Sarah’s Bones

    I’m excited to have finally completed revisions to Sarah’s Bones and sent the manuscript off to an interested agent. As Laura’s story gets stronger and stronger I get more and more excited about it with every revision, every read, and every re-read.

   So I’m just as excited to invite you to take a few minutes and read the beginning pages below.

Is it her illness, cancer meds, or the early stages

of dementia that makes Kathleen believe she

has a baby girl named Sarah?

           Sarah’s Bones

            …the beginning


Laura stood on the sidewalk, her bags clustered at her feet. She watched the little blue and white cab depart down Cambridge Street quiet as a whisper, sun and shadow flickering over the torpedo shape of its body. Nothing about its departure felt real. Nothing about today felt real, not since the phone call early this morning.

“Laura Danson?”

Head fuzzy with sleep, Laura muttered a reply. She glanced at the empty pillow beside her and wondered where Kevin was this time. But she had missed something, the disembodied voice kept on, giving her name, who she was. Laura missed all that, what she heard was, “Your mother is ill, she’s asking for you.” A woman’s voice, she sounded young.

“No.” Laura pressed a hand to her forehead. “No I don’t think so. You must have the wrong number.”

The caller hesitated for the space of a breath. “Laura Danson?” She repeated, louder than before, her voice tinged with annoyance.

Laura sat up in bed, still dopey with sleep. This had to be a scam, a new take on the old your grandson is in trouble with the law one. Your elderly mother is in trouble. Driving without a license. Send money.

Laura swung her feet to the floor, now fully awake. “My mother never needed me in her life. What is it you want?”

“Look, I’m sorry, I have to go, I’m late for work. Your mother fell, I saw her lying on the front porch and helped her inside. She refuses to let me call an ambulance or her doctor, she only wants you.”

Laura was on her feet by then, heading for the bathroom, still unconvinced. “Where are you calling from?”

The woman sighed. “Your mother’s house, Cambridge Street, Victoria. I live nearby. But listen, I’m heading down the front stairs now. Your mom says nothing hurts and I left her resting in the den. I made her some coffee. I hope you have a key?”

A key. Her mother had never trusted her with a key and Laura hadn’t been home in three years, not since the day Mother slammed the door in her face.

“I do,” she said.

“Good then. Sorry, I’m at my car. I have to go now.”

So here she stood, feet sinking into the lush green grass of the boulevard, watching the cab disappear. Her mother needed her. That was the most unreal part of all. The cab had almost reached the corner. Laura stepped off the grass, off the curb. She stood on the road waving her arms. Come back! This was a mistake. She should not be here.

The cab’s brake lights stabbed on. If it stopped, if it returned, Laura would consider that a sign. She would grab her bags. Hop in. Never look back. But the cab didn’t stop. It’s left turn signal flashed, it rounded the corner, and was gone.

She dropped her arms. Stepped back up to the grass. Like it or not she was home. For the first time in three angry years she was home. She wondered which mother would greet her, the bitter angry woman who criticized everyone and Laura more than most? Or the happy, fun-loving mom who showed her face less and less often as the years rolled by? Laura couldn’t recall the last time Happy Mom put in an appearance. But hey, you never know, anything’s possible.

She picked up her large shoulder bag, bulging with last minute essentials, and slung the strap over her head so it couldn’t slip from her shoulder. She had always envied women with broad enough shoulders to hold a shoulder bag secure. Women like her mother. She pulled up the handle of her carry-on sized bag and, balancing the solid weight of it, slid the wide strap of the matching duffel over the raised handle, securing it on top of her carry-on.

She had yet to look at the house. But she could feel its presence, as if the house itself were watching her, daring her to approach, to step inside.

You should know better by now, Laura.

She started toward the house, tugging her luggage behind her through the grass. It bounced onto the sidewalk, its little wheels clicking across the cement, following Laura through the low wrought-iron gate into her mother’s front yard. Only with the gate firmly closed behind her as if to prevent her from running away, did Laura gather courage enough to look up at her childhood home.

Aside from a new and surprising air of shabbiness, a few wood shakes off-kilter, paint peeling around several of its windows, the early twentieth century family home had not changed since Laura was a child. Two stories high and almost as wide, dark brown shingled siding, black gabled roof, white trim, and a huge covered front porch ideal for lazy summer days. At the front edge of the porch, four white posts supported an overhang and were in turn supported by sturdy stone columns. Columns eight-year-old Laura and her best friend Sherrie used to leap from Mary Poppins style, convinced they could fly if they could only jump high enough, if they held their umbrellas exactly right.

Until Mother spotted them and put an end to that.

Laura paused at the bottom of the stairs to study the forest green front door. Or more precisely, the leaded-glass window in that door where Mother liked to lurk unseen, peering out, keeping tabs on her neighbors — and little girls having too much fun.

She watched for a telltale shadow, a flicker of movement. If Mother were watching she’d fling open the door and inform Laura that her bags were too heavy, she should make two trips. She should know better by now. And why did she bring so much stuff anyway? Was she planning to stay forever?

That was the best case scenario. The worst, the one Laura didn’t choose to consider, would be a door slammed in her face.

You should know better than to show up at my door unannounced, Laura. As you can see I’m perfectly fine and don’t need anyone telling me how to behave.

Laura slung the heavy duffel — more last minute essentials such as sandals, sneakers, hair conditioner, a couple of books, her laptop — over her neck criss-crossed with the shoulder bag. She picked up her carry-on by its side handle and started up the stairs. Her little act of defiance, she almost hoped Mother was watching. By the third stair her neck ached with the weight of the duffel. The carry-on grew heavier with every step. She couldn’t see them over her luggage but counted twelve stairs, same as always, numbers were the one thing in her life that never changed. Laura could always count on numbers.

She stepped onto the porch, heart beating, beating too hard in her chest, not so much from the effort of lugging three heavy bags up twelve stairs as from Fear of Mother. She bent to lower her carry-on bag to the porch, noting that the grey paint was thin and fading, worn down to bare wood in places. This added to the overall air of neglect and frightened Laura more than the phone call.

Mother had always been so meticulous, often ordering work done long before it was needed.

One must keep up appearances, Laura. What will the neighbors think?

Why do you care what the neighbors think when you consider them all to be morons?

The door creaked open. Laura stood up straight, still clutching her bag.

“Carrying a lazy man’s load are we?” her mother rasped. “Really Laura, you should know better at your age.”

Some mothers would be thrilled to welcome their only child home after an absence of three years. Some might even be grateful to a daughter who came home to help in her time of need. Her mother was not one of them. But on the plus side, she had yet to slam the door.

Laura sidled across the porch as if the bags were light as air. She smiled. “Not a problem, Mother. I’m stronger than I look.” Brushing past her mother, Laura stepped over the threshold into the old-fashioned foyer. Bigger than most people’s living rooms, the dark-paneled foyer contained one small mahogany table, a wall mirror, a brass umbrella stand and a large armoire with over-sized hooks for coats, a shelf above for hats, and a bench below for sitting on to remove wet shoes.

Nothing had changed but the smell, that unique smell every home held within its walls. Although Laura could still detect the sharp musk of her father’s tobacco smoke, the sweet fragrance of her mother’s lavender, scents that had permeated this house for as long as she could recall, something else had been added. Something new and indefinable. A little like sour milk but with an underlying hint of mustiness. The smell of old age?

Laura busied herself putting her bags down at the bottom of the staircase to the right of the door. Having done that she turned to her mother, wanting to give her a hug, fearing rejection. In any event her mother was engrossed in a fight with the front door. She pushed it to but it refused to close so she opened it again, pushed harder, crashing against the door frame. Laura watched, undecided whether to help or hope Mother would solve the problem on her own.

Watching her, Laura was struck by how old her mother looked, how much she had aged in three years. Her usually perfect hair needed cutting, it stood up awkwardly from her scalp as if she had slept on it that way and never bothered to comb it. Her shoulders were stooped, her legs bent at the knees. And her clothes hung loosely on her thin frame. Maybe the caller was right, maybe her mother really did need her.

Whether either of them liked it or not.

“There’s something wrong with the door, Laura.”

“Here, let me try.” Laura pried her mother’s gnarled fingers from the handle, thus releasing the lock. “It won’t close when you hold the handle down with your thumb, Mom.” She showed her mother how the bolt protruded.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Mother grumbled, shaking her head. She took a step away and stopped there, swaying as if she would fall.

Laura shut the door and hustled to grab her mother’s arm. “How about we go sit in the kitchen and I’ll make us some tea?”

“Tea!” Mother crinkled her face in disgust. “Wine is more like it at this time of day. And we’ll sit on the patio if you don’t mind.”

“And if I do?” Laura asked for no particular reason.

“What?” Mother looked up at her, confused.

“Nothing. Come on I’ll help you outside.” She slid her arm around her mother’s shoulders, surprised as much that her mother didn’t pull away as by how thin her shoulders felt beneath the bulky blue sweater she was wearing. When did Mother get so small? Her bones so frail? Her mother’s head barely reached Laura’s shoulder and yet Laura had always thought of her as a tall, strong woman. A woman with broad shoulders.

“I don’t need your help,” her mother muttered, shuffling down the hall, taking tiny steps, leaning heavily on Laura.

“Of course you don’t, Mom. But maybe I need yours.”

Mother nodded. This made perfect sense.

They were shuffling past the den when Laura noticed a walker stashed just inside the doorway. She shook her head, how like Mother to leave the walker hidden and make her way to the door on her own. Wouldn’t want the neighbors thinking she was old. Wouldn’t want Laura thinking she needed help.

“Hey look, Dad’s old walker,” Laura said. “We may as well use it. What do you think?”

Her mother didn’t object. Thanks to the ramp Mother had insisted on installing eight years ago when Laura’s father needed it, the two women were able to work their way to the backyard patio, ten steps down from the kitchen porch. With her free hand Laura brushed grit and dry leaves off a lounge chair that looked as if it hadn’t been used in months. She lowered her mother onto it. Made her comfortable. Feet up, head back, stretched out in a pool of late afternoon sun.

“Now Laura,” Mother said, counting on her fingers, “here’s what you need to bring. See that you don’t forget anything.”

“Yes, Mother.” She felt like twelve years old again.

*  *  *

Laura found red wine in the kitchen cupboard where it had always been kept. She picked up the three liter box and laughed out loud remembering Kevin’s face the first time Mom bought one of these wine boxes. She had been so proud of herself, pointing out that they were economical to buy and the wine kept much longer than in a bottle, which suited her just fine now that she lived alone. She poured a glass for Kevin and handed it to him.

He held it under his nose, not too close, pulled a face, and poured it down the sink. “You can’t expect me to drink this swill,” he said.

Angry Mom appeared in an instant. “I’ll thank you not to waste my good wine! You didn’t even taste it!”

“Trust me, I would never waste your good wine. And I don’t need to taste it.”

“You could have given it to your wife. She is not a snob.” Mother poured a second glass and handed it to Laura.

“I would never do that to her,” he said. “Laura has better taste.”

They both turned to Laura then, holding the glass, caught in the middle, her usual place.

“Well,” Mother demanded, “go ahead, taste it.”

“No more than a sip,” Kevin warned, “or you’ll be sorry.”

She looked from her husband to her mother to the wineglass in her hand, tempted to throw it at one of them. But which one? She raised it to her lips, sipped, held it on her tongue, swallowed. It tasted fine. Pour it into one of Kevin’s expensive bottles and she wouldn’t know the difference. To be honest she wasn’t convinced Kevin would either.

“Well?” Mother asked, her face hard.

Kevin reached to take it from her.

She stepped away, closer to Mother, trying to think what to say. Full-bodied. Dry. Fruity. “It’s fine,” she said.

“You’re unbelievable!” Kevin snorted. “Both of you!” He stomped from the room.

That was the last time Kevin visited Cambridge Street and neither Laura or her mother missed him.

Opening other cupboards, she found little else. A box of crackers, some rice and noodles in jars, a few tea bags, but for the most part the cupboards were bare. She arranged some crackers on a plate then pulled open the refrigerator to look for cheese.

The smell caught in her throat, like something long dead. She found a half eaten casserole with white fuzz growing on it, a limp carrot, broccoli that had sprouted yellow flowers, something unrecognizable in the meat bin. Nothing else. No juice, no milk, no fruit. She would need to go shopping or order dinner in tonight. She pushed the door closed.

Oh, but wait. Was there something on the door? She pulled it open again, this time holding her breath.  Tucked in a bin on the fridge door was an unopened block of cheddar cheese. A size no one person could ever eat before mould set in. She grabbed the cheese, shut the door, and breathed again.

As instructed, she poured wine into Mom’s favorite decanter and placed it on a tray along with two long-stemmed glasses and a small plate of crackers and cheese. At the last minute she remembered the white cloth napkins, or serviettes as her mother insisted on calling them.

Outside, she leaned over her mother, fingers curled around the neck of the crystal wine decanter — much too fancy for a backyard patio in her opinion, not that she would dare say so. Cradling its round coolness in her left hand, she balanced the decanter as best she could to aim at a wineglass that shook like mixing a James Bond martini. Her mother gaped as if the glass, the hand clutching it, were beyond her control. She moved her left palm to support her right wrist and pressed both elbows tight against her ribs. Held her breath. The pink tip of her tongue peeked through the corner of her mouth.

Crimson liquid slithered along the decanter’s narrow neck, oozed through its gaping throat, slid over the plump curve of its round lip, and braided sunlit into Mother’s quivering glass.

“Sarah’s here, you know that don’t you?”

Startled, Laura glanced up. What on earth was she talking about? But her mother’s hooded eyes were focused on the glass, the wine swirling into it. Was she unaware she had spoken aloud? Hoping Laura didn’t hear?

“Sarah who?”

“Oh for Heaven’s sakes, Laura!”

They both watched deep red liquid hit the outside of Mother’s wineglass, paint a delicately etched rose, and pool like fresh blood in the hollow between her thumb and forefinger.

Laura righted the decanter, stopped the spillage. “I’m so sorry, Mom. You caught me off guard.”

Intense blue, disapproving eyes glared at Laura as if she had purposely spilled the wine, as if Mother hadn’t startled her into glancing up. It struck Laura then that the color of her mother’s eyes was the only thing that hadn’t changed over the years.

“Getting a trifle clumsy, are we Laura?”

Correction. Two things had never changed. The startling blue of her mother’s eyes and her unwavering disapproval of her only child. “You surprised me, Mom. I didn’t know anyone else was here.” She glanced around. At empty flower pots that once were bursting with color, at a beloved rose garden in need of attention. “So, where is this Sarah person?”

“Don’t be silly, Laura, you know she’s sleeping. I’m afraid our little girl has been a trifle tired of late.”

Trifle. The word of the week. A trifle clumsy. A trifle tired. A trifle confused? For as long as Laura could remember her mother had picked new words, used and overused them for a few days, a week, then moved on to something new.

“So, Mom, is there something you’re not telling me? Should I be knitting baby clothes?”

Mother stared up at Laura as if she had lost her mind. She turned away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”