BY ROBERT DIGITALE

Read Crissi Langwell a few times and you’ll feel like you’re really getting to know her.

Crissi, my colleague at The Press Democrat, has been tugging on heartstrings for a few years now with her personal tales of raising children and teenagers – first as a single mother and now as a mom in a blended family. Her stories have appeared in the print version of the newspaper and online at such sites as winecountrymom.com.

Crissi also wrote a pivotal chapter in last spring’s “Sonoma Squares Murder Mystery,” a fictional serial created by 16 Press Democrat and local writers. You can see her chapter here.

Recently she’s published her first novel, “A Symphony of Cicadas.”

 “This book is based off a bad dream I had that was so vivid I knew I had to write it down,” Crissi writes. The nightmare came while she was preparing for her own wedding.

Crissi acknowledges that for the novel’s main character she transferred some of her own experiences “of what it was like to parent a teenager, and the evolution that exists in the relationship with a stepchild.”

“However, the main purpose of the story was to share what happens when a life that is laid out so perfectly suddenly tilts on its side.”

Here is a chapter from the book, in which the heroine, Rachel Ashby, in preparation for her marriage, takes her 13-year-old son to be fitted for a tuxedo. And then her world changes.

A Symphony of Cicadas

By Crissi Langwell

“I don’t even want to go,” Joey said, looking toward the line of tall redwoods whipping past us from the passenger window. I sighed, already frustrated with the whole ordeal before it had even started. Just before I thought we could leave the house, Joey had managed to squeeze into the shower at the last second, taking at least 30 minutes until the water was turned off. Then he needed to make his breakfast and decided that slow-cooked oatmeal made a much better meal than a quick bowl of cereal.  Now it was past 10:30, the time we were supposed to be there, and I hated to be late.

Just like Joey, I didn’t want to go to the bridal shop either. On my list of things to do that day, this was the most dreaded of all of them – especially since it required crossing the bridge to a town I had only visited a handful of times. Despite the fact that the city held hundreds of suit shops that would have been fine, my sister had insisted we go to the same shop she had used for her wedding. The shop was located in rural Fairfax, a small town on the other side of the bridge known more for its bohemian roots than being forward-thinking. It seemed strange to find something as serious as wedding tuxedos in a town that held so much whimsy. But the memory of Sara’s elegant wedding years earlier helped the decision along. I had been impressed with the tailored look of her groomsmen, taking note of the material and sleek lines that made each man look polished and elegant. So I had no reason to disagree when Sara suggested we go through the same shop she’d gone to for the tuxedos. But after weeks of coordinating each groomsman toward the sleepy town rather than a location convenient to all of us, I was beginning to question this decision.

“I’m not thrilled about this taking up our day either, Josiah,” I snapped at him, out of patience with his reluctance.

“Then why do we have to go?” he asked, never once looking in my direction. I let out a deep sigh in irritation.

“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. Besides, what big plans did you have for today?  It’s not like the video games won’t be there when you get back.” His silence served as his response to my dig. Another day, I would have been bothered by his deliberate quiet, and kept talking until I could get him to agree that this was a much better way to spend his time instead of holed up in his room staring at flashing images across a screen. But I didn’t have it in me to further the conversation downhill.

I wasn’t quite sure where the shop was, even though I’d already been there several times in the past few months. I had printed out a map before we left this morning, and I fumbled with the pages of directions as we drove the curvy roads.

“Mom, watch out!” Joey suddenly cried, and my attention jerked back up just as a deer was starting across the road. I slammed on the brakes and out of the corner of my eye saw my purse fly forward against the dash and fall at Joey’s feet, along with the map that had been lying in my lap. We both lurched forward, and he leaned his hands against the dash to break his fall. I did a quick glance in the rearview mirror and was relieved to see there was no one behind me who might have slammed into the back of my car and pushed us toward the edge of a steep hill. The deer took one look at us and sprinted off into the forest below the windy road, disappearing into the trees that surrounded the tiny road we were on.

“Are you okay?” I asked Joey, giving a slow breath of relief. He nodded, smiling in a gesture of peace. The earlier argument was forgotten, carried away with the wayward deer.

“I’m fine. Want me to hold the map and tell you when to turn?” he asked.

“That would be great,” I told him, grateful for his help, as well as the distraction from his earlier resistance. Joey took the map off the floor and turned it right-side in front of him. He traced his finger on it and sighed in frustration.

“Can’t we just use the GPS on your cell phone?” he asked as he tried to locate where we were.

“We can’t,” I sympathized. “There’s no cell service this far out in the country. Here, this is where we’re at right now.” I kept one eye on the road as I pointed toward our general location on the map. Joey peered at where my finger was pointing, and relaxed when he figured out where this road was taking us.

“Ok, go straight,” he told me, and I smirked.

“No sh–, Sherlock,” I said. I could feel him grin next to me as we drove the rest of the way to the shop.

The trees began to give way, revealing a small town beyond the forest. Modest, colorful buildings hugged up against each other with little or no space between them. They appeared to be homes remodeled into businesses, complete with front walkways surrounded by lawns. The only thing that set them apart from being living quarters were the whimsical wooden signs that served as enticing sirens meant to draw in customers with their charm. Twirling kites and flags adorned many storefronts, a prelude to storytelling window displays that ranged from vintage to modern scenes. I forgot to hurry as I drove past the shops, struck yet again by the charm of this town, and glad I’d decided to step out of San Francisco for the suits. The shops of Fairfax would have been swallowed up where I lived, their sweet dispositions crushed by the gruffness of a hardened city. As I passed the merchants and the bohemian townspeople walking past in an unrushed manner, I took a mental picture and promised myself that I’d make it back here again someday when I wasn’t on a mission with a tight schedule.

The pink bridal shop lay at the end of a cul-de-sac, mannequin brides in powder puff dresses looking out at us with a knowing glance as they stood next to faceless groomsmen. A large cream sign trimmed in pink screamed out ‘Darcy’s Designs’ in a rosy hue, adorned with whimsical butterflies balancing on the letters. Joey looked at me with disdain.

“Really, Mom?” he asked, nodding his head towards the store.

“Really,” I told him without apology. “Grin and bear it, kid. It’s not like this is going to take forever. She just needs to measure you for the tux.”

We both stepped out of the car and into the feminine shop. While I could feel Joey slump down even further from being surrounded by so much lace and frill, I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy by our surroundings. Gone was the whimsy of the shop’s sign, replaced by a sophisticated air. Bridal gowns, bridesmaid dresses and tuxedos, displayed in colorful themes, gave sketches of all the possibilities that could be put in motion. With brides planning their wedding months in advance, the store’s current décor had a summery feel that stood in stark contrast to the wintery weather outside. I felt a pang of regret that we were planning a November wedding instead of getting married on a beach in July. The regret deepened when I saw the delicate lightweight bridal dresses, perfect for walking barefoot across warm sand.

I shook off the moment of disappointment. Our wedding was going to be gorgeous, even if it wasn’t underneath a flawless sky on a warm beach. Besides, even in the summer months, San Francisco is not the place for a beach wedding.

“Rachel!  How are you!” a blonde woman bubbled as she appeared from the back. Darcy came forward and greeted me with a hug as if we were old friends, even though I never would have remembered her name if it weren’t plastered on the front of her store.

“Hi, Darcy!” I said, returning the hug before pulling away. “I’m so sorry we’re this late. We were running behind. This is my son, Joey.”

“Well, aren’t you handsome?” Darcy exclaimed, and I could sense Joey longing to roll his eyes all the way up into his head. Refraining from that was as far as his good manners went, however; in response to Darcy, he just grunted a greeting that didn’t include any words. “Don’t worry about the timing. It’s been a quiet week, and I don’t have another appointment until later this afternoon,” she told me. “So, how’s the wedding planning going?” She beamed with sheer excitement as if she were going to be there, too.

“It’s going well, actually,” I answered, surprised to realize it was true. “I mean, we’re down to those little details that need to be checked off, but I’m surprised that it’s not as daunting as I thought it was going to be.”

“It’s amazing how those long to-do lists in the wedding books look so huge at first, but when you get there it’s not so bad, right?  You just have to take it a step at a time,” she mused. Sensing Joey’s discomfort in a store full of frills and lace, she turned towards him and beamed. “Let’s get you fitted, shall we?”

Darcy pulled out her measuring tape and went to work. With quick movements, she stretched it out against various areas of Joey’s body, taking rapid notes on a notebook that lay at her feet. In just a few moments she was already finished.

“Is that it?” Joey asked, looking at me as if I knew more than Darcy would. I nodded and smiled.

“Thank you, Darcy,” I said, turning toward her and extending my hand. She brushed it aside and gave me another warm embrace before turning and doing the same with Joey.

“We’ll see you in a couple of weeks!” she exclaimed, and smiled at me. “I bet you can’t wait to be standing up there next to all your handsome men!”  I was about to respond, but Joey must have sensed another gushing conversation was about to begin, because he pulled at my arm to lead me out of the store.

“Come on Mom, I’m hungry,” he said. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was almost noon. My stomach rumbled to remind me that while Joey had enjoyed a full breakfast, I still needed to eat something. I smiled an apology at Darcy, but she shooed us out with a smile.

“Enjoy your lunch! Bye!” she called out as we left. Beside me, Joey gave a sigh of relief.

“That wasn’t that bad, now was it?” I asked him. He turned to me in disbelief as we got into the car.

“Are you serious?” he asked. “That was horrible!  Please say I don’t need to do that ever again.”

“Honestly, Josiah. What was so awful about that?” I kept my eyes on the road as we pulled out of the driveway and back through the quaint town. He mumbled something out of the side of his mouth in response that I couldn’t quite understand. “What?”  His sigh was deep as he shifted in his seat.

“She touched the ‘d,’” he mumbled again.

“What?  The ‘dee’?  What the heck are you talking about?” I asked him, confused.

“The ‘d,’ Mom. The boys. When she was measuring my leg, her hand brushed against it.” It suddenly clicked as to what he was talking about. She had touched his penis during her measurements. And while the measurements had taken only a few moments, it must have lasted a lifetime for my teenage son. Judging by the way Joey slumped even lower in his seat, it may even have been an eternity. As I grasped what Joey was telling me, the laughter started bubbling up from deep inside me. I tried my hardest not to laugh, but I was almost crying by the time I gave up and burst out laughing.

“Mom! It’s not funny!” he protested.

“I’m sorry,” I chuckled, wiping my eyes. “It’s totally not.” I glanced over at him, and the wide look in his eyes almost sent me over the top. I bit my lip and shook with silent laughter. He couldn’t help but smile as I laughed, breaking into a sheepish grin.

“Did you like it?” I couldn’t help but ask, and he groaned in response.

“I totally got wood,” he said, to which I caved to the hilarity of the situation and burst out into a full-on fit of giggles. Even Joey, despite his red face, grinned as we moved further away from the store.

“See?” I said. “Going to a wedding shop isn’t so bad. I mean, you might get felt up by the staff.”

“Ugh, Mom. You’re so gross. She was like fifty.”

“Watch it, buddy. She was younger than I am,” I shot back, taking my hand off the wheel to nudge him. He laughed as he ducked out of the way.

“Mom, watch out!” he  cried, the terror in his voice breaking the moment without warning.

I jerked my head forward as a semi-truck straddled the yellow line on the windy road, coming straight at us. With no shoulder on the road, there wasn’t anywhere to pull over on my right. Instead, the right hand side was bordered by a sheer hill that crowded the road.  On the other side of the road was a steep drop carpeted with thousands of trees. I had nowhere to move as the truck barreled towards us, and I weighed out my best chance of survival in a flurry of thoughts that lived within a second. My foot hovered over the brake, but I then saw my chance in the widening space on the other side of the truck. My only hope of survival was if the truck driver understood what I was doing, and moved over to the wrong side of the road to allow me to drive on the left.

I jammed my foot onto the accelerator and gunned it forward, driving over the yellow line and onto the left side of the road. The truck driver blasted his horn as I passed his truck, my tiny car teetering on the edge of the sloped roadway. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sensed the truck making room for me. However, I didn’t anticipate the cars behind the truck. An older red car appeared out of nowhere, and I only caught a glimpse of the driver’s terrified face before I swerved left to avoid hitting them. All my efforts of staying on the road were for naught as our car sailed over the edge of the roadway, floating towards the sea of green that lay in the forest below.

We were going down.

In between the chaos we’d just left on the road above us and the impact we were headed for on the ground far below, there existed a few silent seconds that became little lifetimes wrapped up in the shifting of tides. As memories and thoughts of John and Sam, my parents and sister, and everything I held close to me fluttered in scattered images behind my vision, I looked at Joey’s silent and terrified face. He never made a sound as his eyes met mine. We both knew that this wouldn’t have a good outcome. I reached out for him and he took my hand, squeezing it as if my hold would keep him safe. And it felt like I held his hand for years as we waited in the silence for what was going to come next.

“I’m sorry,” I mouthed to him, unable to break the silence. He only nodded and squeezed my hand tighter.

There was a loud bang as his hand ripped from mine, and a searing pain electrocuted my body. I could hear a piercing scream inside my head as it rattled through my chest. The wail that escaped my lips drowned out the muffled crunching sounds of the trees colliding with the metal of our car. I grabbed blindly for Joey, no longer able to see anything. But I couldn’t find him. The world thundered around me, making up for my loss of sight by flooding my ears with an undecipherable static. My voice was silenced by the eruption of sound, and by the gurgling liquid that invaded my lungs and left a copper vapor in my mouth.

The deafening noises around me began to fade into the distance, and I felt relief at the silence. There was peace within the absence of chaotic sound. The car seemed to have stopped falling, teetering upon what I guessed was a branch or the top of a tree. I couldn’t feel my legs, and my hands were starting to go numb as well. It was like they were sleeping, inviting me to go with them as I faded in and out of consciousness.

Somewhere far away, a bird tested out the startled quiet with a soft song. It was soon joined by other calls in the forest. Sensing how alone I was, I focused on the cries that surrounded me, letting them become my faltering heartbeat, my labored breathing, the heaviness in my head. Their song wove in and out of my senses, echoing in a dance of sounds. They, too, began to fade away. I yearned for the sound to remain in my ears, knowing that once they disappeared I would be on my own. But the sense of peace grew, wrapping my cold body in its layers of warmth. I felt my head grow even heavier against the car seat, the pain in my body evaporating with the sounds. When the last bird had sung, the whole world became quiet.

And I was cast into a sea of nothing.

You can learn more about Crissi and the novel at crissilangwell.com

Read Crissi’s  story for the Press Democrat on indie authors  here