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Before and Again
Author: Barbara Delinsky

PROLOGUE

Mackenzie Cooper had no idea where she was or, more critically, why she hadn’t already arrived. Her navigation screen said she was still on the right road, in the right town, but all she could see were woods left and right and a curve of macadam ahead. The turnoff was to have been five minutes past the café in the town center, and they had easily gone ten. During that time, she hadn’t seen anything remotely resembling a turnoff, much less the red mailbox that allegedly marked it, although a red anything would have been easy to miss. The fall foliage was a tangle of fiery shades, its leaves crowding the roadside like families at a parade.

A glint in the rearview caught her eye. Braking, she steered to the side until branches brushed the car. She toggled her window down, but before she could get an arm out in a plea for help, the pickup steered around her, sped past, and disappeared over the hill ahead. Assuming the driver knew where he was going, she accelerated and followed, but by the time she hit the crest, the pickup had taken another curve, and by the time she made that one, her car was alone.

She glanced at her phone. It was cradled in a vent holder at the perfect spot for viewing, which had served her well until her map app had frozen. The upper-left corner of the phone showed an ominous NO SERVICE where bars should have been, meaning that she couldn’t even call or text for help.

“Are we there yet, Mommy?” came a plaintive cry from the five-year-old safely strapped in the back. It wasn’t the first such cry, just the first that Mackenzie couldn’t honestly answer.

“Almost, sweetie,” she said, white-knuckling the wheel through another sharp turn. When the road straightened, she touched the SUV’s map screen to zoom in. The larger view showed tendrils where driveways might be—and, oh, she just passed one, she realized, but it was a barely there thing, thin and rutted, with no mailbox of any sort.

Turn around, her sane self ordered. But the red mailbox was likely around the next curve, she reasoned, and, if not that, her phone would wake up. Besides, she didn’t see a place to turn around. Her SUV was big, the road narrow, and it was snaking wildly through a forest that had no business being this close to the city.

Actually, this place wasn’t close to the city. Lily’s school was. But being a private school, many students traveled distances each day, which translated into playdates in the boonies. Lily’s new best friend had already been to their place twice, easily arranged since the Coopers lived close to school, but this was their first playdate at Mia’s. And why would Mackenzie hesitate? Lily wanted to go. She had asked repeatedly, had begged. Besides, Mackenzie liked this family. She liked that they didn’t live in an oversized shingle-and-stone rebuild, that the dad was a carpenter and the mom a struggling writer, that Mia was on scholarship. Edward, too, felt an instant connection—as if the Boyds were people they had both known in earlier, more modest lives.

Mackenzie had made the arrangements with Mia’s mom, including drop-off and pick-up times, clothes to bring for playing outside, Lily’s love of peanut butter and aversion to chocolate. She hadn’t thought to ask about cell reception. Her carrier was the best in their own neighborhood, clearly not so here.

The map screen switched to night mode for several beats, seeming as confused as Mackenzie. She knew it was a glorious fall day. Glimpses of blue could be seen through the high canopy, along with shards of fire where sun lit the leaves, but in every other regard, the day-darkness was unsettling.

“Are we lost?” came Lily’s worried voice.

“We are not,” Mackenzie said with determination. “Mia’s driveway is off this road.”

She just didn’t know where it was, and, no matter how often she glanced at the phone, it remained dead. Eyes shifting between the road and the SUV’s map screen, she zoomed the view out once, then again until she saw an intersection, which was good. At this setting, though, she couldn’t judge how far off it was. She was an artist, not a mathematician.

“All I see is trees,” Lily said, more curious than complaining. “Maybe Mia lives in a tree house.”

Mackenzie smiled into the rearview mirror. As dark as the woods were, her daughter’s blond hair sparked with light. “Maybe a fairy house. What do you think?”

“With fairy dust around it? And popsicle-stick windows and clay walls? That’s silly, Mommy.”

“Why?”

“Only our fairy houses have those. Besides, fairy houses aren’t real. Mia’s house is made of wood. Her daddy built it, and he’s a … what did you say he is?”

“A carpenter.”

“Uh-huh. Are we almost there?”

“I think so. But will you look at these trees, Lily? They’re yellow, like your hair. Know why?” she asked as a diversion.

“The green stuff.”

“Chlorophyll. It dies off when the nights turn cool. Remember, we talked about that? The colors we see now were always there. We just couldn’t see them until the green was gone.”

Lily was silent through another twist of the road, then asked, “Are you sure we’re not lost?”

“Do I ever get lost?”

“You did when we were driving to the ocean.”

“Excuse me, little love. I got us to the ocean, just not the part Daddy wanted us at, but he was sleeping.” In the passenger’s seat. After a late night of work. “No, we are not lost.” But Mackenzie was thinking of turning around and retracing the road to town. If she had a working phone, she could call Mia’s mom for directions. Of course, there was still the turning-around problem. The road was undulating with a frequency that made narrowness all the more of a challenge.

“Why’s it taking so long?” Lily asked.

“Because I don’t want to drive fast on a road I don’t know.”

“Will you know how to find me to take me home later?”

“Absolutely,” Mackenzie said with feeling, though she was thinking it might not be a problem if she didn’t get them there in the first place.

“I love you, Mommy.”

“I love you, too, baby.”

“Mommy?”

“What, hon?”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“We’re almost there, almost there.”

According to the map screen, they were nearing the crossroad. Hoping to get her bearings there, perhaps see a sign or regain her cell signal, at the very least have room for a turnaround, she zoomed in to identify it, to bring the name into view, leaning closer to catch it.

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