Becoming Family: Chapter One

I've finally gotten back into working on Becoming Family in earnest, and decided to share the first chapter here! I'm really really hoping to get this finished and out soon, so I thought I'd give a little taste of what's to come. I'm hoping to post more excerpts to Patreon (I know I always say that, but I always mean it when I say it...), so if you'd like to see more before it's published, head over there to become a Patron!

Natalie Rose stared out the bus window, watching the trees zip by, broken every so often by wide open stretches of plains, the Catskills in the distance. The view was fall-colored, yellow and orange and red, and she admired it, as she always admired it.

This was her favorite time of year, with its colors and cooler weather, comfortable sweaters and warm drinks. She couldn’t enjoy it like she usually did, though, not now. There was too much on her mind, too much stress in her life, and she pressed her hand to her stomach, feeling grateful for her baggy sweater for a much different reason than usual.

With a sigh, she tipped her head back against the seat and swallowed hard as she stared up at the ceiling.

The bus was full, every seat occupied, including the one next to her, but the woman there had ignored her the entire way from Manhattan, making her way through one book and then starting another. Natalie didn’t mind, and honestly, was grateful for it; she didn’t want to talk, and the woman guaranteed that nobody else could sit next to her and try to force a conversation.

The bus was quiet, though not silent; murmured voices talked here and there, and she could hear the occasional crinkle of a food wrapper, the swish of a coat as someone moved, beeps and tones from various electronics. The bus had left at 9 a.m., and the aroma of coffee and breakfast sandwiches hung in the air. She figured by the time they got to Binghamton, it would be just on the cusp of stale, but right now, it was almost comforting. She’d been one of them, had carefully counted out a few dollars at a McDonald’s for a sausage biscuit and a small coffee just before boarding the bus, though her breakfast was now long gone, the cup and bag crumpled as small as she could get them, wedged next to a large bottle of the water in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of her.

They were just over an hour from Binghamton, and she kept thinking of the cash she had in her purse, hoping it would be enough for a car to Riverton, a couple of meals, and maybe a room for the night. She wouldn’t acknowledge the deeper hope; every time she did, her chest tightened and she could hardly breathe, fear strangling that hope and making it seem impossible.

She took a sharp breath, and then glanced over at her seatmate – still absorbed in her book with no indication that she was even aware of Natalie’s presence – before leaning forward to rummage in her bag. She withdrew a small photo album, and sat back in her seat, taking a breath as she opened it.

It was full of pictures of her mother, and Natalie took another, deeper breath as she flipped through. It had been just over three years since her mother died, but Natalie missed her now more than she ever had. She knew that her mother would be able to tell her exactly what she needed to do, would be able to help her get her life back to normal, but she was gone.

The last two pages of the album held four pictures of her mother and a man who Natalie knew as her father. Except she didn’t know him, had never met him; she only had these pictures of him, and stories from her mother of a kind, funny man with bright blue eyes and floppy brown hair.

Natalie had been fine not knowing him. She’d always figured she only needed her mother, but now her mother was gone, and Natalie was at the lowest point of her life with no one else to turn to but the father she’d never met. She had no idea if he even knew she existed, but she was desperate and needed help. She just hoped he would live up to her mother’s stories.

Natalie rented a small car in Binghamton, reluctantly handing over a hundred dollars for two days, figuring that would give her enough time to see where things stood before she made her next move.

Riverton was another hour from Binghamton, and though it was chilly outside, she put her window down for part of the drive, enjoying the crisp air and feeling a little freer now that she was alone.

Her phone – the single precious commodity she’d been able to hold on to – guided her into Riverton, and it was a little after one o’clock that she pulled up outside of a brick building.

"Arrived," her GPS intoned, and she tapped the 'end route' button before peering anxiously out the window. A modest sign declared

Elliott & Russell
Attorneys at law

and she took a deep breath as her gaze moved to the building itself. A sheet of paper was taped to the door, and she squinted to make it out.

Closed for lunch. Will reopen at 1:30.

Her stomach growled at the idea of lunch, and she figured she ought to eat. It would be creepy to just hang around outside until they unlocked the door, and at the very least, it would give her some time to think of what she wanted to say.

She’d passed a McDonald’s on her way into town – the one restaurant that truly seemed to be everywhere – and did a quick U-turn to head back in that direction.

Soon, she was settled with a cheeseburger, fries, and a Sprite, figuring she’d already reached her caffeine limit for the day with her coffee earlier. The restaurant was quiet; she was the only one in the dining room, and she guessed that people either ate lunch early around here, or ate lunch somewhere else. She wondered vaguely what kind of local restaurants there were as she chewed on a fry.

After a few minutes of eating and staring into space, she realized she had no idea what she was going to say. How do you tell someone that you’re the daughter they probably never knew they had, and ask them for help in the same breath? She would just have to wing it and hope for the best.

Checking the time on her phone, she saw it was 1:30, but figured she should give them a few extra minutes to open the office, especially in case they were running late.

Finally, at 1:45, she stood, feeling like she might throw up for a different reason than usual, and moved to throw her trash away before heading back out to her car.

The sign was gone from the door of the law office when she drove past, and she pulled into the small parking lot. It appeared to be shared with the antiques store next door, and she parked on what she figured was the law office side. She sat for a minute, taking deep breaths and trying to calm herself down, then reached for her purse, checking that the small photo album was inside, before shutting the car off and stepping out.

Leaves crunched under her boots as she walked to the sidewalk and up to the front door, and she took one more breath and slowly blew it out before she pulled it open.

A middle-aged woman sat at a desk just beside the door, and she looked up as Natalie stepped inside.

"Can I help you?" she asked, and Natalie flashed a smile.

"I, um, was wondering if Mr. Elliott was available?"

"He should be, give me just one minute," the woman said as she pushed to stand. "Can I have your name?"

Natalie swallowed, wondering if he’d know her by name. "Natalie Rose."

The woman walked towards the back of the office, stopping in the open doorway and murmuring for a second.

"You can go on back," she said as she started back to the front, and Natalie thanked her as she started in that direction. Warm light spilled from the office, and she hoped it was a good omen.

When she stepped into the doorway, she immediately sized up the man at the desk. He was older now, of course, his brown hair and beard liberally streaked with gray, his face a little more lined, but he definitely looked like the man from the pictures in her album.

The man stood when he noticed her, and approached her with an outstretched hand. He was wearing slacks and a buttoned-up cardigan over a white dress shirt, and seemed to exude warmth as he smiled.

"Graham Elliott," he said, and Natalie couldn’t help smiling back as she shook his hand.

"Natalie Rose," she replied, and watched him for any kind of flicker of recognition; her heart sank just a little bit when she didn’t see anything there.

"What can I do for you, Ms. Rose?" he asked, gesturing for her to take a seat as he moved back around his desk.

"I don’t really know where to begin," Natalie murmured as she sank into the comfortable leather chair. She folded her hands in her lap as she thought a moment, and then looked up at him. "Do you remember a woman named Samantha Rose? You would’ve known her in the 80’s."

Now something passed across Graham’s face, and Natalie had a feeling he already suspected at least some of what she was going to tell him.

"Yes," he replied. "I remember Samantha. Judging by your last name, I’m assuming you’re her daughter."

Natalie nodded. "Yes." And then, before she even thought about what she might say next, she blurted, "I’m also your daughter."

Graham stared back at her, his blue eyes scrutinizing, and Natalie held her breath, waiting for him to speak.

Finally he shifted, sitting up and folding his hands on top of his desk.

"Young lady, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but you’re not my daughter."

"I’m not trying to pull anything, I –" Natalie shook her head and reached down to take the photo album from her purse. Her hands shook as she opened it to the last two pages and lifted it on to the desk to show him. "My mother knew you, she said –"

Graham glanced at the photos, and Natalie saw him swallow before he looked up at her again.

"Yes, I knew your mother, but that doesn’t mean I’m your father. She was mistaken, and so are you."

Natalie stared at him, trying to breathe through the ache in her chest, and after a long moment, he closed the photo album and carefully pushed it towards her.

"If there’s nothing else I can do for you, I’d like you to leave now."

Natalie picked up the album, her hands feeling numb, and pushed to stand, hugging the album to her chest with one arm as she slipped her purse onto her shoulder.

"I’m sorry," she whispered, turning to leave. She strode quickly from his office and through the building with her head down, not looking at the receptionist as she passed by on her way out the door. She made it to her car and managed to shut the door before a loud sob escaped her, and she covered her mouth with both hands as she tipped her head against the headrest.

Though she had tried not to let hope get the best of her, she now realized it had. She hadn’t thought Graham’s rejection would hurt so much, but it was like someone had a grip on her heart and was squeezing it every time she took a breath.

It took a few minutes for her to calm down, and she glanced up, hoping they didn’t know she was still in the parking lot. She reached for her phone, taking a deep breath as she looked to see if there was a cheap place to stay that was close by; she didn’t think she could drive back to Binghamton today.

The Grove Bed and Breakfast popped up, and Natalie shook her head, sure that would be much too expensive for the night. Underneath that was the Riverton Park Hotel, but that seemed like it also might be a little too much. Next was the Riverton Motel, down a side road just past the south entrance to the town, and she tapped it for directions, not trusting her brain right now to take her back the way she came.

The motel was a single building containing maybe ten rooms, and there were only three other cars in the parking lot, two parked in front of rooms on either end, and one parked right in front of what looked like the main office. Natalie parked beside that car and headed inside.

A woman was at the front desk, sipping a soda as she watched a small TV, and she looked at Natalie as she stepped inside.

"Need a room?" the woman asked, setting her drink down on the desk.

"Yes, please," Natalie murmured, reaching into her purse for her wallet. "How much for one night?"

"50," the woman replied, and Natalie blew out a quiet, relived sigh. She had a credit card that she’d been careful to keep paid off, but she didn’t want to use it until she had the means to make payments on it again, and was glad she had enough cash left for the room.

The woman handed Natalie a clipboard with a brief form to fill out, and then took it and the room fee.

"Natalie Rose, that’s a neat name," she said, smiling up at Natalie. "I’m Rebecca, by the way. You’re kind of lucky you caught me, we don’t get a lot of folks like you – you know, people just showing up – but there’s a reservation coming in soon, so I figured I’d hang out until they got here. Anyway, you’re room number 6, just to the left when you step out the door. Park anywhere, we’re obviously not full. Checkout is at noon, and if there’s no one here when you leave, just put your key in this basket," she said, pointing to it. "No smoking in the rooms, and we have a no noise policy. Basically after midnight, please be quiet."

Natalie laughed a little and nodded. "That won’t be a problem."

Rebecca handed her a small piece of paper. "There’s the wifi password, and also my phone number, and the number of Walt, the other manager and my husband. If you need anything and neither of us is here, just give us a call."

Natalie nodded again, murmuring, "Thanks," as she flashed a smile and turned to leave. She parked her car in a space across the lot from her room, not wanting to give any indication which room was hers, and took her bag out of the trunk before heading to her room.

It was fairly basic, but nice, with a queen-sized bed in the center against the wall, two nightstands on either side, a small table with two chairs under the window, and a TV on a stand against the wall by the door.

With a sigh, Natalie dropped her bag on the floor and walked over to the bed, where she flopped onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. The tears came without warning, spilling down the sides of her face, and she sniffled before blowing out another heavy, shaky sigh.

Honestly, she didn’t really know what she had expected to happen. She knew it was a huge bomb to just drop on someone, but she needed help, and he was the only person she could think of. Now, she really had no one, and she needed to figure out what to do next.

She was already almost regretting putting down the $50 for the motel room, but she knew that a room in Binghamton would be more expensive, plus she didn’t want to go back to Binghamton just yet. Binghamton felt like facing the reality of her situation, and she wasn’t quite ready for that. She needed to let her disappointment sit for a while and then figure out her next move.

After several minutes of lying on the bed feeling sorry for herself, she pushed herself up and headed into the bathroom. She splashed some cold water on her face and pulled her hair back into a ponytail before wandering back into the bedroom, figuring she’d see what was on TV until she felt hungry enough to go in search of dinner.

When she did leave a few hours later, it was in the direction of a small diner called Millie’s just down the road from the motel. Riverton wasn’t really a tourist town, she’d noticed. Beyond the grocery store, two gas stations, and three fast food restaurants, it held no chains. There seemed to only be three places to stay, of which Natalie had chosen the cheapest option.

It was certainly a place to visit – the bed-and-breakfast signaled that, along with the equally expensive-looking restaurant that sat next to it – but it wasn’t a place you came to looking for a lot of things to do. Riverton was the kind of place you came to when you wanted to get away from it all, which Natalie thought was rather apropos to her particular situation.

The diner was nice, with good food at decent prices, and though the waitress was kind to her, and the smattering of other people eating paid no undue attention to her, she still felt the sensation of being Other. "You’re not from around here, are you?" she could almost hear them asking in their minds, through occasional curious glances in her direction.

She finished her dinner, left enough cash on the table for the bill and a tip, and retreated to her motel room for the night.

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