EXCERPT: Dotted Lines - Author Devney Perry

02/07/2021

EXCERPT: Dotted Lines

CHAPTER 1

Clara

“What are the yellow lines for?”

“They’re dotted lines,” I answered.

“But they aren’t dots.” August sent me his famous look through the rearview mirror. The look that said I was wrong, and he was skeptical of everything I’d taught him in the five, nearly six, years of his life. He’d picked up that suspicion toward the end of his kindergarten year, and I’d been getting the look a lot this summer.

“No, they aren’t dots. But when you go fast enough, they sort of look like dots.”

“Why aren’t they called stripes?”

“I think some people might call them striped lines.”

“That’s what I’m calling them.” He dipped his chin in a single, committed nod. Decision made. “What do they mean?”

“It means that if you get behind someone going slower than you, and as long as there isn’t someone else coming in the opposite direction and the road is clear, you can pass the slower driver.”

August let my explanation sink in, and when he didn’t ask another follow-up question, I knew I’d satisfied his curiosity. For one topic.

One. Two. Three.

“Mom?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

“How much does the ocean weigh?”

Now there was a whopper. But my son’s endless questions never disappointed to entertain. I’d lost count of how many topics we’d covered on this trip alone. August was nothing if not inquisitive. I couldn’t wait to see what he’d do with all the facts he was storing in his head for later.

“With or without the whales?” I asked.

“With the whales.”

“With or without the yellow fish?”

“With them.”

“And the blue fish?”

“Yes. All the fish.”

“Even the starfish?”

“Mom,” he groaned. “How much?”

I laughed, glancing at the backseat, then turned back to the road. “The ocean, with the whales and the fish and the starfish, weighs more than the moon and less than Jupiter.”

His little forehead furrowed as he rolled that one around. “That’s a lot.”

“It sure is.” My cheeks pinched from smiling, but that was the case with August. When he was younger, I’d told him he had magical powers. That if he smiled, I smiled. Every time. That was his magic, and he used it often.

I adjusted my grip on the steering wheel as the tires whirred over the pavement. The Cadillac floated down the road more than it rolled. In a way, it was like we were flying, skimming just above the asphalt as we soared toward California.

August stared out his window, his legs kicking. He was already restless to get out of the car even though we’d just started today’s journey, navigating the roads of Phoenix as we headed toward the interstate.

We were halfway through our two-day journey from our home in Welcome, Arizona, to Elyria, California.

In total, the trip was only eight hours, but I’d split it up, not wanting to torture my son with an entire day strapped in a car seat. Last night, we’d stopped in Phoenix and had a nice evening at the hotel. August had spent the hours after dinner doing enough cannon balls into the pool to sink a pirate ship. Then he’d passed out beside me in bed while I’d read a book for a few hours of distraction.

This morning, after a continental breakfast of pastries and juice, we’d loaded up the Cadillac and hit the road.

“Mom?”

“August?”

“Do you like this car?”

“I love this car,” I answered without hesitation. Even though I hadn’t spent enough hours behind the wheel to consider it mine, I loved this car. For reasons that would be lost on my son.

“But there’s no movie player,” he argued. It was the third time he’d reminded me that the Cadillac didn’t have a video console like my Volkswagen Atlas.

“Remember what I told you. This car is a classic.”

He huffed and sank deeper into his car seat, totally unimpressed. “How much longer?”

“We’ve got a while.” I stretched a hand to the backseat, palm up.

He might not be having the time of his life in the car, but he was still my best pal. With a crack, he slapped his hand to mine for a high-five.

“Love you, Gus.”

“Love you too.”

I returned my hand to the wheel and relaxed into the buttery leather seat.

Yes, I loved this car, even if it wasn’t mine to keep. The 1964 Cadillac DeVille had once been a heap of rust and dented metal. The car had rested on flat tires in a junkyard in Temecula, California, home to bugs. Probably a mouse. And two runaway teens.

The on-ramp for the interstate approached and I took it, my heart galloping as I pressed the accelerator.

Today was the day. Today I was returning this Cadillac to one of those runaway teens. Today, after more than a decade away, I was going to see Karson.

My stomach twisted. If not for my firm grip on the wheel, my hands would shake. Twelve, almost thirteen years ago, I’d left California. I’d left the junkyard that six of us had called home for a time.

My twin sister—Aria—and me.

Londyn, Gemma and Katherine.

And Karson.

He’d been our protector. The one to make us laugh. The shoulder to cry on. He’d made a bad situation bearable. An adventure. We’d survived the junkyard because of Karson.

And the Cadillac was his, a gift from Londyn. I was simply the delivery girl.

In another lifetime, Londyn and Karson had made this Cadillac their home, back in the days when it didn’t have glossy, cherry-red paint or a working engine. But Londyn had hauled the Cadillac out of the junkyard and had it completely restored. She’d kept it herself for a time, then set out to give it to Karson.

Her trip from Boston to California had only made it to West Virginia. From there, Gemma had taken the Cadillac to Montana. Katherine had been the third behind the wheel, driving it to Aria in Oregon. Then my sister had brought it to me in Arizona.

Ready or not, it was time to finish what Londyn had started. I’d put off this trip long enough. But it was time to make the handoff, to take the last leg of the journey.

The final trip.

It wasn’t the hours on the highway or the destination that had kept my heart racing since we’d left home yesterday. It was the man waiting, unsuspecting, at the end of the road.

Had Karson found whatever it was he’d been searching for? Had he built a good life? Was he happy? Did he remember our moments together in vivid clarity like I did? Did he replay them during the long nights when sleep was lost?

Will he recognize me?

“Mom?”

I shook off the anxiety. “Yeah?”

“How much longer till we get there? Exactly?”

“About four and a half hours.”

He groaned and flopped his back. “That’s gonna take forever.”

“You could take a nap. That will make the trip go by faster.”

August sat up straight and sent me a look of pure poison through the mirror. “It’s morning.”

I pulled in my lips to hide my smile. “How about some music?”

“Can I play a game on your phone?”

“Sure.” I rifled through my purse in the passenger seat, finding my phone. Then I handed it back to him.

August unlocked the screen with the code, though his face worked at times too.

I’d be forever grateful to Devan, August’s father, for helping me create this magnificent boy. But I was also forever grateful that August looked exactly like me. He had my blond hair, though his had been lightened by the Arizona summer sun, whereas I got mine highlighted at the salon. We shared the same nose and the same brown eyes. August’s second toe was longer than his big toe, something he’d also inherited from me.

He was mine.

Mine alone. The lawyer I’d hired when August was a newborn had assured me that once Devan had signed his rights away, Gus was mine.

It wasn’t the life I’d wanted for my son, to grow up without a father, but it was better this way. Devan hadn’t wanted a child and no amount of coercion would have turned him into a decent parent.

So I showered my son with love and attention. I would, shamelessly, for the rest of his life.

Good luck to any girlfriend he brought home. Fathers were allowed to put boyfriends through an interrogation. Well, this mother was taking that liberty too.

The sound of a math game drifted through the cab as August played on my phone. The dings and chimes of the app mixed with the hum from the wheels on the road.

And I breathed as the miles toward California whipped by.

It was only a state. Only a name. But somewhere along the way after we’d left Temecula, California had become synonymous with the past.

California meant hungry days. California meant dark nights. California meant death.

It was the reason Aria wouldn’t go back. Same with Katherine. Neither of them had any desire to set foot in California again. Maybe, if I’d begged, Aria would have come with me, but I wouldn’t have asked that from her. Besides, she’d just had a baby and was in no shape for a road trip.

Aria and Brody were currently enduring the sleepless, grueling nights as parents of a newborn. Logistically, it made sense for me to take this trip now. Brody was both brother-in-law and boss, so while he was taking time to spend with Aria and the baby, there was a lull in work to do as his assistant. With August on summer break from school, this was the window.

Or maybe I knew that if I kept avoiding the trip, I’d never take it.

I could do this.

I have to do this.

Because for twelve years, I’d been holding on to a hope. A distant hope, but one powerful enough that it had kept me from letting go and moving forward.

It was time.

After only thirty minutes, August gave up on his math game. He asked me another long string of questions, and then by some miracle, he fell asleep. Swimming at the hotel last night must have worn him out.

He was drooped in his chair, his head hanging down at an angle that would have given me a neck kink, when we approached the California border. Elyria sat on the coast, north of San Diego, and we still had hours to drive, but crossing the border was a hurdle of its own.

I’d opted for a southern route through Arizona, wanting to avoid Los Angeles traffic. And Temecula.

Visiting California was enough for one weekend. Returning to the town where we’d spent our childhood was an entirely different matter. Temecula had happy memories from the early years, from the happy lives Aria and I had lived before our parents had been killed in a car accident when we were ten. After that, I could count the number of happy memories on one hand. Temecula was full of ghosts, and though they still called to me at times, I wouldn’t go there even with August as my steadfast companion.

This trip was about closure. It was about Karson. That was plenty.

I gripped the wheel, my heart in my throat, as I passed the sign at the state border. California.

My stomach rolled and sweat beaded at my temple. I sucked in a long breath, dragging it through my nose to then push out my mouth. In and out. In and out, Clara. Just like Karson had taught me years ago when he’d witnessed one of my panic attacks.

I hadn’t had one in years.

My hands were trembling when my phone rang. I stretched for it in the passenger seat, checking that August was still asleep. It always amazed me that he could sleep through about anything.

“Hey,” I answered, not at all surprised that my sister was calling. Whether it was a twin thing or a sister thing, we usually had a good pulse on each other’s moods, even thousands of miles apart.

“Hi.” Aria yawned. “Are you okay?”

“No,” I admitted. “This is harder than I thought it would be.”

“Are you in California?”

“Yes.” I blew out a trembling breath. “I can do this, right?”

“You can do this. You’re the bravest person I know.”

“No, you are.”

Aria had brought us both through the hardest time in our lives. While I’d fallen apart after our parents’ deaths, she’d kept us moving. Ten-year-old me had gone comatose for a few weeks, mostly from the shock. What kid wouldn’t buckle under that much heartbreak? Aria. Maybe it was because I’d needed her and she’d stayed strong. She’d kept me going through the motions until the fog of grief had cleared.

Then I’d vowed never to fall apart again. As a child, I’d made good on that promise to myself. As an adult and parent, failing was not an option.

Aria thought I could make this trip and she was right. I could do this.

Granted, she didn’t know what had happened with Karson. Maybe if she knew the truth, she would have given me different advice.

“How are you doing? How’s Trace?” I asked, needing a different topic to focus on.

“We’re both good.” There was a smile in her voice and a tiny squeak hit my ear. “He’s nursing. I think he likes his name.”

“Because it’s perfect.” Broderick Carmichael the Third. Trace. It had taken them over five days to give the baby a name, but when I’d called to check in last night from the hotel, Aria and Brody had proudly announced Trace.

“How is the drive?” Aria asked.

“It’s fine. Taking forever according to August.”

Aria laughed and yawned again.

“I’ll let you go. Take a nap if you can, okay?”

“That’s the plan. Brody fell asleep about an hour ago. Once he wakes up, we’re switching.”

I was glad she had him. I was glad he had her.

Maybe it had been watching my sister fall in love with my friend that had been the final push to send me on this trip. Someday, maybe, I wanted love. I wanted a man to hold me at night. I wanted a man who’d be a good role model to August. I wanted a man who made me feel cherished.

Until I confronted the past, I’d always wonder. I’d always compare.

I’d always think of Karson.

“Call me when you get there,” Aria said.

“I will.”

“Take a picture of Karson with the car if you can. I think Londyn would like to see that.”

“Good idea. I think she would too,” I said. “Love you.”

“Love you. Bye.”

When I ended the call, the anxiety from earlier had lessened. That was the way with my sister. On a bad day, we had each other. It had been that way our entire lives.

There was a good chance—better than good—that I’d return home with a bit of a bruised heart. And she’d be there to help it heal.

I can do this.

There was no turning back now. The Cadillac had sat in my garage for too long as it was. Maybe it would have been easier if not for the track record with these handoffs. For every trip this Cadillac had taken, one of my friends had found love.

Londyn had met Brooks in West Virginia, thanks to a flat tire.

Gemma had returned to Montana and found Easton waiting.

Katherine and Cash had fallen in love on the sleepy highways between Montana and Oregon.

Aria had come to Arizona and realized the hate she’d harbored for Brody had actually been affection.

I had no delusions that this trip would result in a major life change. I fully expected to be the one woman who returned home single. Months of preparing myself for that reality hadn’t made it easier to swallow.

Yet there was that glimmer of hope I’d buried deep. It mingled with the fear because, unlike my friends, I hadn’t set out into the unknown unsuspecting.

I knew exactly who I was seeking.

Had his smile changed? Did he grin like he used to? God, I hoped so.

I hoped that whatever had happened to Karson in the past twelve years, his smile hadn’t dulled. Because on my darkest nights, when the ghosts escaped their confines at the California border and drifted into Arizona, it was the memory of Karson’s smile that chased them away.

That, and my son.

August stirred, blinking heavy eyelids as he came awake.

“Hey, bud.”

“Are we there yet?”

I gave him a sad smile. “No, not yet. But we’re getting closer.”

He sagged in his seat, his eyes still sleepy and his cheeks flushed. “Mommy?”

“Yeah?” My heart squeezed each time he slipped and called me Mommy. One of his friends at school last year had told August that he called his mom Mom and not Mommy. From that day forward, I’d been Mom except for the rare moments when he was still my baby boy.

“Do you think we can go swimming as soon as we get there?” he asked.

“Probably not right away,” I said. “First we need to stop by my friend’s house. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah. Is it going to take a long time?”

“No, not too long.”

“Then we can see the ocean, right?”

“Yes, then we’ll see the ocean.”

August yawned but sat straighter. His eyes lost their sleepy haze and his gaze flicked out his window, chasing the sage brush and sand that bordered the interstate. “What do you think is more scary, a shark or a lion?”

This boy would never know how grateful I was for his questions. He’d never know that he kept me grounded. He kept me sane. He kept me going. “That depends. Is it a hammerhead shark or a tiger shark?”

“Hammerhead.”

“A lion.”

He nodded. “Me too.”

The questions continued until the open road clogged with vehicles and the Cadillac was swallowed up in traffic. August was about to come out of his skin by the time we made it to the outskirts of San Diego.

We stopped for lunch and August devoured a well-earned Happy Meal at McDonald’s. Then after a refill at a gas station, we loaded up once more for the drive along the coast. After we passed the city, the Sunday traffic moved in the opposite direction, most people returning home after a weekend trip.

Thirty miles outside of Elyria, the ocean came into view, and I decided to pop off the interstate for a quieter highway that hugged the coast. August’s eyes were wide as he stared at blue water and the waves glittering under the bright July sun.

“Let’s do something fun,” I told August, touching the brake to ease us into a turnout along the road.

“What?” He bounced in his chair, then his jaw dropped when I moved to put the convertible top down. “Cool!”

We both laughed as I pulled onto the road. August’s hands shot into the air, his hair, in need of a cut, tousling in the salt-tinged wind.

He needed sunscreen. He should be wearing sunglasses. But for thirty miles, fun was more important than being the responsible mother every moment of every day. That and I didn’t want to do anything to ruin that smile on his face.

I needed that smile as the nerves crept in, twisting up my insides and making it hard to breathe. So I braced my knee against the wheel and raised my arms. “Woohoo!”

“Woohoo!” August cheered with me.

His laughter was the balm to my soul, and I soaked it in, reminding myself that this was August’s trip too. This was his summer vacation to the ocean, something he could brag about on his first day of first grade this fall.

Vacation. We’d explore the oceanside. We’d shop for souvenirs we didn’t need and eat too much ice cream. We’d have a fun trip, then go home. Brody had volunteered his jet to save August from a two-day return trip in a rental car.

The speed limit dropped as we passed a sign welcoming us to Elyria.

I gulped.

My phone chimed with directions through town toward the address I’d entered days ago. Brightly colored shops lined the main road. A couple crossed the road ahead, each carrying surf boards. Signs for parking areas sprang up every few blocks, directing people toward the beach.

Later I’d explore this charming town, but at the moment I kept my focus forward, listening intently to the navigation. When I turned down a side street, I was so anxious I didn’t bother taking in the neighborhood around us.

Then we were there. Karson’s address. The destination was on our left.

I slowed the Cadillac to a crawl in front of a white stucco house with arched windows and a terra-cotta roof. The tiled walkway to the front door was the same rich, caramel brown as the clay. Two baby palm trees towered over the green yard, and off to the side of the house was a garage.

I pulled around the corner, parking in the driveway. The thunder of my heart was so loud I barely registered August’s question.

“Mom, is this it?”

I managed a nod as I turned off the car and unbuckled my seat belt. Then I stared at the house. How would I make it to the front door? Maybe I should have called first. Karson might not even be home. If not, I guess we’d come back later.

But this was definitely his house. I double-checked the number beside the garage door.

“Can I get out?” August asked, already unbuckling his harness.

“Sure.” I’d need him with me for this.

I climbed out of the car, walking on unsteady legs to his side to help him out. Then with my son’s hand in mine, I stood in the driveway and let the sun warm my face. The sound of the ocean was a gentle whisper on the air. The scent of salt and sea hit my nose.

Aria had lived on the Oregon coast for years, and though the smell was similar, there was something sweeter in the Elyria air.

Karson had always said he wanted to be close to the ocean. He’d wanted to learn how to surf. I was glad he’d gotten that wish.

The sound of a door opening caught my attention and I turned, just in time to watch a tall man with dark hair step outside. A short-trimmed beard shaded his sculpted jaw. He was wearing a pair of khaki cargo shorts slung low on his narrow hips. His green T-shirt stretched over his broad chest and clung to the strength in his biceps. His feet were bare.

Karson.

My heart skipped.

He’d grown up. Gone were the lanky arms and legs. Gone was the shaggy hair in need of a cut. Gone was the youth from his face.

This was Karson Avery, a man who stole my breath. But he’d done that at nineteen too.

Those beautiful hazel eyes studied me, then darted to the car as he came toward us. A crease formed between his eyebrows as he took it in. Then they moved to me and that crease deepened.

My stomach did a cartwheel. Please recognize me.

If he didn’t . . . I clung to August’s hand, drawing strength from his fingers. It would break my heart if Karson had forgotten me. Because in all these years, he’d never been far from my mind.

Karson’s feet stopped abruptly and his entire body froze. Then he blinked and shook his head. “Clara?”

Oh, thank God. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Hi, Karson.”

“I can’t believe it.” He shook his head again, then his gaze shifted to August. “Hi there.”

August clutched me tighter and murmured, “Hi.”

“Is it really you?”

“It’s me.”

“It’s really you.” A slow smile spread across his face, wider and wider.

It hadn’t changed. There, on the face of a man, was the smile from the boy I’d loved.

The boy I’d loved before his life had gone one direction and mine had gone the other.

And between us streaked those dotted lines.

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