A few months back, when I was writing “The Dragon in The Garden,” I had a group of wonderful people who were privately receiving chapters as I wrote them and then giving me their feedback. They saved me some missteps, I believe, in the storytelling process. Now as I hope and pray that Dragon sells, I am starting a new story, called “Sea Strand.” I am setting forth the first chapter here and if you would like to be part of the critique group, please, either comment here or shoot me a private email. As before I am keeping the group small, so let me know as soon as you can.
Here’s Chapter One, so you can decide…
By Erika Gardner
Tell him to find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea strand
Then he’ll be a true love of mine.
– English Folk Song
For the rest of her life, no matter where she went or who she became, Anna O’Sullivan never forgot that she was a child of sea and shore.
The windy Northern California coast filled her senses. Anna breathed deep, tasting the salt on the breeze and smelling the sea itself. The raucous cries of the birds and siren crash of the waves beckoned her closer. She recalled walking barefoot, flirting between beach and surf with the sand between her toes. The greens and deepening blues of the cool depths spoke of mysteries to be unlocked, adventures not yet had.
Gazing at the ocean from the sunny deck of her mother’s house in Half Moon Bay, Anna pushed her straight blonde hair away from her face in a gesture born of long habit. The wind caught her wayward locks, blowing them out and upward in a wild display. Listening to the song of the waves, Anna smiled to herself. She had been away too long. To those who love the water, who have the sea in their blood, there is a connection that will abide forever in their hearts.
She turned at the faint sound of a car door slamming. Her inner happiness blossomed into a smile as she hurried through the kitchen to the family room and out the screen of her front door. Anna ran down the porch steps to greet the tall man coming up the front walk.
“Derek!” She threw her arms around him, disregarding the foot’s difference in their heights. Derek was one of her dearest friends from her college days.
“Anna!” He dropped his things, returning her hug with a squeeze. Derek’s hazel eyes sparkled as he drew back to regard her, before gathering her up to swing her around in an enthusiastic embrace.
She looked past his broad shoulders at the car parked on the street. “Just you? I thought you were bringing a friend?”
“Yep, you’ll have to settle for little ol’ me. Brennan, uh, had something to finish up. He’ll be along in a couple of days.”
“That’s actually better,” said Anna, walking up the steps and holding the screen open for Derek. “Now you and I can have some time to catch up. When do you think he’ll make it?”
Derek picked up his duffle bag and hooked a very long walking stick through its handles. “What’s today? Tuesday? Um… Thursday, hopefully.” Derek’s forehead wrinkled and his brows came together in a preoccupied frown. “Hopefully,” he repeated, his eyes faraway.
“Earth to Derek?” Anna waved a hand in front of his face. “You okay?”
Derek’s expression cleared. “Right, sorry. All good.”
“Shall we?” she asked, indicating the open door. “Seems like a million years since we’ve hung out.”
“Way too long,” he said, his eyes fixed on hers, he moved forward.
“What’s up with the stick?”
Derek’s dark eyebrows flicked up in an impish gesture. “You know what they say, ‘Walk softly and carry a big stick.’”
“So I see. Overkill much, Derek?”
“Nah, I’ve been doing a lot of trail hiking, comes in handy.”
Inside, Anna swept one arm around the tidy family room, saying, “Welcome, mi casa es su casa. You can throw your bag in the second bedroom on the right.”
“Yes’m.” Derek said, after he deposited his bag and staff, joining Anna in the cheerful kitchen decorated in cobalt blue and white, with a motif of the sun and moon scattered throughout the bright room. “Well?”
“Your slave labor, reporting as requested.”
Anna smiled, going to the stainless steel frig. “Are you in such a hurry to start redoing my childhood room?”
“What? And desecrate The Shrine? God, no.”
“Good, I made sangria.”
Derek sat down at the light pine-colored kitchen table as Anna passed him a full glass. “I love you.”
“Of course you do,” Anna said, joining him with her own drink and putting a pitcher on the table. “We can work later, and believe me, we will, but you just got here. A drink, then a walk on the beach, stat.”
“It’s been a hell of week,” Derek said, putting his feet up on one of the wooden chairs. “I could use a drink, or twelve.”
They clinked in a quick toast. “So, why the stress?” she asked.
Before Derek could answer, the kitchen phone rang. Its bright trill jarred them both. “I can’t believe your mom still owns a rotary phone.”
Anna made a face and held up one finger to her lips in a shushing motion. “Hello?” She sat down, holding her sangria. “Oh, hi, Mom.”
Derek waved in an exaggerated motion. Anna rolled her eyes and said in a resigned voice, “Derek says hi.” She cupped one hand over the receiver and continued, “Mom says hi back.”
Derek smiled and sipped his sangria, listening with a bemused expression on his face to Anna and her mother. “Yep, he just got here…C’mon on, Mom. You know I was perfectly safe…Yes, I’ve been locking doors since I was five. You brainwashed me early.”
There was a pause.
“Of course not, he’s in the second bedroom. Mom, please.” Anna turned to Derek with mock horror on her face. He rolled his eyes, shaking his head slightly in response, then munched on a piece of pineapple from his drink. “Okay, that’s enough of that… Second bedroom, remember? Now you’re being positively parental… What did the doctor say?”
Another pause as Anna moved her fingers and thumb together and apart repeatedly in a “talk-talk” motion. Anna sighed, frowning. “Stay off it, a shattered heel is nothing to fool around with… Tell me you’ll take it easy?…I’ll be fine… the house will be fine… I don’t see why a neighbor can’t house sit, I should be with you…no, okay, if you’re sure…Yes, I gave Hobbs tuna this morning… He’s a cat, he’ll be fine, too.”
Anna took a sip of her drink as she listened. “Hey, Mom? So, in the process of repainting my old room I think I’ll go through my boxes. You know, clear out some space in the hall closet.”
She held phone away from her ear as there was a squawk from the earpiece. Derek’s eyes were wide and questioning. “Fine, fine, okay, Mom… I won’t go through your precious boxes… Yes, I promise… Promise.”
The volume on the other end of the phone subsided. “Okay… I will, you stay off that foot… love to Aunt Bess, I bet she never thought this visit would turn out to be so long. If you change your mind, I can be on the next plane… I love you, too, Mom.”
Anna hung up with an audible click. Derek leaned forward. “How’s Mom?”
“You mean other than the crushed heel that needs three surgeries, reconstruction and a zillion metal pins in it?”
“Right, aside from that.”
“Not bad, actually. I miss her.” Anna pursed her lips in thought, taking a deep sip of her drink with one hand. The other was behind her back.
“What got her riled up about the boxes?”
“Old argument,” said Anna, putting her glass down. “She never wants to throw anything of mine away. We have a ridiculous number of macaroni necklaces and drawings of rainbows packed in the hall closest. I promised I’d leave them alone.” She took her hand from behind her back, holding it up for Derek to see her crossed fingers.
“Aw, that’s sweet…Wait, why are your fingers crossed?” Derek blinked. “Oh, so I guess you’re going through those boxes.”
“Correction, we are going through those boxes, kemosabe.”
“What’s the deal? Why did you lie to your mom? What’d Ellie ever do to you?”
“She never lets me see her momentos.” Anna shrugged.
“I thought…well, maybe there are some pictures of Dad?”
There was a brief silence, then Anna walked out of the kitchen, down the hall to the large, double sliding door linen closet. Derek followed close behind as she opened the doors. They gazed at the boxes neatly stacked on its shelves. “Wow,” said Derek with a low whistle. “We’re going to be busy.”
Anna looked up at him with a grin, her deep brown eyes shining. “Yep.” She glanced down the hall at the kitchen clock, a celestial sun and moon with gold hands. “Hmm, it’s late, quarter to five. How about we postpone the walk for tomorrow and get dinner going?”
“And the slave labor starts early.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Feed me and I’m yours,” said Derek.
Anna washed dishes while Derek dried. Hobbs, Anna’s mom’s cat, a huge Maine coon cat with a long-haired tawny coat, slam-danced both their ankles, hoping for more scraps. The occasional pathetic “mew” hung in the air.
Once everything was put away and the kitchen sparkled, Anna turned to Derek with an expectant air. “What?” he asked.
“I can’t believe you came,” she said. “I mean, really? Redoing my old room? As busy as your career keeps you, and you show up for that?”
Derek waved his hands as though he could fend off her words. “Nah, it’s just that all of us Davis alumnae have a running bet as to where the brilliant Anna O’Sullivan ends up. I wanted to get in close and hedge my bets.” He moved his hands in a spidery, mystical motion. “Do as I say, for then, and only then, I shall win forty bucks in the dorm pool.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Anna didn’t answer as she directed a level stare at him.
“What?” said Derek. “Hey, pretend I’m on vacation.”
Anna made a sound that fell somewhere between a snort and a laugh. “This is your idea of a vacation? Alright, crazy boy, the room and the hall closet await thee.”
Derek ran a hand through his unruly dark hair. He strode forward to Anna’s childhood bedroom, the first on the right. As he opened the door, he said, “Ah, yes, The Shrine.”
“I hate when you call it that.”
“But, I’m not wrong.”
Anna came to stand next to him in the doorway, gazing at the memorial to her childhood. “No, you’re not wrong.”
The room was obnoxious, Anna thought, but not only because of the mass of pink: pink walls, pink ceiling, pink drapes, pink bed covers. No, it was the trophies, medals, banners and ribbons that pushed it into crazyville. From as early as she could remember, Anna lived at the pool, swimming in competitions since the age of four. Although she was too slight, too short, and everything about her screamed, “sign this child up for gymnastics”, somehow, Anna was a winner. She continued swimming in high school and college where she had dominated the nation’s distance swimming for the last decade. Her opponents shared a universal tendency to judge her by her lack of height and reach, then to rue their short sightedness. Anna developed a strategy which was elegant in its simplicity: ignore them and keep winning.
“No one ever taught you about moderation, did they, Anna?”
She shrugged, feeling her cheeks grow hot. “I blame my mom.”
Derek gave her a friendly nudge. “Poor Ellianna, everyone takes their troubles out on the mothers.”
Anna rolled her eyes at him and, going out to the deck, she grabbed some of the boxes there, bringing them into the room that pepto bismol built. Beginning with the earliest years, she began packing trophies, medals and ribbons with an OCD-worthy precision that came from years of training by her mother. Derek watched from the doorway. “And so I witness the ending of an era,” he said. Turning he slid the doors of the hall closet open. “I presume I am on the treasure hunt to find photos of dear ol’ dad?”
Anna stopped and joined Derek in the hall. “Yeah, do you mind? I’m better at packing, moving ahead, than…” Her voice trailed off, at a loss for words.
Derek patted her shoulder. “Than looking behind. Don’t worry, I get it, Anna.”
She started to return to her packing when Derek stopped her. “Um, Anna?”
“What does dear ol’ dad look like?”
Anna grimaced. “I’m an idiot.”
“It’s not that, I just didn’t bring my psychic cap with me.”
“What? Wouldn’t fit in your suitcase?”
“Nope, I packed too many shoes.”
“Again, Derek?” Anna laughed as she walked past him, towards her mother’s bedroom. “C’mon, I have something to show you.”
Anna’s mom, Ellianna, kept her room decorated in minimalist elegance, a stark contrast to her treatment of her daughter’s. The cool blue and gray tones mimicked the seashore outside, a skylight and the twelve foot French doors let in the sky and coast just beyond their deck. There were few knick-knacks and only two photos. One was a picture of Anna and her mother, Derek walked over and picked up the silver frame, fixing his intent gaze at a much younger Ellianna with her then three-year-old little daughter. “Huh, funny.”
“Not funny, ha-ha,” Derek said. “Funny as in odd. This looks like part of a snapshot that was enlarged.”
“Yeah, that’s what Mom said,” Anna agreed. “She says we were with friends and had such a great day, she blew up the picture to an eight by ten so she’d always remember it.”
“But not the friends?”
“Nope, just her and me. Like always.” Anna walked over to her mother’s bedside and the room’s only other photo. It was her parents’ wedding portrait. “This is my dad.”
Derek put the picture he held down and came to her side. “May I?”
She handed it over. Anna had the image burned into her memory, her parents, laughing and happy in a garden filled with summer sunshine. Her mother’s long blond hair was swept back in a chignon and her beautiful sea-colored, blue-green eyes were fixed on her new husband’s face, close to hers. Anna’s father had been a few years older than his bride, with dark, almost black hair and deep brown eyes, the precise shade of Anna’s own. He had a wide, engaging smile, full of life.
“What was his name?” asked Derek, breaking the silence.
“Aidan. When I was little I used to think he hadn’t really died. Sometimes I would wake up, sure I heard my parents laughing in the kitchen or on the deck. I’d go out and he would put me back to bed with kisses, a little story, but then I would wake up the next morning and it was still just me and Mommy.”
There was another pause as Derek set the photograph down with a gentle thud. “C’mon,” he said. “I’ll know him now.”
“Right. Good. Thanks.”
Anna worked in efficient, automatic movements, taking little notice of the items that she packed, except to insure that they were organized in the proper order. She knew her mother would want them that way and would add them to the boxes in the closet. Her mom never threw anything of Anna’s away, preserving a whole childhood in such detail that it often embarrassed Anna. She wondered if losing her husband so early had prompted Ellianna to want to hold on to every detail of Anna’s life, to treasure every keepsake.
She could hear Derek in the kitchen, unpacking and then repacking each box with a care that made Anna smile to herself.
She was worried about her mother’s injury sustained by falling down a flight of stairs while visiting Aunt Bess, but this trip was an opportunity. For years now, Anna wanted to find out more about her father. Her mother never mentioned him and Anna felt a question mark regarding her past, where she came from. No matter how wonderful and involved her mother had been and still was, she could not help but wonder, what would life have been like if her dad had lived longer?
As she labeled the next box with neat, block letters, Anna reflected on the past. She was lucky and she knew it. Her childhood had been a warm and loving place, her mother and Anna taking on all comers. The poignancy of a dinner table set for two was offset by the private jokes, common interests and the lively conversations they had shared and continued to share.
The hours passed as she and Derek talked in lively tones, especially whenever he found something from Anna’s past that made him laugh, which was often.
“Macaroni necklace number forty-one,” he called.
“Told you there were a ton of them.”
“You collected model horses? There must be a hundred in here. ”
“Of course, every little girl goes through a horse phase. I think it’s required.”
“Found your baby teeth.”
It took a minute for Anna to realize that Derek’s cheerful commentary was missing. Curious, she poked her head out the bedroom door to the kitchen. Derek had a battered manila envelope open and a stack of photos was on the table before him. Anna’s heart leapt. “Derek?” Her voice cracked. “Is it? Did you find him?”
Derek’s hazel eyes were serious as he lifted his head. “Yeah, but that’s not what has me confused.”
“Who is this?” Derek held up an eight by ten photo, a picture of Anna’s father and a dark-haired little girl. Anna knew in an instant that it was the other half to the framed picture in her mother’s bedroom. She hurried to the kitchen table.
“Ella,” she said without even thinking. As the name left her mouth she wondered where it came from.
Anna sank into the chair opposite of him, her mouth dry and her heart pounding. “I, I don’t know, but her name is Ella. I just know it is.” With shaking hands she began to sort through the pictures. They were photos of a family, complete: mother, father and two small girls. She swallowed, continuing to look, there they were: at the beach, getting ice cream, baby photos, at Christmas, gardening, the images went on and on.
“What?” She had eyes only for her precious photos.
“Just a minute.”
“I said, just a sec,” she said, annoyed at the interruption. “What?”
Derek was holding up two pieces of paper. “Your birth certificate.”
“Yeah, whatever, seen it before.” Her hungry eyes returned to the snapshots, there were so many pictures of her father. Who was this other girl?
“No, I don’t think you have. Here.” He held the papers out to her.
“Just a minute.”
“No, now, you need to see these.”
Frowning, Anna sighed and focused on the documents. She skimmed the first, her birth certificate. “Yeah, yeah, born June 21st, female, yadda, yadda, yadda–” She stopped. Then she whispered, “Twin?”
Her eyes were huge and darkened with emotion as she raised them to Derek’s face. He nodded. “Look at the other one.”
Anna’s eyes raced over the page, her breath caught, her head felt light. “Ella… Ella is my twin?”
“Just ten minutes older.”