Emma Cooper is determined to fulfill her mother
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Alexander Cendese is a New York-based actor/narrator whose credits include roles on and Off-Broadway, in films, and on popular television shows, including Law & Order: SVU and All My Children. He holds a BFA from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.
Elizabeth Hart has been a multifaceted performer her entire life. Her interest in audible arts began with her grandfather, a member of the Choctaw tribe who liked to tell her passed-down stories from his heritage.
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I look at Dad's watch out of habit. It's huge and clunky on me. I've made my own hole in the worn leather so it will stay on my wrist. Like me, it runs slow these days. It's a JCPenney special with nothing special about it, but it makes me feel closer to him.
Tilting my face, I gaze at the house that had been my home. A flashy sticker covers the For Sale sign in the yard announcing the home is SOLD in obnoxious red capital letters. I want to kick the sign, punch it, or better yet, rip it from the earth and stomp on it until I'm standing on nothing but splinters.
But the time for action is gone.
I chose to leave early this morning to avoid neighbors and friends. They will offer up their homes to me again. They will try to give me money or suggest other options. I didn't inherit my father's wit or wisdom, but I have his stubborn pride.
I do a final check of the truck — my dad's truck, which now belongs to me. I tug on the straps securing the tarp that covers all my possessions. I am literally carrying my world. Taking a cleansing breath, I climb into the driver's side. Mom's already in the passenger seat. I reach over and secure the seat belt around her.
"Get comfortable. We have a long trip," I tell her, tugging on her seat belt once more. "It's twenty-six hundred miles to the middle of Nowhere, Texas." I flash mom a cheerful smile I don't feel.
"Emma," she says, her voice full of compassion with the slightest hint of admonishment — a feat only mothers can achieve.
"Sorry, I mean Linx, Texas. What kind of name is that for a town, anyway?"
But she doesn't respond this time. She is very selective in her conversation these days.
Scrolling through the navigation app on my phone, I contemplate the strange journey for the hundredth time. "It'll take us about a week to get there and back."
Sorrow floods me with the realization that I won't come back here. I'll go to a new, permanent home in Los Angeles instead. I'll move in with my boyfriend, Kenneth. Mom won't be with me anymore. That's the reason I've procrastinated until the final hour. I'm not ready to let her go.
As we make our way through the streets of Dunsmuir, California, she speaks again. "Sweetheart, is there something you're forgetting?"
"Mom, you can't be serious."
I turn up the volume to tune her out. I made the playlist for this trip specifically. They are all songs from generations past. Sam Cooke sings about "What a Wonderful World" it is.
"Sam Cooke," she says. "Your dad introduced me to his music. He'd sing this song to me all the time, and make me dance with him. I never danced before I met him."
Yeah, Mom, I was there, remember? As a child, I would roll my eyes and fake a gag at their random acts of affection. Now, I wish I had just one of those moments back. Thanks, Sam. As if I'm not fucked up enough.
But even Sam's smooth jazzy voice doesn't distract Mom.
"You found his address, didn't you? When you went through my memory box?"
I'd avoided the small wooden box until the very end of my packing. It contained Mom's favorite photos, my first tooth, and the little love notes dad wrote over the years. All the usual stuff that has no value to anyone else but is invaluable just the same. I never imagined finding Aiden Sheffield's address on a folded scrap of flowery stationary.
When Mom first mentioned her crazy request, I thought she was delusional. After all, I'd never heard his name before. For that matter, I'd never heard of Linx. In fact, the only thing "Texas" in our home was the bread she served with her cheesy spaghetti bake. Oh, and the Hold 'em games we played during Friday night poker.
"What? I'm just supposed to show up at his house? Hi, I'm Emma Cooper. You don't know me, but apparently, you had a fling with my mom. She wants me to tell you she's sorry. We're going on this road trip to this tiny Texas town that I've never heard of. And guess what, Mr. Sheffield? Bonus, she wants you to come with. Yeah, 'cause that's not crazy."
"Oh, baby, this isn't a normal road trip, is it? I'm sorry to put this on your shoulders, but I won't be able to rest in peace until it's done."
I concentrate on Sam singing to us. Here I am, at this crossroads that's not of my own choosing. We weave our way through the quiet streets of Dunsmuir, passing the sign that announces we have the "World's Best Water," a big point of pride. I will miss this town. We pass the firehouse with its large elm tree in front. I slow down, staring at the plaque affixed to the trunk, the one that details my father's heroic action about a year back. He gave up his own life while saving two children trapped on the top floor of an apartment building.
"Do you miss Dad?"
"With everything I have."
"Then why are you still here?"
"Because you need me."
"I don't need you! And I sure as hell don't need this." I get control of myself. I have never raised my voice to my mother, and I should not start now.
With shaky hands, I place the truck in park to catch my breath. Way to go, Emma. You barely made it five miles before the first breakdown. Thank God, the streets are empty and no one's around to take advantages of the free admission to the freak show. I manage to get myself under control without hyperventilating.
"Are you okay, honey?" she asks.
"I haven't been okay in a long time."
I sigh, releasing all the justifications I've made since finding that stupid scrap of flowery paper last night. Instead of turning south on I-5 like I should, I head north toward Butte Falls, Oregon.
"It's way out of the way," I say, not hiding my irritation. "In the opposite direction, actually."
"Just a detour, honey."
My whole life feels like a fucking detour.
Sam's sings now about "How a Change is Gonna Come."
No kidding, Sam.
Three hours and two gas station lattes later, the truck wheezes down a long gravel road, kicking up dust, protesting this journey. The road is part and parcel of the same address. The wooden sign welcomes me to the Healing Paws Sanctuary.
I make my first discovery about the mysterious Aiden Sheffield — he is a dog lover.
Smaller signs direct me right for adoptions and left for tours. I forge straight ahead toward the looming white farmhouse, which I assume is his residence. The sun is still high, casting a halo-like light around the house.
I park and do a quick inspection in the rearview mirror. After a few lame attempts at primping, I stop running my fingers through my rebellious reddish brown hair. I check my phone for messages. Natalie sent a couple of weird memes meant to cheer me up. Kenneth has texted to check in. I send him back a detailed response about my detour to visit Aiden Sheffield. Natalie, Kenneth and I have known each other since childhood, but things are different now. I've changed. They are carefree, enjoying the dizzying lights of L.A., acting like normal twenty-somethings. I carry tragedy like a disease, and they don't want to get infected. In some ways, I get it. In other ways, it pisses me off. Soon, though, I'll be with them, and I'll hide my pain behind a masked grin. Things will be normal. God, please let them be normal.
Just need to get through this first.
"I'm going to leave you in the car. It would be strange if I took you inside," I say to Mom. Not that any of this isn't strange to begin with. I am having a conversation with a dead woman, after all.
I don't think it's weird I talk to my mother's ashes. I've been having conversations with the urn for the past six months. It's my way of coping with the grief. The really creepy part is when the urn answers back.
I square my shoulders as I approach the door, feigning bravery. I groan at the sight of my faded UCLA T-shirt, black yoga pants, and purple Chuck Taylors. Good garments for a long road trip, but hardly an appropriate outfit for this.
Whatever this is.
Forget it. I couldn't care less what Aiden Sheffield thinks of me. A dog bark signals my arrival before I can even knock. I gasp and take a step back. The sign on the door says: One rule for all who enter — Must Love Dogs.
I guess that applies to me. I knock before I lose my nerve.
The dog's barks cease as soon as the deep male voice, spiced with a slight Spanish accent, commands calm. The door opens. He's as attractive as I imagined — tall, with naturally tan skin, brown eyes, and Mediterranean looks. Silver strands thread through his dark hair in that way that makes older men appear dashing.
It's easy to see why Mom fell for him. But he's not as handsome or as good of a man as my father. I can guarantee that.
"May I help you, young lady?" His smile is friendly.
"Mr. Sheffield, my name is Emma."
He pauses, his expression hovering between confusion and amusement. To my surprise, he starts laughing. "I'm flattered to be confused for Aiden, but I'm about twenty years long and a few pounds of muscle short for that mistake. Name's Mac McDonnell."
I bite my lip, turning ten shades of embarrassed at my assumption.
"Sorry ... Mr. McDonnell, is it?"
He stretches out his hand. I grip it limply. "Call me Mac, please. Otherwise, I might start feeling those twenty years. I run this place. Please come in."
The inside of the house feels more modern, with bright colors, Spanish tiles, and a large stone fireplace. A whole wall is covered with portraits of every size and breed of dog. Underneath each picture, there are tiny handwritten notes with their names and adoption date. A large dog with shaggy gray fur sits on the ground underneath the photos. His calm dark eyes quietly assess me.
"Hello, gorgeous boy," I say to the dog.
"Meet Otis," Mac says. "He's very friendly." Mac gestures him over. "You can pet him."
I've never owned dogs, but I am a huge animal lover and can't resist Otis's big sweet eyes calling to me. "I would love to."
I bend, keeping a few feet between us. The dog shifts from his sitting position and ambles toward me. He sniffs me once before ducking his head beneath my hand. My smile is genuine for the first time in forever. The joy falters a bit when I notice Otis is missing a tail. Poor boy.
"I wasn't aware Aiden had an appointment today," Mac says.
"I don't have an appointment."
"You're not here to adopt?"
"Afraid not." The dog licks my face. I wish Mac's assumption was true.
"Too bad. It's easy to see you'd be a great best friend."
"I'm here on a personal matter."
"How do you know Aiden?" Suspicion colors his gaze. I'm not sure how to respond. What I have to say doesn't make any sense to begin with, and I'm not about to say it twice.
I stand. As soon as I do, the dog sits next to me. "He's an old family friend."
Mac arches a brow, his expression turning suspicious. "Can't be that old. You're very young."
"You know what they say, Mac. Age is just a number."
Thankfully, he doesn't press on. He chuckles instead. "That is true. Aiden's on a run, but you're welcome to wait for him here, or I can give you a tour if you'd like."
I consider my choices. "I don't want to take up your time."
"You can't take something I'm willing to give. C'mon, I'll show you around the old place. People love our tours." He starts walking toward the back door before I can think of a reason to protest. He turns to me before opening it. "Any allergies?" "No."
"Good. Try to keep calm. Dogs can sense emotion, and it affects their behavior."
I nod, although I have no idea how to keep calm right now.
The area behind the home is huge, partitioned by large cages and various fences. There are kennels and bins of dog toys, but it's all very well-kept. It feels like a tiny city with small homes dotted across the landscape.
"We have many volunteers, but our permanent staff stays on site," Mac explains.
We walk for a long time with Otis between us.
I ask a few questions along the way, as we pass different groups of dogs and trainers. Mac opens the door of one of the kennels. All my nervous energy fades as I'm attacked by a pack of rambunctious puppies. After they sniff me, Mac tells me I can pet them. They almost knock me over with their demanding kisses and energetic affection. Mac introduces me to so many that I forget their names, but they are all tender and sweet. Someone should bottle this feeling. Playing with puppies has to be the best cure for sorrow. As we move on, Mac explains that there are some dogs I can't meet because they are still considered aggressive. I realize even with the tour, we've barely covered the expanse of the property.
I've been here for over an hour by the time we reach a large grassy area. It's enclosed with a long, chain-link fence that stretches for miles. A tall hill slopes against the high afternoon sun.
"This is our dog run. Ah, there's Aiden," he says, pointing toward the hill.
A man appears in the distance, running like a feral animal, followed by eight of the largest dogs I've ever seen. He's tall, a few inches past six feet, at least, with inky black hair. Even from this distance, I can see his skin is sun-kissed. He wears black running shorts, which show off his well-defined legs. The dark blue, ribbed crew-neck shirt doesn't conceal the tightly coiled muscles underneath, either. He turns to face the dogs, running backward. Even though he is far away, the deep baritone of his rich, slightly raspy voice echoes over to me:
My head bounces to the rhythm of his silly military cadence.
He stops close by but still hasn't seen me. He focuses all his energy on the dogs. His muscles aren't obnoxiously huge, but they define his sleek body as if an artist chiseled them in perfect proportions. Taking a hose, he fills a trough with water. As the dogs drink, he reaches into a small blue cooler and brings out his own water bottle. He sips it greedily before dousing his head. My throat runs dry, then pangs of guilt hit me. What am I doing? I have a boyfriend. Shaking my head, I open my mouth. But still, no words come.
The largest dog in the mix, a beautiful pit bull with shiny black fur, strolls over to him. The dog begs the man for attention, standing on its back legs. The man slaps his chest three times and the dog rises, placing its front paws there. He gently strokes the animal's head and says a few quiet words I can't hear. I swear the dog nods back. It almost looks as if they are conversing.
This is perhaps the most beautiful creature I've ever seen.
And the dog is gorgeous, too.
Mac clears his throat. Shit, I hope he didn't see me leering.
"Do you mind waiting here, Emma? A reporter from the Gazette comes at this time every week to do a feature on one of our dogs. I have to get the lady of the hour ready to pose for her close-up."
"Not at all. Thank you for the tour."
After Mac leaves, I continue to stare, happy for the privacy to check out Aiden Sheffield.
Wait ... what?
Mac had said he was twenty years older, but it didn't register then. This can't be Aiden. He is definitely older than me, but not by much. Mom was no cradle robber, and moreover, she was no cheater. I swallow down the bile rising in my throat and cram the thought into a dark corner of my head. She would never cheat on my dad. Never.
The whole way here, I practiced what I would say to this mysterious man who meant so much to Mom, but those rehearsed words no longer make sense. Seeing Aiden Sheffield hasn't done a damn thing to solve the mystery. I'm more confused than ever.
He turns in my direction. I freeze, still as an opossum, as he strides toward me. I am that tall girl who stood in the back during school pictures and programs, but he looms over me, his shadow making the sunny day a few degrees colder. We stare for an awkward moment. His damp hair, although cut short, is thick, forking over his forehead. Stubble covers the strong angle of his jaw. He's not perfect, though. His nose is slightly crooked, and a deep, jagged scar covers his right cheek. The contrast of those hurts against the rest of his face makes him look rougher, maybe even dangerous. His eyes draw most of my attention, though. Thick eyelashes — the kind any girl would kill for — hover above shimmering green orbs that don't just catch the light ... they steal it.
"May I help you?" he asks, his smile tight like it's forced.
Struggling to find my voice, I finally respond. "Aiden Sheffield?"
"Guilty. Are you here to adopt?"
Excerpted from "The Scars Between Us"
Copyright © 2017 MK Schiller.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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