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Five Years Later October 11 Sunrise
Clifton Creek, Texas
The chrome streetlights rocked with the rhythm of the dawn wind as Meredith Allen crossed Main and headed toward Clifton Creek's only elementary school. She was an hour early. She always arrived an hour early. It had become her routine over the dozen years she had taught school.
Meredith told herself she needed to be up and out of the way to allow her husband, Kevin, to dress without them constantly bumping into one another in the bedroom and bath of their tiny house. She refused to admit her leaving early might be because they had little to say to one another in the morning. After a day apart, they would talk of the news and who they saw or the changes in the weather. But at dawn, conversation had somehow grown as stale as morning breath. She told herself it was to be expected. After all, they had grown up together, and after a decade of marriage they were bound to run out of things to say from time to time.
Parking in the empty school lot, Meredith stared through the cracked windshield of her old Mustang. The sunlight sparkled off the grain silos just beyond the Wal-Mart store and the city limits sign. When she had been a child her father told her the silos were the castle of an evil king who had been forever banned from Clifton Creek.
Meredith smiled. He also told her the oil rigs were dancing to a tune they heard deep in the earth. The huge rigs kept dipping to the beat, trying to pull the melody to the surface so that all could hear.
Her father had been a dreamer. The rigs were no more than ugly mosquitoes, sucking the earth's blood. But that blood had built the town and had kept it alive when many other small communities in West Texas had dried up like wild gourds and blown away. Clifton Creek had survived amid the rocky soil just as she had. This was not just her hometown, this place was a part of her. She belonged here, as native as the cottonwoods and coyotes.
Meredith collected her school bag and purse then climbed out of the Mustang, excited as always. She would have plenty of time to get everything organized before the first student arrived. Her house might be a mess sometimes her life seemed disjointedbut in her classroom everything had its place. There, a magic happened that only teachers understood.
If her existence were an art gallery, teaching would be shown with colorful brush strokes and her home with careful line-drawn prints.
Not that she hated home. Home was just home and Kevin just Kevin. She could never hate her small town or him; they were both as much a part of her as bone or blood.
At first Kevin had told her how lucky she was to be his girlfriend, and then his wife; as though she needed reminding from time to time. Lately the words had changed; now she should count herself fortunate if he stayed around. As if there were other places he might go. Meredith would just laugh and remind him they belonged here, together. They always had, they always would.
As she walked to the school building she wondered what he was thinking, for he had been moody for weeks. The only blessing she counted each day was the twenty-three smiles looking up at her inside the sanctuary of her second-grade classroom. Kevin would work through his melancholy state, he always did. In the meantime, she had the children.
She waved as Helena Whitworth passed by in her long white Buick, driving toward downtown. The older woman looked every inch the queen in her small kingdom of Clifton Creek.
Helena Whitworth did not wave back. In fact, she didn't even notice Meredith or the grade school. With the precision of a general about to go into battle, Helena organized her thoughts, rehearsed her orders and prepared her defense on several fronts.
She had dreaded this day all week. Talking to the city council about increasing the budget would be not only boring, but time-consuming. She needed her wits sharp and alert. Her husband, J.D., had already made her late by joking about what he would like to do this Thanksgiving instead of going over to one of her daughters' homes and being assaulted by grandchildren. He told Helena over eggs Benedict that he planned to take a weed whacker instead of a cane this year. Maybe that would keep the little devils away.
For the hundredth time, Helena wished she had married J.D. first, or even second. Then, maybe they would have been young enough to have children together. Everyone in Clifton Creek thought of him as The Colonel, a hard, career Marine, who married the richest widow in town. But J.D. had taught her to laugh and to love. Despite all her duties and projects, J.D. was her core, the center that made everything else worthwhile.
Helena patted the wheel of her Buick as though the horsepower would respond to her touch. If she planned to get anything accomplished in the council meeting today, she had better stop thinking of J.D. and his jokes and start concentrating on what she planned to say about adding roadside parks at both ends of town.
Another year, maybe two, and she would turn loose her civic responsibilities and travel with J.D. They would go to places she did not know how to pronounce, eat food she had never heard of, and make love like they were still in their fifties.
For the past year J.D. had tried his best to get her to reduce her workload, but he did not understand. Helena needed work like she needed air. She was a workhorse, loving the challenge of each day. She had not slowed down in the forty years of running her own business and today was not the time to even start thinking about it. Maybe tomorrow she would watch the birds a little longer, or take a walk with him hand in hand. Maybe tomorrow there would be more time.
Helena forced her thoughts back to the problems of the day. The meeting should be over by noon. She could still do the final buying for the holiday season if she ate lunch with her secretary in their office above her store. Helena's Choice had not become a quality dress shop by neglecting details. The last of the Christmas orders needed to be placed, and soon.
For almost forty years, she had a motto; buy for Christmas before the first frost and for summer before the trees bud. Helena prided herself on being a woman who lived by timetables. With practiced diligence everything in her life had an order to it. The clock, the calendar, the seasons measured out her days in predictable patterns. And the patterns brought a peace to her aging. These were all things she could count on just as surely as she always counted on J.D.
By the time she pulled into the lot between the courthouse and the post office, Helena felt the weather changing, along with her mood. The day would be long and tedious. It would probably be after dark before she got back to her home that J.D. laughingly called Pigeon Run. There would be no twilight time for them this evening.
One of the Montano Ranch pickups had parked sideways in the lot, and the horse trailer it pulled completely blocked her reserved spot. Helena waited, irritated but not surprised. Ranchers in these parts thought the wide-open spaces extended into town. She had seen them park loaded cattle trucks in the center of Main Street while they ran in for an hour-long cup of coffee.
Helena watched as Davis Montano's young Italian wife hugged her mail and ran for her pickup. Helena could not help but wonder where the stylish woman bought her clothes. For once, the older woman had no idea. All she knew was that Anna Montano did not buy them at Helena's Choice, and they certainly had not come from one of the local discount stores.
"Sorry," Anna Montano shouted, jumping into her truck. "II was just picking up the mail."
Anna did not expect the older woman to respond. Most of the people in this town acted as if they could not quite see her, even when she bothered to speak to them. In their eyes she was an outsider and therefore not a real person. The five years she had lived in Clifton Creek might as well have been a month to them.
Anna watched the thin, well-dressed woman park her Buick and hurry into the courthouse. "Helena Whit-worth," Anna said aloud as if her own voice could somehow ease her loneliness.
"Hello, Helena," Anna added as she started the truck. She had long ago accepted the fact that these Texans were not being rude, just unobservant. If she had been from New York, or L.A. they might have passed the time of day, but Anna was from Europe and, for most of them, that might as well be the moon.
Anna gripped the three letters from Italy lying beside her. The first year she had come to Texas as a bride, she found several letters from her family unopened and crushed in the floorboards of the ranch trucks. Unsure of what to say to her husband, she solved the problem by getting a post office box. Whenever she made a trip to town she stopped by, knowing her letters would be waiting. If her husband Davis noticed, he never commented.
That small inconsiderate act made her think about leaving him and going back home where she knew she belonged. But she hesitated with indecision in the same halting way that she stuttered in speech. No action was less frightening than action. It seemed every time she acted on impulse or emotion, she had chosen the wrong path. She always had to remind herself to think before she acted, just as she had to think before she spoke. It was her bad luck that her husband was a man deeply involved in his own agenda and who had little time or interest in her problems.
If she had told her family about her thoughts of leaving Davis because he did not deliver her mail, they would have said she was a pampered fool. They would have suggested she stay and grow to love him while learning to overlook his flaws. After five years, Anna sometimes felt as if all her energy had been spent on swimming through the rocky shoals of her marriage. If she did not act, and soon, it would be only a matter of time before she drowned.
Driving past the five buildings that framed the college grounds, Anna took a deep breath and tried to convince herself one more time that everything was all right. She was letting her thoughts run away with her. But she was no longer the schoolgirl Davis brought home to Clifton Creek.
This part of town always welcomed her with its large trees and neatly trimmed grounds. Davis had told her the locals started the college when one of Clifton Creek's first settlers donated his huge home. For years the entire teachers college had operated out of the one building. Dorms, a gym, other classrooms designed in the same aging brick structure, had grown up around the old home.
Anna thought the campus was the only place for miles that anyone might call pretty. She would like to put the area on canvas, a view peeping through the colors of fall to the hundred-year-old home that must have been a mansion in its time.
She slowed. Maybe she would paint it in the violets of sunset, if she could catch the twilight just right. Here, its beauty tiptoed quickly, never overwhelming as it had back home. She would have to work hard to catch the uniqueness of the mansion on canvas.
As Anna passed, a few students hurried from their cars to their early classes, paying little more attention to the traffic than the squirrels did. She noticed a long-legged woman dressed in Western clothes crawl out of a Dumpster with a box in each hand.
Anna did not need to hear the woman's words. The look of someone swearing was the same in any language. Anna turned away, not wanting to be a part of another's troubles.
"Damn, damn and double damn," Randi Howard mumbled as she tossed the boxes in the back of her Jeep. She'd fought like a warrior inside that Dumpster to claim the boxes and both of them smelled like cheap whiskey and hot sauce.
Any clothes she packed in them would reek of the same, but at least she would be seeing this town in her rearview mirror. She thought briefly of packing all her junk in trash bags, but somehow boxes seemed more dignified. She should have invested in some of those fine packing boxes sold by moving companies. As many times as she had moved over the years, she would have worn the boxes out.
Randi climbed into her Jeep and headed back to the trailer park. The sky clouded up as if it might rain, but she planned to be long gone before she got caught in a storm.
She waved as she passed Frankie's Bar thinking of the good times and the bad times she had had there, and wondered about the times she had forgotten to remember the next morning.
She thought of the old adage that said we only regret the things we didn't do. Randi knew it wasn't true. The possibility of regret usually fired her into action. She recalled how she could not wait to get a tattoo on her ankle so she could talk about how sorry she was for doing such a foolish thing. The remorse had been so complete she had added a butterfly to her butt.
When Randi drove by the Y she noticed Crystal Howard jogging around the track on the roof. In days past Randi might have honked, or yelled, but lately she seldom talked to Crystal. Even though they were married to kin, they didn't travel in the same circles anymore.
There had been a time when Frankie's Bar didn't come to life each night until Randi and Crystal stepped through the door. Most evenings they wouldn't have to buy a single drink.
But that was before Crystal had married Shelby Howard, an old oilman with a huge house just outside of town and the dozen oil wells pumping nothing but money. A few weeks later Randi had married his nephew, Jimmy, settling for the younger, poorer Howard. He'd been a good husband and, for a while, a good lover, but like everything else in Randi's life, she figured it was time to run before he yelled, "Last call."