A Sappy Love Story

Read the Excerpt



            It was a Monday morning in late January when Annalise Quimby wove her way through the maze of cubicles. She greeted her coworkers and did her best not to spill her chai tea as she headed to the six-by-six space in which she’d spend the next eight hours siting on her ass. Thank goodness she’d attended an early morning vinyasa yoga class. Otherwise, her blood would likely congeal in her veins.


            She plopped the aforementioned ass into her rolling chair and stashed her purse in the bottom drawer of her desk. Her workspace might be small, but it had a lot of personality. She’d decorated her cubicle with a half dozen photos of her favorite outdoor spaces, all of them candid shots taken at her grandparents’ place in the northern woods of Minnesota. The thick woods, filled with maple trees. The mirror-like pond where she listened to frog song in the summers and ice skated in winters. A pretty fawn, her head raised as she spotted Annalise snapping her photo.


But her favorite snapshot was the one where she stood between her grandparents on the snow-covered porch of their rustic log cabin. The photo had been taken a couple of years ago, before her grandmother passed away, leaving fond memories and the scent of cold cream behind. A bright red knit beanie attempted, unsuccessfully, to corral Annalise’s frizzy blond hair. The padded snowsuit did nothing to enhance her figure but, then again, neither did her thick thighs and disproportionately underdeveloped chest. Unlike the tall, thin women who ran amok in southern California, she wasn’t exactly supermodel material. But she’d been told she had pretty eyes and a nice smile. Of course she’d been told this by those tall, thin women, who’d taken one look at her in her extra-large yoga pants and felt the need to take pity. Whatever. Her thighs might be thick, but they were also quite strong. She was one of the few in her yoga class who didn’t wobble when standing on one leg. Take that, skinny bitches.


            Of course another reason she liked the photo so much was because Jeremy was in the background. Annalise’s father, who’d snapped the pic, had focused on his daughter and in-laws, inadvertently capturing half of the young man. One scuffed work boot, one leg clad in jeans, one strong shoulder and arm covered in flannel. Half of his dark hair.  One bearded cheek. One gorgeous brown eye. Jeremy’s small, split image seemed appropriate given he was not in the forefront of Annalise’s life, but was always there in the background, his place incomplete, uncertain, and undefined.


            Forcing those thoughts, like Jeremy, to the back of her mind, she fished a pink conversation heart from the bowl on her desk. Valentine’s Day would be here in three weeks and, despite being single, she looked forward to the holiday. Born with an insatiable sweet tooth, she appreciated any excuse to stuff her mouth with candy. She held the heart up to read the message. U R LOVED. Hmm. That was news to her. She hadn’t had a date in three months and the last one had been a disaster. When a guy asks a girl whether she wants to go out for seafood, she doesn’t expect him to take her out on a deep sea fishing boat to catch the dinner first! Given the ten-foot swells, she’d spent the entire trip fighting seasickness and trying not to fall overboard into the Pacific. Needless to say, when he’d called her for a second date, she’d declined. We clearly have different interests, she’d said.


She popped the candy heart into her mouth and got right to work, most of which involved reviewing financial records, updating spreadsheets, and searching for misplaced files, typical tasks a staff accountant in the City of Los Angeles Auditor’s Office dealt with on a daily basis. As it was nearing the end of January, the accounting departments of the various city bureaus were working to wrap up their annual reports for the preceding year, readying their books for review. The busy spring audit season would start in another couple of weeks. Sigh.


Okay, so auditing local government agencies certainly wasn’t the most exciting job around, but it was steady work and paid the bills. Her coworkers were friendly, her boss appreciative and reasonable. The job would earn her a nice pension, too, assuming she stuck with the city for another twenty-two years.


Twenty two years . . . It might as well be forever.


Despite the pension, the thought of spending all her working years in this office made her feel tired. A little disappointed, too. When she’d decided to major in business at UCLA, she had imagined herself running her own business one day. Maybe a café or clothing boutique. In retrospect, they’d been silly aspirations for a young woman who couldn’t cook worth a lick and favored comfort over fashion, not to mention that starting a business required a large capital investment. Given the high cost of living in Los Angeles, she’d managed to save only a meager nest egg since graduating from college three years ago, and that was despite living in a tiny studio apartment, driving a cheap used car, and eating ramen noodles for dinner three nights a week. At the rate things were going, she’d be a hundred years old before she saved enough start-up cash to launch her own business, not to mention a condo or house.


Her desk phone rang, the readout indicating it was her boss calling. She grabbed the phone. “Good morning, Martin.”


“Come see me,” he said.


“I’ll be right there.”


Annalise figured her boss wanted to discuss her assignments for the next few weeks. Maybe I can talk him into assigning me the libraries’ records. That thought put a spring in her step. The library accounts were always easy to review, with few errors. Librarians tended to be fastidious, what with their Dewey Decimal systems and all. But being assigned to the libraries was probably wishful thinking. More likely her boss would assign her to the Parks and Recreation Department again. Ugh. The parks and rec staff could easily manage to sink a basketball into a net, but they couldn’t manage to input their numbers into the right accounts. Their records were messier than the locker room after the playoffs. Unfortunately, Annalise excelled at straightening out messes. She spotted mistakes other auditors missed. Thus, her boss often assigned her the most challenging work.


She stood, made her way down the hall to her boss’s office, and rapped on the doorframe.


Martin looked up, his eyeglasses glinting in the light, and waved her in. “Shut the door, please.”


Uh-oh. Shutting the door meant this would be a private conversation. Am I in trouble here? She racked her brain, trying to think of anything she might have done that could get her in hot water. In recognition of the upcoming holiday, she’d decorated the break room with lacey paper hearts and cupid cutouts, but that didn’t violate any rules, did it? She’d also tossed out someone’s leftover tuna sandwich from the fridge, but it had been weeks old, covered with gray mold, and trying to crawl its way back to the ocean. If anything, she’d saved her coworker from contracting ptomaine poisoning. She should get an award for that, not a reprimand.


Martin pointed at the boxy chair in the corner. She dragged it over to face his desk, taking a seat and steeling herself for an ass-chewing.


He cocked his balding head and eyed her. “You look worried.”


“I am,” she replied honestly. “I mean, you had me shut the door and all.”


“What could my superstar auditor possibly be in trouble for?” He chuckled. “Got any confessions you’d like to make?”


“Absolutely not,” she replied, pretending to lock her lips and toss the key over her shoulder.


He eyed her intently. “I called you in here to offer you a promotion.”


She gasped in surprise. “You did?”


He nodded. “We’re expanding the department and I need a new supervisor to oversee the lower-level staff. You’d get a twelve percent pay raise and an office. An interior one, of course. No window. But you’d escape the cubicle farm.”

Her heart bounced in her chest. She was so flattered! Her hard work and dedication had finally paid off. She’d be the youngest supervisor currently on staff.


“What do you say?” Martin asked.


A promotion, more money, and an office? Of course she said, “Yes!”


“Great,” he said. “It won’t be official for a couple of months. Paperwork and all that. You know how long it takes. But I’ll get the ball rolling.”


“Thanks so much,” she said.


“You’re welcome.” He motioned for her to go. “Now get back out there and get to work.”


She floated down the hall. As she approached her cubicle, however, she began to sink, that tired and disappointed feeling coming right back. The supervisor position would be a good job. So why was she having trouble maintaining her enthusiasm?


She plunked her butt back in her chair. As she reached for another candy heart (this one read TAKE A CHANCE), the faint sound of her cell phone ringing in her purse caught her ear. She tossed the candy into her mouth and pulled the drawer open to retrieve her phone. The caller ID indicated the call was coming from the landline at her grandfather’s house. Though Pappy had a cell phone, reception at his remote cabin was spotty at best. It was odd he’d be calling now. Pappy didn’t usually phone during business hours. She jabbed the button to accept the call. “Good morning, Pappy.”      


But it wasn’t Pappy on the line. The voice that replied was deep and male, yet at the same time so soft she could barely hear it. “Annalise, um . . .” The caller cleared his throat, his voice louder now, but strained. “This is Jeremy. Jeremy Wannamaker.”


Her blood turned to icicles in her veins and her head went light. Jeremy Wannamaker worked for—and lived with—her grandfather, “Sappy Pappy” Sorensen of Sappy Pappy’s Pure Maple Syrup. Annalise had spent the recent Christmas holiday with Pappy at his home in northern Minnesota, just as she’d done every year of her life. Despite being 87 years old, her grandfather had risen before dawn as always and made her heart-shaped pancakes drizzled in his signature syrup. Still, his gait had been slower, his back more bent, his energy exhausted much earlier in the day. She hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, but age had finally caught up with him.


She could barely force the words out through her tight throat. “Is everything okay?” she asked, though she already knew the answer. If everything were okay, it would be Pappy on the phone, not Jeremy.


“No,” Jeremy replied, his voice soft again. “I’m so sorry, Annalise . . .”


Though Jeremy said nothing more, his silence said it all. Pappy had passed on, joining Grammy in the hereafter.


He cleared his throat again. “I knew something was wrong when I went into the kitchen and there was no coffee in the pot. The dogs hadn’t been fed, either.”


Pappy always filled the bowls for his two husky mix mutts first thing in the morning while his coffee brewed. Jeremy knew Pappy’s routine better than anyone. Now twenty-eight, Jeremy had lived with her grandparents since his mid teens.


“I called at his bedroom door,” Jeremy continued, “but he didn’t respond. I found him still lying in his bed. He must have gone in his sleep.” He paused a moment before adding, “Pappy looked at peace.”


She supposed she should be glad he hadn’t suffered, but the pain was too new, too raw for her to appreciate that fact just yet. She tried to contain her sobs, but couldn’t. She covered the mouthpiece, silently sobbing as Jeremy did his best to console her. She yanked a tissue from the box on her desk and dabbed her eyes.


            “No crying now,” Jeremy gently scolded. “You know what Pappy’s said ever since your grandmother passed on.”


            “No tears,” she quoted her grandfather. “I’ve had a good, long life and I’m ready to go join Grammy as soon as the good Lord sees fit to take me.”


            She supposed it had been Pappy’s way of trying to make things easier on the rest of them. Unfortunately, it was easier said than done. She wept for several more moments, while Jeremy waited patiently at the other end of the line. Finally, she was able to collect herself. “I’ll get in touch with my parents and arrange for us to fly out as soon as possible.”


            “Text me your flight details,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at the airport.”


            “I appreciate that, Jeremy. I don’t know what we’d have done all these years without you. You’ve been a godsend.”


            Her grandparents had lived most of their lives in a log cabin outside Thief River Falls, Minnesota, a town with a population of around 9,000 located seventy miles south of the Canadian border. Pappy and Grammy owned a two-hundred-acre stretch of land on which the house and syrup operations sat. Having originated as a logging town, Thief River Falls was a beautiful, idyllic place, with two rivers and lush forests that provided ample opportunity for year-round outdoor activity—kayaking and hiking in the summers, snowmobiling and ice skating in the winters.


She had always found the remote, rural area to be a peaceful refuge. Her mother, who’d grown up there, had a polar opposite opinion of the place. By her teens she’d tired of the isolation and routine, and had been eager to venture out and see what the rest of the world had to offer. The instant she’d graduated from high school, she set out for Los Angeles, sure her curvy figure, blond hair, and blue eyes would make her an instant starlet. Such was not the case, of course, though she had landed several gigs playing minor secondary characters in various television shows, movies, and commercials. Diner waitress. Sunbather on beach. Woman with mop. Annalise’s personal favorite was jogger who gets splashed by passing bus. It was a hoot to see her mom repeatedly doused on national television.


Annalise’s father was an assistant producer. Her parents met while working on a movie. It was love at first scene, and the two married within months. Annalise came along a few years later and her mother segued into different acting roles. Mommy with toddler in stroller. Second-grade teacher. Woman celebrating her thirtieth birthday and lamenting her single status with similarly single friends. That final role had been a bit of a coup.  She had been thirty-seven at the time she landed the spot. Thanks to the short Minnesota summers of her youth, her skin showed no signs of sun damage and she looked much younger than the age on her birth certificate.


            Given their occupations in the movie industry, her parents couldn’t leave Los Angeles without giving up their careers. Likewise, her grandparents had no interest in leaving the home they loved to move to California. Eventually, though, they’d been unable to take care of their house and themselves alone. Jeremy, whom Pappy and Grammy had taken in as a teen, had agreed to continue living with them. Jeremy had maintained their home, took them shopping and to doctor appointments when they’d become too old to drive, and helped with household chores. He’d also played a starring—though secret—role in Annalise’s life. Annalise’s major crush.


            “Thanks for calling, Jeremy. I’ll be in touch.” She ended their call and took a short moment to compose herself, before phoning her mother to share the sad news.


Her mother, too, burst into sobs. “I knew this was coming,” she said, “but that doesn’t make it any easier.”


It didn’t. Pappy had been the heart and soul of the family. How would they ever get over this loss?