Date Published: September 13, 2019
Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.
After Anna Shields receives an invitation from her estranged Aunt Lydia, she flies to Tennessee to find a number of older women-Tasha, Sadie, and Chloe-also living on Lydia’s farm. Losing power during a blizzard, the women share dark and startling secrets. Skating between past and present, they reveal frighteningly desperate things that they have done. Anna begins to realize, to her shock, that these things are connected to her own past and become key to her future.
Tasha watched from the kitchen window as the young woman and child made their way through her yard. The woman seemed to be carrying something large, and the little one was skipping along behind. Tasha dried her hands and lifted Riley from the high chair, dusting cookie crumbs from her shirt.
“Want to go outside to play?” Tasha asked her daughter.
Riley nodded. “On the jungagym?”
“Sure, on the jungagym.” Tasha thought if she were to design playground equipment, she’d call her company JungaGym. They went out the back door and into the yard, following the woman and child, dressed in matching overalls, marching past the garden towards the tobacco field, as if on a mission. Tasha couldn’t tell if the little one was a girl or boy with shoulder length hair. She wasn’t sure what the woman was carrying on her hip, either. Tasha thought the visitors more curious than dangerous—but she was new to the area, and this was unusual. As her husband Mack would say, “Be aware of your surroundings at all times.” He’d been in the military for half a minute, and this was his takeaway line.
“Hello?” Tasha called out.
The woman stopped and turned.
“I’m Tasha.” She waved as she approached. “Knightly. Tasha Knightly.”
“I’m Sadie. Sadie O’Grady. Nice to meetcha.” Sadie was wearing a white tank top under a pair of too-large bib overalls, unbuttoned at the hips. She was obviously very pregnant. Under one arm, she hefted a giant turtle.
The towheaded toddler holding his mother’s free hand was introduced as Jacob. He looked up at Tasha, his grin wide and toothy. She saw the same lace of flowers woven through his hair as his mother’s.
Sadie rubbed the bump of her belly. “And this guy, his name is Joshua, as soon as he gets here.” She looked down to Tasha’s knee, where Riley hung like a drunk on a lamppost with her thumb in her mouth. Tasha ruffled her fingers through Riley’s soft curls. “This is Riley, and obviously,” she gestured to the house behind her, “we’re new to the neighborhood.”
Sadie looked around to the bank of forest rising behind them, the open pasture before them, and the tobacco fields running beside them. “Haven’t you noticed you are the neighborhood?”
Tasha laughed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s me, my husband Mack, Riley, and the baby.” Tasha thumbed over her shoulder. “Lacy; she’s asleep in her crib. But yeah, that’s about it for the neighborhood. Just us.”
“Unless you count those cows over there.” Sadie pointed to the hill.
“I find comfort in the mooing.”
“I hear ya. Before we moved here, I’d mostly always lived in neighborhoods, in towns. That first night, I remember sittin’ on our porch, sayin’ to Jimmy, “It’s a stygian blackness—’”
“I’m sorry,” Tasha interrupted. “What sort of blackness?”
Sadie did not pause. “Stygian. It means extreme darkness, sometimes a forebodin’ sort of darkness. It’s from the River Styx.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Tasha admitted to Sadie. This was something unusual for her, admitting she didn’t know something. Usually, she’d pretend to know, try to grasp the gist of the topic, and listen. Listening seemed to be the greatest knowledge of all, to Tasha. Blurting her ignorance to this stranger in her yard with a turtle under her arm was not like Tasha; yet there was something innocuous about Sadie—a gentleness, with no judgement—making her somehow safe. Or at least that’s how it felt.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Sadie said. “I’ve been readin’ all about the underworld lately, Hades, and the River Styx is part of that story.”
“I like that word, stygian,” Tasha said.
“It’s a good one! Sounds just like what it means: ‘beyond darkness.’”
“Yes, ‘beyond darkness.’”
“It’s lonely,” Sadie mused, and stared across the field.
Tasha allowed Riley’s hand to slip from her own. The little girl had taken her thumb from her mouth and was eyeing Jacob, who was eyeing her back.
“That’s how it feels out here, sometimes. Especially when Mack is away on business, or hunting, or helping some old friend out of a jam.”
Sadie’s gaze narrowed. “Your husband…he’s gone a lot?”
“Let’s just say he’s not around a lot. I don’t mind, really. Sometimes it’s easier.”
“I understand. My Jimmy travels, but we’ve got cows, goats, chickens, and what have you. Can’t say I get very lonely.”
“You don’t? What about people? Don’t you get lonely for people?”
“Not really. You can’t see with your naked eye, but there are actually a bunch of us mamas and babies tucked into our own little coves all up and down this valley.”
“Sure! I happen to be your closest neighbor: just a quarter mile up the goat path.”
“Are those your goats I see every now and again?”
“They shouldn’t be. There’s a bunch of wild ones that run loose. Don’t let them near your kids; they’ll butt them.”
“Good to know.”
“If mine are this far, they’re too far. They’ve all got the same pink collars and jingle bells. And they won’t hurt you, unless you antagonize them somehow.” She hefted the turtle against her hip.
Tasha jerked forward. “Can I help you with that?” she offered, not really wanting to touch the turtle.
“No, that’s OK. I’m gonna let him go down by the creek.”
“Can I take Jacob? Hold onto to him while you make your deposit?”
Sadie pressed Jacob’s hand into Tasha’s palm and grabbed the turtle as it began to slide from her hip. She lifted it upside down, over her head. Her skinny arms concealed her strength as muscles flexed. She walked a high step through the tall field grass, seeking out the perfect spot. Spying a shaded area, she headed for the damp creek bank. Once there, she squatted and brought the turtle down carefully from her head, pointing it to the water. All the reptile’s limbs, tail, and head had retreated into the shell of his home. Sadie planted bunched fists on nonexistent hips. After some time, she toed it. She thought it might be dead, then decided, for no one reason, that it wasn’t. She turned and made her way back through the field towards Tasha, holding onto the toddlers.
“Can you stay for bit?” Tasha asked, as they walked towards the house. She gestured to a play area under the canopy of a big oak tree. There was a picnic table and lawn chairs cooling in the shade. Riley loosened from her mother, took Jacob’s hand, and skipped to the nearby sandbox.
“If you don’t mind, I’d love to sit down for a minute before headin’ back,” Sadie said, and made her way to a lawn chair.
“I’ll run in and check on the baby.” Tasha dashed by. “I’ll bring down some…tea? Sparkling water?”
“Water would be great,” Sadie mopped her brow, and was grateful for the breeze. She watched Jacob and Riley leave the sand box and head to the play fort. They’d crawled through a small doorway at the bottom, and were suddenly waving to her from the top.
“Mama! Do you see me?” Jacob called. “I’m up here!”
“Is that you, all dressed in shinin’ armor like a knight?”
“With a sword!” Jacob waved a thick stick out the opening as evidence.
“See me?” Riley shouted excitedly.
“In the gold cape, wearin’ a gold crown and holdin’ a gold wand? Is that you?”
“Me!” Riley stomped her feet, and shook a puny stick with authority.
Tasha carried a tray as she returned, laden with sweaty glasses of ice water, juice boxes, and an array of cheese and crackers. She set them on the table between the lawn chairs.
“Wow, you just whipped up a feast!” Sadie sat up and piled pieces of cheese on a few crackers. “I am a little hungry, I admit.”
“So, how’d you wind up bringing that giant turtle here?” Tasha asked, watching Jacob and Riley chattering away on the swings.
“This isn’t the first time he’s invaded my pond. They do bite, so I like to get him away from the kids and animals. In the past, I’ve set him loose over near Lydia’s place.”
“Lydia? Wintersen? The woman who paints birdhouses, down at the Sunday market?”
“Yep, that’s Lydia. She paints birdhouses, barn-board signs, stuff like that…Yep, that’s Lydia, all right.”
“Oh, she is just lovely. I bought an old milk can she’d painted with our name on it; it’s on our front porch.”
Sadie grinned, and looked away.
“What? Why do you think that’s funny?” Tasha asked. “Are you laughing that I put a milk can on my porch?”
Sadie waved her hand, “No! No, I think that’s sweet. No, I’m smilin’ because those milk cans, and birdhouses, and every what-not Lydia puts a paintbrush to…Well, folks just love ’em. Especially tourists.”
“Oh, I see. I’ve been sucked into a tourist trap?!” Tasha became indignant. “Well, I like to think of it as contributing to the local economy. Helping out the natives, and such.”
This made Sadie sputter the mouthful of water she’d taken. She giggled and shook her head.
“Now what’s so funny?”
“Oh, all those things she sells at the market, from her tool-paintings to those booties she knits are just pocket change to Lydia.”
“What do you mean?”
“Between Lydia Wintersen’s land holdin’s, rental properties, and stock market investments, believe you me, she’s got more money than the pope.”
“Then why is she selling her wares at the market?”
“Maybe because she wants you to think she’s poor, not because she’s actually poor, no—not even close.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Did you buy that milk can ’cause you thought some poor farmer was doing her best to make ends meet, or because you loved it?”
“Well…actually, I love it. And I was looking for something like it for the porch.”
Sadie shrugged, “OK, well, I might be wrong…”
Tasha laughed. “No, it was the birdhouse and booties I bought because I thought she was a poor farmer trying to make ends meet.”
“See!” Sadie leaned forward and raised her finger. “I rest my case. Lydia’s got her very own tourist trap goin’. It’s all based on the notion that folks love to come here, and want to take a little piece home. Lydia’s a part of that magic.”
“I can see that. I bought into it, for sure. I will say, I love my booties.”
Sadie laughed. “Well, you might not have need of another bird house, but you’ll want to keep buyin’ those booties. She sells them all over the country, you know. There’s usually a waitin’ list.”
“I did just order a pair for Mack. I had no idea how popular they are, not that it’s surprising.”
‘Honestly,” Sadie leaned forward as if about to confide a secret, and whispered, “I think Lydia’s big money actually comes from her real paintings.”
“The ones on the barn-boards?”
“No, Lydia’s a true painter. I mean, an artist. Her paintings are hangin’ in galleries all over the country. Big galleries, too!”
“I accidently saw a check for over ten grand stapled to a receipt for one she’d sold.” Sadie gave Tasha a quick glance to see if she was being judged for her slipped confession. “I wasn’t snoopin’,” she protested, defending herself. “I was makin’ a phone call from her desk, and it was just layin’ out there in the open. Hard to miss.”
“I had to look away just to not see it,” Sadie said, slyly.
Tasha burst into giggles.
Sadie turned sideways to face her. “I didn’t say I wasn’t a snoop, mind you, but I do have rules. If it’s just layin’ out there for all the world to see, who am I not to see it?”
Tasha shook her head. “Oh, Sadie, you are funny.”
Sadie smiled, taking in the compliment. She settled back in her chair and said knowingly, “I will say this: that Lydia Wintersen, given all her dough, is one of the best people in the world.”
Tasha smiled. It confirmed what she already felt. “I’m glad to hear that; I like her. She invited me to a…gathering, I think she called it. Sometime next month?”
“Oh, you should definitely come. It’s a gatherin’ for women and children.” She whirled a finger in the air to include the surroundings. “For our neighborhood. All weekend. We set up tents, cook food over fires, and hang out.”
“That sounds nice.”
“There’s always music, and we let the kids loose. You’ll meet your neighbors, if you come.”
“I’d like that…” Tasha hesitated. “Where does Lydia live?”
“Just over that little ridge. Past those cows you like listenin’ to. Those are her cows.”
“Well, I had no idea.”
Sadie pointed to a spot to the left. “See through that gap between those two big hemlocks? That’s Lydia’s chimney. At least, one of them.”
“Well, that’s not very far. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I have seen smoke coming from over that way.”
“She’s been there a long time. We—me and Jimmy—we actually rent our farm from her right now.” Sadie kicked at the dirt. “One day, we might buy it.”
“That’d be nice.”
“On the other hand…when the furnace goes out, it’s nice having a landlady to fix it,” Sadie said, somehow working it out in her head as she thought about her circumstance.
“That’s true too.”
“We make a bit of a triangle, we three: you, me, and Lydia. I’m over there on Adam’s Mountain, you’re here on Bench Bald, and Lydia’s up Cady’s Cove. ABC!” Sadie smacked the arm of the chair as she realized the connection.
“Well, this just makes me happy,” Tasha said. “What a great couple of neighbors to discover!”
Sadie smiled and patted her shoulder. “And for us, too.”
“So, why’d you decide not to let the turtle loose at Lydia’s?” Tasha asked.
“He kept comin’ back! I thought maybe if I turned him loose facin’ south instead of north, he’d find somebody else’s pond to call home. But I think maybe the real reason I headed this way was to meet you,” Sadie said.
Sadie interrupted, shouting, “Jacob! You get down from there before you crack your head open!” Jacob was hanging upside down from the top rail of the swing set, a good distance from the ground. “I mean it! Don’t make me get up!”
He reached for the chains of the swing and flipped himself through, landing as if it were an Olympic dismount. He almost bowed, as it was near perfect, but stopped himself.
“You’re lucky this time, mister!” Sadie called out, but Jacob and Riley had already rounded the fort, hiding on the other side.
“He’s about to give me a heart attack,” Sadie said, and sat back.
“I thought you handled that quite calmly,” Tasha noted. “I was close to making a run for him.”
“Oh, no! You can’t do that with Jacob; he’ll make it worse. That kid will start walking along the beam, or whatever crazy boy idea he gets in his head next. Just like his father.”
“Is Jimmy a daredevil?”
“No, Jacob’s a true daredevil; Jimmy’s more like a reactor. Daredevils actually think through their deeds somewhat; Jimmy just blindly stumbles around in his,” Sadie remarked, surprised she’d shared Jimmy’s failings so easily with Tasha. “It’s why I started studyin’ numbers. Tryin’ to figure out our little family.”
“Numerology and all that?” Tasha asked. She’d grown up in San Francisco, so a lot of this New Age stuff wasn’t terribly new to her.
“Sort of. Jimmy, Jacob, and I all have five letters in our names. And fives are all about adventure: risk-takin’, high energy. I have to admit, there’s a lot of that goin’ on in our little house. That’s why I’m givin’ this one,” Sadie patted her belly, “a six-letter name. Sixes are calmin’, nurturin’, unconditionally lovin’. I admit, I can use some unconditional lovin’.”
“Couldn’t we all,” Tasha agreed. She kept her eye on Riley, who was now dancing across the lawn.
“Sorry, Jimmy tells me all the time I get obsessed. He’s probably right. Lately, it seems like I get into the weeds about things.”
“What about threes?” Tasha suddenly thought to ask.
“Threes? Oh. They are big deal numbers. They’re symbolic, and they’re everywhere.”
“You mean like the Holy Trinity?”
“Holy Trinity is only one. The ancient Chinese thought three was the perfect number.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m not sure yet; I haven’t gotten that far in the book.” Sadie grinned. “It’s patterns, in mostly everything. Beginning, middle, end…past, present, future…birth, life, death!”
“Good grief!” Tasha exclaimed. “I hadn’t thought about it ’til now, but threes do seem significant when you think about Greek mythology, where you have the three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades…”
“What do they stand for?”
“Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades—”
“The underworld,” Sadie interrupted.
“Exactly,” Tasha said. She stood and raised her hand to her brow to shade the sun rounding the oak tree. “Now, where did those little buggers go?” she wondered aloud. “Oh! There they are, heading for the creek.”
“Jacob!” Sadie cupped her hands and yelled through the little megaphone. “You get back here!”
The children stopped mid-field, and seemed to discuss the matter between themselves.
“Riley!” Tasha’s turn to shout as she took a step toward the field. “Come back here, right now!”
As if weighing their options the little pair hesitated, then turned around and ran back to the play area.
“Testing us,” Tasha said and returned to her chair.
“Yeah, they are. And that’s a good thing, I suppose.”
“Another set of threes,” Tasha returned to their conversation, “‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ ‘The Three Apprentices,’ three guesses in ‘Rumplestiltskin’…There are a lot of threes in fairy tales.”
“Like I said, threes are a big deal everywhere.”
“We could probably name them all day,” Tasha agreed.
“Think about it: you, me, and Lydia living in a triangle. ABC…it means something. Life paths, compatibility, even destiny. Maybe that’s why I dropped that turtle off here, today…threes.”
“There are no coincidences,” Sadie stated. “How could there be, when God is everywhere and in everything?”
“You believe that?”
“Of course. I mean, just look.” Sadie swept a hand across the landscape in front of them. “I think all of that has a little piece of God in it, just like you, just like me. And that means we’re all related—bugs, grass, turtles, and people alike…”
“I like that idea better than thinking of some gray-bearded, judgmental old man looking down on us and deciding our fates—or coincidences.”
“Yeah, I gave up on all that a long time ago, when I gave up the Baptist Church—Southern Baptist.”
“Yikes…” Tasha wasn’t very religious. She’d grown up going to a progressive church, back home in San Francisco. She had only heard stories about the Bible-belt Southern Baptists. Mack’s family did go to one of those churches, but Mack had no interest in attending.
“Oh, yeah. I left the church when I met Jimmy. He was into TM; you know, Transcendental Meditation?”
“You mean floating and stuff?” Tasha asked.
“It’s more complicated than that, but yeah, that’s part of it. I did it for a while, but then I got bored with all that sittin’ and thinkin’, tryin’ to find a higher power…when what you really want is a hot dog.”
Tasha laughed out loud. Sadie’s straight-faced deliveries added to the substance.
“True enough! You laugh, but have you ever sat cross-legged for, like, five hours, listenin’ to the grumblin’ tummies of everybody around you, and not had images of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches dance in your head? No?” Sadie smiled. “Then don’t laugh.”
“So, I take it you don’t do TM anymore?”
“No. I don’t, but Jimmy does. Funny how he’s stuck with it.”
“Do you go to church?”
“Oh, hell no…unless you count this right here.”
“Well, I wasn’t, but I get it.”
“I’m doin’ a lot of readin’ about ancient goddesses, Mother Earth, the universe, rituals. Have you read Starhawk?”
“No, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I’ll loan you my copy of Spiral Dance. You’ll like it.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I am a big reader, I admit. I’m glad to meet another.”
“True enough, I’ve always got three or four books goin’ all at once.” Sadie pushed herself up from the chair. She stretched her back, and called to Jacob to come along. “We’ve got to get back,” she said. “Thanks for the water and the rest, and the chat.”
“I am so glad you decided to dump your turtle here, today,” Tasha said.
“Destiny!” Sadie grinned.
“Maybe.” Tasha shook her head. “Hey, want to get together for a playdate one of these days?”
“Playdate? Hell, come over any time. We don’t need to make a playdate.”
“All right then. How will I find you?”
“Follow the goat path; it’ll spill you into our backyard.” Sadie headed for the little lane. She put out her hand for Jacob, and they went up the skinny path.
If it hadn’t been for the babies, the mortgage, no money, and being trapped in the crack of an ass of a mountain in Nofuckingwhere Tennessee, Tasha would’ve packed up the girls and headed back to the Bay Area, where life mattered. She would not be going to some lame women’s gathering at her new acquaintance Lydia’s. Going home was her fantasy, prayer, and fondest wish ever since Mack dragged her here, “temporarily.” Two years later, it felt permanent.
The ground sucked at her ankles as she walked across the yard; grapevines tangled her hair as she passed. In the garden, on her hands and knees, she felt an urge to lie face down in the dirt, allowing the vegetables to grow over her, covering her; allowing autumn winds to blow dry husks and brown leaves, hiding her; allowing sugary white snow to drift over her stripped white bones, forming a perfectly splayed, frozen five-point star. That’s how they’d find her—eventually.
She should have known you don’t build a giant McMansion in the middle of a cow pasture in bum-fuck Egypt if you’re only going to stay for a couple of years. “And then Paris, Babe!” Mack had said when she reminded him after the first year, and again after the second. He’d been pretending until this morning. This morning, the truth had come out.
This morning, he’d complained that she was taking the girls camping with a bunch of witches, from what he’d heard down at the lodge. That he even belonged to a lodge was news to her. He’d kept his redneck ways hidden the whole time they were away at college—but now that he was back home in hillbilly country, he was a full-blown bumpkin.
“What is the point of sleeping in some moldy tent on a cow-pied pasture with a bunch of women dancing around naked?” he’d demanded.
“What is the point of spending a weekend riding in go-carts chasing little white balls around a manicured lawn with a bunch of men wagging their dicks around?”
“I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”
“Then how about dignifying this answer with the truth? When the hell are we moving out of this shithole state?” She threw it in his face again, but she couldn’t help herself; she’d had it. “When’s Paris, Mack? Or any fucking where but here?”
He slung his golf clubs over one shoulder and his travel bag over the other. “Never, Tasha. We’re never leaving. This is my home. Now it’s our home. Get used to it.”
Then he slammed the door in her face.
Pushing a stroller carrying provisions, Tasha trundled up Lydia’s long winding driveway with Lacy in the pack on her back and Riley skipping along ahead of her. She heard the festivities spread around the farm before she saw anyone. The first sounds were squeals of children’s laughter, coming from the creek. There was distant drumming, music, and the easy, melodious chatter of many female voices. As Tasha rounded the bend, she could see brightly colored tents pocking the far pasture. A dozen or so hoisted animated flags flapping in the wind, signaling home base for roaming children. There were a few small plumes of smoke rising from cook fires, and there was a larger fire pit anchoring the temporary community.
What she hadn’t told Mack was that she wouldn’t be sleeping in a moldy tent on a cow-pied field. Instead, she’d been invited to stay in her own bedroom in the farmhouse, along with a few other mothers with babies. She headed for the cool shaded porch, peppered with women. Lots of women of all ages, sizes, colors…and in varying stages of undress. Tasha noticed that all of the women were braless, and most were topless; she felt awkward and overdressed in her bra, mom jeans, and Disney T-shirt.
Riley pointed to the porch and called out “The Story Lady!” The little girl flew up the steps and landed in Marie Raposa’s lap. Marie was known far and wide as The Story Lady. She’d been holding story hour every Saturday at the library, ever since she was a teenager. She played guitar, had a bunch of puppets, and rewarded cuddles with the candy she kept in the pockets of her calico apron. Marie was married to Frank Raposa, the local butcher (and philanderer), with whom she had a bunch of kids. Riley snuggled against Marie’s soft bosom. Tasha shrugged, and Marie waved her away.
As Tasha began lugging the stroller up the stairs, she was shadowed by a figure at the top, eclipsing the sun. Tasha shaded her gaze as a turbaned Lydia, carrying a large platter of fruits, cheeses, and breads, descended the steps and settled in front of her. Nestled among the pink peaches, rosy apples, and rounded melons, Tasha saw two plump bosoms belonging to Lydia, whose grin widened as she watched Tasha’s eyes fall to the friendly fruit.
“You made it!” Lydia said, her voice welcoming. “After we spoke yesterday, I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”
Tasha recalled the phone conversation, in which she’d confessed that she didn’t think she’d be able to make it. She’d confided that her husband wasn’t wild about the idea of the girls in a tent. This led to Lydia’s offer of a bedroom in the house instead. “For the sake of the baby’s health,” was how Lydia had put it.
“Here, let me put this down and show you to your room.” Lydia’s eyes held Tasha’s for a moment longer than she would normally have allowed a near stranger, but Tasha could not look away. She felt pulled, then pushed, her insides stilled in ways that both frightened and intrigued her. This woman was about to shift the plates under the planet where Tasha had been planted, only she didn’t know how.
It was the last day of the gathering, and Chloe Middleton awakened early. The drizzly rain pattering the roof of the tent was soothing. She was not alone, she noticed, but sandwiched between Lisa and Jane Raposa, Marie’s (The Story Lady’s) little girls, each curled into a tight ball on either side of her. She didn’t remember them coming to bed the night before, and couldn’t recall when they’d arrived—but she didn’t mind, as they were keeping her cozily warm in the damp morning air. Dawn was dark, and gray light filtered through the moonroof. She watched the storm clouds gathering above. Wrapping her arms around each little body and hugging them closer, she ran her fingers through their equally soft curls. She believed this was the perfect last morning of a perfect weekend of wonderful women. Oh, she liked that thought: A weekend of wonderful women. It sounded like a good title for a story. She wished her notebook were within reach, as she always liked to write these ideas down. Looking at the wooden box beside her sleeping bag, she saw the journal clenching a pen in its fold and managed to stretch just enough to grab it without disturbing the little girls.
She flicked on the flashlight she kept under her pillow and opened the book, dislodging the pen. She was immediately confused as she shone the light on the page. The handwriting was foreign, not her own; large, scrawled, black letters were etched into the page. The pressure of the ballpoint had dug gullies and divots into the paper.
See how many whores will fuck you without me around to take care of your 7 fucking kids, clean your dirty fucking house, and blow your tiny fucking dick.
The Story Lady
Carefully extricating herself from between the little girls, slowly Chloe slid up and out of the sleeping bag. She pulled on shorts and sweatshirt, then counted breaths as she tied her sneakers. Her hands were shaking so much she kept snagging the tent zipper. “Come on, Chloe; keep it together,” she hissed. Finally freeing a passage big enough to slip through, she saw the little girls had curled around each other as she re-zipped the tent flap. She stood to see the stilled and sleeping camp huddled beneath the mist. Light drizzle steadily drenched everything; she pulled up her hood, looked to the house, and ran for Lydia.
They’d signaled a quiet alarm. Lydia sent Chloe and Sadie to send a whisper through the camp for some to start the search and some to stay with the children. They spread out. Numerous pairs ran in the many directions while others stayed with the children, including the little Raposa girls. Chloe and Sadie went together across the fields. They noticed the small hanks of calico cloth littering the goat path between Lydia’s and Sadie’s farms. Initially, the ragged patches were tied to bush and tree branches; further along, Chloe could tell they’d been ripped and tossed, like rose petals leading to a romantic evening—except these shredded pieces of colorful fabric were now muddied and wet. As the women followed them, Chloe grabbed Sadie’s hand and wouldn’t let go.
They stood before the gap in the sliding door of Sadie’s goat barn, where the tattered remnants of The Story Lady’s calico apron lay in a heap. The barn was a tall weathered building once used to house hay, but it now contained more than a dozen of Sadie’s favored barnyard animals.
“Wait,” Chloe tugged on Sadie’s arm. “Don’t go in there alone. Shouldn’t we get someone? Lydia?”
Sadie pointed to the calico apron, now a mere scrap of its former self. “She’s in there, Chloe. What if she’s hurt?”
“You’re right. You’re right.” Chloe let go of Sadie, who pushed the door wide enough for the pair to enter the dark cavern. As Chloe’s eyes adjusted, she felt the dry warmth of the barn; the sweet smell of hay and the musky smell of goat mingled, making her stomach turn. The animals were rousing, huffing, snorting, and beginning their morning rise.
It was Sadie who startled her by shouting, “MARIE? You in here?”
They walked along the opposite edges of the rectangular barn, passing stalls, troughs, hay bales, and feed sacks, only to meet at the other end. They turned and stood, staring down the length of the yawning gloom.
“Where could she be?” Chloe whispered.
Sadie held her breath, listening to all the familiar sounds: goats grunting, the hum of the generator, water dripping from gutters and catching in rain barrels at the corners…but there was another sound, a small sound that did not fit. A creaking, warped-wood wincing sound, rhythmic like a docked boat might make: a sound out of place in this barn. Sadie let her ears tune in and her eyes followed upwards, to the hay loft: to the long pole rafters, to the rope tied to the joist, tied to Marie’s snapped neck. Just above them she saw a slight flutter of white, the slip of a nightgown waving in surrender.
Someone forgot about the little girls. Everyone was screaming their mother’s name; hysteria loosed, women grabbed babies and children grabbed hands, and all ran towards the horror, not away from it. Wailing women and sirens coming led, each sounding the urgency, the emergency, and the exigency of the chaotic mass of bodies racing through the wet grasses. Across river stones, jumping post rail fences, they spilled like ants escaping fire, not knowing they were heading for flood waters that would carry each away on a fragile leaf of a morning that none, not even the youngest, would ever forget.
It was Chloe who saw them first: the little Raposa girls, clinging to one another. Hands grasped tightly, they skittered through skirts of mothers and clumps of children. Their curdling yells for “Mama!” reached Chloe’s ears, and she ran towards them. When she saw Lisa and Jane making for the barn door, she double-timed her own little legs, and leapt to catch their clasped bodies; instead, just out of range, she slipped in the mud, fell, and came up empty-handed. Like a receiver who had both wind and ball knocked from her grasp, she rolled over in time to see the little pajama-clad pair slip through the door. She was upright when the rise of their screams began echoing through the barn, sending swallows and swifts from its eaves. It stilled everyone. Like a tableau vivant caught on stage, the shrill keening signaling the little girls’ terror filled the cove like a reverberating ringing caught in the curve of a bell.
Lydia threw another log on the fire and watched as the sparks flew up into the black starless sky. She sank back into the lawn chair, and leaned both elbows on both knees. Sighing heavily, as if there was not one more thing her body could do, she pulled papers and pot from her pocket and carefully began to roll a joint. Next to her, Chloe uncapped the jar of white moonshine, strawberry infused, made by locals in stills hidden in the hollers of these hills. She let the liquid tingle inside her mouth before swallowing. It was smooth, sweet, and satiny sliding down her throat. People have the wrong idea about moonshine, she thought. She looked over to Lydia, licking the gummed sleeve of the joint. Just like they have the wrong idea about weed. Lydia took a hit and passed it to Chloe, who traded it for the Mason jar. Lydia thought, Not even weed and ’shine can cut through the fogged horror of this morning.
Sadie emerged from the darkness, coming from the path in the woods. She sat beside Chloe, took the joint, held her breath, and exhaled a long, humming sadness. “Jimmy says not to worry about the boys. Says I can stay here tonight—if that’s OK with you, Lydia.”
“That’s fine with me, Sadie.”
“I’m staying, too.” Chloe said, handing Sadie the jar of moonshine. ’Shine was something Sadie would normally pass on, since she wasn’t much of a drinker, but she took the jar and stuck her nose in the opening. It was like getting a big whiff of a pungent, sweet flower. She inhaled again, and once more.
“For God’s sakes, Sadie; quit sniffing, and just take a sip. You’ll be glad you did,” Lydia said.
Sadie took a sip and another toke, then passed both down the line.
Up the drive came a pair of headlights, a car slowly bouncing towards them.
“Oh, crap. Who the hell is that?” Lydia squinted. “I am in no mood for anybody but us.”
Tasha turned off the ignition, and looked over to see that Riley was sleeping soundly on the seat next to her. She adjusted the pillow, and pressed a teddy bear securely into the crook of the little girl’s arm. Turning around, she checked to see that Lacy was safely strapped in her car seat, thumb in mouth. She tucked the blanket around the baby’s shoulders, and quietly slid out of the vehicle, closing the door gently. She walked towards the fire, where she saw that Lydia was not alone, but with Chloe and Sadie. Tasha did not know the two women well, but found she loved them anyway. All three of them, actually, Tasha considered as she approached. She was totally in love with all three of them. This thought comforted her, even though it wasn’t entirely true; she did love them all, but it was only one of them whom she was in love with—and this thought terrified her.
“Tasha!” Chloe exclaimed. “Is everything all right?”
“It is,” she said. Warming her back against the fire, she stood facing the three older women. “I was just…Well…” she turned and gestured to the car. “The girls are asleep in there.”
“Sit down,” Lydia said, patting the seat beside her. “Here.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mean to intrude…”
“No intrusion from you, Tasha,” Sadie took a long hit off the joint. “For a minute there, we thought you were Carly Samson; she would have definitely been an intrusion, but we like you.”
Tasha smiled, but it was an effort.
“You OK?” Lydia asked.
Tasha nodded, but actually wasn’t sure. She gladly sipped from the mason jar Lydia handed her, and let it settle her shaking hands and slow her thumping heart. “It’s just that when I got home, Mack had left a message saying he was going to spend another night away. And…Well…after this morning, I just didn’t want to be alone, I guess.”
“No worries there,” Sadie said. “Why do you think we’re all here?”
“I’m glad you came,” Lydia said, and patted Tasha’s hand.
Chloe soothed, “It’s times like this when it’s best not to be alone with the images imprinted in our minds. Sometimes they can be more terrifying than what we see with our own eyes. You can always look away from what’s in front of you, but when it’s in your brain…well, there’s no escaping it then.”
They were quiet for a while, each lost in her own thoughts.
“Chloe, did you know Marie was that unhappy?” Lydia asked.
Chloe’s eyes didn’t leave the fire when she nodded, somewhat regretfully. “I didn’t know it was this bad. I didn’t know that she was so angry, so desperate, so…determined.”
“What do you mean, determined?” Tasha asked.
“Oh, I don’t know how to even admit this, but Marie knew Frank was cheating on her. She told me so, and then I…Well, she and I would…Oh, it’s too awful.”
“You and she would what?” Sadie pressed. “You can’t just leave it there.”
“We went spying on him.”
“Like detectives. We’d follow him, watching through the windows; when possible, we’d take pictures. Marie would make notes. She swore it was for evidence later, when she filed for divorce—but she never filed, or even got a lawyer. It was almost as if she was more interested in plotting her revenge than actually carrying it out. I never thought…never could have even believed that this is how she’d do it. What have I done?”
“You’ve done nothing, Chloe, except try to help out a friend.”
“I don’t know about that, Lydia. A real friend wouldn’t have egged her on, treated it like a game. A real friend would’ve known it was unravelling her. A real friend would’ve listened better.”
“I’m sure you listened just fine.”
Chloe reached into her pocket and pulled out her journal, handing it to Lydia. “Then why’d she leave this in my journal?”
See how many whores will fuck you without me around to take care of your 7 fucking kids, clean your dirty fucking house, and blow your tiny fucking dick.
The Story Lady
Lydia read the note and passed it along to Tasha, who read it with wide eyes and passed it to Sadie.
“Jesus,” Sadie muttered. “What the hell?”
“You wouldn’t expect that those words came from Marie, would you?” Tasha said.
“You never know about people,” Lydia offered.
“I feel like I should’ve known about this. I should’ve known better, more…Or…I don’t know, something that could’ve helped or stopped her,” Chloe said.
“That’s not your burden,” Sadie said. “That’s a burden for Frank Raposa to bear.”
“That and seven orphaned children,” Tasha concurred.
“What should I do with this?” Chloe held up the journal. “I probably should’ve given it to the sheriff, but I just didn’t have the heart to expose any more of Marie than was already bared in her…passing.”
“Those poor children. That’s not something they should know about,” Sadie said.
“Frank Raposa should know it.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure Frank Raposa knows exactly why Marie did what she did, note or no note. If anything, Marie did put an end to his running around, pretty sure of that,” Lydia said.
Chloe said, “Lisa and Jane Raposa are going to be living with that final horrible image of Marie burned into their brains forever, just like it’s burned into ours. That’s bad enough.”
Tasha couldn’t help but shed a tear as she listened to the three older women, and tried to swallow back a sickening sadness.
“Throw it in the fire,” Lydia said.
Chloe looked stunned. “The note?”
“Yeah, the note. Get rid of it.”
“But…Shouldn’t I…tell someone?”
“Tell who? We know. That’s enough.”
“She’s right,” Sadie said. “No one needs to know about this. It’ll only be fodder for gossip, and you know how this valley loves gossip.”
“I don’t know,” Chloe hesitated and glanced again at the vileness written on the page. “Tasha? What do you think? You’ve been quiet.”
Tasha shrugged. “I think it’s the saddest thing in the world. The madness she must have had inside her…the pain that drove her to do such harm…to everyone. To herself, her kids, Frank…” a tear slid down Tasha’s cheek, and she felt embarrassed. “And to us.”
They all turned to her, surprised by the usually reserved Tasha’s forceful words.
“She did this to all of us,” Tasha said accusingly. She admitted to herself there were many times in the last few years when she’d thought to leave Mack, maybe even exit the planet; but she wouldn’t, couldn’t, knowing her absence would affect everyone in her life, even if she were no longer in it. “It was selfish,” she said quietly.
“She’s right,” Sadie said. “Marie did this to us all. We all have to live with a piece of this horror now.”
“Throw it in the fire,” Tasha said. “Words like that will only twist an already twisted heartache.”
Chloe felt her heart beating. Words…words mattered. She was a writer; she knew. Words were mightier than the sword. They were also mightier than the dollar, the position, even the purpose, because just a few right ones strung together in the right order, delivered to the right audience at the right time, could right the world—or wreck it. Her own words had earned her money, position, and purpose her entire adult life. They comprised her writerly sword, and with it she had learned how the right words could lift or crush a spirit. Tasha was right; Marie’s words made her suicide worse, somehow, more ugly than pitiful—if that’s fair, she questioned herself. Chloe ran a finger over the black etchings on the paper; the ridges of the imprinted symbols were scored into the page like Braille. She felt the fierce anger in each furrowed incision.
“No child should ever know something like this about her parents,” Lydia said, holding Chloe’s gaze. “It’ll be our secret, Chloe; we’ll keep it for those poor little Raposa kids.”
With that, Chloe ripped the page from her journal and tossed it into the flames.
About the Author
Cynn Chadwick is an author of seven novels: Cat Rising; Girls With Hammers; Babies, Bikes, and Broads; Cutting Loose; Angels and Manners; As The Table Turns; and That’s Karma, Baby… Her books have been nominated for the Lambda, Golden Crown, and Stonewall Literary Awards. Over the course of her career, she has done readings and speaking engagements including: Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, The Authors’ Arena at Book Expo America in Chicago, Human Rights Campaign Headquarters, DC, AWP in Atlanta, Amelia Island Book Festival, FL, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville and UNCA are just a few of her past speaking and reading engagements. She holds a BA from Norwich University and both an MA and MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. Over the last, nearly, thirty years, she taught creative writing to fifth-graders and senior citizens, teachers and homeless teens, college students and convicted felons and have been equally touched by each of their stories. She lives with her wife Elenna and their Springer Spaniel, The Amazing Andy, in the Blue Ridge Mountains is where she taught in the English Department and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.