by Elizabeth Musser
Saturday, May 25, 1985
Somewhere between Atlanta and Chattanooga on Interstate 75
The hail came from nowhere. The sky turned dark gray, as if a shade had suddenly been pulled down over the highway. Lissa felt her knuckles tighten on the steering wheel as the hail pounded the windshield. “Leave it to Tennessee to give us hail on an otherwise perfect spring day,” Momma said lightly.
She isn’t worried, Lissa thought, so why should I be? The cars behind her on I-75 had slowed to a crawl, disappearing in the rearview mirror.
“Anyway, I think that a substantial scholarship to a small, liberal arts college is worth considering. I know you have your heart set on an Ivy League, but I was frankly impressed with this small school.” “There’s so much to think about, Momma. It makes my brain hurt.” Momma laughed. “One day at a time, Lissa.” Now the hail was hitting the windshield so forcefully it popped. “This is freaky.” “Yes. You better slow down, Liss.” Momma’s voice cracked. The hail thundered all the louder, harder. Glancing in the rearview mirror, Lissa wondered where all the other cars had gone. “I think we should pull over. This will pass in a few minutes.” Lissa pushed on the brake, too quickly, and the car slipped and swerved precariously to the left. She saw the white dashes separating the lanes blend into one. How can I measure a safe distance from the car in front if there are no dashes? It’s all one twisting curving blurry line. It didn’t matter—there were no cars ahead of theirs. “Lissa! Slow down!” The car was almost perpendicular to the highway. What had her driving instructor said about correcting a skid?
Turn the steering wheel in the direction the car is already going.
She turned the steering wheel, and the car slid in the opposite direction, zigzagging across the highway. A car passed, slowly, slowly on her left.
That man looks really scared, staring out the window at me.
A horn blared. Or was it the hail? A car crept by on the right. Then one swerved out of the way on the left.
This is what it feels like to be completely out of control.
The hail popping on the windshield echoed the sound of her pulse in her ears.
How will I go to college if I die on the highway in a freaky storm?
“Slow down, Liss!” Momma’s voice was a whisper, a terrified whisper.
Lissa forcefully pressed down on the brake, and the car slid again—now they were hurtling to the right, toward the cement wall of an underpass. Lissa watched it move closer, closer.
We are going to hit the wall. It is covered in graffiti, and we are going to hit it.
The car righted and slowed as the wall drew closer. The sound of hail stopped momentarily under the cover of the bridge. Lissa was vaguely aware of the screeching of brakes. Closer, closer.
The car slipped out from under the bridge, the hail pounded again, the white lines began breaking up. The car finally came to a halt in the emergency lane. Lissa let out a sob, head down, hands trembling on the wheel. She sat with her mother in stunned silence, hearing only their labored breathing. “Thank the Lord,” Momma whispered eventually, seconds later. Or minutes? She reached over and gave Lissa’s hand a pat. “There. Good job, sweetie.” She flashed Lissa a weak smile. Lissa continued to tremble. She couldn’t release her fierce grip on the steering wheel. The hail stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun blinked through the clouds. Cars whizzed by, spraying the windshield with fresh rain. “Honey, scoot over to the passenger’s side. I’ll drive.” Still Lissa sat, her hands on the steering wheel, her seat glued to the upholstery. “Scoot over, sweetie. I’ll come around.” She met her mother’s eyes briefly; they shared a smile of relief. Other cars sped by. The wet pavement shone, glistened, a rainbow of colors in front of them. Lissa slid to the passenger side, admiring the violet blue that momentarily dressed the pavement, while her mother walked in front of the car and quickly opened the driver’s door. At the same moment Lissa saw, with a glimpse in the rearview mirror, a truck trying to pass a car, the car swerving, slipping and skidding as she had done minutes before. She saw it as in slow motion, the car sliding across two lanes, coming towards them, towards her mother. The scream started in her throat and exploded, “Momma!” The car slammed into theirs, throwing Lissa’s mother twenty feet ahead onto the pavement of I-75.
Friday, September 18, 1987
Lissa woke as usual to the sound of the voices. Sometimes they only whispered faintly, a vague accusation. At other times they shouted, furious, demanding. Glancing at the alarm clock, her foggy brain registered seven thirty. How many times had she hit the snooze button? She swung her feet out of bed and planted them on the hardwood floor. She stared at the small oval rug just to her left. The intricate needlepoint pattern displayed a rush of color—pansies and butterflies. Lissa concentrated on the blending of the muted yellows and bright fuchsia. She counted to ten, stood, and made her way into the bathroom, massaging her temples with the tips of her fingers. She threw cold water on her face, grabbed a towel, and blotted her face dry. She reached for an elastic band and pulled her tangled hair into a ponytail, wrapping the elastic around once, twice, three times. Back in the bedroom, she lay on the rug beside the bed and forced her way through fifty sit-ups, staring at the imaginary spot on the ceiling, the one she had willed into existence so that she could report it to her therapist. Routine, routine. Down the stairs and into the kitchen, still panting, she turned on the kettle, took a sachet of tea from the little cardboard box, and dangled it into a mug. She added two lumps of sugar. As the kettle began to whistle, she lifted it from the burner and poured the water into the mug, watching the steam rise. She opened a cabinet and grabbed for a box of cereal. It didn’t matter which one, just as long as there was enough sugar to perk her up. Then the hot tea would kick in. Her father’s empty mug sat in the sink. She studied the thin-lined stain of coffee inside the rim. The dirty trace it left spelled out for her You’re late. “Lissa! We’re leaving in ten!” “Okay, Dad,” she whispered to herself. Sitting on a stool at the breakfast room counter, she leafed through the booklet once again. She knew it by heart—which had in no way kept her from failing the test three times before. Today would be different, she told herself. No, it won’t. Today will be like the last 423 days. Dark, depressing, sluggish, morose.
Today had to be different, she told herself, thinking of the letter that sat on her bedside table. When are you coming to see Caleb? it had asked.
Her stomach cramped. She imagined Caleb there in the dark, waiting for her. Today had to be different. “Good morning, Lissa,” Mrs. Rivers’s voice called out from behind a stack of books. “Good morning.” She forced a smile, walked behind the circulation desk to the gray metal cart loaded with books. “I’ll start reshelving.” “Thanks, dear.” Lissa pushed the cart along the aisles, reading the book titles slowly, almost tasting the ingredients in the ones she knew so well. Rebecca, All the King’s Men, Things Fall Apart. She grimaced. That one described her life perfectly.
Eastern Crossings. She had never heard of it. She carefully opened the cover, then snapped it closed and reshelved it.
Returning to the circulation desk, she offered, “I’ll pick out a book for the elementary reading today.” “That will be fine, dear.” The librarian’s voice sounded sugary sweet, sweeter than the cereal Lissa had eaten that morning. Quit feeling sorry for me! But why shouldn’t Mrs. Rivers look at her resignedly, when one of Lissa’s favorite tasks was choosing and reading a children’s book for the first graders who came to the library on Friday afternoons? “I’ll need to leave a little early today, right after story hour.” “That’s fine, dear. Your father phoned to say he’ll be picking you up. Driving test?” “Yes, ma’am.” “I’m sure you’ll pass this time.” Mrs. Rivers didn’t mean to look pitiful, but Lissa knew her thoughts. The girl who had graduated in the top 5 percent of her class from this very school should not be shelving books in the school library. She should be getting an education from Radcliffe or Princeton or Harvard or Williams, or perhaps Georgia State. Somewhere. Failure. Failure. Seventeen first graders arrived at the library, giggling and whispering. It pained Lissa to study their bright, inquisitive faces. I used to be like them. I used to want to know everything. Now I just wish I could disappear. The children found their places on the rug and looked at her expectantly, eyes wide, faces solemn. “Today we’re reading a story called Madeline. It takes place in a faraway land called France.” She began to read, giving voice to the characters in the story. It always surprised Lissa that her own voice sounded warm and full and calm, when inside the voices were not. Failure. Your fault. Give up! “I’m afraid you didn’t pass,” the young driving instructor said, when Lissa cut the motor and sat with her hands folded in her lap. She didn’t meet his eyes. She bit her lip and nodded and murmured, “Thanks anyway.” She started to get out of the car when he said, “Miss, I don’t mean to intrude, but you say you’ve failed the test three times?” She nodded again. “Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, I know you can pass. It’s not that you don’t know how to drive. It’s just you’re so doggone nervous.” He cleared his throat. You’re doggone nervous too, she thought, but the sarcasm stayed in her mind. “I know a man who’s really great at helping kids who are afraid of driving. He runs a school. He’s kinda old, but he’s good. Been teaching kids to drive for thirty years now.” He fiddled in his shirt pocket where Department of Motor Vehicles was stitched in dark blue thread, pulled out a card, and handed it to Lissa. She stared at the card and murmured, “Thanks.” The young instructor shrugged. “I’d give him a call. Couldn’t hurt.” Lissa waited at the curb for her father to pick her up. She thought of him as a jovial man, big and brash. He used to hug her to his chest and slap his hand down on the coffee table and let his head fall back in boisterous laughter. He did these things still, but it was all pretense. The arms that closed around her, the big, muscular arms, felt stiff, unbending—a wooden hug that gave no comfort—and his words were equally wooden: Lissa, that’s enough. We will not talk about it again. Do you understand? She felt the pain gnawing her from the inside. Your fault! screamed a voice. So loudly that for the moment she couldn’t hear the one whispering Not good enough. Her father’s gray BMW rolled into the parking lot. Lissa painted a calm expression on her face, but she was sure he could read it nonetheless, before she even opened her mouth. The image in her mind was still there, though blurred. She was giggling; her father was tiptoeing through the house, pretending to be befuddled; her mother hummed softly in the background. A bright, airy, happy memory. The tune she could hear even now, that softly hummed tune. Lissa reached, physically, with one hand for the image, trying to grasp it before it evaporated. Even after the image disappeared, she thought she could faintly hear the giggles. Then she realized it was the panting of the BMW’s powerful motor as her father pulled the car up beside her. He gave her the big, hopeful smile. “How’d it go?” She shrugged, climbed into the passenger’s seat, not meeting his eyes. “I failed.” His smile faded, the wooden arm reached over and patted her on the back. She felt the heaviness of the silence between them. She closed her eyes as they drove toward home, and she willed herself to hear the soft melody again.
Instead, the voices whispered around her head, pecking at her like a bird on a windowpane, pecking. Then suddenly they were shrill—a siren, the teakettle whistling, the burglar alarm at the neighbor’s house. They made her head ache and throb! She rubbed her temples.
“Lissa, you okay?” Her father was staring at her with that perplexed expression on his face. What could she say? What was she allowed to say? “Sure, Dad. I’m fine.” Back in her room, she collapsed on the bed, arms dangling off one side, legs off the other. She turned her head to the side, and with her right hand pulled open the drawer on her bedside table. Reaching underneath a stack of underwear, she clasped the little brown bottle of pills. Thirty-two of them, carefully saved. That should do the trick. She picked up the bottle, let her fingers close around it, and imagined pulling off the small white cap.
What about Caleb? a small voice whispered, wooing her back.
Yes, Caleb. Rolling onto her back, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the little business card. It was crinkled in the middle. MacAllister’s Driving School. An address and a phone number. I’d give him a call. Couldn’t hurt.
She set down the bottle and picked up the phone, and dialed the number.
Monday, September 21
One more year until retirement, Ev MacAllister told himself, leaning forward in the chair to tie his shoes. He did not dwell on the thought. Truth was, he loved his job. A vocation, he called it. At first Annie had thought he should look for something better than sitting in the passenger seat with nervous kids. Eventually, she had understood and accepted it, even embraced it.
He stood up with a grunt, thankful that they had agreed and flourished in that idea for so long after the accident. Could it be almost thirty-five years? His first client drove well, a sixteen-year-old girl who was meticulous, careful, and focused. Easy. The next client was waiting for him by the mailbox of the dirt driveway that made a loop in front of his old Victorian home. The sky was cloudy, a surprisingly cool nip in the September air. Ev always gave his clients the benefit of the doubt, refused to judge by appearances. But after observing kids for so long, he could read them with amazing accuracy, and what he saw in front of him was spelled out on the young lady’s face as if she were holding a sign. I’ve failed this test several times and I’m scared to death and I’m begging you. Please help me. She wore jeans and a bright turquoise T-shirt. She had pulled her tousled brown hair into a loose bun and secured it with a long spearlike instrument, and the hair stuck out and strands fell down around her face. That face held an injured look, fragile; thin, dark circles around large, dark, expressionless eyes. He thought briefly that if she’d gained ten pounds she would be very attractive. As it was, he wondered if she could be anorexic. “Good morning, miss,” he greeted her, holding out his hand. She offered hers limply, not even bothering to disguise her resignation. “You must be Lissa. I’m Ev MacAllister. You ’bout ready?” She nodded, met his eyes briefly, then stared at the ground. “Yes, sir.” And he imagined her thinking Just my luck to get some old geezer. She looked up. “I’m only here for the free evaluation. I’m not sure I’ll be taking lessons.” “That’s fine, young lady. See how you feel after today. If you want to continue, you may.” She nodded again, her hands stuffed into her jeans pockets. “How long does it usually take to help someone?” “All depends on the person.” “I see.” “But I can tell you that in over thirty years of teaching, only a handful of people couldn’t get over their fears.” She glanced up at him suspiciously when he pronounced the word fears. “I need to learn to drive again. It means everything to me.” “Then we’d better get to work, wouldn’t you say?” For one brief moment, Ev saw what looked like a flash of determination in her eyes, before she turned them down to stare at the pavement again. That was enough—the look in her eyes brought back the memory of an old, familiar aching. He felt the lurch in his gut, ignored it, and walked toward the car. “Okay. Thanks, sir.” “You’ll be driving Ole Bessie today. The blue Ford Escort over there. We’ll take a few loops around the driveway first, just to see what you know, if you don’t mind.” The girl didn’t smile.
She’s a serious one.
“I don’t mind.” Lissa took in the surroundings as she walked over to the old car. The house sat perched on a hill at the end of a wide country road with a view of Lookout Mountain spreading out in front of it. A spacious green carpet of grass out front bisected the semi-circular dirt driveway. The house was white and needed a new coat of paint, but it looked neat and clean. A wraparound porch led to the front door, and the roof was black and gabled. Flowers grew rampant around the house and in window boxes. Two other cars, a red Buick and a white Impala, were parked beside the light blue Ford. Painted along both sides of the Ford in dark blue lettering was the advertisement: MacAllister’s Driving School. Mr. MacAllister wore a blue seersucker suit that almost matched the color of the car. Lissa studied him curiously. He was tall and lean and stood erect, as if he had been in the military. His thick silver hair was abundant—definitely not military—and he wore old blue-and-white tennis shoes that seemed incongruous with the rest of his appearance. She liked him. He seemed confidant and calm, and something else. Kind. Yes, that was it. Kind, with a sense of humor. “Okay, Lissa. A few bare essentials before you take the wheel. I know you’ve heard it all before, but it never hurts to review.” He pointed out the accelerator, the brake, the turn signals, the rearview and side mirrors. He mentioned that the faster the car was going, the more sensitive the steering wheel was to the touch, and easier to turn. He glanced down at the sheet of paper she had filled out with her personal information.
“I see you used to drive. Is there anything you’d like me to know before we start? Any past experiences I should know about?”
She shook her head too quickly, swallowed, and stared at the ground. “All right, then. Let’s get in.” He opened the door to the driver’s seat, and Lissa slid in. The upholstery was dark blue, worn thin in several spots. Lissa noticed the single brake pedal on the instructor’s side. Mr. MacAllister got in and closed his door, and the noise made her jump, for no reason.
She pulled on her seat belt, turned the key in the ignition. As Ole Bessie gently rumbled to life, Lissa heard the voice.
She willed herself to block it out, released the brake, and pressed lightly on the accelerator, checking her mirrors. She drove slowly around the circular driveway in front of the big white clapboard house. Once Mr. MacAllister leaned over toward her and adjusted the steering wheel, just barely, when Ole Bessie’s tires veered slightly off the dirt driveway and onto the patch of green grass. After the third lap, he said, “Okay. That’s great, Lissa. Just pull to a stop over by the hickory tree.”
As she braked she noticed, with another feeling of relief, that his pedal brake mashed in automatically with hers.
* * *
Well, I’ll be, Ev thought to himself. In spite of her scared, anemic appearance, the girl handled the car with ease as she drove around the semi-circular driveway.
“Lissa, you did just fine. Now let’s just go down the road a little ways, and that will be enough for today.” She gave him a questioning look. “That’ll be all?” “We don’t want to overdo it. Little by little, you’ll get your confidence back.” She pulled out onto the wide road in front of the house and started slowly down the hill. “I like to go easy the first lesson. But for your second lesson, would you be ready for a drive on a small road—not much traffic?” “Yes, sir.” “On Wednesday we’ll go over to the Chickamauga Military Park. It’s convenient, with wide roads that curve around easy, a low speed limit, great scenery, relaxing.” He glanced at Lissa. “Altogether a good place to practice.” She nodded. “My philosophy is to get you back on the road again as soon as possible. I don’t believe in spending hours driving around parking lots. Makes you feel like you’re on a merry-go-round.” She nodded again as the road opened up before them. “Just go straight on ahead for about a mile or two, and then we’ll turn around at the filling station and go back to the house.” The clouds had evaporated; the sky was that intense autumn blue that Ev loved. Lookout Mountain towered in front of them. In fact, from their position miles away on the road it looked as if they might drive right into it. “Do you mind telling me your driving history, Lissa? You say you’ve failed the test several times?” One hand, the right, tightened on the steering wheel almost imperceptibly, but Ev saw it. “Um, well, I had my license and I drove a lot. But . . .” Now the left hand clutched, the knuckles whitened. “But there was an accident and . . .” “You’ve been afraid to drive ever since.” She glanced at him. “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” “So what we need is to work on building up your confidence, young lady.” Her hands relaxed, and she took a deep breath. “That would be great, sir. Yes, that would be great.” Ev let the screen door slam as he came in from the porch. Six thirty-five. He needed a glass of lemonade. The weather had decided to turn muggy, and Ole Bessie did not have air conditioning. Something about that young woman irked him. Bothered him. No, scared him. Hurt him. There. Back on the porch, he settled into the rocking chair with the glass of lemonade. He took a long sip, closed his eyes, tried to shake the image of the scared young woman, skinny with hollow eyes. Hollow, desperate eyes, begging him for something. Begging him for life. As quickly as he admitted it, he saw her. Tate. Little Tate as a round-faced baby, sparkling brown eyes. Tate at five, mischief written across her pudgy cheeks and in the crease of her brow. Tate at ten, stomping out of the room, furious with her older brother. Tate at fourteen, taking her first sip of alcohol . . .
Stop it! he told himself. What good did it do to relive these things?
He stood up, said out loud to himself, “I’ll be glad to help her if I can.”
If I can? He had helped so many others. Of course he could!
What about Tate?
Nothing he could do about Tate. Nothing he could have done, he corrected himself. He closed his eyes, took another sip of lemonade, walked to his little office, and sat down at the desk, where he scribbled a note to himself before going back outside. Time for his next client.
* * *
Lissa sank onto her bed with a groan.
You see, Caleb, I am trying. I swear I’ll come to see you soon.
She let her eyes travel around the room. Nothing had changed since the accident seventeen months ago. It would be good to move forward, make a few changes, as her therapist had suggested. But she could not. Every single item in her room, every pillow and book and photograph, every trophy and award, was stuck in place as if it had been glued down. Somehow it was simpler to let them stay there and taunt her, remind her of the other life, the before life. A constant reminder of what had been and what should have continued. Lissa lifted her head from the pillow and forced her body out of inertia. She walked over to the desk, the clean white desk with its three drawers, the desk that the cleaning lady dusted twice a week so that no one would know the neglect. She looked at the photo of the gelding, his chestnut head held high, a blue ribbon attached to his bridle and floating out in the breeze. Lissa herself stood beside the horse, an elated smile on her lips, her black riding hat pulled down on her forehead, her hair swept into a bun underneath. She studied the picture in a way she had not allowed herself to do for so long. Carefree. Even then, what a rare emotion to be displayed on her face. A surge of joy rushed through her before she could stop it, exactly like the feeling she had had at the moment the photographer flashed the picture. She remembered how the gelding shied, jerking her up, and how she laughed so easily.
Stop it! the voice reprimanded.
With a stiff hand, Lissa turned the framed picture down on her desk, and that one simple gesture felt harder than lifting a fifty-pound bag of horse feed. Glancing to the armoire on the other wall, she went across the spacious room, reached up with one hand, and touched the gold-framed photo. In this one Lissa wore a sparkling evening gown, pink taffeta on top, closely fitted, showing off an attractive bust line and small waist. The gown flowed out in soft pink petals to her ankles. A strand of pearls around her neck and a string of dangling smaller pearls from each ear completed her accessories. Her lips spread in a wide smile as she clutched the trophy. Beside her was Momma, beautiful gray-eyed Momma, her ash blond hair swept off her bare shoulders, her blue sequined dress sparkling. Momma laughing, looking like an older sister. Laughing and proud of her daughter. With a swift gesture Lissa knocked the photo over, so that it landed with a slap on the top of the armoire. There. She had done it. She went back to her bed and lay down. What good did it do? Tomorrow Helena would come to straighten and clean. She would right the fallen frames, dust them carefully. Unless Lissa could bring herself to say the words, pronounce them convincingly—“I don’t want these in my room anymore”—the pictures would be there tomorrow afternoon when she returned from the library, their golden frames shining, the smiling faces taunting, calling her back to when life made sense.
Lissa remembered holding onto Caleb and saying over and over, “It’s going to be all right. We are going to survive. I swear it. This will not destroy us, Caleb. We are going to survive.” Her arms were tight around his neck, she felt his warm breath and held him tighter.
Had she said these things? Did she still believe them? Now she was the one longing for arms to close tightly around her and swear to her, swear to her on everything under the sun that things were going to change. She was going to make it, and these terrible voices would stop. But there was no one around, only the bright, cheerful yellow walls and the bed with its yellow comforter and the desk and the armoire and the china cabinet with ribbons and trophies lining its shelves. Why did she expect her father to walk into the room now and grab her in his all-engulfing bear hug and hold her there until she had wept on his shoulder and say, “It’s okay, Lissa. You are safe with me”?
How she longed to hear him say that. She longed for his robust laughter, the way his dark eyes twinkled merrily, the sparkle of someone who knew how to appreciate life. But his eyes looked dull now and, if she let herself admit it, angry. Brooding.
She shuffled through the mail he had left on her desk. Three more college applications. A letter from one: Dear Miss Randall, Based on your fine academic achievement as well as your impressive extracurricular activities, we are pleased to tell you that you have qualified for the scholarship to . . .
She picked up the framed high school diploma that sat on the desk and lifted it above her head.
Lies, lies! Failure!
She threw it forcefully across the room, where it hit the door to the bathroom. She heard the glass shatter and then tumble soundlessly onto the soft blue bathmat. Lissa formed the words in her mouth, repeated them out loud twice, the same words she had longed to pronounce to her father for the past seventeen months. “Stop trying to recreate my life, Dad. That life is over. Do you hear me? Over. Stop trying to make it okay again. It will never be okay again.” She sank onto the bathmat beside the broken glass and took the little card out of her pocket. MacAllister’s Driving School. For some odd reason she smiled, seeing in her mind the tall, older man with an abundance of silver hair, dressed in a seersucker suit in spite of the muggy weather. She remembered his bright blue bow tie and his dirty white-and-blue tennis shoes.
So what we need is to work on is building up your confidence, young lady.
“Yes, please,” Lissa said aloud.
Monday, September 21
The day began in typical fashion. Silvano Rossi arrived at the office early and clicked on the machine to start the coffee—the real Italian espresso. None of that weak muddy American stuff. He was ready to begin the day! The other offices at the publishing house were still dark. Silvano prided himself on arriving first; one day soon he’d get noticed. Eighteen months as a measly assistant editor at Youngblood Publishers was long enough. Hard work, long hours, and offering a steaming cup of perfect Italian espresso to the boss when he walked in were part of the recipe for him to be making a decent salary before he turned twenty-eight. He liked recipes! Coffee in hand, he walked past the office door of Mr. Edmond Clouse, senior editor at Youngblood Publishers, and nearly tripped over a small, dark bundle sitting on the floor, smack in his way. The coffee sloshed onto his hand and then down onto the package. “Oh, la miseria, Leah! When did you put this package here?” He cursed the absent secretary out loud in Italian as he set his cup of coffee down and hurriedly searched for a napkin. Quickly Silvano blotted the drops of coffee from what turned out to be a small burlap sack. What? Why in the world would Leah—the world’s most meticulous secretary—leave a thick burlap sack in front of the boss’s office door? Did she think the company was in the animal feed business! Books, they dealt with books, not burlap! Good thing he had found the bag, and not the boss. He’d move it out of the way and let Leah know. A little leverage never hurt. Silvano lifted the bag off the floor. That’s when he noticed the label marked Special Delivery with the address of Youngblood Publishers hanging from the thick twine that held the bag closed. It felt like a ream of paper inside . . . and then it hit him. “Of course, you idiot. Certo!” He took the burlap sack, carried it to his desk, and carefully unknotted the twine. He reached inside and pulled out a rectangular box. It too was bound with twine. With shaking hands, Silvano slid the twine off the box, opened the lid, took out a thick stack of papers, laid them on the desk, and began to chuckle. The chuckle turned to all-out laughter. Silvano was thankful no one else was around to hear him. “Certo! Of course.” He stared at the first typed page. Novel #6 by S. A. Green. Essay Green, he’d thought the name was, the first time he’d heard it mentioned. An author who refused interviews and book signings, who never appeared in public—no picture available of her, no biography. Just an amazingly well-written novel every five or six or seven years. The woman was slow, but hey, no one was complaining. Her sales always leveled off around 400,000. A round of champagne for all the staff when a burlap bag arrived! A new novel by S. A. Green meant big profits for Youngblood. The public loved her, and Silvano understood why. He had read her books, every one of them, as a young intern. Her biography was sketchy at best. Female. Age unknown—presumed to be in her midfifties now. First published book, 1960, immediate success. Eastern Crossings. A small novel with a powerful punch. Dark, dark. The thin paperback had made its way into the back pocket of every college kid. But the woman wouldn’t give interviews.
Her next novel had not come along until almost seven years later, with not a word from her in between. The Equal Journey. This book was 723 pages long, a family saga of life in an unnamed communist country. The book’s style was completely different—third person narrative. Long, descriptive phrases. Chillingly beautiful. As seamless and haunting by its length, a winding river, as Eastern Crossings had been in its bleak first-person portrayal of child refugees and prostitution.
Again, the book had become an instant success. The college kids were now married, and they couldn’t carry this tome in their back jeans pockets. Instead it sat beside their beds, its hardbound cover hidden beneath the glossy dust jacket that portrayed a mass of people looking vacantly into the sky on a cold evening. The story of the author S. A. Green went on like a fine spy novel. An untitled manuscript appearing without warning in a burlap bag, years after the last release, the novel almost faultless, the editing minimal. No wonder. The lady took five or six years in between each work of art. She had plenty of time to get it right. Now he, Silvano Rossi, held the manuscript of her sixth novel in his hands. This manuscript was rather short. Two hundred and sixty-three pages. If he hurried, he could get a ways into the novel before anyone arrived. Just a sneak peek, and then he’d pack it back up. Thirty minutes later, he was still turning the crisp white pages, placing each one facedown in the pile to his right after reading the double-spaced typewritten page. He surprised himself by needing to clear his throat once. Amazing. How did she do this? How? His predecessors had always been happy to leave well enough alone. Let the novels sell. It made the publishing house a bundle. And the lady was loyal. As far as anyone could tell, she’d never sent another manuscript to another house. So no one worried about the refusal for interviews or signings. No one wanted to look any further. But Silvano was curious. What did this lady do with her money? Where was she hiding? Why did she hate interviews? And how could a nutty woman write a book that made his heart race and cramp at the same time, that felt like a long skinny finger jabbing into his soul? In the year and a half that he’d held this job, he had read—or at least started to read—over three hundred manuscripts, and not one of them had caused this kind of fluttering in his gut. By the time Silvano heard the voices of his coworkers, he had replaced the manuscript in its box, retied the twine, and put the box back in the burlap bag. He made sure he knotted the twine in the same way it had arrived. “Hello, Silvano. Early as usual.” Eddy Clouse wore a dark suit, perfectly cut to enhance his large frame. Imposing, polite, shrewd. Loud. Americans were always loud. Couldn’t they learn to communicate without involving the whole room? “Yessir.” Mr. Clouse entered his office with Silvano following, his boss’s coffee in one hand and the burlap bag tucked under his arm. “Mmm. Smells great. Thanks, Silvano.” Leaning over his desk, his boss flipped through a few memos, his square face with the heavy jaw turned down. “My pleasure, sir.” He set the coffee on Mr. Clouse’s desk. “Perfect,” the boss said when he had taken a sip. He gulped down the espresso and motioned to Silvano. “What have you got there?” “I found it outside your office this morning. A burlap bag.” Mr. Clouse’s head jerked up. “A burlap bag, did you say? The burlap bag?” Silvano nodded. “Looks like it, sir.” Mr. Clouse sat down in the swivel chair. Clear blue eyes looked up expectantly, and a smile twittered on his lips. “Well, let’s have it, Silvano!” “Looks like another masterpiece, sir,” Silvano commented, placing the burlap sack on the desk. He noticed a slight flicker of annoyance on his boss’s face. “You’ve opened it?” “Oh, no, sir. Just admiring the packaging. You know—my first peek at the publishing house’s lucrative mystery writer. Mystery writer who doesn’t write mysteries.” He chuckled awkwardly. “Yes. Yes. Fine then. Thank you, Silvano. That will be all.” As he had expected, Clouse dismissed him. No help needed. No thanks, no opinion asked. He existed only for espresso and midlist authors. Well, now he had just what he needed to move up in the publishing world. Evidence. Finally, arriving early had paid off. A photocopied manuscript of Miss S. A. Green’s manuscript lay at the bottom of his slush pile, hidden by a dozen manuscripts that would never be read.
You’re on your way now, Silvo. Espresso, gelato, Roma. This is good. E Buono!
Immediately he heard another voice in his mind. You are good, Silvano, buono! Buono! Yes, yes, that is good! The nun at St. Jude’s Montessori School hovered over him. At four, Silvano’s English was limited, but growing. Thank heaven for Maria Montessori—the woman whose face was on every lira! Way back in the early 1900s she’d founded her schools in the poorest district of Rome, insisting that all children could learn. St. Jude’s employed her methods; the nuns took in some of Rome’s poorest and educated them in Italian and English.
This is your destiny, Silvano. The Blessed Virgin has answered our prayers. You have been chosen. You will bring honor and wealth to the family. You will go to America!
He had studied hard, had worked through three phases of the Montessori school’s curriculum so that at age twelve he was ready to move to America. America! The land of opportunity! His English was impeccable. Yes, the average American recognized a faint accent, but only a few could identify it as Italian.
Bring honor to the family, Silvano; bring honor.
It echoed in the recesses of his mind.
No matter how long it takes.
He gave a stiff smile and thought Now I’m on my way!
* * *
The wind outside the little house in Montpellier was blowing fiercely, but no one seemed to pay any attention. Huddled around the small coffee table, the women bowed in prayer. Janelle thought she might fall asleep from weariness and, ashamed, was thankful for the chance to close her eyes. So many sad stories, whispered in French and Arabic. “He hasn’t paid child support in three months. I don’t know how we’re going to make it. Before, with his pitiful salary, we barely made ends meet. Now, impossible.” She recalled an evening last year when the same lady had shared in front of the whole group of friends and her husband, “Well, you know he doesn’t make much more than minimum wage. He never has. So obviously we can’t go.” Janelle had winced, for the hundredth time, at the typically demeaning remark. Now the husband was gone. He’d gotten so tired of it that he had simply walked out of the house. And honestly, that was what she felt like doing at the moment. Standing up in the middle of prayer time and walking out, saying, “I am very sorry, but I’m too tired, and I quit.” Wasn’t almost twelve years enough time to invest in this ministry in France that was doomed from the start? I quit! She opened her eyes to stop the barrage of thoughts, to shake herself out of the torpor. It didn’t help. What she kept hearing over and over were two little words: Go home! Go home! Go home! Perhaps she even said it out loud because, instead of staying for the usual half hour after prayer time to chat, eight minutes later every woman had left her house. She was alone, finally. Every bone in her body was tired, weary. Don’t grow weary of doing good, for in due time you shall reap . . . But in truth she was weary, and not just physically, not just from raising her kids in a different culture. Oh, yes. She was tired. But the weariness had settled into her mind and then traveled down into her heart, her very spirit. The fight had gone out of her. Maybe the faith, too. Oh, how could she even tolerate such a thought! She didn’t have the strength to fight the nagging voice. She longed to go home, to the Georgia red clay, baked and cracking under the summer sky, and the music of the grasshoppers and katydids and the blinking of the lightning bugs on a muggy September evening. She wanted to sit on the porch, resting her head in her father’s lap, the feel of his warm hand seeping through her cotton shirt and onto her back. She wanted to be a little girl again.
Life in this country had cost them too much. She and Brian had prepared for it, trained, spent their energy and zeal in the land, and now she was weary.
She peeked in on Sandy and Luke, sleeping soundly, left the house, and made the mile walk to the graveyard alone. Her pilgrimage. She knelt by the grave, cleared away the wilting flowers, and replaced them with a potted bright red geranium. “I miss you,” she whispered. How in the world could she go home? Life here had cost her everything, but if she left, who would come to replace the flowers on the grave? Janelle trudged back toward the house. Go home.
* * *
Ted Draper was going to make it big. The graph for the Dow Jones with its erratic ups and downs was like the machine in the hospital that registered heartbeat. His heartbeat was the stock market, and at the present time, it was soaring. Company benefits! He checked his commission runs. Over $600,000 in production credits by midSeptember, with several of his biggest deals forthcoming. He would easily reach the million-dollar mark in commissions before the end of the year, qualifying him for the company trip to China. Lin Su had always begged him to make the trip again. Job pressures and little kids—and spending too much money on other things, he admitted to himself—had kept them so busy that they had put it off for way too long. But now, it was going to happen. This, he thought to himself, made his hard work, his overwork, worthwhile. A trip to her homeland with Lin Su and the kids. “Hey, Ted, the line’s for you. The big client.” Janet, his secretary, whispered while holding her hand over the phone. “I’ll get it in my office,” he answered. The big client. The big break. He smiled, self-satisfied. With this conversation, China was sealed. Well, maybe that was a bit overly optimistic, but it wouldn’t be long. “Hello, Dr. Kaufman! Ted Draper here . . .” His voice oozed confidence and adrenalin. Ticker tape, the graph shooting skyward, Dow Jones over the top. He had made it. When Ted walked past the open cubicles of the younger brokers, the appropriate silence ensued. Awe. Yes, that was it. He was one of the firm’s top brokers. At the ripe old age of thirty-two, he had already passed many of the older brokers. 1987 was turning into an amazingly profitable year, as had the preceding five years. It was the right time to get rich as a stockbroker. If you were willing to take risks, and Ted was, and if you were very bright, which he was, and if you could keep your cool while trading, which he could, then you were cut out for the brokerage business. In five years he had risen to the top ranks, and so, when he stepped into the room, the aura of awe followed him. “Hey, Ted!” a younger broker said. “What have we got today?” Ted shook hands, nodded eagerly, slapped a back. “We’ve got those three new junk bond issues coming out. Get on the phone and you can become a millionaire, too!”
Go, go, go, Ted! All the way to the top! And don’t you dare stop to look back!
* * *
Katy Lynn Pendleton checked her face in the rearview mirror as she pulled into a parking space at the Capital City Country Club. She retrieved a tube of lipstick from her purse and spread it across her lips, satisfied with the bright pink color. She reached across the seat to lock the passenger door. The minute the engine was cut and the air conditioner went off, she almost melted. She estimated the temperature at ninety with enough muggy Georgia heat added in to wilt the most stalwart hairdo plastered with a thick layer of hairspray.
She gave a long sigh as she shut and locked the door to the driver’s side and placed her keys carefully in the side pocket of her purse. She closed her eyes briefly and recalled walking into this same beautiful old sandstone building sixteen years ago for her wedding reception. The limousine had driven them from the church and let them off at the front door. Hamilton had looked perfect in his black tux with the white shirt, the gray bow tie, and the red rosebud boutonnière.
“You are absolutely exquisite,” he had whispered as he helped her out of the limousine and paused to give her a long kiss. “Let’s get this over with so the fireworks can really begin.” She blushed even now with the memory. Then she cleared her throat and walked determinedly to the same front door, the heels of her low pumps making a click click click on the smooth pavement. When she reached the door, a black man in a blue suit opened it for her, tipping his hat. “How ya doin’ today, Miz Pendleton?” “Okay, Tom. Hot enough for you?” “Yes, ma’am.” He smiled his wide smile, the same one that had greeted her on that wedding night. For only one second their eyes met, and for that second she wished she could throw herself into his arms and sob on his shoulder. Instead, she kept her head up, played the part. But as she stepped into the building, Tom called out softly behind her, “You gonna make it, Miz Pendleton. You’re a strong woman. You gonna make it.” Katy Lynn felt the prickle of sweat on her brow even though the dining room was almost chilly from the air conditioning. She surveyed the other women and felt both at home and as if she were from a different universe. They had so much in common, and yet, nothing at all. Or perhaps they were all pretending too. She thought of Tom’s reassuring words, “You gonna make it, Miz Pendleton.” Well, Tom should know. He had seen it all during his forty-one years of service at the Capital City Country Club. Nothing caused him to raise his bushy black eyebrows anymore. “Human nature’s all the same, Miz Pendleton. Rotten at the core.” Of that she was sure. So why the heck was she dressed in her creamy yellow suit, preparing to have lunch with her five friends, eating perfectly arranged chicken salad on a plate of porcelain? Why didn’t she just tell them all the truth, spit it out in between a bite of chicken salad and a sip of vichyssoise? If she could just keep going, she’d survive. She had survived many things, and this was simply another test of her resolve. “Katy Lynn, you look just so pencil-thin in that outfit. Where did you find it? Saks? Or Lord & Taylor? They had the most divine sales at Saks last week!” “Has everyone seen the article in the Journal this morning? That poor woman—having her whole life displayed on the front page. I always thought her husband was a crook. Nothing but a crook.” “Well, we’ve just booked a flight to Hawaii for spring break. The kids are thrilled. Their first time. This will be my fifth, but you get such a nice feeling every time you fly over the islands.” “We’re thinking of Greece. A cruise.” Katy Lynn nodded with each tidbit of news, chewed slowly, forcing every bite down in spite of the large ball of fear that almost completely blocked her throat. “Delicious,” she murmured at just the right time. Her friends, her dear, dear childhood friends, did not notice the paleness of her cheeks beneath the painted pink blush. Thank heavens they enjoy talking so much about themselves. They won’t guess. “Katy Lynn, you’ve been quiet as a mouse. What delightful piece of gossip do you have for us today? You’ve always got some tasty morsel.” She cleared her throat, set down the fork, swallowed with difficulty her last bite, and said, “I think I’m getting a divorce.” Five pair of eyes stared without blinking, forks went down, friends made little humming noises in their throats.
“And if you believe that,” Katy Lynn whispered after an appropriate time of silence, “I’ve got a wonderful little plot of land to sell you off the coast of Africa!”
The girls relaxed and laughed, pursed their lips, jabbered back and forth. “Honestly, Katy Lynn, why we ever take you seriously, I don’t know!” Giggled. “You are always trying to shock us, but I didn’t buy it for one second.” She relaxed and smiled. “Of course not. I didn’t think you would.”
Keep up appearances. Play the game. The expression on each face was priceless. They had no idea.
~from Words Unspoken, by Elizabeth Musser, c2009, published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.