Melissa Payne is the bestselling author of ”The Secrets of Lost Stones.” For as long as she can remember, Melissa has been telling stories in one form or another—from high school newspaper articles to a graduate thesis to blogging about marriage and motherhood. But she first learned the real importance of storytelling when she worked for a residential and day treatment center for abused and neglected children. There she wrote speeches and letters to raise funds for the children. The truth in those stories was piercing and painful and written to invoke in the reader a call to action: to give, to help, to make a difference. Melissa’s love of writing and sharing stories in all forms has endured. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly mutt, a very loud cat, and the occasional bear. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com.
The following is an excerpt from “The Secrets of Lost Stones.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League winner for Mainstream Fiction
She leaned against the brick garden wall by the chocolate shop with her knees drawn up, arms wrapped around her shins. The stubborn spring air hadn’t let go of winter’s chill, and a constant drip from her nose had created a split in the very corner of her nostril that made her eyes water. This morning she’d woken up to find it tender and bleeding. She’d used the scarf to dab at it gently, but her breath fogged in the cold air, and her nose ran freely, making it hurt even worse. The ground felt hard and cold through her thin leggings, and a dull pain had begun to spread behind her eyes. Today she felt weak and small and very, very alone.
“Star?” A woman’s voice.
She pressed her forehead into her knees, let her hair fall over her face, and breathed out. Her stomach somersaulted. She’d often wondered when social services would catch up to her, and on a day like today she felt extra vulnerable. But she’d sworn she’d never go back to being a foster kid. She’d been one since she was eight years old, and she was so fucking tired of the system, tired of the families who didn’t want a sad teenage girl with klepto issues sleeping in the room next to their precious blonde-haired daughter, even tired of the ones who at least pretended to care but, when shit got hard, didn’t actually care enough. She dug her nails into her thighs. Star was convinced that her mother would never have let the world fall apart the way her dad did. Sometimes at night she dreamed about her mom. Her memories were small pieces that didn’t always make sense: a whiff of cinnamon, the soft grittiness of soil between her fingers, her cheek resting against a pillowy chest. She’d been only five when her mom got sick, but the one thing Star did remember was how safe she’d felt back then. Safe and warm and loved.
The woman cleared her throat, shifted her feet. Good, she’s uncomfortable. Serves her right. Star rubbed her nose across her leggings, dug her fingers into her legs. This woman would have to drag her back into foster care, because no matter how cold her ass got, Star was not moving from that spot.
“I have something for you,” came her voice again, and this time Star thought she recognized it.
She peered over her knees. The younger woman from the other day stood opposite her, brown hair pulled back into the same tight ponytail. She had a look about her that Star knew. An emptiness that made her eyes dull. It was a look Star saw often enough on the streets and before, when her dad was still alive. She shivered and pushed the thought of her dad out of her head. She was eight when he died, and unlike her mom, those memories had sharp claws that tore away at her. Right now she had too much to deal with.
“I’m Jess,” the woman said.
Star crossed her arms, narrowed her eyes. What did she care? “Unless you have a twenty and a soda, I’m not interested.”
Jess turned her head and looked around and behind Star, like she was searching for someone. She frowned. “Where do you live?”
Nosy, that’s what she was. “Lady, that’s none of your business.” She picked up her cup and got to her feet, taking a seat on the garden wall opposite Jess. “Your grandmother is creepy.”
Jess chuckled softly. “You’re not wrong there. And you’re a bit of a smart-ass, huh?”
Star raised her chin and gazed at Jess, unblinking. “You bet.”
Jess opened her mouth, then shut it. She held out a small white envelope. “Here, this is for you.”
Star didn’t move from her spot. “What’s that?”
“It’s a note.” Jess stepped forward, placed it on the brick wall beside Star. Star noticed how she rubbed at her wrist with the fingers of her other hand, back and forth, like one of those worry stones. “It’s from Lucy, not me.”
Star shrugged, ignoring the note beside her, even as a burning curiosity made it difficult not to ask Jess a billion questions.
Jess smiled. “Lucy is unusual, Star. I can’t argue with you about that. But that probably makes whatever she says in your note worth reading.”
Star thumped her heels against the brick wall, pretending she didn’t care, but a panicky feeling expanded inside her. What did Jess want? Or the old woman? What could they know about her? If they’d ever seen her caseworker’s file on Star, then they’d know she was prone to stealing, hard to love, and even harder to place. But a wrench in her gut told her that the old woman knew something else. Star’s chest tightened. There were worse things about her than what her caseworker knew. She tried to glance casually down the street, gauging how quickly she could run and disappear if she needed to. “How do you know my name?”
Jess’s forehead wrinkled. “I don’t—I mean, not really. I just guessed at Lucy’s crossword puzzle . . . I mean . . . Lucy must have known it somehow.” For a second Jess looked confused, her face scrunched up like she was thinking too hard. It made Star want to laugh.
“You must have told Lucy or something,” Jess continued. “Anyway, you left an impression on her, so she asked me to give that to you.”
“What is it?”
“I have no idea. To tell you the truth, I’ve known her only a few days myself. But what’s the harm in reading it, Star?”
Hearing her name spoken again in Jess’s firm but soft voice felt comforting in a way that made Star’s eyes itch. She trained her gaze on the ground, shrugged.
Jess’s feet moved back and forth, but she didn’t leave right away. Star sensed she wanted to say something more. Jess sighed and stepped so close that Star smelled a light citrus scent. She picked up the envelope, and Star heard the scratching of pen on paper.
“I don’t know your situation, Star, but if you’re alone and need help, I know a couple of shelters that only take kids. They’re safe places.” Jess set the envelope back down beside her, and from the corner of her eye Star noticed a couple of names and addresses written in black ink. And then on top of the envelope Jess placed a twenty, followed by another twenty.
Star’s eyes bugged wide. Forty dollars!
“Take care of yourself,” Jess said. “The streets are no place for a kid like you.” She hesitated, mumbled, “Or for any kid.”
Jess’s boots disappeared from Star’s view. She lifted her gaze and watched her walk away, shoulders hunched, one hand rubbing the other wrist, back and forth, back and forth.
Star pocketed the cash and picked up the envelope. A chill raced along her shoulder blades at the sight of her name written across the front.
She ran her fingertips along the pointed edge of the envelope, then slid her finger underneath the flap. It opened easily. Inside was a folded sheet of paper that matched the envelope. Smooth and thick. But when she unfolded the note, a thin rectangular piece of paper fell from its folds and fluttered to the ground.
A bus ticket.
Star hopped down from the wall and snatched the ticket off the ground. She stuffed it back into the envelope and shoved the envelope deep into the pocket of her coat. Lucy had sent her a bus ticket.
Guitar music and laughter floated from behind her. The same two girls who’d camped by her spot the other day sat cross-legged on the ground with their guitars. They must like the smell of chocolate too. Star sat down so that her back rested against the wall and listened to the music.
She wanted to read the note. Her fingers reached into her pocket, touched the stiff edge of the envelope, hesitated. What good could possibly come from some old lady? More than likely she wanted to help her find her parents or call her caseworker, or maybe she was a front for a sex trafficking ring. Star gave a bitter laugh. Those fuckers preyed on girls like her, but an old woman like Lucy really didn’t fit that mold. She slid her hand out of her pocket and shoved it under her thigh. Maybe she’d read it later, or maybe she’d throw it away.
For the rest of the day, she managed to ignore the note. She bought a hot chocolate with the money from Jess and sipped it, trying to savor every bit of chocolate and sugar that touched her tongue. It went cold before she reached the bottom, but even cold it was still good. When the streetlights flickered on that night, a thin layer of coins and a few crumpled bills lay piled in her paper cup. Along with the remaining money from Jess, it wasn’t a bad day. Satisfied, she pried apart her little fabric change bag, slid the money inside, and tucked it under her shirt.
The night air held a deep chill that poked through the thin spots in Star’s wool coat. Three sizes too big, it did little to keep her warm anyway, but it was all she had. She pulled it tight to her body, shivering, and moved quickly down the street. Night made her feel visible to all the wrong people.
Just before the sun dropped behind the mountains, Star wolfed down a fast-food hamburger and drained a small cup of water, tossing the trash into the bin before flinging herself under a bench. When she curled up against one end, her entire body was almost hidden from view, making her feel protected and safe. The wide bench had three sides made of solid concrete, and with her small frame, she could almost pretend she was alone. Except for the guys sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the street, talking to one another, their voices raised. They sounded high or drunk or both, but they didn’t seem to know she was there, and that was good.
She tried to tune them out, but when she did her thoughts went immediately to the note. It felt heavy in her pocket, as though it were made of metal instead of paper. When she couldn’t fight her curiosity a minute longer, she dug her fingers deep into the pocket of her coat until she touched the small plastic flashlight, the kind someone might put on a key chain. Then she pulled out the bent and crumpled envelope. The thin beam of the flashlight shook. She tightened her grip to stem the trembling in her hand and pulled open the note. In the same delicate script, it read:
Here is what I know:
1. You watched your best friend die.
2. You are not a liar unless you need to be.
3. You are not an addict, but you do let something rule your life. Fear.
4. You think you are better off alone.
Everyone deserves a second chance. Consider this your invitation to come and stay at my house. Use this ticket to take the 401 to Pine Lake. From the bus stop, walk west on Main Street for one block, take a right at the Mountain Market. Follow the path to the house at the top of the hill that overlooks the lake. Ring the doorbell.
The letter turned blurry, and Star was surprised to find she was crying. She wiped her eyes on her shoulder. For a second she felt a lightness touch her heart at the thought that somebody, even an old-ass lady, had noticed her. But it was gone just as quickly. She hadn’t just watched Jazz die. She’d been the cause of his death. And she deserved everything that had happened after that night.