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About the author:
Travis Neighbor Ward was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She graduated with an M.A. and B.A. in English literature and Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania. She moved to Florence, Italy, for five years before writing LIVING, STUDYING AND WORKING IN ITALY. Since then she has worked in New York City and Atlanta as an award-winning magazine editor-in-chief and writer. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of the novels COME FIND ME (Available on Kindle Now! Available as a paperback on April 15, 2014) and THE UNIFIED THEORY OF LOVE AND EVERYTHING (June 1, 2014).
What inspired you to write your book?
I read about the U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen, and how brave they are (and how difficult it is to become one). I wondered what would happen if a man like this was broken and decided to track down his first love.
Here is a short sample from the book:
The December snowstorm was coming down fast, and Jessica Wilson turned up the heater while she sat gazing out the car window at Riverside. When she first set out for Fort Benning with her daughter Chelsea, the meteorologist thought the storm would blow west, leaving middle Georgia untouched. It was a fluke to have snow at all. Instead it had stayed its course and now she wondered if they’d get home again that day as planned. Her eyebrows knitted together in worry. She probably shouldn’t have insisted they make the three-hour drive, but things with Chelsea had reached a boiling point and desperate measures were needed. She glanced over at her daughter’s delicate, pale face set into a frown. A strand of light brown hair had fallen from her ponytail, and Jessica resisted the urge to tuck it in. These days Chelsea didn’t like to be touched by anyone.
Jessica scanned the landscape where the white clapboard mansion sat, sprawled at the back of the vast lawn, surrounded by ancient oaks. The square columns looked just as regal as they had twenty-seven years ago, the wraparound porches just as inviting. Now there were juniper wreaths with red velvet bows hanging in front of every window, giving it an air of celebration. Jessica shivered and pulled her coat tighter around her. Already snowdrifts had formed, covering the hedges and cars, and icicles clung to the roof. Not even the snowplows were out yet.
She wasn’t able to explain to her husband exactly why she felt it was necessary to drag their daughter to this place on the day after Christmas, except that sometimes girls
needed their mother to prove something to them, and this was definitely one of those times. Still, she wondered if it would have the effect she hoped for, forcing Chelsea to visit the place that changed Jessica’s life so long ago. She was forty-nine, and it wasn’t a story she’d ever told her children in its entirety. It was here that she fell in love for the first time that summer, just before her father was killed in Iraq. Other than becoming a mother, there was nothing in her life that changed her so profoundly.
“So are we just going to sit here or what?” Chelsea muttered in her usual petulant tone, her brown eyes darkening.
Jessica knew that her daughter was depressed. Since the breakup with her boyfriend Tommy, Chelsea had become a different person and it wasn’t just the normal, hormone-induced bad attitude that so often came with being sixteen. This was a lot more serious. This included things like dropping out of the track team, then being expelled from high school for smoking cigarettes in the loading zone. Things like coming home with your nose pierced. Most re-cently it had included running away from home for a few days while your parents went crazy, fearing for your life. Jessica thought she’d lived through the worst days of her own life long ago, but when Chelsea couldn’t be found it was like the universe was caving in on itself. She couldn’t eat or sleep, and was amazed that she was able to breathe. All she wanted to do was stay outside searching for her, but she had to remain inside by the phone, just in case her daughter called. Looking back, she was astonished that she hadn’t destroyed her house, pulling down curtains and throwing furniture in a rage like she wanted to. It wasn’t fair that her daughter was suffering so much. She’d take all of her suffering from her if she could.
Once Chelsea was returned by the Sheriff’s office, they tried everything to help her: therapy, church, even horseback riding lessons, hoping it might revive her lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian. None of it worked, and it took superhuman effort for Jessica to let Chelsea leave the house unchaperoned. She was terrified that she’d run away again or do something worse. Her greatest fear was that Chelsea might cause herself permanent damage if Jessica didn’t get through to her soon.
She sighed and watched as large pellets of fleecy snow rushed down from the sky. “It’s so beautiful, don’t you think sweetie?” Jessica said quietly.
When Chelsea was born she was a simple child, easy to please and eager to smile, and that was partly why they were sitting in the parked SUV now, staring at the commanding general’s home. Jessica knew, in her heart, that Chelsea was still the same person she used to be; she just had to be reminded of all the good things that the world had to offer. She’d always been extremely sensitive, and Tommy’s abrupt ending of their relationship was difficult enough. But the worst part was that he did it days after his father’s company relocated the family to Texas. The combination of the breakup with the move made it feel like Tommy died, and Jessica recognized in Chelsea all the symptoms of grieving.
She grimaced, feeling the old, familiar ache of her own grieving fill her throat and spread through her chest, telling her that it was time to begin. This was why she dragged her daughter here, because that ache inside would give her the courage to tell her story the right way, with all the emotional accuracy needed to make Chelsea really listen. Like her daughter, Jessica had always preferred to bury her pain, no matter what the cost.
She undid her seatbelt and shifted on the seat, turning so her body was facing her. Chelsea glanced over warily, then glared out the window.
“Mom, this is totally stupid. Can we go home now?” she begged.
“Honey, I need you to look at me while I tell you this,” Jessica said. “I need to know that you’re paying attention.”
Chelsea sighed in frustration. “What if I don’t want to listen? Have you thought about that?”
“Yes. I have.” She forced a smile. “And you’re free to get out of the car and walk home if you like.”
Chelsea eyed the road and shuddered. “You’re evil.”
Jessica waited. After a moment Chelsea sighed loudly, snapped off her seatbelt, and stared at her, an indignant expression in her eyes. Jessica felt a ripple of hope move through her. It was the first sign that her plan might work. Back in Dahlonega, the town where they lived, Chelsea would have stormed out of the house. Here, in the middle of no-where and without money, she had a little more sense that that. But what was the best way to start?
Jessica stared at the mansion. If she closed her eyes she could still see the American flag banners that hung below them that summer. The wisteria was blooming in the trees that night and a jazz band was playing beneath a tent. The ladies were wearing floppy hats and sundresses, and the men were in uniform looking dapper and heroic. It was 2002, and everyone was preparing for the next Gulf War. But most of all there was Mark…
“Do you see that pergola over there,” Jessica said, pointing across the garden. “In summertime it was covered in pink roses.” She looked around. “And over there,” she said, pointing beneath a tree, “that’s where I had my first kiss.”
Chelsea was startled. She peered outside. “Right there?” she said incredulously, twisting the rings on her fingers.
“Yes. I was exactly your age.” She hesitated. “I mean, I’d kissed a boy before, but this was the first real one—the one that makes your heart leap into your throat and leaves you feeling like you might never be able to breathe again… I think you know what I mean.”
Chelsea hesitated, then bit her lower lip and nodded.
“I’d come here with my parents and your aunt Jill,” Jessica went on. “I even remember what I was wearing. A white dress with a pink belt. I left my hair down, but my mother thought I should put it up.” She laughed. “Grandma Clara had very definite ideas about how I should look, but I rarely agreed. I liked to do things the way I wanted, and I didn’t want her telling me what to do.”
Chelsea turned on the seat now and faced her fully, playing with the fringe on her leather jacket. When she looked up, she was blushing.
“So what was it like?” she muttered. “When you fell in love?”
Jessica grinned and adjusted the heating vent. She had to be careful to take this slowly.
“It was like nothing else,” she said, letting the mixed emotions overwhelm her. “I knew he was the one from the first moment I laid eyes on him. After we kissed, it felt like no one else had ever existed in the world. I wanted everyone and everything to go away.” She paused. “All I wanted was to be with him day and night. And when he left me, it felt like the world ended.”
She could see Mark’s face close to hers, leaning down to kiss her. The two of them promising to stay in touch. Mark not answering her emails. Then she saw her young self lying in bed, in the fetal position, after hearing that her father was never coming home. The pain then was agony, like someone was ripping her apart and throwing her away.
Jessica covered her eyes with her hand as a tear formed there, thinking that Chelsea felt a similar pain inside of her right now. “You can’t imagine what was going through my mind when we had to say goodbye.”
Chelsea was silent, then she reached out her hand and quickly touched her mother’s arm before retracting it. “It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “Don’t cry.”
“No. I need to let this out.” Jessica reached into her purse and took out a tissue, and dabbed at her eyes. “You think I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I do, in my own way. I know what it feels like to miss everything about him—the way he smells, the way his mouth curls up when he laughs, his voice. I know all those things, Chelsea. And I know what it means to give up faith in true love.”
Chelsea stiffened and Jessica balled the tissue in her hands. She sighed. How could she make her point? The snow was coming down faster now, and the windshield wipers could barely keep up.
“Sometimes even the people who love us can hurt us terribly,” she said, “and we don’t know why. They do it to protect themselves from pain. And when they do, it makes us feel like we want to die. But sometimes, if we’re patient, we’ll find out why, even if it may not be for a really long time.”
She glanced over at Chelsea and could tell that she was paying attention, although she was looking away.
“Is that what happened to you, Mom?”
Jessica nodded. “When I was sixteen my heart was broken. But what you really need to know is what happened ten years later, when I was twenty-six. I was living with your Aunt Jill and your cousins, to help take care of them after their father died in Afghanistan.” She forced a deep breath into her lungs. “I was engaged… and then my past came walking back in the door.”
She paused as she saw Chelsea’s shock spread through her. Now she was listening. For a moment Jessica was embar-rassed—but wasn’t this partly why she made the choices she made? So she could prove to her future children that she was a strong person that lived by her beliefs?
“You mean another man?” Chelsea said.
“Yes. And I had no idea what was about to happen.”