You Were Here by Gian Sardar is a suspenseful debut novel about a woman haunted by nightmares and her grandmother's role in a doomed love triangle almost seventy years before.
What if the past is never buried?
Death, accidental and early, has always been Abby Walters's preoccupation. Now thirty-three and eager to settle down with her commitment-shy boyfriend, a recurring dream from her past returns: a paralyzing nightmare of being buried alive, the taste of dirt in her mouth cloying and real. But this time the dream reveals a name from her family's past. Looking for answers, Abby returns home to small-town Minnesota for the first time in fourteen years, where she reconnects with her high school crush, now a police detective on the trail of a violent criminal.
When Abby tries on her grandmother's mesmerizing diamond ring, a ring she always dreamed would be hers, she discovers a cryptic note long hidden beneath the box's velvet lining. What secret was her grandmother hiding? And could this be the key to what's haunting Abby? As she begins to uncover the traces of a love triangle gone shockingly wrong nearly seventy years before, we, too, see that the layers of our lives may echo a past we’ve never known.
Turquoise, magenta, lime, bright bursts of red and gold; flashes of irony from a stone deemed colorless. A wave good-bye could cast a rainbow, a bolt of brilliance from a hand drawing shut a door. A ring that shines with such fire should not be stifled, tucked away in darkness and extinguished, and yet it has been for decades. First placed in a safe by shaking hands, then hidden in a drawer by someone who no longer believed in romance or diamonds or promises.
Until now. Now a little girl has the ring and holds it in her small, hot hand. The door to the bathroom is shut; her mother is at work and her grandmother asleep. Carefully the girl places the ring on her thumb, and with each turn of the stone, each reflected color, a moment flashes in her mind—a moonlit dinner by a river, a kiss among vines and white flowers, a breathless confession as footsteps draw closer.
But then the door swings open. Her grandmother is standing there, and immediately her eyes find the ring, that ring she’d never wanted to see again.
Get it off. Get it off now.
That deep blue of summer, endless and brilliant. The heat seems to come with a noise like insects, a noise that shimmers. Coolers hold down blankets and bees are gathered at trash cans. Abby is lying in the sand, happy, but when she turns, the ocean is gone, replaced by a dark meadow, the waves now undulations of tall, dry grass. The sky’s gone gray, a storm churning, gathering. This was the noise she heard, the storm’s approach. In a flash she sees it, the giant oak tree, black limbs snaking into an ashen sky. At its base is a table set for two, always set for two. A crystal chandelier quivers on the branch above.
It’s been years since she’s been here, and understanding bangs her heart into a furious rhythm as suddenly she’s sinking, unable to move, the sand that had been so soft a moment before now dirt that spills into her mouth. At once she’s choking, gasping, waking to a bed soaked with sun, sheets shoved to the floor.
Outside, a dove’s cry turns to a demand: who-ooo, who, who, who.
The dark meadow. The nightmare that started in high school and recurred once or twice a month until she left Minnesota. An ending that’s always the same—suffocation, desperate gasps for breath. The one time she’d gone home during college, brave with longing and rested from a year of unplagued sleep, the dream had returned like a waiting, loyal friend. Never again has she been back, never again has she had the dream. Until now.
“It’s been fourteen years,” she tells Robert later, in the car. He was asleep when she left, and she’s waited to tell him in person. Though her voice holds striations of panic, he doesn’t understand. Words are a pale shadow of meaning. “Fourteen years since I’ve had the dream.”
“One nightmare,” he says, “is one nightmare. Try not to worry, okay?”
The air conditioning blasts, her toes chilled. The entrance to the freeway is in an old residential neighborhood, and the once-proud houses are faded, pockmarked with missing siding. Glass shimmers in the gutter.
“Anxiety,” she says. “That’s what they used to say. But it never made sense. They stopped when I left for college—if anything I was more stressed.”
“You had an estate visit today?”
An attempt to change the subject, to loosen her mind’s grip. She tries to let him, to take herself from the meadow and join him in a recap of her day, her work at the antique jewelry store and the estate trips it involves, crowds of family photos on shelves, paintings darkened with time, marriages that last longer than most lifetimes or end faster than the turn of a season. A screenwriter, Robert loves the stories Abby collects. Tell me more, a constant refrain in their relationship as they fall asleep at night or while walking down boulevards flanked with magnolia trees, flowers as wide as saucers. “Forty-eight years they’d been married,” she says, though she still sees the tremor in the oak tree’s leaves, feels the dirt that fell into her mouth. “The wedding ring was her mother’s. Once sewn into the hem of a dress in Poland.”
Then they’re on the freeway, the oldest in Southern California. Made for horses, she tells people. You enter from a stop sign. Zero to sixty in the time it takes to change the radio station. Robert changes lanes to pass a car, and out of the corner of her eye she feels another driver doing the same. She looks away. Think pretty—one of the rings from today, an aquamarine the same pale blue as a pool’s shallow end, a welcome glimmer in a June light. Still the freeway’s energy pulses, gathers for impact, and her legs push against the floor.
Death, accidental and early, has always been her preoccupation. Horrible images exist behind Abby’s eyes—pretty eyes, eyes that laugh, eyes that should not look for such things. Girls who wear pink should not think your thoughts, she was once told by an ex-boyfriend who did not understand that she chose these colors, these bright soft colors, precisely because of what exists in her mind.
“Did I ever tell you I didn’t get my license till I left Minnesota?” she says. “All those one-lane highways. The accidents. That and my mom tried teaching me on a stick.” A three-point turn, the car rolling forward, angled into the street, other drivers patient but waiting. Abby’d simply thrown it into park, gotten out, and run to the passenger side. Her mother had no choice but to take over.
“I was at the DMV on my birthday,” Robert says.
Robert at his core is logic, a calm voice, a man who highlights when he reads, straight hair and ironed shirts. Abby is always, without fail and from the start, a few decibels too loud, chaos, the person who drops the book in the bathtub, curly hair that tends to knot and nail polish that’s always chipped. All reasons he loves her, she knows—she’s his voice when he wants to scream, the mess he longs to make.
He flicks on the blinker, then glances over his shoulder. “Wine?”
“I had it—” but even as she’s saying this, she’s looking in the backseat and not seeing it, that bottle with its graceful lettering, better than they normally drink, more expensive than they normally allow. Chosen especially for the evening, for her best friend Hannah’s first dinner at her first house. Left on the kitchen counter.
“We get lucky then,” Robert says. “Tomorrow night. In-N-Out. Burgers and Bordeaux. You sent them those cheese knives, right?”
“Last week. But we can’t show up empty-handed.”
As they exit, Abby sees their only hope will be some convenience store bottle best suited for cooking. Here, to put in the pasta, she’ll say when Hannah—a wine rep, long red hair and an impeccable palate—answers the door. Somehow it seems fitting that Abby’s failed in this, the simple ability to bring a bottle of wine to dinner. Left behind, that’s how she feels. The thirty-three-year-old trapped in an apartment, in a relationship without a ring. Marriage? A house? Children? That’s for everyone but her, everyone else who hurtles along while she tries to enter from a stop sign. And now she’ll show up to dinner, a frazzled guest with Gallo jug wine.
It will happen, he’s told her. Career back on track, debt settled, money for a down payment, there’s a list of what needs to be checked off, though all Abby hears is that Robert needs to sell another script first—about as easy as winning the lottery. Why rush? Let’s do it right, he’s said, and Abby’s begun to wonder if the course they’re on was born strictly of convenience.There’s no freeway access to Abby’s place, she’d long ago heard him tell a friend. Could that be it? Was the exit simply not close enough? Four years later and here they are in a shared apartment, the freeway so close it sounds like rain.
This is not what she’d imagined would happen, not what her young, optimistic self had conjured in the Noxzema nights of her youth. Then what she’d pictured was the boy she’d had a crush on, Aidan Mackenzie, one day really seeing her and being hit with the knowledge they should be together, cheerleader girlfriend be damned. At that point, marriage was a given, a future she knew without question she’d have, and imaginings of a proposal soothed her back to sleep when she’d wake in the middle of the night. White tablecloths and candlelight, a bended knee in the fury of a New York crowd, an extended hand on the side of the road amid neat rows of corn like a world freshly combed. A romantic from day one. Now, in the car, Abby smiles at how ridiculous she was. Just yesterday she’d found a notice for her fifteen-year reunion, in only two weeks. Hidden between the glossy pages of a magazine, it sailed to the floor like an idea attempting to settle.
Tags of graffiti brighten walls and dozens of jagged bottles lie splintered against a building, broken as if someone had simply needed to hear the sound. The neighborhood is neglected, all of it, as if the whole place has just given up and is filled with women whose shifts at work are too long, men who pride themselves on the wrong things, and children who are told every day to go play at their friends’ houses. Everything’s coming apart at the seams.
They pull to a stoplight before the liquor store and Abby sees three guys with shaved heads and wife-beaters watching them from the corner. It won’t take long for them to cross the street, to be at the car, the Audi that was the one illogical thing Robert bought when he’d sold a script five years ago, a car that now might get them killed. Robert is more bookish than brawn, the one who stops fights, calming words and hands on shoulders, steering tempers away. Yet Abby can see it—one step in front of her, he’d be about to speak when the knife plunges into his side, tearing his shirt, scraping a rib.
Wait. A knife? Do gangs even carry knives?
“You okay?” he asks. They’re parked. Robert’s turned in his seat, watching her. It’s one thing she loves about him; carried within him always is a barometer of her comfort. Though he’s barely looked across the street, Abby knows he saw them and is aware they’re raising her nerves. Because of this attentiveness, her fears have actually lessened since she met Robert, his presence like a hand that smooths the covers. See? There’s nothing there.
They fly from the car to the store, Robert’s steps spurred by heat and the time he sees on his watch, Abby’s steps jet-fueled by fear. Still the guys are on the corner, locked in the reflection of the glass. Robert leads her to the counter, a dusty bottle of overpriced Cabernet in his hand, and Abby waits for the chime of the door, arms lifted, guns aimed—they don’t have knives, she’s decided—until she finally forces her gaze to the window in time to see the group boarding a bus.
The corner is a bus stop. They were standing there because they were waiting for the bus.
“What?” Robert asks, as if he feels the realization weight her, a shift in her muscles.
“Sometimes I disappoint myself.” She glances back at the bus, its blinker a mere formality as it lurches into the lane.
From YOU WERE HERE by Gian Sardar, to be published May 16, 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Son, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Gian Sardar.
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Gian Sardar studied creative writing at Loyola Marymount University and is the coauthor of the book Psychic Junkie. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and insane dog. You Were Here is her debut novel.