Hi all! Today is the release of Kelsey Sutton’s Gardenia, “a perfect blend of mystery, contemporary romance and coming of age.” Please keep it in mind as you look for your next read…
Get hooked reading an excerpt…
My eyes open. It takes a moment to realize that I’m not staring up at the ceiling of my room.
Instead, I’m standing beneath the last working streetlight in the park, right in the center of its glow. I wrap my arms around myself as a shield from the cold, looking at her trailer with an empty feeling in my stomach. I must have walked in my sleep again. It seems to be getting worse over time, not better. Dimly I notice that I’m not wearing shoes. My toes curl under, scraping against the gravel. My boxer shorts snap in the wind. The air has teeth and nails. It’s October and another Minnesota winter is coming. But I don’t care.
The lights are off in her room, of course, along with all the others. She’s been gone since July. I stare at her dark window, knowing I should go back to bed.
But I don’t move. For minutes or hours—I’m not sure which—I just linger in the cold, another spirit haunting this place. It’s something I’ve done dozens of times since we buried her. I’ve gotten used to the stiffness afterward, the absolute silence, the exhaustion.
Only when the sky turns purple and light reaches over the horizon with luminescent fingers do I turn to go back to my own trailer.
It’s seventeen steps back. Fog hovers over the ground. Just as I reach the steps, an engine turns over in the distance—one of the neighbors must be going to work. The stillness is further disrupted by Madonna’s voice blaring through the trailer as soon as I open our front door.
There’s a stale smell in the air because no one has bothered to clean the parrot’s cage this week. Spencer Hille perks up as I come in, his green feathers ruffled and gleaming. “I missed you!” he squawks.
I lumber down the narrow hall. The orange carpet is so thin I can feel the cool metal beneath it. Madonna continues to serenade the morning. “Mom.” I knock on her door. It rattles on its hinges. “Your alarm is going off. Get up.” I’m turning toward my room before the words have completely left my mouth.
She swears, and there’s a slam as she assaults the snooze button. She’ll keep doing it if I don’t wake her up myself. Sighing, I turn back around. The carpet does nothing to muffle the moans of the floor as I approach the door again. “Five more minutes!” Mom thunders.
I push my way into her room. There’s a pile of Dad’s junk behind the door—an antique clock that doesn’t work anymore, some Stephen King books, clothes, a pair of mounted antlers. I pat around looking for the light, which has become nearly impossible to find since Mom nailed a blanket over her window. I feel the switch and flip it up without hesitation.
My mother utters a sound that a vampire might make in direct sunlight. She yanks the sheets higher. “You have to be at the diner in a half hour,” I tell her pitilessly. A middle finger pokes out. The alarm goes off again. Mom emerges from the covers, opening bloodshot eyes.
The numbers over her head glow brightly, and, as always, the seconds continue to count down. Annie Erickson will be alive for another thirty years, seven months, nine days, two hours, thirty-eight minutes, and twenty-seven seconds.
That’s how I know waking up at 7:30 a.m. won’t kill her.
Groaning, Mom manages to find the snooze button a second time. Once it’s silenced she buries her face in the pillow. The latest Danielle Steel novel rests on her nightstand. “Is this one any good?” I ask, picking it up and glancing at the back cover.
“Give me five more minutes,” she mumbles.
“I’m going to the nursing home before school. You need to get up now.”
She calls me a name, hot and foul. “That’s sweet,” I tell her. “Get up.” For good measure, I turn the stereo on before leaving. I head for the bathroom and pass my sister’s door, which is tightly shut. There’s no reason to wake her; running a website requires no set hours. I wash my face, and water dampens the front of my shirt. After patting dry with a towel, I brush my teeth and re-enter the hall with the taste of mint in my mouth.
In front of the cracked mirror hanging over my dresser—Vanessa broke it when we were nine, spinning so fast to a Britney Spears song that she knocked it off the wall—I braid my hair as well as I possibly can. Frizzy curls always manage to escape. I don’t bother with makeup before putting my glasses on; my skin is clear, the one and only noticeable quality I have. Numbers above me glow like all the others, but the mirror is strategically angled so I can’t see anything above my forehead.
Next I move to the closet and root around for some jeans. As I yank on a turtleneck and some boots, I notice a huge hole in the knee. No time to change, though, and these are probably the last clean pair anyway. I grab my bag, listening for the familiar jangle of keys, and go.
“You’re beautiful!” Spencer Hille calls as I rush by.
My ’96 Buick is waiting outside. It may not be a pretty vehicle, but it’s faithful, turning over on the first try. The smell of gas permeates the air. I wait for the frost on the windshield to melt a bit before driving out of the trailer park. Just as the tires bump onto the main road, I notice the rearview mirror has been tilted. Lorna must have gone out after I went to bed last night. I quickly readjust it so the reflection only shows my eyes and the sign for the park,GREEN ESTATES. Except when George Blue was sixteen he painted over the E so now it reads WELCOME TO GREEN PROSTATES.
George is now our mayor.
The sign fades behind me, and soon enough Hallett Cottages appears on my right. It’s the only place in Kennedy for the elderly, combining a nursing home and an assisted living facility. I started volunteering when I was nine, reading to the residents or helping them with meals. The building is nondescript, with brown brick and ancient square windows. The trees have been cleared around it, making the poorly-tended lawn its most noticeable quality. I guide my car into the usual space, park, cut the engine, and step out into the cold again. The leaves on the trees are vibrant hues of orange and red and yellow. They rustle a greeting to me as I walk inside.
Rita, the front desk nurse, nods as the doors slide open. In all the time I’ve known her, she has never smiled. “Getting chilly,” she says by way of greeting.
I shrug ruefully, writing my name on the check-in list. “We knew it was coming, right?”
Steam rises from the cup of coffee by her hand. My stomach rumbles as I head straight for the third room on the left to visit a woman who is always up at the crack of dawn.
Miranda Raspberry is seventy-three years old. She’s one of the youngest residents of Hallett. She’s also one of my favorites. I knock on the door and a soft voice warbles, “Come in.” I enter the bright space. Miranda sits on her perfectly made bed. “Oh, Hannah,” the tiny woman exclaims, beaming. She sets her knitting down. Her gray hair curls against her head, and she’s wearing pink pants with a sweatshirt. Gene Simmons peers at me from the worn material. “I was just thinking about you.”
“Hi, Mom.” Smiling, I take her proffered hand and note that she’s attempted to paint her nails. Pink polish stains the skin around them. The walls are covered with needlepoint creations and the air smells like perfume. I look around for the hundredth time, savoring it as I always do because this will all be gone soon, as if no one named Miranda Raspberry ever lived here.
After a few moments I realize that Miranda is frowning at me. “Honey, what in the world are you wearing?” She pinches my clothes between two fingers. The pink chair by her window is a familiar place, and I like to think that the cushion recognizes me as an old friend. I sink down and it lets out awhoosh of air.
I don’t answer for a moment; I’m distracted by the numbers above her. In stark, white, unavoidable truth, they tick down. Miranda Raspberry has twenty-eight days, nineteen hours, seventeen minutes, and fifty-six seconds to live. “I’m auditioning for a play today. This is a costume.”
Her expression clears and she’s back to smiling. “You are? You never told me you had an interest in acting!”
Acting, pretending, it’s all the same. I open my mouth to describe the supposed play, but before I can, Miranda stiffens. There’s a sudden shadow in her eyes, and lines deepen around her mouth. “You’re not Hannah.” She stands. Her voice has lost its warmth, and now she sounds like a small, lost child. The tile creaks.
I remain calm. “No, Mrs. Raspberry. I’m not. I’m Ivy.”
She glances at the door behind her, as if she’s thinking about fleeing. “Where’s Hannah?” she whispers. “Where am I?”
This isn’t the first time she’s been lucid. It happens at least once a week. But she never remembers that her daughter and her husband died in a car accident back in 1983. Some people might tell her the truth: she’s utterly alone. But I see the time she has left. This is why I come to Hallett—to create happy endings. So once again I sit back to tell Miranda Raspberry of a beautiful, fictitious past she can’t remember.
It’s better than talking about the future I know she won’t have.