Half past a novel, p.1

Half Past: A Novel, page 1


Half Past: A Novel

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Half Past: A Novel

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  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Text copyright © 2017 Victoria Helen Stone All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher. Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle www.apub.com Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates. ISBN-13: 9781477819791 ISBN-10: 1477819797 Cover design by Damon Freeman

  This book is for my mother, who’s always been there. I love you, Mom.



  CHAPTER 1 “You’re not my daughter.” Hannah Smith had heard the same thing at least a dozen times in the past month. Often enough that she’d grown impatient with the conversation, but not so often that it didn’t still shock. She drew a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Mom . . .” “I want Rachel.” Hannah forced all the hurt and impatience from her throat before she spoke again. She swallowed the emotions to store them with the rest of the feelings she’d been stuffing down for months. “Mom, I already told you. Rachel moved to Blue Lake. I’m taking care of you now. I’m Hannah. Remember?” “I want Rachel!” “I know. She’ll be here on Saturday.” Her mother’s blue eyes swam with confusion. Hannah patted her arm. “That’s three days away.” Her mom recoiled. The hand that had changed Hannah’s diapers, combed her hair, fed her, hugged her, tended her wounds . . . it curled in on itself in horror that Hannah had touched her. “Where’s Becky?” she asked in a querulous voice that none of them had

  CHAPTER 2 Hannah paid the sleepy-eyed cashier for the brownies and hurried to her car to transfer them to a plastic container she’d brought from home. Okay, they weren’t homemade, but did her mom even remember what homemade tasted like? And brownies were brownies. Hannah had never had a bad one, really. After she pushed the empty supermarket container under the seat, she felt better. Small towns were breweries for paranoia. In any other place, it would be insane to think someone would see her buying brownies and mention it to her mother, but these things happened in Coswell, Iowa. Dorothy, you didn’t tell me Hannah was back in town! I saw her at the SuperValu, buying brownies, and I couldn’t believe it. Of course, Hannah had the perfect immunization against gossip nowadays. Her mom would be just as likely to ask, Hannah who? as she would to realize Hannah had told a little white lie. In all likelihood, she wouldn’t remember that anyone had brought her brownies at all. That wasn’t quite

  CHAPTER 3 Hannah waited patiently for the morning aide to finish his duties. She sat placidly in the armchair with her book, telling herself that the man, Miguel, wasn’t shooting her careful looks. He’d probably always watched her with a bit of caution in his eyes. It was difficult to perform professional work in front of an audience, after all. This had nothing to do with yesterday’s outburst. But everyone must have heard that she’d caused trouble. Maybe she’d even been accused of attacking her own mother, because the doctor couldn’t reveal private patient information to explain her behavior. She must seem unstable and cruel and awful. Or maybe they knew all of it. Even medical professionals gossiped, privacy rights be damned. She hoped they did. Hoped they didn’t just think she’d lost her temper and yelled at her disabled mother for no reason. She shouldn’t have frightened her mom. Of course she shouldn’t have. But anyone might have behaved irrationally after getting that kind of new

  CHAPTER 4 “Hannah?” She opened her eyes and saw a dark shape moving through her bedroom moments before she was assaulted by the bright explosion of a flash bomb. She grunted out a cry of horror and threw her hands over her face. “Are you okay?” her sister asked. Hannah wasn’t sure which one it was. They both had the same sweet warble. “What time is it?” Hannah groaned. “Eight. In the morning. Are you drunk?” “Not anymore, unfortunately.” It had to be Rachel. Becky rarely used that judgmental tone. “Hannah,” her sister scolded. “Oh, for God’s sake. Don’t you think I deserved a good, solid night of drinking?” Or a good, solid day. She’d managed to hold off until three after all. She’d lost count of the screwdrivers after that, though. All she remembered was that she’d woken up at four in the morning, thrown up, then dosed herself with water and ibuprofen before stumbling from the couch to her bed. “Could you close those damn curtains?” she growled. Rachel sniffed but she tugged the curta


  CHAPTER 5 California had always unsettled her. Los Angeles, especially, but even the Bay Area. The faint, fuzzy haze that blurred the air disturbed her. She wasn’t sure why. It was there even on clear days, adding a sheen to every view. Every landscape or city skyline or beach day was coated in it. She knew it was just moisture and cold from the Pacific mixing with the heat of the land, but it felt eerie to her. She was a Midwestern girl, despite her birth certificate. In Iowa, a strangeness in the air meant danger. A sign of an impending storm, and a bad one at that. Years and years of tornado warnings and trips to huddle in the basement had scarred her. Strange air was never good. And she couldn’t seem to reassure her brain with logic. That wall of fog that hung off the coast every morning looked like alien mist from a Stephen King novel. Anything could be lurking there. Soviet submarines, UFOs, monsters. Most likely monsters. No, thanks. She’d take a Chicago beach any day. She shoul

  CHAPTER 6 There were no answers here. As soon as she walked into the cabin, she knew she would’ve been better off just calling the owner to ask as many questions as she could. Even if these cabins had been here in ’72, everything but the foundations had been stripped out and rebuilt years ago. The floors were smooth, heated wood, the walls were glossy layers of warm plaster, and the interior doors were frosted glass. And the bathroom . . . well, Hannah heartily doubted anyone had installed river-stone shower floors in the 1970s. She dropped her bags on the self-warming floor and collapsed into a deep armchair. Tears burned her eyes. She let her head fall back so the tears could run into her hair and disappear as if they’d never existed. “Not fair,” she growled. “Not fair, not fair.” She might have screwed up important things in her life, but this was one thing she hadn’t deserved. This, at least, was something simple that every child was promised. Here is your father. Here is your moth

  CHAPTER 7 She woke with a headache and cottonmouth and the sharp smell of her own sweat. Though she didn’t remember any nightmares, it had obviously been a restless night. The sheets were twisted and damp around her waist. It was already nine, but that was fine. She’d needed the sleep, and she didn’t mind getting to breakfast late. Better to have the inn owner to herself than share him with ambitious sightseers. Hannah showered and girded her loins and hiked up to the main house for answers. When she found the dining room, she was relieved to see only one couple at the table, and by the looks of it, they were wrapping up their last cup of coffee. They both appeared to be in their early fifties when they glanced up from their guidebook and offered friendly hellos. Hannah smiled weakly back and took a seat. When the owner appeared, he looked exactly as she would’ve imagined if she’d thought that far ahead. Tousled brown hair that was sun bleached at the ragged tips. Skin that had sustain

  CHAPTER 8 Hippie communes weren’t quite what they used to be. Hannah shot a sullen glance at the drivewa
y that dipped down toward the famous seaside commune, but she couldn’t even see the buildings from here, much less the people. Instead of being welcomed with warm, patchouli-scented arms, she’d been stopped at the gate by a security guard with a crew cut and a polyester uniform shirt. “I just want to take a look around,” she repeated. He regarded her with a bored stare that said he’d heard it a million times before. “Only residents and workshop attendees are allowed on the grounds.” “How am I supposed to know if I want to spend a week here if I’ve never even seen the place?” “Ma’am, please turn your car around.” “This is ridiculous. Is the leader of a small country vacationing here or something? I just want to walk around for a few minutes. I can leave my car here if you like.” “I’m afraid that’s not an option.” He was less friendly than guards she’d encountered at government buildin

  CHAPTER 9 As soon as she got back to Riverfall, she stashed her purse in the cabin and grabbed a jacket. She kept expecting it to be pleasantly warm on the coast of California, but it wasn’t. In fact, the afternoon was downright chilly, and the sun she’d glimpsed earlier had vanished. Zipping up her jacket, she made her way to the river trail and followed it east toward the PRIVATE PROPERTY sign. Her hand dragged along a young redwood as she rounded a curve, and the softness of the needles surprised her. She’d expected they’d be hard like pine needles, but they were more like narrow leaves, pliant and yielding when she reached for them. Walking among the strange trees and the ferns that grew huge in all the ambient moisture, Hannah could imagine she’d stepped back in time. Maybe she had. It felt magical here. Primeval. Perhaps that was what had attracted so many lost souls decades before. Lost souls. Lost parents. Had her father loved this other woman? Had it been happy and meaningful

  CHAPTER 10 Nancy Drew had never had to deal with the internet. It should have given Hannah an advantage, shouldn’t it? All that information at her fingertips in an instant, just waiting to be found. But Hannah suspected the internet had only made her soft. When it failed her, she could only sit dumbly and stare at the screen. She’d found only the same few stories about hippies in Big Sur. Plus, far too much information about people named Smith who lived in California. And although she’d found a hopeful link to Monterey voter registration records, the files only went to 1944. Not even close. She wished she were back at the roadhouse, having another drink. But all hope wasn’t lost. She discovered that she could access voter files at the Monterey County registrar’s office. She’d drive there tomorrow and check into it. But property records. There had to be an online database somewhere. She tried several searches before she stumbled upon it. The database wasn’t user-friendly. Or intuitive.

  CHAPTER 11 She was going to have to call her ex. Not for emotional support, but for actual, concrete information. Jeff was a professor of American history, and the 1960s was history, wasn’t it? Granted, his area of specialty was the industrial revolution and nineteenth-century trade, but he covered classes right up through the modern age. And loved it all, really. But even if he had little knowledge of 1960s California, he’d know where to get it. If he still cared enough about her to help. That was a damn big if. Her stomach tightened and rolled at the idea of reaching out. She was trying to move on, and she hated looking back. The past was so much easier to deal with when it was getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. She didn’t want to reach back, did she? Or was she actually using her grandfather as an excuse to bring Jeff closer again? No. She needed him gone. She wanted him gone. Probably. “Shit,” she groaned, glancing at the clock. It was already ten fifteen in Chicag

  CHAPTER 12 She could have taken Gabriel to bed after all. There’d been no email from Jeff. No intrusion of real life into her hideaway. So Hannah had somewhat grumpily shoved her mess to one side of the mattress, stripped naked, and fallen into bed. When she woke, she was thankful for the isolation of the cabin, because she was sprawled nude across the sheets with all the curtains wide open. Hopefully Mr. Creepy Old Man hadn’t been around to fix any broken screens this morning. Despite her initial chagrin, she didn’t jump up to cover herself. Once she’d looked around to be sure she wasn’t entertaining the neighbors, Hannah stretched hard and relaxed back into the bed. The sun slanted through leaves and dappled her body with shifting light as if she were floating underwater. She slid her hand onto her stomach and spread her fingers wide. Her skin was soft. Her blood warm. She liked the way her pulse thumped against her palm. Proof of life. She was here. Real and solid, even without a ca

  CHAPTER 13 No. She wasn’t going to wonder about this bullshit all night. She was already dressed and ready to go, so Hannah jumped in her rental and followed the road toward the inn, unwilling to let that little Rumpelstiltskin scurry away with her past. Pulling into the narrow driveway that ran alongside the farmhouse, she spotted Joe shutting up the doors of a shed, closing the ATV inside. He was apparently wrapping up for the night, but she wasn’t done with him yet, and surely she was faster than he was on foot. He wouldn’t escape so easily this time. “Did you know my father?” she demanded as she got out of her car. His white head jerked up, mouth twisting into a scowl. “Lady, I’m just trying to get my work done.” “I know, and I won’t take up much more of your time. Just tell me. Please. You knew . . . ?” She swallowed and decided to hope for the best. “You knew Peter?” “Yeah,” he said without hesitation, and the sick, heavy knot in her stomach untangled itself. At least her father

  CHAPTER 14 Ninety minutes later, she was stuffed full of fish and chips and drunk enough that she was pretty sure the house band was the best cover band in America. They were playing one of her favorite Elvis Costello songs when she glanced out the front window and saw Gabriel in the moonlight, staring at the highway. If she’d been sober, she would have left him alone, but she had too much false bravado dripping into her veins to pass up the opportunity. She slipped out the front door to join him. She was surprised to see him raise a cigarette to his mouth and take a long drag. “I didn’t know you smoked.” He glanced over with a flat-mouthed smile before he blew out a long stream of smoke that hovered in the heavy air for a moment before curling toward the stars. “I don’t. Quit a few years ago.” “Now it’s a guilty pleasure?” “Something like that. I give in about once a week.” “Seemed like a good night for it?” “Must be the music. Makes me feel young again.” She reached for his cigarette

  CHAPTER 15 She fell asleep in a T-shirt and underwear like a normal human, and that was a damn good thing, because someone was pounding on her door when she woke up. Hannah sat straight up, bleated a quick “What?” in confusion, and then stared at the door as her heart did its best to tear its way out of her chest. “What?” she asked again more loudly, but it was still just a croak. The knocking came again, slightly less booming now that she was awake and not filtering the sound through a dream. Light trickled in from the opposite window, and judging from the watery grayness, she’d woken to another cloudy morning. Still blinking, Hannah jumped from bed, tugged on a pair of yoga pants, and opened the door. She was met by the irritated face of a sullen teenage girl. “Hi,” Hannah said, surprised to see the girl who’d checked her in. Somewhere between jumping from bed and opening the door, she’d decided it was the old groundskeeper coming to confess another memory. The girl raised her chin i

  CHAPTER 16 The little house was the opposite of the inn. The opposite of Jacob’s Rock. As if the owner had decided she could bear no more trees and darkness and shade in her life. Far north of the tourist haunts of Big Sur, the house sat above the road in a rocky meadow that angled down past the highway until it ended in stark cliffs. It was tiny. Just a cinderblock square with a faded, hand-painted sign that read MARIA’S BAKERY, but it was surrounded by tufts of green and gold plants. An herb garden instead of a lawn. Did Maria live here alone, a hundred yards above the highway, watching the world and the waves from her kitchen window? Was Jacob’s Rock one of the things that had driven her here? Or had the bright peace of this spot washed away all that darkness? Wha
t if she barely remembered it at all? Hannah got out of her car and climbed a long path that wound through the miniature garden toward the front door. The entry had an air of disuse about it; a few pebbles littered the step

  CHAPTER 17 She was on her second jalapeño roll and her third glass of wine when he knocked. She knew it was him immediately. Who else could it be? If Gabriel had shown up before glass number two, Hannah might have been scared. Instead, she felt only a hollow dread in her stomach as she stared at the door. He couldn’t get in. She just had to wait him out. Her suitcase was packed, her flight booked, and she was done with this godforsaken place. All she had to do was sleep through the night and she was out of here. He knocked again. Hannah set the wineglass down and crossed her arms. She didn’t know who he was, really. Couldn’t begin to suspect his motivations. Even now, she was the only one who knew what his mom had done. What if Maria had only been pretending to be a nice old lady? What if she’d called Gabriel and told him that Hannah was a problem? What if she actually knew Rain was dead and was just trying to keep Hannah quiet? It belatedly occurred to her that the rolls could be pois


  CHAPTER 18 She tapped the coffee stirrer nervously against the mug, tap, tap, tap, as if she were channeling Jeff. Did she need him here so badly that she couldn’t wait with any kind of calm? Maybe, because she was as fidgety as a five-year-old, but she did her best not to scratch the itchy poison oak rash on her left forearm. She would have preferred to meet him in a bar, but he was teaching a night class and had to head back to campus after this. When they were dating, she would have been able to charm him into a glass of wine before class, but they weren’t close enough for flirtation anymore. Strange that people could be so distant after so many years of sharing a bed. The late-afternoon meeting with her old boss had gone well, though she’d had to apologize for wearing jeans and a leather jacket that reeked of wood smoke. He looked like he’d lost an inch of hairline since her departure, and he’d been up-front about the offer. He was trying to reassemble a couple of the old teams. So

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