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She chose a seat in the back of the bus so as not to draw attention to herself, a girl just shy of sixteen who could have fit the description on any one of a hundred missing person posters: 5 feet 7 inches, brown hair, brown eyes. last seen wearing jeans and navy sweatshirt. A girl with nails bitten to the quick and a silver stud in her nose, an army-green backpack wedged between her grubby sneakers. It contained a change of clothes, forty dollars in crumpled fives and ones, a pack of Winston Lights, and keys to an apartment on Flatbush Avenue, where at that moment a man lay dead in a pool of blood.
She sat bolt upright until the bright lights of the city had dissolved into the flickery, undersea darkness of the interstate. She was long past exhaustion, but sleep was out of the question. Tiny muscles jumped under her skin. Her eyes were like dry, hot stones pounded into her skull. She would start to drift off only to be jolted awake as if violently shaken, her head teeming with nightmare images: the dark hole in Lyle's chest, the red circle widening across his ribbed white undershirt. It hadn't fully registered at the time, but now, in the sluggish current of heat that rose from the vents at her feet, she couldn't seem to stop shivering. She held herself braced against the gentle rocking of the bus, muscles tensed to the point of cramping. As if her life depended on staying alert. Which, in a way, it did.
The girl was asleep nonetheless by the time the bus reached Harrisburg. She slept straight through to Columbus, curled on her side with her nylon windbreaker pillowed under her head, unaware of the zipper that by morningwould leave a row of red welts like stitches down one cheek. In the darkness, with the highway's fractured lights flitting across her slackened face, she looked far younger than her age: a peacefully slumbering child with someone to meet her at the other end.
At the rest stop in St. Louis, with the sun a lurid smear along the low horizon, she got out to stretch her legs. Snow dotted the pavement in scablike patches. She lit a cigarette and leaned against the cold cinderblock. Her eyes were empty, staring out at nothing. Smoke rose in a thin gray scrawl from the Winston Light cupped in her loosely dangling hand. When it had burned down to her fingertips she blinked and straightened. The butt made a sizzling sound as she flicked it onto the damp pavement. Shivering with cold and holding her thin jacket wrapped about her like an old peasant woman's shawl, she shouldered her way inside.
After a trip to the ladies' room she joined the line in front of the vending machine, which grudgingly coughed up a packet of beer nuts and a Mountain Dew. She wasn't all that hungry, though she hadn't eaten since breakfast. It was just to prevent her stomach from growling, keep others from casting curious sidelong glances. Long experience had taught her what most kids her age never had to know: how to be invisible. The rules were simple:
Don't raise your voice when speaking around adults.
Don't drink too much water (or your frequent trips to the bathroom will arouse suspicious looks).
Don't linger over expensive merchandise in stores.
Don't ask too many questions.
Don't give any more information than necessary.
In Topeka a middle-aged lady with hair the color of a rusty pipe sat down next to her. After a few minutes, she turned to inquire, "Going far?"
The girl tensed. Did she look like someone on the run? She muttered something unintelligible and curled on her side with her face to the window, burying her head in the crook of her arm. When she finally dared lift her head the rust-haired lady had moved to an empty seat two rows up, where she was loudly extolling the virtues of Metamucil to a stout black woman with a powder-blue raincoat folded neatly across her lap.
The girl turned her face to the window. The road was an endless river banked by fields of corn. A road that seemed to be carrying her backward. She remembered when she was little. She would play this game where she'd scan the mothers on the sidewalk after school, and choose the one who looked the nicest. She'd imagine the woman taking her by the hand, even scolding her in a motherly way about some stupid little thing like leaving her shoelaces untied or forgetting her lunch box. Over the years she'd gradually outgrown the game. It made her too sad. But now she wondered what it would be like to have someone waiting at the other end. A woman with a warm smile and stories to tell of what had happened while she was away.
But there was no one to meet her in Oklahoma City or Amarillo or Albuquerque. She'd been on the road nearly three days by the time she worked up the nerve to buy a newspaper. Though the murder of a small-time drug dealer in Brooklyn wasn't likely to make national news, she was vastly relieved even so when she found no mention of Lyle. Relief tempered by a perverse disappointment. Her name in print would have made people pay attention at least. Kids she'd gone to school with, to whom she'd never been anything other than The New Girl. Caseworkers who'd shunted her bulging file, with its ladder of crossed-out addresses, from one gray metal cabinet to the next. Even if it meant going to jail-wasn't that better than being invisible?
By the time she reached Bakersfield the endless stretches of desert and scorched brown hills had given way to green orchards and citrus groves. Even the fast-food restaurants looked more inviting somehow. Her mouth watered at the thought of a Big Mac. But when she checked in her backpack only a few crumpled bills remained. She'd have to hold off for now. Who knew how long the money would have to last?
At a service station just east of Santa Barbara she splurged on another newspaper. She was settling back in her seat when a glossy real estate flyer slipped to the floor. The old man beside her stooped to retrieve it.
"Prettiest place in the world," he said peering at it.
She glanced over his shoulder at a photo of a tree-shaded ranch house. Behind it was a fenced pasture in which horses grazed. Snow-capped mountains rose in the distance. "It looks too perfect to be real," she said.
He looked up as if he'd just noticed her sitting there. "Carson Springs? It's just beyond those hills." He raised a crooked finger to the window, an ancient man, his bald head flaking in spots, his body drooping like an old coat from its hanger. In the weathered ruin of his face, his blue eyes burned brightly. "I take it you've never seen the movie."
"Stranger in Paradise. It was shot there." He smiled. "Course that was way before your time."
"I think I saw it on TV."
He brightened, and she saw that he'd once been handsome. "Well, I directed it." He extended a hand that felt like an old baseball glove that'd been left out in the rain. "Hank Montgomery's the name."
"That's where I'm going. To Carson Springs." The words were out before she realized it.
The old man fixed his keen gaze on her. "That so?"
"My aunt lives there." This is crazy, she thought. As far as she knew she didn't have an aunt, and until just this minute she'd never even heard of Carson Springs.
"Ever been out this way before?"
"No." That wasn't a lie, at least.
"Well then, you've a real treat in store."
The girl didn't know what had come over her, but the idea had taken hold somehow. Besides, it wasn't like she had anywhere else to go.
When they reached Santa Barbara, she used the last of her money to buy a ticket on the local bus to Carson Springs; two hours later she was once more en route, traveling north along a steep, winding highway. She'd just begun to doze off when they crested the ridge and a wondrous sight panned into view. A valley ringed with mountains on all sides, like a huge green bowl into which hills and pastures tumbled. Orange groves crisscrossed the floor in neatly stitched rows, and to the east a Crayola lake reflected the cloudless sky. The town itself, a cluster of red-roofed buildings in candy-heart shades, might have been a page from a storybook.
Minutes later they were cruising down the main street. Huge old trees shaded sidewalks lined with Spanish-style shops trimmed in colorful tiles. Minature trees in clay pots dotted the curb. A red-roofed arcade stretched along one side of the street, ending in a stone arch festooned in flowers, through which she caught a glimpse of sunlit courtyard.
Several blocks down, the bus wheezed to a stop. The sun greeted her like a welcoming arm as she stepped onto the sidewalk. She saw that she was standing in front of the library, a squat adobe building framed by trees resembling tall green candles. People in short-sleeved shirts and sandals strolled past, looking tanned and well fed. With her pale skin and rumpled clothes would she stick out like a sore thumb?
She made her way back to the arcade, where she paused in front of an ice cream parlor. A little boy sat licking a cone on a wooden bench out front while his mother peered into the window of the book shop next door. Did he have any idea how lucky he was? The closest she'd had to a mother was plump, henna-haired Edna. Her earliest memory was of curling up next to Edna on the sofa, watching her leaf through a fat book filled with bird pictures. Edna knew them all by heart, and in time they became almost as familiar to the girl.
She continued along, hunger mounting with each step. Tantalizing aromas drifted toward her: freshly ground coffee, baking bread, a sweet scent she would later learn was lemons. Not like the ones in supermarkets back home, which had almost no smell, these hung like Christmas ornaments from the potted trees along the curb.
She paused in front of a shop with an enormous wheel of cheese in the window. Just inside was a deli case on which platters of thick, crusty sandwiches were displayed. Her last meal had been a bag of potato chips washed down with Coke, and it took every ounce of willpower to keep from darting inside and grabbing one of those sandwiches. With an effort she moved on, past a Mexican restaurant with a garland of dried chiles on the door. It wasn't until she reached a saddle shop with a wooden merry-go-round horse out front that she paused until her head stopped swimming.
At the first corner she crossed the street to the park. She still had no idea of where she was headed, but had the strangest feeling of being drawn to something. In the park, wandering amid the cool embrace of ancient trees, she stopped to slip off her sneakers. The grass was soft against her soles. There were no manicured flower beds or bronze statues gazing imperiously off into the distance. Here flowers poked from clumps of ferns and tangled vines, and stone fountains murmured sweetly.
Everywhere she looked there were birds. Tanagers, jays, bluebirds, juncos. She spied a small brown bird with dull red markings on its breast. A purple finch. It was fluttering about in a birdbath, sending up drops of water that caught the sunlight like sparks. She was so entranced she didn't notice the children playing nearby until one of them bumped into her. She caught him before he could fall, a bundle of sturdy limbs that wriggled briefly in her arms before pulling away.
A small, towheaded boy peered up at her. "Hi, I'm Danny. What's your name?"
The girl hesitated. She didn't appear to be on the FBI's ten most-wanted list. Still, it paid to be cautious. Her gaze fell once more on the jaunty little bird. She watched it take flight, scattering bright droplets as it disappeared into the branches of the tree overhead. "Finch," she said without thinking. She rolled it about in her mind like a new taste on her tongue. Yes, it would do.
The boy didn't seem to find it the least bit unusual. He held out a grubby fist, opening it to reveal an even grubbier penny. "You can have it if you want."
She pocketed the penny with a smile. "Thanks." Maybe it would bring her luck.
The boy darted off to rejoin his playmates.
She followed the winding path until she reached the other end of the park. Across the street, atop a shady rise, sat an old adobe mission. Pale pink with chunks of plaster missing here and there, it was topped by an arched belfry trimmed like a cake. The girl stared, transfixed, as the bells began to peal and a pair of stout wooden doors swung open. A white-gowned bride and her tuxedoed groom appeared on the sun-dappled steps, followed by a stream of wedding guests spilling out to join them.
Friends and family that she imagined for an instant were her own. She smiled even as tears filled her eyes-a brown-haired girl of medium height in frayed jeans and a faded maroon T-shirt, a girl with nowhere to go and no one to welcome her who had the oddest feeling she'd somehow arrived at her destination.
—From Stranger in Paradise: A Carson Springs Novel by Eileen Goudge. (c) June 2001, Viking, used by permission.
Posted February 2, 2015
Posted July 25, 2014
Posted January 3, 2012
I absolutely loved this series. I fell love with the characters and was so sad when I finished the last book of the series. All 3 are great. Well worth the time and money:)
Posted August 23, 2002
I really enjoyed this book. It was great and has me looking forward to the next installment. I wish I didn't have to wait for it. I do not like 'mushy,senseless romance novels' and this was definitely 'a cut above'.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In Carson Springs, California, change is everywhere for the Kiley females. Alice marries Wesley Carpenter, a kind person older than her mother. Alice¿s sister, recently divorced Laura, looks sad as the happy couple exchanges their vows. Following the church ceremony, the mother of the bride, a widow Samantha, needs a ride to the reception when her car fails to start. The son of the groom Ian provides a lift to the party hosted by Sam. <P>Ian and Sam share a banter that leads to an attraction, dating, and a hot affair. Alice is mortified that her mom is stepping out on her deceased but idolized dad. Laura is stunned more when her mom becomes pregnant something that she wants but her body cannot accomplish. Instead, Laura brings into her home Brooklyn teenage runaway Finch. The goings-on of the Kiley women shock the residents of this coastal town. <P>STRANGER IN PARADISE is an interesting look at third and fourth generation Californians. The story line consists of three subplots that tie together through the relationships of the Kiley trio. The lead women are fully developed while the key secondary players are refined enough to supplement the Kiley females. However, the effort to compare reactions to the younger woman-older man vs. the younger man-older woman theme seems obsolete in today¿s age of so many couples pairing with both types of backgrounds. Still Eileen Goudge is so talented that her tale will send her fans to reader¿s paradise because she provides another entertaining tale. <P>Harriet Klausner
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Posted August 12, 2012
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Posted November 2, 2008
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Posted April 22, 2012
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