NaNoWriMo | Chapter 7

CHAPTER 7

It wasn’t like I had killed anyone back in Montgomery. But, I was on the run, in a way. I reached down and picked up the cup of coffee I’d been nursing and took a sip then took a deep, cleansing breath. I’d told this story what seemed a million times. I wondered if Eli would believe me any more than the police back home.

“Well?” He sipped his coffee and sat back in the booth like he was getting comfortable with a good book welcoming a good story. He was just a little more smug than usual.

“You already know, don’t you?” I asked. I was being set up to tell my side of the story. Eli wouldn’t walk into any situation without having done his homework first. I couldn’t help but smirk at his smugness. I was busted long ago and never knew it. That was his SUV parked next to mine at the grocery store, I just didn’t see him.

“Why don’t you tell me your version,” he said just as our breakfast arrived. I suddenly found myself no longer hungry.

“You’re being the same little jerk you were when we were in school, you know that?” I asked him as I reached for the syrup for my French toast. It was difficult to look in those big blue eyes. If he already knew the story, he had to have read the police report. “Fine. All I did was take some pictures when I was taking a walk on my lunch break about a month ago.”

Nothing. We sat silently, munched on our breakfast, and sipped our coffee until Eli motioned for refills.

“That’s not all though, is it?” he asked.

“Not exactly. I take walks around downtown Montgomery during my lunch break sometimes, and sometimes I take my camera and iPod. It’s easy to get lost in the city for an hour. I had been working a lot of extra hours on different projects, and I was tired. I had my camera in my office from a press conference that morning, so I grabbed it and took off for a walk. I needed to decompress for a little while. I remember it was so hot and muggy. I could barely breathe when I walked outside the office. But, being outside right at that moment was better than being cooped up in my office for one more hour.

“I cut through the parking lot behind the State House and the Capital Building and made my way over to the train depot and down to the Amphitheatre down by the river where the river boat is docked. The city did a lot of restoration to that part of the downtown area, but there are still some great old-brick buildings that still have the original painted ads on the side. They’re old and faded, but they give the brick so much character, and on a beautiful blue sky day like that one, I couldn’t help but take some pictures.

“I was wandering around the old buildings and alleys snapping a few photos along the way when my camera froze. I was standing about three-quarters of the way down this alley between two abandoned buildings, and my stupid camera quit. I had a perfect shot of an antique lantern over an old faded red door at the end of the alley, and my camera froze. My Canon does that sometimes, so I walked back to the street where the light was better and took the battery out long enough so the camera would reset itself and put it back in. That’s when I heard two pops. Pop! Pop! Really fast like a car backfiring. I looked over toward the park overlooking the river where there were a couple of cars parked and some folks walking around. My camera reset, I walked back to the end of the alley, took the shot, and then made my way back to my office.

“Later that night I was looking through the shots I’d taken during the press conference and at lunch. I was especially looking for the shot from the alley of the antique lantern and faded door. I found two photos I didn’t know I had taken of the park at the river overlook. One looked a little fuzzy around the car window, which wasn’t surprising since I hadn’t focused it when I took it. Hell, I didn’t know I took either photo. So I opened it in Photoshop for a better look. It wasn’t fuzzy. It was smoky. It looked like there was a puff of smoke coming from the passenger window.” I stopped and finished my cup of coffee. I knew what Eli was going to say next. It was the same thing I had thought at the time, and the same thing the investigators said when I took the photos to them.

“Are you sure it wasn’t cigarette smoke?” Eli asked. “A hot day, you were out for a walk, it only stands to reason someone else was out enjoying lunch with a pack of smokes.”

As I figured.

“I thought that, too, until I saw the newspaper the next morning. Police were investigating the city’s 42nd homicide…a body was found below the lookout park late the night before with two .38 caliber holes in it. I wondered whether those were the two pops I had heard when I was in the alley. I don’t believe in coincidences, so I didn’t think too much about it.”

“So, what happened to make you run?”

“I started noticing things. Weird things. A couple of new guys showed up in my yoga classes at the Y, which isn’t unusual in itself, but they usually parked near me and would leave at the same time I did. They didn’t make any secret of following me to my neighborhood, either. I picked them up on the way to work a couple of mornings, then I got freaked out. I leave for work at the same time every morning, so I recognize just about all the vehicles heading into Montgomery that time of morning. They were easy to spot. They were parked up the street when I left for lunch, followed me around town, back to the Y and home. This went on for several days, but I was already spooked. So I took another look at those photos, but I asked for some help from a friend who’s an expert in digital restoration. He cleaned up some of the pixels around the vehicle in the photo with the puff of smoke coming out of the window. He took out the glare on the back window, and that’s when we saw the muzzle flash.

“I took the photo to the police detectives working on the homicide that was reported in the paper, and it was dismissed pretty quickly. That was until my expert friend had a car accident on the interstate and died on impact. I was run off the road that night, too, but I didn’t wrap my car around a light pole. I just landed in a ditch. I managed to get out of the car and into the woods before anyone came down the hill. I never saw their faces, but they searched my car. They were looking for the data card for my camera, I’m sure.”

“Where is it now?”

“Safe. Probably safer than I am.”

“Don’t be so sure,” he smiled. “You’re in a place where outsiders aren’t welcome, and news travels at the speed of light. Consider us your own personal security system. So, take a breath and finish your breakfast. We have a little work to do later.”

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NaNoWriMo | Chapter 6

CHAPTER 6

It didn’t take long to get to town, but I imagined that it wouldn’t take long to get anywhere riding shotgun with the sheriff. I kept waiting for the inquisition to begin, but Eli kept the conversation light and mostly reminiscing about the crazy, fun and stupid things we used to do when we were growing up. Chivalry was definitely alive and well and living in my new corner of the world.

After all these years, I was surprised to see that the Stop and Go was still open. This is the place my grandparents would come for “special occasions” or just when someone got a hankering for a greasy hamburger back in the day. “Greasy spoon” definitely didn’t do this place justice. For me, it had some of the best home cooking outside of my Granny’s kitchen that me or my mother didn’t cook.

And, the parking lot was already filled with nearly every truck in the county. That’s always the good sign of a great county restaurant.

We didn’t have too much trouble finding a parking place, though. It was pretty obvious that Eli and his deputies had a standing reserved table at the Stop and Go as well as reserved parking near the door. Made sense, I thought to myself, in case they got a call and had to zip out in a hurry.

He parked the SUV and then grinned. “I know what you’re thinking.”

“That you get to park by the door in case you get a call?” I peeked at him over the top of my sunglasses. I wondered what he thought I was thinking? He knew used to cover law enforcement when I was a beat reporter…back in the day.

“Damn. None of my lines are going to work on you, are they?” A little annoyed, he grabbed his cap and slipped out of the vehicle.

“You have lines? New lines? They never worked before. Why would they work now?” I knew he was listening even though he was strides ahead of me. This was our relationship. It was like we had never been apart in 10 years.

Inside, the diner hadn’t changed much since the last time I walked through those doors with my grandparents a decade ago. Maybe a coat of paint on the walls, or maybe the walls were just a little darker from the smoke billowing from the grill in the kitchen. Either way, the only real change I could see were that the customers were just a little older.

“Why hey there Eli! Make yourself at home, and I’ll be with you in just a sec!” shouted a voice from behind the register. It was a woman who sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place a face to the voice. I hoped I could figure it out by the time she made her way to our table so I didn’t embarrass myself.

I followed Eli as he weaved his way through the crowd shaking hands and patting backs of the patrons along the path until he came to a table that gave him a bird’s eye view of the room. He stopped at a booth in the back of the room and reached for me to sit facing the wall. He sat with his back against the wall facing the room. Cop logic.

“I can’t believe how much this place hasn’t changed after all these years,” I said reaching for the condiment tray in the corner of table. I spun the tray and caught myself smirking when the mirrored side of the napkin holder turned to face me.

“In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Bits, this town never changes,” Eli said. “That’s why I like it here. It’s easy to figure things out when everything moves at its own pace, you know?”

“I do. But, there’s something to be said for the faster pace of a big city, too. I think you and I understand both worlds pretty well, you better than me.”

“Not really,” he said. “Just because I deployed doesn’t mean I understand that world. I don’t think we’ll ever understand why there are so many people out there who hate us so much to do what they did. I’ll never understand that.”

“Good point,” I could hear my words trailing off. I could see the reflection of someone in the mirror hanging on the wall just above Eli’s head. It was our waitress walking toward our booth. She recognized my reflection immediately, and so did I.

“Oh. My. Goodness! Hey, Cuz!” I turned around and instinctively reached for my first cousin, Mary Stillwell. “How long ya been in town? Why didn’t ya call?” I dodged questions and a pot of hot coffee.

I could see Eli trying to hide his smirk behind his menu. Smart ass.

“Not long, I haven’t been in town long. How have you been? How are the girls?”

“Growin like little weeds, I tell ya. And, eatin me outta house and home. They’re around here somewhere. Lemme get y’all some breakfast, and I’ll find ‘em for ya. What would y’all like this mornin?” Mary quickly filled our coffee cups. She didn’t write down our orders, but I got the feeling she had been doing this long enough that she didn’t need to.

Eli ordered his “usual,” and I ordered French toast with turkey bacon. Mary and Eli stared at me. I wasn’t sure if it was what I ordered or if a fly had landed on the end of my nose that brought the stares.

“Seriously?” Eli asked. “TURKEY bacon? What the hell is that?”

“Is turkey sausage okay?” Mary asked.

I nodded and handed my cousin our menus. “Ordering turkey bacon makes me an alien?”

“No, it just makes you weird,” Eli joked. “So, let’s just cut to the chase, shall we.”

Here we go. I put my coffee cup down and gently folded my hands on the table. Straightened my back and stared Elijah dead in his big, blue eyes.

“Why am I here.”

“Why are you here?”

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NaNoWriMo | Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5

I never heard the vehicle pull into the driveway much less the driver’s door close when the man got out. I eased myself back to the ground so I could stand up. I couldn’t tell much about the man, but I definitely recognized the vehicle. It was a white SUV with a row of red and blue lights on the roof and SHERIFF is block red letters across the side.

The man was leaning against the driver’s door with his foot propped against the running board. He wasn’t wearing a uniform exactly. It looked just like a simple pair of blue jeans and a khaki shirt. But with the glare of the sun, it could have been a woman with a very bad hair cut wearing hot pink pants and an orange polka dot blouse for all I could tell for sure.

“As much as you used to run around this place when we were growing up, I had you pegged more for jogging or flat out running…not yoga,” he said laughing and making his way toward me.

“Eli?” I asked. I barely recognized the voice, but it sounded so familiar. “Elijah, is that you?” I shaded my eyes with my hand as though the shade would help my poor distance vision.

Elijah Bridger and I practically grew up together the summers I spent running around my grandparents’ farm. He and his parents lived just a few miles away as the crow flies, but we spent most every Saturday afternoon sitting on the edge of the pond drowning worms and hoping for a few drops of rain to cool off the evening.

“Girl, it hasn’t been that long,” he laughed. He expertly navigated the armadillo holes in the front yard  and made his way to the shaded pecan tree where I was. “But, it has been a few years. So sorry about your grandfather. I wish I could have made it back for the funeral.”

“I think he would have understood considering you were off serving our country and all,” I said. “Somehow I think he knows you made it back in one piece.”

I didn’t care that I was sweaty and smelled like wet dog, but I reached up and grabbed Eli by the neck and nearly squeezed the life out of him. He almost snapped me in half with his hug. He smelled like crisp linen and fresh soap.

“Can’t breathe…” Eli whispered. “Survived Afghanistan to die in a hugging accident.” He raised up, lifted me off the ground, and swung me around in a huge circle. I didn’t get to see him off when he deployed because no one knew his unit was leaving until just hours before. Eli was Special Forces, received several accommodations while in service and came back a decorated hero…and we never knew the extent of his heroism. But, we could all imagine because we knew Eli.

“Have you had breakfast yet? I’m starved! Please put me down, by the way…I weigh a ton!”

“I haven’t. I am as well, and you’re a twig! Don’t you eat anymore since you work in the city? Did you forget how?”

“No, I didn’t forget how to eat, and I’m actually a very good cook. Come inside, and I’ll make us breakfast.” I finally broke free of Eli’s iron grip and started gathering my yoga gear.

“Actually, I saw what few supplies you bought at The Pig yesterday, and I don’t eat rabbit food,” he snickered. “Go make yourself presentable, and I’ll take you to get some decent breakfast. Looks like you could use some carbs.”

I stopped and slowly turned to face him. I wasn’t ready for another trip to town, but I also wasn’t ready to approach that subject with Eli. Looking at him, his hands propped on his hips and his square jaw set facing me head on, it was a sure bet that he wasn’t going to take “No” for an answer.

“You don’t hear “No” often, do you Sheriff Bridger?”

“Not often, ma’am. Let me check in with Martha on dispatch. Don’t dawdle. I haven’t even had my second cup of coffee this morning.”

I nodded and headed toward the back door of the house.

Even though it was rather pleasant outside, I didn’t want to keep Eli waiting too long. Mostly because, knowing him, it wouldn’t be outside his wheelhouse to barge in and order me to hurry up. Something told me that not only had Eli seen a lot in his years in the Army, he would put up with my nonsense much, either.

“You haven’t changed much, Bits!” he yelled out over the loudspeaker from his SUV. “You still take way too much time to get ready. HURRY UP! I’m hungry!”

“Good grief!” I thought to myself. Well, if the people in the next county needed to know I was in town…they knew. I grabbed my purse and ran out the door.

“I don’t remember you being this obnoxious when we were kids. Did the Army do that to you?” I asked while I buckled my seatbelt.

“No,” he said backing out of the driveway. “I just don’t think you noticed back then.”

Elijah Bridger was as disarming now as he was when we were growing up. I never pictured him in law enforcement, though, when I came back to do an internship at the newspaper. Little Elijah had grown up to be a bit of a law “bender,” as he called it. Bend them he did, just enough before they broke.

I’m not stupid, either. He knew the score, and he wanted me to dish it out to him my own way. That’s the only reason for this little charade this morning. Fine. I can play his games. I’ve worked around enough politicians in my career to understand how to play, so I can step up to this plate. But, being willing to play and wanting to play are two distinctly different frames of mind.

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NaNoWriMo | Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4

Morning came soon enough, and I felt like I hadn’t slept in weeks. Probably because I hadn’t slept more than a few hours a night in a very long time. But, lazing about in the bed when I knew I could make myself useful around the house was enough motivation to drag my bones from the comfort of my cozy covers and into a tee shirt and some yoga pants.

The sun was already screaming through the trees across the other side of the pond, and I couldn’t think of a more peaceful place to stretch out my yoga mat than under the pecan tree overlooking one of my most favorite spots on the planet.

I slung my mat over my shoulder, grabbed a bottle of water and headed for the back door. Oh! That screeching door! Definitely top of my list to fix that screen door if I had to take it off the hinges to do it. A sound that bad would scare the cows down the road.

There was a briskness to the morning air that was refreshing. Here in the south, we typically get hot summers, a week of autumn and spring, and then something the weathermen schizophrenically call “winter.” The leaves were already turning and beginning to drift to the ground, and the pecan tree just outside my grandparents’ master bedroom was always my favorite place on the farm.

When in full bloom, my Granny and I would sit under its shade and drown worms on the bank of the pond hoping to catch a few catfish, bream or trout for dinner that night. Granddaddy had his favorite spot just down the bank but still within earshot of us in case we hooked something. I was never allowed to touch anything I brought out of the pond. I finned myself once on a catfish, and that was the end of me trying to unhook anything I’d hooked.

When I was much, much younger, the sloping ground beneath the pecan tree was my launching pad for my Slip and Slide. It was way too far to slide into the pond from the tree, especially considering there was an incline and, well, a small road for my Granddaddy’s tractor and truck to pull around to the barn at the back of the house. But, those things never stopped me. Once Granny realized I was aiming for the corner of the pond, she’d soap up the slippery runway with dishwashing liquid and cheer me on yelling, “Go, Baby, go!”

I never made it to the pond. I mostly ended up picking broken pecan shells out of my bathing suit. But, I didn’t mind.

That was the perfect spot to begin my day. So, I stretched out my mat and went to work. I’ve been practicing yoga for many years, and I know several different routines. Today didn’t feel like a “routine” day. Today felt like a “new start” day. I took a deep, cleansing breath and reached for the leaves above my head, tilted back even further to arch my back, then to the left and right. I kept my eyes closed and focused on my breathing and the sound of the little sparrows in the tree singing to me.

After a while of focusing on nothing but the sounds of nature and my breathing, I decided to try some new poses. “Be adventurous,” I thought. “Why not? It’s not like I have an audience to see me if I fall over,” except for the turtles popping their heads up in the pond just a few feet away. I didn’t really care if they saw me fall over.

I don’t know how long I’d been under the pecan tree. The morning breeze had died down somewhat, and it was beginning to warm up nicely for an autumn day. As I moved from one pose to the next, I vaguely recalled the passing of a vehicle down the road in front of the house. It was nice to focus on the rhythmic movements instead of whether someone was focusing on me.

I decided to do one last movement, Crow, before relaxing with my bottle of water. I bent down at the waist with my feet close to my hands. Crouching lower, I carefully rested my knees on my forearms and tilted my body forward until my feet were off the ground. Breathe…breathe…breathe…and just don’t fall over…

“I know all those yoga poses have crazy names, so what do you call that one?”

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NaNoWriMo | Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3

When I got back to the farm, I eased my car up to the back door. My grandfather’s little red Chevy pickup truck was still parked under the carport where my parents and I keep it when we aren’t staying at the house. Sort of a safety device to make passersby think there’s someone at home even though my grandparents have been dead for several years now. All the locals know, but anyone joyriding down these old dirt roads may not have a clue.

Even though I’d made my big debut in town that afternoon, I wasn’t ready for company just yet. In these parts, turning on the porch light or leaving a light on in a window in the front of the house is just as good as sitting on the porch in the swing with a glass of lemonade. Nothing says, “Welcome!” like a porch light on a country road, so I just turned on the small light over the stove instead. It lit the kitchen well enough for me to put away the groceries and make a grilled cheese sandwich.

I was exhausted. But it was nice running into Mrs. Banks again. Seeing her after so many years was almost like seeing my Granny again. They were the best of friends, and I’m sure the Judge wishes most every day his sweet wife had taken a few cooking lessons from my grandmother. Just the thought of all those poor folks at the church being subjected to her “lagniappe” made me smile. I’ve never been happier with a humble grilled cheese than I was that night.

I had not been in the house again but for a scant few hours, and I was going to have to resign myself to the fact that the ghost of my grandparents were still alive and well and living in these four walls. Just so long as they didn’t manifest themselves, I would be just fine.

But still, it was nice thinking they were still around watching over me. It was nice to think that someone on my side was watching over me. There was no telling who was really watching. I hoped never to find out…or that I was just being paranoid.

There’s something about this town. I knew I’d feel safe here, or as safe as I could right now. I could have gone anywhere to hide, but hiding in plain sight where everyone knew me seemed a better choice. Small Town, Alabama, is just like you’d think. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everyone’s business. But, everyone tends to be very protective, too. This is a very protective community. Harold Jenkins down at the filling station may know that Mae Sterling was wearing her Sunday best when she stopped by to get her oil checked, but he also knows that her “Sunday best” outfit is the same outfit she wears every time she goes out. She can’t afford anything new. Everyone knows, but no one tells.

Given that just about everyone in the county has known me since I was knee-high to a turnip, should anyone come to town looking for me, I’ll know about it rather quickly. That’s another thing about small towns. News travels faster than the speed of light. I was counting on it, just in case.

For now, I’d have to do my best to relax and fit in. I packed fairly light when I left my house in Montgomery, and I wasn’t in any mood to read any of the books I had stashed away for a rainy day. For all purposes, it was pouring. Even with the satellite service for the television, there was nothing on to watch except football. Normally, that would be fine, but watching football alone just isn’t the same. Football and infomercials. If it weren’t for the satellite, I’d be stuck with the infomercials and nothing else. I quickly made a mental note of adding reading material to my mental list of Things To Buy and Do.

Tonight, though, would just be me, some random football players, and my yoga mat. A few Downward Facing Dogs, some Warrior poses, some easy stretching, and I was fine calling it a night. Even if it was only a little after 9 p.m.

The morning would come quickly enough. Truth was, I just wasn’t sleeping well these days no matter how tired I was when my head hit the pillow at night. When I did sleep it wasn’t a restful sleep. Fitful is a better way to describe it. Tossing and turning all night not only makes for long nights but it certainly doesn’t help pass the time during the day.

As I snuggled under the covers and nestled with the light chill of an early autumn evening, I couldn’t shut off my brain. Running lists of things I could do when the morning broke. Fix that squealing back door. Call the bug guy, which quickly shot to the top of the list when I thought I could hear something brush against the back wall under the bed. Laundry. Vacuum. Some light housekeeping. Maybe wash Granddaddy’s truck. Anything to stay busy.

This was the part of the day I hated most.

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NaNoWriMo | Chapter 2

Editor’s note: Thanks to everyone who is following and leaving comments. You’re keeping me honest and pumped for NaNoWriMo! Enjoy Chapter 2 and don’t forget to let me know what you think!

CHAPTER 2

Sunrise came too quickly. It seemed as though I had just crawled into bed and curled up under the covers moments ago when the shards of sunlight burst through the opening between the curtains. Another thing to add to my To-Do list…seal up that gap!

I rolled over to the other side of the bed and pulled the covers around my ears. Just a few more hours of sleep would be nice. I hadn’t had more than an hour or two of sleep a night since that last day at work, and those weren’t exactly restful hours.

But, it was useless. The gears in my brain were already cranking up for the day, and I had plenty of things to do. When I was a little girl, I hated that about being in the country. The day always started early and ended early, and here I was again. After all, it was already 6:30 a.m. Had my grandfather still been alive, he’d have been out in the field for at least an hour by now, and my grandmother would have already cleared the breakfast dishes and be out in the garden on her hands and knees digging into the earth. By that timetable, I was way behind schedule.

I took only as long as necessary to get dressed and make my way outside. I backed my tiny little trailer up to the porch as close as I could and made a makeshift ramp to offload what clothes and supplies I brought from my home in Montgomery. There wasn’t any food in the house that wasn’t frozen in one of the deep freezers, so a trip to the local Piggly Wiggly was added to the list. The hungrier I got during the morning, the closer to the top of the list was the Pig.

I didn’t bring much from home – clothes, laptop, some books and photos – so settling in didn’t take much time. Next stop would be groceries and WD-50 for that screen door, and that’s where I knew I would meet my first challenge.

The Piggly Wiggly was one town over in the metropolis of Geneva. After taking a quick peek in the mirror, I knew I would have to put on the full court press before hitting town for the first time. Samuel and Mary’s granddaughter would most definitely run into every person in town who hasn’t seen her since she was knee high to a turnip stalk! Truth be told, I saw most everyone at the last family reunion a couple of years ago, but every time they saw me it was the same thing…not since I was knee high to something.

Good thing I cleaned up, though. Everyone was out that Wednesday afternoon picking up odds and ends for dinner at church later in the evening. I was quickly spotted hiding behind the apples in the produce section. It would have been futile to run.

“Oh…my…word!” shrieked Mrs. Banks as she walked into the Pig. I don’t know how she spotted me so quickly. After all, I was hunched over the barrel of Honeycrisp apples so the best view of me she had was a rear view. I had no idea I was so recognizable from behind! “And, in the middle of the week, too! Harper Matthews…what a pleasant surprise, Sweetie!”

Before I could put the bag of apples gently into my buggy, Mrs. Banks reached out and snagged me around the neck. She pulled me close to her tiny 5 ft. frame and gave me a tight squeeze. She swayed from side to side and patted my back, the same way Granny used to hug me when I hadn’t seen her in so long. It made sense since Mrs. Banks was Granny’s best friend. They even wore the same perfume. It was some off brand concoction they bought at the local drug store, but it smelled of a bouquet of freshly cut American Beauty long-stemmed roses. I adored that smell, but it always made me sneeze so hard I’d almost pee my pants every time I’d get near it.

“Oh, dear!” Mrs. Banks said as she pushed back just a bit. “My perfume…I forgot how allergic you are. I think they have something for that down there on aisle seven,” she said pointing toward the pharmacy aisle. “Or you can just stop at Walmart on the way back to the farm. So, what brings you to town? You on vacation?”

“Something like a vacation, Mrs. Banks,” I said as I eased the now bruised fruit into the top rack of my buggy. “My parents are on a cruise, so I decided to take some time off for myself. I couldn’t think of a better place to be than here.”

“Well just look at you! You’re too skinny! That’s what happens when you work too hard, Abby. You stop by the church tonight for supper. I’m making my famous lagniappe. It’ll put some meat on those bones!” She stomped her right foot and waived her hands in the air.

I always loved Mrs. Banks, especially since she was my grandmother’s best friend. But, you know that old adage about Southern cooks? Well, it doesn’t apply to Mrs. Banks. The woman simply couldn’t cook her way out of a wet paper sack if she had to. What she lacked for in talent, however, she made up for in enthusiasm. She owned every kitchen gadget known in the culinary world, but she didn’t know how to properly use a single one.

Mrs. Banks, wife to Probate Judge Bubba Banks, never missed an opportunity to show off her “chefing” skills learned while watching episodes of Top Chef, Iron Chef, Mr. Food on the local news, or any other show involving food. She was a self-professed foodie, and she had the “Kiss the Cook” apron to prove it. It was hot pink with white eyelet lace around the edges. Heck, Mrs. Banks took better care of that apron than she did Mr. Banks. She hand washed it in the sink at the end of every day, allowed it to dry on the laundry line outside a few hours and then ironed it crisp and fresh for breakfast the next morning.

Every Sunday and Wednesday, she treated the congregation of the First Baptist Church to a delectable treat from her professionally designed kitchen, compliments of the Judge, and this Wednesday evening she would apparently be cooking her lagniappe, which most people know as lasagna. But, in Mrs. Banks’ kitchen, since she couldn’t pronounce it anyway, she played with the traditional recipe adding broccoli and pine nuts. It was her concoction. She would call it whatever she liked.

Italian grandmothers everywhere gasped in horror the day that came out of the oven.

No one knows who tasted the lagniappe first, or if at all, at the church. But the pan is always empty when it’s returned to her, and Mrs. Banks’ pride is bursting at the seams at another successful dish.

I made no promises, explaining that I was just getting settled at the house, but I would definitely try to stop by. We shopped side by side that afternoon, and it was actually a lot of fun listening to Mrs. Banks gossip about everyone else in town. I was sure she would go to church that night and say her prayers to atone for being such a chatterbox…and potentially giving anyone food poisoning.

Armed with my groceries and enough dirt to fill a garden, we parted ways at the door, and I headed back to the car.

I hadn’t taken a dozen steps from the front door of the Piggly Wiggly when I noticed the sheriff’s SUV parked on the far side of my CRV. I slowed my stride and pulled back on the buggy. Without drawing attention to myself, I casually looked around the parking lot. Middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday, there weren’t many cars around the small strip mall, and I didn’t see a deputy inside when Mrs. Banks and I were shopping. Small town. Uniforms tend to get noticed.

As I got to the car next to mine I released the security alarm and parked the buggy against the rear bumper. It didn’t take but a minute to toss the few bags into the back hatch of my CRV. I made a conscious effort to act NORMAL. Inconspicuous. Just buying some groceries.

The truth was, nothing about me or my life would be normal again. Eventually THIS would be my new normal.

After everything was squared away so nothing would spill, roll over, or get squished, I closed the hatch and walked the buggy back to the storefront. The sheriff’s SUV was still parked next to mine when I walked back, got inside, and drove away.

I couldn’t remember who won the election last year for sheriff. All I could remember was the previous sheriff should have been run out of town on a rail. It was never proven that he was cooking his books, but after the state auditors spent three weeks tearing his office apart, Sheriff Alman Goree decided to take an unexpected leave of absence. An interim was appointed until the election, but I lost track after that.

If you think politics on the national or state level can be dirty, then you’ve never experienced them on the local level…especially in a small community where everyone knows you and the skeletons you’ve been hiding. Once the mud starts slinging, everyone ducks.

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NaNoWriMo | Chapter 1

Editor’s note: To keep myself on track, and to receive feedback from my readers, I’m going to post chapters from my NaNoWriMo project during November. Please feel free to leave suggestions and comments, good or bad, to help me make the most of this experience. Thanks, friends!

CHAPTER 1

In the country it’s called a “farm-to-market” road. It’s narrow, narrower than a regular road, with barely enough room to meet another vehicle. I’ve traveled these roads all my life, and I still hold my breath when I see another car on the horizon coming in my direction. The edges of the roads are like fine patterned lace, and more often than not they’re a patchwork quilt of asphalt strips covering potholes.

I never bother with the radio this far out of the city. The tires always sing as they sail over the stripes. Fall came a little early this year, so the leaves were just beginning to turn beautiful shades of orange, red and yellow.

I signaled to turn off the Enterprise-Geneva Highway and onto an even narrower county road. I rolled down the windows and took a deep breath. Everything always seemed better out of the city, especially the air. Except for tonight. The chicken houses were ripe tonight and forced a cough from deep inside my chest. I sped past the open chicken houses as quickly as I could, but I kept the windows down. The cool night air was a welcome treat. It had been such a long, hot summer. Long, hot and definitely one for the books.

I’ve travelled this path from Montgomery to Enterprise to my grandparents’ farm in the small town of Coffee Springs my entire life. This time was different. I was running away, and I couldn’t think of a better place to be lost in than rural Alabama.

Funny thing about small towns. Everyone knows you, and you know everyone. In a weird way, I was counting on that. Everyone in Coffee Springs knew my family and me. I will forever be Samuel and Mary’s granddaughter, so me camping out at the farm for a little while won’t be a surprise for the townsfolk. And, heaven help any strangers that happen my way.

The sun was just grazing the tops of the trees as I passed Eden Baptist Church and slowed to turn onto the gravel, single-lane road leading to my grandparents’ farm. I hate gravel roads, but it’s even worse now since I’m towing a small trailer behind my mini-SUV. I could hear the loose gravel pop and grind under the tires of the trailer as I eased the vehicle down the sloping road and back up the hill. When I finally arrived at the house, I pulled around to the back of the house and parked under the barn.

The sun finally sizzled its way down the horizon leaving a soft glow in the distance. I stood at the corner of the old barn and looked out over the pond and across to the pasture on the other side. The water was as still as I’d ever seen it. The fish weren’t jumping. No bugs skimming across the surface. It was like slick glass reflecting the golden hue of the sunset. As serene as this place was, and as much bliss as it had brought me over the years, I wondered whether I’d find much peace during my stay this time.

There wasn’t much daylight left reflecting in the pond, and the barn wasn’t wired for it, so I grabbed a few things from my vehicle, especially my Daddy’s rifle case and my small travel suitcase, and locked up.

The old house was cool and dark when I opened the back door. I didn’t bother to turn on the inside light, not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to myself. I’ve been walking through my grandparents’ house all my life. I could find a peanut in the carpet while blindfolded if I had to.

The squeal of the screen door closing behind me not only caused every nerve in my body to wince with physical pain, but also shot its way to the top of my To-Do list. It would take more than a can of WD-50 to fix that shriek, but I’d worry about that tomorrow. Tonight’s list consisted of a hot shower and a cozy bed.

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