Chapter One excerpt…DON’T LET GO

CHAPTER ONE

I love red. It’s my absolute favorite color.

I have a red car, a red coffee pot, have been known to have a red purse on occasion, and there is one accent wall in my living room painted a dark red. This was done to both make me happy when my daughter and I moved in to my mother’s old house, and to spite my mother. Who hated red. Two birds, and all that.

Certain times of the year, however, the color red gives me the willies.

The end of January, for example.

January—let’s be honest—is a dead month. The hype of the holidays is over, people are back to work, slaving to pay off the credit card bills they just amassed. Resolutions have already been attempted and failed, for the most part, after the first few weeks. All there is, is cold. And wet.

In Texas, that wet cold is very rarely white. It’s pretty much just gray. In fact, I’ve seen it actually snow—and stick—probably four times in my whole life. One of those times was when my daughter was in the sixth grade, and the whole school district shut down for the three inches we got. Kids were having snowball fights on the playgrounds, and the high school’ers had a snowball war on the football field. It made the local news.

Most of my winters have just been rainy, misty, freezing misery, with the occasional brisk pretty day that fools townspeople into thinking throwing a carnival in the middle of it is a grand idea.

The Copper Falls Winter Carnival is chaos, themed red in honor of the chili cook-off, and offset in white by the ridiculousness of a fake snowflake parade. That about covers it.

They get giddy over this mess. Making floats for a parade that will kick off carnival rides in the icy rain, and turn all their papier-mâché and Ivory soap creations into paste. Every year.

Everyone except me. And my Nana Mae, who finds the festival and the whole snow thing in a town right off the Gulf of Mexico beaches, as silly as I do. Well, except for the chili part. That part was pretty good, and Georgette Pruitt from the flower shop usually made the best one, if you could ignore the blinged out snowflake hat she always insisted on wearing.

But it wasn’t just that, either. And it wasn’t just the cold rainy ick in the air and people progressively losing their sanity over a lame festival that essentially celebrated nothing. Or from having to watch my otherwise intelligent neighbors self-implode every year trying to up one another over whether or not deer meat chili is better than beef, or come up with one-hundred-and-one versions of fake snow crafts for their floats. No, I think that’s just extra icing for me.

I had my own reason for the event to push me sideways every year. The cheesy festival, and music and lights and red flyers on every street post, the smell of chili, cookies, and homemade candles, and the weeks preceding it where no one talked about anything else—were just markers. Big obnoxious signs that hung that reason out like a carrot in front of my face.

And then, even that felt different this year. I felt lopsided.

I should have taken some time off from the bookstore to read or reorganize or clean out closets for the giant communal garage sale that was also part of the fun. Something brainless that didn’t require thought or hand-eye coordination. I should have, but as usual I didn’t. And my nerves had about had it.

This particular morning was not a winner. Like a jolt-up-from-a-dead-sleep-at-two-in-the-morning kind of wrong. That tends to mess you up a little, overly zealous neighbors or not. I cracked my knuckles and rolled my neck, trying to pull my foggy head together.

Bam…bam…bam-bam…

I clenched my teeth as the wall vibrated behind me, and elbowed it back sharply in response. Another bam answered, sounding familiarly like a cane against the not-thick-enough walls that separated the bookstore from the diner next door. A cedar cane, in fact. One with a duck head handle. I heard my heartbeat in my ears, and took a deep breath to dial it back.

My wise old Cajun Maw Maw used to say, “Hide your crazy, girl. Ain’t nobody wanna see that shit.”

Maw Maw died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-two. My other grandmother, Nana Mae, who is neither Cajun nor known for being exceptionally wise, is still kicking at eighty-five and says it’s because she lets all her crazy out.

As I rolled my head back and forth on my shoulders and listened to the snap-crackle-pop of too much stress, I started thinking that Nana Mae’s way might be the smarter choice. Holding my Southern tongue and smiling through the melodrama of a moody teenager, and the daily antics of the old Scrooge next door didn’t seem to be good for longevity of life. Not to mention people who cared entirely too much about the semantics of papier-mâché. Maybe I should let go of a little crazy.

Bam…bam…

“Like—now!” I yelled through my teeth in the direction of the wall.

An elderly woman in an unfortunate Pepto-Bismol-pink pantsuit glanced up at me with disdain from where she sat in an oversized chair reading a paperback romance novel.

What, the banging was okay?

“Sorry, Mrs. Chatalain,” I said softly, reaffixing my smile and sucking back my crazy.

My stomach growled, reminding me that it was lunchtime and that I’d forgotten my leftovers at home. I rubbed at my temples, which had drummed out a dull rhythm since my awakening. Something had me on edge. Something different. It was always my most difficult time of the year—I expected it. Waited for it.

“What’s with you, today?” said a voice to my left. My assistant manager, Ruthie, strolled from the back of the store looking all Bohemian with her black beret cap and her hands tucked in the pockets of a long and well-worn black sweater. Her small frame looked lost in it.

I shook my head. She’s forgotten, I thought. She doesn’t remember. But that’s okay. Somebody needs to be normal for once.

“Johnny Mack and his stupid-ass cane,” I said under my breath, nodding toward the offending wall. “There’s not one note of music playing anywhere in here today.”

Ruthie chuckled. “It’s his entertainment, Jules,” she said with a wink before something else caught her eye. “Uh oh, look who’s coming.”

I followed her gaze to the wall of still spray-snow-frosted glass flanking the front of the bookstore, where a lone teenage girl with crooked hair was heading up the sidewalk.

“Damn it,” I muttered.

The bell jingled as she pushed open the door and I watched Mrs. Chatalain raise an eyebrow at the girl’s black smudgy eyeliner, dark shiny hair that was longer on one side than the other, and navy blue t-shirt that said You laugh because I’m different. I laugh because you’re all the same.

“Hey,” the girl said, her mouth cocking in an endearing crooked grin that lit up her face and killed the I-don’t-care mask that she worked so hard to maintain.

“What’s wrong?” I said, standing up.

She frowned and shrugged, the frayed black backpack slung over her shoulders moving with her. “Nothing, why?”

“Why aren’t you at school?” I asked.

She pointed to the giant clock across the street that was about to rattle the windows with its eleven o’clock toll.

“It’s lunchtime,” she said.

I closed my eyes, and counted the reasons why I loved her, as my pen slipped from my fingers and clattered from the counter to the floor.

“At school, Bec.”

Her face scrunched up. “They had gumbo, today,” she said simply. “Their gumbo sucks. Nothing like Nana Mae’s.”

“Not even mine?” Ruthie said, with a head tilt and mock hurt expression.

Becca smiled. “Not even yours, Aunt Ruthie.” She tilted her head to match. “Although I do really like when you make potato salad to put in it.”

“Thank you,” Ruthie said with a little curtsy.

I splayed my fingers wide on the cool granite countertop, letting the hard cold seep in. I probably needed to press my wrists against it. Or go stick my head in the break room freezer. “You have to quit doing this, Bec. It’s not an open campus. I’m tired of calling—”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” she said, holding her palms up. I noticed there was something new drawn in black Sharpie inside her left wrist. Of course there was. “We’re not doing anything anyway.”

“The law doesn’t care, baby.”

She widened her eyes at Ruthie in the eternal oh-my-god-ness of it all. “Got it. But I’m here, so do y’all want to take me next door?”

Her face broke into a cheesy innocent grin that was so fake, it broke me. Ruthie snickered at my side as I shook my head.

“Girly, you really ought to be my blood. You’ve been around me too long,” she said, walking around to hook an arm around Becca’s neck.

That was true. Ruthie had been Becca’s “aunt” since birth, and my best friend since kindergarten. She’d been with me through everything. Everything. And helping in the bookstore right alongside me since we were eight years old and my mother ran it.

“I do like your hair, I have to say,” Ruthie said, fingering the lengths that were razor cut from just under her chin on one side to past her shoulder on the other. “Wasn’t sold when your mom told me about it, but it works for you.”

Bec’s smile was brilliant, and she fluttered her eyes at me. “Thanks!”

I smiled, humoring them both. “Ready?”

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom first,” Bec said, dropping her backpack where she stood. “Theirs is kinda—ick.”

I sighed as I stooped to pick up her bag. “Why don’t yall just go and bring me back something?” I asked Ruthie, gesturing toward our lone customer.

“Nah, I’ll stay,” she said, plopping onto the stool and grinning at me. “I brought chicken salad.” Laughing at my expression, which I’m sure showed I’d rather be flogged, she continued. “Go fuss at him.”

As if on cue, three short bumps reverberated through the wall. I sneered and gave her a knowing look. “Not a good time for that.”

She frowned. “Why—oh.” Her expression changed and her eyes got a far off cast to them as she joined me in my retro journey. “That’s right. No wonder you’ve been funky this week.” She sent a glare toward the wall. “He probably doesn’t even know, anymore.”

I licked my lips. “He knows. He always gets a little extra asinine right after New Year’s.” I looked away and reached behind the counter for my not-red purse. “Maybe I’ll dump my food on his head or something.”

“Oh, if you feel the urge, text me first,” she said. “I’ll run over there for that.”

I laughed and shook off an involuntary shiver at the same time. Ruthie narrowed her eyes at me.

“What else?”

“What do you mean?” I knew what she meant. Ruthie could read me like a damn psychic. She knew me too well.

“Something else is going on.” Her dark eyes narrowed to slits in her contrastingly pale face. “You look all twitchy.”

I scoffed. “I’m not twitchy.”

“You’re twitchy.”

“Snowflakes,” I said.

She shook her head. “This isn’t a snowflake twitch. I know the snowflake twitch.”

I blew out a breath and glared at her, not that it had one iota of effect on her. Ruthie was impervious to my attempts at bad-assery.

“Whatever,” I said, looking away. “Just had a bad night.

“Did you have sushi again?” Ruthie asked.

I chuckled as I ran a hand through my hair, holding it back. “No,” I said, glancing toward where Becca had disappeared. “I just—I had a hell of a time falling asleep, and then when I did—I dreamed about Noah.” Her eyes widened just a little, and she crossed her arms as she set a smile right back on her face that made me laugh to myself. “Nice cover, Ruthie, don’t play poker.”

She ignored my snarky remark. “So, like ‘Hey, look at me, I’m Noah, I’m an asshole just walking by,’ kind of dream, or like—dream?” she said.

I picked up my pen, dropped it again, and squatted to grab on to it with both hands. “Not that kind of dream,” I said, mimicking her drama voice. “It was just one of those—” My face suddenly felt itchy and I rubbed at it. “It was probably just because it’s coming up. My brain trying to make it harder than it already is.”

I pasted a smile on as Becca strolled up like a queen.

“What?” she said.

I shook my head. “Ready now?”

“Yeah, I’m hungry, let’s go,” Bec said.

I sighed. “Oh yes, let’s.”

“Don’t beat up Johnny Mack!” Ruthie called out, smiling back at Mrs. Chatalain and grabbing some mailers I needed to address and send out.

Bec’s new hair swung in front of me as we walked outside in the breeze. To her credit, she could pull it off. To her detriment, I saw her dad’s truck parked outside the diner and knew instinctively there would be drama.

I was actually a little intrigued that Hayden would be there, since Johnny Mack Ryan wasn’t on his favorite list either and I knew he wouldn’t go to his diner on purpose. The old man’s hatred for me spewed over onto everything, and my marrying Hayden three years after his son joined the Navy and swore never to return—well, let’s just say that just expanded the toxicity to him by association.

To my daughter, too, but that had different roots.

The aroma reached me before we ever opened the thick wooden door, and my mouth was watering by the time we made it two steps in. I wished the smells came over to my side of the wall as often as the phantom music came to his.

The clock tower in the old courthouse across the street vibrated the tile under my feet with its announcement. The diner was still only half full, it only being eleven. The tide of office workers from the courthouse wouldn’t hit till noon, and the contractors perpetually working construction down at the river would roll in around a quarter to one.  Then it all started up again for dinner time at five. Johnny Mack did a booming business, in spite of his sour disposition. With his daughter Linny at his side keeping customers happy and laughing and spending money on his amazing dishes, people tended to overlook the snarls and sneers and griping from the chef.

Well, people except me. I had a little more trouble blowing him off. Maybe because his vitriol towards me wasn’t just the snark of an old man. Because he used to love me. Because it was personal.

Linny winked at us as we walked past the counter, and Becca patted the surface loudly as she passed. “Hey, Mr. Ryan,” she called out.

I saw him shake his head, not even looking up from the food he was preparing as he grumbled something to himself.

“Got shrimp, today?” she continued, and I had to smile in spite of myself. She didn’t care that he didn’t like her. She didn’t even know why. She just enjoyed the hell out of goading him.

“Have a seat, or move on,” he said, his gravelly voice monotone and lacking the bite it usually had. “Mind your manners.”

“Oh, her manners are just fine,” Linny tossed back over her shoulder at him. “She just knows ornery when she sees it.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes at me knowingly. “Did you have a call-in, hon?”

That would have been a grand idea. “No, we’re—” I gestured toward some empty tables. “Sitting.” I was most definitely not interested in landing at the counter and getting scowled at. I looked for one by the windows, but those were all occupied.

I saw Hayden at one, head bent over a stack of paper with a pretty woman in a suit. A working lunch. Or maybe the prelude to something else? He didn’t see us, so I didn’t do any jumping up and down to call attention.

“This is good,” Becca said, picking a four-seater and dumping her backpack in an extra chair.

Closer to Johnny Mack than I liked, but then again I needed to get over it. Normally, I was able to mostly ignore him. It had been twenty-six years. Over two decades, living in the same town, working next door to each other, and putting up with his temper tantrums. I didn’t normally feel such a strong urge to get away, but something was different. Maybe it was the dream, still messing with me; maybe I was being hormonal. Whatever it was, it had the little hairs on the back of my neck going stiff.

“Ugh,” I muttered, rubbing at my neck and my arms.

“What?” Becca said, looking up from the plastic menu.

I shook my head. “Nothing, baby. I’m just wiggy today.”

“You’re wiggy every day,” she said, perusing her choices like it was her last meal. “Last time I got the fried shrimp po’boy sandwich and it was to die for.”

I plucked a menu from its resting place between the napkin holder and the condiments, not really needing it but looking anyway. I sighed at the red napkins in the holder next to the salt and pepper shakers. Linny already had it going on. Ruthie would be redding up the store soon, too. Frosted glass wasn’t going to satisfy her. “I usually get the plate lunch. I think today is open faced turkey with mashed potatoes.”

“That sounds so boring.”

“Not the way he makes it,” I said. “It’s amazing.”

“Thought you hated him.” She said the sentence in a completely disinterested tone, as if she were talking about the sky being blue.

I looked up at her. “I don’t hate him. We just—”

“Don’t see eye-to-eye,” she said, nodding, looking bored. “I know. Can we get dessert?”

“No dessert with lunch, Bec, you know that,” I said. “That fried shrimp you’re having is bad enough, you’ll never stay awake through class.”

She was blowing out a sound of disgust before I even finished the sentence.

“Sorry,” I said. “Have some yogurt tonight.”

“Yogurt,” she muttered. “Can we have real ice cream, for once?”

I let it go. She was in a mood, and nothing I was going to say would make her happy, so I decided to keep the peace. Let her dad over there duke out every single battle. I chose mine. It was better for my sanity.

She bit her bottom lip for a second and closed her menu, which caught my attention.

“Something the matter, Bec?” I asked, closing mine too.

I could see the gears working. There was a question percolating somewhere. She wanted something, or needed something, or had a world-shattering revelation to tell me. I didn’t like those.

“Hey ladies.”

I turned at the familiar voice, and fought the mixture of joy and annoyance. Especially when I saw Becca roll her darkly lined eyes. So much for an almost-moment.

“Hi, Patrick,” I said, patting the hand he’d rested on my shoulder. Possessively, I thought. I patted it again to give him the hint to let go. My skin was jumpy enough without someone holding me down. “I thought you were working that site in Torrence?”

“It’s delayed a few days, for permits and shit.” He stopped short and glanced at Becca, touching her shoulder. “Sorry—stuff.”

She looked up at the hot-in-a-scruffy-motorcycle-gang-kind-of-way man that was hulking over our table, and smiled tolerance before widening her eyes back to the menu she’d reopened. She’d met Patrick twice before. Once at the bookstore, where he was so painfully out of place he practically glowed. And then one awkward moment at our house, when Becca came home early from a night out with friends and we were walking down the stairs looking like we’d forgotten how to dress ourselves.

I nodded, and I couldn’t help darting a glance over to Hayden’s table, hoping he hadn’t caught sight of us. Not that he cared, since we’d been divorced for almost seven years, but he was one to make comments that weren’t supposed to mean anything and yet usually left marks. He was still deep in conversation with the woman over whatever was on the papers.

“So, maybe we can grab a bite to eat or something tonight?” he said, squeezing my shoulder again. “Or tomorrow?”

I knew exactly what that ‘or something’ was, and as I let my memory travel the planes of his body built from years of site construction labor, my stomach tingled.

“Tonight’s not good,” Becca said, replacing the menu. “I have a test to study for. I’ll see if I can find something to do to be scarce tomorrow.”

Even smooth-talking Patrick looked lost for words, and I felt the heat whoosh up to the top of my head.

“I’ll call you,” he said quickly. “Yall have a good lunch.”

I stared at her as he grabbed a to-go bag and bolted out of the diner.

“Becca, that was—” I began.

“Awkward?” she finished, nodding with a sarcastic smile. “You have no idea.”

I rubbed at my face, wondering if I just needed to go home for the day. “What happened to doing nothing? And since when do you study for anything?”

“Since maybe I want to watch TV without hearing my mom bang Mr. Hardbody down the hall.”

“Becca!”

It was loud. It was too loud, and drew the eyes of everyone in the place, including Hayden’s. But never in my life had I been so mortified.

“Sorry, just sayin’,” she said, at least having the decency to color up, herself.

“Sweethearts, how’s it going?” Linny said then, appearing at our table with a smile and a wink and a significant girth pushing at her apron. “Everything okay?” she added in a quieter voice.

“It’s good,” I said, maintaining the glare at my daughter. “Becca just forgot her mouth for a second.”

Becca’s eyes landed everywhere but on me, and then she smiled up at Linny. “I want a Coke with lots of ice, and the shrimp po’boy. With fries,” she added, not looking my way.

“Got it,” Linny said, not writing a thing down, just winking at her. She looked at me. “And you?”

“I’ll do the plate lunch. And hey, Linny?” I added, as she nodded and started to walk away. “Please tell your dad to quit banging on the wall. I swear to you on all that is holy that there is no music playing over there,” I said with a smile.

Linny laughed, and wiped her hands on her apron. “I’ve told him again and again that I don’t hear anything, but he ignores me.” She nudged me with a finger. “But check him out today. He’s almost giddy.”

We both turned to see Johnny Mack grinning at a customer, and the feeling I’d had at two that morning settled over me like a chilled blanket, making me shiver again.

Why was he happy? And why did that make me feel like a caged animal? I had a bad feeling that this particular crazy was going to have to be held close to the vest. Maw Maw was right. No one was going to want to see this shit.

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