Annabelle Aster has discovered a curious thing behind her home in San Francisco–a letterbox perched atop a picket fence. The note inside is blunt—trespass is dealt with at the business end of a shotgun in these parts!—spurring some lively correspondence between the Bay Area orphan and her new neighbor, a feisty widow living in nineteenth-century Kansas.
The source of mischief is an antique door Annie installed at the rear of her house. The man who made the door—a famed Victorian illusionist—died under mysterious circumstances.
Annie and her new neighbor, with the help of friends and strangers alike, must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and somehow already did.
Pray for Me, Father
May 16, 1895
San Francisco, California
Mission Dolores Basilica
I’ve not forgotten our quarrel, but I’m asking you to put that aside for the sake of scholarship and the friendship we once shared. You were right, I fear. I meddled in something beyond my understanding. The time-travel conduit works—I’ve shaped it as a door—but not, I suspect, by science or my own hand. You are the only person who won’t think me paranoid should I put words to my suspicion. Something slumbers within it. Something with designs of its own.
Words have power. You know that better than anyone. And I am beginning to suspect the ones the shaman spoke—and which I foolishly copied into my journal’s companion piece, my codex—were an invocation.
Please come soon, I beg you. Or don’t come at all. And if you don’t come, then pray for me, Father. Matters are coming to a head, and my instincts say this will not end well.
Cap’n—adolescent con artist extraordinaire, picker of any lock, leader of Kansas City’s notorious sandlot gang, and unofficial mayor to all its throwaways—plucked a wilted lettuce leaf from her hair as she peered through a break in the pile of rubbish where she was hiding.
Fabian didn’t look so good, she thought, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. He was lying in the mud, his legs bent at odd angles, and was staring down the length of his outspread arm, his mouth opening and closing in a creepy imitation of a fish on the chopping block. She couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear Fabian was telling her to flee.
He wasn’t going anywhere. Danyer had made sure of that. Whether it was a first or last name, Cap’n didn’t know. He just went by Danyer. He was Mr. Culler’s hatchet man, and he didn’t fight fair. Danyer wasn’t interested in fair, though; he was interested in results, and Fabian had failed. Cap’n knew it was a bad idea to let failure go unanswered in their line of business, but she never imagined it would come to this. Fabian was a moneymaker for Mr. Culler, after all.
Danyer towered over him, a granite block with meat-hook arms, his legs straddling Fabian’s belly. As his boots rocked in the muck, Danyer’s duster swept back and forth across Fabian’s chest. His voice reminded Cap’n of a humming turbine—deep and dangerous—as he read from the letter they’d filched. “‘Please come soon, I beg you—’” Danyer crumpled the paper, lobbing it into the air. It bounced off Fabian’s cheek and into the mud. “Where’s the journal?” He squatted, grabbing Fabian’s chin with his sausage fingers before slapping him lightly across the cheek. “Hmm?”
Cap’n said a quick prayer for her friend and started backing up. But it was too late. She stepped on a stick that lifted a crate at the base of the rubbish heap just a fraction of an inch, and she could only grit her teeth as a tin can toppled from its perch, tinkling down the pile of debris while making a sound like a scale played on a badly tuned piano.
She froze as Danyer pivoted to stare at the pile of rubbish. He turned back to Fabian, speaking warily. “And where’s Cap’n?” he asked. “Where’s your pet pickpocket?” She watched him slap Fabian’s cheek one more time, the muscles in her legs tensing as he turned and started to walk toward her hiding place. Five feet out, Danyer lunged, but all he got hold of was the remaining head of lettuce as she bolted from the mound, racing down the alleyway in a flurry of muslin, freckles, and carrot-colored pigtails.
Three blocks later, she rounded a corner, waiting. When the crack of the gun echoed down the street, she ducked into a drainage pipe to collect herself. A cockroach crawled over her foot, its antennae waving. Fabian admired cockroaches, she remembered. He said they were survivors. Suddenly, a whimper broke from her throat, and she ground the bug into a mosaic of chitinous shards before huddling in on herself, sobbing. And just as suddenly, she sat upright, her mouth set in a grim line while she ran the back of her hand across her nose.
Tears were for kids, and she needed to make a plan. When Fabian turned up dead, and there was no doubt he would, Danyer would want to tie up some loose ends—namely her. She wasn’t too worried about that. She knew every hidey-hole in Kansas City, and the gang would watch her back. She regarded what was left of the cockroach, one of its severed legs agitating as though not realizing the body it belonged to was already dead, and nodded to herself. It was time to put the shoe on the other foot, she decided. Something had to be done about Danyer and his boss.
HOW I WOVE FOUR STORIES INTO A SINGLE CLIMAX
Weaving time travel into a novel is not for the faint of heart, not even for a seasoned author, but what if you are a freshman writer who had only an eye to some characters you’d dreamt up and it just happened—the time travel element, I mean?
That gets tricky really fast. Truth be told, I wrote the whole darn book by the seat of my pants; the first draft, anyway. And it all began with an image in my head—a pair of unlikely pen pals, one an eccentric young lady living in contemporary San Francisco who is obsessed with Victorian clothes, the other a dowdy, old schoolmarm living in a turn-of-the-century Kansas wheat field who possesses an inventory of curse words to make a sailor blush, as well as a take-no-prisoners attitude.
If you can believe it, I’d dreamt them up as I drove home with my tail tucked between my legs after a botched first date. Yup. I owe my book to those humble beginnings.
Though I thought the date was going swimmingly, he thought otherwise, and leaned back in his chair to say, “I think we are destined to be great friends.”
I drove home determined to salvage what I could, and conjured Annie and Elsbeth somewhere on Dolores Street in San Francisco. By the time I’d pulled into my garage, I’d written up a letter (in my head) from Annie to El, one in which she asked for advice regarding her love stuck friend—me.
I didn’t stop there, though, putting it to paper, so to speak, and emailed it off to his work address. While I won’t bore you with the details, the letter was a bit of a hit, having gone “viral” throughout the office where he worked. Many more were written.
But back to time travel.
Lemoncholy was born from those letters, first and foremost, and since I couldn’t shake the original notion of Elsbeth living a hundred years in the past, I was going to have to toy with the concept of time so that these two women could communicate. And what better way than through a letterbox that sits in some common magical ground between their two worlds? Annie, of course, had to be delighted with her pen pal. That was a “given” in my mind. I had bigger plans for Elsbeth, however. I decided she was going to be none to happy with the general state of affairs.
The front end of my manuscript quickly became crowded with their letters—Annie expressing delight, Elsbeth itching to make good use of her shogun—and while I was having a blast, it quickly became apparent that I had little in the way of story.
So I cooked one up.
I asked myself a question. What would happen if Annie found an old article, one in which she learns of a murder that took place a hundred years ago in Kansas City, yet will take place in four days on Elsbeth’s timeline? And what if the person who was murdered is responsible for Annie and El being able to communicate across time?
Voila! I had a story!
You’d think that I would have simply sail along at that point, but things only got messier when I created Annie and El’s supporting cast.
There’s Christian. He’s Annie’s best friend; a sweetheart of a man who is burdened with a secret buried so deep within his subconscious that it leaves him with a stutter.
Then there’s Edmond; a total charmer who lifts Christian’s secret to the surface, all the while burdened with a demon of his own—drug addiction.
And, finally, there’s Cap’n. She’s a twelve-year-old street urchin living in turn-of-the-century Kansas City who survives by dent of her wits, a total smarty-pants.
I’d fallen in love.
With all of them.
So I did something crazy. I wrote a separate story for each of them—for Annie and El, for Cap’n, and for Christian and Edmond—not because I wanted to add dimension to a time travel novel, but because it was becoming more and more obvious to me that these characters had something to say. A theme was rising to the surface. I was going to write a story about the marginalization of misfits, with each of mine in pursuit of a little understanding, a little hope, in an unforgiving world. Whether or not they found what they were seeking is a matter of opinion, but it is clear they did find something greater.
So, in the end, The Lemoncholy Life Of Annie Aster is really three stories, each exploring the life of a loner, a person struggling to find his or her place, that also happens to be woven together by a fourth story—a mystery that has time travel at its core.
About the Author
Scott Wilbanks graduated summa cum laude from The University of Oklahoma and went on to garner several national titles in the sport of gymnastics. Scott’s husband, Mike, is a New Zealander by birth, and the two split their time between the two countries while Scott is at work on his next standalone novel.