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In the overheated kitchen of Tanglewood, Charlotte Carter pushed a damp, strawberry blonde curl back with her forearm, then swirled the mixture in her jumbo-sized pot with a long wooden spoon. She stirred clockwise for a while. Then changed to counterclockwise. No matter how she coaxed with her spoon, the cranberries, four bags of them, floated to the top of the watery solution.
Charlotte plucked her reading glasses from the pocket of her floral print overalls. Cranberry sauce was supposed to be, um, saucy. Not soupy. She set the spoon on the counter, then began digging in the trash can under the sink for one of the tossed-out cranberry bags.
At forty-two, Charlotte had no problem admitting to being a less-than-expert cook. Until this very afternoon she had never attempted cranberry sauce. Surely you were supposed to add something else-an ingredient to make the stuff thicken up.
Not according to the directions on the bag.
She gave the mixture another optimistic swirl. Berries bobbed to the surface like persistent plastic fishing floats. Making a simple sauce should not be this much of a challenge. She stirred some more.
Cranberry sauce was Charlotte's assigned contribution to the Ruby Prairie community Thanksgiving meal. It was her church's turn to serve as the host congregation. She had to come through. For Lighted Way. For the community.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men....
Through the small-town grapevine, Charlotte knew it was to the delight of Ruby Prairie matchmakers that she and Pastor Jock Masters had been out on three dates. Three dates in four months, according to those in the know.
Less than a week ago Kerilynn Bell, Ruby Prairie's first female mayor and longtime owner of the 'Round the Clock Cafe, had plopped her skinny behind down in Tanglewood's cozy kitchen for no other purpose other than to quiz Charlotte about what exactly was taking her and Jock so long to get this relationship off the ground.
"No offense, sugar," Kerilynn said, "but you and Pastor are neither one spring chickens. Y'all are meandering along like you've got all the time in the world. Time's passing you by."
"Thanks for pointing that out," Charlotte said. "Perhaps I should look into booking a room out at New Energy. I hear the food's good and they have bingo twice a week."
Kerilynn let the comment slide. "You two are perfect for each other. Single. Attractive. Intelligent. Near the same age."
"Still have our own teeth ..."
"Terrible waste, not taking advantage of the situation and getting together."
"We are together," said Charlotte. "We're friends. Busy friends. No time for more than that." She got up to refill Kerilynn's coffee cup.
The truth? Charlotte supposed neither she nor Jock knew exactly how to go about this sort of thing. Were they attracted to each other? It seemed so-though they had never so much as shared a kiss.
Most of Ruby Prairie's two thousand citizens knew at least something about Charlotte's story. After losing J.D., her husband of twenty years, she'd moved to Texas and bought Tanglewood, now home to her and a houseful of troubled young girls.
In a late-night talk out on Tanglewood's wraparound porch, Jock had haltingly shared with her painful bits of his more private, troubled past. His story included a young, hasty marriage, infidelity-his, he acknowledged-the miscarriage of their child, followed by a quick divorce. Even though he knew God had forgiven him every wrong he'd ever done, the memories were still painful.
They both hauled parts of their pasts around with them like heavy, overstuffed bags. She, tender memories and grief. He, lingering remorse, guilt, and the unshakable fear of inflicting hurt again.
Charlotte glanced at her watch and peered out the window at a hard-falling rain. Three o'clock. In ten minutes she'd need to leave for school to pick up the girls. They shouldn't walk home on a nasty day like this. Could she leave the sauce and come back to it, or was it like a cake, where once you got it started, you had to see it through?
She turned from the pot on the stove to phone Ginger Collins next door, one of Ruby Prairie's most sensible cooks. Shifting her weight from one white-socked foot to the other, Charlotte twirled the phone cord around her slim wrist.
"Sorry to bother you, Ginger. I'm making the cranberry sauce for tomorrow night's dinner, and something's not right."
"Oh, honey," Ginger said, "you didn't have to go to the trouble of cooking all that up. Canned from Rick's Grocery would do fine."
Charlotte picked at the cuticle of a nail-bitten hand. "I was going do just that, but Kerilynn said everybody likes the whole berry kind. All Rick's had was jellied. Nomie was in the store, and she said cooking it from scratch was easy. But I must have done something wrong."
"Nomie's right. Nothing to it. Just a little sugar and water. You probably don't have your fire up hot enough. Honey, I'll come right over, but you've got to be patient. Keep stirring. Let your sauce come to a slow boil."
Charlotte turned back to the stove. "Ginger, is it supposed to-?"
As if on cue, hot cranberries began exploding wildly, sending airborne spurts of fuchsia goo all over the stove. Charlotte stood frozen to the floor as the boiling mass rose higher and higher until it began cascading over the sides of the pot like flowing lava. Acrid, burned-sugar smoke rose from the red-hot burner, setting off the kitchen smoke detector.
"Oh, my!" said Charlotte. "Ginger, I've gotta go."
Four thirty. Five hours since lunch. Two hours till dinner.
He should wait.
Mornings and early afternoons were always hectic. Lighted Way Church had no secretary, so Jock fielded phone calls and put together the weekly bulletin. He provided counsel and prayer to members in need and made visits and calls to the sick and shut-in. But few folks stopped by or even called after three. By four, four thirty, people all over town were winding down their days, returning to their families and homes-which was why he reserved the quiet of his late afternoons for prayer and study.
The sermon for tomorrow night's Thanksgiving eve service needed more work. Jock picked up a yellow highlighter, fiddled with it a bit, then laid it down to thumb through the day's mail-for the second time in an hour.
His stomach growled.
The spirit was willing.
The flesh weak.
Baked chicken probably. Rice-a-Roni. Salad. He was trying to eat more vegetables. Too bad creamed corn didn't count.
His stomach growled again. Alice Buck had delivered a batch of her oatmeal apple butter bars to the office this morning. His favorite. To decrease the duration of the treat's torment, he'd shared them with the Tuesday noontime prayer group, offered them seconds, then nagged them all to take thirds. But his mouth watered at the thought of the last two remaining cookies wrapped in foil, sitting next to the coffeepot in the church kitchen.
Calling his name.
Jock was six feet tall and carried his extra ten pounds well. As long as the ten didn't turn into twenty, he figured he was okay. But serving a congregation of some of east Texas's finest bakers did not help his dieting efforts one bit. By the frequency of their offerings, Jock wondered if a few of the good cooks thought bringing him samples of their best could nudge them closer to the pearly gates.
The bones of the sixty-year-old church building groaned and creaked. Then Jock heard the pounding of drops of rain on the roof. As predicted, a thunderstorm was blowing through. He shivered. Like a polar bear preparing to hibernate, he couldn't shake the desire to snack.
Low fat, of course.
From the top of his desk, Jock scooped up his key ring and put on his coat. He whistled as he strode down the narrow hallway toward the back door.
Of the two structures that Lighted Way comprised, the main building, where Jock had his office, was fashioned in a southern Protestant style common in the 1940s. Little had been changed in the years since its construction.
Worshipers who came in the front entered a closet-sized foyer furnished with a tract rack and a water fountain. Years ago, someone had equipped the fountain with a set of homemade wooden steps for small children. On either side of the foyer were the restrooms-men's on the right, women's on the left. Through swinging double doors people entered the sanctuary. Pairs of oak pews, with padding added in the seventies, parted to form a center aisle that led to the elevated pulpit. Behind the lectern was the baptistery (Lighted Way immersed) framed by purple velvet curtains, with artificial ivy in front. There was no altar; rather, a simple communion table stood covered with a crocheted cloth. High on the wall, over the baptistery, hung a six-foot wooden cross. Classrooms and Jock's office were located on either side of the sanctuary, reached through long, narrow halls.
Though built to hold one hundred and fifty worshipers, most Sundays Jock preached to eighty-five or ninety faithful Lighted Way folks. When he'd first arrived six years before, attendance had hovered around sixty. While not exactly phenomenal growth, every year the church had inched a bit in the right direction.
Unlike the attractive, steepled white sanctuary, the fellowship hall and kitchen were housed in a utilitarian, rectangular, tan metal structure. Thanks to budget-minded deacons, the building had been designed with economy and function in mind, rather than beauty. Inside, the space was much the no-nonsense same. Tile floor. Long tables. Folding chairs. Kitchen on the far end, restrooms on the near. Though he was thankful for the hall, which was put to good use almost every day of the week, Jock was glad that it was tucked behind the main building, barely visible from the street.
The two separate structures were connected to each other by a covered drive-through made for convenient back-door pickups and drop-offs in bad weather. It never failed to touch Jock's heart to observe young men letting their wives and children out under the covered shelter, parking their own vehicles, then sprinting waterlogged back through the rain, only to do it all over again and again, providing valet parking for church widows who shouldn't get wet.
Since the parsonage was located across the street from the church, took usually walked to work. However, since early afternoon his truck had been parked under the awning, where he'd left it after unloading paper goods purchased for tomorrow's meal. Good thing. When he was done for the day he could drive himself home instead of having to sprint across the street in the rain.
Jock crossed quickly from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall. He fumbled for the right key, then realized the building had been left open, most likely by the last straggler of the noontime prayer group.
What weather. Rain was now coming down in sheets. It misted lock's face, wet his short, gray-flecked beard, and plastered his brown curls to the back of his neck. He stepped inside and felt for the light. The fluorescents flickered, then blinked, then finally came on-but not for long. Jock was halfway to the kitchen when a booming clap of thunder shook the panes of the windows, and the lights went out.
Thunderstorm power outages happened frequently in Ruby Prairie. Mayor Kerilynn said it was because of all the trees. From past experience, he knew it might be hours before the electricity returned -which meant Jock was going home.
He whistled as he felt along a wall toward the kitchen, intent now upon snagging the leftover cookies. As for slipper, didn't he have a couple of cans of chili at home? Forget baked chicken. This was chili weather. Fritos. Chopped onions. Grated cheese. Tall glass of sweet iced tea. Calling it a day and leaving his office a bit early was sounding better all the time. Yes. Ten minutes from now he would be home in front of a fire, burrowed in for the night.
He was reaching for the foil-wrapped paper plate when he heard a sound. Not exactly a sound, rather a movement. Soft rustling. From somewhere down low.
He stopped whistling. "Hello?"
No answer, just the feeling that something was there.
"Can I help you?"
Jock waited. Must have been the wind, or a tree branch brushing up against an outside wall.
His eyes had adjusted enough in the darkness that he could make his way back to the door.
There it was again. He was not alone. Jock's heart pounded. What he'd heard wasn't even a sound exactly-it was more like a feeling, an unmistakable awareness that someone, something else was in the room.
He fought the urge to bolt.
Lord, help me.
He'd eased two steps toward the outside door when the lights suddenly flickered back on. He turned around When his eyes found the unexpected source of the odd sounds, Jock drew a quick breath and fumbled for his cell phone. He held it in his sweaty hand, trying to decide what numbers to punch. 9-1-1, he guessed. But what exactly was it he needed?
No. Charlotte. She would know what to do.
The connection was weak.
"Who is this?" Charlotte was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the fire, playing Crazy Eights with the ten-year-old Tanglewood twins, Nikki and Vikki. It was her turn to go.
"Who?" Probably some telemarketer trying to sell siding or calling to tell her she'd won a free cruise.
"Nikki-it's your go," she said with her hand over the phone. Then, "Who wants to play the next game? I've got to fix us some supper."
Maggie and Sharita were finishing up their homework at the kitchen table. Donna was curled up on one of the room's overstuffed, ticking-striped sofas, reading a book.
"I do!" said Sharita.
"What're we having?" asked Donna.
"Charlotte, it's lock. I'm at the church. Could you come down here? To the fellowship hall?"
"Jock?" Charlotte looked out the window to see lightning and torrents of rain. "I'm sorry. What'd you say?"
"I said I need you to come down here. If you can. To the church."
"Now?" She laid down her hand of cards.
"I've got a situation here, and I'm not sure what to do." Jock's usually calm voice sounded strained.
"Well, sure. I'll be happy to come down, but would it be all right if I wait until the rain lets up a bit? I hate to leave the girls thinking that the lights might go off. Sharita and Donna are both a little spooky when it comes to storms."
"I'm real spooky," called Sharita from the table. "One time my cousin got her house blown all the way down. She was in the bathtub when it happened, and she was naked too."
Donna rolled her eyes.
On the other end of the phone, Jock was silent for a long moment. Finally he spoke. "Sure. Okay."
"You'll still be at the church?" asked Charlotte. She didn't want to be rude, but did he realize what time it was?
"I'll be here."
"Okeydokey. Be down there soon as it lets up." Charlotte hung up the phone.
"Who was that?" asked Vikki.
"What'd he want?" asked Nikki.
"Needs some help at the church. Probably with the setup for tomorrow night's dinner," said Charlotte.
"You gone tell him 'bout how you messed up all those cranberries?" asked Sharita, fingering one of her droopy dreadlocks.
"No, I'm not going to tell him," said Charlotte.
Forget homemade cranberry sauce. Ginger was right. Canned would be fine.
"And neither are any of you!" She grinned It had taken her and Ginger forever to get the sticky mess cleaned tip. Her sauce-making days were done.
"We're gon-na te-ell. We're gon-na te-ell," Maggie and Sharita sang.
Charlotte made the girls an early supper of grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. Donna set the table without being asked.
While Maggie and Nikki had seconds, Charlotte stepped out onto the porch to stare up at the sky. A gust of wind stirred stray piles of leaves. She shivered, wishing she hadn't told Jock she would come.
Maybe he'd changed his mind about whatever it was he thought needed doing. Perhaps he'd given tip and gone home himself.
She went inside and dialed his number just to check. It rang ten times.
Excerpted from Charlotte Leaves the Light On by Annette Smith Copyright © 2006 by Annette Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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