Sweetly

Sweetly

4.2 36
by Jackson Pearce
     
 

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The forest invites you in . . . but will never let you go.

As a child, Gretchen's twin sister was taken by a witch in the woods. Ever since, Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, have felt the long branches of the witch's forest threatening to make them disappear too.

Years later, when their stepmother casts Gretchen and Ansel out, they find themselves in

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Overview

The forest invites you in . . . but will never let you go.

As a child, Gretchen's twin sister was taken by a witch in the woods. Ever since, Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, have felt the long branches of the witch's forest threatening to make them disappear too.

Years later, when their stepmother casts Gretchen and Ansel out, they find themselves in sleepy Live Oak, South Carolina. They're invited to stay with Sophia Kelly, a beautiful candy maker who molds sugary magic: coveted treats that create confidence, bravery, and passion.

Life seems idyllic, and Gretchen and Ansel gradually forget their haunted past — until Gretchen meets handsome local outcast Samuel. He tells her the witch isn't gone — it's lurking in the forest, preying on girls after Live Oak's infamous chocolate festival each year, and looking to make Gretchen its next victim. Gretchen is determined to stop running and start fighting back. Yet, the further she investigates the mystery of what the witch is and how it chooses its victims, the more she wonders who the real monster is.

Gretchen is certain of only one thing: a monster is coming, and it will never go away hungry.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pearce returns to the world of Sisters Red in this twist on "Hansel and Gretel." Ansel and Gretchen Kassel are survivors. A yellow-eyed witch stole Gretchen's twin sister years ago while the children were exploring the forest, and ever since, brother and sister have lived with guilt and the certain knowledge that the witch will return. After their father dies and their stepmother turns them out, Ansel and Gretchen head east, getting stranded in Live Oak, S.C., when their car breaks down. The locals seem hostile except for Sophia Kelly, proprietor of a sweet shop in the woods. Ansel is enamored, but Gretchen can't quite let down her guard. Her fears are justified when she sees yellow eyes in the woods again, 3,000 miles from home. The story revisits several themes from Sisters Red, including sibling bonds and betrayals, the loss of childhood innocence, and the sharp teeth of the big, bad world. Gretchen is a more nuanced character than the earlier book's Scarlett or Rosie, and her relationship with Ansel doesn't suffer quite as much from the trials they face together. Ages 15–up. (Aug.)
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up—What makes this title different from other books involving werewolves and modern teens? Perhaps it's that the protagonists have left the woods in Washington State for the woods of South Carolina. Or maybe it's that they're named Ansel and Gretchen, which is supposed to remind us of Hansel and Gretel, but doesn't really. Instead of an old crone in a house made of candy, there's a nubile young beauty who is a chocolatier, which maybe reminds us of a movie entitled Chocolat, and whose goods seem to have interesting psychological effects on those who consume them. It's probably unnecessary to say that Ansel falls under her spell. The witch doesn't eat him, though. Or any other humans. She leaves that to the werewolves. Thank goodness that Gretchen befriends a young man who's been living in the slave quarters of a nearby former plantation because he knows how to kill werewolves and he teaches Gretchen so they can go hunting together. That's romantic, too. This is more of a mash-up of the fairy tale and some recent best sellers than a reframing of the story in a deep Southern setting, and Pearce's writing is too long on breathlessness and suppressed anguish and too short on actual plot. Will any of this pull readers in? Make them want to read 300 pages? Highly unlikely.—Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY
From the Publisher
"It is easy to care what happens to these characters, even when readers are left wondering who is on the right side and who is not...will still satisfy readers looking for a thrill."—VOYA

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780316068659
Publisher:
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
08/23/2011
Series:
Fairy Tale Retelling Series
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
8.34(w) x 5.72(h) x 1.12(d)
Lexile:
770L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Sweetly


By Pearce, Jackson

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2011 Pearce, Jackson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316068659

PROLOGUE

(Twelve Years Ago)

The book said there was a witch in the woods.

That’s why they were among the thick trees to begin with—to find her. The three of them trudged along, weaving through the hemlocks and maples, long out of sight of their house, their father’s happy smiles, their mother’s soft hands.

A sharp ripping sound bounced through the trees. The boy whirled around.

“Sorry,” one of the girls said, though she clearly didn’t mean it. Her cheeks were still lined with baby fat and her hair was like broken sunlight, identical to the girl’s standing beside her. She held up the bag of chocolate candies that she’d just torn open. “You can have all the yellows, Ansel, if you want.”

“No one likes the yellows,” Ansel said, rolling his eyes.

“Mom does,” one of the twins argued, but he’d turned his back and couldn’t tell which one. That was how it normally was with them—they blended, so much so that you sometimes couldn’t tell if they were two people or the same person twice. The sister with the candy emptied a handful of them into her palm, picking out the yellows and dropping them as they continued to trudge forward.

“When we find the witch,” Ansel told his sisters, “if she chases us, we should split up. That way she can only eat one of us.”

“What if she catches me, though?” one of the girls asked, alarmed.

“Well, what if she catches me, Gretchen?” Ansel replied.

“You’re bigger. She should chase you,” the other sister told him, pouting. “That’s the way they work.” She was the only one who claimed to know the ways of witches—she was the one with the stories, the made-up maps, the pages and pages of books stored away in her head. She reached into her twin’s bag of candy and pegged Ansel in the back of the head with a yellow candy. He didn’t react, so she prepared to throw another one—

“Wait… do you know where we are?” he asked.

One of the twins raised her eyes to the forest canopy and scanned the closest tree trunks, while her sister turned slowly in the leaves. They knew these woods by heart but had never ventured quite so far before. The shadows from branches felt like strangers, the cracks and pops of nature turned eerie.

The twins simultaneously shook their heads and their brother nodded curtly, trying to hide the fact that being out so far made him uneasy. He hurried forward, eager to keep moving.

“Ansel? Wait!” one asked, and ran a little to close the space between them. “Are we lost?”

“Only a little,” he answered, jumping at the sound of a particularly loud falling branch. “Don’t be scared.”

“I’m not,” she lied. She began to wish she’d packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their adventure, instead of two Barbies and a bag of candy, which Gretchen had almost finished off anyway. What if they were stuck out here past dinnertime?

“Besides,” Ansel said over his shoulder, “maybe she’ll be a good witch, like Glinda, and help us get unlost.”

“I thought you said she might want to eat us.”

“Well, maybe, but we won’t know until we find her. Unless you want to go back,” Ansel said. He didn’t entirely believe the stories about the witch, but his sisters did and he didn’t want to ruin it for them. Another pop in the woods made him jump; he shook off the nerves and sang their favorite song, one from a plastic record player that had been their father’s.

“In the Big Rock Candy Mountain, you never change your socks.” The twins began to hum along, adding words here or there, until they got to the line all three of them loved and they sang in unison.

“There’s a lake of stew and soda, too, in the Big Rock Candy Mountain!” The familiar words calmed them, made things fun again, as though their combined voices swept the fear away.

Ansel was about to begin another verse when a new noise came from farther in the forest—not a pop, not a crack, but a footstep. A slow, rolling foot on dried leaves, then another, then another. He grabbed his sisters’ hands, one of their sticky palms in each of his. The bag of candies fell to the ground and scattered, rainbow colors in the dead leaves.

They waited. There was nothing.

And yet there was something—there was something, something breathing, something dripping, something still and hard in the trees. Ansel’s eyes raced across the trunks, looking for whatever it was that he was certain, beyond all doubt, had its eyes locked on them.

“Who’s there?” Ansel shouted. His voice shook, and it made the twins quiver. Ansel was never scared. He was their big brother. He protected them from boys with sticks and thunderstorms.

But he was scared now, and they were torn between wonder and horror at the sight.

Nothing answered Ansel’s question. It got quieter. Birds stilled, trees silenced, breath stopped, his grip on his sisters’ hands tightened. It was still there, whatever it was, but it was motionless, waiting, waiting, waiting…

It finally spoke, a low, whispery voice, something that could be mistaken for wind in the trees, something that made Ansel’s throat dry. He couldn’t pick out the words—they were torn apart, and they were dark. Low, guttural, threatening.

The words stopped.

And it laughed.

Ansel squeezed his sisters’ hands and took off the way they had come. He yanked them along and ran fast as he could, over brush and under limbs. The twins screamed, a single high-pitched note that ripped through the trees and swam around Ansel’s head. He couldn’t look back, not without slowing.

It was behind them. Right behind them, chasing them.

Gretchen stumbled but held tightly to Ansel, let herself be dragged to her feet just as something grasped at her ankles, missed. They had to move faster; it was coming, crunching leaves, grabbing at the hems of their clothes.

It’s going to catch us.

The twins slowed Ansel down—their joined hands slowed everyone down. They’d promised to split up so the witch could eat only one of them, but now…

It’s going to catch us.

Ansel lightened his grip, just the smallest bit, and suddenly his hands were free and the three of them were sprinting through the trees. The thing behind them roared, an even darker version of the words they’d heard earlier.

Both twins knew the other couldn’t run much longer. Did Ansel know the way out?

Candy.

On the ground, yellow candies. Ansel was following them, slicing around trees while the twins followed along desperately, eyes focused on finding the next piece, the trail back to the part of the forest they knew. The monster leapt for one of the twins, missed her, made a breathy, hissing sound of frustration. She dared to glance back.

Yellow, sick-looking eyes found hers.

She turned forward and sped up, faster than the others, driven by the yellow eyes that overpowered the sharp aches in her chest, her legs begging for rest. There was light ahead, shapes that weren’t trees. Their house, their house was close—the candy trail had worked. She couldn’t feel her feet anymore, her lungs were bursting, eyes watering, cheeks scratched, but there was the house.

They burst from the woods onto their cool lawn. Get inside, get inside. Ansel flung the back door open and they stumbled in, slamming the door shut. Their father and mother ran down the stairs, saw their children sweaty and panting and quivering, and asked in panicky, perfect unison:

“Where’s your sister?”

CHAPTER ONE

The truth is, I can’t believe it took our stepmother this long to throw us out.

She’s never liked us, after all, especially me—she didn’t like the way my father loved me, didn’t like the fact that I perfectly matched the daughter she’d never met but my father ached for, the way I looked like his dead wife when she’d been a teenager. She said she just couldn’t afford to keep us on anymore and, with me having just turned eighteen and Ansel nineteen, was no longer obligated to.

Obligated. We were obligations left behind by a father eaten alive by mourning, remnants of a shattered family.

“Are we in South Carolina yet? I zoned out,” Ansel says, his voice a forced calm as he peers over the steering wheel. Ansel likes to have a plan of attack, like he did back on the football field in high school, but right now, we’ve got nothing more than the clothes in the car and the gasoline in the tank. He doesn’t want me to see him worrying, but the truth is, I’m happy to be gone. I feel freer without a plan in the middle of nowhere than I did back in Washington.

“Yeah, we crossed the border a few hours ago,” I answer, kicking my feet up onto the dash. The backs of my knees are sticky and sweat trickles down my chest—it uses too much gas to run the AC and the heat here is heavy. It’s a little easier to bear if I imagine we’re on an epic road trip, the kind that’s a fun adventure, like you see in movies. “We should be there in another three or four hours, I think,” I add.

“There” is the direct result of the folded and refolded pastel brochure in my hands: Folly Beach, South Carolina: The Edge of America. I picked up the brochure at a Tennessee rest stop, and ever since, we’ve been moving toward it, at my behest and Ansel’s ever-accommodating apathy.

The photo on the front is of a peaceful, quiet beach with a red and white lighthouse by the water’s edge. The sand goes on for miles, golden and flat, while the water peaks into elegant waves. It’s the place of my dreams—western Washington State, with its dense forests, was full of places for girls to disappear, to vanish into the trees at the hands of a witch.

A witch. The only term I have for whatever it was that took my sister. I visualize the witch as a twisted villain, an evil woman, a monster, a demon, a near-invisible force, every man in our neighborhood, a trick of the light—something with horribly golden eyes that only I saw and Ansel has long insisted never existed in the first place. Whatever the witch is, she lives among dark trees, deep valleys, craggy ocean cliffs. I’ve spent my whole life longing for soft, endless sand and crashing waves that blur the sounds of the world so I no longer stare at the trees and wonder where the other half of me is among them. I’ve spent my whole life wanting to escape the memory of my sister, wanting to start over, and hating myself for wanting that. How could I want to run away from a lost little girl?

But still. I open the brochure again and read.

A picturesque town of painted sunsets, elegant dining, and endless beaches, Folly Beach is truly the Edge of America—where the everyday ends and serenity begins.

Each second we drive, we get closer to the water, the sand, the flat shore where it’s impossible to vanish, where I have plans: Plans to start over. Plans to be someone new, someone who isn’t haunted by a dead sister. We fly past exits that have nothing at them and finally see hints of the beach only a few hours ahead. Signs advertising resorts and speedboat rentals and little shops boasting floats and giant-size beach towels—it’s early June, prime beach season, and most of the other cars on the road seem packed to the brim with vacationing families. I inhale the hot scent of cut hay and try to imagine that it’s the ocean’s salt.

The Jeep kicks. There’s a loud crack, a boom, and the smell of smoke suddenly overpowers the air.

Ansel veers off the nearly empty road just as gray smoke billows from the front of the car. He jumps out, slamming the door as he runs around and opens the hood. I can’t see him anymore, but his coughs and curses make their way to my ears. I lean out my window, trying to see what’s going on, just as Ansel makes his way back around the car.

“The whole damn thing is burned up,” Ansel snaps, throwing himself back into the driver’s seat. He shakes his head and punches at the steering wheel. “We only have fifty-seven dollars left and the car burns to pieces.”

Ansel mutters another string of curse words, flipping through his wallet as if he may find an extra twenty-dollar bill hidden between old receipts. When he doesn’t, he shakes his head, grits his teeth, and breathes slowly. He has a fast temper, but he knows it and tries to keep it at bay around me. It was my mother’s suggestion, when Ansel started to heal and I still stared at the forest, waiting for my sister to stumble out.

“Make sure Gretchen knows you’re there for her. Don’t upset her—be her rock, Ansel. You have to help her move on.”

It’s a shame my mother couldn’t listen to her own advice. She couldn’t be anyone’s rock, curled up in her bedroom until the grief devoured her. We weren’t even allowed to say our sister’s name in front of her, because it would set her off, either make her sob or yell at us, scream that we had lost her. So we were supposed to act as if nothing was wrong. As if there’d always been only two Kassel children, Ansel constantly trying to find whatever it was that would make up for our sister’s absence, doing everything he could to be my rock, the person I hold on to when I feel as though I might slide off the world and vanish like she did.

Ansel leans across me and opens the glove compartment, then pulls out a crumbly map, folded in all the wrong ways. He stares at it for a moment. “We’re closer to the town we just passed than we are to the next one. We’ll have to walk.”

“What if we called a tow truck?”

“I don’t think we can afford it, but either way my phone is dead. Wait—yours hasn’t been used much. Does it have any bars out here?”

Of course it hasn’t been used—no one would think to call me. I wanted friends, really, but at the same time, how could I go to the mall and laugh at movies when my sister was out there in the darkness? Ansel, somehow, forced himself over that hurdle—every time he hangs up the phone, he touches the thick class ring on his finger, as if it’s his last connection to normal, to his friends, to their world. I feel bad that he’s back in mine, despite how much I need him.

I shake my head at Ansel. “My phone died this morning. I forgot to bring a car charger.”

“Then we walk,” Ansel says with a sigh. I grab my purse and climb out of the car.

And we start to walk.

Everything seemed hot before, when we were sitting in the car. But now things are truly hot, stifling in a way I’ve never known. The air doesn’t move—it sits on us like a weight, crushing us into the long grasses we trudge through. The sky is cloudless, imposing, and for what feels like a million years the scenery doesn’t change. The pine-saturated forest feels as though it’s growing oppressively closer, and I can sense the familiar fear bubbling up in my chest. There could be something in the leaves; there could be something that makes me disappear. Ansel sees it and quietly moves so that he’s in between me and the tree line. He thinks that makes it better, but really, who would I rather the witch take this time around—Ansel or me?

Finally, the exit ramp appears ahead, just as the feeling of insects nipping at my ankles is becoming too much to handle. Rivers of sweat carve down my back and Ansel’s shirt is drenched, but we huff and jog up the ramp to a crossroad. There are two signs at the top of the ramp surrounded by black-eyed Susans. One is hand-painted with red and blue lettering and reads SEE ROBERT E. LEE’S RIDING BOOTS. The other is wooden with a white background and red lettering that isn’t entirely even, as if it was hand-carved. LIVE OAK, SOUTH CAROLINA. HOME OF THE ACORNS— 1969 COUNTY CHAMPIONS.

“1969?” Ansel says, surprised. “And they still have the sign up?”

“Maybe it’s the only time they’ve won,” I suggest. Ansel frowns—in Washington, his school’s football team won the state championship so regularly that they had to shift the oldest “state champs” plaque off the sign every year to make way for the newest one. Ansel was a defensive lineman—I think I see him smirk a little at the sign as we pass it. He loved all sports, but football was his obsession—he memorized plays, other players’ stats, training regimens. He told me once that it was because he liked getting hit. That being knocked to the ground reminded him he was here.

“It looks like our options are limited,” he says. There’s nothing but farmland to our right. To our left is a large store—floats in the shapes of orcas and alligators rest in bins outside, and beach towels are hanging in the window. Beside that is a gas station attached to a long diner with giant glass windows. Even from here, I can see people watching us as they eat lunch. They look as if they’re glaring at us, but I can’t really tell for sure.

Ansel walks quickly to get in front of me, and within a few moments we’re close enough that people have stopped staring for fear of being caught. There’s a faded red cursive sign over the diner: JUDY’S. Painted letters on the windows advertise famous blackberry pie and muscadine grape preserves. All the people inside are hunched over whatever they’re eating, as though they worry someone might snatch it away from them.

When Ansel pushes the door open, a wind chime hung on the interior knocks against it. The diner is mostly occupied by sun-spotted old men wearing baseball caps and jeans, though there are a few soft-looking women as well, all completely silent, eyes on us. I was right—they are glaring, but I’m not sure why.

“All right, all right, give them some space,” a weary-looking waitress calls from the other end of the diner, waving a rag at the patrons. They give her dark looks but abandon the suspicious glares at Ansel and me. The waitress drops off a stack of napkins by an old man, then walks our way. Her yellow dress stands out against the faded aquamarine and black that decks out the diner. “Forgive them. They don’t like outsiders. I see enough that I’m over it, I guess. What’ll you have? Coca-Cola? Sweet tea? You look roasted.”

“Uh, neither, actually. We broke down about a mile ahead on the road. I wanted to see if we can get a tow truck,” Ansel says.

“Closest tow company is over in Lake City, ever since the Bakers left town. They can be out here in about an hour, though, if you want their number,” the waitress tells us with a pitying frown.

“Can I use your phone to call?” Ansel asks. The waitress reaches down below the register and pulls up an ancient-looking phone, and she and Ansel begin flipping through a series of tattered business cards, looking for the tow company’s number. I ease myself onto one of the bar stools and look around the diner.

Along with a few older blue-collar men sitting at the bar is a man—boy?—about Ansel’s age, though something about him feels old. It’s not his skin, not his hands, but something in the way he holds his shoulders, in the way his head droops down, something that makes me think he’s handsome and dangerous at once. Our eyes lock for a small moment through his layer of shaggy, almost-black hair. Bright eyes as green as mine are blue, eyes that don’t match the tired look of the rest of his body—the gaze shoots through the air and startles me. I glance down, and when I look back up, the boy is hunched over his coffee again.

I’m jarred away from him by the sound of Ansel hanging up the phone harder than necessary.

“Interested in that sweet tea now? How about a Cheerwine?” the waitress asks Ansel.

“Why not? Two teas, I guess,” Ansel mutters in response. The waitress nods and jogs toward a silver urn of tea labeled SWEET with a permanent marker. I don’t totally get the need for the marker, because the identical one beside it is also labeled SWEET.

Ansel slides onto the stool next to me. “The guy says it’ll cost a hundred and fifty dollars. Might as well be a hundred and fifty thousand. I told him never mind. I didn’t even ask how much it would be to fix the car.” Ansel sighs and rubs his forehead. “I could do it if I had the tools, but I didn’t have room to pack them.”

The waitress slides two glasses of amber tea packed with ice onto the counter; I sip on mine tentatively. It’s tremendously sweet, so much so that I feel the sugar coating the inside of my mouth. Ansel and I sit in silence for a moment, until an old man a few seats down coughs loudly and wipes his mouth with a handkerchief.

“Okay, okay, you got my pity. You good with your hands, by chance?” the old man asks.

“Good enough,” Ansel answers carefully, rising. He walks over and shakes the man’s hand.

“Ansel Kassel”—Ansel nods toward me—“and my sister, Gretchen.”

“Jed Wilkes,” the man replies.

Other people stare at Jed, as though he’s broken some sort of oath about talking to strangers. He doesn’t notice, though—he takes off his NRA ball cap and runs a hand over his mostly bald head. “Well, if you can do some basic repair sort of stuff, I might be able to point you in the right direction to make a little cash.”

“I can do basic repairs—more than basic repairs. What do you need done?” Ansel says eagerly.

“Not me—Sophia Kelly. She runs a candy shop way out in the near middle of nowhere. Had some stuff she needed fixed up, last I talked to her.”

There’s a sharp movement next to me; I turn to see that the green-eyed boy has lifted his head. “Yeah, she needs help,” he mutters, slamming his coffee mug down so hard that liquid sloshes out the sides. The waitress cusses at him under her breath, lifts the mug, and runs a wet rag over the spill. Everyone else in the diner seems to share the waitress’s sentiment—annoyed eye rolls and irritated glances fly his way. No one offers any sort of explanation before Jed continues.

“Anyway, interested?”

“Yes,” Ansel answers immediately. “Absolutely. If I buy your meal for you, would you give us a ride back to my car first? I don’t want to leave our suitcases out there all day.”

“Hell, don’t worry about it, kid. I feel bad for you—you remind me of my grandson, before my daughter up and moved to the city with him. I’ll give you a ride to your car. Just remember to tell Miss Kelly how gentlemanly I was,” Jed says with a loud chuckle. The green-eyed boy responds by dropping a ten-dollar bill onto the counter and jumping from his seat. He moves to leave the diner but suddenly stops in front of me, eyes piercing my own.

“Stay away from her,” he tells me, loud enough that the rest of the diner can hear but so seriously, so desperately, that I feel as though he and I are the only ones in the room. “Stay as far away from her as you can.”

Ansel makes it from Jed back to me in record time, but the boy is already gone—he storms out of the diner and slides onto an ancient-looking motorcycle, then squeals out of the parking lot. I’m left shaken, not by what he said, but by the way he looked at me, the way he spoke to me, the way he… everything. I try to swallow my reaction. Being afraid of a crazy kid in a diner is no way to start a new life, Gretchen.

“I’m fine. Seriously,” I tell Ansel. I hate him and love him for being this way, ready to run to my side. It makes me feel safe, but I wish so badly that I didn’t need a rock to cling to.

“Ah, so you do speak, Skittles!” Jed says. Ansel takes the green-eyed boy’s vacant seat, still warily watching the cloud of exhaust he left.

“Skittles?” I ask.

“Never seen so many colors since lookin’ in a bag of Skittles,” Jed says, nodding toward the tips of my hair. Pink, blue, purple, faded strands of orange. I thought that maybe if I made myself stand out, I wouldn’t feel so scared of slipping off the world and vanishing like my sister—if people noticed me, they could hold me here. Ansel didn’t understand, but I still think it makes sense—you forget the number of wrens and sparrows you see every day, but if a macaw flies by, you notice her. You wouldn’t stop using her name and try to forget she ever existed.

It didn’t work, though, so I’m left with almost-healed piercings and a rainbow of faded dyes in the lower half of my hair.

Jed continues through my silence. “He’s got a thing against Miss Kelly. Don’t you mind him, don’t you mind any of ’em. People think she’s either the patron saint of candy or the first sign of Live Oak’s end days. She’s the saint, I promise you that.”

“Right,” my brother says, as if that makes complete sense. If he’s as taken aback by Jed’s description of Sophia Kelly as I am, he’s not letting it show.

“Any reason I should bother trying to find out what you two kids are doing out here all alone?” Jed asks.

“Our stepmother asked us to leave,” Ansel says shortly. “So we did.”

“Right.” Jed shoves a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. “We don’t get runaways too often,” he says with a laugh. “But then, we don’t get too many young people, period.”

“We’re not runaways,” I correct Jed quietly. “We were thrown out.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jed says. His eyes sparkle. “But if your stepmother is the type to throw you out, you probably woulda run away sooner or later.”

Without doubt, I think. I know I couldn’t have lived with her in the shell of our childhood home for too much longer. Ansel shakes his head and takes a drink of his yet-untouched tea; his eyes widen in surprise at how sweet it is.

“Well, let’s head out, then,” Jed finally says, nodding at the waitress. She takes a ten-dollar bill from his hand. Ansel fumbles with his wallet to pay for our drinks.

“Don’t worry about it, hon. On the house,” she says with a kind smile. Usually Ansel would be too proud to walk away without paying, but I suppose being this broke has challenged his pride. He gives her an appreciative look as I follow Jed outside; the diner begins buzzing again behind us, as if they’d been holding in their conversations while strangers were around. There’s a faded red truck that I already can tell belongs to Jed—it doesn’t surprise me at all when he opens the door and waves us over. I let Ansel have the front, since he’s huge and the back is crammed with tools and cigarette packages.

With the windows open, hot wind whipping through the air, we cut down the interstate to Ansel’s Jeep. He grabs most of our things, tosses them into the back of Jed’s truck beside some rusty animal traps, and we’re on our way again.

The first stoplight we see is simply flashing yellow, and Jed coasts through it. The town appears ahead—strings of brick buildings connected to one another, though each with a slightly different storefront. On the sides of the buildings are old signs from businesses long closed, painted on the brick in faded colors. It’d be idyllic, if it didn’t have a feel of abandonment about it—as though the buildings are stores merely because that’s what they’ve always been. I feel as if the empty windows are watching me.

Finally, there’s a break in the buildings: a town square, with a traffic circle around its border. In the center is a statue of a Confederate soldier on a rearing horse. On the far side of the square, set just off the road, is a wooden building with an American flag out front and a bright red acorn logo above it. The windows are boarded up.

“Is that a school?” Ansel asks over the clattering of the truck’s engine struggling down the road.

“Was. Ten or so years ago we stopped havin’ enough students to fill it. All the kids are bused down to Lake City now—hour ride, but the government paid for a bus to come and get ’em. Though rumor has it that might stop, what with there not bein’ too many kids left in Live Oak.”

“You won the county championship in sixty-nine, I saw,” Ansel adds with a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Bet your sweet ass our boys did—against Lake City High, biggest showdown in the county. I was second-string, didn’t get to play in the game, but Sophia’s daddy was the big star of it. Touchdown, seventy-three yards. Proudest moment Live Oak’s ever had!” Jed exclaims. If that was their proudest moment, I can’t help but wonder what’s been going on in the decades since, but I keep my mouth shut.

We emerge on the other side of town and delve back onto roads lined with pastures or trees. Jed begins taking strange turns onto roads that I’m certain can’t lead anywhere, since they’re all overgrown with branches and the paving is barely there at all, but no, eventually we come out on a decently paved street with forests looming on either side. They’re just starting to bear down on me when I spot a break in the trees, and when Jed slows down, I realize what it is—a front yard. We’re here.



Continues...

Excerpted from Sweetly by Pearce, Jackson Copyright © 2011 by Pearce, Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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