Read an Excerpt
If you can't beat 'em run away.
The finality of the moving truck trundling off made the last thing her sister had said to her loom large in Polly Bennett's thoughts. Too exhausted to move, she stood hip-deep in the stacks of boxes in her rented two-bedroom cottage five hundred miles from everyone she knew. She eased out a long, satisfied breath and smiled. For once in their twenty-six years on this earth, Esther, Polly's identical twin sister, was wrong. Polly hadn't run away from anything; she had run to something.
Polly had run to the place where she would build a life, pursue a career, make a difference in people's lives. She closed her eyes to form a short, silent prayer that this would be the place where she would meet a great guy, fall in love and raise a familywhere she would make her home.
"Amen," Polly whispered, her heart light and her head swirling with a million things she needed to get done. She moved around the boxes that held the contents of her life, boxes marked Kitchen and Living Room and Fragile. She took a deep breath, tugged open the uppermost one and immediately recognized a series of paper-wrapped rectangles. The newsprint packaging rattled as she uncovered a set of four sleek silver frames. Her shoes squeaked on the polished wood floor as she went to put the series of family photos on the mantel of the painted brick fireplace.
"Giving y'all the best spot in the house to watch over me.. " she murmured in her soft Georgia accent. First she placed the photo of her brother and sister-in-law and their two kids, who looked as if they'd stepped out of a catalog of perfect families, then added, "But not be able to tell me I'm doing it all wrong."
Next she settled in the photos of her mom and her mom's new husband, and her dad and her dad's soon-to-be next wife, on either side of the first frame. The second she did it, she felt a cloud of heaviness in her chest, so she moved them both onto the same side. That did little to ease the ache in her heart over her parents' split, even though it had happened almost sixteen years ago. Finally she arranged the pictures so that if you stood in just the right spot and gazed at them at just the right angle, you would see the two faces of the parents she loved so dearly side by side. That helped.
One last frame to unwrap. Polly tugged it free and let the paper tumble down over her ratty tennis shoes. Her eyes lingered over the image of herself and her sister seated on either side of a wrought-iron table under a red-and-white-striped restaurant awning. Unlike the others, it was not a professional portrait but a shot taken the day her sister had accepted her job as first assistant chef. That same day Polly had decided to quit working as a permanent substitute teacher and find her way in the world, wherever that quest took her.
Esther's hair was pulled back so tight that if it were blond instead of jet-black, she might have looked bald. Polly had to peer closely to see the slip of a ponytail high on the back of Esther's head. In contrast, Polly's unruly black hair, which was only a little bit shorter than Essie's, fell forward over one dark eyebrow. It flipped up at the ends against her shirt collar and stuck out on one side.
While Essie's makeup was simple and perfect, Polly had chosen that day to try something dramatic with eyeliner, making her dark pupils look almost black. And despite the fact that Essie worked preparing food in a hot and hectic restaurant kitchen all day long, she looked crisp and cool. Polly was the one with an orangey cheese snack smudge on her shoulder, from where one of her students had hugged her.
She shook her head and sang under her breath, "'One of these things is not like the other '"
Deeper in the box, she found the big envelope containing her letter of acceptance as the newest second-grade teacher at Van Buren Elementary School. She took it out and hugged it to her chest, filled with gratitude for the last-minute decision by an older teacher to retire that had resulted in Polly getting the chance of a lifetime.
Outside, the rustling of bushes, the snap of a twig made her pulse kick up. She checked out the curtainless window in the front room. The long shadows of late afternoon made it impossible to see much, but the neatly kept houses settled cozily on the treelined street left her with a sense of well-being she had never really known. Renting it sight unseen after her video interview had worked out, after all. She couldn't help but smile at the sight. Even though she hadn't been in this town since she was six years old, she had known this was where she belonged.
"Baconburg, Ohio." She held out the envelope and trailed her fingers over the town's name on the return address then over the cancellation stamp dated July 15, just a little over two weeks ago. To the average person the letter was simply the confirmation of her last-minute contract offer. But to Polly? A flutter of excitement rose from the pit of her stomach and she gave a nervous laugh. "This is my ticket home."
Her whole life since that childhood move she'd felt as if she was at odds with well, everything. She'd never found peace in Atlanta, Georgia, where her parents had moved to make a better life for their family.
Polly shook her head and sighed, but that did not even begin to unravel the knot in her chest that the memories of those early years in Atlanta always brought. Better?
Richer. Faster. More driven, maybe. But better?
Polly didn't see it. The fighting between her parents had started not long after that move and escalated with the driving pace of their lives in the city. They tried to hold the family together, and Polly tried to accept things how she'd been raisedthat everything presented an opportunity to be seized, a competition to be won.
But the truth was that Polly just loved kids. Teaching them, guiding them, watching them grow and learn and embrace life in their own unique ways seemed like the greatest ambition anyone could have. Her family did not get that. Sometimes Polly felt her own family did not get her.
They especially did not get her longing to return to Baconburg.
"But here I am" she swept her gaze over the unpacked boxes in her small house "on my own. Alone."
The rustling under her front window interrupted her musings again. She set the envelope aside, went to the shallow window seat and peered out. Nothing. She sank to sit on the window seat. The rays of the late-afternoon sun slanted across the gleaming hardwood floor. So she was done running. Now what?
Her stomach grumbled and that seemed like the answereat something. She started to head toward the kitchen, then realized she didn't even have any food in the house.
If she were back in Atlanta she'd just hop in her little hybrid and scoot over to her sister's restaurant or over to her mom's house to raid the fridge. She certainly didn't know anyone well enough to do that here. She didn't really know anyone here. And the only restaurant she knew of in Baconburg was a fast-food spot out on the highway.
This time the noise outside sounded like a low whine. Probably a corner of one of the shaggy bushes scraping against the glass or the metal gutters creaking. A car pulled up in the drive across the street and two children came scrambling down the walk to greet the man climbing out from behind the wheel. Her stomach rumbled. The people went inside. She glanced over her shoulder at her family's photos on the mantel and it all hit her.
She had no one here. A wave of loneliness swept over her. Real loneliness. She always carried her faith within her and with it her connection to God and to all her friends and family, who routinely held one another in prayer. So it wasn't a matter of being completely abandoned. But.
Finally a clear whimper at her front door made her catch her breath. She shut her eyes, hoping again that she had only imagined it.
Tension wound from between her shoulder blades through her body to tighten into a knot in the pit of her stomach.
She had seen that little dog hanging around her yard as she moved boxes in. She assumed it belonged to one of the families on the block and forced herself not to try to gather up the sweet-faced little animal.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Polly could practically hear her mother schooling her in an attempt to get the imperfect twin to be more like her sister. It must have sunk in a little because Polly had not wanted the first impression she made to be that she had stolen her neighbor's pet.
This time a series of three short whimpers, then a snuffle moved her to action. She went to the front door and opened it slowly. She'd just steal a peek and
A soft golden-brown muzzle poked into the crack between the door and doorframe.
"Oh! No, puppy." She reached down to push the animal back outside. "This is not your home. You should go back where you belong."
A small, cold nose filled her palm followed by a soft warm tongue. She glanced down and her gaze met a pair of huge, soft brown eyes.
Polly was lost. She had always been a pushover for brown eyes. And these? Looking up at her from the sweetest little face of a doggy who, like her, wasn't sure if he would be welcome in this new environment. Oh, yeah, she was lost for sure.
"Okay, I'll take you in for the night, but starting tomorrow morning I am going to do everything I can to find your real own" She'd hardly started to pull open the door when the animal nudged his way inside.
He had the elongated body and uncapped energy of a dachshund. The long ears and short, stocky legs of a basset hound maybe, but with the coloring, brown eyes and nose of a golden retriever. Tongue lapping and tail wagging, he jumped on her and threw her off-balance. She sank to the floor and the little guy squirmed into her lap, laid his head against her cheek and sighed.
For one fleeting moment her loneliness easeduntil she realized she couldn't allow herself to get too attached. Her first responsibility to this little fellow was to get him back to those who loved him. Much like her duty as the town's new second-grade teacher was to encourage children to learn and grow and then to move on.
"Okay, let's get some food." She stood and brushed the dog hair off her clothes, snapped up her purse, then went to the door. "Tomorrow I'll run up to the school and get whatever I need to make some flyers."
She'd brought paper, markers, glue, scissors and other supplies with her from Atlanta because she didn't know what she'd find in Baconburg. "Then I can take a picture of you, scan it into my laptop, make a flyer and post them around town. But for now?" She opened the front door and motioned for him to follow. "Wanna go for a ride in the car?"
Apparently he did not.
"Come out from under there!" Gingerly, she poked her nose under the back end of her car where the dog had darted after she had stepped outside.
The puppy whimpered.
She recognized the sound of a car engine cutting off, a door opening and falling shut again. She couldn't stop to think about what kind of first impression she was making on some neighbor. Despite her thoughts on wanting to leave her competitive upbringing behind, she couldn't help herselfshe was determined to win this little battle of wills. A battle not for her own benefit, but this time to help the frightened animal.
"Just a little closer " Her cheek flattened against the cold bumper. She stretched out her hand, straining her fingers to try to reach some part of the animal. "I wish I could make you understand that this is for your own good. Can't you just give a little bit, too?"
"I know people who name their cars. Even some who give them pep talks or good swearing outs, but trying to guilt your car into running? That's totally new to me."