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A Change in Altitude
By CINDY MYERS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Cynthia Myers
All rights reserved.
"Mo-oooom!" The cry rose and fell with the intensity and pitch of a siren's wail, and Sharon Franklin felt the same flood of adrenaline and worry that had once been her response to her infant's wail.
Only now the infant was thirteen years old and glaring at her with the disdain only a teenager can muster.
"What's wrong now?" Sharon asked, her hands tightening on the steering wheel of the Honda Civic. She'd been behind the wheel so long she feared her fingers would remain permanently bent, as if she were always trying to hang on to something that wasn't there.
"You can't be serious about staying here." Alina, bangs she'd been growing out falling forward to half-cover one eye, glowered out the side window of the car at a row of false-fronted buildings on a dirt side street. "If you were so set on living in East Podunk, we could have stayed in Vermont."
We could have stayed in Vermont with Dad and Adan, Sharon completed the thought, and her eyes burned with tears she refused to let fall. "You know we couldn't stay in Vermont," she said softly.
Alina glared at her but said nothing. Sharon turned the car down the side street and slowly rolled past a coin laundry, a hardware store, and a place that advertised hunting licenses, firearms, and fishing tackle. A skinny old man in canvas trousers and a brown plaid shirt emerged from the hardware store and openly stared as Sharon eased the car down the street. A shiver rippled up her spine as she felt his eyes on her. Maybe she'd made a mistake coming here. Maybe she and Alina would have been better off in the city. San Francisco, maybe. Or Dallas ...
"Where are we going?" Alina asked.
"I'm just getting a feel for the layout of the town." She turned left, onto another unpaved street, past a park and a trim white house with lilac bushes flanking the front door and a sign that indicated the library.
"We should go in the library and ask about Uncle Jay," Alina said.
Sharon slowed the car and considered the idea. "My brother was never much of a reader," she said.
"Yeah, but librarians know things. I'll bet the librarian knows everybody in a small town like this. And they might have telephone books and stuff."
"You're right. That's a good idea." She stifled a sigh. Was she ready for this? Not just yet. "Let's eat first. I think better on a full stomach." The coffee and stale muffin she'd had at the motel this morning were a distant memory. And she could use another hour or two to gather her failing courage. When she'd set out on this journey, it had seemed like such a good idea—the strong, right thing to do for her and her daughter.
She wasn't feeling very strong right now. She wanted someone else to tell her what she should do.
"Do you think they'll have anything I can eat?" Alina wrinkled her nose. She'd become a vegetarian last year—a perfectly reasonable choice, Sharon thought, but her father and brother had given her nothing but grief about it. She had struggled all the way across the Midwest, eating mostly salads, French fries, and baked potatoes.
"I'm sure they'll have something," Sharon said.
"Where is there to eat in this town anyway?" Alina looked around. "Uh-oh."
"What?" Sharon followed her daughter's gaze to the black and white sheriff's department cruiser that had pulled in behind her. The officer switched on his rotating overhead lights and she groaned, a surge of adrenaline flooding her with a rush of nausea and dizziness. Was he going to give her a ticket for idling her car in the middle of the otherwise deserted street?
She watched in the side mirror as he approached the car. He was young with short blond hair and dark sunglasses. His brown shirt and pants fit closely to a trim body. She rolled down her window and managed a weak smile. "Hello," she said.
"Hello, ma'am." He touched two fingers to the brim of his Stetson, a salute that was almost courtly. "I saw you stopped here in the street and thought you might need some help. Are you lost or having car trouble?"
"Oh, no. I'm sorry, I was just trying to get my bearings." Her smile was more genuine now. "I just got to town."
"Welcome to Eureka. I'm Sergeant Josh Miller, with the Eureka County Sheriff's Department." He offered his hand and she took it for a brief, firm squeeze.
"I'm Sharon Franklin. And this is my daughter, Alina."
"Hi," Alina said. "We're looking for my uncle, Jay Clarkson. Do you know him?"
Sergeant Miller rubbed his jaw. He had big hands, with short, square fingers. "The name doesn't ring a bell. But then, I've only been in town a month myself, so I don't know a lot of people yet."
That was good news anyway, Sharon thought. There was a time when Jay would have been on a first-name basis with most law enforcement in their town. And not in a good way.
"It's nice to meet another newcomer," she said. "We're thinking of relocating here."
"Where are you from?"
"I've never been there, but I hear it's pretty. Different mountains, though."
Different was exactly what she wanted. "The Green Mountains are less rocky and, well, greener. But this looks pretty."
"It's a good place to live." He had a kind smile, though she couldn't read his eyes behind his sunglasses. She could use a little kindness, so she chose to believe the emotion was genuine.
"Is there anything else I can help you with?" he asked.
"Is there any place to eat that would have vegetarian food?" Alina asked.
"The Last Dollar Cafe has pretty much any kind of food you like," he said. "And it's all good." He pointed ahead. "Just go to the corner here and turn left."
"Thank you. It was nice meeting you."
"Same here." He took out a card case. "Here's my card. If you need anything that's not an emergency, you can reach me on that number. "
He hesitated and her heart pounded. For a fleeting moment, she was afraid he might ask for her number. She'd heard about western towns where the men so outnumbered the women that any single female was immediately popular. The last thing she wanted in her life right now was romance.
"I guess I'll see you around," he said. He tipped his cap again and walked back to his cruiser.
Relieved, Sharon rolled up the window, put the car in gear, and carefully pulled away. "He was nice," Alina said.
"He was nice looking." More importantly, he'd been a friendly—but not too friendly—face in a place that was foreign to her, the first to welcome her to what she hoped would be her new life. She pulled the car into a space in front of the Last Dollar Cafe. Was the name a sign? She wasn't down to her own last dollar yet, but it wouldn't be long. "This looks good, huh?" The cedar-sided building had green shutters, leafy shrubs across the front, and planters full of flowers on either side of the door.
"Let me get my camera." Alina pulled this most treasured possession—a fancy, multiple-lens digital camera—from its case on the floorboard at her feet and slung the strap around her neck. "I might see something good to photograph."
Inside, the café was an attractive, homey place, with tables covered with red-checked cloths and booths with red vinyl benches. A colorful mural filled the back wall, and the other walls were filled with antiques—old skis, skates, and kitchen utensils. A hand-cranked coffee grinder caught Sharon's eye; she'd had one like it back home.
A pretty dark haired young woman greeted them. "Hello. Y'all can sit anywhere you like."
They chose a booth against the wall. The young woman brought silverware wrapped in paper napkins and two glasses of water. "The menu is on the wall." She indicated a large chalkboard covered in writing in colored chalk.
"Do you have a veggie burger?" Alina asked, her expression guarded.
"We have a great veggie burger," the young woman said.
"And killer sweet-potato fries or onion rings. Or I can get you a salad."
Alina made a face. "I've had enough lettuce to last me a lifetime. But the veggie burger sounds good. And sweet-potato fries."
"I'll have the same," Sharon said. "And iced tea."
"I'll have a Coke," Alina said.
"Sounds good." The young woman left and Sharon sagged back against the booth and closed her eyes.
"Are you okay, Mom?"
Sharon's eyes snapped open and she pasted on a confident smile. "I'm fine. Just tired of driving." That was true; they'd been in the car most of four days now. But she was also worn out with worrying—not just about this trip across the country to find a brother she hadn't seen in years, but all the worrying of all the months before that leading up to the decision to leave and come west.
A few moments later a tall blonde brought their drinks. "What brings you two to Eureka?" she asked.
Sharon opened her mouth to say they were just visiting, but Alina answered first. "We're here to visit my uncle. We're thinking about staying, though. If Mom can find a job. Is it nice here?"
"It's pretty nice," the young woman said. "Danielle and I—that's the dark haired woman who waited on you—we weren't sure what to think when we first came here a few years ago. We'd never lived in such a small town. But it feels like home now. I'm Janelle, by the way."
"I'm Alina." Alina offered her hand. Amazing what the promise of a veggie burger could do for a sullen teen. "This is my mom, Sharon."
Sharon took the offered hand and smiled weakly. "Hello."
"Who's your uncle?" Janelle asked.
"Jay Clarkson," Alina said. "Do you know him?" Janelle looked thoughtful. "The name doesn't ring a bell.
Danielle!" She called over her shoulder. "Do we know a Jay Clarkson?"
"I don't think so."
"Anybody else know that name?" Janelle addressed the half dozen other patrons in the restaurant.
After some murmuring and brief discussion, it was decided that no one knew of a Jay Clarkson.
Sharon felt hollow. Defeated. Had she driven all the way across the country on a fool's errand?
"We thought about asking at the library," Alina said. "But Mom says Uncle Jay isn't much of a reader."
"Well, I hope you find him. And enjoy your stay in Eureka, however long it ends up being. It's kind of quiet now, but things really pick up come summer."
"Is there a motel in town?" Sharon asked. She'd planned on asking Jay if they could stay with him, but if he wasn't here ... She was suddenly so exhausted that the thought of getting in the car and driving to the next town was almost enough to make her burst into tears.
"There is. The Eureka Hotel, up by the highway. It's not fancy, but it's clean. We've got a bed-and-breakfast opening this summer, but it's not ready yet."
"The hotel is fine. I'll check it out." She hoped the rooms were cheap. The wad of cash she'd stuffed in her suitcase before she left was getting alarmingly thin. She'd have to find a job soon. She'd counted on Jay to help with that; living here, he'd know who would hire her, where she and Alina could live.... But if he wasn't here ... She fought back the sick, panicked feeling that had threatened to overwhelm her whenever she allowed herself to think of her and her daughter alone. Really alone—something she had never been in her life.
Danielle brought their food, and the aroma of burgers and fries revived Sharon some. She told herself she'd feel better when she'd eaten. She would find Jay, and he would help them. End of story.
"Oh, this is so good," Alina said after a few minutes, pausing to sit back. She took a sip of Coke. "Maybe this place isn't so bad after all. I like Janelle and Danielle."
Sharon nodded. "I was really hoping someone would know where to find Jay."
"When was the last time you heard from him?" Alina asked.
"I talked to him on the phone right before we moved last time."
Alina's eyes widened. "You haven't heard from him in five years?"
"Your father thought it was best to keep to ourselves." Joe had been big on self-sufficiency. That, and his increasing paranoia, had led him to sever relationships with their families and most of their friends.
Alina took a long drink of her soda, then dragged a sweetpotato fry through a pool of ranch dressing on her plate. "He listened to Wilson too much," she said. "Wilson was paranoid that the government was opening all our mail. But Dad isn't that stupid."
Sharon said nothing. Joe wasn't stupid, but he had his own share of paranoia, grown worse since they'd moved next door to his best friend—pretty much his only friend now—Wilson Anderson, a man who trusted no one.
She turned her head to study the mural on the back wall of the café. A miner and his mule stood against a backdrop of majestic peaks, while a stern-faced pioneer woman did laundry in front of a log cabin. On the other end of the painting, a breechcloth-clad Native American crouched beside a stream, watching a rainbow trout.
Janelle stopped by to refill Sharon's iced tea. "Can I take a picture of your mural?" Alina asked.
"Sure. A local artist, Olivia Theriot, painted that for us a few months ago," she said. "She works part time at the bar next door, the Dirty Sally, but she has T-shirts and jewelry and stuff in a shop up on the square."
"Cool," Alina said.
"Maybe you ought to stop in the Dirty Sally and ask about your relative," Janelle said. "If he's not the library type, maybe he's the bar type."
"Definitely the bar type," Sharon said. At least when she'd last seen him, her brother had been a hard-drinking, motorcycle-riding, authority-defying rebel. Maybe he was in jail somewhere.
Janelle moved away. Alina slid out of the booth and went to take pictures of the mural. Sharon stared out the window beside the booth, which looked out onto a neat backyard, complete with a chicken coop and bare raised garden beds.
"Are we going to ask about Jay at the bar?" Alina asked when she returned.
"I don't know." Sharon pushed her almost-empty plate away. "Maybe he isn't here anymore."
"We can't come all this way without at least asking." A whine crept into Alina's voice. "I'm tired of riding. Let's stay here for a day or two, check things out. At least we'll eat good." She nodded to the chalkboard menu. "They have vegetarian lasagna, vegetable soup, stir-fry with the option of tofu instead of chicken, and macaroni and cheese."
Sharon suppressed a smile. Apparently, the way to her daughter's heart was through her stomach. "We'll stay a couple of days," she said. "And we'll keep looking for Jay."
After all, she was running out of options. She needed to find someplace to settle, in case Joe decided to make good on his threats to come after her.
"Have you seen my key chain?" Olivia Theriot asked, as she combed through the box of miscellaneous junk that had collected beneath the cash register at the Dirty Sally Saloon. "It's a real aspen leaf, encased in resin. D. J. gave it to me."
"Are your keys still attached to it?" Fellow bartender Jameso Clark looked up from the draft beer he was drawing.
"No, I have the keys. But I noticed last night the leaf was missing. I was hoping it had fallen off here and someone had found it."
"I haven't seen it." Jameso finished filling the glass and set the beer in front of Bob Prescott, who sat at the bar eating a bacon cheeseburger.
"Maybe you lost it at the house," Bob said.
"Maybe so, but I looked there." Olivia made a face. "I'm losing everything these days—my favorite pair of earrings, pens, and now my keychain. I think I'm just stressed out with the remodeling and everything."
"How's that coming?" Jameso asked.
"Slow." She and her boyfriend, D. J. Gruber, had bought the old miner's house in a foreclosure sale last month. They'd gotten a sweet deal, but now they spent every spare moment trying to make the place livable. "I can't wait until we can move in together. Maybe then I'll stop misplacing things." D. J.'s rental house was too small for the two of them and her teenage son, Lucas, so she lived with her mother, Eureka mayor Lucille Theriot. Besides, getting their own place and fixing it up together was symbolic of her and D. J. starting over. She was a big believer in symbols. D. J. said that was the artist in her. Lucas just said she was weird.
"Maybe you have a pack rat," Bob said.
"We do not have rats!" She shuddered. Mice were bad enough, but rats were enough to give her nightmares.
Excerpted from A Change in Altitude by CINDY MYERS. Copyright © 2014 Cynthia Myers. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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