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From the New York Times bestselling author and “masterful storyteller”* behind The Art of Arranging Flowers comes a new novel about the search for what really matters in life...
Driving from North Carolina to New Mexico with her three-legged dog, a strange man’s ashes, and a waitress named Blossom riding shotgun isn’t exactly what Alissa Wells ever wanted to be doing. But it’s exactly what she needs...
It all starts when Alissa impulsively puts a bid on an abandoned storage unit, only to become the proud new owner of Roger Hart’s remains. Two weeks later, she jumps in her car and heads west, thinking that returning the ashes of a dead man might be the first step on her way to a new life.
She isn’t wrong.
Especially when Blossom, who just graduated from high school, hitches a ride with her to Texas, and Alissa has to get used to letting someone else take the wheel. Posting about their road trip on Facebook, complete with photos of Roger at every stop, Blossom opens Alissa’s eyes to the road in front of her—and to how sometimes the best things in life are the ones you never see coming…
READERS GUIDE INSIDE
*Darien Gee, international bestselling author
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Lynne Branard is the author of The Art of Arranging Flowers. As Lynne Hinton, she is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Friendship Cake, Pie Town, and Welcome Back to Pie Town.
Read an Excerpt
The only thing I remember about Mama was how she was always moving. Years before the small tumor grew, the mania finally linked to the cancer in her brain, Mama never stopped moving. I think it wore Daddy out, but I loved it. I loved her. The way she danced while she cooked our breakfast, pancakes delivered to the table as if she were a rock star shimmying to the final notes of the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden," the way she lifted my sister from the crib, twirling her the whole time with me straddling her foot, clinging to her leg. She would sweep and sing, stopping just long enough to clutch the broom like a diva with her microphone. She'd change the furniture in the living room, giving us new hiding places for another round of hide-and-seek, and she would strap both of us in the backseat of that old station wagon and drive to the ocean or south to White Lake or even all the way to Asheville and the cold, foggy Blue Ridge Mountains and their twisting, curvy roads. She could not stay still.
Of course, I never knew she was sick or exhausted. I never knew that the dancing and the spinning and the driving and the darting from one place to another were a symptoms of illness. I thought she was immortal. I thought I was the luckiest child alive to have a mother always buying new paint sets and giving us long rolls of white paper to decorate, a mother who seemed to know the most beautiful spots for girls-only picnics, a mother who was able to balance on her toes while she hung the sheets on the line in the backyard, calling us to come and smell the sunshine caught in the wide stretch of fabric. I thought the movement and the action were simply a part of the great adventure of life, of childhood; and I woke up every morning wondering what she had planned for that day and how she would dance my sister and me through every minute of it.
And then, one day in the spring of my fifth year, she simply stopped moving. She stopped dancing and spinning and changing the pictures on the walls and cleaning the house from ceiling to floor, finding coins and sliding them into our palms, telling us they were gifts from angels; and suddenly everything I knew about being a child-every step, every movement, every lift and twirl-came to an abrupt and unexpected halt. Everything just stopped. The music, the dancing, the laughter, the games, the unlimited extravaganza of our imaginations, all of it seemed to freeze in time, all of us standing in the wake of her death, paralyzed by our loss.
And now, thirty years after she died, I realize I haven't moved an inch since then. At the age of five I sat down in my life; I took my mother's place in raising my sister and caring for my father and keeping the house neat and clean with only scant movements and no flair and I never stepped away. Until now. Until I pulled open the big overhead door on that storage unit in Wilmington and pilfered through the cartons of driftwood and the bins of tools and the baskets of rope and the stacks of boating magazines, blankets, and camping equipment, all the way to the back, and found the box. The box I see now placed in the passenger's seat of Faramond, my old Volkswagen Bug that Daddy bought for me at my high school graduation, giving me the permission to leave which I did not take. The box of ashes with a business card and a receipt from the Serenity Mortuary in Grants, New Mexico, taped on top. This box of ashes that is now sending me away from my home. This box of ashes that is finally making me move.
Exactly nine weeks ago I entered my name and random bid in the storage war meant to be a promotion for a television station in Raleigh. I had seen the reality show that was being imitated by WRAL. I had watched the winners strutting behind the chain-link fences, over to their newly claimed vaults, opening the doors and finding all kinds of meaningless junk and often wonderfully unexpected treasures. I watched as they found buyers for their eighteenth-century antique tables, their glass trinkets, and their refurbished wooden trunks and highboy chests. I saw their eyes light up as the cash register tallied their sales and the money changed hands; and so without too much thought I turned on my computer, found the registration site, stuffed a cookie in my mouth, and typed in my name, Alissa Kate Wells. I gave my phone number and address and casually put in a bid of one month's salary, gross, not net, from my job at the Clayton Times and News, where my father is my boss. I hit send on the top of the Web page and in a few days forgot I had even done such a thing.
When the e-mail arrived saying I had won the contents of a storage unit at the Affordable Storage Facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, I thought it was spam, unwanted advertising. I was just about to hit delete when I remembered the contest. Suddenly I recalled the evening I'd heard about the promotion and how I had just gotten off the phone with my sister, Sandra, and how I walked over to the pantry, opened another box of Girl Scout cookies, the snickerdoodles, the ones Daddy buys but doesn't like, went back to my computer, and entered the WRAL storage unit bidding war.
Once I arrived in Wilmington to claim my prize, it was an hour before I found the box of ashes. Later I called the funeral home located in the small mining town west of Albuquerque, trying to find the family that belonged to the person whose remains had been placed in a small wooden box with a butterfly carved on top, and ultimately abandoned in a storage building in North Carolina. And it was two weeks later that I packed my hatchback Faramond with bottles of water and my last box of snickerdoodles; called Millie to watch Old Joe, my blind cat, and water the boxes of pansies that I had just planted around my grandmother's house, now mine, on Tree Street; and helped Casserole get in the back, holding his hip and pushing him in so that his three legs didn't tangle on the suitcase or the bags of groceries I'd stowed there.
I called Daddy last night to tell him I was taking my vacation, the days I hadn't used now accumulated to over four months. We talked about the early rains and whether the Democrats were going to lose control of the House and then I told him.
"Dad, I'd like to take a trip."
"Yeah, to Paris? Idaho? You want to go fly-fishing with me?"
"I need to go to New Mexico."
"Not much fly-fishing there."
"I need to return something I found."
"What?" he asked, and I told him about winning the contest, about all the stuff I'd found in the storage unit and carried back to the house, how I'd crammed it all in my garage with plans to do something with it later.
Then I answered the question. I told him what I'm taking back to New Mexico.
"Ashes," I said. "A box of someone's remains. I found them and I want to take them back to where he lived."
"You need me to go?" he asked.
"Nope, it's just for me," I confessed.
And then, there were just a few moments of silence until he asked me if I had trained Dixie on how to set the copy, reminded James William when to call for the advertising, and showed Ben how to size and crop the photographs. After I answered yes to his questions about the state of the newspaper, he just told me to have a good time. And that was it. No seasoned reporter's questions of when, where, how, and why. No employer's diatribe about the mess I was leaving him with. No interest in what the ashes meant to me. He just poured out a long breath the way he always did when he was stumped about a story and told me to call when I got to where I meant to go, keep a quart of oil in the car, watch the engine light, and have a good time.
And just like that, I am heading west to a place most people in my hometown don't even know is a state in our fine union to deliver the remains of a man that no one has claimed. I have along with me my trusty companion, Casserole, a little-bit-of-everything mutt that showed up at my door nine years ago; a box of motor oil; a hundred dollars' worth of drinks and snacks; a map, even though James William showed me the new MotionX GPS Drive app that I could purchase on my phone; and these ashes. I loaded up and I'm ready to go. I am driving away from the only place I have ever lived, listening to Mick Jagger, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. I am alive and moving.
As I pull out of my driveway and down to the corner where I make a turn to get onto Interstate 40, I imagine my mother dancing, smiling down from wherever she is, watching me. For some reason, I think she must be proud.
"You use regular for that, right?"
He is beside me before I even turn off the engine. Tall, skinny, his thin black hair slicked back into a ponytail, he leans in, his face just above the top of the window I rolled down for the late-morning breeze after the sun came up. The name Buster is sewn on a patch pinned to the top left pocket of his long-sleeved denim shirt, and I can see the edge of a tattoo trailing beneath the collar. He is smiling and his eyes never leave my face. He does not take note of anything else in my car and it's easy to see that he is used to minding his own business.
I nod. "Yes to both questions," I answer. "And use the low octane."
I glance around. It's surprising in this day and age to have someone show up to pump my gas, and at first I think maybe I have mistakenly stopped at a full-service venue and will be paying more for the assistance.
"There's no charge for the service," he explains, clearly used to the surprise of his customers.
I smile and hand him my card.
"No knocking?" he asks, stepping back and turning to the pumps.
"No knocking," I reply, demonstrating my understanding of the language of a car mechanic. Low octane means the engine is running smoothly and a higher grade of gasoline isn't necessary.
Buster inserts my credit card, punches in a code, and pulls down the handle. He returns to my open window and hands me back my card.
My daddy taught me the basics of automobiles when I was twelve. After Mama died there were few places where he was comfortable around his two daughters. One was anywhere outside he considered wild, including the patch of woods at the far end of town and down along the banks of the murky Neuse River. Another was in his office at the newspaper, where we would often play under his desk when he was researching a story or putting the final touches on a late edition.
The place where he seemed the most relaxed, however-a man standing between two little motherless girls-was in front of one of his cars, the hood open, his hands and arms greasy from his work, leaning forward, stretching out across the radiator and filters, explaining to the both of us where to check the oil, why it was important for a person to know that the pistons were firing correctly, and how to stop an engine from rattling.
Sandra never stood alongside him for more than ten minutes before she would head back inside the house to play with her paper dolls or, when she got older, to flip through the pages of a fashion magazine; but I stayed as long as he did, trying to take in anything he could teach me, soaking in every second of what it was to feel him at ease, comfortable in his skin and at home, happy to have me near him.
I watch Buster move to the rear of my car and open the gas tank cover. He screws off the cap and starts pumping. I can hear him whistle softly as he leaves the gas tank and moves around to the front of the car to clean the windshield.
I look in the rearview mirror. Casserole is sitting up and I know he needs to take a walk. I leave my place, open the door, push up the seat, attach the leash to his collar, and lead him out. Even though this isn't a spot we have been before, he seems to know right where he needs to go so I simply follow, holding the leash loosely in my hand.
The sun is out of the eastern sky, high and uncovered by the clouds of the night before. It is a southern summer, early but already in its fullness; the air is thick and humid, the wild daylilies are stretching to reach light above the ditch banks, and the gnats and mosquitoes, already out for the morning, are buzzing around my head. It is a good day to leave.
"Hurry up, Cass," I say as I slap at my neck, missing the flying insect that has already drawn blood. "I'll need bug repellent if we stay out here much longer."
Casserole sniffs around the narrow stretch of grass planted next to the gas station, finally finding a clump of bottlebrush where he's able to steady himself on his three legs and do his business. I watch only for a second and then glance away, knowing that even years after he came to live with me, it still bothers him to have an audience. He quickly moves on, retreating to the car, where Buster is topping off the gas and replacing the pump handle back into its holder.
"There's a bowl of water by the door," Buster says, wiping his hands on a rag that must have been in his back pocket.
"Oh, that's okay, I have some in the car." I help Casserole back into his place in the backseat, unhook his leash, and get the gallon bottle of water that I have prepared for him.