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"I told you so."
That's exactly what her father would say, with his smug, tight-lipped expression that made Laurel's jaws clench.
And he had told her. The knowledge burned in her stomach as she took the turn-off for Cottage Grove, Oregon. Only two hours from Portland, but light years away from the life she tried to build there. Tried, and failed.
She rolled to a stop in front of her parents' house. Faded and beige, just like her future. Pushing up and out of her elderly VW Beetle, she rolled her stiff neck and swept her long hair behind her ears. Just a temporary setback. She squared her shoulders and strode up the walkway. Just a few weeks home to lick her wounds, retool her resumé, and formulate a plan. Great-aunt Maxie always said a woman with a plan was unstoppable.
Fluid piano jazz drifted from the house. Mom was finally playing again. Laurel hardly recognized her in the photo her sister sent, elegant in her sequined sheath dress, bent with feverish intensity over a baby grand. Sparkly, glowing, passionate.
But the front door opened to reveal the same old Mom. Tall and rangy, wearing pastel capris and a faded floral blouse.
"Laurel." Her cheeks bunched like shiny pink apples. "Good to see you, my baby. Lunch is ready. Let's catch up before you hit the road."
She blinked in surprise. "Hit the road? I just got here."
Her mom waved absently. "Well, you know how afternoon traffic can be on I-5."
Willow waddled through the kitchen door carrying a steaming casserole. She set it down and shuffled over to welcome the black sheep.
"Laur-bear!" Her massive pregnant belly pushed Laurel as they rocked back and forth. She pulled back and gave her a head-to-toe inspection. "You're too thin. Come eat."
"Here." Laurel pulled a wrapped package from her bag. "I made something for your baby."
Willow unwrapped a round mirror, its wooden frame painted with colorful dots, zig-zags, and spirals. She turned it over and read aloud, "Welcome to the world, beautiful baby, from your Aunt Laurel."
"The patterns are supposed to be stimulating, or something. I read an article ..." She'd tried to mimic the expensive wooden toys in Portland baby boutiques. Now, in her sister's hands, the gift looked like something made by an over-eager first grader.
Willow flashed a plastic smile. "It's lovely."
No mention of Laurel's bad news. Very odd. The last time she lost a job, she endured two weeks of nagging and lectures.
You're not a kid anymore. Isn't it time for you to give up that art nonsense and settle down?
When will you get a real job?
Why can't you be realistic, like your sister?
Maybe, focused on the arrival of their first grandchild, her parents would cut her some slack this time?
"There she is, our little dropout."
No such luck.
Her dad loomed in the doorway, wiry arms crossed, pale eyes narrowed. "What's with the blue hair? Who's going to hire you looking like that?"
Willow lifted the turquoise tips of Laurel's heavy mane. "I like it. It's — artistic."
Dad harrumphed. "It's juvenile."
Might as well take the bull by the horns. She straightened her spine. "I didn't drop out, Dad, I got fired."
Mom shot him a tight glare, then patted Laurel's arm. "Well, you'll find something in Eugene."
She stepped back. "What are you talking about? Why would I go to Eugene?"
"Didn't you tell her?" Dad asked.
Mom shrugged. "I thought you told her."
"For goodness' sake, let's eat." Willow gestured to Laurel's customary spot at the dining table. "Lunch is getting cold."
"Not until you explain —"
"Sit, Laurel," Dad ordered. "Your mother made your favorite. Let's show some appreciation."
With a weary sigh, she took her seat, and the past ten years slid away like a coat dropping to the floor. Two days ago, she was an assistant in a trendy Portland art gallery, making big strides toward her dream career. Today, thanks to one stupid decision, she slumped in her chair, a gawky, sullen college girl.
And chicken casserole topped with potato chips was not her favorite. She loved Indian curries, fiery Vietnamese pho, garlicky falafel. Not gluey casseroles. Willow passed the salad, mostly iceberg lettuce, with a sprinkling of shredded carrots and — were those raisins? She took a bite and wrinkled her nose.
"Something wrong with the food?" Dad asked, his pale eyes sharp.
"It's fine." She forced a grin. "Thanks, Mom."
Dad poured iced tea from the plastic pitcher. "So, fired again, eh?"
She flushed, but before she could snap out a retort, her mother interjected, her tone smooth as Jell-O, "Let it be, Dave. It's not easy to break into the art world."
He stabbed his food as if it were trying to scurry off his plate. "What did she expect, majoring in humanities?"
"Dad," Willow hissed.
Easy for her to say. Willow's office job at the waste water treatment plant met their father's definition of useful and practical. Another point in her favor, she was married to a nice, boring guy who'd grown up in their nice, boring town.
Laurel huffed. "Mom majored in music."
"Your mother's music is practical. She plays at church. Why can't you —"
Mom cut him off again. "Laurel, you need to go help Aunt Maxie."
She straightened in her seat. "Help her how? Is she okay?"
"No, not really." Mom set her fork down and folded her hands. "She called us last week. She's been having — she calls them 'spells.' She forgets where she is and how she got there."
"Oh." She swallowed hard to dispel the scratchy lump in her throat. At ninety, her great-aunt still lived in a cottage stuffed to the rafters with her oddball art projects. Maxie was the only member of Laurel's family who appreciated her artistic ambitions, her bohemian style. Wiry and feisty, she'd seemed invincible to the ravages of age. Until now.
Willow laid her hand over Laurel's. "She's moving to an assisted living facility. She wants help sorting through her stuff." She patted her belly. "But I can't really go in my condition."
Mom added, "I have my piano students. And a gig this Saturday."
"Don't look at me," her dad said through a mouthful of casserole. "You know I work long hours." He swallowed, his sharp Adam's apple bobbing, and pointed with his fork. "You're the one with time to spare. Considering all Maxie did for you, I'd say you owe her."
She couldn't argue with that. When she gave up her track scholarship at Oregon State to transfer to the University of Oregon, Aunt Maxie made up the difference in tuition. Aunt Maxie slipped her "a little something extra" when her paycheck didn't stretch to the end of the month. Aunt Maxie introduced her to local artists, inspiring her dream of owning a gallery. If Maxie needed her help, Laurel had to go.
Aww, but Eugene. Her college bestie worked in an avant garde theater in San Francisco. He had lots of contacts in the art scene and a vacant guestroom.
She heaved a guilt-laden sigh. "Okay. Of course. I'll go help Aunt Maxie. How long do you think it'll take?"
Dad snorted. "You've seen her place. Like a rat's maze."
"I'd give it a good month, baby." Mom patted her hand. "Maybe two."
"Get yourself a job down there." Dad's grin had sharp edges. "Go work in a coffee shop with the other humanities majors."
She bit back the snark itching to escape her tightly-pinched lips.
Always the good girl, Willow modulated her voice with a note of sugary sweetness. "Come on, Dad, give her a break. She'll find something."
Mom nodded. "Of course she will."
Laurel shoveled gloopy chicken down her tight throat. She wouldn't let this change of plans derail her. In fact, spending time with Aunt Maxie sounded downright delightful, compared to fending off her dad's barbed comments, her mom's cluelessness, and her sister's pity.
She pushed back her chair and popped to her feet. "Lunch was delicious, Mom, but you're right about traffic. I'd better hit the road."
Willow followed her out. "Laurel, hang on." She gripped her elbow and guided her to the shade of the big sycamore beside the driveway. "Look, I know it's hard, but can't you just —"
"Just what, Willow? Pretend everything's peachy?" Bitterness gave her voice a ragged edge. "'Cause guess what — it's not. I got fired. I'm broke. Maxie's sick." She waved toward the front door. "And they're too busy playing the perfect postcard family to help her."
Willow knuckled her eyes. "They don't get Maxie like you do. Even if they went down there, Mom would just throw away all her art stuff, and Dad would boss her around 'til she cries."
"Or whacks him with her cane."
They both chuckled. Willow pulled her in for a hug. "You know, we've moved past it. Why can't you? Things are better now."
The warmth she felt for her sister evaporated like a puff of breath in January. "I dunno. Maybe I'm just waiting for someone to apologize."
She climbed into her VW and drove off without looking back.
* * *
Her car began to hiccup at the first traffic light off the freeway. By the time she pulled into Eugene's Whiteaker district, it developed a raspy cough.
"Come on, sweetheart, you can make it." She patted the dashboard. "I'll get you fixed as soon as I get my first paycheck."
Her bank account was just as anemic as her car. Even with her best friend's offer of free couch surfing, she'd have to build up her funds before moving on to San Francisco. Maybe Aunt Maxie could help her find a temporary job.
She rolled down her window and inhaled the fresh, green scent of summer. Maxie's neighborhood hadn't changed, still lushly planted with flowering shrubs and mature trees. She recognized the huge forked maple at the corner of Aunt Maxie's street, but almost drove right past the house.
Did it look this rough last time I was here? Turquoise paint fell in flakes from the wooden siding. Above the porch, faded Tibetan prayer flags fluttered their tattered edges. The once-bright rainbow porch railing had faded to pastels, like dribbles of melting ice cream. The whole place just looked — tired.
She sat for a long moment in the driveway, stewing in her guilt. She hadn't seen Maxie since Christmastime, and already it was late summer. She could easily have made the trip down from Portland at least once a month. But instead of hanging out with Maxie, Laurel spent her weekends on pointless dates with uninspiring guys. Bunch of posers, pretending to be interested in art so they could date the tall blonde gallery assistant. Not one of those guys got her the way Maxie did.
A glimpse of red fluff appeared in the window. The front door opened, revealing a beaming Maxie in all her Technicolor glory. Her baby-fine hair glowed henna red, and rhinestones twinkled from her cat's-eye glasses. Chunky rings bedecked her gnarled, ropy hands, and her knee-length tunic bore a tie-dyed rainbow swirl.
"Laurel," Maxie bellowed. Her foghorn voice hadn't lost its power. "Get up here, my precious girl."
Grinning, she trotted up the stairs and wrapped her arms around her tiny mentor.
"Easy now." Maxie's smile folded her cheeks and forehead into papery pleats. "I'm not so steady on my feet these days." She thumped her cane. Typical Maxie, it was covered with rhinestones, metallic trim, and swirls of bright paint.
"New art project?"
"Oh, this?" She chuckled, her laughter raspy and deep. "One of many." Moving slowly, she settled onto a creaking wicker loveseat on the porch. "Tell me, dear heart."
"Tell you what?"
One penciled-on eyebrow raised. "What happened at the gallery?"
Laurel slumped beside her. "Mom told you?"
She nodded. "She loves you, you know. And she wants you to succeed."
"As long as I do something practical. And boring."
"Now, now." Maxie patted her hand. "It's a mother's nature to worry. So, why'd they fire you this time?" She might be ninety, but nothing interesting escaped Maxie's sharp eyes. Or ears.
Her sigh lifted Maxie's baby-fine hair. "The manager put me in charge of a new display while she was on vacation. Why put me in charge if she didn't want me to use my creativity? How's she gonna attract new customers if she keeps using the same old boring set-up?" She slumped onto the seatback. "The artist liked my ideas."
"You didn't check with the boss first?"
"No." Her mouth settled into a pout.
Maxie chuckled softly. "What did you do?"
"Arranged the display panels in a maze."
"Right?" Her eyebrows shot up. "I thought, let's invite the customers into a secret world, a different reality, like Alice through the looking glass. But nooo. Some rich-ass customer didn't like it." She picked at a fuzzball on her T-shirt. "More than one complained, I guess. So she fired me."
Maxie patted her knee. "Her loss. Come inside, my dear."
"Let me just get my things." She hauled her duffle bag through the living room, with its hand-loomed rugs and mountains of embroidered pillows, through the hallway hung with photos — Maxie on the beach, riding a camel, lounging on the hood of a classic convertible, cradled in the arms of a shirtless young man ...
As she entered the room where she lived her last two years of college, Laurel braced herself for the flood of memories: cramming for her art history final, weeping into her pillow over Carlo, tossing her mortarboard the night before graduation, trying to conjure up a vision of her future. And here she was again. But where was the guest room? The familiar daybed and vintage day-glo posters hid behind a wall of moving cartons.
"We'll just move these boxes over there." Maxie waved her sparkly cane.
"What's in all these?"
Maxie sighed, a raspy, weary sound. "Memories, my dear. Fleeting wisps of joy and love. When you get to be my age, you need something tangible to hang those memories on. Otherwise, they get slippery."
A shiver ran down her back. Soon, too soon, her mentor would be gone. Don't let Maxie see. She's feeling bad enough without my gloom. She pasted on a cheerful smile. "You're taking all this to your new place?"
"Oh, no. Only a few dozen boxes. Whatever's left will go ..." She trailed off, her blue-gray eyes misty and unfocused. "Well, you'll help me figure it out."
Laurel's heart squeezed. Leaving the house she'd lived in for forty-plus years must be devastating for Maxie. She didn't have much to offer, just time and youthful energy, but she'd do what she could to help her aunt pack up the remains of her long, sparkly life.
* * *
Three hours later, Laurel massaged her aching lower back. While Maxie directed from the sofa, she'd filled a dozen cartons, separating them into a keeper pile, a giveaway pile, and a pile marked "December." Maxie refused to explain that one.
"I'll call a few of my young friends tomorrow." Maxie pushed up from the sofa. "Stanley will want those Balinese shadow puppets. And Margot would love those black lace doilies."
Laurel fingered the lace atop the giveaway pile. "You could make all kinds of cool things with these. Goth flower pins to wear on your lapel or your hat, funky fascinators, maybe Modge Podge them onto picture frames."
"You keep them, kiddo. Have fun."
"Oh, I didn't mean me." She shrugged and dropped the lace. "I mean someone with talent."
Maxie clucked her tongue. "There you go again. You got plenty of talent. You just lack stick-to-itiveness."
Laurel turned to hide her smirk. A long line of art teachers hadn't shared Maxie's faith in her potential. The time finally came when persisting just felt futile. And exhausting. And stupid. Leaning on her cane, Maxie clomped toward the kitchen. "More tea, darling? Another smoothie?"
Since she'd already downed a quart of green tea and two of Maxie's swamp water smoothies, Laurel declined. "I'd really like to head out for a run, loosen up my back."
"Of course, my gazelle. Go stretch those long legs."
She dug out her electric-blue running shorts and a rainbow tank. She'd need new running shoes soon, but those could wait until she found a job.
"I'll be back in an hour or two." She loped off toward the cool, soothing green of Alton Baker Park. She'd missed her runs along the Willamette River, the rhythm of her feet slapping on the pavement, her breath sliding in and out, steady as the tides. When she ran, worries about the future unhooked their claws.
Just breathe. Just run. Just be.CHAPTER 2
On auto-pilot, Doug's pounding feet carried him to Alton Baker Park. Enough sunlight remained for another hour of running, but his sluggish legs protested every step. It wasn't the workout dragging him down, it was the fat envelope that arrived in his mailbox a few hours ago. He'd known it would come any day now, but still it squashed him like a sack of rocks.
Shake it off. Man up. Move on. This kind of pep talk bullshit seemed to help his student athletes, but it damned sure wasn't helping today.
With a disgusted grunt, he ducked off the riverside path to gulp water from a drinking fountain by the playground.
A pair of little arms clamped around his knees from behind. "Uncle Doug!"
"Hey there, Princess." He grinned down at the daughter of his best friend and fellow teacher. "What are you doing here?"
"Swings. Push me." Her poufy ponytails bobbing, she skipped to the swing set, where her parents watched, laughing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Runaway Love Story"
Copyright © 2019 Sadira Stone.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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