The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster

by Scott Wilbanks


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Annabelle Aster doesn't bow to convention-not even that of space and time-which makes the 1890s Kansas wheat field that has appeared in her modern-day San Francisco garden easy to accept. Even more peculiar is Elsbeth, the truculent schoolmarm who sends Annie letters through the mysterious brass mailbox perched on the picket fence that now divides their two worlds.

Annie and Elsbeth's search for an explanation to the hiccup in the universe linking their homes leads to an unsettling discovery-and potential disaster for both of them. Together they must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen...and yet somehow already did.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492612469
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 848,200
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 3.90(d)

About the Author

Scott Wilbanks graduated summa cum laude from the University of Oklahoma and went on to garner several national titles in the sport of gymnastics. His husband is a New Zealander by birth, and the two split their time between the two countries. Wilbanks is at work on his next stand-alone novel.

Tavia Gilbert is an acclaimed narrator of more than four hundred full-cast and multivoice audiobooks for virtually every publisher in the industry. Named the 2018 Voice of Choice by Booklist magazine, she is also an Audie Award nominee and the recipient of numerous Earphones Awards, a Voice Arts Award, and a Listen-Up Award. With frequent inclusion on best of year and annual top ten lists, she is a trusted and increasingly sought-after actress for work across every genre, from children's and YA, to literary fiction, nonfiction, and genre fiction. Audible has named her a Genre-Defining Narrator: Master of Memoir, and Library Journal said of her, "as close as you can get to a full-cast narration with a solo voice." She is a producer, singer, photographer, and a writer, as well as the cofounder of a feminist publishing company, Animal Mineral, with fiction and nonfiction focusing on relationships, love, and identity.

Read an Excerpt

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster

By Scott Wilbanks

Sourcebooks, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Scott Wilbanks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4926-1247-6


Pray for Me, Father

May 16, 1895
San Francisco, California
Mission Dolores Basilica

Randall —

I've not forgotten our quarrel, but I'm asking you to put that aside for the sake of scholarship and the friendship we once shared. You were right, I fear. I meddled in something beyond my understanding. The time-travel conduit works — I've shaped it as a door — but not, I suspect, by science or my own hand. You are the only person who won't think me paranoid should I put words to my suspicion. Something slumbers within it. Something with designs of its own.

Words have power. You know that better than anyone. And I am beginning to suspect the ones the shaman spoke — and which I foolishly copied into my journal's companion piece, my codex — were an invocation.

Please come soon, I beg you. Or don't come at all. And if you don't come, then pray for me, Father. Matters are coming to a head, and my instincts say this will not end well.

David Abbott

* * *

Cap'n — adolescent con artist extraordinaire, picker of any lock, leader of Kansas City's notorious sandlot gang, and unofficial mayor to all its throwaways — plucked a wilted lettuce leaf from her hair as she peered through a break in the pile of rubbish where she was hiding.

Fabian didn't look so good, she thought, but there wasn't much she could do about it. He was lying in the mud, his legs bent at odd angles, and was staring down the length of his outspread arm, his mouth opening and closing in a creepy imitation of a fish on the chopping block. She couldn't make out the words, but it was clear Fabian was telling her to flee.

He wasn't going anywhere. Danyer had made sure of that. Whether it was a first or last name, Cap'n didn't know. He just went by Danyer. He was Mr. Culler's hatchet man, and he didn't fight fair. Danyer wasn't interested in fair, though; he was interested in results, and Fabian had failed. Cap'n knew it was a bad idea to let failure go unanswered in their line of business, but she never imagined it would come to this. Fabian was a moneymaker for Mr. Culler, after all.

Danyer towered over him, a granite block with meat-hook arms, his legs straddling Fabian's belly. As his boots rocked in the muck, Danyer's duster swept back and forth across Fabian's chest. His voice reminded Cap'n of a humming turbine — deep and dangerous — as he read from the letter they'd filched. "'Please come soon, I beg you —'" Danyer crumpled the paper, lobbing it into the air. It bounced off Fabian's cheek and into the mud. "Where's the journal?" He squatted, grabbing Fabian's chin with his sausage fingers before slapping him lightly across the cheek. "Hmm?"

Cap'n said a quick prayer for her friend and started backing up. But it was too late. She stepped on a stick that lifted a crate at the base of the rubbish heap just a fraction of an inch, and she could only grit her teeth as a tin can toppled from its perch, tinkling down the pile of debris while making a sound like a scale played on a badly tuned piano.

She froze as Danyer pivoted to stare at the pile of rubbish. He turned back to Fabian, speaking warily. "And where's Cap'n?" he asked. "Where's your pet pickpocket?" She watched him slap Fabian's cheek one more time, the muscles in her legs tensing as he turned and started to walk toward her hiding place. Five feet out, Danyer lunged, but all he got hold of was the remaining head of lettuce as she bolted from the mound, racing down the alleyway in a flurry of muslin, freckles, and carrot-colored pigtails.

Three blocks later, she rounded a corner, waiting. When the crack of the gun echoed down the street, she ducked into a drainage pipe to collect herself. A cockroach crawled over her foot, its antennae waving. Fabian admired cockroaches, she remembered. He said they were survivors. Suddenly, a whimper broke from her throat, and she ground the bug into a mosaic of chitinous shards before huddling in on herself, sobbing. And just as suddenly, she sat upright, her mouth set in a grim line while she ran the back of her hand across her nose.

Tears were for kids, and she needed to make a plan. When Fabian turned up dead, and there was no doubt he would, Danyer would want to tie up some loose ends — namely her. She wasn't too worried about that. She knew every hidey-hole in Kansas City, and the gang would watch her back. She regarded what was left of the cockroach, one of its severed legs agitating as though not realizing the body it belonged to was already dead, and nodded to herself. It was time to put the shoe on the other foot, she decided. Something had to be done about Danyer and his boss.


Elsbeth Grundy

MAY 17, 1895

A wheat field outside Sage, Kansas

Elsbeth Grundy was a loner, and an odd one at that, but company was headed her way whether she liked it or not. She lived in the plains of central Kansas, alone in a cabin that was, to use a charitable word, uncomplicated. It was an austere dwelling with a cast-iron stove, a table and chair, two cabinets, a fireplace, a rocker, and a small bedroom to the rear. Being somewhat prideful of her country habits, Elsbeth had a privy built out back, a decision she often regretted with a few choice words when the weather turned for the worse.

In her bedroom was a tiny closet, and in that tiny closet were three cotton work frocks, two pairs of well-worn overalls, an occasional dress appropriate for a schoolmarm, and a family of field mice that had taken up residence in the latter's pockets.

Elsbeth wasn't necessarily inclined to solitude. She'd been a happy woman once, but a bitterness had set in after Tom died and her daughter, Beth Anne, left to find healing elsewhere. The only company she kept these days was a tattered scarecrow she'd dressed in a seersucker suit, a Panama hat, a mop of white hair, and a thick mustache made of cotton to honor Mark Twain, her hero. There was a chalkboard hanging from its neck on which Elsbeth would occasionally scribble her favorite Twain quotes. Currently, it read, "Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company," proving that there were those among the God-fearing who weren't afraid to poke fun at themselves.

When, on occasion, the loneliness became too much to bear, she would wander out into the field to sit next to her scarecrow and, ignoring her chores, talk until she was tired of hearing the sound of her own voice.

El was not lovely. She was old and dusty. And she spent her evenings sitting in the wooden rocking chair by the fireplace gathering more dust. Inevitably, she had a book in hand, which she read through wire-rim spectacles that took delight in slowly slipping down the bridge of her nose. This was not an easy task for the spectacles, as El had a rather large hook on her nose that one would think obstructed their mischief. They managed anyway.

Beginning this particular day as she did all her days, El awakened to collect her spectacles and quietly changed from her nightgown to a frock. She said a quick prayer, ending it with an appeal for rain. Kansas was experiencing an uncommonly long dry spell, and she was starting to run out of patience with the good Lord. If he didn't answer soon, she decided she wasn't above stripping to her knickers and doing a rain dance in the pigpen to see if that would get his attention.

A croak broke through the morning hush, interrupting El's irreverent prayer, and she poked her head out the window to see a crow impudently riding the thermals. After hanging the nightgown in her closet, she pulled on her lace-up shoes and shuffled past the corral, pausing to rub Yule May's muzzle before heading to the well with an arthritic snap and a pop to draw water for cooking and cleaning. The crow hovered above — an inky kite harnessing the wind — only to veer left and disappear from view.

While lowering the bucket, El put her hand over her eyes and scanned the horizon. Something was amiss. Her stomach felt off center, leading her to wonder if a storm was brewing. To the right, everything was as expected. The horizon offered a straight line separating golden fields from an endless buttermilk sky, broken only by the outline of the single oak tree on a gentle rise that provided shade to Tom's grave marker.

To the left, well ... To the left, something was definitely amiss. Rising above the wheat in the distance sat a purple-and-gold mountain of a house. El sullenly shook her head at the illusion, unhooked the bucket from its tether, and walked back to her cabin. The heat occasionally toyed with her eyes, but the air was cool and dry this spring morning. Just before stepping onto the porch, she set the bucket down, took a resigned breath, and turned around.

For the briefest of instants, something akin to wonder, or maybe hope, flowered inside her, but it was soon gone and she found herself glaring at the house, her lips pressed into a frown.

El was a practical woman. But she was equally a woman of determination. The appearance of the house was more than the affront of someone trespassing on her back forty; it was an insult to her understanding of how the universe worked. She gathered her skirt in her hands and marched through the wheat toward the offensive structure, only to pause at the gate in the picket fence to scowl at the profusion of roses growing on the other side. However much this bothersome addition to the landscape made her mind reel, she had to admit it had a certain charm.


El marched up to the house and stretched out her hand to knock on the door. Just as she did so, her stomach turned and the door began to spin. She closed her eyes to clear the vertigo and opened them to find that she was back at the gate in the picket fence. Infuriated, she stomped back to the door, convinced that her attempt to knock had lacked conviction. She raised her arm to give the door a good wallop —

And found herself plopped on her buttocks by the gate, legs sprawled, and with her skirt around her waist like some rag doll carelessly tossed in a bin. Just as the dirt started to chafe through her undergarments, a bird chirped close by. She looked up to find a finch perched atop a brass letter box that sat on the picket fence, pretty as you please. She stared at it for a moment before gathering herself up to head back to her cabin, where she immediately collected her ink pot and stationery and began making her objections known in no uncertain terms.

17th of May, 1895


I am Elsbeth Grundy, a retired schoolmarm for Pawnee County, Kansas, and have lived in the same cabin for nigh on forty-six years now, with a good part of that stretch in solitude — a condition suitable to my temperament.

You can imagine my surprise then when I woke up to find that overbearing piece of conceit you might otherwise call a house sitting on my back forty.

Lacking the disposition for subtlety, I'll get directly to the point. Trespass is dealt with at the business end of a shotgun in these parts!

And while it may appear to the contrary, I am not by nature the quarreling type, though that sissy of a representative from the county tax assessor's office might beg to differ. Frankly, I think the reports of his limp are greatly exaggerated.


Elsbeth Grundy



MAY 17, 1995

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

In polite company, she was known as Annabelle Aster. Being a spirited woman, however, she wasn't often found in such company, as she'd determined it to be, more often than not, insincere. And also being a sincere woman in every particular, Annie chose her company for the quality of its character, not its rank.

Those were quite possibly the finest words ever written. At least to the mind of her precocious, twelve-year-old self, Annie recalled. She rolled her eyes as she took a break from housecleaning to catch her breath — something she was out of more than she cared to admit these days — and reread the note stuffed between the pages of the book she found in a shoe box under the stairwell where she had been cleaning. It was meant as a tribute to Jane Austen — she'd read all her books by the age of eleven — and something of a personal manifesto for a young lady who absolutely refused to go downstairs, despite her godmother's persistent calls, to attend a birthday party where the participants were more interested in a boy's anatomy than syntax. The fact that she would be utterly ignored by her guests was in no way a contributing factor to her decision.

Eyeing a particularly offensive smudge on the banister, Annie broke from the memory and was leaning over to retrieve a dust rag from the floor when she noticed a red splotch blossoming over its cotton weave. A second splotch appeared next to the first, and she let out a sigh, pinching her nose as she sat down in the middle of the hall to wait out the dizzy spell that would inevitably follow.

Crossing her legs, Annie emptied her pockets of several wadded and bloodstained Kleenex before finding one that was unsoiled. She held it to her nose as the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 piped through the speakers, recalling something else from that long-forgotten day — the ache that found a home inside her, made up in equal parts of confusion and hurt, and the premonition that life was going to be an ongoing struggle with loneliness. She'd spent the remainder of that afternoon alone in her room, ignoring the knocks at her door, and had gone to bed all cried out.

Fitting in was never in the cards for Annie, unfortunately. Homeschooled by adoptive parents who were university professors and an extremely cultured godmother, she was too cerebral and strong-willed by half, and having no interest whatsoever in the latest release by David Cassidy, she simply wasn't wired like other girls her age. Except for Elizabeth, of course. She had been a childhood kindred spirit, a peer, being the great-granddaughter of Annie's godmother and therefore equally versed in all things Austen.

But with Elizabeth long gone, her adoptive parents dead two years now, and her godmother only a cherished memory, loneliness was a challenge for Annie. Not a day went by that she didn't miss them, but she had her childhood home — a lovingly restored Victorian Stick, all done up in purples and golds, within a stone's throw of Mission Dolores Park — her books, and the company of her best friend, Christian, and that was enough. Or so she told herself anyway.

"Coming in at number twenty-three is Annie Lennox singing 'No More I Love You's,' but first, more than a year after his death, a tribute to Kurt Cobain."

As the distorted guitar riffs collided with Cobain's harum-scarum voice, Annie smiled inwardly and blotted her nose one last time before pulling herself to her feet to test her balance. With a glance at her watch, she quickly cleaned the offending smudge and headed into the kitchen to remove a vial from the refrigerator. Tearing open a bag of thirty-gauge needles and alcohol preps, she loaded a syringe and injected its contents expertly in the fatty tissue next to her belly button. Disposing of the needle and tossing the swabs in the bin, she strolled down the hall and disappeared into a closet.

Her house had six of them, and each was fairly brimming with clothes that were either hung from or draped over every conceivable surface, since Annie was better with piles than hangers. And while she had the usual assortment of distressed jeans, cashmere sweaters, and Doc Martens typical of women her age, they were relegated to a single closet in the master bedroom to make room for her prodigious collection of vintage attire — corsets, flounced petticoats, crinoline, bustles, hoop skirts, and tea gowns, though she favored long sateen and velvet dresses of a cut popular at the turn of the twentieth century that, while clinging tightly to her neck, accentuated her figure.

Annie adored Victorian clothing. And while she usually bowed to modern convention when, say, grocery shopping or hitting the gym, she could be seen, more often than not, sitting in a café or walking through a park looking like a ghost from another age.


Excerpted from The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks. Copyright © 2015 Scott Wilbanks. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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