Dr. Karen Mueller Bryson is an award-winning/optioned screenwriter, produced playwright and published novelist. Karen has been writing since she learned to read and fell in love with books! When she’s not at her computer creating new stories, Karen enjoys spending time with her husband and their bloodhounds. Karen is the founder of Short on Time Books, fast-paced and fun novels for readers on the go. Karen is also an Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Services at Ottawa University.
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Sixteen-year-old Elliot White wriggles in an ill-fitting black suit and adjusts Buddy Holly-like glasses as he stares at a sign in front of him. It reads: Discount Funerals (Includes Free Lunch Buffet). Although it should be a somber occasion, all he can think about is his recital later in the afternoon. He finally gets to play the solo piece he has been painstakingly practicing for months. Why did his mom have to die right before his big show?
Elliot’s aunt, 38-year-old Amaryllis Long, adjusts the straps of her black sundress then straightens the substantial crucifix around her neck. She’s not sure she’s ready to bury her only sister—her only sibling. Now she is truly alone in the world. Well, except for Elliot. Amaryllis takes a deep breath, then grabs her nephew by the arm in an effort to lead him into the shabby funeral home.
Elliot flinches as soon as Amaryllis touches him. Touching is not something he prefers to engage in. The act feels painful and foreign. He avoids it whenever possible. It’s one of the many things he avoids because they overwhelm his delicate sensory system.
Inside the funeral home, Elliot and Amaryllis take seats in two of the few folding chairs in the back of the small room. They both stare silently at the closed pine casket, which takes up most of the front part of the room. Finally, Elliot clears his throat. “I have to get back to school in one hour. I have a solo in the spring musical extravaganza.”
“Your mother always did have awful timing,” Amaryllis replies.
A short time later, Amaryllis and Elliot make their way into the auditorium of his elite performing arts high school. It’s one of the best in New York City. Amaryllis feels very out of place amongst the instrument-toting teens and their well-dressed parents. She hasn’t stepped foot in a high school since her own graduation twenty years ago. And she certainly doesn’t make many trips out of the Arizona desert.
Amaryllis takes a seat in the packed audience and listens contently as the orchestra plays a rousing medley of classical favorites. In the middle of the final piece, Elliot, still in his funeral attire, stands and plays a stunning solo on his viola. She is amazed at the talent of her own flesh and blood. Although she hasn’t seen him in at least 10 years, her only nephew holds a special place in her heart. And now that her sister’s gone, Amaryllis will be his guardian and caretaker. She shudders slightly at the thought. What does she know about raising children? Or raising any living thing, for that matter. She can’t even keep a houseplant alive.
At the conclusion of Elliot’s solo, the audience erupts in applause and gives the young musician a standing ovation. Elliot simply bows and takes his seat with the rest of the orchestra.
Once the performance is over, there was a small reception for Elliot in the school’s foyer. Elliot finds himself standing awkwardly under a sign, which reads: Farewell, Elliot, We Will Miss You. Next to Elliot is a small folding table with a punch bowl, papers cups and a small tray of butter cookies. Mr. Grubb, the school’s portly orchestra director, stands on the far side of the table, rubbing sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. Both Mr. Grubb and Elliot wait patiently for well-wishers but none are forthcoming. Finally, a little boy with a red Kool-Aid mustache runs up to the table and giggles. He snatches several cookies, shoves them into his mouth and dashes away. Mr. Grubb holds out some hope when a group of teens carrying instruments approaches and it looks like they might stop at the table, but the kids continue down the hallway laughing amongst themselves.
Mr. Grubb glances over at Elliot, who was now picking lint from his suit jacket. “We’ll certainly miss you,” he says warmly.
“I know,” Elliot responds without making eye contact.
The next morning, Amaryllis and Elliot, each carrying several packing boxes, approach a shabby-looking brownstone row house with a FOR RENT sign in the front window.
When they enter the home, Amaryllis is shocked to find the living room in complete disarray. She was not aware of the extent of her sister, Iris’s, mental illness or the fact that she dealt with major depressive episodes for most of Elliot’s life. When Iris got depressed, she holed herself up in her bedroom, sometimes for days at a time, and Elliot was forced to fend for himself.
“You can pack whatever’ll fit in these boxes,” Amaryllis says matter-of-factly. “The rest’ll have to go to Goodwill. The landlord, bless his soul, said he’d get some friends from church to help him clear the place out.”
Elliot merely grunts in response and heads into his bedroom. Amaryllis follows her nephew into his room, which she’s surprised to see is immaculate. It’s a bit of out of place compared to the chaos of the rest of the house.
Elliot immediately opens his desk drawer and fills the first box with sheet music that packs the bottom drawer.
“What is all that?” she asks.
“My music,” he says and snorts.
Amaryllis raises an eyebrow.
Elliot continues, “I have to have my music.”
She watches curiously as he moves to his bookshelf, removes a miniature viola and carefully places it in his second box. She opens the small closet next to her and notes the few shirts and pants hanging there. “Don’t you think we should pack these clothes?”
Elliot snorts in response. He grabs a framed photo of his mother and him and stares at it for a moment.
“She’s in a better place,” Amaryllis says as she glances at the photo.
Elliot grunts again, then places the photo in his box.
On their way out of the house, a book lying on the sofa catches Amaryllis’s eye. It’s titled Asperger’s Disorder: A Beginner’s Guide. She grabs the copy as they head out the door.
They carry filled boxes toward her beater pick-up and load them in the truck’s cab. Amaryllis gets into the driver’s side and Elliot hops into the passenger’s seat. He places a black urn containing his mother’s ashes in his lap and the two began their trip across the country.
“So, what did my sister tell you about me?” Amaryllis asks, trying to make conversation.
“My mother? She never said a word about you,” he replies.
“No surprise there.”
After an awkward moment of silence passes, she says, “Your mother mentioned something about Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Elliot snorts in response.
“Is there anything I should be aware of?” Amaryllis knows even less about the disorder than she does about raising teenagers.
Elliot tugs nervously on his earlobe then says, “I’m not like everyone else.”
Amaryllis shrugs. “Neither am I.”
“Aspies’ brains are wired differently. We think differently than neurotypicals.”
“That’s everyone who’s not on the autism spectrum. Which are most people.”
Amaryllis nods. She certainly understands what it feels like to not be like other people. Since she finally has Elliot talking, she tries another question. “Arizona should be quite an adventure for you.”
“I don’t like adventures,” Elliot replies flatly. He turns and looks out the window as the big open country passes by.
Amaryllis realizes the moment has passed and the conversation is now over.
It takes several days, but the pair finally makes it to the Arizona border. Amaryllis gives a little hoot as her pick-up rambles past a sign that reads: Arizona – The Grand Canyon State. As they drive through the barren land of northern Arizona, Elliot watches as a lone tumbleweed blows by. His first time out of New York is not yet proving to be eventful.
“We should be in Winslow in no time,” Amaryllis says, breaking the silence that has lasted since Colorado.
“Everything looks dead,” Elliot notes.
She chuckles. “Welcome to Arizona.”
As Amaryllis’s truck rambles down Second Street, she breathes a sigh of relief that they are finally back home. The tired old town of Winslow has seen better days, but its familiarity is a welcome site. As they drive past the ‘Standin’ on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona’ site made famous by the Eagles, a haggard man with a collie walks by a life-sized male statue marking the place for tourists.
“There it is,” Amaryllis says as she gazes out the window. “The famous corner.”
When Elliot looks out the window, he sees the haggard man’s collie lift his leg on the statue. Elliot looks puzzled. “What’s so famous about that corner?”
“I guess you’ve never heard of the Eagles.”
“The birds of prey?”
“The rock band,” Amaryllis replies, immediately feeling older. “Standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. That doesn’t sound familiar to you?”
Elliot shakes his head.
“And you say you’re a musician,” she teases.
Elliot remains stoic and Amaryllis wonders if he is able to take a joke.
About ten miles out of town, Amaryllis pulls into the Desert Dream Trailer Park. Seven well-worn double-wides mark the otherwise desolate landscape. One of the double-wides also serves as a make-shift office. A sign over it reads: Welcome to your Desert Dream.
She pulls her truck up to her trailer and they hop out. They both take a much-needed stretch after the long ride.
“We made it,” Amaryllis says.
Elliot just stares at the sight of his new home. It’s a big step down from his mother’s row house.
“I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s paid for,” she says. “We best get your stuff unpacked before nightfall.”
Inside, Elliot glances at the well-worn furniture. He notices religious iconography surrounding the room’s centerpiece—a massive velvet Jesus painting. Even though his mother never took him to church, he loves to read about the world’s major religions.
Amaryllis points to a small room off of the living area. “That’ll be your room. Used to be my sewing room.”
“Where will you sew?” Elliot asks.
“Austin’s got some space for me.”
He looks puzzled. “Austin is one thousand twenty miles from here.”
She gives her nephew a huge grin. “Nope, right next door.”
As if on cue, 45-year-old Austin Young, a burnt-out hippie, enters the double-wide. “Did someone mention my name?”
Amaryllis leans over to Elliot conspiratorially and says, “The walls have ears. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Elliot quickly glances around the small room looking for signs of ears on the walls. How could a wall have ears, he wonders? So far, Arizona is an extremely confusing place for him.
Austin puts out a hand for Elliot to shake, but the young man seems oblivious to the gesture and does not reciprocate. He tugs on his earlobe instead.
Austin tries another tactic. “How was your trip?” he asks.
When he doesn’t respond, Amaryllis pipes in, “Tiring. Elliot must be exhausted.”
“I’m not tired,” Elliot interjects a little too loudly. “I slept for 22 of the 35 hours we traveled and I slept in both of the motels in which we stayed. Day one was a 14-hour trip with two gas breaks and a lunch break. Day two was similar. Today, we only had to travel for 7 hours.
“That’s precise,” Austin says with a smile at Elliot. Then he says to Amaryllis, “You’re welcome to come by my place for dinner. I’ll fire up the grill.”
“I think we’ll take a rain check.” She pats her friend’s arm. “Elliot has to get ready for school tomorrow.”
“Gotcha. Dinner’s an open invitation.”
“I know,” Amaryllis says, giving Austin a warm smile.
Austin heads for the door, but turns back before exiting. “I’ve got a new recipe for chipotle steak sauce. Bet it’d taste awfully good with those baby potatoes you love so much.”
“Good night, Austin,” Amaryllis says as she lovingly nudges him out the door. She smiles as the door closes behind him.
We received a free copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review.