The countdown has begun. My new novel Far from the World We Know will be out in one short week (on Friday 15 April). Here’s a sneak peek at the first 2 chapters. Enjoy!
Far from the World We Know
© Harper Bliss
I’ve left the past behind, I think, as I flatten the last cardboard box. This one held the few books I brought. I stacked them next to Aunt Milly’s on the built-in shelves in her living room—my living room. It’ll take some time before I can think of this house as mine, especially because it’s not—not legally anyway. Aunt Milly’s name is on the deed and she’s still very much alive, though not so much kicking anymore.
Sweet Aunt Milly, who understood, without me having to say a word, that I needed to leave Chicago, if not for good, then at least for a long time. She’s the only person I know in Nelson, Texas. Speaking of which, it’s almost time for my daily visit to Aunt Milly at Windsor Oaks, the retirement home she now resides in. I offered—basically insisted—for her to stay in her house. It’s surely big enough for the two of us, and I work from home, so I could have taken care of her every need, but she wouldn’t have any of it.
“It’s time for me to leave as well,” she’d said, and, in turn, I had understood her meaning in those few words.
I put the flattened box in the garage with the rest and go in search of my running shoes. Windsor Oaks is in the center of town, about two miles from where I live. Running back and forth doesn’t come close to the distances I used to run along Lake Michigan, but it’ll do for now. I find myself exhausted after four miles these days. “This could be a result of the severe trauma you suffered,” the last doctor I visited in Chicago said. He must have been right. And then, out of nowhere, there are the flashes in my mind again. The ones I’m so powerless against. Blood pooling on the living room carpet and the sound of bone breaking, over and over again. I shake my head and refocus on tying my laces. Running is the only thing that makes that distorted movie in my brain stop.
* * *
“Are you taking care of my spider plant?” Aunt Milly asks, as she does every single day.
In response, I show her a picture I’ve taken this morning on my phone.
“How do I know you’re not showing me the same picture every day?” she asks with a grin.
“You know because I’m your favorite niece and I wouldn’t deceive you like that.”
“I have no choice but to believe you, but my favorite niece you are.” Her face goes blank for an instant. Every time it does, I can’t help but wonder whether she’s thinking about what I’m thinking about. About the events I asked her not to speak of anymore. That doesn’t mean every single second of it doesn’t still occupy my mind.
“How was your run?” she asks. “It must be getting hot out there.” The temperature in Aunt Milly’s room is always exactly the same, no matter the conditions outside, and warm enough for the sweat to keep pearling on my forehead. “This is nothing,” Aunt Milly says, then falls silent again.
I wish, for her sake, that I was the kind of person who could make endless chitchat, but that’s not me. So we often sink into a companionable silence for minutes on end, me racking my brain for a tidbit of safe information I haven’t shared with Aunt Milly yet, and, judging by how her eyelids sometimes droop, my aunt dozing off in her chair. As long as she knows she’s not alone, I think, as I always do when I fail to come up with more words.
“Any exciting plans this weekend?” she asks, as her eyelids flutter.
“Tending to your garden.” Although garden is a big word for the patch of overgrown grass and weeds at the back of the house. After she broke her hip last year, Aunt Milly wasn’t able to take care of it anymore.
“It’s your garden now, dear.” By the time she gets to the word dear her voice has lost its oomph and I can tell she’s getting tired. She takes a few seconds to catch her breath. “Why don’t you go to Sam’s Bar on Saturday? It’s not good for you to be on your own all the time.” This last statement seems to have zapped the last conversational energy from her body.
“I’m not though, am I?” I give her a kind smile. “I have you.”
She just nods.
“I’ll let you rest now.” I push myself out of my chair.
“That’s okay, dear. Just stay a little while longer.” Aunt Milly closes her eyes.
I sink back into the chair and wait until I hear her breath steady itself and she breaks into a gentle snore. Every day I come here, we perform a different variation of this conversation, and every time, when we reach this bit—contemplative for me, drowsy for her—I think exactly the same thing: being alone is good and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
* * *
After I return home and take a quick shower, I stand in front of the fridge and realize it’s empty. I quickly push back the memory of how a not properly stocked refrigerator made Tracy feel. I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve become so lax about grocery shopping simply because I can now, then head to the supermarket. Nelson only has one and, when I first arrived, I was amazed by how spotless and brand new it looked. It’s not massive, but the aisles are wide and I never feel rushed when I push my cart through them and examine what’s on offer.
I don’t get out much—Aunt Milly is surely correct about that—so when I do, I like to take my time. I wasn’t born a hermit. And a daily run works for me now, but I know its magic will cease to be enough soon. So I make a point of nodding at everyone I encounter, sometimes even throwing in a smile. I’m not out to make friends just yet, but having a chat with someone closer to my age range wouldn’t be a bad thing, I guess. I’m just afraid of what might slip out if I let my guard down even a little.
I scan the vegetable aisle, pondering what to make for dinner, when another shopping cart crashes into mine.
“Oh, I’m so very sorry,” a woman says, but she doesn’t pull her cart back. “I was rushing again, as usual.”
“Never mind.” I give her a smile so as to reassure her that it’s really no big deal.
The woman stares intently at me for a second too long. “You’re new in town, aren’t you?” she asks. “I’ve seen you run along Main Street. I have my office there.” She paints a big smile on her face and extends a hand. “I’m Tess Douglas, managing editor of The Nelson Ledger, which basically means I do everything.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Laura.” I barely touch my palm to hers. “And yes, I am new.”
Tess flicks a strand of hair away from her shoulders and looks at me again. “Welcome to Nelson,” she says. “Are you here to stay? Where did you move from?”
“From Chicago. And I—I might be.” I start pulling my cart out of the way, anxious to get back to my shopping and not prolong this conversation.
“Do you work here?” Tess quirks up her eyebrows. She really wants to know everything.
“I’m a freelance graphic designer, so I can work pretty much anywhere.”
“Oh!” She clasps a hand over her mouth. “You might just be what I’ve been looking for, Laura,” she exclaims, her voice going all high-pitched.
I should be amused by this comment, but it terrifies me instead. What does this woman want from me? I pull my cart a bit farther away from her to indicate that I want to move on.
“TNL—The Nelson Ledger—has been ready for a makeover since I started working for it in 2006… Well, actually, come to think of it, long before that, but I digress. I finally scraped a budget together and I’m ready to start talking about it to people like you.”
“I’m very sorry, Tess,” I say with a firm voice. “I’m currently not looking for new clients.”
Tess’s posture deflates a little. Then she inhales, and it’s as though the oxygen she sucks in instantly replenishes her bravado. “Maybe you can recommend someone then?”
This woman really will not let up. “Maybe,” I mutter.
She reaches into her purse and gets out a business card. “Here. Call or email me if you think of someone… or when you do have time for new clients.” She follows up with a wide smile, baring a row of ultra-white teeth.
“Sure.” I take the card and, without looking at it, drop it into the side pocket of my jacket. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Yes,” Tess, who suddenly seems a bit flustered, says. “Take care now.” With that, she spins her cart around and heads into the opposite direction.
Full on much, I think, as I follow her with my gaze. She’s tall and her full hips sway a little as she walks. Her blond hair comes to well below her shoulders and… her stare unsettled me a little. Perhaps I could have been more polite, but she made me feel so cornered, what with her cart blocking mine—though I could have just turned around.
I refocus my attention on the vegetables to steady myself. I think I’ll have sweet potatoes with my dinner tonight.
“Average height, short dark hair, unfeminine clothes?” Megan asks.
I nod, recalling Laura’s jeans and leather jacket. It looked and smelled brand new.
“I’ve seen her around. I think she’s living in Millicent Johnson’s house,” Megan says.
I shake my head then roll my eyes. “In true Tess Douglas fashion, I put my foot in it again. I came on so strong, she practically ran away from me.”
“But your gaydar pinged?” my sister asks.
“Not just pinged, Megs; it shrieked. Loudly.”
“And you gave her your card?” Megan keeps repeating everything I said.
Megan’s husband, Scott, walks into the den. “What are you gals talking about?”
“Nothing that concerns you, hon,” Megan says. “Girl talk.”
“All right, all right, I’ll make myself scarce then. Jesus.” He mock-sighs, gives Megan a quick kiss on the top of the head, and walks into the hallway. “I have a game to watch, anyway,” he shouts from around the corner. “I don’t have time for your girl talk.”
Megan chuckles. “That man.”
“He’s a good one, Megs,” I say.
“Don’t I know it.” Megan leans against her chair, as if she’s pondering all the excellent qualities of her husband and the father of their three children, who are currently at our parents’ ranch. Which is also still my home. “But back to you, sis. Judging by the enthusiasm you walked in here with, I gather you’d like to see the mysterious Laura again.”
“I would. It’s not every day I bump into a fellow lesbian in this town.”
“Well, there are Myriam and Isabella,” Megan offers, palms wide.
“A fellow lesbian who might be single,” I say, though I have no idea whether Laura is single.
“And pleasing to the eye?” Megan asks.
“Extremely,” I concur, remembering Laura’s blue eyes, smooth, pale skin, and high cheekbones.
“Maybe you should invent a new feature for The Ledger in which you interview all new arrivals in Nelson,” Megan says.
“That’s actually not a bad idea.” Hope flares in my stomach. The very reason I’m discussing this with Megan is because I know she can reach the same levels of excitement as I can, and just as easily.
“That was just a joke.” Megan cocks her head. “It would be a bit too obvious.”
“Oh, and asking her off the bat to redo The Ledger’s layout isn’t?”
“Well, yes, of course that was too obvious. When will you learn to control yourself, girl?”
“Heck if I know. I’m thirty-nine years old. I’m not going to change overnight, if ever, am I?”
Megan sighs, then smiles. “Christ, I’m happy I no longer have to go through this.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you.”
“I’m just saying… Do you remember how I got my Douglas claws into Scott? I’m the same as you. If it’s meant to be, she won’t have been put off by your forward ways. You’ll get another chance. Make sure you’re ready for it.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” She didn’t even give me her last name, I suddenly think. I can’t even google her. Would Laura have googled me? Would she, at least, have visited the website of The Nelson Ledger? Or will she just have buried my business card somewhere—or thrown it in the trash, thinking that she doesn’t want anything to do with that mad woman she met at the store?
“Take a few deep breaths and keep your cool,” Megan says.
“Worst advice ever.” I slap my palms onto the table.
“You could go and see her, I guess.” Megan shrugs. “It worked for me and Scott.”
“Go knock on her door, you mean?” I ask incredulously.
“Why not? What have you got to lose? This could be your soulmate, Tessie.” Megan adopts a serious TV newscaster voice. “One cannot play around with these things.”
“You’re sure she lives in Millicent Johnson’s house?” I ask.
“I’m a soccer mom, which means I know everything that goes on in this town,” Megan says, her voice devoid of irony. “Between you running The Ledger and me spending half the day listening to gossip, the Douglas twins have got Nelson’s secrets pretty much covered.”
“Apart from Laura’s last name and why she would move to this one-horse town,” I muse.
“She must be a relative of Millicent’s. As far as I know, that house was never on the market.”
“Hm, that does make sense. Millicent moved into Windsor Oaks a few weeks ago.” The pieces are starting to come together in my mind.
“Maybe she moved here to help out her aging relative. That would be very noble of her,” Megan says.
“There must be a reason.” I’m not a journalist as such, but I’ve always had a good nose for smelling stories—a necessity when trying to come up with news about a town with a population of less than a thousand.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions though,” Megan insists.
“I’m intrigued.” I look into Megan’s eyes, which are exactly the same color as my own.
“Here’s what you do.” My sister is using her serious voice again. “Give it a few days and if you don’t hear from her, go to her house. You run The Ledger, you can think of an excuse. Tell her you’re hunting for a story. Ask her if she’d be interested in introducing herself to the town. Something like that.”
“I’ll be sure to give that some thought,” I say. Then Scott walks in with his mobile phone in his hand.
“Honey, could you tell me why your mother is calling my phone to ask when we’ll be there for dinner?”
“Simple, hon,” Megan replies. “I’m talking to my sister and I don’t like to be interrupted when I do. I’ve put my phone on silent.”
“Tsss,” Scott hisses and hands Megan the phone.
* * *
Toby, Max, and little Emma all come running toward me as though they haven’t seen me in a month when I pull in to the driveway of the ranch. I quickly get out of the car and hug Emma. The boys are just excited about my arrival, not so much about me actually being there.
“Auntie Tess, I made you a cake,” Emma says. “Apple and vanilla.”
Before I get the chance to reply, Max, now five and the middle child, says, “It’s not real, Auntie Tess. She made it in her plastic oven.”
“It is,” Emma shrieks.
“I’m sure it will be wonderful, honey,” I say, and hold her a little closer. Toby has already wandered off toward the shed. Scott and Megan arrive and park their car behind mine and, as soon as she gets a whiff of her mom being around, Emma shakes herself free from my hug, and rushes toward Megan.
Fifteen minutes later, we sit down to dinner, which is never a quiet affair with three children at the table. Scott occupies himself with feeding Emma, who’s only just turned three, while Megan fusses over the boys.
“How much did grandpa spoil you this afternoon?” she asks Max.
“I do no such thing,” our dad says, though we all know it’s a lie. He’s always sneaking the boys candy when no one’s looking, against Megan’s explicit request to stop. “And when I do give them something, I make them work for it first. Toby helped me feed the cattle today. He’s going to grow up one fine rancher.” Dad holds up his hand for Toby to slap a high-five against.
“So will I,” Max interjects.
“You will become the star quarterback of the high school football team,” Scott says. “You’d better start practicing.”
Max sits there beaming, in awe of his dad, the football coach, though he’s only been playing soccer so far.
“What will I become?” Emma asks with a small voice.
“Anything you want, my little angel,” Mom says. “But as far as I’m concerned, you’d make an excellent President of the United States.” It’s the exact same thing she used to say to Megan and me when we were little. However after college, which we attended together, both my sister and I couldn’t wait to get back to this town everyone always wants to get out of.
We could never stand to be away from Earl and Maura Douglas for too long. Megan even lured Scott here to take a non-prestigious job coaching high school. She never dreamed of starting her family anywhere else but here. And me… I gladly took the opportunity to move back into my old bedroom. I tried moving out once, years ago, to live with a woman in Houston, but not only could I not get used to city life, the relationship didn’t exactly meet my expectations either.
So, here I am, still living with my parents on the cusp of 40. I’m not unhappy, but, somewhere deep inside, I do feel a clock ticking. Not a biological one—I’m more than content being an aunt to the three rascals sitting across from me. But I’m so ready for true love, I can practically feel the desire for it pulse in my veins. It’s in my breath when I inhale and on the back of my eyelids when I close my eyes at night. That’s why, every time I meet an attractive woman I even remotely suspect of being a lesbian, my heart does a crazy pitter-patter. And that’s how I know I will go knocking on Laura’s door one of these days.
<<End of preview>>
Far from the World We Know will be available on Friday 15 April 2016