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Still Life in Shadows
By Alice J. Wisler
Copyright © 2012 Alice J. Wisler
All right reserved.
Chapter One Kiki had to get out, get going, or she'd punch a hole in something. This two-bedroom house was as cramped as a coffin and nearly smelled like one, as the aroma of fried food saturated the walls. Mari had told her to stay close, dinner was almost ready. But who wanted to wait around inside as her sister stir-fried green peppers, onions, and potatoes—again?
In her room, Kiki laced her neon green tennis shoes as quickly as her fingers could maneuver the frayed strings. She grabbed Yoneko, her cotton tabby-cat puppet, and scrambled to her feet. Too quickly. The blood all rushed from her head. She steadied herself against her closet door and waited for the sensation to pass. Slow down, slow down, for Pete's sake. Then with tiny steps, she ventured into the hallway.
Her sister Mari—a lanky figure still wearing the tea shop's frilly apron—stood in front of the stove. With her back to Kiki, she turned vegetables over with a spatula and hummed some song—probably from the last century. Mari liked those old romantic songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan because, as she put it, they had meaning for her heart.
Kiki held her breath; she was good at that. One, two, three. She'd held it for ninety-nine seconds once. No way could anyone, especially not that braggart, Angle Smithfield, compete with the record she'd set. Still holding and counting to herself, she made no sound as she slipped toward the screened back door. She opened it cautiously, making sure not to bang it against the frame.
Quiet as a mouse. If Mari knew what she was up to, the game was over. Mari would yell, then Kiki'd yell and do what Dr. Conner said she must not do—throw a clenched fist at her bedroom wall.
There, dimmed by the fading sun on the crooked driveway, stood her best friend—her maroon bicycle. She tossed Yoneko into the wire basket that wobbled by the handlebars, hopped on, and released the kickstand with a swift push. Just a little cruise before it was time to eat. Just down the street and around the corner. Exercise was good for her. Hadn't Dr. Conner told her that?
She pedaled fast and then slow, pretending she was a cyclist on some reality TV show, going for the prize. With the evening breeze in her short-cropped black hair, she smiled. Riding was almost as beautiful as hearing the choir at church sing the benediction about God being close to us, like our very breath. When she rode, it didn't matter that she was often a girl in the shadows watching others her age gather to talk about boys, leaving her out.
The dry mountain road curved around, and the climb was steep. But once she passed the Ridge Valley Apartments, the road sloped and she could coast down it with ease. To the left, right, suddenly she was in town pedaling past the hardware store, the tearoom, the Smithfield Funeral Home, and then a right curve by Russell Brothers Auto Repair Shop.
She'd watched these men, greasy with car fluids, jack up a Chevrolet or Ford in the two bays and use their tools to fix what they needed to. They had so many shiny tools. Her fingers itched to touch them, to use them on her bike. One of these days, she'd ask them—ask the man who always wore a beige shirt and John Deere ball cap—if she could borrow a tool or two. Her bike's front wheel was squeaky, especially after she cruised in the rain. But now a sign on the shop's glass door read "Closed." That meant everyone had gone home. She edged her bike toward the parking lot, a wide section to the left of the shop. Today it was barricaded by four bright orange cones, cones standing tall in a line where the lot met the leaf-blown sidewalk.
Past those cones was a spacious place to ride, without a parked car or truck in sight. She bet she could go fast. The space called to her; she could hear it. She would just ride around it, the autumn air in her face. She wouldn't hurt anything—those cones probably just meant they didn't want people parking there when they were closed. She heard music in her head—not one of Mari's ancient songs, but one of her own that sang, Kiki is the champion, Kiki rides faster than the wind.
She pedaled quickly into the lot. Immediately her bike slowed, grew sluggish. She pedaled harder. What was wrong ? She looked at the pavement. For Pete's sake, it was soft and gooey, like the oatmeal Mari made for breakfast on chilly mornings before school. She pumped her legs hard; that always made her bike sail. But today it was only getting the front tire stuck. She tried again, but the bike teetered to the left. To regain balance, she dropped her feet from the pedals onto the ground. Like the tires, her shoes made fresh imprints into the pavement.
She saw all the faces that could get mad, grow red with frustration. "Yoneko," she said to her puppet, "we gotta get out of here." Her tires were coated with a gray film, and as she rushed home, flecks flew from them and dripped off her tennis shoes.
A few neighbors called, but she just kept racing toward her one-story house with the peeling front porch. In the driveway, she slid off her bike and guided it against the side of the house, behind an overgrown azalea bush. She pulled Yoneko from the basket and looked at her sneakers. They were caked. She tried scraping their soles against the gravel driveway and then in the grass. Knowing that there wasn't much time till dinner, she sat down in the yard and quickly tugged them off. Dropping them inside the basket, she hoped that no one would see the dirty bike or her shoes. No one will ever know, she thought as she mounted the steps to her back door.
Inside, she took a few breaths.
"Kiki!" Mari's voice was loud from the kitchen.
"Yes?" Kiki made her way down the hall, her socks slipping along the hardwood.
"Where were you?" Mari searched her eyes, then filled the room with a vast sigh. "Come on, time to eat."
Kiki stared at the plate of fried food her sister had placed at her table setting. She dreamed of chicken baked in crushed onion rings, like she saw on a TV commercial, mashed taters, a side of macaroni and cheese, and a slice of creamy chocolate pie. But there would be none of that. Her sister only knew how to make one recipe, and this—this measly dish—was it.
Chapter Two At sunrise, Gideon Miller, dressed in a beige shirt and black pants, ambled into his kitchen. As he spread apple butter on wheat toast, he thought of the harvest in Carlisle. Something about autumn mornings made him nostalgic for the open fields and watery-blue skies of his hometown, the distant mountains framing the landscape like a postcard. He thought of his mother, in a gray apron and bonnet, hanging clothes on the line. He saw his father, heaving bales of hay into his barn nestled in the ninety acres of farmland, his face stern because he did not know how to smile. Even after all these years away, Gideon's childhood crackled like dry leaves into the crevices of his memory. Why did he allow these thoughts ? Seeing it was already seven, he placed his plate into the dishwasher and grabbed his John Deere ball cap from the hook on the living room wall.
Pushing aside anger from his youth, he set out to walk the mile to work. Walking was his fitness program. At thirty, he was not getting any younger. Or thinner. The brisk trek to the shop each morning, then back to his apartment after work, helped him feel no guilt when he went to the tearoom for a coveted piece of blackberry pie. Their pie was just like his aunt Grace made back in Harrisburg, the crust flaky and the filling not too sweet. Good blackberry pies weren't easy to come by.
He saw the damage to the pavement as soon as he rounded the corner. The cones were still there, spaced like he'd left them yesterday at closing. The cones were supposed to keep everyone out, but hooligans were oblivious to those rules.
Ormond Russell sat at the desk he kept in the middle of the shop's musty office, seven feet in front of the storage room. Ormond, too old to be much good now, had taught Gideon everything he knew—from diagnosing engines to changing spark plugs. The shop was his, named after his father, the late Edgar Russell.
"What happened to the driveway?" Gideon bellowed. His voice made the hair rise on the back of his own neck. Why was it that whenever he yelled, he sounded just like his father?
"Beats me." Ormond looked up from the Twin Star and sipped from a chipped mug of coffee. He wiped a hand over his gray mustache. "I parked across the street by the hardware store. I listened when you told me yesterday the parking lot was out of commission from being newly poured."
"There are tracks all over it."
"Tracks? The train don't run through here, now do it ?" Ormond chuckled as he often did when he was amused by his own jokes.
Gideon usually laughed with Ormond, but not this morning. Not after he had spent half a day smoothing new concrete. "Someone will pay." His father's phrase—someone will pay. He'd used it that day, his neck pulsating with purple veins, when the gate to the orchard had been left open.
Gideon thought of calling Henry Kingston, Twin Branches' sheriff, and filing a complaint, but the phone on his cluttered desk rang and delayed that concern.
"Hello, Russell Brothers Auto Repair."
"Yes ?" Gideon drew the receiver closer.
"Is this Gideon Miller?" The voice was strained.
"Yes." Was this another prank call? Silence was heavy on the other end. "State your business, please."
"I'm Amos." There was a pause. "Amos Stoltzfus, son of Ruth and Amos in Lancaster."
Gideon knew Lancaster County. They produced some of the best apple butter of any Amish community. "Well, Amos. What can I do for you ?"
"I'm told you can help me."
Gideon heard the accent then, there was no denying it. His gut told him this was not going to be a conversation about a car that needed new tires or to be towed from a desolate mountain road. As he watched Luke Sander enter the shop and head to his bay to finish work on a Ford truck brought in yesterday, he recalled six years ago. It had been autumn then, too, when Luke called him from a gas station in Huntington, West Virginia, asking if Gideon would help him and his thirteen-year-old sister Rebecca to escape. They'd managed to get rides—on public transportation and from an uncle who owned a furniture store in Cincinnati. Their uncle took them as far as Charleston, West Virginia, but they needed a way to get to him in Twin Branches, North Carolina. They were out of money.
Today's caller didn't use the word escape; he asked if he could learn how to become English. Only he asked it in Pennsylvania Deutsch, the German dialect, making Gideon's skin grow clammy with memories.
"Where are you now ?"
"Outside of Harrisburg at a truck stop."
"That's a long ways away."
"I know. But if I get to you, can you help me?"
How could he say no? It was what he did, part of who he was: someone to believe in. "I can. Call me again when you get to the Smoky Mountains. Try to get a ride to Gatlinburg, in Tennessee."
"Thank you." The lightness to his voice made Gideon relax.
"How did you hear about me ?" he asked before hanging up.
"Everyone knows about you, Gideon. You're the Getaway Savior."
Gideon worked off his frustration by ordering three cases of motor oil from his supplier and completing the inspection for a 2003 Jeep owned by the local librarian. Then he repaired the parking lot. When he finished, he duct-taped a cardboard sign with "do not trespass" in bold letters to one of the cones, looked at his work, and figured that should do the trick. Inside the shop, he interrupted Luke and Ormond's discussion on the recent University of Tennessee football game to emphasize that under no circumstances were they to let anyone walk or park on the lot. Then, as his stomach rumbled, he washed his hands and set out to Another Cup, the local tea shop, for a sandwich and some green tea.
He sat at the counter where he always did, in the corner near a jukebox he'd never heard play. He didn't bother with the menu—he wanted hot green tea and a roast beef on rye. He'd heard green tea was filled with antioxidants, good for the body, and now that he'd tried it, he liked it. As he ate, he read the newspaper, his shop's copy that he had persuaded Ormond to hand him. While Ormond focused on the sports page, real news always fascinated Gideon. Growing up, he'd had no idea there were shootings in the Middle East, plane crashes, and oil spills. Life had been about his remote community alone.
When the new manager approached him, he grinned at her and put his paper aside. Mari was her name. She was young, probably twenty-five, thin, dark hair and eyes. When she smiled, it was like being at the beach on a summer day. Last time they'd talked, she said she'd just moved here from Atlanta to take on the manager job at this tearoom. Today she eyed his green tea and said she was surprised.
"Never met a man who drinks green tea." Her voice was gentle, her dark eyes flashed warmth.
"In Asia, doesn't everyone?"
"Sure. But we're in little Twin Branches, and most of the men I know here don't touch hot tea."
"I'm not from around here. Maybe that's why."
"Where are you from?"
"Pennsylvania." He didn't want to add he was once Amish.
"I've been there a few times. Isn't that where they have all those funny people who ride in horses and carriages?"
He swallowed hard, then said, "Uh, well ... Where did you grow up?"
"Far from here." Picking up a cloth, she wiped down the counter to the left of him. "Everyone thinks I grew up in China. Can you believe that?"
Gideon felt a little silly; he'd assumed she was Chinese.
"They ask me about crazy things that have nothing to do with my ancestors." Seeing his clueless expression, she said, "Japan."
"Oh, of course," he said much too loudly. "Japanese, right."
"My great-grandparents came to the States from Kobe. I've never been there, never been to Japan at all." Her gaze shifted to the wide window behind him. "They felt life would be better here. But I don't know." She sighed and slipped her hands into her apron pockets. "There are no perfect places, are there?" Her face clouded and her jaw grew tense and he was afraid she might cry.
"These mountains here are nice" he said with feeling. She didn't respond, so he continued. "Especially now that it's fall, the colors are really pretty. Have you been up to Cove's Peak?"
"I dread the winter."
He wanted to see her smile again, so he thought of one of Ormond's jokes, one about the difference between a cougar and a lawyer. But as he set out to tell it, he realized he'd forgotten the punch line. He stood to pay his bill.
Della—an older woman with a pile of dyed, blond hair and heavy makeup who called everyone Sugar—entered from the kitchen. She took his twenty, handed him change, and said she hoped he had a good day. He wished her the same; it was the American Way.
When he turned to tell Mari goodbye, she was nowhere in sight. The cloth she had been using lay abandoned on the counter. His eyes rested on the clear canister that held flesh pies. He considered getting a slice of blackberry to go, but it was best he got back to work.
Chapter Three Principal Peppers' office was like a busy intersection, the kind Mari warned her not to ride her bike across. Teachers, the vice principal, and even a bus driver all wanted to discuss something with the middle-school's headmaster.
And here Kiki sat again, in the same chair across from his desk as she had been in last week. She studied his desk, eyes glued to a silver name plaque with his first and last names engraved on it. Dusty Peppers. No wonder people made fun of him. Between his name and his love of Hawaiian shirts, he was recognized and talked about wherever he went in Twin Branches. Kiki had heard that he once ate three bowls of peach ice cream at the state fair, then topped it off with a fried Twinkle.
"I called him," the VP said. She met Principal Peppers' gray eyes, then looked Kiki up and down. Her flown never left her wrinkled face. "He's on his way over."
Kiki's feet itched. She wished she could remove her shoes and scratch them. She heard Angle Smithfield's voice in her head, ringing like a phone that wouldn't quit. "Miss Stevenson! Miss Stevenson, Kiki's in big trouble."
How did Angle know these things? How could the girl accuse Kiki of riding her bike over the parking lot at the auto shop yesterday? Kiki was sure she'd not been seen.
Principal Peppers reassured the driver it was school policy to not tolerate disrespect on the bus. Should the behavior continue, the eighth graders who were tossing cantaloupe slices out the bus windows would be banned from riding. The bus driver thanked him and left.
Kiki's pulse raced. She was alone with Principal Peppers. Swallowing hard, she wished she had her puppet Yoneko. Mari told her not to bring Yoneko to classes because middle-school girls did not carry toys around at school. Toys. Didn't her sister realize Yoneko was more than a toy? Mama had sewed the cat's front paw back on with orange thread last year, making the stuffed puppet whole again.
Excerpted from Still Life in Shadows by Alice J. Wisler Copyright © 2012 by Alice J. Wisler. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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