grade. My mom saved the love note to prove it. Kyle said later that it was a moment on the playground when Shannon Wentworth asked why my skin was so pasty white.

He said that I’d said, “So, people like you ask stupid questions. God wants to make sure I’m well equipped with patience, I guess.”

Belle’s Hollow is a tiny town tucked into the redwood forest, built around the ocean line, on California’s northern coast. Population: 5,002.

It’s a place where town gossip spreads like wildfire and town events shut down Main Street. It’s a place, during the holidays, where Christmas wreathes go on every lamppost. In the summertime, those same lampposts adorn pictures of our active military residents with their names and military branch. It’s a place where American flags line Main Street on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

And this town we grew up in where we built memories and made plans, since losing Kyle, has somehow become a place of suffocation. Everywhere I turn, after three years, there are constant reminders of him. From Centerville Beach where he proposed to the town square where we danced in the rain. Our home, the glass walls and fragile secrets that kept us from having a baby, which we’d tried for two years, and never could conceive.

And people who care ask silly questions like:

People: “How are you, Alex?”

People: “Are you tired, Alex?”

People: “You look thin, Alex. Are you eating all right?”

People: “Have you tried Dr. Elizabeth, Alex? She helped me with …”

So, I don’t go out much anymore. I’m okay with surviving on Amazon, Whole Foods, and Healthy Fresh—a meal delivery service—with my cat, Larry, and visits to my mom and dad’s and Bryce.

When creating Bryce Hayes, it was like God took a country girl and placed her in the city to see how she’d thrive. That she did. She became a literary agent at twenty-four. Signed her first author at twenty-five, which grew into a multimillion-dollar deal. And she’s never looked back. Her push is success, not so much the money. She likes the thrill of a challenge.

I watch her as she sits across the table from me, telling my mother about ASMR.

“Oh, it’s the latest trend among kids now. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.” Bryce takes another bite of my mom’s peach cobbler.

My mom pauses. “So, you watch people eat pickles? Noodles?” Mom shakes her head. “I don’t get it.”

Bryce nods, swallowing. “I’ll show you on my phone when we’re done.”

Bryce isn’t here for Meredith’s ribs or her cobbler or to talk about ASMR with my mom; she’s here for me.

Bryce left Los Angeles on an extended vacation after Kyle died. Stayed with me for a month. Worked from my living room. Though I don’t remember much. My grief kept me in my bedroom. Pacing hallways. It kept me from showering, eating, talking. Dr. Elizabeth classified it as shock. Grief. Depression. Things I already knew. The first year after Kyle’s death, I just shuffled through life in a fog.

“Meredith?” My dad stares blankly. It’s the stare that tells us what’s about to come from his mouth is questionable. “Where’d you put my good pants?”

“What do you need your good pants for?” She rests her hand on the table, almost bracing herself for the blow that will come at any moment.

“Work tomorrow.”

There it is.

She stalls. But I’m not sure if it’s for peace of mind or sadness. “Honey, you’ve been retired for three years. Remember?”

My dad tilts his head and sets his fork down. Thinks. “I have?”

My mom inhales and slowly lets it out. “Yes.”

She starts to clear the table, as if it doesn’t bother her. As if it’s just another day at the Fishers’. But it does bother her. It isn’t the fact that he can’t remember. It’s the fact that we’re running out of time with him.

Bryce and I exchange glances. I stand and begin to help my mom.

“Dad, I need help with putting together the entertainment system. Can you come up and help?” I look down at his sullen face as I pick up his plate.

“Absolutely, Gidget.” He gives me a pat. “Absolutely.”

I follow my mom into the kitchen. She quietly sets down a plate on the island, her back to me. I see the weight of our family resting on her shoulders. Gently, I take my arms and fold them around her. I feel her take a big breath in and then let it out.

“It has to be all right, Mom. It doesn’t have to feel okay. It shouldn’t. But it needs to be all right.” I rest my cheek against her back as we hear Bryce and Philip laugh from the other room.

My mom turns to me. “You don’t need to worry about this, Alex. You need a break from all this. You need to start on your writing again.”

“Mom—”

She holds up her hand. “Hear me out.”

I lean against the counter. Because the truth is, I don’t have a plan. I need a plan. I want a plan, but I don’t have a plan. The panic starts to gather in my chest.

She hesitates.

“Meredith Fisher, you just hesitated.”

She tilts her head. “I did not.”

“You did.”

She reaches for something next to the house phone.

A postcard.

My heart seizes.

I grab it from her hand.

“Where’d you get this?” I look up at her.

“It came for you yesterday. Who’s Eli?”

Slowly, I meet her gaze. The postcard I’d received earlier said the same thing.

Alex,

Granite Harbor, Maine, welcomes YOU.

Please come.

Love,

Eli

I shake my head, willing the words to come out. “Mom, I don’t know who Eli is. I-I’ve never met an Eli in my life.”

I closely examine the postcard. Postmark out of Brooklyn. In pristine condition, just like the one I received.

“That was a delicious dinner, Meredith. Thank you so much,” Bryce says, carrying in the rest of the dishes into the kitchen.

Meredith is at the sink, starting the dishes.

“Nope. You remember the rules. You cook. We clean. It’s only fair.” Bryce softly pushes my mom out of the way with her hip.

I slip the postcard into my back pocket.

As if the postcards weren’t enough, why are they written in my dead husband’s handwriting?

Bryce is crawling into bed, her lavender-colored sleep mask plastered to her forehead. Her long dark red hair, tied up in a knot, sits on the top of her head. Her slender frame and tight abs are exposed under her silk top. I don’t remember the last time I went to the gym.

“Listen, I’m going to be totally frank with you. I need to. As your best friend, it is my duty to be honest with you.”

“Is this one of your speeches about the recycling program here?” I laugh, turning to my side, staring at Bryce.

Larry is curled up at my chest.

“No, but you guys need one—and an escape plan when there’s a zombie apocalypse. I’ll let you in on my plan for a low, low fee.” She smiles.

There’s a long silence that separates us. I know this talk she wants to have, and it’s not the lack of ease with Belle’s Hollow recycling. I’m not sure I want to hear it, but Bryce came all this way, so I need to give her space and time to talk.

“You go down to your parents’ house on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. You go to the store on Mondays. You stare at your computer every single day during the hours of six in the morning to two in the afternoon, hoping for inspiration. You watch two shows on Wednesday nights and Thursday nights. Both romance. You haven’t been on a date at all since Kyle died. I don’t remember the last time you wore heels. Your outfits consist of leggings or yoga pants. Kyle’s ashes sit by your bed. His pictures, your pictures together, still blanket your house.” She looks down at my wedding ring. “You still wear your wedding ring.” Bryce pauses. “This is an intervention. You need to do something different. Completely different, Alex.” Her voice is quiet as she strokes Larry’s thick coat. “The postcards.”

“What about them?” My head snaps to Bryce.

She sighs. “Look, you know how I am. Concrete evidence. Research to back up decision-making. But what if they’re a sign that you need to get out of this old routine? Find a new one. Find your passion again. Not just for writing, but for life.”

“So, I’m just supposed to follow advice from a postcard I received in the mail from a stranger named Eli and travel over two thousand miles across the country to find out who he is? Do you realize how crazy you sound right now?”

Bryce shrugs. “Yeah.”

“Bryce, what if he’s a serial killer? And this is a trap? And he lures women to his lair to kill them?”

She toys with Larry’s tail. “There are no serial killers in Maine. Except for Stephen King.”

“How do you know?”

“I Googled it.” She laughs hysterically.

“I’m sure you read a bogus article that was written by the same guy who wrote the postcard. And I’m sure the article’s title was ‘State of Maine Free from Serial Killers.’”

This makes us both laugh.

But is Bryce right? Has my life come down to my parents’ house, television, and yoga pants?

“Promise me something,” Bryce whispers as she strokes Larry.

“Remember the last time you said that?”

She rolls her eyes. “Oh God, Alex. For the record, I thought he was six foot four, and his teeth were straighter than the picture showed. At any rate, we got the whole thing annulled anyway.”

Bryce got drunk in Vegas. Sent me a picture of a guy who seemed rather … well, like God probably gave him a great personality.

Her text said: Promise me something. You won’t be mad when I tell you I got married.

“Promise me that, no matter what, you’ll find happiness. Whatever it looks like, without Kyle, without the extras that we get in life. I don’t care what you do, Alex. I just want you to be happy again. Go join the serial killers in Maine. Don’t go.” She toys with my right hand. “Belle’s Hollow is blanketed with memories of you and Kyle. When he died, you did, too. The light, the spunk, the zest for life left you, too. Your words, written for the world to see, the romance you created in your books could only have been inspired by the love you and Kyle shared. That much is true. Hang on.” She sneezes. Bryce sneezes when she’s tired. She rubs her nose in an effort to shoo away the next sneeze that is always inevitable.

“Truth?” I whisper.

Bryce holds back a sneeze. She nods, pulling her mask over her eyes.

“I’m not sure how to start over.” My heart starts to pound. My face grows hot. “I’m confident I know how tomorrow will end because I do exactly the same thing I did the day before. I do exactly everything the same, except without Kyle and without the writing. And, to be honest, Bryce, I’m lost. I can’t seem to see my way out of this.” I swallow air to push down the lump in my throat that’s buried behind my loss of life.

Bryce pulls up her mask. She peeks out through the bottom and stares down at me. “Baby steps. Do something different. It’s like the definition of insanity, right? What is it?” Bryce taps her fingers on the down comforter. “Doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

“You think I’m insane?” The question is serious, and it comes out as if I half-believe I might be insane.

“No.” Bryce laughs. “If you want something different, do something different.” She sneezes again.

I look up at my best friend.

The mask up on her forehead again, she’s looking down at me. “What if you take a risk? Go to Granite Harbor. Take a vacation. God knows, you have gobs of money that you don’t know what to do with.”

I bite my lower lip. The money Kyle and I were supposed to use for vacations. Donate to organizations that meant a lot to us. Upgrade our house even though it didn’t need upgrading. Perhaps add more space. Use for the children we never had.

It’s been three years after all. At the three-year mark, what does a widow do? There’s no training manual.

“What do I do next, Bryce?”

“Tomorrow is a brand-new day. You’ll wake up at the ass-crack of dawn. You’ll take me to the airport. You’ll tell me you’re going to go online once you get home and find a nice vacation rental in Granite Harbor, that you’ll go for two weeks. Just check it out.”

“But I can’t leave Larry.” I find an excuse because, as Bryce talks about these changes, my stomach rolls, shifts, jerks with nerves.

“Turns out, cats are really independent. Larry will be fine. Meredith will make sure of it.”

What could go wrong? Maine. The middle of October. The first of November, I’ll come back.

I momentarily entertain the idea.

“Find the feisty Alex I know is in there.” Bryce takes her hand and puts it on my heart. “The one who doesn’t take any shit. The one who holds her own. Find angst that you used to put in your stories.”

“What if she’s not there anymore?” I pause. “What if I’m not the same person anymore?”

Bryce laughs. “Oh, she’s in there all right. She just needs some room to breathe. To get out of where she’s at. Find a new different. That’s what she needs.” Bryce sneezes.

I climb out of her bed but not before kissing her on the cheek. “Get some sleep.”

As I get to the doorway, Bryce says, “Alex, you’re the strongest woman I know. I’ve seen you battle hell and come back. Now, it’s time for you to take your life back.” She pauses. “Kyle would have wanted it this way.”

I nod because I know this to be true.

Kyle married me, a woman full of life, full of love, quietly confident, stubborn, and unapologetic for my empathy, for my love for telling stories. Me, the woman who dictated my own story endings has now become a woman who hides in my yoga pants, behind a blank computer screen, petting my unusually big cat, unable to find my own story because the grief has somehow stuck to a piece of me that allows me to see only with blinders on.

Will I be able to find myself? Better yet, will I be the same person?

I pad back to my bedroom, open up my Mac, and make a five thousand dollar donation to St. Jude.

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