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Corals2

PROLOGUE

Lauren lifted her head to see if anyone else might be searching for something. The others were paddling along placidly, their snorkels angled from their heads like tiny smokestacks. She pushed her dark hair out of her face and dove to get a closer look.

Her eyes widened when she saw what it was. Even under ten feet of turquoise water, it caught so much filtered sunlight it almost seemed to glow from within. She looked left and right, almost guiltily, before gently lifting it free from the protrusion of coral that had caught it. Tucking it into her bikini at the left hip, she kicked to the surface and waited for one of the other women to exclaim at her loss.

But even after everyone had climbed back aboard the tour boat, no one mentioned losing anything. Finally Lauren cleared her throat.

“Did one of you drop something while you were snorkeling?”

The others looked at Lauren, then at each other, and shrugged.

“Why, what did you find?” The boat operator was squinting at her from under a Hunter S. Thompson sun hat.

Lauren opened her mouth to tell the truth, then caught herself. She imagined he’d promise to take it to a lost and found. Likely as not he’d sell it the next day.

“I thought I saw something,” she said. “But I guess I was wrong.”

“Hmm.” He resumed his bored patter about Caribbean sea life, and Lauren exhaled. It should be taken to a lost and found, of course, but which one? There were dozens of hotels along this beachfront spewing thousands of tourists into the coral gardens off the Turks and Caicos Islands every day.

When Lauren reached her hotel lobby she asked the concierge, a dapper Cuban, if anyone had lost a piece of jewelry.

“No, señorita.”

She tried several nearby hotels, but the only hit she got was for an engagement ring thrown into the surf after a man became so blind drunk, he accidentally proposed to a passing cocktail waitress instead of to his girlfriend.

Back in her room she pulled the object out of her still-damp suit, rolled it up, wrapped a blue bandana around it, and stuffed it into a pair of folded socks in her suitcase, tired of babysitting someone else’s lost property. It was the last day of her ill-considered four-day escape, and she wanted to make the most of it. She grabbed a towel and headed for the powder-white sand steps from her door.

It was June, the sultry beginning of hurricane season, long after the last Spring Breakers had left. A friend had mentioned a dirt-cheap off-season deal, and she jumped on it like a lifeboat. One she couldn’t afford. That would take her right back to the doomed ship in less than thirty-six hours. She flagged down a passing attendant, ordered two piña coladas, and watched great bulbous updraft clouds turn pink and lavender as she sucked down the tropical drinks too fast.

The beach, like the hotel, was almost empty. Despite the sticky heat, it felt luxurious to recline in one of many free beach chairs and feel like she had the ocean to herself. Her legs were nicely tanned, a gift from her half-Cherokee father. She squinted at them through rum-blurred eyes and reached down and ran a finger along the anklet she’d been wearing for years, woven from threads she’d bought from Bedouin girls in the colors of the Sinai: sapphire blue for the mile-deep Gulf of Aqaba, aquamarine for the sandy-bottomed lagoons, white for the wavelets crashing against the reefs, and gold for the desert mountains. Conal was with her on that trip, her best friend from her years of travel. She’d made it as a talisman of how beautiful life could be. It was ragged and faded now, which seemed appropriate.

She stood too quickly and staggered a few steps before regaining her footing and walking into the ocean. The sky languidly faded to moonless starry cobalt as she leisurely swam past the gentle breakers and into the swells, where she bobbed with the rhythm of the sea.

She looked through the clouds to see if she could spot any planets — a comforting ritual that was nearly impossible in New York City. Mars and Jupiter were high and bright, and she smiled at the sudden memory of Celeste’s dad showing her the tiny pinprick moons of the giant red planet through his backyard telescope.

As the waters darkened, she reluctantly swam back to shore.

In her room she opened her suitcase, unwrapped the strange find from the reef, and studied it closely for the first time. The bracelet was delicately designed, its silvery metal twisted into entwining vines with a diamond set in the space between each twist. The stones refracted even the dull lights of the hotel room into glittering brilliance. She draped it over her wrist to see how it looked against her skin, and the ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. The edge of her mouth lifted. Fine jewelry was the kind of thing she considered an expensive hassle, but this was a work of art.

She still had more due diligence ahead of her. In the morning, her last on the islands, she’d have to call several more hotels to see if anyone had reported it missing. But if not, she figured it was back to the old playground rules: finders keepers.

CHAPTER ONE

New York’s Subways are a forlorn place, Lauren thought as she rode the interminable A train from JFK to her tiny apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. It wasn’t just that they were such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metro of Moscow, the charming trams of Istanbul, or the clean, efficient lines of Paris. The people also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces. Lauren scowled at the profiles of men in suits more expensive than the neighborhoods they were rumbling toward.

Fakers, she thought darkly.

She trudged up four flights of creaky stairs, jammed the key in the door, and walked past her roommate Sara, who was washing dishes in their tiny kitchen. The place was a disaster area. It was clearly the first time she’d put sponge to dish since Lauren had left.

“Hey,” Lauren said shortly, the vibe of New York already washing away the modicum of relaxation she’d felt hours earlier.

“Hey!” Sara beamed over her shoulder. “How was the trip?”

Lauren grunted and continued on. Sara knew her well enough to let her decompress for a while before trying to cheer her up.

In the cocoon of her tiny room, Lauren pulled the bracelet out of her backpack. For the hundredth time she wondered who could have lost it. An image of an heiress on a yacht came to mind, her arms dripping with diamonds, a casual gesture flinging one of her baubles overboard unheeded. Lauren put the bracelet on and admired it, hoping it wasn’t destined for a pawn shop in the near future. Her bed, desk, and office chair were Craigslist finds, and she was still living out of two suitcases, as if she might be called to bigger and better things at any moment.

She opened her laptop to see if any agents had gotten back to her (nope) and to scan the news on Israel/Palestine (more of the same). Then she glanced at the room’s only decoration, a collection of inspirational quotes taped on the wall. One read:

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt.

“Easy for you to say,” she muttered. “You were president of the United States.”

Her eyes shifted to her bookshelf, which held half a dozen copies of her first book, Balkan Bruise, about her travels in Eastern Europe. She had first left the US she studied abroad in Russia, where she met politicians, professors, musicians, and soldiers and refugees fresh from the carnage in Chechnya. After that it was excruciating to go back to college and try to pay attention in class.

For three years after graduation she scraped by with odd jobs and writing gigs across Europe and Russia — like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before her, she liked to think — always on the cusp of hitting zero and having to limp back home. Selling her first book to a publisher for $40,000 had felt like a Godsend, validation that she was on the right path. She used the money to explore the Middle East for two years and then hole up at a writer’s colony in Mexico and pour every ounce of talent and heart she had into her second book, The Silver Olive Tree. She felt on the cusp of a life of travel, royalties, and doing what she loved full-time. The first book hadn’t sold well, but she had visions of the more ambitious and elegant second book catapulting her into middle age with a dream career.

Her publisher never read the second book. Citing the first book’s poor sales, they cut her loose. Her agent, who’d been blessed with a duo of bestsellers that required as much attention as newborn twins, dumped her as well. Feeling shaken, but confident it was only a minor setback, Lauren scraped together the last of her savings and moved to New York City to search for another agent or publisher or any connections that could help her find them. A chain of temporary jobs — tutor for Upper West Siders, waitress at a Nolita sushi joint, fill-in for receptionists on maternity leave — had been bearable because they were a means to an end.

But the day she’d bought the ticket to the Caribbean was May 17, the one-year anniversary of her move to New York. There had been a few hopeful leads since she’d arrived, some false starts. But all of it had come to nothing.

She leaned back and closed her laptop in frustration. Sara heard the slam from the kitchen and laughed. “Maybe you should think about a job in anger management?”

Sara was an aspiring actress, a Lebanese-American with black ringlets, pale olive skin, and enormous blue eyes. Lauren thought it would be a waste if her face was never on a movie poster. For now she worked at a box office on Broadway, inches from her dream.

Lauren was starving but not in the mood for beans and rice or an egg sandwich or any of the other cheap staples they lived on. She said out loud, without thinking, “I wish we had a tiramisu in the fridge like the one I had at that little café in northwestern Italy. It was so humble, a mess of ingredients in a thick glass bowl. It looked terrible, actually. But then I bit into the first spoonful, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love.”

There was no response from the kitchen, but she heard the faucet turn off.

Lauren went on, “The mascarpone was probably made in the hills behind the village. I’m sure the waiter’s grandmother sifted the cocoa by hand.” She sighed deeply. “There’s just nothing like that around here.”

The sound of clinking glasses emanated from the kitchen. “How about a glass of five-dollar white wine to take the edge off?”

Lauren heaved herself up. “That’s a great idea.”

She was a few steps from the kitchen when she heard a gasp.

“Lauren! Where did you get this?”

“Get what?”

“You’re going to share, right?”

Lauren appeared in the entrance to the kitchen. “Share what?”

Sara rolled her eyes. “The dessert in our fridge. The one you were just describing.”

Lauren raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t like Sara to play weird tricks. But she looked utterly sincere. She must be a better actress than I thought.

Sara opened the refrigerator door wider, and Lauren gamely looked in. On the middle shelf sat an exact replica of the tiramisu Lauren had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre, down to the heavy glass bowl.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She looked at Sara, her mouth agape.

“Come on, give it up,” Sara said, pulling it out of the fridge. “Grab some spoons, I’m starving!”

Lauren numbly did as she was told.

“Seriously, where did this come from?”

Before Lauren could answer, Sara took a bite directly from the bowl. “Oh my God!” Her eyes fluttered in rapture. “This is, like, the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”

Lauren dipped her spoon into the cool, creamy layers. It tasted exactly as she remembered. For a moment she was transported back to the carefree time at the beginning of her travels when her only concerns were new friends, good food, beautiful views, and finding an internet café to write about it all. She’d felt so natural and easy, like she was right where she was supposed to be. La vita was indeed bella.

By the time Lauren’s mind returned to the gloomy kitchen, Sara had poured herself a glass of wine, scooped out half the tiramisu, and quietly departed. Lauren took the rest to her room. After she finished the dessert and was scraping up the last of the espresso-soaked artisanal ladyfinger crumbs, its existence still made no sense to her. Even if Sara had suddenly become a deeply talented and committed actress, and a truly outstanding pastry chef, had she also become a psychic?

Exhaustion eventually overcame curiosity. She removed the bracelet, stashed it in the carved wooden jewelry box on her desk, and dreamed of crazy, creamy puzzles with no sane solutions.

* * *

Lauren walked into the kitchen the next morning, made instant apple cinnamon oatmeal and Earl Grey tea, and shuffled back to her room. When she finished the meager breakfast, she picked up her cell phone to call her mom in Wichita.

“Happy Birthday, Mom. Sorry I’m a little late…” She hadn’t told her mom about the trip to the islands. She knew it had been irresponsible and ridiculous. She didn’t need to hear it from anyone else.

“Don’t worry about it. I hardly would have noticed it if Roxana hadn’t fixed me an apricot pie.”

Roxana never cooked, so it was quite a gesture. “How’d she do?”

Lauren’s mom paused just a moment too long. “Bless her heart…” she began, and Lauren smirked. Nothing good ever came after those three words. “It was really sweet.”

“Yeah, it was nice of her to try.”

“I mean she put in four times as much sugar as she was supposed to.”

Lauren laughed. “Well, at least it’s better than the time she overloaded the biscuits with baking soda.”

“Oh Lord, I’d almost forgot about that. I don’t think there’s anything sadder in the world than a pan of hot buttered biscuits in the trash.”

Lauren sighed. She’d left Kansas with such big dreams. But right now biscuits and apricot pie sounded better than anything she had going on.

“Anyway, what’s eating you? You sound kind of mopey.”

Lauren raised her eyebrows at the phone. Mopey? You couldn’t say something dignified, like ‘depressed’ or ‘in existential despair’? Her mom had a way of making her feel fourteen years old again.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s been a year since I came to New York, and I’m not sure…”

“You don’t think you’ll ever get that book published?” She sounded like she’d been expecting it, which felt like a subtle knife in the ribs.

Lauren’s jaw clenched. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I’m not sure what to do. Nothing seems to be working.”

“Well, that’s how it goes. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”

Lauren slowly closed her eyes. Her mom’s acting dreams had withered when she got pregnant at age nineteen — with Lauren. She’d killed her mother’s dreams and now hers were dying, too.

She idly opened her jewelry box, a gift from a host family in Sarajevo that contained a few nostalgic treasures: a dog tag given to her by a Russian soldier she had kissed on a train; an amulet of carved bone from a Buddhist monastery in Siberia; a seashell from a valley in the Sahara, evidence it had been under the sea millions of years ago; and now the bracelet. She pulled out the latest addition and tilted it back and forth to catch the light.

“Anyway, I’ve got to go,” she said. “There’s a party tonight, some ritzy college reunion thing. Maybe I’ll meet someone there who can help me get a real job.”

Lauren could almost hear her mother brighten at the thought.

* * *

She let her hair dry in large curlers, which made her slightly wavy hair more orderly than usual, put on a little black dress she’d bought at a thrift store for ten dollars when she was in college, dabbed her face with powder, brushed on eyeliner, and finished with lip gloss. The dress’s shade of black almost matched the lightly scuffed sandals she borrowed from Sara, but her turquoise drop earrings weren’t nearly fancy enough to pair with the diamond bracelet. They would have to do.

The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. The doorman pointed her to a gilded elevator, which carried her up fourteen floors and opened into a spacious apartment with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige. Abstract wire sculptures adorned large niches in the walls. Bracing herself, she walked toward a group of alums and tried to join the conversation. Most of them had that polished New York look, with three-figure haircuts and dry-clean-only clothes.

As the others chatted with aspartame smiles, her mind drifted to another kind of gathering, a house party on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean where the guests couldn’t possibly care less about anyone’s status or job title.

“Lauren!” she heard from the direction of the elevator. She turned and saw Anna, her freshman year roommate, saunter into the room. Effervescent and blonde, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. At the moment she was working seventy-hour weeks at a consulting firm. Whatever that was.

“Hi Anna,” Lauren said, relieved to see a familiar face.

“How’s it going, world traveler?” she asked playfully.

Lauren’s eye twitched involuntarily. “Where’s the wine?”

Anna hesitated, then smiled. “Good question.” They walked to the dining room, where bottles of Chardonnay were lined up next to bottles of Zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.

“Great,” Lauren said, grabbing a bottle of Zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of Cabernet.”

Anna looked alarmed, and Lauren realized she was brandishing the bottle in a vaguely threatening way.

“That’s a Cab, isn’t it?” Anna asked hesitantly.

Lauren looked at the bottle she was holding. It was a Cabernet. Her eyes narrowed.

“Lucky you,” Anna said. “I wish they had a Riesling, but oh well.” She poured herself a glass of the Chardonnay.

Lauren was still looking at the bottle in her hand. “I swear this was a Zinfandel when I picked it up. The bottles were all the same.” She looked at Anna for confirmation.

Anna looked at her for a moment, then dropped her voice. “What is going on with you? You seem really tense. I think you’ve lost weight, too. Are you OK?”

Lauren sighed and gave her a run-down of what was going on in her life as she opened the wine and filled a clear plastic cup.

Anna pursed her lips in a sympathetic frown, then perked up again. “Well, you can always write,” she said cheerfully. “As a hobby, I mean.”

Lauren nodded at the helpful advice, downed her wine quickly, and poured another cup, then another.

She wasn’t sure exactly how she ended up back in her own apartment sitting on the floor next to her bed. A few hours, she realized with some alarm, were blurred out from her memory. That hadn’t happened since college.

She stood up shakily, sat on the edge of the bed, and rested her forehead in her hand.

“God I wish I had a cup of coffee,” she muttered.

A steaming mug appeared on her desk next to her laptop. Lauren raised her eyes and stared at it dully. The mug was the kind found in diners, made of thick white ceramic.

Jesus, how much did I have to drink? Shakily she reached toward the mug and touched it, then jerked her hand back and sucked on her finger. It was hot.

A wave of nausea rolled over her, and she lunged for the wastebasket and heaved into it. The trash can had mesh sides, and the liquid part of her wine-stained offering began oozing onto the cracked hardwood floor.

Grimacing, she slurred, “Urgh, I wish I didn’t have to clean that up tomorrow.”

The vomit vanished. She barely had time to register this before she hurled again. She wiped her mouth.

“I wish that pile of puke would go away, too.” It did, and she raised her eyebrows wanly. She’d never hallucinated while drinking. It was vaguely worrying, but she wasn’t in the right state of mind to worry very much.

Flopping onto the bed, she pulled off her clothes and lay her head on her cheap, squashed-flat pillow.

“I wish my pillow was thicker,” she said and felt it rise under her head like bread in an oven. She buried her face in it and smiled as she finally passed out.

# # #

I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. The Bracelet is a lightly paranormal adventure, and it will soon take Lauren all over the world — to Croatia, Switzerland, Lebanon, the Sinai and, eventually, federal prison.

The book is, at heart, a meditation on the freedom we have as humans and the boxes we tend to put around ourselves to keep us from realizing that freedom. It’s a spirited journey, and I look forward to sharing it.

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The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe

Zabelle, by Nancy Kricorian

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan

Impro, by Keith Johnstone

Improv Wisdom,
by Patricia Ryan Madson

Walden and Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau

To Kill a Mockingbird,
50th Anniversary Edition,
by Harper Lee