I met a woman last night who heard about Lu through a friend. My friend’s pitch was enough to drive this woman to Amazon. Do you know what persuaded her to buy two copies? Your reviews.
“How could I not buy it when everyone is saying they want Book 2. There is a Book 2, right?”
Because of you, a not-yet reader is asking about a Book 2 for a Book 1 she hasn’t read yet.
Yes, there’s a Book 2, and it seems like at some point in NaNoWriMo, we should get around to the No[vel] part. To celebrate Day 30, here’s a sneak peek – the first two chapters! I can’t say when the rest will follow. I can’t say that these two chapters will read at all like this when I publish the book. But I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has read this book and this blog in 2017. The moment I published Lu, writing stopped being a private pursuit for me. And because of you – your reading time, your Lu budget line, your encouragement … your sheer Lu peddling … I wouldn’t want it to be. What a group of readers you are! Oh my (I’m crying right now).
Thank you, and happy reading.
Lu2, Chapter 1
At least the trees were cooperating with my plan.
Grandma Pat’s tombstone sits on a slight hill in the Dunlap’s Creek cemetery. I’d plotted the scene in my mind, how the pace of my thankfulness for her kindness – her prayers – would escalate as I approached the grave, culminating in an, “I believe now, too!” as I laid down a bouquet of her favorite flowers.
Or something like that.
The problem is the grocery’s flower department doesn’t open until nine on Sundays, but that’s when church starts, and I need to be there in ten minutes. I knew this, which is why I’d planned to buy the daisies yesterday, but yesterday hadn’t gone according to plan, either.
I blame this on my family. The last time I’d come home from New York City, they’d been waiting for me. Lying in wait for me. My voicemail announcing my twilight departure accounts for this reception, but it was also five in the morning when I’d pulled into the drive. Where else would they be?
I arrived in the middle of the afternoon this time, with no heralding voicemail. I wanted to surprise them, but when I turned the doorknob of the front door, no one turned it from the inside.
“Hello?” I called, poking my neck from the vestibule, looking left, looking right. Nothing. My query landed like a dead weight as I wandered along the hallway to the family room, dining room, and kitchen. I looked out the screen door to the deck and backyard, but when I didn’t see anyone, I headed to the second floor, and then my bedroom on the third, in case anyone was hiding under the bed.
This was not how it was supposed to go, at least according to the story of The Prodigal Son. There, the father awaits. He runs to meet the once-lost but now redeemed child. He even roasts a fattened calf in celebration. But my parents didn’t return until dinner last night, hours after my return. They had my three little nieces in tow, which didn’t leave much time to do anything other than give me a surprised look and enlist me in dinner prep.
There was no time while divvying hot dogs, potato chips, and apple slices among plastic plates to ask me why I was back, and when my parents got around to asking, the nieces’ parents entered from stage right, which, fortunately, includes my best friend, Gracie, but also, my brother, Ted.
“Back again, Lu-ser?” Ted asked and laughed, despite Gracie’s warning look.
His question brought all eyes on me, giving me the attention I’d expected three hours ago. I opened my mouth to declare the tidy monologue I’d prepped on the drive home, but the diversity of my audience stumped me. I hadn’t planned to tell my nieces or their father – I was going to let Gracie break the news to Ted. And how I was going to tell Gracie about what happened was different than my version for Mom and Dad.
I’m not one for speeches, and improvising now was beyond me. So, I closed my mouth, which opened the door to speculation.
“John again, honey?” Mom asked, her voice full of concern. “He cheated on you again?”
I shook my head, and Gracie’s eyes widened in knowing, as she put her hand to her mouth and whispered, “Oh no, you didn’t come back because I told you about …”
I shook my head, more abruptly this time, to stop her from finishing what she’d started, but she’d already said too much. Now Ted couldn’t help himself.
“You came back for Jackson!” he shouted before he started laughing at me for the second time in 30 seconds. Not a record, but still not welcome. “I hate to tell you Lu-ser, but that’s over. Have you seen the girl he’s dating now?”
Dad cut him off with a squeeze to the shoulder, but the damage was done and the verdict handed down. I, Lu, was not returning home as a changed woman, but as a sad girl-woman, somehow more pathetic than when I’d done this the first time ten months ago when my then-boyfriend, John, had actually cheated on me.
This time was different, but I was the only one who realized it.
“This is not how it’s supposed to go!” I shouted, burying my face in my hands to avoid seven pair of eyes looking at me with varying degrees of pity, including Dad who is not supposed to take part in these things.
“Well what did you expect when you went back to New York? That Jackson would wait around for you?” Mom asked.
“Wait. Are you talking about the pastor? Gross,” Caroline, my oldest niece at eight-years-old, said … right before she started gushing. “Oh, but have you seen his new girlfriend? She’s so pretty with all these blonde curls …”
“That’s enough out of you, little lady. And no, I’m not talking about Jackson.” I looked around the room, pleading with each person to believe me. None of them did, even my 3-year-old niece, Holly. Or maybe I was just misinterpreting why she was no lying on the floor with her feet on the wall.
“I’m not!” I insisted. But nothing I said made any sway the rest of the night, nor this morning when Nana Bea – whom my mom asked me to pick up on my way to church – opened our conversation with:
“Jackson is dating someone else now, Lu.”
I ignored her words, like I now tried to ignore her sitting in the car while I followed through with my planned pilgrimage to Grandma Pat’s grave, though I had no flowers and only five minutes.
So I walked the hill from the parking lot a bit more quickly than intended, leaving me more physically breathless than spiritually, but it was in the pause to inhale that I noticed the trees. They, in their spring hybrid of half-leaf, half-blossom, were on point, as was the touch of breeze that paused to caress my face before catching an assortment of pink and white blooms in a lazy whirlwind. I spent 30 seconds watching the blossoms twirl their way on down, decorating Grandma Pat’s tombstone in ways her creative eye would have appreciated.
I knelt to pick one up, rubbing the silky petal between my thumb and forefinger, saying nothing. A lot had happened in New York, and Grandma Pat would appreciate any way I’d tell it – so long as I would tell it, already. I stood back up.
Out with it, I could hear her say. Just say it.
But I’d never said something like this before, and the only memories that came to mind were from high school when normal kids would leave for a youth retreat on Friday and return as holy rollers on Monday.
I gave Jesus my heart Saturday afternoon right after lunch.
I confessed Jesus as my Lord and Savior at the redemption bonfire!
I prayed the prayer.
They’d raise their eyebrows like that made any sense, but even now, with me understanding the sentiment behind the phrases, the wording still bothered me. I can’t talk like that, not even to a grave in a cemetery.
Nana honked from the car, which I took as my 30-second warning. I needed to say something.
“I don’t know what to say …”
Okay, not that. Grandma Pat never liked people stating the obvious.
Nana Bea honked the car again. Fifteen seconds. I cleared my throat.
“And I guess you know why I’m here …”
Another honk – maybe from heaven this time. I suppose Grandma Pat had better things to do in glory than listen to me awkwardly recount what she probably already knew.
And with that revelation, I had my way out.
“So since you already know, we’ll talk about it later, okay? After church. And no. I’m not going there because of Jackson. You were wrong about him. He didn’t wait for me.”
I looked down at her epitaph from her favorite Bible passage, John 4, the woman at the well: Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
“But you were right about everything else,” I whispered.
And with this most evasive confession of faith ever uttered in the history of girlkind – it was time to go church.
Chapter 2: Lu
The last time I’d walked into this church was Grandma Pat’s funeral. The pain of the day blurs recall, but knowing me, I probably left resolved never to return.
Which is why God is laughing at me right now, but I had little time to join in. The music started as I routed Nana next to my family, who must have also arrived later than normal since they were sitting in the back right instead of their accustomed front-and-center. A small kindness.
Performance anxiety hit me as the congregation started singing. I wanted to sing with everyone, even lift my arms like some, but my desires outpaced my comfort. I’d been raised in the church but had just realized God was real about 48 hours ago. Given my family’s complete misunderstanding of why I’d returned to Dunlap’s Creek, plus the rest of the town only knowing the Lu who’d left, lifting my arms wasn’t an option today.
So I closed my eyes – a handy, childhood trick. If I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me. The darkness drove away the crowd, and my breathing slowed. I could feel the sweat from my palms receding as I clasped them to anchor me to this space instead of running away, per my default. Stay here, be here.
The lyrics from the song overtook my chant. I smiled. I knew this song, an old hymn burnt into memory from Sunday school. Maybe I couldn’t sing it right now, but I whispered the words as my mind reclaimed them.
My God, my portion, and my love,
My everlasting All,
I’ve none but thee in heaven above,
I knew these words, but more than that, I now understood them. The hymn moved to another and another – all unknown – but my mind stayed here; my eyes, closed. God knew. I exhaled, measuring my breath against this truth. God knew what happened in New York. He knew me then; He knew me now. He also knew what would happen next, and I think that’s what gave me courage to open my eyes and take a seat as Jackson took the stage.
My memory hadn’t failed me. I hadn’t forgotten a detail of how he looked – his height, the brown of his hair, the green of his eyes – but I’d forgotten how the sight of him made me feel. Happily caught with no need to turn with the rest of the world unless it somehow brought me closer to him.
Jackson didn’t know I was here, so this was my chance to look at him without the possibility of my being here in his mind. I took advantage. My participation that Sunday morning was a keen display of multitasking as my hands took notes from a sermon my mind couldn’t focus on because right now it was more preoccupied with the sound of his voice over the truth of what he was saying.
The intensity of the present moment mixed with memory. First, to the last sermon I’d heard Jackson preach on Ecclesiastes. Jesus is the answer. Jesus is the conclusion of the matter. What if I’d surrendered then? Or later that night? God is here for you, he’d said. Salvation is a free gift. Jackson had always made that clear – in his sermons, in our conversations – but that night his words carried an urgency. Do you believe that?
But I’d turned away, starting a chain reaction of withdrawing that would carry into that next week as I lost my job at the paper and Grandma Pat to a fall. I avoided the very man I wanted to sink into, unwilling to lose myself in the pieces falling all around me. I didn’t hold Jackson when he held me. I didn’t stay when he asked, but defaulted to muscle memory and walked away from here to a city and boyfriend from a former life.
Put a title to it, and it’d read The Misadventures of Lu Sokolowski. The story finished well, with me arriving at Jesus as the answer, as the conclusion of the matter. It ended with me saved.
But without the boy.
I’d known Jackson had moved on from me before I left New York, and my family was wrong; I hadn’t come back for him. I’d come back because I could. There’s nothing like the promise of redemption to give a girl courage to face her past and try again.
No, I didn’t return to Dunlap’s Creek for Jackson. But I wanted to be with him all the same.
That’s the truth I landed on when his eyes finally landed on mine in the congregation. He’d been wrapping up his sermon, but he stopped when he saw me. It was a few seconds of silence, eventually broken by a cough from somewhere to my left, but enough to leave me catching my breath for the second time that day.
Jackson finished a minute later, and I stood for the last song like the good little church girl I now was. I kept my eyes open this time and looked over to Gracie as soon as the song ended and church was over.
What do I do now? I silently asked.
She looked toward Jackson and back at me.
I have no idea, the shrug of her shoulders said.
I made myself plain. There? I pointed the exit. Or there? I pointed to the stage.
She shrugged again, and I grabbed my purse, intending to follow my family out, but Nana Bea put her hand on my arm.
“Retreat now, and you’ll keep doing it.”
She was right, of course. I headed forward, wondering if Jackson would meet me halfway.
I worked my way toward him, as many of the people in between me and him welcomed me back to town. How was the city? Was I back for good or a visit? Was I going to write again for The Daily? All innocuous, unanswerable questions, but I did the best I could, treading the baseline of politeness while trying to make my way to Jackson.
It took forever, but before I knew it, he was standing in front me. I knew I should initiate this conversation, but my breath had caught in my chest again. I wasn’t going to last long if my physiology continued to short circuit like this. Thankfully, Jackson began.
“Back for a visit.”
My thankfulness evaporated. Everything about him was absent in that statement. The old Jackson would have smiled at me. He would have questioned instead of presumed. But these were minor problems in comparison to his tone. It wasn’t anger; it was nothing. The Jackson standing before me saw I was back. And he didn’t care.
His expression didn’t change with my response, not that I’d said anything interesting to change it. Any additional explanations I’d intended to offer were sort of stifled at this point, thus opening the door for Jackson’s second observation of the morning.
“New York didn’t work out.”
Another presumption. At least I had enough wherewithal to correct it.
“It did. I didn’t work out in it.”
That little nugget didn’t illicit anything other than a head nod, but his eyes said typical. I shook my head and reached for his arm, not thinking how touching him was an unwise maneuver. He looked at my hand, and then at me, not moving.
That’s when I noticed the woman standing beside him. His girlfriend, I deduced, courtesy of my niece’s description from last night. She was pretty and with golden curls, but Caroline had left out what a friendly smile the woman had. Her round face looked made for it, like she was the type to smile more often than not. Basically, the opposite of me.
I removed my hand as she extended hers to greet me. Jackson stepped back so we could step toward each other.
“Louisa, this is Rebecca, my girlfriend. She recently moved to town to teach at the elementary school. Rebecca, this is Louisa …” He paused, unsure of how to classify me. I empathized with his predicament. What we were had never been certain, though I’d said “just friends” often enough.
But what Jackson landed on was nothing at all.
“Louisa is from Dunlap’s Creek, but just returned from New York. Tell your family I said hello, Louisa.”
And with that, I was dismissed. Jackson put his hand on Rebecca’s back to greet the people I didn’t know were standing behind me, and I stood alone in the middle of the sanctuary with nothing accomplished other than meeting Jackson’s girlfriend, who was presumably friendlier than me. And definitely way friendlier than him.
I left, trying to mask the dunce cap I felt like I was wearing with enough smiles and nods to the straggling parishioners. I needed to scream. I needed to cry. I needed to scream-cry, and I couldn’t get to my car fast enough, which is why I didn’t see Jackson’s father until after he greeted me at the double doors.
“Hello, Lu,” he said with a kind smile. I’d always been a little scared of Paul Cleary, who was my pastor growing up. But right now, he was far less scary than his son. I stopped to shake his hand.
“It’s nice to see you back,” he continued. “Are you going to be around for a while?”
“I think so.”
“How about you come to my office Tuesday morning at 9? I have a project that might interest you for the church’s 50th anniversary celebration.”
“Oh, I don’t plan events anymore.” At least that’s the work I assumed Paul wanted me to do, given my organization last year of Creek Wedding Fest, a bridal expo my editor at The Daily had assigned to me shortly before he fired me. This had more to do with the sinking publishing market than the event itself, which had gone surprisingly well. Still, I wasn’t looking for a repeat.
“It’s more on the writing side of things. A book of sorts, to document the church’s history.”
I was set to object, for no reason other than to get out of here as quickly as possible, but then he put his hand to my shoulder and smiled at me again. “Are you willing to consider it?”
And so I found myself nodding. Because out of all the people welcoming me back to our small town, he was the first one to consider me.