It's 1983. Molly Martindale, a young and somewhat insecure community newspaper reporter with her own "bitter secret," cannot turn loose of a 40-year-old mystery she discovers in her small south Central Florida town. She accidentally hears about the existence of the Parker family in Oxbow from the 1920s-'40s. She is told they left-packed up and moved to Georgia to take over the family farm in 1943, never to return to Oxbow. But if that's so, why is everyone so reluctant to talk about them? Why does a 13-year-old girl's diary from 1943 hold such sway over her? And why do ghostly faces torment her so? Who are they? What is it they want?
Unable to loosen the hold these horrific yet hypnotic faces have on her, Molly takes the only path she can. She determines to find out everything she can about the family. That quest takes her to Georgia to find the Parker family farm.
There, Viet Nam veteran Glenn Morrison, himself digging out of an icy hell, would offer support for Molly in her lonely pursuit. A feisty old fundamentalist lady with a long memory and a reformed alcoholic also help her along in their own way. At home in Oxbow, old friend Franklin Brown and Dutch, her chocolate Labrador retriever, steady her nerves as she tries to stay on track to find the answers that elude her.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)|
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By Patty Brant
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Patty Brant
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI SEE FACES.
I can't quite remember when I first started seeing them. They were so faint, so unobtrusive, like mist gliding above the sand. More like a sigh, really, flitting just at the periphery of vision, or tangled among leaves like low-lying clouds. At some point, they began to register in my consciousness like little feathers gliding across the bottoms of my feet. Almost imperceptible, but not quite.
I had been in this small town since high school, coming as a brokenhearted thirteen-year-old orphan to live with a widowed great aunt I barely knew. Now a reporter with the Oxbow Independent, our local mullet wrapper, I, Molly Martindale, had settled quite comfortably into my life. This town had become my own.
I remember quite clearly the day I could no longer ignore these faces. I had just spent the better part of my day wrestling with an absentee boss—you know, the kind who rarely shows her face and still manages to give you grief. As I finally hung up the phone for the last time and switched off the light, it was just about dusk. When I pulled the key from the front door lock and turned to the darkening street, it must have been bedtime for the birds. They were swishing through the air, calling to each other, making quite a ruckus. At first I hoped the waning light was playing tricks on my strained eyes.
But no, I was certain. There really was something up in the branches of that old orchid tree. All my instincts said there was. Then the birds were gone, and a deathly stillness took the place of their cries.
Although I'd seen that tree almost daily for nearly twelve years as I entered and exited my office, it demanded my attention that evening. It wasn't the lavender blooms that were once again painting that corner as they do for weeks every winter before falling softly to shrivel like limp stars on the ground. It was something else ... something barely there. Something that wouldn't be ignored any longer.
For a long time I had done an admirable job of doing just that—denying there was anything out of the ordinary there. Maybe because there was no sound—not a whisper. Strange that should occur to me now, but there was no sound, at least no natural sound. Even the traffic noises faded away. Then they were there again—my faces—a twist of leaves in the breeze, undulating shadows, just the mere outlines of ghostly countenances, sad and waiting. Waiting. But for what? Or for whom? Were they there at all?
Slowly I felt myself being drawn to that orchid tree. I was almost across the street when I noticed the man with slightly glazed eyes just sitting there, hunched against the trunk of a giant oak, just about twenty feet from the orchid tree—what I was beginning to think of as "my" orchid tree. I prepared myself for the now-familiar stench of stale alcohol I knew would soon be assaulting my nostrils. Any thoughts of unearthly faces evaporated as quickly as they had formed.
"Hi, Dennis. Gonna be a nice evening, looks like." My words echoed unnaturally loudly in my ears as my raggedy fingernails reached my lips. I'd been trying to stop biting my nails since I was a teenager. It was not the night I was finally going to conquer that bad habit.
Dennis Blankenship had been what is commonly known as the "town drunk" for about as long as I'd been working at the Oxbow Independent. He just sort of came with the territory. In his fifties, was my guess, with a weathered face and empty eyes. The faded scars, more pronounced on one side of his face than the other, gave mute testimony that something horrific had happened to Dennis at some time in his life. It was his disfigured face that struck you most about the man. Well, that and the almost overpowering reek of alcohol that floated around him like an invisible cloud. He was grinding a cigarette nub into the musty ground.
I'd see Dennis at least once a week, sometimes at the post office, sometimes coming out of the bank. Most often his little dog pranced alongside him. Li'l Bit, he called him. The scruffy critter looked like something put together with spare parts from other dogs—I would defy even the American Kennel Club to find any part that matched another. As improbably ugly as the mutt was, he was a lively little fellow—and cute in an odd sort of way. A well-behaved, drab-colored little orphan whom Dennis miraculously kept clean. The two had apparently adopted each other, and the pair of them lived in the woods behind the bank on the other side of River Street. When it was really cold or rainy somebody always found an empty room or a garage for Dennis—Li'l Bit by his side. It was one of those things that make a small town comfortable. Dennis might have been just a drunk, but he was our drunk. He'd been around for about twenty years, near as I could figure—since the '60s—and folks took care of him, well, as much as he'd let them. Li'l Bit was just part of the deal. Maybe the little guy made Dennis more acceptable to the good people of Oxbow. Anybody who could engender that kind of devotion from a dog just had to be worth something.
"Hey there, Molly. Think you're right," Dennis responded, stroking Li'l Bit with one scarred hand and raising a beer bottle swathed in a brown paper bag to his lips with the other. "March nights can still get awful damn cold, but it don't look bad tonight. Anyway, I got a place fixed up in Mattie Lou's garage. Real nice. If it gets too cold, I'll just head on over there," he told me.
Bless her heart, Mattie Lou just couldn't turn away any stray.
Dennis was always polite, always spoke when I spoke first, but he never looked at me. In fact, I noticed that he never seemed to really look at anybody. I always figured he was ashamed. Or maybe he was afraid he'd see pity in people's eyes. My "faces" melted away as Dennis spoke—as though they were never there at all. Thank God, I think. I must be cracking up—or I'm just way overdue for a vacation. Our conversation continued.
"Put the paper to bed, did you?" Another swig.
"That was Tuesday, Dennis," I reminded him.
"Yeah. Guess I forgot. Days sure are a lot shorter than they used to be," he said, glancing around the lot. "Can't say that's necessarily a bad thing."
Dennis was always kind of quirky. Jumpy, as though he always expected something, or somebody, to be sneaking up on him. Drink does take a toll on a person.
Speaking of being jumpy, I was well aware of my own raw nerves, keeping an uneasy eye on the profusion of lavender petals and green leaves in the low-hanging branches of "my" orchid tree, searching for any trace of those feathery faces overhead.
Just then a few notes of "When the Saints Come Marching In" broke into our conversation. Oliver St. Claire, rake in hand, was approaching the lot.
Nodding his good-byes, Dennis stood up—a lot more steadily than I would have thought possible—and headed off toward Mattie Lou's place. Dennis always liked his space—for him, three was always a crowd, and he avoided people as much as he could. With Li'l Bit's tiny paws making little clicking noises on the sidewalk, he ambled off in the opposite direction from Oliver, rocking slightly from side to side with his peculiar rolling gait, mumbling about a walk and then a nice hot cup of coffee. Mattie Lou could always be counted on for a nice hot cup of coffee.
One more glance around the treetops—no more faces!—and my brain went into high gear. Could I make it over to my nine-year-old '74 Oldsmobile without Oliver seeing me? After all, darkness was just beginning to gather, maybe if I stay real still ...
Damn! Here he comes.
Oliver St. Claire and his family owned the building across and down the street from my office—right next to "the lot." Except for that empty lot with the orchid tree, the landmark building took up that entire side of the street. The St. Claire Building, built in the mid-thirties, was one of the centerpieces of downtown Oxbow. In addition to Ruby Mae's Café, it housed rental offices and an upstairs apartment. Only the courthouse eclipsed it in architectural elegance. It was as if one of the Old South's grand plantation homes had been transported and rooted to that spot. After almost fifty years, it still attracted the eye like a single lily in the middle of a green field.
I noticed that the birds were back at it, swooping and screeching. Rake in hand, Oliver was leading the imaginary parade of saints, coming out to rake up the fallen debris—fragile lavender flower shells, leaves, and the assorted detritus that constantly requires attention on a wooded lot.
In midstride, he spied me, as I unsuccessfully tried to be inconspicuous. From his vantage point I probably looked as though I were contemplating the glories of nature, not trying desperately to gather my wits.
Oliver was a hard worker—one of the original members of the town's premier family. Everyone in Oxbow was familiar with the St. Claire family history. Long gone, James St. Claire was the patriarch who brought the clan to Oxbow. A successful businessman and restaurateur, James was beginning to take things easier by the time they came to Oxbow. His eldest son Anderson, also long gone, ran the family businesses by then. He was most like his daddy. The mayor of Oxbow for most of the '40s and '50s, Anderson was a legend in our small town. Anderson St. Claire had been a man of influence. Oliver, the middle brother and whistler, helped manage the family's properties and businesses. If Anderson had been the "brains," Oliver was the worker bee—the one who rolled up his sleeves and got the job done. The third son, Elwood, got the benefit of the family's success. His daddy sent him to the University of Florida, and he eventually became a lawyer. His son, Kyle, followed in his footsteps. Their law office was in the St. Claire Building.
Oliver was in his seventies or thereabouts and still a large man. In his prime I imagine he must have been quite an imposing figure, well over six feet tall and probably approaching three hundred pounds. These days his weight was spilling over his belt more than a little, but his arms were still powerful, and he still had a full head of gray-streaked hair.
Oliver was probably the best whistler I had ever known. He could imitate any bird he heard and do a fine rendition of just about any popular song you could name—provided it had come out before 1960. And he was a talker. In my mind, it was the only thing he did better than whistle. That man could talk you right into a stupor. Once he snagged you, it was a minimum twenty-minute "conversation." I prepared myself for it.
"Well, hi there, Molly! Enjoying the orchid blooms, eh? Nice evening for it," he said, planting himself next to me, both hands resting atop the rake handle. His glance took in the profusion of lavender blossoms. "Sure are pretty this time of year," he observed. Then he sighed and launched into the usual small talk ...
"Did you hear how Jane Hauley's little boy broke his arm? It was just a matter of time, you know. Jane just doesn't keep track of that boy ... You know they're going to tear down the old skatin' rink ..." For the hundredth time, he launched into a tirade on how he'd been abused by his latest tenant, the pizza guy. Thus the vacant rental space between the lawyer's office and the orchid tree lot. "Shoulda known better than to trust that Yankee so-and-so."
He fell silent for a few seconds, and I thought maybe it was my chance to take my leave, but then he came to his point.
"I know you're supposed to be heading over to the county commission meeting, Mol, but if you've got a minute, I'd really like to show you something." I could see the excitement in his kindly blue eyes, and so I said, "Yes, of course." Wimp!
Pleased, he led me over to Ruby Mae's. The restaurant was closed, and the place was deserted, but I followed him in when he opened the door, my curiosity rising.
"Wait here for just a minute," he told me, moving to the back room and then returning just a few seconds later, muscling in a huge picture frame. He turned it around, leaned it up against a blank wall, and pulled a sheet off, smiling all the while like a kid at the circus.
I couldn't help but smile too, just looking at him—till my eyes took in the painting he'd just unveiled.
"My granddaughter, Callie, you know—the one studying art down in Lauderdale—she painted it. Gave it to me over the weekend for the restaurant," he said, eying the painting lovingly. "When she was little she used to just love to play over there. I'd set her up with a little table and chairs, and she'd have tea parties ..."
His words faded as I stared at a richly colored, faithful reproduction of the lot—"my" lot. A profusion of lavender petals clung to sweeping branches, twisting with deep-green leaves in a gentle breeze. Shadows teased the eye, bringing it all alive.
Oliver was going on—something about art classes and Paris—but I couldn't tear my eyes or my brain away from that painting. Achingly beautiful but dark, with an undercurrent of restlessness.
"Oh, Molly! I've got to get my books done—didn't realize how late it was getting! Guess you'd better head over to the commission meeting too." His words felt like a splash of cold water on my face.
"Yes, I do have to go. The picture's beautiful—just what this place needed. Callie's got a lot of talent," I heard myself stammer. I forced my legs to move, glancing once more at the painting as I opened the door to leave, Oliver right behind me with the key, ready to let me out.
Outside, the evening breeze cooled the heat on my forehead. As Oliver switched off the light inside, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window. What I always thought of as my best feature, a full head of shiny, chestnut-brown hair, just brushed my shoulders. Underneath that chestnut mane I was the picture of "average." Average height, average build, average weight—right down to the extra five pounds that clung tenaciously to my backside. I always thought "average" should be my middle name. Molly Average Martindale, that's me. But that evening my average face looked haggard and drawn, as pale as the blue eyes I inherited from my grandmother.
I knew very well I was not the fanciest jewel in the jewel box. My mom always proudly pronounced me "wholesome," but I could see nothing wholesome in those eyes that night. All I could see was penetrating, unthinking panic threatening to overwhelm my average brain.
Inside the café that dreadful painting almost glowed. I tried to steady myself but could not force my eyes away from the painting. Oliver turned out the last light as he went upstairs, leaving only stray rays from the streetlight to illuminate the dining room. A kind of murky shadow took over the room as I stared at the painting, horrified and fascinated at the movement it projected. That movement became more pronounced as I watched till my faces emerged again, pulling at me, reaching out to me—coming for me.
Fascination became fear and was rapidly turning into panic. One foot moved forward and then the other. The streetlights had little effect on the gloom closing in on me.
Faster. A glance behind me. They were still there, gaining on me. I knew I was running in the wrong direction—my car was the other way—but instinctively I understood that I could not outrun these misty pursuers, even in my old car. Still, there was no choice but to keep going. Retreating blindly in search of safe haven, I passed Sunny's Shoe Store ("We treat your feet right") and Shirley's Beauty Emporium, where Oxbow ladies had gone to look their best for nigh on twenty years now. Shirley's styles might have been a trifle behind the times, but she always had the very best gossip and the most exclusive shops in New York City would have envied the loyalty of her clientele.
The absurdity of it kept nagging at the furthest outreaches of my brain, but there was no stopping my mind or my feet, the primal fear far stronger than any limited idea of "reality."
I wasn't seeing anything anymore—just a blur of passing stucco walls and signs—when I was jolted back into what I had always believed to be my real world. I was sprawled on the sidewalk looking up at Dennis, his misshapen eyes concerned as he offered me his hand.
"You okay, Molly? You don't look so good."
Now there was a question I sure couldn't answer. Was I okay? What had just happened to me, anyway? I looked behind and all around and all seemed to be normal—no sign of those hazy faces, more vessels of conflicting feelings than substance.
"You came charging up to the corner here, hell bent for leather, just as I was coming out of the alley. Sure hope I didn't hurt you none," Dennis said. "Don't worry none about my bottle—ain't nothin'."
For the first time I noticed the splash of liquid streaming down the beauty shop's stucco wall and puddling around shards of brown glass glittering on the sidewalk next to me. The smell of malt hung in the air.
"Looks to me like you best get on home, Molly. You just don't look good," he said.
"I think you're right, Dennis," I agreed. I would miss the meeting and catch up with the commissioners the next day. I couldn't get home fast enough.
Excerpted from BITTER SECRETS by Patty Brant Copyright © 2012 by Patty Brant. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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