Life Is But A Dream: In The Mountains

Grace Adams has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as readers discovered in the bestselling first book of this series – Life is But a Dream: On the Lake. Thought-provoking, often funny, and sometimes frightening, that beloved novel was so popular that the readers demanded a sequel. Now, in the second book of the “Grace Adams Series,” Grace has moved to the mountains. Her daughter, Laney, is in her first year of college, and Grace has reunited with her ex-husband, Matt. All seems well until the woman next door goes missing. Soon, Grace is not only a suspect, but she also fears for the safety of her own daughter who seems to be enamored with the missing woman’s hunky husband. Join Grace as she rekindles the fire with Matt, hikes the Rocky Mountains with Laney, and begins a new business venture with her neighbor Susie – all while keeping an eye on the man next door.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

I am dreaming. I am in a very dark closet. There is little room to move. Just outside the door, a madman raves. I watch through the crack where the two closet doors meet. He shouts obscenities and clutches a knife. He is looking for me. Wrapping my arms around my legs, I try to be very small. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I become aware of something—something pooling at my feet. A thick liquid spreads slowly across the wooden floor beneath me and moves toward the doors. If it oozes under, he will notice it. He will find me. I reach down and scoop it back, away from the door. It is warm. Slightly sticky. It feels like warm honey.

The scent of Right Guard fills my nostrils. It comes from the other corner of the closet. But it is too dark to see in that direction. I put a hand down, into the slippery honey, to steady myself, and lean toward the scent. A man is slumped in the corner. His head is tilted to the side. A gruesome gash crosses his throat and blood gushes from his neck. It runs down his body and trickles across the closet floor under my feet. Recoiling, I fall backward onto the floor. My hands slip in the blood beneath me. I raise my hands. Blood trickles over my wrists, down my arm, toward my elbows. I hear the madman approach. Hear him loiter outside the closet door.

“Grace. Grace! Wake up, Honey. You’re having a bad dream.”

I wake and reach for Matt. The room is dark and it takes a moment to orient myself. Opening my eyes, I see the familiar soft green glow of my alarm clock. 3:16 a.m. Matt’s arm is around me. I am safe. Sinking against his chest, I feel his breath on my hair. “It was just a dream,” he whispers, pulling me closer. I try to relax, but cannot. Every time I close my eyes I see the blood covering my hands. The smell of Matt’s Right Guard deodorant does not help. Surrendering to another sleepless night, I slide from under his arm and scoop up my robe from the floor.

Matt mumbles sleepily, “What are you doing?”

“Can’t sleep. I’m going to go watch TV,” I say, pulling on the robe.

“Okay. You want me to get up with you?”

“No. I’m fine.” After retrieving a blanket from the nearby armoire, I leave the room and gently close the door behind me.

In the living room, I nestle into the couch with a couple of throw pillows. I’m glad I brought the blanket because suddenly I’m cold, shivering even. Flipping through the channels, I look for something to erase the images of the dream and settle on an old Tracy and Hepburn movie. I try to concentrate on the dialogue—it is impossible. Getting up, I turn on a couple of lamps, make sure the front door is locked, and then return to the couch. I flip through a few more channels until I come across The Way We Were and settle in for the night.

The next morning, I wake to the sound of a dog whining. I open my eyes to find Bo’s nose less than a foot from my own. He sleeps in Laney’s room, insisting on being at the foot of her bed, even though she is almost an hour away in a dorm room at Colorado University in Boulder, and has been for the past nine months. He usually meets me in the kitchen. This morning, he has found me on the couch. His thick black Labrador tail wags as he gazes at me in happy anticipation, just like he does every morning. It’s as if he is clinging to the hope I might run out the door with him, or perhaps fall into the yard and roll onto my back, squirming to and fro in delight with my arms and legs in the air.

He looks at me again, expectantly, and I rise from the couch and open the back door to let him out. Tail up, he trots around the backyard with enthusiasm. Soon, he is sprinkling my still-frozen flowerbed and I am frowning as I watch. It is an ongoing battle between us—getting him to stay out of my flowers. So far, it seems he is winning.

In the distance, the Rocky Mountain foothills are dusted with snow. We have lived in Fort Collins now for almost eight months. I should be used to the mountains, but every morning I find myself drawn to their overwhelming presence. They are solid. Immovable. Impenetrable. I take comfort in that. But they also provoke an unsettling sense of imminent danger and unpredictability. I feel as if wild animals, or Indians whooping on painted horses, might descend from craggy paths at any moment. I am more comfortable looking at the mountains from a distance than living in such proximity. All in all, I prefer the Midwest, where I have lived most of my life. But my daughter, Laney, is here for her first year of college. After Matt lost his job and the bank foreclosed on our mortgage, there seemed little reason to stay in Indiana. I was working as an adjunct at a small college, so it wasn’t like I was giving up a huge paycheck. Laney came here in early August, and we followed shortly after. We see her most weekends, when she comes home to raid our cupboards and do her laundry.

We moved to a subdivision called Snow Capped Estates. The “estates” part is a bit of an exaggeration. I am not sure what makes a house an estate, but I am sure there are none here. The subdivision is simply a collection of nice houses—some nicer than others. We are living in one of the few rentals, which is also probably the smallest house in the subdivision. The owner put the house on the market at the lowest point of the housing crash and never received a single offer. Having already relocated to California, they decided to rent the house out for a year and then try again. So, here we are, at least for a year.

Bo finishes sprinkling my frozen flowers and trots around the fenced yard, stiff legged and bouncy, his tail up, announcing to the world that he is awake and ready to face the May morning. Suddenly, he drops his nose to the ground and his demeanor changes. He is on the trail of something.

“Bo!” I holler, but it is too late. He is off and running, pushing through a hole in the back of the chain-link fence and cutting through the brush that separates our yard from the open field beyond. Eventually, he will show up in our front yard, whining at the door. He refuses to crawl back through the hole in the opposite direction and re-enter the backyard. I close the door in resignation, hoping he won’t bring back a dead rabbit.

Back in the kitchen, in the dim glow of the stove light, I grab a handful of Doritos from an opened bag in the snack drawer. Replacing the bag, I fold it over, so the chips won’t go stale, and then walk back to the refrigerator to withdraw a bottle of Dr. Pepper. I take a long drink before returning to the window, eating chips as I walk.

We live in a cul-de-sac. Looking out my rear window I can see our yard and part of the backyards of our neighbors. To our left live Frank and Helen Hoffman. In their late sixties, they almost never venture out of their house. A landscaping service trims and fluffs their lawn once a week and the only time I ever see them is if I happen to catch a glimpse of their profiles when their car emerges from their garage.

Christy and Josh Slater live to my right. Both in their early thirties, they are blonde, blue-eyed, and so physically fit they are annoying. Their home is gorgeous—supported by huge timbers and nestled amid massive boulders, it is positioned directly at the center of the cul-de-sac, and, as such, sits on the largest, most appealing lot. It is not quite an estate, but it definitely leans in that direction. They have a relatively small front yard, but the backyard is enormous. It fans out like a piece of pie and is speckled with blue and yellow wildflowers and an assortment of pine trees.

My friend Susie lives right next to them. She introduced herself the day Matt and I moved in—right as I was carrying a heavy box of books down the ramp of the moving van. The weight of the box was starting to pull me forward, and although I was leaning back to keep from losing it, despite my best efforts I was about to drop it. Without a word, Susie ran up the ramp, deposited the plate of cookies she was carrying atop the box, and grabbed the other end. She then walked backwards all the way down the ramp, through the house, and into the spare bedroom while I instructed her, “To the right. Down the hall. Over there. Okay, that’s good.”

The first words out of Susie’s mouth were then, “Got milk? Cause you have to have milk with these chocolate chip cookies. If you don’t have any, I’ll go home and bring some back.”

I did have milk.

That night, her husband, Tom, came over and helped Matt carry our television into the house and set it up. The four of us have been friends ever since, although the guys don’t spend nearly as much time together as Susie and I do.

Matt enters the kitchen. Dressed for work, he is carrying his laptop, which he sets down near the door while he flips on the light. “Doritos and Dr. Pepper for breakfast?” he asks, taking me in his arms.

I nod and kiss him.

“How long were you awake last night?”

“A couple of hours. Hey, would you do me a favor?”

“Sure. As long as it’s a quick one; I’m running late.”

“Would you switch deodorants?”

He laughs. “Are you trying to tell me I have body odor?”

“No. I just don’t like the smell of it anymore. I think I’m allergic to it.”

“That’s weird. But, sure. Next time you go to the grocery store, find one you like the smell of and I’ll wear it.”

“Simple as that?”

“Simple as that. What are you doing today?” He pulls away and opens the cupboard for his portable thermal coffee cup.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll apply for some more jobs.”

Matt was able to find work before we moved here; I have not been as lucky. Fort Collins is full of highly educated people. Getting a position teaching at the local university with only a Master’s Degree has been impossible. I applied for one part-time position teaching American Literature at Colorado State University. They actually emailed me back to tell me they had received more than 200 resumes from people with doctorates. In reality, you will have very little chance in this economy and with this kind of competition. It was tough to read, but I appreciated their honesty. Today is Wednesday. I have not managed to apply for a single position all week. Today, I tell myself, I will concentrate on finding a new job today.

I watch Matt pour his coffee, add cream and sugar, and then replace the lid of the cup. “Well, have a great day. And good luck on the job search.”

“Yeah. I’m thinking the real estate thing is looking better all the time.”

“If you want to get your real estate license, do it,” he says, picking up his laptop and walking toward the door that leads to the garage.

I follow him. “I don’t even know if I want to get the license. That’s the problem. I don’t know what I want to do.”

He opens the door, turns to give me a quick kiss, and steps into the garage. “You’ll figure it out. Don’t worry. I’m working now. We’re fine. Take your time. Relax and enjoy looking.”

I refrain from reminding him that he didn’t exactly “enjoy looking” when he lost his job as a project manager in the automotive industry—a loss that, combined with the death of his mother, propelled him into such a downward spiral that he left me and filed for divorce. Oddly enough, our friends and family don’t even know we are technically divorced. Matt never told anyone that he filed, and the few people I told are either dead or live in near isolation on a small island in Michigan. I feel as married as I ever did, perhaps more so, because now we both value our relationship in a way we never did before. I think back on the last of couple of years, amazed at how far we’ve come since I thought my marriage, and my life, was over.

It’s true that Matt’s new job pays pretty well (although much less than his last job), but I also refrain from reminding him that he is minimizing our financial situation. We are meeting our bills, but just barely. We will be able to pay this year’s college tuition for Laney, but I don’t know how we are going to pay for next year. Both of Matt’s inherited houses—the small lake cabin in Michigan and the home he grew up in—are currently for sale. We have had little interest in either. Property taxes on both still need to be paid. I feel a financial noose slowly tightening around us.

The garage door slides up and Matt waves as he backs the car out of the driveway and onto the street. He hits the door remote and the garage door starts to close. Just as it is halfway down, Bo races under it and into the garage, setting off the infrared sensor and stalling the door. He has a knack for doing this. Tongue lolling, he smiles up at me and wags his tail. I push the button on the wall beside me and the door creaks down as Bo struts into the house without so much as an apology. We really need to fix the hole in that fence.

Bo settles into his favorite spot on the small rug by the living room fireplace, and I grab my Dr. Pepper and yesterday’s copy of The Coloradoan and sit at the table in the breakfast nook to browse the classifieds. I think about getting my laptop to search for a job, but instead take a sip of Dr. Pepper and stare out the window, daydreaming about getting a real estate license. I imagine myself driving around in a dark, sleek BMW, wearing a crisp business suit and carrying a leather attaché that perfectly matches my shoes. I could sell multimillion-dollar mountain homes and rake in huge commissions. True, I might have to learn to use Facebook and Twitter and all of those other creepy social media things I avoid. I will have to learn how to do more on the computer than type a document, play solitaire, or undertake an occasional Google search. And I would have to be willing to work on the weekends and at night, I guess. I suppose that will be when most people will want to see a house. Plus, there will probably be all kinds of math on that real estate licensing exam. I’ve heard that real estate agents have to pay for all of their advertising expenses, too, so if you spend a bunch of money advertising a house that never sells, you just lose money. I sigh, drink the last drop of Dr. Pepper, and get up from the table, leaving the newspaper behind. Time for a shower.

An hour later, I am walking out of the house with great intentions. I am wearing one of those cute little running suits that have suddenly become fashionable, and my tennis shoes are double knotted. I am going for a run. My hair is even pulled up into a snug little ponytail. As I stride down my driveway toward the road, my neighbor Christy leaves her house and begins walking down her driveway. My steps falter. I wonder if I can turn and hurry back into the garage before she spots me.

“Hello!” she calls out with a jaunty little wave, and I realize it is too late.

Crap. I should have looked at the clock before I walked out the door. Christy runs at 8:00 a.m. every morning. Rain or shine. I hate that about her.

“Hi.” I throw her my most neighborly smile. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

“Sure is! Are you going for a run? We could run together!” Christy’s dazzling smile reminds me I should buy some of those do-it-at-home teeth whitening strips. She wears shorts and her perpetually tanned legs are much longer than necessary.

“No. I’ve got a pulled hamstring,” I say, faking a slight limp. “Gotta take it easy for a while. I was just walking over to Susie’s house.”

“Oh, darn! Well, take it easy. Maybe tomorrow, or even next week if you aren’t healed up by tomorrow.”

“Sounds great!” I lie again.

Christy waves and moves in a gait that can only be described as bounding. She bounds down the driveway with powerful strides; I hobble along deciding there’s no way I am running today. Not with her on the road. Once I am following her, I give up the phony limp and watch her perfect blonde ponytail swing back and forth as she continues bounding along.

I avoid Christy like she has a communicable disease. It’s not that I dislike her; I have never spent enough time with her to make that determination. It is more of an avoidance of discomfort. I mean, why choose to be in the presence of someone who makes you feel so dumpy? Why be continually reminded of the many ways she is better than me? I don’t even want to stand next to her. I am certainly not going try to run beside her. Besides, I am more of a shuffler than a runner, and I just don’t need the discouragement.

Not entirely displeased by the sudden change in plans, I tell myself that visiting Susie sounds a lot more fun than running anyway. And I’ll feel less guilty if I make at least one of my lies true by actually walking to Susie’s house.

Entering Susie’s garage, I notice Tom’s car is gone. He usually leaves for work not long after Matt, so I feel no need to knock. Stepping on the back of my shoes, I leave them on the welcome mat and walk in. Susie is in the kitchen; Susie is always in the kitchen. If I had a dollar for every hour Susie has spent in the kitchen, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job.

“Hey,” she says. “For a minute there, I thought you were going to go running with Christy.” She smiles. From her kitchen window she has a perfect view of Christy and Josh’s driveway, side yard, and most of their backyard, which can be pretty rewarding because Josh walks around shirtless, displaying his chiseled abs, for most of the summer.

“I was going to run with her. But I didn’t want to make her look bad. She’d only slow me down. What are you making?”

“Strawberry soup with chocolate ganache. My mom always makes it for my birthday.”

I don’t bother telling her that I don’t know what ganache is. For that matter, I don’t like the combination of the words strawberry and soup either. But, what do I know? Susie is a self-taught gourmet cook. I thought I was a pretty good cook until I met Susie. For me, cooking is just something I do when I am hungry. For her, it is an art form. She is working on writing a cookbook. So far, she has had nothing but rejections from publishers, but she continues to believe in the project. As I watch her, I do too. Susie is an artist. She dips the rim of a champagne glass in chocolate. Having done that, she tilts the glass back and forth carefully, so the chocolate streams down the glass perfectly. She repeats it with a second glass. I watch intently, hoping I will be licking the chocolate off one of those glasses soon.

“Why didn’t you bring your laptop?” she asks.

I often browse the Internet and look for jobs while Susie cooks. “I really was going to go for a run.”

“Until you saw Christy?”

“Yeah.”

Susie nods. “Understandable.”

“So, are you going to go get your laptop?” She drops some strawberries into a food processor. Susie is like that—always encouraging me to do something. I like that about her. I also find it slightly annoying.

“I suppose,” I answer, rising from my chair reluctantly.

“You were going to go running, and yet you don’t have the energy to go back over to your house—only one house away—and carry your laptop back over here?” She turns away from the strawberries long enough to give me her full attention.

“This strawberry concoction better be good, that’s all I have to say. All I’ve eaten today is Doritos.” I open the door leading to the garage and walk out.

I take my time returning home. Back in my house, I sit at the nook table, turn on my laptop and catch up on the latest news and celebrity gossip. Then, typing in the words “real estate Fort Collins,” I click on a few real estate websites and examine the faces of the agents to see if they look happy. One of them has sixteen feature houses listed. I wonder how much it costs to run ads for sixteen houses. I wonder how much money she’ll make if they all sell. She has big blonde hair with dark roots, and it looks as if her photo has been airbrushed. I imagine competing with her to get a listing for someone’s house and quickly decide the real estate market in Fort Collins is probably too competitive for me. Opening my email, I spend some time deleting junk messages then notice an email from Laney in my inbox.

Hey Mom. Just thought I would say hi. Hope you are having a good day. Are you getting excited about the Colorado Trail? Have you ordered your sleeping bag yet? Let’s go get your hiking books this weekend. Love you lots. Laney. MWA!

It takes me a while to figure out that “MWA” is the sound of a kiss. I respond, ignoring her question about the sleeping bag. I need to tell her that I don’t want to hike with her this summer. So far, I have put her off with a vague “maybe,” but I am not sure how much longer that will work.

I am having a good day. Just heading out the door to go to Susie’s house. Have a wonderful day. And get good grades! Love you too. MWA!

I add a little smiley face and hit send. Closing the laptop, I grab the cord and, just for good measure, another handful of Doritos, before walking toward the door. Before I leave, I glance at the clock on the stove and am shocked to see it is already after nine. I’ve just wasted an hour.

Carrying my laptop and power cord with one hand, and stuffing the Doritos into my mouth with the other, I hurry out the door. I’m halfway down my driveway before I notice Christy and Josh arguing in their driveway. I can’t hear what they are saying, but it is clear he is angry. I consider dropping down behind the bushes that line my drive, just so I can listen, but just slow my step a bit instead.

Josh raises his voice, nearly screaming now, “I told you I had to leave early this morning! I don’t have time to babysit!” At least six inches taller than Christy, he looms over her as he yells. He is dressed in long khaki shorts, a salmon-colored tee shirt, sandals, and a requisite puka shell necklace—his standard business suit.

Christy, suddenly appearing very small, raises her head and spots me. Her face is wet with tears. In a low voice, she says something I cannot understand.

“I don’t give a damn!” he replies in a low growl.

Looking away, I pick up the pace and walk quickly toward Susie’s house. Before I can get there, tires squeal and Josh’s car speeds past, throwing small chunks of gravel up at me as he passes. I turn back toward their house just in time to see Christy disappear behind the door. I wonder if Susie saw the exchange between them.

Before I can get all the way through the door, I have my answer. “Did you see that?” Susie exclaims.

“He was screaming at her about having to leave early this morning. Maybe he told Christy that and she forgot and went running and left him at home with Madison.”

“That’s no reason to call her names!”

“He called her names?” I ask.

“Bad names,” Susie says and nods.

I want to ask what names Josh called Christy, but I cannot bring myself to do so. I think about how sad Christy looked with tears streaming down her face. Suddenly, I wish I had gone running with her. Maybe if we were together Josh would not have yelled at her. Then again, maybe not, because if I were with her, I would have slowed her down and she would have returned even later.

“He has always had quite the temper,” Susie says.

“How do you know that?”

“When he first started his business in Boulder, one of my sister’s friends worked with him. He tries to act all cool surfer dude, but he can be a real ass. Rumor is he got the money to start the business from some woman who used to live in Boulder.”

“So?”

“A very married woman. I guess it was quite the scandal. She and her husband moved to Phoenix after. But not before Josh got a cool half a million from her to start the business.”

Susie moves around the room, photographing the two glasses of strawberry soup, which she has artfully arranged on her island counter. They don’t look anything like “soup,” but they do look scrumptious. Both have a huge dollop of cream on top and a dark green sprig of mint.

“Maybe we should invite Christy to lunch sometime,” Susie says, as she scoots one of the glasses slightly to the left and continues to take photos.

“Yeah, we should,” I agree, but both of us know that we will not.

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