The Future She Left Behind excerpt...

Chapter One

“Ammonium thioglycolate, also called perm salt, is murder on your hair.”

The famous courtroom scene in the movie Legally Blonde flashed through Katelyn Pratt’s mind as she sat in the Savvy Salon, listening to the stylist lecture her mother-in-law on the dangers of perming her hair too often.

Katelyn set her sketch pad aside and took her iPhone out of her purse. She Googled ammonium thioglycolate: a pungent, colorless, clear liquid that burns the eyes, nose, lungs, and may explode if subjected to high heat—that described Shirley Pratt to a T. She tapped the Wikipedia icon and continued to read. A chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics, bombs, pesticides and dyes. Dear God. These poisons had been seeping into her mother-in-law’s skull for years. No wonder the sixty-four-year-old was a walking, talking, toxic know-it-all.

“When you’re finished with my hair, Pam, maybe you could tame that horse mane my daughter-in-law wears on her head.”

The zinger rolled off Katelyn’s shoulders, and she resumed sketching the flower vase on the table next to her. Shirley detested long hair, and that was why Katelyn never cut hers.

“She’s under the dryer.”

Katelyn glanced up from her phone and smiled at Shirley’s hairdresser. “How long until you finish with her?”

“Forty minutes.” Pam’s eyes flicked to the styling chair, then back to Katelyn. “If she doesn’t give her hair a break from perms, she’s going to molt like a bighorn sheep.”

That wouldn’t be so bad if her mother-in-law shed her horns along with her hair. “I’ll mention it to her.” But Shirley wouldn’t appreciate the advice. The day she’d moved into her son’s house—not her son and daughter-in-law’s house—she’d made it clear that any comments regarding her age or appearance would not be welcome. The same rule, however, did not apply to Katelyn, whom Shirley criticized whenever the urge hit, which was pretty darn often.

“As much as I love taking her money,” Pam said, “she won’t do me any good if she ends up bald. I don’t want to see her in the salon before November.”

Five months from now? No way would a woman who refused to leave the house without makeup and a fresh manicure ignore her hair for eighteen weeks.

“I need to run an errand. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Katelyn stuffed the sketch pad into her canvas tote bag, then left the salon, ducking her head against the rain. A cold front had moved through St. Louis overnight, leaving early June feeling like late October. She drove Shirley’s silver Mercedes to the other side of the strip mall and parked in front of Henderson Drug. When she entered the store, she went straight to the Hallmark aisle. Her husband should be the one picking out a card for his mother, but she couldn’t remember the last time Don had been in town for Shirley’s birthday.

The pain-in-the-butt’s favorite color was blue, so Katelyn selected a gaudy pink card with neon orange and yellow smiley-face flowers. On the way to the register, she passed an umbrella stand and plucked a plastic rain cap from the display. Heaven forbid Shirley get her hair wet and ruin her perm when she left the salon.

While Katelyn waited in the checkout line, she browsed the retail gift cards. She assumed Don would bring his mother a gift from Japan, but Shirley had nothing to open on her actual birthday tomorrow. She selected a fifty-dollar Starbucks card. Gift cards were impersonal, but it was the begrudging thought that counted. Besides, she got credit for baking Shirley’s favorite cake this morning—chocolate fudge.

“Hello.” Katelyn set her items on the counter.

The teenage clerk ignored the greeting and asked, “Do you have a Henderson Drug card?”

Her discount cards for the various stores she frequented hung on the key chain for her Hyundai Santa Fe, which she’d left at the house after Shirley insisted Katelyn drive her car today. “Can I give you my phone number?” She recited the digits, then swiped her debit card.

A moment later the teen’s robotic voice said, “Thank you for shopping Henderson Drugs. Next, please.”

Katelyn returned to the salon in time to watch Pam spray a final layer of shellac on Shirley’s café au lait curls. While the two women settled the bill, she texted her son, Michael.

Hi, honey. Grandma Pratt turns 65 tomorrow. Don’t forget to wish her a Happy Birthday. Hope U R doing ok. Call me when U have free time. She added a heart emoticon, then hit send. Michael would eventually answer her—he always did.

A long, lonely summer loomed ahead of Katelyn. She’d been looking forward to spending time with the twins before they headed off to college, but the kids had made other plans. Michael had wanted to get a jump on prerequisite classes for his engineering major and had enrolled in summer school at the University of Michigan. He’d moved into his new apartment in Ann Arbor two weeks ago. Melissa had been accepted into Shirley’s alma mater, Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri, and she was traveling in Greece and Italy until mid-July with a group of incoming freshmen.

Shirley fake patted her hair. “What do you think?”

“Lovely.” The hairstyle looked the same as it always did—old-fashioned. Katelyn held out the plastic cap. Shirley put it on, then walked to the door.

“You forgot your purse.” Katelyn pointed to the counter and Shirley retrieved her handbag; then they left the salon.

Once they were on their way home, she asked Grumpy Cat, “Where would you like to go for your birthday lunch?”

“Nowhere.” Shirley acted as if she didn’t care about celebrating her birthday, but Katelyn knew better. If her father-in-law, Robert, hadn’t dropped dead from a massive heart attack three years ago, her mother-in-law would be partying in Kansas City with her wealthy friends. But a series of phone calls shortly after Robert’s funeral had prompted Don to invite his mother to live with them.

The first call had come from the housekeeper after she’d discovered the gas stove had been left on while Shirley had been out shopping. The second call had come from the bank after Shirley had failed to pay the mortgage two months in a row. And the third call had come from the pastor at Shirley’s church, who’d informed Don that his mother had put her credit card in the donation plate during Sunday services. Shirley’s slipups had worried Don and he’d insisted his mother sell her home and move to St. Louis. Katelyn remembered the conversation as if it had happened yesterday and not 1,112 days ago.

“My mother’s moving in with us,” Don said.

Katelyn hovered in the master bathroom doorway, watching her husband pack his toiletry bag. “You mean for a month or two while she house hunts?”

His gaze skipped over her. “It’s not like we don’t have room for her.”

“That isn’t the point.”

“What is the point, Katelyn?”

“Your mother doesn’t like me.” Don had joked when they’d dated in college that he’d been attracted to Katelyn because she had nothing in common with his mother. That was well and good when two hundred miles had separated them—not so well and good when they lived under the same roof.

“It’s not safe for her to live alone. She could burn the house down if she leaves the stove on again,” he said.

“It was one time, Don. Besides, it’s normal for someone to be forgetful after losing a loved one. Your father’s death was sudden and unexpected. Give her time and she’ll settle down.”

“I don’t want to take any chances with her safety.”

“Then move her into an assisted-living facility.”

“She’s not that bad off yet.”

“She’s been fine when I’ve talked to her on the phone.”

Don ignored her protests. “The kids will enjoy having her around.”

Katelyn left the bathroom and threw herself across the bed. There was no shortage of adjectives to describe her m