The Gardener(42)
Author:S.A._Bodeen


    He laughs and grabs the voucher out of my hand. “I’ll go get us some snacks.”

    I sit down at the table and put my face up toward the warm sun. Our spring break road trip to Palo Alto is a welcome reprieve from the dreary Pacific Northwest winter. And a nice way to gear up for the end of our junior year. I glance at my watch. We have a half hour before I meet with the football coach. Since sophomore year, I added another twenty pounds of girth and two inches of height, so my football possibilities at Stanford are greatly improved.

    Students are walking to and from classes as I wait for Jack, and I enjoy watching them. After a few minutes, I notice a girl with short platinum hair almost to her shoulders, standing with her back to me. Dressed in faded Levi’s and a white tank top, she is reading the bulletin board on a kiosk in the center of the courtyard, about fifteen yards from where I sit.

    The girl is tall, with an athletic build.

    She seems so familiar, and I study her, every aspect of her.

    The girl is tall. Tall enough?

    I shake my head, trying to get a grip. It had been over a year since that day at TroDyn. I hadn’t heard anything. From Laila. Or from my father. Although Mom finally revealed the details of my college fund. By scrimping, and not touching it all these years, she’d saved enough to pay for whatever college I chose to attend. Hence the big open arms for me and Jack on our campus visit.

    Mom reassures me all the time that no news is good news. I assume bad news would make CNN.

    Every day, I call my old cell phone with my new one. It always goes immediately to voice mail.

    Still, I find myself drawn to the girl at the kiosk.

    And then I am standing, taking a step toward her.

    Her hair. Too short? Wouldn’t it be longer?

    I am only a few steps away, and I reach out for her. …

    Jack clamps his hand on my shoulder, startling me. He says, “Dude.”

    Just then, a guy pops around the kiosk, gives me and Jack a funny look, then embraces the girl, saying, “Hey, Jen.”

    I clear my throat and look at Jack. “Yeah?”

    Jack says, quietly, “It’s not her. Not yet.”

    I nod. “I know that.”

    “Do you?”

    My eyes widen in a mock glare. “Yes, I do.” Then a corner of my mouth turns up. “Sue me. I can’t help it.”

    We go back to the table.

    Jack slides an orange tray over to me. I pick up a peanut butter cookie and take a bite.

    Jack holds up a Yoo-hoo. “A toast?”

    I grin and pick up the iced coffee from the tray, holding it to his bottle of chocolate milk.

    Jack says, “To the end of our junior year.”

    “And the beginning of our senior year.” Then I add, “May it frickin’ fly by.”

    And I watch the girl and the guy. One day, maybe, that would be me and Laila. One day, maybe, not that long from now, that would be me and Laila standing there at the kiosk, hugging a long hello.

    At the edge of the commons, a woman strolls by, holding a sheath of papers. She looks familiar, but I can’t figure out why. She glances my way and seems to falter.

    Dr. Emerson. Is it possible?

    I stand up.

    Jack asks, “What?’

    “I’ll be right back.” I break into a jog as she rounds the corner of a building, but when I get there, she’s gone. Maybe it wasn’t her. Maybe she was never there.

    As I head back toward Jack, I see a girl in sunglasses about twenty yards away, sitting in the sun, leaning against a tree. I had to have walked right past her, but I was too focused on following the woman. The girl’s hair is platinum and long, almost to her waist, and it blows lightly in the breeze. Her blue dress reaches to her ankles, her long legs stretched out in front of her. Her feet are bare. She is reading a book and in one hand, holds a bottle of Yoo-hoo. As I watch, she takes a drink. Frozen, I stand there and watch her drink again.

    I pull my phone out of my pocket and stare at it. Maybe this will be the day the call goes through. With a finger, I hit speed dial. And, like always, I hold my breath and hope.

    Faintly, Black Sabbath comes to me on the breeze as the girl reaches beside her and picks up a phone. My phone.

    I’m halfway there before she has a chance to answer.





    ACKNOWLEDGMENTS



    SINCERE THANKS GO OUT TO:

    My agent, Scott Mendel, who not only tolerates my crazy story ideas, but somehow manages to find homes for them. A close second is my editor, Liz Szabla, who somehow knows just what questions to ask to bring out the rest of the story. These two are simply the best, and I feel so lucky to have them on my side. And thanks to everyone at Macmillan for their hard work on every aspect of this project.

    My early readers, for their support and valuable feedback: Joni, Mark, and the rest of the Puget Sounders, as well as Matt in Paducah, and Brian in Ohio.

    Family friend Dr. Kelly Cain, director of the St. Croix Center for Sustainability at my alma mater, UW-River Falls, for letting me pick his brain while writing this novel.

    Finally, my husband and daughters, for putting up with my constant angst and obsession (along with the lack of decent meals) when I’m in the middle of a project. I owe you.


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