In my opening blog last week, I promised more about End of the Race, my new contemporary mystery, coming May 5th and now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble . Talking about a book is always a poor substitute for opening it, so here is a taste.
Annika swam into open water, each stroke breaking the early morning silence, scattering the reflection of the surrounding forest. She turned on her back to watch her wake settle, and the wavy image of the woods returned to surround her. She inhaled evergreen laden air sharpened, now, with the bite of fall, then turned again and felt the last month wash away behind her as she swam.
Rhythm replaced thought, her body slipped into a time lost from memory. Emptied of all but the water. No one urging her on, no lane markers, no whistles, no yelling crowd. Only her body releasing the weight of grief. She rolled over to take in the sky, but instead her eyes fell on the wood and glass house on the lake shore, the morning sun glinting on its windows, the broad lawn, the sun-warmed dock. Their house. Brian’s and hers. Their wedding present from Uncle Joe, built for a woman who flew through the water, rendered weightless by speed—and victory.
She was again an eight-year-old on another dock, one where she wasn’t supposed to be. The Wolfson’s—a name she wasn’t to say—with Brian. Laughing, pushing each other into the water. “Come on!” His words rang and her body followed, skimming free, until water mixed with laughter cut short her flight, and Brian had to turn around and hold her up while she choked.
But the image vanished, yanked away like a child from a busy road, and she was left staring at the house, hollowed now by the loss of the baby from her womb.
Then as she watched, a small figure in a nightgown burst from the door and ran across the grass toward the lake. Sadie. Annika laughed and swam toward the shore as her daughter leapt from the dock and paddled toward her, heedless of the gown. She whooped as Annika rolled her onto her back. “You should put your swim suit on, silly.” She laughed, tickling her.
“I couldn’t find you and then I did!”
A six-year-old answer, making perfect sense. Annika spun her daughter, reliving, for a moment, the children she and Brian had been.
“We get Daddy today!” Sadie exclaimed between sputters.
“Today!” Annika echoed, tossing Sadie toward shore. Brian’s departure in the middle of her grief had left her floundering as though some essential part of her had dropped away. Horrified at her helplessness, she’d fled to the water and training, but her body would not respond. She’d cast around and found no one; her connection to the world had come undone. Her family? Her marriage to a Wolfson made her an outsider there. The Wolfsons? Brian was the Wolfson, not her. Friends? No time. But it hadn’t mattered. They’d been complete, needing only each other and the water. Even Brian’s Uncle Joe, who’d coached them since they were eight and ten, occupied a place outside their union. It’s a trip, she told herself, just a sailing trip. Just two weeks. Tonight he’ll be here. The hollowness will be gone.
Together she and Sadie swam for the beach, then ran for the warmth of the house. “Go get dressed, and I’ll fix breakfast.” She stripped the sodden nightie over Sadie’s head and sent her off with a smack on her naked behind, then toweled dry, pulled on jeans and a sweater, laid out Sadie’s clothes and went down to fix breakfast. Energy that had been missing flowed as though released from a damn. As though he were here already.
“Do we leave soon?” Sadie scrambled down the stairs, pulling her sweater over her head.
“As soon as we eat and you feed the turtles.” She set cereal on the table, and Sadie climbed into her chair.
“Why’d he go without us?”
Why indeed? “Because …” She searched for an answer that would satisfy a six-year-old. “Some old friends asked him to go on a sail trip—friends he met in college.” She kept her voice light, hiding her bewilderment. Nothing had been right since the baby’s loss. His words of comfort had been a tight-wound imitation of himself. And over and over he’d gone off, then he’d come back apologizing, muttering that when they got back to training they’d be okay. Then he goes off for two weeks. Just like that? “You met them,” he’d answered her astonished look, giving her a couple of names that meant nothing. He’d run into one of them—Nils?—at a convention in Ann Arbor, he said, and he’d asked Brian to join them. Sailing from Maine, no less—out of Bar Harbor. “I’ll leave you a training schedule. You’ll be up to it soon. You don’t need me for that.” He’d turned defensive at her continued incredulity.
She looked at the training chart that hung on the refrigerator.
“OFF TO THE OLYMPICS!
blazed in red across the top. Her last chance. Her thirtieth birthday loomed. Twice—three times—and again—she’d forced her body, willing it to move beyond a warm-up crawl. She sighed, shook off the feeling of having gone crosswise to her life, and handed Sadie her juice. “Some day, when you’re grown,” she told her, “you’ll know how good it is to go off and be young again for a little while.” In truth, moments like the one on the Wolfson dock—all stolen—were all she knew of carefree as a child. She’d envied Brian the life she’d dare not mention at home—a place competitive swimming had taken her, welcoming its demands, each prize a guarantee of her place in a world free of the grasp of the Berglund house. And always there was Brian, an essential part of that escape. For a moment this morning’s swim came back, bringing a hint of some long forgotten time, but it was gone in a flash.
“Because it keeps you young.” Words that were Brian’s mantra. Great grandson of one of Frontenac’s founding families, captain of his high school swim team, youth, for Brian, was one long adventure—swimming, sailing, kayaking, and love of the race. For her, it was an enemy camp she leapt into behind her father’s back. She raised her eyes and looked out at the glint of sun off the water, feeling again its siren’s call. They had no use, back then, for the quarrels that split the adults, creating barricades and forbidden territories; they lived for water, woods and wind. Always racing for a place beyond.
“I want to grow up!”
“Funny isn’t it?” She picked up Sadie’s dish and carried it to the sink. “When you’re little you want to grow up, and when you’re grown up, you want to bring back childhood.” Brian’s ten-year-old face rose up, grinning, and she felt her own face grinning in answer. They’d won their heats in the state meet. “We’re off to the Olympics, you and me!”
“Can we go now?” Sadie jumped down from her chair.
“After you feed your turtles.” Annika smiled. She could still feel the rewards of life away from the house on Browning Street. She looked around her living room, with its stone fireplace, beamed ceiling and soft-stuffed chairs for collapsing. She sighed, contentment wiping away unease. Escape she had. And victory. That day at the nationals rushed forward. Four years ago.
Annika gazed down the row of red sweatshirts, The Dolphins blazing in white, white legs with red stripes, all waiting, waiting, and felt their adrenaline pumping in her veins.
“Okay, Annie, you’re on!”
She leapt from the bench at Joe’s shout and headed for the blocks as the announcer’s voice echoed, “200 meter freestyle!”
She pulled on her cap and goggles, then stretched and spread her arms, taking Brian’s wind into her lungs along with her own. It was a ritual now. They’d done it ever since they’d won their first heats.
“Take your marks …”
She stepped onto the starting block,
She crouched, her arms stretched behind her ready to swing …
The gun boomed.
She swung her arms, her body following, barely cutting the surface of the water, then began to stroke, picking up the momentum of the dive, her mind riveted to the end of the pool, the moment to curl for the turn, push. She was ahead. The air from many victories lifted her, the feel of water rushing past. And again …
Her cheering team filled her ears the last meters before her hand touched the wall, and her mind released its hold. Brian was jumping up and down, holding her sweatshirt. The nationals. She’d won the nationals.
She gazed around the living room again, still euphoric. Swimming had given them this—and Sadie, too. “Now for the Olympics …” she could hear Brian call, but the words brought the jolt of loss, tears of frustration. She drove them back. This time she’d make it. For them all. Tomorrow Brian would be back, and her body would respond. They’d get it back. They had before. After his crushed leg ruined his chances, after her first pregnancy had made Sydney impossible, after Athens—
With a jolt, she was back, touching the wall, so sure, gazing up at Brian and Joe—but their eyes were on the clock—unbelieving. The name at the top wasn’t hers. A half second?
“Tough break, sweetie.” It was Joe reaching down to pull her from the pool.
Brian was gone.
Sadie’s voice from the stands filled the empty space.
She could do nothing but sit as though waiting for the next breath to come. In the locker room, then their hotel room, Wrapped in terry cloth, staring into emptiness.
His face appeared, turning rage and grief into a leaden lump.
“Sorry. So sorry.” His eyes beseeched.” He took her icy hands in his. “On to China!”
But not quite. Fate intervened once again. She was pregnant.
“But you can’t be, Annika. The trials!” His voice was incredulous, bewildered though he was forever impulsive, impatient with prevention.
“What about them?” she protested. “I can still train. I trained with Sadie, didn’t I?”
He turned to look at his daughter, who was deep in a book, mouthing the words. His eyes softened. “Another miracle?” He drew Annika into his arms. “Promise?”
She’d trained that first time until she was eight months along and was back at it before Sadie was a month old, getting stronger, beating her times over and over. She’d been so sure this time would be the same—the car seat sitting beside the pool, throwing a towel over her shoulders to nurse. Brian finding her there, grinning at her enthusiasm …
“I’m ready now.” Sadie stood beside her chair.
She gazed down at her daughter’s dark curls and soft cheek. So perfect. Pain choked her as the memory of the lost baby rose. She pushed it away and looked at her watch. “Good. Go get your book, and we’ll be on our way.”
As she drove through the farm lands and cherry orchards that lined the road, the anchorless floundering of the last weeks dissolved on the road behind her. She just needed him back, training, the sound of his voice. As she approached the village of Virgin Lake, the land changed from open fields and orchards to woodlands once again, bringing the smells of evergreens and water. In less than an hour, she pulled in to the parking lot at Traverse City Airport. “Here we are! Come on Sadie, let’s go find Daddy.”
“Outside! I get to see!” Sadie insisted as Annika started for the terminal.
“Okay. I guess we can do that.” She turned toward the chain-link fence where they could watch arriving flights land.
“Is that it?” Sadie cried some fifteen minutes later, pointing to a small jet approaching the runway.
Annika consulted her watch. “Maybe.” She felt her heart swell as the plane rolled toward them. They would be whole again, glad of each other.
The plane turned and taxied toward the terminal. Sadie was jumping up and down in anticipation as the attendants rolled the steps into place. The door opened and passengers began to descend to the tarmac. Sadie rose to her toes, waiting to wave and shout when she spied him. The stewardess and pilots emerged. Annika stomach knotted as she stared at the empty staircase.
Sadie’s heels hit the ground. “Where is he?”
Annika studied her watch again. “Maybe that isn’t his flight. Let’s go check.”
But the arrival board in the terminal matched the itinerary in her pocket. “I guess he missed his plane,” she told Sadie, who was watching the passengers collect their luggage, her face clouded in confusion. But surely he would have called if he had. She pulled out her phone to check. It was on. No calls. “Let’s go see when the next Detroit flight comes in.”
Reluctantly, Sadie let herself be turned away from the baggage claim.
“Three hours. Well, I guess we wait. Let’s find a place to sit.”
Sadie raised her shoulders and let them fall, her mind clearly consumed with disappointment.
Once seated, Annika busied herself with her phone. The Boston flight had landed in Detroit with plenty of time to make his Traverse City connection. The next Boston flight wouldn’t come in to Detroit until late afternoon. Why hadn’t he called?
“I have to pee,” the small voice beside her complained.
“Okay, let’s go take care of that.” She was happy to be moving. She was a lousy sitter. “And we’ll go get your book from the car.”
But once at the car, she was loath to return to the building. “How about we go to the beach? Or we could drive out to the lighthouse.” Anything to drive away the jolt of his absence.
“The lighthouse.” Sadie was firm.
Annika glanced at her watch again, calculating the distance to Mission Point. They could make it, and it was better than waiting here. “Good. Let’s go.”
Two hours later, they’d made the jaunt up the peninsula and, thankful for the thinning of summer traffic, climbed the tower to the light. Annika gazed at the land that had encompassed her life—the open arms of Traverse Bay, the vast stretch of Lake Michigan beyond, the golden ring of sand along the water’s edge. Above the shoreline, the woods were splashed here and there with the colors soon to come in full. The vastness had always overwhelmed her, calmed her churning emotions, reduced her to a mere speck, brought peace. Today it anchored her; lessened the sense of being cast adrift.
“I’m hungry now,” Sadie proclaimed after a few minutes of marching around the balcony.
“Okay, let’s go get ourselves a hot dog.’
Annika dawdled as much as possible finding a café, but still they were back in the waiting room by five-thirty. Sadie frowned at her book and squirmed. She was clearly in no mood to sound out letters.
“I’m going to get coffee,” Annika told her. “Do you want to watch for Daddy’s plane? It’s almost time.”
Sadie jumped down eagerly. “How long?”
Annika checked the board and her watch. “About long enough to get my coffee. Let’s go.”
A half hour later, empty cup dangling from her hand, she watched the last of the passengers descend to the tarmac.
“Where’s Daddy?” Sadie demanded. “Why isn’t he here?”
Available for preorder at Amazon and Barnes and Noble