People keep a house alive, not the other way around. Alex Proctor has seen the truth of this in every empty, rundown property she’s bought and renovated since her divorce almost three years ago. She’s also experienced the thrill of making each one into a home. Her newest project is a dilapidated,
century-old house just a few blocks from Geneva Lake, Wisconsin. Time and neglect, along with rats and raccoons, have ravaged it inside and out. Only Alex can see the beauty of what it once was and might become again. In just a few weeks—by the time the cicadas make their scheduled reappearance after seventeen years underground—the house should be ready to sell. In the meantime, there are construction disasters, and surprises, to contend with.
Amid overgrown grounds and rooms brimming with debris, Alex finds treasures—pocket doors, hardwood floors hidden beneath layers of linoleum and grime—and carved initials that reveal a long-ago love story involving Alex’s elderly neighbor, Elsie, and another cicada summer. At the same time, Alex finds herself searching for a way to reconcile her new life with lingering feelings for her ex-husband. For so long she felt sure that moving on was the only option, but maybe this house, and everything she’s learning in it, could give Alex room for a second chance . . .
“A captivating novel about the power of redemption.”
—Jen Lancaster, New York Times bestselling author
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If home is where the heart is, the house at 4723 Maple Street was in dire need of a cardiologist. The first time I saw the century-old four square, I wanted to reach out and give it a hug. The front porch sagged toward the walkway like a droopy sock, and the stucco on the second floor bubbled and pulled away from the frame like the entire structure was mid-crumble, a process hastened by the humidity from the lake a few blocks away.
Likely, the inside hadn't hosted a human being in years, and a variety of animals had ravaged everything from the wood floors to the electrical system. Yet, I could still see the beauty of what it once was and what it might become again.
I knew I could restore it and give it a second chance.
And so, on the April morning of the bank auction a week later, I stood in the spring rain in front of the Walworth County Courthouse in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and hoped that the cashiers' checks in my purse would total enough to buy the house.
A familiar shape appeared next to me as I clutched the handle of my umbrella.
"Did they change the age requirements for bidding?" Jack Sullivan said as he smoothed back his prolific white hair.
"Funny. Shouldn't you be enjoying your old age with soft foods and game show reruns?" I turned my back slightly. Jack Sullivan was my father's high school classmate and, despite knowing that I was thirtyfour, still found it hilarious to act as though I was fourteen.
He laughed, his tan, leathery skin nearly cracking off. "Probably. I couldn't pass up a chance to bid on this beauty, though."
"You seem to never miss a chance to destroy historic properties," I said. "How about you let me have this one?"
"Sorry, hon. Comps in the neighborhood are in the mid-five-hundreds. Vacation properties and new construction, of course."
I swallowed hard as I thought of his backhoe arriving at the house and turning the structure into a pile of rubble with one nudge of the machine. Likely, a two-story, four-bedroom house with brick facing and vinyl siding would be erected within six months. The bathrooms would house builder-grade vanities and ceramic tile that some buyers would mistake for travertine. The kitchen would have Corian countertops made to look like granite, and cabinets from one Swedish home furnishing store. All of it tailored to convenience, ease of upkeep, and neutrality.
The buyers wouldn't care about the house itself, only that it was five blocks from Lake Geneva, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Midwest thanks to the size and beauty of the clean, spring-fed lake. Equidistant from both Milwaukee and Chicago, wealthy buyers from the cities would trample each other to use it for a vacation home or a rental property. The lakeshore was dotted with enormous summer estates that had been erected a hundred years ago by alliterative household last names like Walgreen, Wrigley, and Woolworth.
"Did you see the built-ins in the dining room?" he whispered. "Bet those have been around for decades." He sighed. "But soon, no more. My buyers want durable, not historic."
My face reddened as I thought of the quarter-sawn oak buffet in the dining room. It had leaded glass doors, etched in an argyle pattern. I couldn't get inside the house, but I'd seen it through the grimy windows. The wood was probably donated by one of the trees in the front yard and the leaded glass looked like it needed some repairs, but I could tell that it was able to be restored. I smiled as I thought of polishing it with lemon oil and running my fingertips over the worn, grooved wood.
"Over my dead body will you rip this house down and put up some vacation property, old man," I said.
He opened his mouth to retort, but the auctioneer thankfully silenced him.
"Bidding on the house at Maple Street, REO, will begin at $53,000," the auctioneer said.
Jack raised his paddle first, but a flurry of other paddles also were raised in the air. It started to rain harder, but no one moved.
"Do I have $175,000?" the auctioneer said, his lips moving quicker than the rest of his body.
I raised my paddle, and resisted the urge to look in my purse. My self-imposed limit for the house was $209,000. With the needed repairs, I couldn't afford to pay more.
"180,000? Do I have $180,000?" the auctioneer said.
Jack raised his bid again and turned to me. "Sorry, Alex. This one isn't in the cards for you."
My insides burned and I quickly raised my paddle again, bidding $200,000, even as the rational part of my brain begged me to stop, to give this one up. I had dreamed of restoring an old house near the lake for years, but all I had worked on were condos and easy, midcentury ranch houses that were on the outskirts of town in the squarely residential areas. But this was the one. The one that I had been waiting for.
It was the kind of house I had always imagined bringing back to life. It was the kind of house I had admired when I was young and would walk through town with my parents, staring up at the old mansions in town, wondering what kind of charmed secrets and luxuries were hidden inside. It was the kind of house that I imagined would bring happiness to the people who lived there simply by being so beautiful.
"$210,000," Jack said.
I slowly closed my eyes and bit down hard on my lip, trying to stifle my next bid. It didn't work.
"$220,000," I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
Jack gave a low whistle. "You're out of your league, Alex."
"Not the first time I've heard that, but thanks," I said. My eyes darted around wildly, half-hoping someone else would outbid me.
But the bid remained and the auctioneer said, "Sold! For $220,000 to Alex Proctor."
"Good luck, kiddo. You're going to need it," Jack said, giving me a conciliatory pat on the shoulder.
"Not a chance," I said, but the panic began to bubble in my stomach as I slowly walked over and handed over the funds in cashier's checks. I hoped we didn't find anything unusual in the house, or else my profit margin on the project would be nonexistent. A fruitless endeavor filled with dirt, sweat, and rodents.
"Here ya go. All yours," the clerk said as she unceremoniously pushed a key in my direction.
I held it in my hand and took a deep breath. It will all be worth it, I told myself. This is something I've always wanted to do. And when I was done, the house would host a family, through good times and bad. They would walk to the lake and appreciate the way it seemed crystal clear, even during the summer season, when boats churned through the water like a thousand duck feet.
The house would become a home again.
"Mom, does your new house have spiders in it?" My daughter Abby looked at me, her dark blue eyes narrowed in suspicion. She sucked a few macaroni noodles off her spoon and licked her lips.
I smiled. "I hope not. It's beautiful, Ab. I'll take you over there to see it once we get all of the junk cleared out."
She shrugged, but didn't look up from her bowl of macaroni and cheese. To a five-year-old, the fact that I renovated houses wasn't nearly as impressive as other parents who had jobs like doctors, truck drivers, or stay-at-home mothers. My houses were merely places to hide creepy, crawly insects, and maybe some ghosts and goblins.
"Guess how old the house is," I said as I leaned back from the kitchen table and opened a window. A cool, light breeze ran through the kitchen. It brushed our faces and lifted the sweat and stickiness off the countertops. Even though my ranch house was a couple of miles from Lake Geneva, in the less-desirable, year-round part of town, we still felt the crisp lake air.
She cocked her head to the side, her blond pigtails bobbling on either side of her head. "One hundred and five years old?"
"Older," I said. The breeze had stopped, so I picked up a stray piece of junk mail and fanned my face. I had spent the day surveying the Maple house, in the April rain, among windows that were either angry panes of broken glass or painted shut. When the occasional wind did blow through the house, it carried with it the grime and dirt of the front porch, like it had been waiting patiently all those years to get inside, and it wasn't going to miss an opportunity to infiltrate.
"One hundred and six?" she said.
"You're close. More like one hundred and fifteen. It was built in 1901," I said.
Her eyes widened. "Wow." She stirred her macaroni in thought. "Those spiders must be really old, then."
I laughed. "I told you, I didn't even see one spider today." Of course, not seeing was not the same as not existing.
She gave me a suspicious look. "Oh, you will," she said knowingly. A fleck of cheese sauce landed on her white dress and she immediately dabbed it off with her napkin, a frown on her face. I glanced down at my own clothes — cargo pants stained with old primer, plaster dust, and wood stain, and a T-shirt I had owned since high school. Her fingertips sparkled with glittery nail polish as she folded her napkin, while my own fingers were rough and chapped from too much time spent pulling glaze off old windows and grouting subway tile.
I stood up and began to collect the plates from the table, stacking them haphazardly in the sink. My dishwasher had broken a month ago and I still hadn't found a replacement. With a stack of ever-growing bills on the entryway table, I needed to fix up the Maple Street house quickly, and get it on the market.
Buyers for vintage homes in the area were a special breed. I figured it might take some time to find the right fit — someone who not only wanted an older home, but who would take care of it and appreciate it rather than bringing in someone like Jack Sullivan to start ripping out what they didn't have the vision to understand. Most importantly, it had to be someone who lived here. Someone who wanted to live here, year-round. A truly elusive requirement: a resident.
I had lived in Geneva Lake my entire life, watching the ebb and flow of tourists during the summer season between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They packed the downtown area, spent tourist dollars on T-shirts and bumper stickers, seemed to forget all basic rules of the road when driving on Highway 50 into town, and crossed every street like they dared the residents to hit them. Honestly, I had been tempted more than once.
"Can we play outside?" Abby asked. She looked down at her white eyelet dress. "After I change."
I nodded and she scampered down the hallway to her bedroom, where I had set down her pink suitcase as I did each time she returned home from her father's house. Inside, her things were always neatly packed, thanks to my ex-husband Matt's slight OCD tendencies. Sometimes it felt like the joint custody arrangement was a barometer weighed to always point to some inadequacy of mine. When we were married, it was a quirk — maybe even something to be appreciated. Now that we were divorced, it was an annoyance at best, passive-aggressive at worst.
After Abby changed into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, I drove to our favorite lakefront park. As she played on the slide and befriended another little girl with kindergarten ease, I sat on a bench, my fingers tingling with the anticipation of working on the house. I thought about refinishing the wood floors and seeing them come back to life after years of neglect; about removing all the dingy cream-colored paint from the woodwork, then sanding it down and staining it. I imagined there were more treasures buried deep in the house, just waiting to be discovered.
I sighed and looked out at the water. Only a few boats cruised around the bay, and the stillness of the lake reflected the sunset like a mirror, painting the surface with oranges and yellows. I breathed deeply, enjoying the way the lake air filled my lungs and throat. A certain part of me always settled when I was next to the water, like a tiny adjustment in my spine that radiated outward. The air smelled like wet rocks mixed with grass, and the gentle waves lapping against the retaining wall sounded like a mother shushing an infant. A quiet buzz of distant boats bounced off the trees that lined the lake and filtered out as a fluctuating white noise in the background.
Most of the piers weren't in the water until May, but I could still spot a few that were optimistically placed in the water already. The lake froze solid every winter and piers were removed quickly after the weather began to turn, a sure sign that the vacation season was over, like Mother Nature was ringing a bell and shouting for last call.
After Abby was tired and sweaty from the park, we drove home. As we got out of the car, I waved at the neighbors who watered their lawns and sat on their front porches. In our yard, Abby and I watched as lightning bugs began to fill the sky with their blinking bodies. I caught one in my hand.
"Look, Ab. Do you want to hold it?" I held my cupped hands out, but she shook her head.
"No." She shook her head and wrinkled her nose.
I sighed and opened my palms, releasing the insect back into the air. She was so different than I was as a child. In my childhood backyard, I loved lifting up all the flagstones and rocks to uncover wiggling insects, and I was always hanging from tree branches or exploring corners of the yard for buried treasure. I wasn't ever sure if I should encourage her to be more like me or if I should just go with what came naturally to her.
"Just wait. In a few weeks, the cicadas will be here."
Her eyes grew wide and she slowly shook her head. "I'm going to stay inside until they're gone."
I laughed. The insects woke every seventeen years, crawling out of the ground and covering the yard with their black bodies and orange eyes for six long weeks. I was seventeen the last summer they arrived, and I remembered that the noise from their humming and buzzing was almost deafening, blanketing the neighborhood in a loud white noise for weeks. Even a short trek outside to the mailbox turned into a battle as I had to swat them away again and again to stop them from landing all over my clothes. I couldn't imagine how Abby was going to react.
As I tucked her into bed that night, in her tiny room in our two-bedroom house, I kissed her forehead. Her breathing was already slowing as sleep began to cover her with a veil.
"I love you," I whispered into the darkness. I leaned closer and said, "I have a feeling about this one, Ab. This house is something special."
I closed the door to her room and tried to sleep until the birds outside my window began to chirp at 3 a.m., as though they couldn't wait any longer for me to work on the house.
"I think this is the one. You were right about that." My contractor, Eddie, stood up from where he had lain on the ground outside the house. He dusted his muddy hands off on his jeans and glanced back at the cracked foundation, shaking his head.
"Meaning?" I said as I swatted away a bee. The outside of the house teemed with crawling creatures, the result of years' worth of overgrown rosebushes and hydrangeas that seemed determined to sprawl over every patch of unused grass, like they were mounting an offense.
"Meaning your foundation is shot. Not just shot, but crumbling away. Water damage, looks like." He motioned for me to crouch down and stuck his index finger right through the brick. "It's like whipped cream." He held it up in the air, the shortened stub of his ring finger framing the watered-down concrete. He'd lost half the finger in a tile saw accident years ago, a form of dues-paying to the construction gods.
"I figured as much when I bought it," I said. Many of the houses sold at auction had something structurally wrong with them, usually why they went for such cheap prices. The average person who buys a house is thinking more in terms of paint, carpeting, and maybe a kitchen remodel, not floor joists, support beams, and sinking foundations.
"Did you know that the rot goes all the way into the basement? And into the footings?" he said. He shook his head, his dreadlocked brown hair whipping against his face. Adjusting his bandanna, he gave me a serious look. "Worst I've seen. And you know what I've seen."
"You've got to be kidding," I said.
"I wish," he said and shook his head again.
I rubbed my forehead as I peered through the hole from his finger, straight into the basement. "So, what do you think we're talking about here?" My voice wavered and he glanced at me in surprise.
He took a few steps back, staring up at the stucco that peeled away from the frame like a bad sunburn. It begged for someone to bump against it so it could finally sigh and release dust that had been trapped for over a hundred years.
"Need to pour new footings, at least," he said.
Excerpted from "Cicada Summer"
Copyright © 2017 Maureen Leurck.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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