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Magnolia Tree

Magnolia Tree

Book excerpt

Prologue - September 21, 2000

            Elizabeth Grey awoke with a start.  Her eyes popped open. A feeling of dread passed through her. She glanced to her left and noted her husband’s absence from their bed. The LED digits on the alarm clock read eight a.m. Elizabeth sat up and stretched. She shook off her unrest. Must have been a dream I don’t remember. She padded to the bathroom, washed her face and hands, put her housecoat on over her nightgown and entered the hallway. A voice could be heard coming from her granddaughter’s bedroom. She stopped at the doorway and leaned on the frame.

            Four-year-old Sydney sat on the floor with her tea set spread in front of her. “Would you like some sugar in your tea?”

            Elizabeth smiled. Sydney had an imaginary friend. Elizabeth wasn’t worried about it. A lot of children have them, especially when they have no siblings and live rural without other kids to play with. It’s just a part of her development. Frank, her husband, on the other hand, thought it was weird and believed Sydney had issues. An opinionated man who once he held a belief could not be shifted, she was tired of arguing the point. Elizabeth sighed.

            Sydney looked up. “Hi Nana, my friend, Candy, is having tea with me.”

            “Good morning, hon. Say hi to her for me.”

            “She’s not very happy today. She looks very sad.”

            “I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe your tea party will cheer her up. What would you like for breakfast this morning?”

            Sydney looked at her invisible friend. “Hmm...what should I eat today? What about pancakes?” She looked at her Nana. “Yup, Candy is smiling.”

            “Pancakes it is after I have my coffee. I’ll call up when it’s ready.”

            Elizabeth descended the stairs and went into the kitchen. The aroma of a full pot of coffee beckoned. She poured herself a cup and looked out the back window towards the barn and equipment building. Both doors were closed. Frank’s probably out for his walk. Elizabeth padded to the front door to claim the swing and enjoy her coffee on this beautiful warm morning.   

            She stepped onto the verandah and came to a cold stop. With a sharp intake of breath, her free hand flew to her chest and she gasped “Omigod...” The full cup of coffee in the other hand hit the floor. Splintered shards of porcelain scattered across the porch while hot coffee splashed up over her white floppy slippers.

            “Omigod...” she gasped.

            Frank lay face down on the wooden floor. Elizabeth kneeled beside him. “Frank? Frank...” She shook his shoulder. No response. She tried to push him over onto his back but only managed to get him half on his side. Frank’s eyes stared back at her, glazed and lifeless. Her hands covered her mouth. “No, no,” she whispered. Elizabeth put her fingers to his neck. No pulse. Her hand moved to his chest. No heartbeat. His body was feeling cold to the touch. How long has he been laying here? Elizabeth knew he was dead. There was nothing she or anyone else could do for her husband. A state of shock froze her body to the spot.

             She had no idea how long she kneeled there staring at her deceased husband. She stood and went inside. After making a call to the police, Elizabeth called her friend and neighbour, Carol.

            Five minutes later, Carol walked Sydney out the backdoor on an adventure through the meadows, to end at Carol’s house for pancakes.

            Elizabeth returned to the porch and swept up the broken cup pieces. She placed a pillow under Frank’s head and covered him with a blanket. He appeared to be sleeping. A silly gesture to be sure, yet a comforting one.  She sat on the porch swing. There were no hysterics, no tears. Only a numbing acceptance...and she waited.

 

Chapter One - Seventeen years later

            The old two-story farmhouse with boarded windows, peeling paint and overgrown gardens appeared nothing like the house she remembered from her childhood. Sydney Grey stood on the gravel sidewalk that led to the sagging steps attached to a porch covered with leaves, dirt and broken tree branches. Her eyes scanned the windows on the second floor, resting on one window in particular. My bedroom. Her mind filled with childhood memories of swimming in the small lake behind the house and playing hide and seek in the grove of magnolia trees. She loved the smell of the magnolia flowers; a heady, intoxicating scent with a touch of cherry, lemons, and a hint of vanilla.

            An uneasiness that started in the pit of her stomach and pushed its way through her body made Sydney frown. She had no idea why. Feelings such as these plagued Sydney her whole life. Usually, they occurred before something happened. She shrugged it off. That’s because she didn’t yet know that she used to talk to a dead person.

            A quick perusal of the roof over the porch and the house showed curled shingles and a few missing tiles. Sydney blew a wisp of blond hair out of her eyes. “Shit,” she murmured. A new roof needed for both. She opened the notebook in her hand and wrote some notes. The windows were intact on the second floor. Regardless, they were slotted to be replaced with a row of picture windows, along with the intent of turning the whole top floor into one open studio. She stepped onto the porch. At least the floor’s intact. The suspended swing she’d loved to sit on in the cool of the evenings hung lopsided, one of the chains broken. She leaned against the porch posts. Solid.

            The interior of the house was in better shape. However, the air inside was hot and stale. She left the door ajar and opened each window as she wandered throughout the rooms. The carpets were frayed which mattered not. There was wood underneath and a good sanding and staining would bring them up nicely. She took in the yellowed linoleum on the bathroom and kitchen floors. Gone—a complete renovation for both rooms. Her eyes perused the kitchen, resting on an old-fashioned pantry room with a broken door.  The pantry stays.

            There were three bedrooms on the main floor. The largest would be her room and her office. She envisioned an electric fireplace with an armchair, with lots of room to add an En suite. Sydney stood at one of the bay windows and took in the grove of magnolia trees spread out to the left of the lake. She smiled at the small dock leading into the lake, remembering the swimming lessons her grandmother started before she could even walk. Nan called me her water baby. The second bedroom would serve as her Nan’s whenever she came to visit and the third as a guest bedroom. Easy upgrade for them.

            Moving back to the living room, she took in the fireplace set into one whole wall of inlaid stone. If the chimney proved certifiable, a glass front pellet stove insert would be appropriate since she loved the beautiful stone wall. A door slammed upstairs. Sydney’s head shot up. “Uh...” Probably a gust of wind from the open windows down here. Still, it gave her a start.

            The natural wood door jams would stay. Love those. She noted the wooden staircase and railing to the upstairs would be beautiful with a sanding and rich stain.

            The upstairs housed a storage room and two more bedrooms. Wandering into the one that had been her bedroom, Sydney envisioned removing the inner walls to join the bedrooms and hallway as one open yoga studio for her clients. Pillars could replace the one load bearing wall. She opened a door in the hallway and walked into a storage room. Perfect size for a two-piece bathroom for clients. A wooden stool stood in the corner. She glanced up at the ceiling, noting the trap door to the attic. Memories of her grandfather standing on the stool and pulling down the door panel flooded her mind. A set of wooden steps pulled down for access. She smiled, remembering that she’d been too short to stand on the stool and pull the door panel down and longed for the day when she’d be tall enough to explore the secrets of the attic room above. If she hadn’t moved to the city with her Nan, it may have become another hiding place.

            The sound of a vehicle drew her out of the room and back to the bedroom window. She looked down expecting to see the contractor who was coming to inspect the house. A tall, thin woman got out, wearing a ball cap, her long dark hair in a braid down her back. Sydney headed downstairs to the veranda.

            She stepped through the doorway onto the porch and met the woman at the top of the steps. “Hi, can I help you?”

            The stranger looked her up and down. “Syd? Is that you?”

            Sydney tilted her head. Only her friends called her Syd. Her grandmother refused to because it made her sound like a man. To her Nan, Sydney was bad enough but that was her birth name. My Nan’s old-fashioned that way.

            “I’m sorry. Should I know you?”

            The woman laughed and reached out her arms. “It’s me, Jessie.”

            Recognition came instantly. “Omigod ... Jessie?”

            The two women embraced. “I can’t believe it’s you,” Sydney said. The two had met in pre-school. During kindergarten, her grandfather passed.  She and her grandmother moved to Kelowna when the school year finished. The girls had only seen each other a few times over the years and lost touch in high school. At twenty-one they’d both changed considerably from their last visit as tweeners.

            Jessie pushed her back. “I love that hair style. You look gorgeous.” Sydney’s straight blonde hair hung in a layered bob a couple of inches below her chin, parted in the middle with long wispy side bangs she was forever blowing out of her eyes. “It makes your blue eyes pop.”

            “Thanks. You look wonderful.” Sydney took in her height. “So tall. You could be a model.”  

            Jessie pulled a face. “No thanks. I like the quiet life in our little town.”

            “I guess it still has a small-town flavour but it’s grown so much since I lived here. How’d you know I was here?” Sydney asked.

            “Mom lives next door to your possible contractor. He mentioned a family member had returned to the farm. I thought I’d check it out, hoping it was you.”

            “Yes, Rhyder Contracting. I’m waiting for someone to meet me here this morning to go through the house.”

            “Awesome. They really are the best contractors around.”

            As if on cue, a white van with Rhyder Contracting graphics pulled off of the quiet road into the dirt driveway. The two women walked down the steps to greet the young man who exited the driver’s door. Sydney took in his strong, slim build, white fitted t-shirt, and tailored blue jeans with well-worm cowboy boots. Whoa! If all the country boys around here look like this one....

            Jessie spoke first. “Hey, ghost. Haven’t seen you for awhile. How’s it going?”

            “Hi, stranger. I was working on a big job out of town but Dad’s been away for a couple of weeks. I left the foreman in charge and came back to run the office. It’s good to be home.” His gaze turned to Sydney. He gave her an obvious up and down stare. “I’m looking for Sydney Grey.”

            Their eyes locked and Sydney felt drawn into his expressive blue eyes. She stood frozen to the spot. The young man tilted his head with raised eyebrows, waiting for her to respond. Breaking out of her stupor, she rushed forward a little too quickly and almost stumbled. She extended her hand. “Uh ... that’s me. I’m Sydney Grey.” What a dork I am.

            “I’m Jax Rhyder, Rhyder Contracting” He gave her a wide smile and shook her hand. He held it a little longer than usual, his eyes searching her face.

            She pulled her hand away. Hmm...seems a little sure of himself. “Nice to meet you. I’m really excited to see what you have to say about the renos.”

            Jax took in the old building. “Me too. I love refurbishing old farmhouses. It’s my passion. Hopefully, we can come together and make it work.”

            Jessie cleared her throat. “Well, I should take off and let you get to work.”

            As the pair turned and looked at her, Jessie laughed. “Wow—look at you two. Don’t you make the cutest couple?”

            Sydney’s mouth dropped open and her eyes got big. She mouthed the word “What?” She gave Jax a sideways glance. He laughed and his eyes held a glint of amusement.

            Jessie snickered and shrugged. ‘I mean, you’re both blue-eyed blonds with that same Keith Urban hair style thing going on. You made me think of those couples that look alike.”

            Jax laughed. “Same old Jessie. You always were blunt in school. First thing that comes to mind, first thing out of your mouth.”

            “That’s me. So Syd, why don’t we meet for dinner tonight at Carl’s Steakhouse and we’ll fill each other in on our lives. It’s on Third Street.”

“I’d love to. How about seven

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