Read an Excerpt
By Susan Crandall
Time WarnerCopyright © 2003 Susan Crandall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe diesel cloud enveloped Will as the truck driver pulled away from the intersection. He stood on the side of a dark two-lane highway with all of his earthly possessions crammed into a road-worn backpack, deciding which direction to take. Heart warred with head, his good sense telling him not to venture down this road. It had been paved with good times on his previous visit; why take a chance on ruining it? But he'd been pulled across the miles by the innocent and secure memories engraved during the one care-free summer of his youth. How he longed for the simple comfort of familiar surroundings, of childhood dreams yet to be born, and to be, even for the briefest time, away from the ugliness that stained his adult world. The shroud of exhaust cleared, and there before him was the sign: GLENS CROSSING 4 MI. Will looked at the red tail-lights of the truck receding into the night, then in the direction of the town.
He'd just walk a little closer, camp nearby, then decide in the morning. Tonight, painful thoughts of his current situation made it far too easy to crawl back into the past. The darkness had a way of distorting both past and present, making them more hideous and more marvelous than they actually were. In the light, he could see things more clearly - the horror of the last months less pronounced, the delights of the one wonderful summer less remarkable.
He walked a good part of the way toward the town. His aching feet told him he'd covered over two miles, when it caught his eye. There, across the wide open expanse of a bean field, rose the lighted spokes of a Ferris wheel. A harvest moon, so large and low in the sky that it appeared to be painted on the black of night, sat on the horizon, seemingly side by side with the carnival ride. A filmy haze sent three gray fingers across the enormous golden disk. One of those fingers appeared crooked and beckoning.
Well, hell. A sign? The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and rose as the skin at the base of his skull tightened. Had he been thirty minutes later, that moon would have been up in the sky where it belonged, away from the thin clouds, the inviting golden light brightened to cold blue-white.
Instead of being calmed by the thought of divine intervention, he sighed heavily with the weight of too many miles, too many memories. He closed his eyes briefly and told himself, once again, to wait. Tomorrow. A word which had for the past four months become his mantra.
He glanced around, looking for a good place to bed down for the night, and heard the steady thrum of a sub-woofer pounding ever nearer. A long minute passed before he saw the headlights of the car.
It sped past him, the reverberation from the speakers battering him in the chest. He watched it pass, wondering how the hearing of the car's occupant could ever recover. Immediately, the brake lights brightened and the car slowed. The driver slammed it into reverse before the tires stopped rolling forward, adding a squeal to the bass and the smell of burnt rubber to the air.
The car stopped in front of him, nearly rolling over his toes. The tinted window came down and a girl in her late teens leaned across the passenger seat. For a moment his heart skipped a beat. If he didn't know she was dead, he'd have sworn he was looking at his sister, Jenny - same shoulder-length brown hair, same tilt to the green eyes. Then the girl smiled and the eerie similarity disappeared, the smile too wide, the lips too full. "Need a ride?"
He started to tell her no, when she added, "I'm just going to the carnival, but I can give you a lift that far." The carnival. The Ferris wheel. Well, damn, he didn't have to be hit over the head to get the picture. He was destined to walk the streets of Glens Crossing once again. A peculiar sense of security radiated from the garish lights that flashed against the pitch black sky. Blue, red and green bare bulbs, strung like gypsy baubles, broke the darkness overhead, washing out the stars. Leigh Mitchell watched the brightly lit spokes of the Ferris wheel revolve, feeling once again that life in Henderson County hadn't changed much since she was five years old.
This year the dust puffed a bit higher underfoot and the flat, dry odor of dead grass was stronger because of the drought. But the carnival, as most every other social landmark, remained essentially unaltered from season to season, year to year, decade to decade. It was the last fling of summer; the boisterous, colorful boundary between seasons. Trampled grass beneath her tennis shoes, the tempting aroma of grilling sausage and green peppers, sticky cotton candy on smiling cherub faces, hard-won stuffed animals wrapped in teenagers' arms - all the same as last year, and the year before, and the year before that.
Glens Crossing was a town where respectable widows remained widows. Where your lot was pretty much cast when your birth certificate registered the north or south side of the tracks that bisected town. Where expectations were strong and habitually met. Here, your secrets were never your own. She guessed that, in a nutshell, could be pegged as the crux of her discontent. Her place in this town had been carved long before adulthood. She'd been "the Mitchell girl" - the responsible one, the one who had to grow up early because her parents were gone, the one teachers could count on to follow the rules and go above and beyond in the classroom, the one adults smiled at when passing on the street, the one invisible to her classmates. No one ever looked her way when mischief had been done - wouldn't even consider the possibility that Leigh Mitchell had strayed outside the realm of good behavior.
Nothing had changed in the past twenty-three years. A pack of giggling teenage girls bumped her as they hurried by, calling a quick and insincere apology over their shoulders. Leigh shook her head to rid herself of maudlin thoughts and moved on through the crowd.
She nodded as she passed Mr. Grissom of local UFO fame. Beside him, his tiny, mouse-like wife clutched a bag of saltwater taffy close to her bosom, as if she feared someone would wrench it from her grasp. The woman spent so much time isolated on their farm, pinned under her spouse's heavy thumb that she hardly seemed capable of human interaction. On the rare occasions that Leigh had seen and spoken to her, Mrs. Grissom's tongue had been quickly shackled by a stern look from her husband.
Mr. Grissom tipped his hat to Leigh, while his wife lowered her eyes and tightened her grip on the taffy. It was time to inspect the perimeters. Although Leigh was off-duty and the carnival actually fell into the city police's jurisdiction, she felt a sense of obligation to serve and protect. Besides, there were only six full-time officers on the local force. She always helped out where she could. The darkness edged close to the back of the vendors' trailers and the rides. Not much real mischief likely around here, but Leigh's perimeter walks had probably saved more than one set of parents from being made grandparents before their time. She grinned at the memory of embarrassed faces and muttered explanations. Even though she rarely wore a uniform, opting for a sheriff's department knit shirt and a non-regulation .38 in a fanny holster when on duty, the kids all knew who she was. Tonight she was weaponless. A whooping alarm sounded at the duck shoot. Youthful voices rose in a cheer as the hawker hailed another winner. In spite of his jovial announcement, the man didn't look the least bit pleased to hand over a huge Pink Panther to the marksman.
Leigh neared the end of the midway and stopped in her tracks. Standing in the dim lighting at the entrance to the semi-trailer that served as a traveling Tunnel of Love, Brittany Wilson was talking to a man Leigh didn't recognize. She slowly worked her way in their direction. Brittany was a constant source of gossip and speculation - the town's wild child. She was the daughter of Leigh's brother's partner, and a spirit much too lively to be contained by their rural community. Leigh admired such vivacity, so unlike her own plodding responsibility. Even though most of the girl's escapades had so far been harmless (forking yards, sliding down the dam, swimming in the quarry, toilet papering the courthouse square), Leigh took extra care to watch over her, just in case her adventurous nature took her down a path of no return. Leigh strolled closer, keeping an ear open for some indication of their conversation. Before she could get close enough to hear, Brittany turned and saw her. The girl waved Leigh closer.
"Hey, Leigh." Brittany turned her gaze back to the stranger. "This is ..." She giggled. "What did you say your name was again?"
"Will Scott." The man stepped forward and extended his hand to Leigh. A wedge of bright light from the ride entrance crossed his face. His smile was relaxed, but a restlessness played about his eyes. Eyes of the brightest blue shot a bolt of lightning straight to her core. It was a reaction totally visceral, immediate and intense. She hadn't been this overcome by pure sexual temptation since Bobby Thompson in the seventh grade. Man, that kid took her breath away. Of course, she reminded herself, that didn't work out too well. Bobby never even knew she existed.
"Leigh Mitchell." She liked the feel of his handshake, firm and dry, not loose and floppy like so many men when they shake hands with a female. A crowd of teenagers called to Brittany. The girl didn't hesitate to abandon them. "Gotta go! See you around, Will."
"Thanks for the ride," he called after her. Leigh tucked her chin and eyed the man from under drawn brows. "Ride?" "Brittany saw me hoofing it down the road and gave me a ride into town."
Leigh muttered, "I'm going to kill that girl." He grinned. "I gave her the standard 'never pick up hitch hikers' lecture, but it was a little lame coming from someone taking advantage. But"- he nearly looked ashamed - "I really was grateful for the lift." He raised a foot out in front of him. "New shoes. Blisters." Then he added, as if he were trying to pull the girl from hot water, "She did promise never to do it again." "I'll bet."
Brittany lived several miles outside of Glens Crossing, in a house nestled on a hundred acres of ravined woodland. She had to travel four country roads and the main highway every time she came into town. The girl couldn't resist strays -familiar or foreign, canine or human. Leigh looked at Will more closely. He didn't appear to be a homeless vagrant. His hair and clothes were neat and clean. An engaging intelligence showed in his features and his diction spoke of a decent education. Yet, there was something that said "bad boy" about him. Deep down, Leigh had always wanted to have a fling with a bad boy. "Visiting someone in Glens Crossing?"
He shook his head, but didn't offer more. He looked down the length of the midway. "Just passing through, then?" He shrugged and answered in a distracted tone, "Probably." She continued to study him, allowing herself to assess him more fully. She prided herself on nailing a person's true nature on something just short of first sight. It was a gift that she'd fostered, knowing that in her line of work quick assessment could keep a dicey situation from going completely bad.
Will's gaze was fastened on the Ferris wheel, a childlike gleam in his eye. He appeared totally relaxed, not at all like a person with ulterior motives or something to hide. Just as she started to excuse herself, he said, in a nostalgic tone, "I saw the lights of the Ferris wheel from the highway. I couldn't resist. It's been such a long time...." Then he looked her in the eye. "Ride with me?" "Well, I really have-" "Please."
There was such boyishness in his smile, such spark in his eyes she couldn't refuse. After all, she was off-duty. Let it go. It was time to do something she wanted to do, simply because she wanted to do it. And, she realized as she looked at him, she did want to spend more time with Will Scott. The mere thought of passing the evening with a total stranger, especially one this attractive, seemed to be the first step in the right direction to break out of her mold-something that a truly cautious and responsible Leigh just wouldn't do. She decided then and there, this year it was just too bad for those parents whose teenagers were swept away on a tide of hormones. Every morning for the past week as she looked into the mirror she had recited: I am not responsible for every action of every person I know. She was still trying to make herself live the pledge.
"Okay." The very utterance of the word was liberating. Good-bye old Leigh, hello new. He took her hand -the contact of an excited child to a parent, not man to woman -and moved so quickly she stumbled along behind. Of course, she had to overcome her initial reaction and allow herself to be dragged-all part of being New Leigh.
Steve Clyde, one of her deputies, and his wife passed by. His lingering surprised look as he said good evening tickled Leigh right to her toes. Maybe I'm not so predictable, huh fella?
Being an independent woman -there was only so much reinventing a person could do in one night-she stepped up to the ticket booth first and purchased her own ticket. Behind her, Will protested that since she sacrificed her time to go with him, he intended to pay.
She just smiled. There was nothing sacrificial about her decision. In fact, it was rather selfish. She liked him; he piqued her curiosity. Although he had the look of a bad boy, he openly showed childish joy at a simple small-town carnival -something most men had outgrown, or buried beneath a veneer of masculine indifference. Leigh liked simple things. It was nice to meet someone who could share and understand.
Once at the top of the Ferris wheel's rotation, Leigh gripped the lap bar with one hand and, with gentle movements that wouldn't rock their seat, pointed out the little downtown. It was built around the brick and limestone courthouse whose lighted clock tower stood above all else. As she looked at it, she realized with a pang of regret, that clock tower represented the absolute center of her universe. Suddenly the future rolled out in an endless desert of sameness and that sense of suffocating panic rose once again. Was she going to be an old woman whose days had to be filled with listening to others recount the excitement of youth, the adventures of life, simply because she hadn't experienced any of her own? The very thought made her shudder.
The wheel started to turn again and they were slowly lowered below the tree tops. "Where are you from, Will?" He shrugged, rocking the seat slightly. "Nowhere, really."
"Come, on. Everybody's from somewhere. Birthplace, high school, there has to be someplace to anchor you." "Been on the move so long, I can't remember living in one place long enough to call it home."
Excerpted from Back Roads by Susan Crandall Copyright © 2003 by Susan Crandall
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.