Every novel gets rolling with a key event, one that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t appear to loom large but, in retrospect, can be seen as important.
In my first Carding novel, The Road Unsalted, the pebble that shoves the plot into action is the arrival of a 12-year old girl named Suzanna Owens. She’s the niece of the town’s postmaster, Ted Owens.
Suzanna’s mother, Ted’s older sister Allison, unceremoniously dumps her daughter on Ted’s doorstep. This excerpt from the novel takes places at Ted’s breakfast table the morning after Suzanna arrives.
The book’s title, by the way, refers to Class 6 or abandoned roads in Vermont. These (mostly) dirt roads are not maintained during the winter. Since they are not cleared of snow, they are not salted either. One of the plot twists in The Road Unsalted involves such a road.
You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted,Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Light in Water, Dancing, will go on sale on June 15, 2018.
You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.
Ted Owens watched sunlight ooze across his kitchen table as he stirred half-and-half into his second cup of coffee. The knot of anxiety in his belly tightened as his niece poured milk on her cereal. When she first arrived, Ted was inclined to think of Suzanna as “that poor kid” but the child would have none of that nonsense. In their short conversations over a Sunday-night supper of BLT’s and soup—Ted’s culinary skills were limited—the girl expressed no eagerness to see her mother again nor any contempt for Allison’s actions. In fact, Suzanna’s demeanor reminded Ted of the resignation of airline passengers who just learned their flights had been delayed…again.
He’d asked her timidly about school, and was informed that until last Thursday, she’d had a seat in a sixth-grade classroom in Las Vegas, and she expected her mother to drag her back there soon enough. So, Suzanna announced, it would be a waste of time to attend school at Carding Elementary.
Ted felt his eyebrows rise at this pronouncement, and the hatred he harbored for Allison kindled anew. It was all well and good to ruin your own miserable life but to drag a child through your muck…
“Does your mother do this sort of thing often?” he asked. “Drag you off in the middle of the night, I mean.”
The girl nodded, spooning up her milky breakfast. “Sometimes it’s because she gets fired but sometimes it’s because there’s a new Bruno,” she said.
“Bruno? You mean that man who drove you here?” Ted had never laid eyes on anyone named Bruno before. He always imagined a man with a name like that came standard issue with a broken nose, and biceps the size of full mail sacks. Ted worked in the Carding post office, and moved a lot of full mail sacks so he knew what he was talking about. But the man behind the wheel of that large black car had been skinny with a face like a tack. Bruno didn’t fit the profile.
“Oh, I don’t remember what that guy’s real name is,” Suzanna said. Ted’s eyebrows reached for his thinning hairline. “I call all my mother’s boyfriends Bruno because it’s easier to remember that way. Can you get some Cheerios next time you’re at the store? And maybe some bananas, too? I like fruit on my cereal when I can get it.”
Ted winced. She calls them all Bruno because it’s easier to remember? How could a mother do that to her child? Aloud he said, “Would you rather have something besides cereal? Eggs? Pancakes?”
The girl stopped spooning soggy flakes into her mouth. “Pancakes? Can I have them with maple syrup? I had some once, in a restaurant, from a bottle shaped like a leaf. Mom said it was made here in Vermont but that was before I knew where Vermont was. It was very good.” She stopped moving for a moment to listen intently to a passing car.
“That’s a taxi delivering Lydie Talbot,” Ted said. “She’s takes care of her sister, Millie Bettinger, across the street. It’s not your mother.”
The girl relaxed, and they exchanged their first conspiratorial look. “I kept the leaf bottle. It’s in my suitcase,” she said. “You can see it if you need to know what I mean by maple syrup.”
Ted smiled. “No, it’s OK. We see those little leaf bottles around here a lot. Andy Cooper, over at the store, he sells a lot of them.” Ted stood up, opened his refrigerator then placed a small glass jug in front of the girl. Dark brown liquid filled it to a point where sugar crystals marked the line between syrup and no syrup.
Suzanna pulled the jug closer and tilted it in the light. “Are you sure this is maple syrup?” she asked.
“Yes. I helped make it, in fact,” Ted said. “A friend of mine owns a sugarbush up on Belmont Hill.”
“Maple syrup comes from a bush? I thought it came from a tree,” the girl said.
Ted laughed. “No, though now that you point it out, I suppose bush is kind of a strange term for a place where lots of maple trees grow together and get tapped for syrup. Try pouring a little on your cereal.”
Suzanna looked doubtful. “It’s darker than what was in my leaf bottle. Will it taste different?”
Ted’s eyebrows, which had climbed down from his hairline, now bunched up against one another. Suzanna thought they looked like two fuzzy caterpillars coming together for a kiss, and she quickly put her hand up to her mouth to scratch an itch that didn’t exist in order to hide her grin. She didn’t want her uncle to think she was rude. Since he was now her only friend in the world, that wouldn’t do at all.
“It probably tastes even better than what you had,” he said as he pulled a spoon out of the silverware drawer. “You see, there are different grades of maple syrup based on their sugar content and color.” He lifted the jug, slid its spout open, and dripped a little of the brown liquid into the bowl of his spoon. “I think that the grade A dark amber is the one most worthy of pancakes.” He handed the spoon to the girl. “Here, try it for yourself.”
She obeyed, tasted, and then let a pent-up grin rip across her face. “I can put this on cereal?” she asked.
Ted poured a thin spiral of syrup over what remained of her breakfast. “Have at it,” he said.
Suzanna dug in with relish, and Ted let himself think that maybe this uncling business had a lot going for it after all.
He stood up, and stretched his back. “I need to get to work,” he said. “Since you’re not going to school, you need to come with me.”
Suzanna looked up, her eyes round as buttons. “Why?”
“Well, I can’t leave you here all alone, now, can I?” Ted said.
“Mom does, all the time.”
Ted smiled. “Well, I’m not Mom.”
Suzanna scooped up the last of her cereal. “That’s what I like best about being here so far.”