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Costa Rica — First Chapter Preview

Costa Rica by Kristen James Costa Rica    OUT NOW!

This is a story of marriage, life, friendship and finding out who you are when the cards are on the table. The idea came to me when I was in Costa Rica on my honeymoon, but it took a few years for me to grow into the writer I needed to be to complete this novel. And now it’s almost ready to share! Here’s the blurb and first chapter:

***

Annalisa and Drew have always dreamed of going to Play Flamingo, Costa Rica, with their best friends, Vincent and Melinda. But now they’re out of time.

Annalisa feels their marriage is just a shell for others to see–there’s nothing left inside. She wonders if they can rekindle their love in paradise, but there’s so little left. They gave up on their marriage along with their dream of having children.

Time is literally slipping away from Vince and Mel. Vincent’s cancer is back–his tumor is inoperable and he won’t do chemo again. This trip is now or never.

 

***

Chapter One

It took a set of dates and an overheard conversation—in the bathroom of all places—for Annalisa to realize her husband was cheating on her. And no, she didn’t think she’d been “pretending not to know.” She really didn’t. The moment of truth was a complete shock. Sadly, the clues were there:

Drew had been talking about his upcoming work conference for the last month, and the details had been vague for the most part, except the dates. But the third time he casually mentioned, this morning, that it was September first clear through the fifteenth, she felt a tickle of something being amiss. It was just the second week of July, so his trip wasn’t even for another two months. Kind of early to point out the dates so often. Maybe he was sneaking off with his friends instead of going to a work conference up in Seattle. Something about his forced casualness stood out—like a black hair on a white fur coat—and yet she never considered anything like this.

They didn’t really discuss things anymore. Sure, they made polite small talk and checked in with each other, but without kids or common interests, the marriage was a shell for other people to see. They stopped in at the house and ate dinner together once in a while. Attended his work parties. Spent time with Melinda and Vincent, their closest friends since before high school. But they just weren’t the same couple anymore. People change, right? So, somewhere along the line, she had accepted this second-rate marriage.

The truth slapped her in the face in the restroom at the boat lot where Drew worked as the sales manager. It was Monday morning, and he’d forgotten to take his camera to work with him. Drew had taken shots of the Coos Bay fireworks show over the boats in the bay for the boat lot’s website.

As a high school counselor, she had the summer off. She had planned to run errands and grocery shop that day, so she took the camera with her. At the dealership, she went to the bathroom first. As she closed the stall door, she saw two younger women walk into the room and stop in front of the mirrors. They looked mid to late twenties, (just a few years younger than her) but giggled like teenagers. Annalisa shut the door, and their conversation stayed in the background, like elevator music, until one of them said, “Costa Rica. Are you freaking serious? You lucky brat! When are you going?”

The other one giggled, sounding carefree and a bit haughty. “September first, for two weeks! We won’t be back till the fifteenth!”

Her hand froze over the flusher. Her hindsight kicked in, at its fully-promised twenty/twenty vision, feeling like a kick in the gut. The bathroom lights hummed louder and louder. She pinched her nose, afraid to breath. Afraid they’d hear her.

Were there other signs she had missed? Maybe… She never waited up for Drew anymore, or met him during the day for lunch. She noticed a few months back that he’d bought some new shirts, got highlights and had been going to the gym. He hadn’t said anything to her, of course. She’d just seen the receipt for his gym membership, and then Melinda said something about Drew really shaping up.

Now the miscellaneous details added up to an ugly picture. Suddenly she saw a big crack in the middle of her life, dividing it into the before and after. She hadn’t moved, but everything was different. Shouldn’t she burst out of the stall and scream at that girl? Or cry? Or do something? She could hear their voices, like wind chimes, while her entire life seemed to freeze.

This scenario was so wrong. Annalisa wasn’t a soccer mom, wearing “mom jeans” and driving a minivan. She was only thirty-one and drove a red Mazda RX8. She wasn’t busy taking care of the kids. There were no kids. They had tried and tried without results. Ironically, she had consoled herself that she still had a great body, and that they could go out on dates. But they didn’t. And now Drew had found someone five years younger than her anyway.

Their voices faded as they left, the door shutting and leaving a painful silence. She filled it by gasping for breath. After that, she waited several minutes before emerging from the stall, but she stood there, trying to remember what to do next.

The bathroom was decorated with fake purple flowers and lit candles. A bottle of peach hand lotion set on the counter. She studied these and the raised cream flower pattern on the green wallpaper. After washing her hands, she glanced into the mirror—just long enough to see her wounded eyes staring back at her. She stuffed her paper towel in the trash and hurried away from her reflection.

In the hallway, she passed the framed pictures of the owner, managers, and sales staff of Carolton’s Boats. Drew Porter, Sales Manager. There he was, with his broad smile, light brown hair and amber eyes. That had been her Drew. What was wrong with the universe today? It had to be some cosmic joke on her. She lifted the framed picture off its hook and carried it to the end of the hallway, where she dropped it in the waste basket.

Then she left without stopping at Drew’s office. In fact, she kept an eye out to make sure she avoided him. It felt like fleeing the scene of a crime. She felt dirty. A summer wind hit her as she burst outside. She broke into a run in the parking lot, slammed her car door, and started the engine. Leaving, Annalisa knew she was headed toward the ocean without having to think about it. That’s where she always ran.

A few minutes later she pulled into the small parking lot of a whale-watching point along the beach. A dark haired couple with two young girls stood at the rail to gaze at the Pacific, but she sat in her car. She stared out to sea without watching for anything, except maybe the biggest tidal wave in history to come and wash this nightmare away.

Why Costa Rica? Why their dream vacation? Just….why?

The four of them—Drew, Annalisa, Vince and Melinda—had talked about going to Costa Rica for years now. It was always on their radar, their “someday soon” plan.

The wind outside cried against the window. She sat and stared, trying unsuccessfully to picture life without Drew. As little as their lives intertwined these days, he was still a part of the foundation. All their memories would evaporate in time, without the other to remember with. Their high school dances, their walks on the beach, their late nights, their married life. She thought about the early years, when they had sex just for having sex. Then they wanted a baby. At first, she figured it took time for everyone, but it never happened. They struggled trying to conceive, struggled with all the emotions, and eventually lost the fight. It hurt to think about it. This hurt, just like the time she thought she was pregnant for a few days, only to get the devastating proof that she wasn’t.

So why Costa Rica? And why that woman? What was wrong with her, his wife? Had she done something terrible to Drew and somehow didn’t realize it? Maybe that blond could have a baby. Maybe she already had a child, like a ready-made family.

The light changed around her and she glanced at the clock. She’d been sitting there for three hours. She started the car again and headed for Melinda’s house. They’d been best friends since forever and always ran to each other in moments like this. Annalisa had been there for Melinda all through her husband’s battle with cancer, twice now. She’d been there for the good times too, when Melinda announced her pregnancy, had her baby, and then another. Even when it just about killed her, she had been there.

She slowed down beside the yard to wave. Melinda stood in the front, hose in hand, half bent over her rose bushes, all blooming in red. She had her thick, curly chestnut hair in a messy knot. That usually meant she hadn’t made it to the shower yet, which in turn meant she was busy with the kids or Vince, except it was almost evening. Vince would be at his veterinary practice or coming home now. Maybe it’d been a bad day with the kids?

Melinda turned and smiled at the car—she probably couldn’t see Annalisa yet–but the smile was full of sadness. Something about the look on her face…something was wrong.

The obvious thing flew into her mind. There’d been many of those times since Vincent was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. He’d been in remission for nearly two years, but an awful dread settled into Annalisa’s stomach.

She parked in the driveway and met Melinda halfway across the yard, where she wrapped her arms around her. “I’ll make the drinks if you want one.”

Melinda nodded, smiling and frowning at the same time, trying to fight tears. She turned suddenly toward the house and hurried inside.

The front door opened to the living room, but the furniture was arranged so that there was a small entrance area before the living room started. They walked through to the kitchen. Annalisa got out the shaker. Some days they drank piña coladas or white Russians, but today, stiff margaritas were in order. Melinda continued into the sunroom; she always had a hard time getting things out.

Annalisa poured their drinks with a shaking hand.  She handed Melinda a glass and joined her in the wicker love seat. The room faced the backyard where the daylight had faded. It was always nice to have a drink with your closest friend in silence. It was like saying life is okay, no matter what. She desperately needed that before the storm she knew was coming.

Halfway into the drinks, Melinda asked, “You don’t need to get home?”

Annalisa shook her head. “Nope. Drew’s got better things to do these days.” She could have easily launched into complaining about her and Drew. (The complaint being, sadly, that there was no her and Drew.) They didn’t spend time together. They didn’t have a reason to.

She expected Melinda to pick up on that. Sure, she kept her mouth shut and didn’t explain, but Melinda usually noticed the little things. Not this time.

“Vincent’s taking a nap,” Melinda said then, as if it were loaded information.

Annalisa waited. She took their glasses to the kitchen, refilled them, and waited some more. A nice buzz slipped up on her. Zippy, the striped frog-catching cat, jumped up onto her lap and curled into an upside-down noodle, purring and curling his paws into the air. She stroked his stomach, starting to wonder if Melinda couldn’t face saying it out loud, whatever it was.

Then Melinda said, “They found a new tumor, one they can’t operate on. He won’t go through the chemo again. He’s done. We’re done.”

Annalisa had been waiting for that punch, but it still knocked the wind out of her.

“Melinda,” she whispered. She scooted closer and wrapped her arms around her. Zippy slinked onto the floor, his ears back. The setting sun tinted the room yellow, almost like they were in an old movie, instead of life.

“Maybe this tumor is different,” she said. “Maybe it won’t grow.”

Melinda shook her head, shaking them both. “It might just sit there, or it might grow fast enough to kill him within months. All we can do is monitor it, if he won’t start chemo. Refuses to start chemo.” That last sentence came through clenched teeth.

That had to kill Melinda. She’d been the fighter, the cheerleader, the one who never let Vince get down.

Annalisa could still vividly recall Melinda’s freckly face in high school and how excited she was when Vincent finally kissed her.

“Just be here for me again, okay?” Melinda asked, her pitch rising in near desperation.

“You know I will be. We said best friends forever.”

She sat and held Melinda until they heard Vincent walk down the stairs and through the house toward them. Melinda straightened and wiped her face—she was wiping away tears, but really she was putting on her brave face. Her mask.

Vince came into the room behind them. His dark hair was rumpled from sleep, but his blue eyes looked as bright and crisp as ever. Vincent, the charming, funny man that deserved the best. He tried for a smile when he saw her teary face.

Annalisa quickly wiped her eyes and smiled back, pretending they were just gossiping or something, but he knew. She stood when he reached the sunroom, and he quickly came over and wrapped his arms around her. “Don’t cry, Anna, it’ll be okay.”

Melinda stood up and curled an arm around her, too. She felt like they were trying to make it better for her, easier for her, and she needed it. As selfish as that was, she needed them to hold her.

“Can you stay?” Vincent pulled back and held out his palms in welcome.  “We can order in.”

“I’d love to.” She’d love to do anything but go home, but really this was her favorite place to be anyway. Her house always felt so empty compared to the hustle and noise here. Normally it was loud and hectic. “Where are the kids?” she asked now. She’d noticed earlier, but it hadn’t seemed like the time to ask.

“Mom has them tonight,” Melinda answered. “We wanted them to go have a fun night instead of watch us deal with this. We’ll tell them tomorrow…maybe. We’ll tell them soon.”

Vincent’s gaze dropped just before he turned away. He went in the other room and ordered Chinese. While waiting, they played a few hands of cards. Strangely, that perked her up. Vincent bet too high and bluffed badly, and put on such a show when he lost. Annalisa was good at cards and reading people’s poker faces, but she didn’t care about tonight’s games. She just wanted to laugh with her friends.

The food arrived forty minutes later, steaming hot and wafting scents of crispy chicken, orange sauce, pan fried noodles and veggies. They made small talk like everything was normal—that might have been the point, actually.

Later, as she drove away, she could see them standing in their lighted doorway, Melinda tucked under Vince’s arm. He held her close as they both waved. Annalisa waited for “Isn’t It Ironic?” to play on the radio, but some mushy love song started so she hit the power button.

That song reminded her about the reality of her life, the part she hadn’t shared with Melinda tonight. Through some miracle or force of will, she had actually convinced herself it was a bad dream.

Now, driving by herself, the problem ballooned to consume her. Why would someone want her Drew? Imagine if they knew he had a giant collection of those plastic bread sack clips, for no apparent reason, and with no plan for them. And that perfectly messy hair of his? He spent ten minutes styling it every morning. And he had to have his shoe laces at the exact same length after tying them. And he hated flashbacks in movies and books—he preached against them. And he liked to blare out 80s country songs in the shower like he was up on stage—when he’d rather streak naked than let anyone hear him sing any other time. Someone would try to steal that man?

She slowed down in front of her house. It was dark except for TV lights flickering through the entertainment room window. Drew was home. She parked in the garage and went inside. He didn’t come out, probably didn’t even hear her. She could hear the movie and stopped in the hallway, looking in at her husband. It didn’t look too far into the movie yet. Maybe he had just come home, too. Maybe he had been out with that woman from work after all.

He didn’t see her, and she wasn’t sure how to start that conversation.

“So, Drew, you’re bored with me and taking some skanky slut to Costa Rica?” No, that was too harsh. It’d just start a fight.

Drew, I heard you’re planning a vacation.” Nope. Too wimpy.

“Do you care if you break my heart?” Too honest?

She could not find any workable way to talk to him, and so she took two of Drew’s over-the-counter sleeping pills, went to bed, and fell into a troubled, dizzy sleep.

New Year – New Novel in Progress

It’s a new year and I’m writing a new book. I love that initial creating stage where I go from a vague book idea to a plot with characters, and then entire storyline comes together. When I was in the final phases of my last novel, I did have few days when I wondered, what if I don’t get another idea for a while? Then I got several ideas all at once. The idea I choose to work on is about a family with all kinds of problems and issues. It’s make it or break it time, and then things get even worse. This story is fun to write because there are so many different issues between all the characters, and their decisions drive the plot. There’s several twists too! I’m looking forward to sharing more about it as the novel progresses.

I wrote several novellas and a novel in the last year, and the writing process just continues to get more and more exciting. Ten years ago, I needed to outline, draft character sketches and constantly revise the storyline and my notes. I had to write quite a bit to get a grip on what would happen in the story and who the characters were. Now I can develop the story and characters in my head much better, so I can see what people look like, what drives them, and how they’ll change in the book. I’ve always like to paint scenery for fun, and the process is very similar. I start a book with the background, the general idea for the plot and characters, and then I fill in details in layers to create the full picture.

Cheers!  ~Kristen

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