The Garden House by Mahkovec, Linda

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The Garden House

Regular price $12.99

"The author is a gifted storyteller, as this book engages the reader on several levels…Mahkovec has written a story that defies the reader to put it down before the end, and the end is impossible to guess. The Garden House is a slow-paced, insightful novel that I enjoyed very much, the sort of beautifully-written story I associate with literary fiction." —Readers' Favorite

“Mahkovec's prose is sharp and fluid…The premise is a fun one, and Miranda is a finely drawn character...An engrossing, if subdued, psychological tale." —Kirkus 

A story of love, family, and home set among the lush summer evenings of Seattle. Themes of gardens and buried secrets bring to mind the novels of Kate Morton, while the importance of home and family is reminiscent of Maeve Binchy.

When Miranda's two children leave home, her sense of loss is intensified by a void in her own life journey. She has set aside her dreams of becoming an artist for far too long. In an attempt to rekindle the beauty and passion of her youth, she fixes up the garden house as a studioonly to discover her husband has rented it out for the summer to a shy, somewhat mysterious young man.

Soon after his arrival, Miranda begins to have disturbing dreams. Her friends dismiss them. Her husband blames them on the teen shelter Miranda has recently visited. Is she simply experiencing a mid-life crisis? Perhaps empty-nest syndrome? But Miranda is convinced her dreams have meaning, especially when she notices her new tenant's increasingly suspicious behavior.

When her dreams become more urgent, Miranda can no longer ignore her fear that someone is in danger. Is something sinister lurking right outside in her beloved garden?

There's only one way to find out... 


Author Bio: 

Linda Mahkovec is the author of World War II historical fiction, short stories, and contemporary novels.

Themes of love, family, and home dominate her stories, and though they may be set against the backdrop of war or deal with the disappointments in life, the overarching feel is uplifting and hopeful. Threads that run through her work are the search for beauty and meaning, and the artistic female character—whether she is a painter, a gardener, or simply someone who lives creatively and seeks connection.

Mahkovec was born and raised in a small town in Illinois. She then spent several years in the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle, and for the past thirty years has lived in New York City. She has a PhD in English, specializing in Victorian literature. She has previously published as Agnes Irene.

Book Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Miranda awoke to the darkness of early morning. A barely-there breeze softly swelled the curtains, causing the sheers to billow as if in slow motion. Before going to bed, she had opened the window and parted the curtains, to better hear the sounds of the night and the morning birdsong. But at this hour all was hushed, except for the rhythmic breathing of her husband. The troubling sense of yearning, that of late had kept her company, had awakened with her. She slipped off the comforter, and walked to the window.

She lightly rubbed her bare arms. In the garden below, only the white flowers were visible – cone-shaped hydrangeas, discs of Queen Anne’s lace, full-blossomed peonies – dream flowers of night. They appeared weightless, as if they hovered in timelessness, and would not attach to the stems and root until the fuller light of morning connected them. Further down, the garden house loomed out of the darkness – like the flowers, not yet anchored, still in silent communion with the night. As she rested her eyes on it, almost imperceptibly it shifted – from pale gray to the beginnings of white, gaining in shape and substance as dawn gave way to day. Now she could make out the blue trim, the window boxes. Soon it would stand firm in the bright light of morning.

Everything was right there – in the tenuous linking of night with dawn, in the garden house full of memories, in the flowers and paths of the garden, in the longing that spilled out into it all. It was as if she were looking at a puzzle, and almost had it pieced together while it lingered at the edge of nightbut then it completely disappeared with the morning light, as if it had never existed.

Breakfast. She would make breakfast.

She dressed quietly, washed up, and went downstairs. As she got out the eggs, milk, and butter, she tried to brush away the webby sense of discontent that clung about her. A nudging that she should be doing something more now. That her old role had changed and she must also change, or risk slipping into vagueness.

Into a large blue bowl she cracked the eggs, and added milk, vanilla, a touch of sugar. Then she began dipping slices of bread into the mix and placing them in a pan sizzling with butter.

While they browned, she turned on the tea kettle. She reached for the coffee press, and opened the bag of coffee – lifting it to her nose and taking in the rich aroma before measuring it out. The scent alone warmed her to morning, made her eager to begin the day. She took out several oranges and began slicing them to squeeze for juice. While she prepared breakfast, she heard the shower running. She smiled. The scent must have drifted upstairs.

Cooking grounded her, rooted her, in the same way gardening did. And Ben. And the kids. She caught the spray of citrus mixing with the aroma of fresh coffee, and moved more briskly as she began to set the table.

She filled a few ramekins with jams and sour cream, and poured maple syrup into a small beaker. Then she took out a bowl and filled it with strawberries and blueberries. She looked at the table and wanted it to be fuller, richer. She lifted the bright pink kalanchoe from the window shelves, and set it on the table. Too bad the kids weren’t there to enjoy  it. Clara  would  love  the  way  the  flowering plant matched the quilted placemats. And Michael would appreciate the mound of French toast dusted with powdered sugar; he had his father’s love of big breakfasts.

With one hand on the counter, she gazed at the table, secure now in the routines of her kitchen, of good food, of color and light, a prettily laid table. She leaned her head to one side and studied the setting as if it were a painting, and briefly imagined herself sitting at the table, wearing a long kimono-like robe – peacock blue, or perhaps a pattern in pinks and orange.

She glanced down at her sweat pants and t-shirt. Well, they were more practical for cooking, she told herself. Still, she wished she blended more with the arrangement – the one of the table, as well as the one in her head.

Miranda smiled at Ben’s quickness of step coming downstairs. She could always count on his appetite.

“Smells wonderful!” Ben said, entering the kitchen and giving her a quick kiss. He stared at the table. “All this for us? On a weekday?”

Miranda lifted and dropped one shoulder. “I was up early so I thought I’d make breakfast.”

“I’m not complaining.” Ben took his seat at the table and poured the steaming coffee into their cups.

Miranda sat down and looked at the ceiling-to-floor shelves behind Ben, a sort of small green-house that jutted out into the garden. It always filled her with happiness – the photos of the kids among the flowering plants, painted boxes and vases and tiny candles scattered throughout. But this morning, as a backdrop to the breakfast table, it filled her with melancholy.

She took a slice of French toast and poured some maple syrup over it and added a few strawberries. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to cooking for just two.”

“It’ll just take some time,” said Ben, as he drizzled syrup over his French toast.

“I suppose so.”

Ben looked over at Miranda, her tone at odds with the enthusiastic breakfast spread.

“I think I’ll get started on the cupboards and closets,” she said. “Paula has been asking me to hand over any of my old pieces that are gathering dust. I told her with the kids gone, I was going to clean house and get rid of things. She seems to think my old paintings and sculptures will sell at her stores. You know how she can make anything look good. I doubt if they’ll sell, but I guess it’s worth a try.”

“I’m sure she’s right. Your work is great. I always tell you that, but you never believe me.”

“That’s because you’re partial, Ben.”

“Can’t fault me for good taste.”

“Hmm,” Miranda responded with skepticism. “I guess I’ll show her my old stuff, but what I really want to do is set up the studio and get started on some new things.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” said Ben. “I think I found a renter for the garden house for the summer.”

Miranda put her fork down. “I thought we decided against it.”

Ben looked up. “We did? I thought the plan was to rent it out until we were ready to put up that wall, make some of those changes we talked about.”

“Ben, that was months ago. I told you just last week that I wanted to use it as a studio this summer. I want to finish that screen, for one thing. And I haven’t done any painting in years.”

“Miranda, I cut the boards for that screen two years ago.” Ben’s hand hesitated over the berries. Berries or jam? He decided on a few mixed berries and sprinkled them over another piece of French toast.

“I know. And now that I have some time, I can finally finish it.”

“So I’ll tell the guy it’s not available.” He lifted the coffee press and refilled his cup. “Oh, remember to set out Michael’s camping gear if you come across it. He wants us to take it to him the next time we’re down. Apparently, his new girlfriend – Casey? – is a hiker and camper.” He raised his eyebrows at Miranda and grinned. “He sounds pretty happy. Portland was definitely the right choice for him.”

“Caitlin,” said Miranda. She placed an elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand, lightly tapping her lips with her knuckles. She took a deep breath and resumed eating. “No. Don’t tell him.”

Ben raised his head. “Tell who what?”

“The tenant. The guy.”

“Oh. You sure? I thought you just said – ”

“No. That can wait. The rent will help with the renovations.” She took another slice of French toast and spread on some sour cream and raspberry jam. “So who is he?”

“Somebody Doug knows. Or his wife, rather. A teacher or journalist or something.” He looked up, trying to remember if there was anything else he knew about him. “From out East. New York, I think,” he said, as if that summed it all up.

Miranda made a small sound of exasperation. “Is that all you know about him? How old is he? Is he married? Kids? What’s he like? What does he teach?”

Ben drew a blank at each question.

“What’s his name?”

“William. Something. Been teaching for thirty years. I don’t think he’s arriving until next week. I’ll find out more today and let you know.” He tried to read the expression on Miranda’s facefar-off look, slight frown. He had been sure that his news of a tenant would make her happy. “What?”

“Nothing. It’s just that – I thought that if we rented it out, it would be nice to have a woman. An artist. Maybe someone with a small child or two. Wouldn’t that be nice? To have kids down there? Just on a temporary basis.”

“You can always turn it into a daycare center if that’s what you want.” His suggestion, as he knew it would be, was met with a sharp glance from Miranda. “I mean it,” he continued. “The kids are gone, and now you finally have some time to do what you want to do. If it’s a daycare you want – ”

“I don’t want to run a daycare.”

“Well,  you  did  a  few  years  ago.  Don’t  you remember? You had plans to – ”

“Well, I  don’t  now. That’s  the  whole  point, Ben. I want to start doing some of the things I’ve been putting off for the last twenty-five years.” As soon  as  the  words  were  out, she  regretted  them. Ben  would  think  she  was  blaming  him  for  why she hadn’t pursued her dreams, even though it had been her idea to leave school when they got married and work while Ben finished his degree.

Ben looked down at his plate, and then up at Miranda. “I know. I’m behind you on that. Just – tell me what it is you want to do, and I’ll help you with it.”

Miranda’s eyes filled with worry. “That’s just it, Ben. I don’t know. I really don’t. How can I have gotten to this age and not know what I want to do?” She glanced about as she searched for an answer. “What if all those things they say about middle age are true? What if I get foggy-brained and too tired to accomplish anything ever again? And I just keep gaining weight and – ”

Ben laughed and leaned over to rub her shoulder. “Aw, c’mon. What are you so worried about? You just keep getting better and better. I never could keep up with you.”

“Ha!  You  haven’t  gained  a  pound.  While I – ” she shook her head at the unfinished thought. “Though  I  do  think  the  dry  cleaner  is  partly  to blame – everything comes back smaller. More coffee?” she asked, preventing any chance of a rebuttal.

Ben smiled and held up his cup. “Take your time and think about the tenant. You can always say no. It’s completely your call.”

She watched him fix another piece of French toast. “No. It’s a good idea. I’m not quite ready to paint or whatever, anyway. It’s going to take me weeks, maybe months, to really clean out closets and organize everything. A tenant makes sense. I’ll work on the garden house today, get it ready for him. It needs a few things.” She heard herself and almost cringed, as if another delay in her plans was exactly what she wanted.

Ben caught the wistful tone behind her words. “Hey – how about dinner tonight?” he asked. “At McMillans – watch the sun set on the lake. You’ll have your hands full today; this way you won’t have to think about cooking.”

“You know me well,” she said, stretching her legs and resting them on his lap. Miranda loved the restaurant’s seasonal menu and always looked forward to a new culinary experience – a fresh way of preparing a vegetable, an unusual combination of herbs or spices, or a completely new dish that she would later try to recreate.

Ben’s phone rang and he glanced at the number. “Sam.”

He chatted with his old friend, rubbing Miranda’s legs as he talked, stopping and starting in pace with the conversation.

Miranda picked a few berries from the bowl, eating them one at a time, and watched Ben, always so  animated  and  energetic. After  all  these  years, she thought, I’m still wild about him. He doesn’t even  have  to  do  anything. He  can  just  sit  there and eat and talk on the phone and laugh – and it all makes me love him so much. He was agreeing to something, raising his eyebrows at her at some good news. She just hoped it didn’t involve fishing.

Ben  speared  one  last  slice  and  shrugged  at Miranda, as if it was so delicious he couldn’t help himself. He poured out some syrup, gave a chuckle, and  nodded  again. “Sounds  good.  I’ll  tell  her – she’ll love it. See ya, buddy.” He slipped the phone into his pocket.

“What will I love?”

“He invited us to his new place on the peninsula.  Another  month  or  so  and  it’ll  be  ready. Doesn’t  that  sound  great?” He  cast  an  imaginary fishing line.

A weak smile formed on her lips.

“Hiking, fishing, sitting around the fire pit at night. He said he’s discovered a local berry farm that you’ll love.”

Miranda smiled at the cozy vision. “That does sound nice.” Dear ole Sam, she thought. Always sure to include something she would enjoy.

Ben took one last bite and scooted his chair from the table. Then he took his jacket from the hall tree and headed out the door.

Miranda followed him outside, rubbing her arms against the chill. “I’ll make a reservation. What time should I say?”

“Better make it 8:00. See you there.” He squeezed her goodbye, intensifying his embrace until he got the laugh he was looking for.

She walked out on the flagstones and watched him drive off. A trip to the peninsula might be a good idea, after all. It would be beautiful there. She loved the deep forest walks, the smell of wood fire at night. And Sam was always good company. Though only ten years older than Ben, Sam was in many ways his mentor. She would always be grateful to him for helping Ben through a tough time. The memory of those years, of the stress Ben was under, still filled her with pain. At one point she feared he was heading for a breakdown. Long hours, corporate politics, an ever-increasing work load. It was Sam who convinced him to leave the firm and work with a smaller architect company. And it had changed their lives.

A weekend with Sam would be good for them. She could walk along the shore while they fished. After all, she’d been wanting to exercise more, get back into shape. Here was her chance. Why did she always meet everything with such resistance? Like the idea of a tenant. That, too, might be a good thing. I used to be more open, more adventurous, she thought. When did that change?

Miranda lifted her face to the sun. She loved the way the garden smelled in the early morning, the earthy dampness from the light Seattle rain, the whiff of pine, the sun just beginning to release a hint of jasmine from the trellis. And if she leaned in close enough to the roses – she cupped her hands around the dewy pinkness, buried her face in the flower, and closed her eyes at such sweetness. She often wished they could move their bed out here, sleep under the stars, put up a little canopy against the rain –

“Hey, neighbor!”

There was Paula, waving to her.

“Good morning!” called Miranda, and crossed over to where Paula was planting flowers along her wooden fence.

Paula stood and held up a potted flower. “Just look at this clematisit’s as big as a saucer.”

Miranda reached out to touch the pale purple flower. “It’s beautiful.”

“Just got it at the nursery yesterday. They still have some left.”

“I’ll go this morning. I need to get flowers for the window boxes,” she said, gesturing to the garden house. “I think we’ve found a renter for the summer.”

Paula inclined her head. “I thought you were going to use it as a studio.”

“We changed our minds. I want to organize the house first. Then think about what I want to do with the garden house.”

“I  hope  that  doesn’t  mean  you’re  going  to postpone  your  plans  again.  I  remember  a  time when you were always working on some painting or sculpture or something.”

“Yeah, well – that was ages ago.”

“What is it you’re afraid of? What’s stopping you?”

Miranda laughed at the ridiculous notion. “I’m  not  afraid  of  anything,  Paula. It’s  just –  I haven’t done anything for so long, and…”

Paula put a hand on her hip. “Does this have anything to do with turning fifty?”

“No, of course not. No. Not at all. It’s just – I’m not sure if I can tap into that part of myself again. I think it might be gone.”

“I don’t believe that for a moment. It’s in there. You just need to dig.” And with that, she knelt back down and shoved the trowel into the ground. “So who’s the tenant? A young painter with a five-year old child?”

Miranda laughed at the details of her earlier vision. “No, an older man. A teacher.”

“Well,  you  can  still  move  ahead  with  your plans. No reason you can’t paint outside or in the garage.”

“First I want to organize the house. Now that the kids are gone, I can clear out old stuff, get rid of things. And then think about painting or whatever.”

Paula gave a skeptical raise of her eyebrows.

Miranda pushed her foot at a clump of grass along the fence. “I think it will help me to focus, to start with a clean slate. I have so much stuff – old pieces I’ve held onto, half-finished projects. I want to lighten my load, and start fresh, you know? Then maybe by the fall or so I can be ready to really work.”

“Hmm.  Well,  don’t   throw   away   anything without letting me check it out first. The new shop opens  in  a  month. I  need  to  fill  it  up, and  your things would add just the right touch.”

“I doubt if there’s anything you can use, but I’ll start going through things.”

“You really should start on something new, as well. You’ll have the time now.”

“Yeah.” Miranda nodded and looked around. “Well, I better get started with everything. See you later.” She began to walk back to the house.

“Don’t wait too long, Miranda!”

Miranda turned and waited for a final word of reprimand.

But Paula was holding up the pale purple clematis. “They’re sure to go fast.”

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