||Still Waters Publishing, LLC
||Jan 18, 2011
Facing an empty nest and the possible demise of her marriage, Grace Adams goes to a secluded lake cabin to redefine her life. A story of one woman finding purpose in her life and discovering the power of love.
Imagine going alone to a secluded lake cabin to redefine your life. In this stunning debut novel by writer Cheryl Shireman, the main character, Grace Adams, is a woman who faces an uncertain future. Despite the fact that she built her life around them, her daughter and husband have created lives that no longer include her.
I am dreaming. I am four. I am at a family reunion at an aunt’s house. The reflection of a white farmhouse looms, tall and angular, into an in-ground pool. The scents of chlorine and grilling hamburgers waft, exchange, and intermingle.
My mother sits nearby in a lawn chair. Her black polyester stretch pants squish through the crisscross of webbing in uneven lumps. Her attention is on a noisy game of volleyball being played across the yard. No one sees me. I am so small that I barely exist. She does not see me. She does not see. She does not. See me. See. Me.
A large beach ball floats seductively upon the surface of the pool. It drifts in my direction, becoming larger and larger until it fills my entire field of vision—red and white and glistening with irregular drops of water. I clap my hands and it draws closer.
Mother is standing now. She looks so young. Even in my dream, I wonder, was she ever this young? One hand is placed on her hip and her mouth is parted in a smile as she watches the raucous game. A transparent headscarf is wrapped around her head and its tail flutters tentatively under the knot that is pulled snug against her pale neck. The scarf is the color of lilacs.
I wonder why I am not being scolded. I expect harsh words. Maybe a spanking. I am very near the pool. I was told to stay away. But my mother is smiling, laughing, while the volleyball players argue over whether the ball was in bounds. The concrete under my feet feels hot and rough. I wiggle my toes and feel the skin being scraped from them.
I look at the ball. It is so close now that I see nothing else. I smell it. Fresh wet plastic. It smells like pool toys. I reach forward and touch it. Its surface is warm and slippery and smooth. It recoils upon contact. Flirty. Coy. Slowly, it floats out of my reach. I lean forward and strain to touch it again.
My body meets the water with a quiet splash. An unnoticed splash. Falling into the water, I sink in slow motion. Deeper and deeper. My body turns over and the water and sky become one and stretch above me. Through the blue that engulfs me, I see the distorted image of my mother. She stands in the same position. Still smiling. I see the scarf flutter—lilac blue now.
My arms extend toward her. She is out of reach. Wavy. Like a mirage. Struggling frantically, I grasp at the water but it slides through my fingers. I call out to my mother and water forces its way into my mouth, and into my lungs. I gasp and choke on more water. I am helpless. All I can do is sink slowly until the pool and the sky merge into darkness. I wonder why my mother will not come and get me. And why she is still smiling.
Waking, I quickly sit upright. I gasp in uneven breaths. Sweat covers my body. I clutch at a tangle of damp sheets. My tee shirt is a twister. My torso caught in the storm.
I reach for Matt, but my grasp is hollow. He is not there. I long for his chest to bury my head against. I long for the feel of his breath upon my hair as he whispers that it was just a dream. He is not there. Not here. Not beside me. I am not sure how long he has been gone. It was so gradual I never saw it coming. In fact, his side of the bed no longer exists. I am in the middle of the bed, in the place where we used to meet. In the empty, odd-shaped gap between our bodies that we used to fill like interlocking puzzle pieces.
I am not even in our bed. That bed is in storage and I am in a secluded lake cabin on a small island in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The cabin belonged to Matt’s parents. We rarely came here, and I have not been here in years. I am not a lake person; I cannot swim. The first time Matt and I were here was on our honeymoon. The last time we were here, Laney was fifteen and had spent the entire weekend moping about some boy she had just started dating. After we returned home, they broke up within a week. I am still angry that some boy, whose name I cannot even remember, spoiled what could have been a wonderful weekend.
Now, I am here because our house has been repossessed and I have nowhere else to go. Matt is living in his parents’ house, which he went to “clean out” a little over a year ago when his only surviving parent, his mother, died. He never came back. Months later, an appraiser knocked on the door and asked to come inside and appraise our house for the bank. I was sitting at home making a grocery list when he rang the doorbell. I was totally in the dark. But I was in the dark about a lot of things back then. I had called Matt immediately. He just kept saying he was sorry. Over and over again. Finally, I told him he had to come home and straighten this out.
“I can’t,” he said.
“What! What do you mean, you can’t? Matt, there is a guy here appraising our house!”
“I can’t love you anymore.”
I wish I could remember what I said back, but I can’t. I only remember the appraiser walking around the house and, eventually, Matt hanging up on me. The following months are a blur. I had a garage sale, selling our stuff for handfuls of quarters. I rented a storage unit and moved furniture, and boxes and boxes of possessions, into it. I put enough clothes for the summer in all of the suitcases I could find, and I came to this cabin.
I cannot believe my beloved house has been repossessed. A beautiful grey Cape Cod with a full-length white porch. Matt and I used to sit there in wicker chairs and watch Laney play in the front yard. Hanging pots of magenta petunias—so big that women in passing cars used to slow down to stare at them—filled the air with their sweet scent.
Now, I sit in the dark in this cabin that feels strange to me. I have nowhere to go. I think of Laney, my barely eighteen-year-old daughter, who is spending the summer hiking across the Colorado Rockies with her best friend, Allison. Despite my many protestations about the danger of two girls hiking alone in the wilderness, she left, which is a good thing, I guess, because at least she doesn’t know about the house. She left a week before the appraiser showed up. Almost immediately upon her return, she will be leaving for her first year of college at Colorado University in Boulder, halfway across the country.
I sigh and roll over. I still can’t believe any of this. I can’t believe Matt ended our twenty-two-year marriage with the words, “I can’t love you anymore.” I can’t believe that somehow, without me ever noticing, both of them have managed to create lives that suddenly do not require me.
To say that I do not understand is an understatement. It goes deeper than that. I cannot fathom it. It is incomprehensible. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. How could they have so neatly, and so completely, eliminated me from their lives? My life not only has a void, it feels void. Null and void. Useless. Without direction or purpose. Now what, I often catch myself thinking. Now what? For the next moment, the next day, for the rest of my life. Now what? I pass through the days looking at the clock and wondering: Is it time to go to bed yet?
I roll over to my other side. The digital alarm clock atop the bedside table glows orange. 3:46 a.m. I don't like it. The numbers are too big, the color too harsh. “Three forty-six and you’re wide awake and all alone!” The numbers on my old alarm are a soft green. I like that better. It’s bad enough I’m awake, I don’t need an alarm clock mocking me.
I wonder if I still have that alarm clock, whether it is in storage or whether it was sold at the garage sale. I remember a woman coming up to me, holding a jewelry box Matt had given me.
“Would you take a dollar for this?” she had asked.
I had looked at it. It sported a pink sticker that read five dollars. Matt had given it to me on our first anniversary. “Sure,” I answered and then held out my hand while she dropped four quarters in it.
I wonder if tents have locks on them. I hope that Laney is warm. When she was a baby, I used to check on her while she slept and a little bare foot was always poking out. I would tuck it back in. Protect her from the cold. Protect her. Even in her sleep.
As she was packing to leave, I tried to give her an extra blanket to put in her backpack but she laughed at me and told me that it was too heavy. She said her sleeping bag was rated to several degrees below zero, which was a good thing, because they might encounter snow in the higher elevations. At the time, I just stood and stared at her. In the higher elevations?—was that my baby girl saying that? When she was a little over eighteen months old I had taken her outside and stood her in the grass. She refused to take a step. She cried and held onto me and I had to go inside to get her shoes. Even after she started school, she seldom liked to walk in the grass barefoot. And now she was talking about sleeping in a tent in the snow in “higher elevations.” Standing there, watching Laney stuff her backpack, I wanted to remind her of that—tell her that she never even liked to be barefoot in the grass. But she walked from the room before I could say anything.
I wonder about the locks again. Maybe once you get inside the tent, and zip yourself in, there is a little lock like the one you put on your luggage when you travel. I wonder, if there is such a lock, what if they lose the key? How would they get back out of the tent? I wonder if they sleep with their backpacks in the tent, because, if they do, they could eat food from their packs until someone found them. Then I remember Laney telling me they would often be in very isolated stretches of mountains. I remember there is a knife in her backpack. She could cut her way out if they lock the tent and have lost the key. I feel better knowing that. But, then, couldn’t someone cut their way into their tent just as easily? My heart beats rapidly. I dismiss the thought. I think about tent locks again and come to the conclusion they probably don’t exist. I guess that if you are a person who sleeps in the wilderness in a tent, you probably don’t give much thought to locks. I wonder how Laney became such a person.
I push my hair back. Sigh deeply. Try to make my breathing obey. I tug at the tee shirt and pull it from underneath me. I am still upset from the dream. Just a dream, I tell myself. It was just a dream. It is a recurring dream—one I have when I’m overly tired or stressed, which is most of the time now.
I hate the dampness of the sheets. I scoot over to a drier spot. I am reminded of waking from the same dream as a child, my sheets beyond damp and soaked with urine. Crying, scared, humiliated. Mother stumbling from her own sleep into the dark bedroom. The blinding light. Relief. More tears.
“Shhh. You’ll wake your father. Get up. Get into the tub. I’ll change these. Be quiet. Don’t cry.”
And sometimes my father’s voice, a drowsy rumble asking what was wrong.
“Nothing, nothing!” my mother would answer lightly. “Just getting Grace a drink of water.” And then she would whisper to me, “No need to tell Daddy. It will be our secret.”
I could feel her embarrassment, her shame, even more acutely than my own. I embarrassed her. She was ashamed of me. We wouldn’t tell. We hardly told each other. I wouldn’t look at her as she scuttled back and forth, ripping the sheets off the bed and hiding them in the bathroom cupboard until they could be washed when my father left for work the next day. I scrubbed myself and tried to replace the odor of urine with the scent of Zest. I pretended they weren’t my sheets. And with my head bowed, my hair falling forward, I often cried into the tub. Water falling into water. Falling into water.
I sigh again, still shaken from the dream. I flip over. The shower drips in the nearby bathroom. At home, or at least in the house that used to be my home, the water drips in the master tub. I used to listen to it at night. Matt was supposed to fix it. It started dripping after he lost his job. He said he would get around to it, but he never did. Maybe I should have seen that as a sign of things to come. A deterioration of the plumbing; a deterioration of the relationship.
I try to steady my nerves. Taking a deep breath, I push away all these thoughts. Inhale. Exhale. I remind myself that I did not drown as a child. My mother, I am told, for I do not remember, spotted me in the pool a moment later, dove in, and pulled me to safety. She pressed her mouth against mine and, literally, breathed life back into my body.
And now I am safe, I tell myself. Safe.
The water drips.
I push back the covers and get up. I cannot stand this bed for another moment. I walk through the darkened cabin and out onto the porch. A huge white moon is punctured by the black branches of trees overhead. It seems too big, too close to the ground. Light pours down and floods the woods. I am amazed at how far I can see. Everything about the moment seems surreal, detached from any sense of time or place.
I surprise myself by walking down the steps and onto the path that runs through the woods and to the edge of the lake.
It is a warm night. A gentle breeze begins to dry my tee shirt as I walk. The thought occurs to me that no one in the world knows what I am doing right now. There is one other cabin on the island, but I don’t even know if anyone is in it. I know an older couple owns it, but I don’t know how often they are here. I remember Matt telling me that most of the cabins are empty all week, filling up only on the weekends or during summer. I am probably alone. Matt and Laney, both in different states, are probably both asleep—Matt on a cluttered couch in his parents’ old house and Laney in a tent with no locks. I move through the woods, and no one knows. Or cares. I recall lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a T.S. Eliot poem I read in college: I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. That is how I feel, as if no one in the universe cares what I am doing.
I cross my arms as I walk and fight the urge to cry. Pine needles stick to my feet and cushion the path. A large-winged bird flaps from one tree to another and the sound of its wings brush against the night. Maybe an owl. I continue moving. Silent.
I exit the woods and the pine needle path gives way to sand and random patches of unruly grass. Even before I see it, I hear the lake. It splashes against the supports of a pier stretching out into the water. I walk onto the pier and take another deep breath. The moon casts light across the surface of the lake. I see nothing but dark water and a wide strip of shimmering moonlit waves, stretching into the distance. Somewhere nearby, I hear ducks in the water but cannot see them.
I look toward the sky and tears slip from my eyes and slide down my neck. More tears follow and I look away from the sky and down the long wooden pier. One foot moves forward and then another, until I am at the end of the pier and looking down into the water.
It would be so easy. All I would have to do is take one more step. It is a long pier and the water is deep here. One more step and I would never have to draw another worthless breath. Never have to think of ways to fill up my days with meaningless tasks. Never have to ache with loneliness. Never have to deal with the fact that Matt doesn’t want me, Laney doesn’t need me. Never have to deal with my utter uselessness.
I take a half step forward and then another. My toes are over the edge of the pier. I feel gravity pulling me forward, almost inviting me. I wouldn’t even have to step. Just fall forward. And sink.
It suddenly becomes so clear. I am on an island. I cannot swim. I have, literally, surrounded myself with the option of death.
I have come here to kill myself.
The realization jolts me. My legs begin trembling and the trembling snakes its way throughout my body until I am shaking so violently that I may fall in before I have a chance to make the decision.
I step back and remove my toes from the edge. I try to think of a reason not to fall. I think of Laney. I promised to pick her and Allison up in Durango at the end of the summer. No one else knows where we have planned to meet. It could be weeks before anyone even notices I am gone. Maybe longer. And even after they realize, how long will it take for someone to contact Matt? And he still will have no idea of where to pick Laney up. I imagine her walking off the trail, exhausted and wearing her backpack. No one there for her. I take another step away from the edge.
I will have to write a suicide note and tell Matt where to pick her up.
I decide this methodically, calmly, and the detachment of that decision frightens me to the core. Can it be that simple? A single decision. A few last tasks and I’m done? Is that all that is required? Ending my life seems so much simpler than living it. For maybe the first time in my life, I feel in control.
Gripping and powerful
The word which stays with me when I think about this book is `powerful.'
Right from the first page, when Cheryl Shireman takes us into Grace's thoughts, dreams, and dream-memories, she grips. Using a poetic, literary style, she plunges us right into Grace's psyche, just in the same way that Grace plunges into the swimming pool. And throughout the book she takes time to bring us into the head and soul of each of her major characters as we meet them - Nick, Tony, Bert, Paul.
It's Cheryl Shireman's amazing way with words more than anything else that makes her people so alive. The reader knows so many deep things about each of them in such a short time after she meets them: -
the child Grace's thoughts as she moves slowly nearer and nearer to the pool, unobserved by her mother: `She does not see. She does not. See me. See. Me.' ;
Nick's pain as her mother fails to return. `When he found her she would ask him, "Quanto tempo ti amo?" And he would pull out the picture and say, "Ti amero sempre."' Words repeated with immense emotional effect towards the end of the book;
Grace's experiences with God, and her feelings;
Paul and his child, and his final experience... `a little girl was waiting. A beautiful little brown-eyed girl named Julie whose arms stretched toward her Daddy. And Paul had smiled.'
It is these moments and many more like them which make this book so special.
For the first few chapters, I thought I was reading a gentle, moving, literary romance with great characters, a story which focused mainly on the people, their backgrounds, and their interaction. Halfway through, I woke up and realized that this book is also a thriller full of action, excitement and a terrific climax which seizes us and hurls us along breathlessly. And yet the focus on the characters is basic to the book, too. It's because Cheryl Shireman has taken the time to build her characters and to allow us to feel for them that the impact of the action is so strong. As Grace rows across the lake our hearts are in our mouths with her. And the dreadful discovery in the cabin closet hits us as surely as it does her, as a further horror almost beyond believing and yet something which has really happened.
The ending is beautifully handled. We really want Grace to be happy. There have been so many possibilities for her, all of them abortive. The final resolution is everything we want for her; and yet it does not seem contrived, or only there to tie up the story nicely. Instead, it seems inevitable, something which couldn't have worked out in any other way.
The murder plot is deft and agile. There are a satisfactory number of suspects, and enough twists and turns to keep us guessing, but the final solution arises straightforwardly from what we already know about the characters. And when Grace, at the last, turns away from approaching rescue and goes back into the cabin, the little scene, and the repetition of the words `Ti amero sempre' is immensely moving. It is so right that Grace should go back in.
The spiritual element of this book is another thing, and one of great importance, which makes it different and powerful. Introduced through Irene and Harold, God takes His place as a major character in the story from then on. Grace says at one point that she finds the whole idea of God too confusing. But as things begin to happen, she turns more and more to prayer as a natural response to the need for help, both for herself and for others. The beautiful picture of the sunset and her delight in it is a key point in Grace's development.
`The sun slowly slides from the sky, from another day in my life. It meets the water with a languid and silent splash, pulling a riotous mane of color behind. A wild shock of orange and pink is tangled amid tousled blue and purple tresses. Such beauty is overwhelming. Suddenly, it does not matter that I am divorced. It does not matter that Laney is not with me. At that second, that glorious second, all is right with the world.'
And later she and Tony sit quietly watching the wild geese and feeling at peace.
Like me, you will probably find that this book is not what you expected. But you will find it striking, moving, exciting, powerful and very, very readable. Don't miss out!
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