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The Muir House
By Mary E. DeMuth
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Mary E. DeMuth
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeattle, March 2009
In that hesitation between sleep and waking, that delicious longing for dawn to overwhelm darkness, Willa Muir twisted herself into the sheets, half aware of their binding, while the unknown man's face said those words again.
You'll find home one day.
She opened her eyelids, forced wakefulness, maligning sleep's lure. Her two legs thrust themselves over the side of the storm-tossed bed. Toes touched hardwoods, chilling her alert, finally. She pulled the journal to herself in the dusky gray of the room, opened its worn pages, then touched pen to paper. She copied the words as she heard them. The same sentences she'd written year after year in hopes of deciphering its message, understanding it fully. But they boasted the same syntax, the same prophecy, the same shaded sentences spoken by a dream man with a broken, warbled voice. A faceless man of the South, words erupting like sparklers from the black hole of Willa's memory.
Why couldn't she remember the man? Understand his cryptic message?
Something stirred then. A flash of recognition. Willa closed the journal, placed her pen diagonally on top, then curled herself into a sleep ball, covers over her head like a percale cocoon. She forced her eyes shut, willing her mind to remember the glinting.
There! Like an Instamatic from her childhood, the flashbulb illuminated a gold ring. The man didn't cherish it on his finger. He held it like a monocle, as if he could see through it clear to eternity. Through that ring, a circular snapshot of the man clarified. Though the rest of his face faded into blue mist, his eye, wrinkle-creased and wise, focused like an eye doctor's chart under the perfect lens. A crocodile-green iris circled a large black pupil, its whites streaked pink with lacy vessels. It winked at Willa, or maybe it merely blinked. Hard to decipher, looking at one eye. The eye held sadness and grace, laughter and grief — and an otherworldly hint of promise. Willa memorized that eye behind the gold ring.
But like every other snatch of Willa's memory from that vacant memory of a four-year-old, the eye vaporized.
Yet so unfamiliar.
Nearly the green of Blake's eyes so long ago, those bewitching, enticing eyes she'd made herself turn away from, breaking her heart. Shattering his.
She returned to her journal, sketching the ring, the hazy face. The muddy-green eye she highlighted with an olive pencil. Light played at the window shade. She tugged it down so it would fling ceilingward, which it did in flapping obedience. She opened the sash, ushering in Seattle's evergreen perfume. The crisp air stung her Southern arms with goose bumps as she inhaled its scent. Fifty-five degrees in the morning felt like ice to Willa, even now. But facts were facts: You just couldn't compare the air's pristine cleanness to the South's sometimes thicker-than-mud humidity. And if she could help it, she'd never breathe Texas again.
Mother made it quite clear. Not even Southern hospitality could woo Willa back, not with Mother's hateful words swirling through the heat.
Willa fingered Mrs. Skye's letter atop her pile of books. "Come home," the caretaker wrote, in plainer-than-plain English — dark blue letters on crisp white stationery. "I need your help remodeling the Muir House. Need your expertise. Besides, your mother needs you. She's fading as fast as the house's paint peels. It's time."
Willa shook her head in response. "No," she said to her room, her heart, her will. "I can't. Won't."
But something deep inside told her it was time to find home.
Willa folded Mrs. Skye's letter in half. Instead of quartering it and returning it to its envelope, she tore it into confetti. When she left the room, the confetti stuck to her bare feet.
Chapter Two"If you ask me," Hale said, "it's a sign." He took a drink of sludge, what the oasis Café called vitality, and smiled. Green bits clung to his perfectly white teeth.
"Rinse," Willa said.
"Green teeth again?"
He emptied the small water glass, a throwback from fifties diner ware, swirled a bit, then swallowed the whole mess. He smiled. "Satisfied?"
"Quite." She picked at her smoked salmon frittata. "I saw an eyeball, Hale. Nothing more."
"You said it was green, right?"
"So it wasn't mine, then." He held a hint of sadness in his blue eyes, the color of Seattle sky after the fog lifted.
Willa kept her gaze there, willing herself to forget Blake's envy-green. She held Hale's carefree blue to her heart.
Hale made a circle with his index finger. "Au contraire. You saw a ring. A golden ring. The Egyptians —"
"Quit it with the Egyptians. For you, everything goes back to the Egyptians."
Hale shook his head. He pulled her hand to his, held it perfectly. Not too tight to make her palms sweat, not too loose to make her wonder. "The Nile River," he said as if he hadn't heard her scolding, "provided the first rings, woven from the sedges and rushes nestled next to papyrus plants." With his other hand, he circled her naked wedding finger. "The symbol of eternity."
"Quit getting creepy and stalkerish on me."
"I'm not Blake."
"Then don't pull the stalker card."
He withdrew his hand, then winked one dusk-blue eye. "A ring has no beginning or end. Like life, it circles around itself, returning from where it came." He shaped his free hand like a spyglass, looked out the café's window onto the sidewalk. Then he spied it on her. "It's a symbol of the sun and moon, this shape. And the inside isn't dead air, it's a portal to the unknown."
"I have no portal."
"Nope, you're the one who told me I had a wall. Perhaps I am a wall."
Hale sighed. "I didn't say you were a wall. Just that you're so afraid of love that you've built fortresses around yourself. Like your mother. Like the Egyptians. But I —"
"Focus," she said. She squeezed his hand, then withdrew. "This isn't about my mother — who, by the way, hollered at me, told me to leave once and for all. It's not about ancient Egypt or you storming my walls. It's about my life." She sipped her green tea pomegranate infusion, then nibbled on dry flax toast.
"I'm well aware of your life. Of your obs —"
"I swear if you say obsession one more time, I'll break up with you."
He laughed, and when he did, his brown curls bounced in the effort. Hale's goatee, longer than a real goat's, swayed in the mayhem. She did love this man, loved him right on down to his Salvation Army shoes. He drank more sludge, not bothering to rinse. "I'm in your life for the long haul, Wills," he said. "Besides, who else would accompany you on your valiant quest?"
He did have a point. All those years piecing together her past in yellow notebooks, journals, and scraps of paper. All those newspaper clippings. Most men — most people — would think her, well, obsessed. But since when did seeking the truth equal obsession? "You know where you came from," she said.
"Raised by wolves." He howled.
She shook her head. The oasis Café's patrons didn't even look their way, didn't seem to care that her boyfriend fancied himself a werewolf. Stranger folk than he frequented this offbeat place. "Maybe I was too," she said to the coffee-drenched air between them.
"You weren't. You had a mom and a dad."
"Had is the appropriate word. I'm a twenty-six-year-old orphan," she said.
"She's still alive, Wills."
"She said, 'You are worthless and ugly and stupid and not my child!' "
"Why do you keep revisiting her words?"
"You're the one who brought it up. And having to talk about it again breaks my heart. She's a closed subject, you understand?"
Hale nodded. "But your parents loved you, right? Before she sent you away, your mother took care of you."
"Rote, Hale. Something she had to do because Daddy made her. Sometimes she tried to fulfill requirements of motherhood, a miser with affection, but most of the time she scowled. Daddy? He loved extravagantly." She felt her voice quaver. Daddy's eyes sparkled like Hale's, the purest azure, which made her longing for Hale make sense, in a pathetic sort of way. Like her counselor used to say, always looking for a father.
She looked out the window, noting one cumulus cloud shaped like an anchor, only to dissipate.
Hale spooned multigrain hot cereal into his mouth. "Gruel," he winced. "I hate the cholesterol specter."
She shook her head, weary of his health kick.
"Sorry. I'm becoming a me-monster again. Listen." He twirled his spoon in a flourish. "Wills, I know we don't know the inciting incident — that empty place in your memory. But we do know the rising action, the climax."
She looked at her lap, brushed a crumb away. "Neither of us knows the ending."
"But perhaps together, we will." He reached again for her hand. She let him take it. "Maybe we'll be the denouement."
"I have too much baggage." She speared a wedge of grapefruit.
"I think the word you're looking for is cliché."
"Come on, Hale. This is real." Another grapefruit piece. She wished she'd doused it with evil processed sugar.
"Maybe it's not."
"Maybe you're annoying," she said.
"Maybe. But you like me, remember?" He smiled.
She returned the favor.
He took another bite of gruel, then swallowed. "You're why the vena amoris is so important to me." He wiped his hands on a patchwork napkin, pulling her left hand across the table. He pointed to her ring finger.
"You've completely lost me."
"Exactly. But I hope to gain you."
She raised her eyes to his, and she understood. His face, unlike the man in the dream, snapped into perfect focus. Those eyes, that face, that man, his heart — wanted to marry her — empty memories notwithstanding.
His left hand held hers, but with his right, he fumbled through his thrift-store khakis. He pulled out a simple gold ring. "one ring to rule them all," he said.
Willa's heart hiccupped. She wanted to pull her hand away, wanted to run out of the oasis Café screaming, but fear magnetized her to the metal chair. "I'm not easily ruled," she choked out. Panic fluttered inside. Memories of yelling, shrieking, hating swirled in the cavity of her heart. Daddy. Mother. Willa. The big white house. A broken heart.
He glided the ring onto her finger. "The vena amoris is the vein of love. Originating here." He touched the simple gold ring on her finger, "And venturing to the heart." He pointed to his own, thankfully.
"You know I don't do marriage." As the words passed her tongue, her teeth, her lips, she saw his wince as if she'd slapped him.
"You love me." Hale's hand still rested on his heart.
She nodded. That truth, she knew. Willa felt the ring ruling her finger, threatening to travel the vena amoris to her heart. "I need to go." She gathered her purse, her hand, that ring, and stood.
Hale didn't stand. Didn't chase after her. He sat there, wet-eyed and slapped, his face like a scolded boy's, not a man's.
She wrestled with the ring, expecting it to glide off as easily as it slid on, but it wouldn't. "I can't get it off."
"Keep it. Let it remind you." Hale said these words to the patchwork napkin, not to her.
"I need to go home," she said.
He lifted his eyes to hers now. Cleared his throat as if he wanted to unclog his voice of emotion. "What if home is a person, Wills? What if I am your home?"
She tore away from his eyes while his words chased her all the way home.
Chapter ThreeThey say a woman's wealth, her true identity, rests in the richness of relationships, but "they" have it all wrong. What a woman really needs, what truly defines her, is four solid walls. A house with good bones, a yard sprinklered in the summertime, a creaking porch swing, overflowing window boxes. Castled there, she safeguards her secrets, particularly if those mysteries lie concealed in cardboard boxes in the attic.
Willa sanded the importance of both — hearth and secrets — into her marrow, nailed them like Luther's treatises to her heart while she walked seven blocks toward home, still trying to pry Hale's ring from her finger, his hopeful words from her heart.
Hale was beautiful. In every way. She knew this. Others confirmed it. He worked on behalf of Seattle's working poor, helping secure affordable housing. Homes for those without houses. And he loved her. Why he did, she couldn't quite make her heart understand.
With every logical step toward home, while Green Lake glistened under the morning sun, she scolded herself in cadence.
He loves me.
I should marry him.
He should marry me.
We should marry each other.
Should, should, should.
Such a mathematical equation. Hale plus Willa equaled marriage, the ring being the plus sign making it all balance. She would have the security a fatherless girl wanted. He would have someone needy to rescue and coddle. A perfect match.
Willa pulled the locket from behind her tank top. A heart dangled as faithfully as it had years and years before. She opened it. Blue-eyed Daddy on one side, five-year-old Willa with crooked teeth on the other. She wanted to ask Daddy what to do, how to react to Hale, what to say, but his smiling picture said no words. And his death confirmed that he'd never speak life over her again. In that recollection, grief moistened her eyelids. How long would she miss that man? Forever? With every milestone, the pain augmented like a terrible exclamation point to his absence.
She squinted back the tears in the sunlight, pulled in the halcyon air, and smelled fire. Odd that someone would stoke fire from kindling this time of year. The chill of spring left weeks ago, replaced by Northwest heat — a balmy seventy-two degrees at high noon. Still, some folks relished cozy liked they chugged their coffee fix — often.
Willa looked at the ring, how it captured the sun. Hale said its innards were a gateway to the unknown, yet now her finger filled that void. He must've thought she was his unknown. But was he hers? Could a person become a home?
She wanted to holler a yes, jump on Hale's back under the watchful eye of Gas Works Park, and let him run her down the grass incline toward Lake Union while she screamed and laughed and hung crazy to his shoulders. She could picture such a thing. Could feel her hair windwrapping her face, could smell the faint hint of Hale's evergreen cologne. But she couldn't make the daydream a reality. Which is why she had to go home now, to sift once again through the large box of clippings in her attic, to carefully weave the broken story of her past so she could finally make sense of today's reticence.
A fire truck screamed by her, glassy red. She smelled its exhaust, tasted it on her tongue. It turned right.
Onto her street.
Something inside, a primal horror, made her run flat out.
She turned the corner. Four houses down on the right, it squealed next to others of its kind, catty-corner this way and that. Hoses hooked up to the block's fire hydrant spewed water onto her fuchsia house.
She rushed to the sidewalk facing her porch, a cry leaving her mouth. But in the cacophony of fire, no one heard the scream. Willa's skin absorbed the heat of her bungalow's flames licking, tasting, biting, consuming her home, its secrets, while firefighters sprayed pathetic sprinklers onto the rafters that buckled beneath the attack of flames. Still, she rushed at it. If she ran fast enough, she could rescue her journal, the drawing of the man's green eye.
But arms caught her. "Stand back, miss," a fireman said.
"But that's my house. My —"
"I'm sorry." He said it like he might've meant it, but she knew he couldn't possibly. Had he not interrupted her, "my everything" would've been recorded by the day, showing all of Seattle that her research was her everything. Even more than Hale and his ring. More than white window boxes or a rickety porch swing or fuchsia siding.
She'd been so close. And now every shred of evidence belched flames and smoke. She struggled against the fireman's embrace, smelling soot. He held her back, saying I'm sorry over and over again. She looked up to see the roof implode on itself, sparks twirling to the sky like unwanted confetti after a parade.
Home lost its fight. The fire won — everything.
Excerpted from The Muir House by Mary E. DeMuth Copyright © 2011 by Mary E. DeMuth. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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