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My birthday was a week ago, and a friend asked me what happy things I was looking forward to this year. The list is long. My twin daughters will return from their missions. My son and his wife are expecting a baby girl. My other son and his wife are graduating from college, and my son has accepted a job in nearby Santa Monica. We're planning an amazing trip. These are all the things penciled in and most likely to happen.
But there's also all sorts of things that could come out of the blue. The sort of things we could never have predicted.
We got a kitten for Christmas. He's not a baby--more like a teenager. He's a rescue, and is quite possibly the most beautiful cat I've ever seen. We love him, but the dog tolerates him. The tree in our living room, I'm pretty sure, hates him. We've had the dog for eight years and the tree for twenty. We got the tree when it was about three feet high. It's now probably twelve feet tall. And while it's beautiful, it's not sturdy. It doesn't want to be climbed. I know this because it falls over when the cat tries to climb it. The dog doesn't like to have his head jumped on. Often, when Grendel, the dog, is sleeping the cat will jump on the dog's head.
In some ways, I can relate to the tree and the dog--I'm doing my thing when, BooM, something knocks me over or jumps on my head. It could be anything.
Right now, I have four ideas in my mind. I want to write all of them. And they're not just one book ideas--they're all series. I'm not sure what to do with them. I've started two. I decided to write them both and if one lags, I can pick up the other one. One is Young Adult fantasy. The other is a murder mystery. Here's the beginning of what I'm now calling The Missing Mirror.
A three-foot tall man dressed in brown shorts, work boots, and a red plaid flannel parked in front of me, folded his tiny arms across his barrel chest and glared at me. “What’d you do with it, Blanche?”
“Pardon?” I looked down the street to vacant lot bordering the canyon—excuse me—the arroyo, that’s what they call canyons here in Southern Orange County—where the brightly colored circus tent pointed to the sky and wondered if this man belonged to the circus. He didn’t look like he belonged in Santa Magdalena. But then neither did I. Also, my name isn’t Blanche and I told him so.
The man blinked once, twice, three times. Doubt flickered in his eyes, but suspicion won out. He grabbed my wrist. “You gotta give it back!” Despite his small frame, he had a low, gravelly voice and a strong grip.
I shook him off. If it weren’t for the little kids on bikes, the mom’s pushing strollers, and the elderly man leading a Jack Russell terrier sharing the sidewalk with me, I might have considered picking this man up and tossing him into the bushes. But people-tossing wasn’t on my very long to-do list.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I said, attracting the attention of the people carrying towels, floaties, and picnic baskets heading for the lake. These were people without long to-do lists. Santa Magdalena residents who probably had assistants picking up their school supplies, personal shoppers buying their clothes, Maria’s and Esmerelda’s bringing home their groceries, and Juan’s and Richardo’s mowing their lawns.
The man stepped closer, lining up his steel-toed boots with mine. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but it ain’t gonna work! We’re onto you!”
I looked around him to see a flock of men just like him barreling our way. Panic fluttered in my chest. I knew I could toss one of them, but I didn’t want to take on a herd. Besides, I still had to pick up my new uniform from the dry cleaners, find a pair of white knee-high socks, plus get the notebooks, pens, pencils, and the calculator that could tell the longitude and latitude and predict the future better than a fortune cookie…not really, but sort of. I really didn’t have time to rumble with angry little men.
I glanced back at the circus tent, wishing that these men would return to wherever they had come from. But the ache in my chest told me that what I really wanted was to return to where I came from.
The circus didn’t make Santa Magdalena weird. It was weird all by itself. It didn’t need a multi-colored tent, a cast of clowns, acrobats, and carnies and the overpowering stench of animals mingled with popcorn to make it weird. Although, that all certainly helped.
Of course, the Santa Magdalenains would claim that I was the weird one, the misfit, the girl in @boots and Levis in a city of flip-flops and short skirts. The girl from Troutdale, Oregon.
Yes, Troutdale is really a place. A pretty place. A green place. A town hugging the Columbia River with views of Mount Adams to the North and Mount Hood to the south.
Santa Magdalena has golf course views, man-made lake views, and lots of girls-in-barely-clad-booties views.
No one wears @boots. Except for this small man and me, the girl from Troutdale. Boots are great for hiking through fields and up mountains, but for running they pretty much suck, but right then, running seemed like the best thing to do. Especially when I caught sight of Toby, my little asthmatic brother, barreling down the Santa Magdalena Parkway’s sidewalk. He was wearing red converse sneakers, not boots, but they still didn’t make him much of a runner. Panic filled his eyes. His breath puffed raggedly as he skirted past an old lady and her Yorkie and a mother pushing a baby in a stroller.
I caught up to him in seconds, grabbed his arm, and wondered about his inhaler because, from the look on his face, I knew he was going to need it. Soon.
“Chasing me,” he gulped, casting a rabbit-eyed look over his shoulder.
I drew him into an open doorway. The sights and smells of the store barely registered as I knelt in front of Toby, grabbed his arms, and willed him to breathe. I looked over his shoulder, searching for the flock of small men dressed in boots and suspenders.
I had lost them.
“Take deep, slow breaths,” I said, locking my gaze with his.
He swallowed hard, met my eyes, and wheezed.
“Your inhaler—where is it?”
He cast a furtive glance out the window. I glanced over his shoulder and saw two guys about my age, probably juniors or seniors running by. One honey-blond, looking like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, the other dark-haired, tan, carrying a Lacrosse stick and gorgeous.
Anger and questions flashed through me—why would they chase a little kid? Did he have something they wanted? Or, were they bullies, picking on the weak and asthmatic for the pleasure of hearing him wheeze? But Toby’s ragged breathing made me push the anger and questions aside.
“Where’s your inhaler?” I repeated.
He shook his head, his eyes growing wider, his breathing increasingly labored.
“Your phone?” I grabbed his backpack, pulled it off him, unzipped it, and rifled through it.
Of course, until this moment, it had seemed wildly unfair and twisted that Toby got to have a cell phone and not me because he was eleven and I was fifteen. No one cares if an ten-year-old has a phone, but a teen without a phone is like a fish without water—socially and physically dead.
But being socially dead is better than being literally dead. Fumbling through his bag, feeling my way through the collection of Star Wars action figures, dog-eared comic books, an empty juice box, and a half-eaten bag of Doritos I found the phone and pushed the second number on speed dial.
I sank to the floor, pulled Toby onto my lap and cradled him in my arms while I waited for Heather to pick up the phone. The tension in Toby began to relax as his breathing slowed.
Come on, come on, pick up, pick up.
“Hello?” Grandpa Hank answered the phone.
“Grandpa! It’s me, Grace.”
“Grandpa?” Talking to a hard-of-hearing ninety-year-old is never easy and almost always frustrating.
“Hello?” Grandma Dorothy picked up another line.
Talking to one ninety-year-old is bad, talking to two at once is really bad.
I raised my voice. “I need Heather. Can you put her on?”
“Your mom is at school,” Dorothy croaked.
“I know. I want to talk to Heather.”
“Are you calling on that mobile thing?” Grandpa Hank asked. “How much is it costing you?”
“Grandpa, please, just put Heather on the line.”
A hand holding a bottle of water appeared in front of my face. Glancing up, I met the green-eyed gaze of a movie-star beautiful woman. She had flawless tanned skin, thick blond hair, and smiling lips. She gave one bottle of water to Toby and extended the other to me.
Toby unscrewed the lid with shaking hands.
I mouthed thank you to the woman.
She smiled in return. “Can I help you? Want me to call someone?” she whispered.
I shook my head.
The woman gave Toby a worried and yet reassuring smile, before returning to her place behind the sales counter.
“Heather’s gone to the store,” Grandma Dorothy told me. “Although I don’t know why, she just went to Gelson’s yesterday. “
“I don’t know why she goes to Gelson’s,” Grandpa grumbled. “She should go to Ralph’s. Gelson’s is just trying to upsell—”
“Do you think she’s at Gelson’s now?” I glanced out the window at the cars zooming along the parkway. Santa Magdalena only had a few major shopping centers. Maybe I could spot our car in one of the parking lots—it was a ninety-year-old Jeep Cherokee with a rusted bumper—quite possibly the only ninety-year-old car with a rusted anything in all of Santa Magdalena.
“Now, how would I know where she gets to?” Grandpa Hank asked.
“Remember, you sent her to Rite-Aid to pick up your prescription,” Grandma Dorothy cut in.
“Oh. That’s right,” Grandpa Hank said. “Well, she’s taking her time about it.”
I sighed. Rite-Aid was on the far side of the lake and I couldn’t see dragging Toby across town. Sticking to the original plan of meeting Heather at the library seemed like the best idea. At least, that’s what I told my grandparents.
I ended the call and slipped the phone back into Toby’s backpack. I ran my fingers over the top of his buzz-cut, loving the feel of his prickly head. “You okay now?”
“Why were those guys chasing you?”
I gave him a quick hug and pushed to my feet. “Come on, let’s go to the library.”
“Do you think,” wheeze, “they have,” wheeze, “comic books here?”
“Of course they do. All libraries have comic books. It’s in the national rulebook for libraries. And did you see the size of it? It’s like three times the size of the Troutdale library!”
Toby’s eyes lit up.
“Do you want a ride to the library?” The woman behind the counter asked.
I flashed her a grateful smile. “We’ll be okay, huh, Tobs? Thanks, though. And thanks for the water.”
The woman pulled away from the counter. “I don’t mind driving you.”
I glanced around. A pink and purple paisley rug lay on the floor. A table beside wrought iron shelves overflowed with an eclectic collection of china pieces, antique books, etchings, and prints. An eighteenth-century flow blue teapot shared a shelf with a silver flying saucer and wooden burl box. Rocco and Baroque decorative art. It all looked expensive, frilly, and totally useless.
“Are you here alone?” I asked.
She nodded. “But the owner won’t mind if I close the shop for a moment.” Her eyes sparkled. “I know her well…she can be a witch, at times…”
“Well, then you don’t want to make her mad.”
Toby nodded in agreement. “Witches can be scary.”
Her face sobered. “You have no idea. Still, for you, I’d risk it.” She swept her green eyes over us, her gaze lingering on my boots and torn jeans. “What’s your name?”
“Grace James. This is my little brother, Toby.”
“I’m Cordelia Holbrook.” She stuck out a hand with ten perfectly manicured nails for Toby to shake. “It’s nice to meet you. You’re not from around here, are you?”
I took her hand. She was cool to the touch.
“We’re from Troutdale,” Toby told her.
“Troutdale?” Her lips quirked.
“It’s a real place,” I told her. “In Oregon, near the Washington border,” I added as if that explained everything from the stupidity of the name to our raggedy clothes.
“And what brought you here—the circus?”
“No.” I flushed with humiliation tinged with anger.
“My grandma’s sick and needs our help,” Toby uttered my mom’s rationalization.
“There’re more to it than that,” I muttered.
“So, you’re new here. Not just passing through?”
Toby and I both nodded.
“How old are you?”
“Eleven,” Toby said.
“And starting a new school? That’s rough.”
A wave of homesickness washed through me.
“Are you going to Mission High?”
I shook my head. “Santa Magdalena.”
Her eyes widened in surprise.
“My mom’s teaching there. She has an old friend who got her the job.” I didn’t add that her salary would barely cover my tuition.
“You know, it’s silly that I work by myself.” She cocked her head. “This is spur of the moment and crazy, but would you like a job?”
“What?” How could she know that I’d spent the morning looking for work?
“I could use some help and you just moved here so no one has snatched you up, yet…” She paused and fingered the gold pendant hanging around her neck. “But maybe you don’t need one.”
“No! I do. I would love to work here.” I glanced around, wondering exactly what sort of store this was. An antique shop? A gift store? It seemed to sell everything from books to hats to purses to clothes. The only thing that each of the items had in common was beauty. Everything in the store was almost as beautiful as Cordelia. I didn’t think I would fit in.
“What about the witch?” Toby asked. “Wouldn’t Grace have to work with the witch?”
Cordelia’s lips twitched. “Oh, she’s really not that bad.”
“But won’t she mind? Shouldn’t you talk to her before you hire me?” I asked.
She leaned forward and whispered, “I’m the witch.”
She offered you a job?” Heather whispered, suspicion lighting her bright green eyes. She didn’t have Cordelia’s porcelain beauty, but with her thick dark hair and pinky-white skin, she was still gorgeous without even trying.
I shrugged. “She could probably tell I need money.”
Heather pursed her lips, clearly unhappy. Unhappy had become Heather’s default attitude ever since we’d moved, and yet, she was Mom’s most valiant backer-upper. I knew Heather was sad about the move, but I also knew that, unlike me and Tobs, she had a choice. She still had a choice. She could return to Troutdale whenever she wanted to. She was eighteen, a freshman in college, and had spent four years working for Renee Norman—a wealthy widow who had offered Heather a place to live and use of a car if she’d continue as Renee’s assistant.
A waft of warm air blew in the library as the wide double doors opened. The guys who had been chasing Toby walked in. They didn’t belong in a library. They belonged on a tennis court, or on a surfboard, or—thinking of how they’d bullied Toby—in juvie hall.
“Are you listening to me?” Heather whispered.
I tore my eyes away from the defined muscles, sun-kissed hair and skin, and focused on Heather. “I know…Mom needs our help, but…”
“There’re no buts about it, we have to tough it out until Dad gets back.” Heather kept her eyes on the back of Toby’s head.
He sat on a cushion on the floor surrounded by comic books, clearly in Toby-heaven.
“Who are you staring at?” Heather asked, twisting to look over her shoulder.
“No one.” The guys had disappeared into the fiction section, and while I really wanted to follow them, throw them up against a bookshelf, and yell at them for picking on Toby, I didn’t want Heather to know. It would only upset her and she had enough to worry about.
“Did you get the classes you wanted?” I asked changing the subject.
She tightened her lips and nodded. “I also signed Toby up for online classes. I’m going to home-school him.”
“What? Heather, no.”
She lifted a shoulder. “It’ll be easier.”
“Staying at home alone with the grand-parentals.”
I pressed my lips together. “You should go back to AI.”
“I can’t afford it.”
“Grandpa Hank can.”
Heather gave a small, almost imperceptible shake of her head.
I leaned closer and lowered my voice, even though I knew my grandparents were miles away and the chances of them overhearing me were impossible. “Do you think Mom entered into some sort of bargain with them?” I asked, thinking of my advanced English class in general and Faust and his pact with the devil in particular. Who would I rather strike a bargain with—Satan or my grandfather? They both seemed equally bad.
“Maybe, but probably not.” She picked at the edge of her T-shirt. “She promised we’d leave as soon as Dad’s rotation is over.”
“Do you think that’s going to happen?” My thoughts skipped ahead to my own graduation. Maybe if I worked really hard, I could get a scholarship and go to any school I wanted to. I would be making a lot more working for Cordelia than I ever made at my last job at the Wilson’s dairy.
Heather didn’t answer but used her foot to nudge Toby. “Pick your favorite three, and let’s go,” she told him. “Did you want to get anything?” she asked me.
Frustration swept through me. Heather didn’t deserve this. She should be hanging out in lecture halls, frat houses, and football stadiums, not babysitting her little brother and catering to her tight-fisted grandparents.
“You okay?” she asked, bumping me with her shoulder.
She was nice. Too nice. Too easily taken advantage of. I wished I could siphon off a smidge of my anger and implant it in her spine. It would do us both good, I thought until guilt set in. Heather was perfect just as she was. And me? I wanted to pick up the heaviest book I could find and use it on someone’s head.
The two guys I’d seen chasing Toby emerged from behind a bookshelf. The blond met my eye. I sent him my best death-stare.
His lips crooked in a half-smile, making me hate him even more.