Living in Bliss sneak peek

Chapter 1

“Baby girl. Baby girl, wake up. Got to talk to you.” 

I rolled onto my side, dragging the pillow over my head, trying to shut the sound out. But the raspy voice was still there. “Sorry to do this to you. I wasn’t planning on it. Didn’t even see it coming. This getting old business kind of sucks. I suppose all those cheeseburgers caught up with me and clogged up the works. But don’t you worry, I’ll still be around, just in a different way.”

It wasn’t just Jimi’s voice. His face hovered above mine. He was wearing his favorite shirt, because of course he was, from the original Roadhouse movie. People often compared my father to the actor Sam Elliott; the shirt was a not-so-subtle nudge if they didn’t immediately make the connection.

I grunted and rolled onto my back, fluttered open my eyes to clear the dream, and closed them again. It didn’t help. Jimi was still standing over me, looking somber. That confirmed I was dreaming: Somber wasn’t in Jimi’s repertoire, only big grins and hearty laughs. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better dad. I tried, but I wasn’t built for father-daughter dances and chasing boys off. Doesn’t mean I didn’t love you. I loved you more than anything in the world. I think things turned out the way they were supposed to. Your Aunt Maybee coming back and taking care of you was exactly what you needed. I’m not saying things happen for a reason. I don’t believe in that wishy-washy stuff, but sometimes you get what you need. If we couldn’t have your mama, Maybee was the next best thing and a damn good second.” Jimi grinned. “Don’t tell her I said that. Don’t want to make her head bigger.”

What the heck? Was I asleep, or was I awake? I opened my eyes again to be sure my wayward father wasn’t actually standing here, a thousand miles from his home, leaning over my bed. Nope. There were no six foot tall hippies in my tiny apartment. I told myself to go back to sleep, but Jimi wouldn’t shut up! “I’m really sorry about you and Parker. He’s a fool. He shouldn’t have let his mother treat you like that. We all knew she was the one poisoning the well. It’s not entirely fair to blame him, though, because if we’re honest, you shouldn’t have let that old biddy run you over like you did. But that’s all right. You live, and you learn. Park’s a good man; he’s just a good man with an overbearing mother. Still, it’s hard to lose your best friend. I know. Ansel and I are great pals, but that’s not the same as me and your mama.”

“Go away!” I groaned, but Jimi kept talking.

“You’re gonna do fine, Baby Girl. You just need to rekindle that blaze of fire that’s always been in you, that fire Penelope Beaumonte tried to put out. It’s still there. I know there are embers under the ashes. You can get it going again. Remember, I love you. I’m gonna keep an eye on you from wherever I end up. Expect to hear from me once in a while. ‘K?”

Now, I was wide awake. I growled and rolled onto my side, rubbing my eyes. I never dreamed about my father. And that was one heck of a vivid dream. Darn it, Jimi. It had to be a dream because that’s the only place he would ever say something sweet about Maybee. 

The neon numbers on my alarm clock told me it was five a.m. Trying to sleep longer was pointless once my brain was fully activated. I swung my legs over the edge of the twin bed and let out a surprised squeak when my bare foot was stabbed by the spikes of my hairbrush. 

Living in 400-square-feet isn’t easy when you have 1,500 square feet of stuff, and 1,300 square feet of it are vintage clothing and accessories.

Wide awake—well, wide awake-ish—Jimi’s voice was still in my head, crystal clear. We only spoke on the phone twice a year, on my birthday and his. Texting had been our sole form of communication since texting became a thing. I made a mental note to check on him this weekend. He’d tell me all about the latest adventures at Spirits. I was pretty sure the bar was his one true love, or at least his favorite child. He’d shown it more attention than he ever had me.

Something he’d said in the dream came back to me and made me frown. He said he loved me. Although I knew he did, I couldn’t remember him ever saying it, not even on my wedding day when he walked me down the aisle. 

I shook my head again to clear the cobwebs and surveyed my minuscule kingdom. I joked to my best friend Holly I could touch each wall of my apartment from the bed. The bed was against one wall, couch against the other. Under the lone window, a small table served as my desk. It overlooked the windows of the building across the alley. My laptop and monitor took up most of the desk space. The kitchenette had three small cabinets, a camper-sized stovetop and oven, and a mini fridge. And for all this, I paid an insane amount of rent.  Internet extra, of course. 

I padded across the room and started a pot of coffee, washed my face in the kitchen sink, and swapped pajamas for Zoom-appropriate attire: a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the logo (a ubiquitous puzzle piece) of the nonprofit I worked for, and my favorite pair of Calvin Klein jeans. I couldn’t put them on without thinking about Brooke Shield’s iconic statement, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins!” and that always made me smile. I could have gotten away with pajama bottoms since I wouldn’t be leaving my apartment today. Unless I was hitting up thrift stores or doing my weekly grocery shopping, I rarely went anywhere. Washington, DC, for me, was nothing like New York.

In the last seven years, I’d had three distinct lives: first, fresh out of college, living at home in Iowa, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Second, in New York City, as the wife of an up-and-coming attorney with political aspirations. And now, three years later, divorced and living in DC because that’s where the job offer was and I refused to tuck tail and head home, admitting defeat.  I hated it. DC had its good points—lots of cheap or free activities in the form of festivals, monuments, and museums—but it was crowded, expensive, and chaotic. If not for the mixed blessing of having a good number of thrift shops to stalk as I hunted for treasures, I’m not sure I would have lasted this long. Soon, though, I’d need to move because the goodies were taking over the tiny space we shared. 

Jimi’s dream visit was still rattling around in my head. What was all that business about Park? I was a little stung that he’d been so quick to shift the blame from Park back to me. Yes, I let my mother-in-law Penelope get to me, and that was my bad. But Park didn’t do much to protect me. That was on him. Jimi was no doubt feeling loyal to his pal Ansel, who was Park’s uncle. Ansel and Jimi were as close as brothers; they’d been best friends since college. I suppose I had never considered how the divorce might have affected their relationship. Yippee. Another thing to feel bad about.

My gaze moved to the only photo I had of Jimi. Actually, it was Jimi, Ansel and me at my college graduation party. The three of us had our arms around each other’s waists, me in the middle, on the stage at Spirits. Jimi was wearing his usual attire—jeans, a T-shirt, and his much-loved boots, with a cowboy hat plopped onto his head. He’s smiling, his weathered face partially hidden behind his trademark mustache (another ode to rough-and-tumble actors he admired). His thick salt-and-pepper ponytail snuck out from under his hat and rested on his shoulder like a beloved pet. Ansel, on the other hand, exuded elegance. He was dressed in dark trousers and a crisp button-up shirt carefully folded to expose his forearms, polished Italian loafers, and his favorite Rolex visible at the wrist. Holly must have helped me that day because my coppery-colored hair, usually a mess of curly chaos falling around my face and over my shoulders, was somewhat under control. The vintage floral wrap skirt and the fantastic crocheted halter top I was wearing in the photo were still in my closet, along with the Frye boots that had been Maybee’s until I ‘borrowed’ them. How did I look so young and carefree? Maybe I felt safe because I had a rock on each side. 

I yawned and glared at the coffeepot to hurry it up. Three hours of sleep wouldn’t help me write this blasted grant proposal about a program my boss had made up out of thin air. I was pretty sure she did not know how grant funding worked. You have a program, set goals, create benchmarks, develop an appropriate budget, and explain how you’ll use the money. You don’t just ask for a check and say you’ll figure out the details later. 

The coffee maker must’ve been tired, too, because it took ‘drip’ entirely too literally. I couldn’t wait anymore. I grabbed a mug in one hand, the pot handle in the other, and magic-presto swapped the two vessels as quickly as possible, only dribbling a little. When the cup was full enough, I repeated the process to extract the full mug, this time with less spillage. 

Did I wait to take a sip? No, of course not. I swore when I burned my lip. Story of my life. I rushed into things and paid for the consequences later. This overpriced rabbit cage of an apartment was proof of that.

My phone vibrated on the dresser, which was also my nightstand. I scowled and stuck out my tongue. My boss arrived every morning at eight, and the flood of emails and texts started immediately after. Then I frowned. It was only five-thirty, too early for her histrionics.

I picked up the phone and looked at the list of notifications, and my gut flipped. Three missed calls with no voicemails and a single text, all from my aunt Maybee. “Call as soon as you can.”

Chapter 2

Sometimes, you need to be forced into change. Having my only parent die was forceful enough for me. We weren’t exactly close, but I loved Jimi and knew he loved me in his own way. I still wasn’t sure whether he’d told me so in a dream, or if he was going to stick around as a pesky ghost. 

In normal Lyssa Jones fashion, I went big and went home. I could’ve taken a leave of absence from the job I despised, but why? And there would be so much to figure out and deal with—I guessed? I had no idea what I would need to do. I’d never had anyone die before. My mom left when I was a kid, but that’s not the same as dying. Back then, everything I was asked to do was emotional: Be brave. Be strong. Be self-reliant. 

So, it took less than five minutes to decide to get out of Dodge, or in this case, DC. I’m not ashamed to admit I felt a smidge of satisfaction as I ignored a slew of all-caps texts and screaming voicemails from my boss. I could almost hear her complaining to her mommy about “old people.” I was all of eight years older, but she acted like we were generations apart. 

She was exactly the sort of Gen Z’er who gave Gen Z a bad name. The only reason she had the job was because her mother wrote a big check to the nonprofit. 

Since I didn’t make any close friends in my time in DC, I didn’t have to go through the process of saying goodbye. Breaking my lease was the hardest part. Still, with the regular influx of political interns and lobbyists and such coming to town, it wasn’t impossible, especially when I told the leasing agent she could sell my furniture and keep my deposit.

By the next sunrise, I had packed two suitcases and filled a dozen boxes, squeezed it all into my ancient Honda SUV, and pointed my life west. 

My brain was a washing machine of thoughts, spinning in circles and tossing everything around. Jimi, my father, was gone. Did this make me an orphan? Does someone have to be factually deceased, or does being gone in practice count? I wasn’t clear on that, and had no idea whether my mother was alive, or had preceded Jimi to the great beyond. Maybe I was just a half-orphan, then. An orph? 

Either way, I was officially divorced, homeless, unemployed, and aimless. A prize, that Lyssa Jones. 

Have you ever gotten to the point that it feels like your head is so full that it might explode? That’s where I was as I drove toward Iowa. Spending hours staring at nothing but the backs of semis and minivans was not helping. 

I made it as far as Rockford, Illinois, before the Honda joined Jimi in the afterlife. No warning at all except for the sudden light show of symbols appearing on the console. One minute, I was moving at a nice steady clip, and the next, I wasn’t. I managed to guide the car to the side of the highway, blocking out the terrifying sound of air horns as I crawled from the fast lane to the slow lane to the shoulder. The good news was I’d avoided being killed by a semi. The bad news was that I’d maxed out the few emotional and intellectual reserves I’d left DC with. 

I dropped my head to the steering wheel and cried. I cried until there was no liquid left in my body. Between the crying and the heat, I was so dehydrated my tongue felt like an alligator had crawled into my mouth and died. I was losing as much liquid through sweat as I was through tears. I tried to lower the windows but no go. Everything was dead. The dashboard was no longer lit up like a Christmas display. It was black and lifeless. 

Like my hopes and dreams.

At least my phone had 22% left. One good thing about this disastrous week. I texted the only person I knew who could coach me through the car drama: Earl.

Chapter 3

The auto club towed me and my sad little SUV into the closest town. The mechanic was not optimistic about the Honda’s recovery, at least not a painless recovery. It wouldn’t be cheap, and they would require a few days best case, most likely a week, to get to it because they were short on mechanics. Unless I wanted to pay to have it hauled somewhere else… 

I did not.

I used to be an optimist. Disgustingly so. I could find the bright side of anything, and it annoyed people in my life who were not so naturally upbeat. My best friend Holly called me Suzy (as in Sunshine) when it got on her nerves. 

These days, she’d call me Debbie, as in Downer. 

I pressed myself deep into the corner of the coffee shop booth I’d claimed as my own and nursed my second cup of terrible coffee. Earl insisted on driving two hours from Iowa to the teeny town outside Rockford, Illinois, to fetch me. I knew how lucky I was to have someone who would come to my rescue, but it made me feel guilty and foolish that I needed to be rescued. I mumbled into my mug and tried to stay awake. “Get your poop in a group, girl. Thirty is in the rear-view.” 

I needed to drag myself out of this pit of sorrow. I had no idea what my future would look like, but I’d made myself a promise ten years ago, and I was going to keep it if it killed me.  I would live a life that made all of Maybee’s sacrifices worth it. 

Sulking and wallowing did not live up to that promise. And boy, did I owe her…

I was eight when I met Maybelline Louise Gladstone. My mother had been gone for two months. It had become obvious to everyone that Jimi Jones was a great guy, but not really a great parent. He would take off to Chicago or the Twin Cities, leaving me to fend for myself. I was a relatively responsible kid, at least back then, before hormones and attitude kicked in. The kitchen was well-stocked, and the bills were paid, so I wasn’t at risk of starvation or freezing to death. Being on my own wasn’t frightening, but it was lonely. Holly’s family included me whenever they could, the same way they did before Mom left. I appreciated it, but knew this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. 

The morning Maybee arrived on the doorstep of the Jones Mansion, we’d had record-breaking snow that left nearly two feet of the white stuff on everything in sight, and the temperature was hovering just above zero. If I were a city kid, alone in a big old house, I would probably have hidden when I heard insistent knocking mid-morning. But I lived in a town with a population of less than four thousand, and Holly and I hadn’t discovered true crime podcasts yet. In Bliss, if someone knocked, you opened the door.

When I swung open our heavy oak door, I discovered a tall, curvy woman with waist-length copper hair. Apparently, God had created one woman in two sizes, large and medium. This person was the large version of my mother. She was six feet tall, with a sultry voice and personality to match. My mom, Josie, was smaller, both in height and in presence. 

“Holy guacamole, nobody told me I was time-traveling back to Little House on the Prairie!” Without an invitation, she dragged two large suitcases into the front hall of our Queen Anne Victorian and kicked off her snow-covered sneakers. Dressed in jeans and a denim jacket over a pretty floral blouse, she had to be freezing, but she radiated sunshine. “Hi, Doll! I’m your aunt, Maybee.”

“You might be my aunt?” I asked, confused. I did not know I had relatives besides Mom and Jimi. 

The woman grinned. “No, no, my name is Maybee. The birth certificate says Maybelline, but that didn’t stick. ‘Maybe she will, maybe she won’t.’ That stuck.” She reached out and brushed my hair from my face. “What a doll you are! The best of Josie and Jimi all in one cute-as-a-button package.” She turned in a slow circle, taking in the grand staircase that rose three stories, the entry hall with built-in benches and niches, the living room and library visible through open pocket doors on either side of the foyer, and the long hallway that led to the back of the house. “Speaking of Jimi, where is the—jerk?” 

I might have been a kid, but I knew that ‘jerk’ wasn’t the word she wanted to use. Despite, or because of, the tornado that was Maybee, I felt the need to defend my father. “He’s at work.” Fifty-fifty shot that was true. 

“Ah, well, good. That’ll give us time to get to know each other! Help me get these to my room.” It wasn’t a question, and it wasn’t a command, but I never for a second doubted whether I should help this strange woman make herself at home in our house. It took both hands for me to haul one of her suitcases up the stairs. I made a left at the second-floor landing and led Maybee into the guest room next to my bedroom. We’d have to share the bathroom. I felt a brief tingle of excitement at the thought, because I was sure she had all sorts of interesting things in those bags. I couldn’t wait to tell Holly about this! 

Maybee hefted one of her suitcases onto the four-poster bed and looked around. She took in the bay window with the bench underneath, the fireplace with its tiled mantle, and the armoire that made up for the tiny closet. “Oh, yeah, I feel Josie all over this. She spends time here, doesn’t she? Writing or crafting?”

“She—yes.” I almost said, “She did.” But I couldn’t bring myself to use the past tense. I was sure my mom would come back. Someday, I’d understand why she’d left, where she’d gone, and how she could leave me without even saying goodbye.

That cold winter day, Maybee arrived, and she never left. At the time, I didn’t understand everything she had given up, leaving Los Angeles to come to Iowa to care for me. Now, many years later, I did, and my heart ached if I thought about it too much. Repaying that debt was the greatest motivation I had to live a worthwhile life. But so far, I was failing miserably.

Chapter 4

“Thanks for coming for me.” I leaned into the ancient leather of Earl’s authentic black Hackney taxi and stared out the window. Even at night, the Iowa landscape was as familiar as an old friend. The mighty Mississippi glinted on one side, and farmland dotted the other. Iowa was so different from DC. And New York. It was home. 

“Of course, love. So sorry about your car.” Earl Reddington’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. The soft British accent and the familiar wrinkles at the edges of his blue eyes made me feel safe for the first time in quite a while. Returning to Iowa may not have been an official plan, but it was nice to be where I felt known. 

“It wouldn’t be so bad if my whole world wasn’t packed into the back of it,” I knew I sounded whiney, but I was tired and cranky, and it was the middle of the night. 

“I’m just glad you didn’t get killed getting it off the interstate,” Earl said. “Did they say how long it would take to fix the car?”

“A week or so.” Just another worry to add to the pile. “I grabbed my laptop bag and my purse but left everything else. Hopefully, I can still fit into some of my old clothes.” That was doubtful. The stresses of the last couple of years had added an uncomfortable amount of padding to my curvy self. I made a mental note: Get in shape, physically and mentally! The list of things I needed to do to fix my life felt depressingly long.

“I’m sure you’ve got bits and bobs, or you can borrow something from Maybee. If not, you can shop. There are a few new stores along the Riverwalk.” Earl flicked the bill of the black wool cap on his head. “That’s where I picked up this beauty.”

“Dapper!” I smiled, grateful for the distraction. Earl had been part of my life for years, and he still liked me, despite of my many mistakes. We met during a tough period when I was mourning the loss of Josie, coming to grips with life with my intellectual hippie father, and pushing every boundary to test Maybee. I wasn’t always a pleasure to be around. “Has the Riverwalk changed much? I haven’t been home since ...”

Since the wedding. Seven years next month.

The divorce? Four years after that. 

Reading my mood, Earl gave me all the news to keep me out of my head. “There’s a new cafe called Specialteas. And a sushi bar, can you believe, and even crazier, they also serve Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian food. Covering many of the Asian bases, I guess. There’s a fashionable ladies’ boutique your aunt likes and a men’s shop that sells Carhartts on one side and nice suits on the other. I reckon that’s quite a suitable metaphor for life in town these days. A woman named Evie Austin bought the old Bliss Bakery and added an ice cream counter. Now it’s called Flour & Spoon. And Spirits has—oh, well. You’ll see that soon enough, I reckon.”

Spirits. Jimi’s bar, now presumably mine. Owning a bar was never something I considered, much less wanted. “Do you know Sam?” Sam Coby was the woman who’d been managing the bar for the last couple of years, and according to Maybee, she’d agreed to stay on for a bit now that he was gone. 

“Sam’s all right,” Earl said evenly enough, but an undercurrent caught my attention.

“I hear a ‘but’ hanging there…”

“No, no ‘but.’ She’s a good girl. As you say, she’s done a good job keeping things going. Since Jimi brought her on she’s introduced some interesting bands. Folks have been coming from Chicago and the Twin Cities to hear them. It’s just… different, I guess. A lot of change in a short amount of time.”

Understatement of the year. Marriage. Divorce. Move from New York to DC for a new job that turned out to be soul-sucking. Jimi’s death, and now here I was, just about back where I started. My grand adventure didn’t even make it ten years. 

“Look at that!” Earl waved a hand toward a new illuminated sign that hadn’t been there before. 

Welcome to Bliss.

Chapter 5

The sun wasn’t up, but that didn’t mean Maybee wasn’t. She’d been a night owl as long as I’d known her. I really wanted to sneak in without facing her just yet. I slipped out of Earl’s cab and went around to the side of the Jones Mansion. 

Before my time in New York, “Mansion” was just the name of a house. The Jones Mansion was just where we lived. It was our cozy corner atop a hill, overlooking the grand Mississippi, set on the steep side of High Street, across from the famous Ansel House and the AB Writing Center. 

Our driveway, a short, unassuming path, wove through a thicket of trees that was more wild than cultivated, leading to a two-story carriage house stuffed to the brim with what could only be politely described as relics and knick-knacks from decades past. That building sparked my love of old stuff. 

The Mansion itself, a three-story Queen Anne Victorian painted in shades of teal and coral, was wrapped in a porch that went around all four sides, offering shade and a comfy place to sit outdoors even during Iowa’s crazy summer storms. Jimi used to joke about the ‘kitchen complex’ at the back, where Maybee reigned supreme. Kitchen, pantry, butler’s pantry and breakfast nook, with French doors opening onto a stone patio where she grew herbs in pots and tomatoes and vegetables in raised beds.  Beyond the kitchen, there was this whimsical gazebo, a fire pit that heard many a ghost story, and a daring set of steep stairs climbing up to Crest Street. In the winter, when Mother Nature cooperated, we would pack down the snow and ride cardboard ‘sleds’ from the top of the stairs to the bottom. Only once did someone crash enough to do damage. Someone was me and I still had the star-shaped scar on my knee. 

The first floor of the Mansion was clearly designed for soirees with its grand living room and family room separated only by pocket doors. The library was straight out of a novel, its shelves filled equally with books and vinyl albums. The formal dining room was between the library and the kitchen complex, with a powder room tucked into the hallway that connected them.

Upstairs, the primary suite was practically an apartment on its own, flanked by three more bedrooms including Maybee’s and mine, each boasting a balcony cozy enough for morning teas… or shimmying down to sneak out for a fun night of adventure. 

Jimi stopped using the room he had shared with my mother after Mom left. He retreated to the basemen, where he’d kitted out  man cave slash museum for his guitar collection, climate-controlled to perfection. A ‘secret’ tunnel to the carriage house only added to the mystique.

But for me, the real magic was up on the third floor. Ever since Holly and I saw ‘Practical Magic’, I’d dreamed of transforming the third floor into my sanctuary. It was four large rooms that formed a plus sign, mostly open to each other, with a small bath. A section at the top of the staircase had been designed to hold serving ware, glassware, linens, and holiday decor. There were dozens of small drawers and cubbyholes, and tall cabinets with built-in metal arms intended to hang long linens. It would be perfect to organize all of my vintage goodies. 

To me, the Mansion was just home, with all its quirks and corners, a place teeming with memories and day-to-day life, far from the grandiose image the name conjured.

A side door from the flagstone patio opened into the kitchen and breakfast area. All my life, that kitchen door had been left unlocked. In my head, it was so my mother could come back whenever she wanted. In reality, it was because that’s the way people were in Bliss. 

I opened the door just enough to slip through, muscle memory knowing when to stop to avoid a loud screech that would snitch on me. Maybee might have fixed it now that she didn’t need to monitor me sneaking in and out, but I didn’t want to risk it. 

The kitchen complex was dark except for the hood light above the monster six-burner stove. All was quiet. 

My body knew exactly where to go, how to turn to avoid the antique telephone table at the bottom of the back staircase, how to miss jamming my toe into the heavy bulldog doorstop that always ended up a few inches away from where it was supposed to be. Maybee was a creature of habit, and nothing seemed to have changed since I was last home.

Nothing except a small wiggly thing sweeping back and forth between my feet. I stifled a surprised scream and used the last of my phone’s power to turn on the flashlight function. A slender black cat wove between my ankles, rubbing against me in a way that declared ownership. The kitty tipped its head back and met my gaze with intense green eyes. 

“Well, hello! And who are you?” I whispered and waited expectantly for the pretty feline to answer. Maybee having a cat was not on my bingo card. I have always been a frustrated animal lover. When I was a kid and begged for a pet, Jimi claimed he was allergic to dogs, and Maybee declared she wasn’t a fan of felines. When did that change? “Does the fourth step still squeak?”

The cat actually answered, in its way, by avoiding the step in question. We both reached the second floor landing without alerting the house. I stared at my closed bedroom door, the door that marked the gateway into the past. Behind that big piece of oak, I’d dreamed of so much adventure, fantasized about my future travels to Paris, and Africa, and California… with Park. 

I listened for sounds from Maybee’s room, but all was quiet. I turned the doorknob to my room and stepped inside.

Maybelline Louise Gladstone was sitting on the bed, wearing brightly colored, mismatched floral pajamas. She smiled, and I burst into tears. Maybee opened her arms, and I dove into them. She wrapped me in a tight hug.

“Did Earl rat me out?” I asked through snotty sniffles. 

“In a way. I heard the rattle of that damn taxi as soon as it turned onto the street.” Maybee said. “But I wasn’t sleeping. I got into a book and kept doing that ‘one more chapter’ thing.  You know how it is.” 

I raised my head from her shoulder and reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand. The cat joined us, moving gracefully from one lap to the other. I tried to smile. “I hate to tell you, but this is a cat. If you thought you’d hired a guard dog, this is not it.”  Maybee laughed. “I dunno… she brought you where you needed to be. Her name is Trouble. She has a mind of her own, but she’s a very smart girl, aren’t you, sweetness?” Trouble rubbed against Maybee to confirm. “I thought you hated cats?” I said. 

Maybee laughed. “Sorry I fibbed. In California I had two beautiful cats.” That she must have left behind to come here. More guilt. “There was just so much going on when you asked for a pet, and Jimi and I thought it was best not to add anything more to the chaos.”

So, basically, she took one for Jimi. Again.

Maybee scratched the kitty’s black ear. “Are you hungry?”

“Are you asking me or the cat?” I asked, wiping my nose.

Maybee smiled and patted my arm. “Do you want some breakfast, or do you want to try to sleep?”  “When’s the funeral? My phone is dead, so I can’t check the announcement.” I tossed the useless piece of technology onto the bed. Then I reminded myself to be grateful it had lasted long enough for me to call Earl. Like most modern humans, I did not have a paper phone book or even phone numbers stored in my head. I might have been able to get the number for Bliss Cab Co. by calling 411 from a payphone—if there was still 411. Or payphones.

“It’s not until tomorrow, real tomorrow—not ‘when the sun comes up in a few hours’ tomorrow. Ansel is throwing what he’s calling a going away party at Spirits tonight. You’ll want to rest up for that. I’m sorry you’re gonna get reacquainted with the town all at once. But you know Jimi. This is what he asked for, and this is what he gets. “

“Who’s handling it?” I asked. “Sam?” 

Maybee nodded. “She’s got everything under control. She’s doing a great job keeping things going.”

“Why do I hear silent ‘buts’ when people talk about her? The same thing happened with Earl.” I went to the dresser and dug through drawers for something to sleep in. When was I ever this tiny? I wondered as I pawed through vintage band t-shirts and old gym shorts that were definitely too small for my current self. 

“She’s got big plans.” Maybee sucked her lips into her mouth, a sign of displeasure I was all too familiar with. Maybee looked good, though. Her long hair was still mostly red, a couple of wide bands of gray framing her beautiful face. Her skin was smooth except for laugh lines around her eyes and mouth. I hoped I inherited the Gladstone genes. Then I wondered if my mother had aged so well wherever she was.

“Hmm. I guess I’ll need to meet this Sam sooner rather than later.” I found an ancient Bliss High sweatshirt that should still fit and tossed it onto the bed. I went from digging for sleepwear to looking for a phone charger in my desk drawers. I found old greeting cards and stickers, a collection of pens and half-filled notebooks, and hair ties. Lots and lots of hair ties. Trouble joined me, plucking a brightly colored band with her paw. She tossed it around the room and chased it with great zeal. I found two chargers, but they were ancient mismatches, not suitable for my current phone brand or model.  “I keep reminding her it’s up to you what you want to do with the place. You’ll determine the ultimate direction.” Apparently, we were talking about Sam, not the cat. Maybee paused, then added, “Just remember, nothing big changes in Bliss. If you try to change too much too fast, the town will flip on you.”

“I don’t want to own a bar.” I heard the whine that had become my norm and hated myself for it. While I was here, I was going to work on my attitude. Gratitude, dang it. I was going to work on my gratitude. “I love music, but the idea of spending the rest of my life in a bar is about as appealing as counting thumbtacks.” 

“That’s a random analogy,” Maybee noted.

“Yeah. I’m tired.” I grumped. 

“Think of it as passive income. Jimi spent a lot of time there, but that was because he loved it. No one would say he put in a 40-hour week. You can find something you enjoy doing and let Spirits support you.” Maybee said. “I’d lend you my charger, but I still have a flip phone.”

I laughed. Of course she did. “I’ll buy one tomorrow. Today. Whatever.” 

“Anyway, you won’t have to worry about those things for a while. Jimi was Jimi, but he was smart with money, and I’m sure you’ll have breathing room to figure out what you want.” Maybee stood and stretched. “Unless you already know? Are you planning on sticking around Bliss for a while, or are you headed back out after the festivities? Are you staying for The Pen & Page?”

I hadn’t even thought about Ansel Beaumonte’s annual book festival. It somehow felt appropriate that it would coincide with Jimi’s funeral. “I don’t have plans to go anywhere ’cause I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I know what I don’t want to do, and that’s about as far as I’ve got.”

“But that’s half the battle.” Maybee leaned against the door frame. “How about this? You get settled and stretch out. If you fall asleep, great. If you find yourself staring at the ceiling, come down, and I’ll make you breakfast. Banana pancakes.”

I suddenly felt exhausted, the adrenaline of getting myself safely to Bliss wearing off. “I can get behind that plan.”

“Trouble has adopted this as her room,” Maybee warned. “I’d suggest leaving the door cracked, or she’ll drive you nuts wanting to go in and out. She’s not great at commitment.”

Same, cat. Same. I stripped off my stinky travel clothes, pulled the sweatshirt over my head, and climbed into the bed. I wouldn’t mind sleeping through the next few days.