Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Secrets of Hailey's Comments

I made a new cover for Hailey's Comments, changed the title, and had it re-edited. It's free today. You can get yours here. Or you can read just the first chapter.

Chapter One

“A lemon that’s been squeezed too many times ends up in the compost pile…” I started out strong, but my words faded away when I noticed Savannah Everett’s father staring at me. He stood beside a cart filled with vegetables, grinning, as if he had caught me in my lie.
Pretending I didn’t see him, I cleared my throat and studied the citrus, as if I could possibly find navel oranges and limes more interesting than him. “I have to go, Grammy,” I mumbled into the phone and dropped it into my purse.
“Good morning, Miss Emma,” he said, standing by the potatoes and onions.
“Good morning, Mr. Everett.” I snuck a quick glance into his cart, but it couldn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. Grocery cart contents say so much about a person. Nothing screams immaturity as loudly as Captain Crunch, and the brand of yogurt in a cart can reveal the health of a dietary tract. I knew he wasn’t a vegetarian and that he ate a lot of ready-made meals, but what I really wanted to know wasn’t at all obvious. He had a retro Robert Redford look, with dark brown eyes that contrasted with his blond hair. He looked like he belonged on a sunny California beach with a volleyball, not in the produce section of the grocery store.
Hiding my flushed face, I scooped up a bag of grapefruit and hurried away without the red onion that I wanted and with way too many grapefruits. I would never be able to eat all of them before the last one spoiled. Living alone is like a race pitting appetite against ripening produce.
Maybe my answer to that day’s column would have been different if I had been standing in another aisle. Maybe if I had been looking at cleansers instead of citrus I would have come up with something lauding the benefits of bleach. Maybe if I hadn’t bumped into Mr. Everett I could have had onions on my hamburgers.
But it didn’t matter; once the lie spilled I was doomed to slip in it. That’s the problem with lies, they bleed and can make a big mess, even when you think they’re contained. Sure, things could be mopped up, but if it wasn’t done right, the stickiness would stay, attracting dust, dirt, and lint.
Not that I was attracted to Mr. Everett.
I love dogs, but I believe that they should have their own space. An art studio is not a dog space. It may be fine if the studio is private and the dog is your own, but there really isn’t any reason to bring a Cocker Spaniel to work. Especially if you work with eight-year olds and your Cocker doesn’t enjoy children. It’s not okay to surround your kid-hating Cocker with fifteen tots armed with backpacks full of snacks and loaded paint brushes.
The clock struck four. I shot O-Toole, my boss’s Cocker, a behave or die look, smoothed down my smock, picked up a marker, and headed for the board at the head of the class. Table top easels perched on the scarred and paint-splattered tables. Tall windows let in the winter’s dying sunlight. The children stood on the cement floor behind their easels, pencils in hand, waiting for me.
I greeted the students and tried to ignore Mr. Everett standing at the back of the room, but his deep laugh rumbled and rattled my insides. He stood in a knot of mothers, like a regal goose in a gaggle of hens. The women twittered and he replied in a deep low hum. I willed them away. It was time for the class to start and I didn’t want an audience. Why were they still here? Several of the women wore tennis skirts. Didn’t they have a match to play?
I didn’t really mind that some of the parents chose to stay during the after-school program, but Artie, my boss, owner of the Art Academy and O-Toole’s master, called them helicopter parents. She didn’t say that about Mr. Everett, because Artie never had an argument with a handsome man. But since that same man overheard my one-sided conversation with Gram and prevented my onion purchase, I minded him. A lot.
“Today we’re going to draw our very own super-heroes,” I told the class as I passed out comic books. “Let your imagination go wild. If you were a super-hero, what powers would you have?” I turned the kids loose on their easels and wandered around the room, watching them work.
O’Toole lounged on his bed in the corner, his head resting on his paws. Mr. Everett and a few of his harem remained in the back, but I kept one eye on the kids and another on the door. Artie should have returned before the class started.
“Who’s that?” Travis, a ten-year-old in cargo pants and a robot sweatshirt, curled his lip at Savannah’s drawing of a winged creature flying over a city skyline.
Savannah rolled her eyes at Jessie who answered for her friend. “That just happens to be Letriciana, Goddess of Reincarnation.” The two girls stood side by side as if linked by an invisible chain. They wore identical jeans with the word Juicy written on the pockets and they each had on a pair of bumblebee shoes with matching, glittery beads threaded onto their laces.
“Carnation?” Travis lived in Woodinville, a city neighboring the town of Carnation. “There isn’t a Goddess of Carnation!” Travis’ straw hair pointed at the ceiling and a line of freckles crossed both of his cheeks.
“Re-in-carnation,” Savannah said, adding a cloud to her sky.
Travis also added a cloud to his sky. Whenever he moved his arms the robot’s ears wiggled. “Can she fly, or is that thing on her back a jetpack?”
Savannah set her pencil down to give Travis a hard, I-don’t-believe-you-could-so-stupid stare. “Goddesses don’t need jetpacks.” She flipped her blond hair over her shoulder before she picked up her pencil. “Those are wings.” Savannah considered her work then drew a lightning streak through the cloud.
“If you think she can be a superhero, she can’t,” Travis said as he drew his own lightning streak. “Only men can be superheroes.”
“That’s not what Hailey Clements says,” Jessie piped in.
My throat tightened as it always did whenever anyone mentioned my grandmother. I feared anything—my blush, my eyes, the way I shoved my hands into my pockets—would reveal my lie. My eyes caught Savannah’s father’s. I wanted to take my paintbrush and paint a frown over his knowing grin.
Jessie, despite her pants, was a “Royal, Loyal” reader—a Haileyism for devoted fans. There were, naturally, readers who were neither royal nor loyal, but Gram hadn’t given them a name, because she refused to acknowledge their existence.
“Hailey Clements says that everyone can and should be the hero of their own life,” Jessie continued. Her dangly earrings jiggled when she nodded her headed. She didn’t dress the conservative part of a Royal Loyal, but I knew Gram would love Jessie. Gram relished and encouraged blind devotion.
Savannah nodded and drew a dog on the street below the flying Goddess of Reincarnation.
Robot ears wiggled at me as Travis also drew a dog. A cloud, a lightning streak, and a dog all floated in the white space of Travis’ page. Travis was having a hard time finding his own hero.
I could relate.
My eyes slipped back to Savannah’s dad chatting with Mrs. Schumann, a woman I’d never seen in anything other than tennis whites. It was hard to say if she played before or after Travis’ art class because I’d never seen her sweaty and I’d never seen her racquet, but I’d seen the panties under her tennis skirt a hundred times.
Savannah set down her pencil again and glared at Travis. “Stop it!”
Travis added a puff of fur on his dog’s tail so that it resembled a dandelion. “Stop what?” Travis asked, his freckles turning upward.
“You’re copying me!” Savannah stamped her bumblebee shoe and the beads jingled.
Savannah was right, he was copying her, but before I could separate them, I noticed that O’Toole had left his bed to rummage in an unattended backpack. My heart picked up speed as I remembered O’Toole’s last experience with a student’s half eaten candy bar. The dog had a nose for chocolate. I could relate to that as well, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of another barf scene, especially not in front of the students. Or the parents.
I snapped my fingers at O’Toole but he ignored me. “Jeanine, your bag,” I called to a pale and timid girl who watched in horror as O’Toole rooted in her backpack.
Travis’ lips twisted into a grin. “Yeah, right. As if I wanted to draw the Queen of Carnation.”
“Could someone please get the dog,” I called from across the room.
“I think it’s really unprofessional that Miss Artie brings that creature to class,” Mrs. Wagner said. She looked up from her novel but didn’t budge from her chair.
“It’s her school,” Mrs. Langley replied with a shrug, her amused eyes on O’Toole who was licking clean a Snicker’s candy wrapper.
“Not for long,” Mrs. Devon said.
“Really? I hadn’t heard that,” Mrs. Langley replied.
I hadn’t heard that either, but I didn’t have time to wonder about it right then because O’Toole gagged. I grabbed the Cocker by the collar and hauled him out the back door.
“Hey, what’s up?” Artie asked as she climbed from her Jeep.
“Chocolate,” I muttered, handing over the dog.
“Aw, the downfall of so many,” Artie said, taking a grip on O’Toole’s collar.
I rolled my eyes at her and hurried back into the class, silently agreeing with Mrs. Wagner’s assessment of professionalism and creatures.
I returned to class in time to watch Travis draw a city skyline. His buildings stood a little straighter than Savannah’s. He drew in strong, fast, even lines. “Hailey Clements is an old poop,” Travis said.
I scowled. Grammy wasn’t a poop. If Grammy were a bodily function, she’d be a recurring twitch, not a poop.
Travis compared his picture to Savannah’s and liked what he saw. “And I’m sick of listening you talk about her,” he said.
Me too.
“That’s very nice, Travis,” I said, stepping behind him and trying to discreetly angle his easel so that he couldn’t see Savannah’s work. “Where would you imagine the sun?”
Travis flashed a smile at Savannah and drew a circle in the in the corner of the page.
Savanna stamped both feet. The beads on her feet jingled reminded me of a parade pony. “Can’t you see he’s totally copying me?” Savannah wailed.
A small hush fell and I felt the stares of the students and parents resting on my back. When Savannah stamped her foot again, the jingling seemed much louder.
“That’s where my sun is!” Savannah’s eyes watered.
“Isn’t the sun in the sky the same for everyone?” Travis said, feigning wisdom beyond his years. He stepped away from his easel, considered his masterpiece and smiled. I wondered which he most enjoyed, creating art, getting attention, or teasing Savannah.
Before I could separate them, Savannah ripped Travis’ picture off his easel and put it next to hers for comparison. “See?” Her voice quivered indignantly.
The parents in the back of the room stopped talking. Mr. Everett stopped laughing. “He’s drawn everything just like me,” Savannah complained.
Travis assumed bull-charging stance, his hair seemed, if possible, to stand a little straighter. “Have not!” He lunged for his picture.
Savannah lifted the easel and pictures over her head. If someone didn’t do something Savannah would bean Travis, or Travis would tackle Savannah. Through the open door I heard the familiar sound of O’Toole vomiting.
Travis knocked me into Savannah and the three of us fell, taking two easels with us. My elbow crashed against a desk but I caught myself with one hand as Travis toppled on top of me. As I fell I lost my glasses, but I could still see a blurry robot just inches from my nose. My elbow stung and my eyes swam in dizzy pain.
For the first time, I considered Gram’s suggestion that I quit my job at the academy.
“Hailey Clements says there is never a need for violence,” Jessie said, a voice of reason not far above us.
Travis clambered off me. A strong hand pulled on my arm and set me on my feet, but I still couldn’t see.
“But Hailey Clements doesn’t know about Letriciana, Goddess of Reincarnation.” Mr. Everett slid my glasses onto my nose and my sight returned. I glanced around at the parents surrounding me. No longer hovering over their children, they shifted their maternal instincts to me. Their expressions varied from horror to worry to amusement. Well, only one looked amused.
Parents and students watched as I brushed off my pants and blinked away tears of pain and embarrassment. I waited for Mr. Everett to scold his daughter or for Travis’ mom to demand an apology, but all I heard was O’Toole’s continuous retching.
“She knows about everything,” Jessie said. She put down her pencil and gathered up her jacket. She refused to make eye-contact with Savannah’s father. Gram would love her jutting little chin and her righteous indignation.
Savannah’s father snorted and flashed his dimples at me. “No one knows everything,” he said to Jessie’s back. “Except for maybe the Queen of Reincarnation.”
A Haileyism came to mind. “Those people who think they know everything are especially annoying to those of us who do.” I wasn’t in the mood for Haileyisms.
The bell struck five, officially ending class. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Mothers and students gathered up folios, returned pencils, put on jackets, and called good-bye. I waved to them as they disappeared out the door.
But Savannah, Jesse, and Mr. Everett stayed behind. Mr. Everett considered Jessie’s portrait of a beak-nosed woman wearing horned rimmed glasses. “Is that your hero?”
I turned away, hugging my smarting elbow, before Jessie could give the answer I didn’t want to hear. “Hailey Clements is your hero?” Savannah’s father asked.
I collected pencils, determined not to listen.
“She’s my superhero,” Jessie said primly. “She saves people, and that’s what superheroes do.” Jessie shrugged into her jacket.
I put the pencils into the tin can pencil holders. Savannah’s father put his hand on Jessie’s shoulder. “She doesn’t save anyone. She’s just a nice elderly woman.” He cut a glance at me and his eyes twinkled with laughter. “Some even say that she doesn’t write the column and that it’s really written by a team of therapists.”
“That’s not true!” Concentrating on the pencils I had in my hands, I worked to make my voice calm and emotionally detached before making my defense. “Why would she need a team of therapists? She’s the sage of sticky social situations. She doesn’t pretend to replace MDs or psychologists.”
“Ah, but what is she pretending then?”
“She doesn’t pretend at all.” Which wasn’t exactly true. “She’s syndicated in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Bangkok.” That was true. I stood tall, tugged my smock into place and then, embarrassed, fussed over the art supplies. “And when all of the newspapers are collapsing, she’s one of the few columnists that have successfully transitioned onto the Internet. Her blog is the—”
“Do you think Hailey Clements is pretend?” Savannah interrupted my spiel.
I took deep breath, mortified I’d gotten so carried away. I reminded myself that farts and braggarts are equally popular.
“Of course not,” I told Savannah. “She’s a sweet woman who is trying…to make the world a better place.” I snapped an easel shut and pinched a finger. I yelped and put my wounded finger in my mouth.
“You think she’s a do-gooder?” Mr. Everett asked.
“She’s very successful and charitable.”
He leaned against the table and crossed his legs at the ankles. He looked ready to engage in conversation instead of looking ready to leave, as one should when class has been dismissed.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You don’t think she writes her column for the money…or for fame?”
Grammy Hailey, still beautiful and scrupulous, relished her role as the world’s answer to everything. TV talk shows, fundraiser luncheons, news interviews, Grammy Hailey loved the camera and spot light. I, on the other hand, valued anonymity. “Maybe all that fame is more difficult to live with than it might seem. Maybe it’s hard to be the world’s know it all.”
He snorted.
I carried the supplies to the closet and shut the door. “Seriously. I bet she finds it hard to have a normal, balanced life. She probably longs for a life where random strangers don’t know her face or ask her advice. Maybe she can’t hire a plumber, reserve a plane ticket, or get a mammogram without someone recognizing her.” Not everyone sought her advice, of course, but whenever I went anywhere with my Gram, I found the hushed whispers and long stares unbearable. She was once getting a Pap-smear, her feet in stirrups, bottom to the edge, when a troubled nurse-practitioner unburdened herself. Gram laughed when she told me, but I’d decided long before that to keep my life private. I put my finger back in my mouth because it still hurt, but also because I needed to stop talking.
“I understand,” he said, grinning as he made a guess. “I’d feel the same if my grandmother handed out platitudes and clichés.”
I pushed back my hair and turned to face him. “She’s not a cliché. It’s not a bad thing to offer advice without being overburdened with information.”
He sat a little straighter and then laughed long and hard. “You’re good! You sound just like her! You know I overheard you that day in the grocery store. I read Hailey’s Comments that day. And the next. That lemon line, the one I overheard you say, it didn’t come out until today.” He motioned toward his briefcase. “In fact, I brought in the paper to ask you about it.”
I put my hands on my hips and slipped into my Miss Emma no nonsense art instructor voice. “I really can’t comment on that.”
He laughed. “I get it. Hailey’s Comments—no comment.”
I gave him a weak smile. “You overheard me talking about lemons while standing in the produce section.”
“So you do remember.”
“Maybe it sounded like something Hailey would say, but I’m sure you just…” I faltered a moment, but then regrouped and gathered my wits. “I’m sure you either heard wrong or it was just a coincidence.” More lies. Sticky lies.
He studied me for a long, quiet moment then asked, “What were you talking about?”
“Lemons obviously.”
“Lemons aren’t that interesting.”
I shrugged and squirmed beneath his gaze. “I’m boring.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, this conversation is boring.”
“Yes, look at Savannah.” His daughter stood in front of the dry erase board, drawing flying goddesses. “I’m sure she wants to go home…as do I.”
He cocked his head but didn’t budge from the art table. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you.” The dying winter sun back lit his blond hair. “Or offend you.” He sounded sincere, but I knew I couldn’t trust him. Or anyone.
“Offense can’t be given if not received.” The words just popped out. I was spouting platitudes and clichés.
I wondered if I would enjoy his laughter if I didn’t feel it was directed at me.
“He’s taunting me,” I complained to Gram over dinner. “He’s following me around and spewing Haileyisms. I see and hear him where ever I go.” Even in my head.
Rain fell on the conservatory’s glass ceiling with a cacophony of tiny pings and streamed down the windows in rivulets. Inside, hundreds of plants and pillows tried to out-do each other in exotic colors. The weather had turned warm, despite the drizzle, and the conservatory felt stuffy and claustrophobic.
“You should bring him to dinner.”
I tried to imagine Mr. Everett among Gram’s Queen Anne furniture, imported lace, and china dolls and failed. Bull rampaging through a china shop came to mind. “He’s an oaf,” I said.
“Mmm, given your reaction probably a very handsome oaf indeed.” Gram tried to maintain eye contact, but I looked away. “Would it be so bad to take him in our confidence?”
I set down my glass and pushed away what remained of my chocolate soufflé.
She held her fork mid-air. “What’s the matter?”
I looked at her perfectly curled silver hair, her glowing seventy something skin, her flawless taste in clothes. For all her relationship rescue know-how, she lived alone.
“No one can know.” No one loves a liar, I squelched the thought before I said it aloud. Taking a deep breath, I continued, “There’s no getting around the fact that lying is one of the Ten Commandments. It’s wedged right in there between stealing and coveting.”
“Oh pooh!” Gram touched her napkin to her lips. “What’s wrong with you? You’re not lying. You’ve been ghost writing the column since you were a child. It’s never bothered you before.”
Which was true. The Hailey’s Comments column had been my primer, and now, many years later, humanity had no idea the motherly wisdom of Hailey’s Comments sprang from a twenty-eight-year old that had only lived life as a spectator, commentator and, briefly, as an unsuccessful illustrator. I rolled my eyes.
“Did you know that in Islamic law lying is punished by eighty lashes?” I said in a rush. “And, maybe even worse, their testimony will never again be accepted, which basically means that no one will ever believe or trust me again?” I pointed my fork at Gram’s face. “And that is certain death to the career of an advice columnist.”
But maybe the lashes and career loss would have been preferable to coming face-to-face with Savannah’s father in the grocery store, realizing that he overheard my stupid lemon remark, and watching comprehension and suppressed laughter light up his brown eyes.
“Harold knows.” Gram ignored my fork.
“Harold doesn’t count.” Harold, Gram’s attorney, was a golf playing, non-person. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he always managed to say something I didn’t want to hear. He blabbed boring legalities that no one, except possibly another dreary attorney, could ever argue. Not that he argued. “He’s not a gossip because he doesn’t talk. He probably drones “fore,” on the golf course. The only loud thing about him is his golf attire.”
Gram looked out the window with a small frown, momentarily distracted. She sighed. “Poor Harold, he’d really be so much more enjoyable if he wasn’t so heavily starched.”
I couldn’t imagine Harold being enjoyable in any stage of the laundry cycle.
Gram turned her attention back to me. “Are you ashamed, Cabbage?”
Her use of my nickname softened me. “Of course not,” I took a drink of the strawberry lemonade. It was too sweet, just like Gram. Sometimes she made my teeth hurt. Who served strawberry lemonade with chocolate soufflé? “But we agreed. You get the lime light and speaking engagements, and I write the column.”
“Why? You’re not shy,” she said, waving her fork at me. “You’ve always been plain spoken and sensible.”
I looked out the window and watched the rain trickle down the glass. Lights caught in the reflection and sparkled at me. It was a perfect evening for curling into bed with a book. Looking at my reflection made me feel cold. I didn’t want to be plain and sensible. “I just don’t want the attention.”
“Especially not from this man.”
I bit my lip as an indescribable something writhed in my belly.
“Someday?” Grammy prodded.
“He’s no Harold. I don’t think he knows anything about starch. He probably doesn’t even do his own laundry.” I used my finger to draw a line on the table cloth. “Did I tell you we workout at the same gym, and he doesn’t even recognize me?”
“Are you wearing those prescriptive goggle things and the black cap?”
I nodded and she looked pained. “You simply have to visit Cleo’s Closet. Ask for Chantal. She’ll make you over from your panties to your eyeliner. They have the sexiest little-”
“Grammy, just stop.”
She studied me as if she could see my plain and sensible white bra and cotton panties. “Do you even wear eye-make-up? Chantal could do wonders…” She shrugged in defeat and then said slowly, “Sweetie, the column is becoming acerbic, less witty. I know profundity is always difficult, and in fifty words or less it’s nearly impossible, but we must do something. I don’t want to have to edit! Let’s try again.” She turned to her iPad. “This one is from Lonely Lion in Portland. He says, “Do you believe in soul mates? Meeting new people has never been easy for me, but I hate always being alone. I feel like the whole world is going on without me. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I find myself waiting for love to strike.”
“Just the fact that he calls himself a lion would scare any woman away,” I mumbled.
Grammy frowned at me.
“What? You can’t tell me that if a lion walked in here right now you wouldn’t feel more than a little nervous. In fact, I bet you would scream.”
“Can you be serious?”
“I am. He called himself a lion. That means he has a pride, he’s seeking out territories and wants a bunch of mama cats. And don’t all the lionesses do all the work?”
 “You’re not helping.” She pressed her lips together in a straight, unhappy line. “You really need a trip to Cleo’s Closet.”
“Cleo’s Closet can’t solve problems.”
“So, you admit you have a problem.”
“I don’t have a problem!”
“Then why are you yelling?”
I inwardly groaned and returned to the soufflé with more gusto than it deserved.
Gram tapped her nose, something she did while she thought. After a moment she pointed the nose tapping finger at me and said, “I know, we’ll have a recipe contest! Just Desserts! That’s what we’ll call it—Just Desserts! I love desserts. We’ll hire bakers, get judges, run publicity, publish the entries and bind them into books. All the proceeds will go to that new outreach program I was telling you about.”
 I stared at her, the only real parent I’d ever known. Her sudden strokes of genius still amazed me. “I love it,” I said.
No one could quote, or kibitz a recipe.
But just six weeks later Just Desserts proved to be just a disaster. As I often did when stressed, I tried to run away. Or at least go running. My feet fell fast on the hard-packed dirt. A light sprinkle didn’t penetrate the canopy of trees overhanging the path, but occasionally, a fat collected drop of rain fell with a thud from a pine branch and hit me like a bomb.
Either the night had fallen earlier, or I’d run longer than usual. Dusk, always a prolonged affair in the Northwest summers, comes to the woods first. My shadow had longed disappeared by the time I rounded the corner toward my home. Music piped through my earbuds, drowning out the humming mosquitoes… and the approaching footsteps.
Mr. Everett sprinted past me then whirled to face me, jogging backwards. “What does your aunt—or is she your grandmother—think of your running alone in the woods?”
He looked handsome even with dots of sweat on his forehead. At least his shoes looked well used and his socks weren’t that tell-tale bright white so common to some-time runners. I thought about leaving my earbuds in and pretending not to hear him, but after a few moments, I pulled out the cords and tucked them into my pocket.
“She would tell me to stay away from strange men like you.” I glanced down at my own grayish socks, feeling significantly less attractive…than my socks. I fought the urge to adjust my pony tail and considered running harder and faster, but since he made my sprint look like a stroll, I didn’t bother. I could pretend to sprain my ankle, but looking at his friendly face, I decided that would probably only make him stay longer, and maybe even get closer.
He laughed and my lips twitched, even though I didn’t want them to.
“Do you think I’m strange, or a stranger?”
“You tell me.”
“Your grandmother has caused a cooking nightmare. Some are calling it the Twenty-First Century Food Fiasco, but I prefer the Black Forrest Cake Firestorm.”
“Who is the ominous they?” I asked, but I knew. It was all the media. “Who knew that Chocolate cake had such an enormous inciting potential?”
“Have you tried it?” he asked, interrupting my dark thoughts.
“Tried what?”
“The Black Forest cake.”
“Oh, no. I should have though.”
He gave me a funny look and I corrected myself. “I’d like to try it.” Thousands of angry readers had obviously tried it and disliked it.
“Poor—what’s her name?”
“Belinda Marx.”
He raised his eyebrow at me as if he’d caught me in my lie.
“Hey, just because I’ve heard of Belinda Marx and the Black Forest Fire Storm doesn’t mean I’m in cahoots with Hailey Clements.”
“Where does poor Belinda live?”
I shrugged and hoped it looked convincing. Sedro Woolley, a small, rural community.
“Some tiny town,” he continued.
I sighed. “I can’t believe that there are still actual, thriving communities where you can send a letter without a street address and it will still find the intended recipient.”
“Like Belinda Marx. I hear she’s threatening to sue.”
“It’s ridiculous,” I said with more venom than I should have.
“I saw Hailey Clements on the morning news. She didn’t look like she minded.” His tone softened and I saw concern overriding the curiosity. A part of me wanted to confide in him. In anyone, really, other than Gram.
Because Grammy Hailey didn’t mind, it was Harold who was murmuring and missing his tee-times.
High above us a branch cracked. Leaves and rain drops showered down, followed by an angry curse and a flailing of arms and legs.
I jumped away, smashing into Mr. Everett. He wrapped his arms around me and a tingle went down my back. I disentangled myself and moved behind him.
My neighbor crashed through the tree and landed inches from our feet. He writhed in pain, his corduroy-clad legs splayed in odd angles, his checked collared shirt covered in bracken. Leaves and twigs poked out of his sparse, ash blond hair.
He turned his bug eyes toward me and blinked away tears. “A Pied-billed Grebe,” he said through white lips.
To most people Ned wouldn’t have made any sense, but I understood perfectly. “That explains the clucking.”
“Are you hurt?” Mr. Everett asked as he bent down to retrieve Ned’s binoculars.
Ned responded by rolling back his eyes and passing out.
Mr. Everett didn’t mention the cake again, even though it took twelve minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive. He even stopped the niggling questions about Grammy Hailey. Instead, we talked about Savannah and the Art Academy.
I almost stopped hating him.

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