A Piece of Heaven bargain priced

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First Chapter

Filler from The Taos News: Full Moon FactsThe full moon is the phase of the Moon in which it is fully illuminated as seen from Earth, at the point when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. The full moon reaches its highest elevation at midnight. High tides. Names for the August and September full moon: Full Red Moon, Full Green Corn Moon, Full Sturgeon Moon.

It was a good thing for Placida Ramirez that the moon was full when she set her house on fire at three o’clock in the morning that August night. Because it was the moon, shining like a searchlight through her bedroom windows, that had awakened Luna McGraw. Technically, it was a dream about her long-gone father that yanked her out of sleep. It was worries about her daughter’s arrival tomorrow that kept her awake.

But the moon, so coldly white in the summer sky, took the blame.Dragging on a pair of shorts beneath her sleeping shirt, she got up to make some coffee. It would make her mother crazy to know Luna was making coffee in the middle of the night. Why not a cup of tea? Something soothing and relaxing?

Not her style. Once upon a time, she would have poured a hefty measure of gold tequila into a water glass and sipped that. A part of her still wished she could.

At least coffee had some bite. Measuring out Costa Rican Irazú into her new Krupps grinder, she counted out the seconds to twenty-one. Perfect grind for a latte. Perfect grind for her, anyway. The world was entirely too full of coffee nazis these days—coffee was about individual taste, and no one should let anyone else tell her what to like. She liked hers strong enough to stand and walk by itself, withsteamed milk and a pound of sugar. As drugs went, it wasn’t bad. Also, a good latte took some detail work. The measuring. The grinding. Now she pressed the grounds, the color of good earth, into a tiny metal basket, and clicked on the machine. While it was heating up, she poured one-percent milk into a giant ceramic mug and waited, yawning, for the steam to be hot enough to make a froth.

The actions and the smell of coffee eased some of her restlessness, and she found she could stand there with one bare foot over the other without twitching too much in nicotine withdrawal. Or wondering why it had suddenly seemed like such a brilliant plan to quit smoking right now, when her daughter was coming to live with her for the first time in eight years. Maybe, she thought with resentment, it would be better to try again in a few weeks, when there wasn’t so much at stake.

But of course, Joy was the reason she had decided to try. The reason she could stick with it for a few more days. Joy hated cigarettes and Luna hated feeling like such a failure in front of her daughter. Not smoking seemed like a gesture of earnestness.

And really, she needed to quit anyway—everybody had to quit, right?—it stunk and made you wrinkle faster and it was bad for your health, and it was nearly impossible to go out and have a long, lazy dinner with anyone these days unless you wanted to keep a patch handy, which was almost as sick in its way.

Primary reasons, she said to herself, an old habit. A note taped to her cabinet said it: smoking stinks. Never mind dread diseases or wrinkles. She hated the smell of cigarettes on her body and in her hair, in the air and on her hands. Yuck. The way things smelled mattered to her—perfumes and incense and flowers, herbs and morning on the desert. Coffee brewing in the middle of the night.

The machine started to gurgle, and she stuck the steamer into the milk, bringing a fine foam to the top, then poured the finished espresso into the mug, added three packets of turbinado sugar, and stirred it all together.

Now what? There was a button that needed sewing on her best blouse. A novel, lying facedown on the kitchen table, could be read. In the workroom off the kitchen an assortment of crafts, including a half-painted table, waited. Luna went and stared at it—the wildest one yet, a blooming pink rose with a bleeding heart at the middle of it. Her mother hated it, said it was scary, and while Luna didn’t agree with her, she wasn’t in the right mood to work on it, either.

Tobacco. Tequila. White zinfandel. A long Marlboro, red pack.

At least they would be something to do.

With a half-bored, half-agitated sigh, she carried the mug outside to the porch. The cold moon burned overhead like an evil omen. Luna glared at it, settling into a metal, motel-style rocker she had painted with a kitschy, smiling Virgen de Guadalupe in a pink dress and lime green cloak and a Barbie-doll face. Guadalupe Barbie, she told people who wouldn’t be offended. Even people who really loved her—and frankly, what was there not to love about ‘Lupe?—were pleased by the rendition. Sitting there eased Luna, like sitting on her mother’s lap.

But still that searchlight of a moon blazed over Taos. In the canyons of her mind, Luna’s demons howled at it. She could see them, with their greenish lizard skin and long claws and ears like bat wings, dragging out all the forgotten sins of a lifetime, the little and the big. All the sorrows that ordinarily stayed safely buried, the tattered bits from childhood, the protected velvets of things she couldn’t bear to look at. One demon plucked out a bracelet made of copper links, machine-stamped with thunderbirds, and hearing her gasp of surprise and outrage, ran off cackling with it.

Night sweats, her mother called them, but that seemed to be understating the case a bit. Especially when Kitty had them, she was probably thinking about things like the time she swore at her boss, or the night Luna and her sister Elaine saw her grabbing a boyfriend’s rear end on the way out. Kitty had just not done that much she’d have to regret.

Unlike Luna, with her AA pin and the daughter she’d lost custody of and the career she’d destroyed.

Oddly, though, none of those things were the ones haunting her tonight. Instead, she’d awakened thinking of her father, who’d left home when Luna was seven and never came back. She dreamed about him once or twice a year, so it wasn’t particularly unusual. Sipping her latte, holding the sharp, milky taste in her mouth for a moment, she did think it was amazing how long you could miss a person, especially when he didn’t deserve it.

Sitting now in Guadalupe’s lap, with a smooth wind blowing over her face, Luna heard the trained therapist in her head, Therapist Barbie, who wore big tortoiseshell glasses and her silver hair in a French knot, point out the truth: Not too surprising you should dream about him to- night, when your own child is coming to live with you. That drags up a lot of old issues, doesn’t it?


She was wide-awake in the middle of the night trying not to smoke cigarettes because her fifteen-year-old daughter was coming to live with her for the first time in eight years. More than life itself, Luna wanted to get it right.

A smooth wind, warm from sunbaked rocks high in the Sangre de Cristos that circled the town like a ring of sentries, blew across her face and knees. It smelled of the fields of chamiso and sage it crossed, fresh and utterly New Mexico. She’d missed that scent more than she could say when she’d left home at sixteen. Tonight there was a hint of woodsmoke in it, and Luna imagined a pair of honeymooning lovers curled before a kiva-shaped fireplace. The picture eased some of her tension, some of that crawl of nicotine need.

It helped so much, she did it again, just breathed in the night, hearing crickets and the faint howl of the wind, or maybe La Llorona, the famed weeping woman of legend who was said to walk the rivers here, looking for her lost children.

Lost children.

Bingo, said Barbie, dryly.

It was perfectly normal to be nervous, especially because there was quite a bit of murkiness surrounding the sudden change in custody agreement. Joy had been in a little trouble the past year, but it hadn’t appeared to be serious. Luna had flown down to Atlanta twice, a hardship financially, but hadn’t made much progress. Joy’s appearance had shifted, her attitude was sometimes hostile, and her grades were slipping, but there were no signs of drugs or other substance abuse. Still, Luna had been uneasy, and asked her former husband to consider letting Joy spend a season or two with Luna in Taos. He’d adamantly refused.

Things had grown worse over the spring and early summer, during which Joy had been forced to stay in Atlanta instead of coming to Taos as she usually did, thanks to flunked classes. And then, suddenly, Marc, Luna’s ex, had called to say Joy could come live in Taos. Luna, suspi- cious of a trick, had asked Marc to put it in writing. He had agreed. Even stranger.

Something was afoot. But whatever Marc’s ulterior motives, Luna had a chance to make sure her daughter was all right, a chance to see her and be with her every day, a chance to find out what had caused such a dramatic change in her behavior over the past year. A chance, as the old Quantum Leap show said, to put right what once went wrong.

She’d painted the second bedroom, framed the thick-silled window with gauzy curtains, brushed up on the nutritional aspects of cooking for a child, even shifted her schedule at work to make sure she could be home after school. Friends teased her about it—no fifteen-year-old particularly cared if mommy was home after school, they said—but Luna just smiled. Her own mother had worked nights to be at home for her daughters after school, and it had meant a lot to her.

The crickets went utterly still, as if a giant hand had squashed them. Luna straightened, hearing a gust of wind gather in the distance. It rolled toward her, and she covered her eyes and put a hand over her mug just as it slammed into the little porch. It wasn’t cold, just dusty, and Luna waited, eyes closed tight, for it to pass.


Not cigarette smoke, which she would have gladly inhaled to the very deepest part of her lungs. And not the gentle wisps of a honeymoon cottage. This was full-bodied, almost a taste, the thick smell of a fire that was pretty full of itself. When the gust of wind died, fast as it had come, she peered into the darkness, wishing that moon wasn’t so bright so the flames would show. The summer had been painfully dry and fires were burning all over the Four Corners. The ancient neighborhood, surrounded by fields of dry grass and sage, was particularly vulnerable. Even a small fire could be disastrous.

She put her cup down and dashed out to the road, turning in a circle very slowly to see if she could see it, breathing in the strong smoke smell for clues to direction.

“Oh, shit!”

The fire wasn’t at all distant. Bright orange flames poured out of the window of the very old woman who lived two doors down the street.

Charged with adrenaline—and likely caffeine—Luna dashed inside, phoned in the fire to 911, and then dashed back out, up the dirt road on bare feet, then up the grassy, prickly expanse of yard toward the old woman’s house. A goathead bit her arch and she had to stop to pull it out, hands shaking. Fire danced through the kitchen window, licked at a pine that stood sentry near the back, threatened to burst, any second, through the roof.

Thinking with a sick feeling of the old woman, Luna leapt onto the porch and yanked open the screen door. “Hello!” she cried, pounding with her fist on the door. “Hello! Are you in there?”

Nothing. She tried the door and found it locked. “Hello?” She pounded harder. No answer, and smoke thick enough it was making her want to cough. She tried the window. Locked.

There was a flowerpot thick with chrysanthemums sitting on the step. Luna grabbed it, smashed the window, unlocked it, and stuck her head in the smoky interior. “Hello? Is anyone here? Grandma!” Maybe Spanish would be better. “Abuela!” she cried. “Hola!”

The smoke, sharp and acrid, stung her eyes. An ache of some primal terror burned in her chest. For a moment, she hesitated. The firemen would be here any second. They were trained for this. It was arrogant of her to think it was her job to try to save someone, wasn’t it?

But then she thought of the wizened, tiny old woman, and there was no way she could just walk away and live with herself in the morning. Before she could chicken out, she ducked into the house through the window, dropping to the floor in some remembered bit of lore. The smoke wasn’t so thick down there, and the air felt cool. Crawling on her hands and knees, she made her way through the dark. Living room. Door to a bedroom, closed.

Her heart was skittering so fast that she felt shaky. The fire was beginning to crackle and breathe, an animal gathering power. Get out, get out, get out. Luna resisted the terror. Coughing, she opened the bedroom door.

The room was blissfully free of smoke, at least for this second. She stood up and checked the bed. Empty.








6 thoughts on “A Piece of Heaven bargain priced

  1. Terilyn

    Thanks for the notification! This is one of my favorites of yours. Something about the way you wove together the southwest with strong, broken women. And Barbie 🙂

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