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Gone Too Long: A Novel

Gone Too Long: A Novel

by Lori Roy

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Overview

Two-time Edgar Award–winning author Lori Roy entangles readers in a heart-pounding tale of two women battling for survival against a century’s worth of hate.
 
On the day a black truck rattles past her house and a Klan flyer lands in her front yard, ten-year-old Beth disappears from her Simmonsville, Georgia, home. Armed with skills honed while caring for an alcoholic mother, she must battle to survive the days and months ahead.

Seven years later, Imogene Coulter is burying her father—a Klan leader she has spent her life distancing herself from—and trying to escape the memories his funeral evokes. But Imogene is forced to confront secrets long held by Simmonsville and her own family when, while clearing out her father's apparent hideout on the day of his funeral, she finds a child. Young and alive, in an abandoned basement, and behind a door that only locks from the outside.
 
As Imogene begins to uncover the truth of what happened to young Beth all those years ago, her father’s heir apparent to the Klan’s leadership threatens her and her family. Driven by a love that extends beyond the ties of blood, Imogene struggles to save a girl she never knew but will now be bound to forever, and to save herself and those dearest to her. Tightly coiled and chilling, Gone Too Long ensnares, twists, and exposes the high price we are willing to pay for the ones we love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524741969
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/25/2019
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Lori Roy is the author of Bent Road, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Until She Comes Home, finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel; Let Me Die in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel; and, most recently, The Disappearing. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Beth

March 2010-7 years before

The truck driving toward our house is black. Lots of cars drive past our house because there's a good turnaround spot just down the road and the interstate is the other way. Most every car driving past wants to go the other way, and usually they're in a hurry, but not this truck. It drives slow and it glitters where the sun hits it and the tailgate rattles like pennies in a mason jar. I hear it even though all the windows and doors are closed and locked, have to be. That's the rule when Mama's at work and I'm home alone.

The driver, he is a man. One of his arms hangs out the window, and something dangles from his hand. I don't know what it is, but then he keeps slowing down, almost rolls to a stop, and as soon as he flings that something, I know. It has happened before. If Mama comes home and finds it, she'll be angry and maybe even cancel her going-out plans for tonight. And if going-out plans get canceled, Julie Anna won't come.

I wait until the truck rolls past before I slide off the sofa. Making sure no one will hear, I touch my feet down real soft, don't jump like I sometimes do, and tiptoe to the front door. The lock is stiff and I have to use both hands to turn it. Mama's big enough, it only takes her one hand to open the door, and someday, that'll be me. The lock makes a loud click and I freeze. I try to be quiet because I'm doing wrong and I know it. Someone is always watching, that's what Mama likes to say, so I guess I'm sneaking so the someone, whoever that someone is, won't see.

Once on the porch, I keep tiptoeing because the boards here are soft and creak every time I take a step. Before walking on, I stop and pretend I'm having a look at the blooms on Mama's magnolias so whoever is watching, maybe God or Jesus or the Virgin Mary, won't catch on to what I'm really up to. Then I walk on down the three porch steps, not so scared anymore because the sidewalk doesn't creak and won't give me away. I'm also not so scared when I finally walk outside the shadows and the sun hits me full on. It's warm on my head and the air is sweet because someone cut grass today, and high up in the oak growing near the road, the leaves crackle and the stringy gray moss hanging from its branches floats on the breeze. Here in the outside, it's easier to breathe and it makes me feel like Mama and I won't live in this little house with the soft floorboards forever.

I shuffle my feet as I walk through the thick grass because it's quieter that way and try not to step on any pecans. Mama calls what that man threw garbage and says it's nasty and dirty and we shouldn't even touch it with our hands. She was especially angry when I studied the state of Georgia this year in school and we didn't learn one thing about the garbage that gets thrown in our yard. She even went down to my school to talk to the principal, Mr. Marshall, but when she got there, he told her she should be figuring on how to get me a decent pair of sneakers for PE instead of complaining about the history class. I look up when I hear pennies rattling in a mason jar again.

A hedge of pink oleanders grows along the side of our house and up to the road. Mama always makes a fuss about my not putting them in my mouth-not the branches or leaves and especially not the flowers. Mama almost did it one time, brewed up the leaves in a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table like she was going to drink it. I sat on the floor, my arms wrapped around her ankles, and cried. After that, I had to live with another family for a while. When I finally got to come home, my two best friends, Ellie and Fran, weren't allowed to play at my house anymore, but a new strange woman started to come. She visited once a month to make sure Mama didn't brew that tea again. On her fifth visit, the woman asked where my daddy was; Mama said I didn't have no Daddy and was damn lucky for it. Then the woman scribbled something in a small notebook and told Mama she should cut out those oleanders. But Mama said she'd always know they were out there, growing somewhere, so why not in our yard. Besides, she said, the frost will get them soon enough. It's from behind those pink flowery bushes that the truck's black nose reappears.

It's crawling now, the truck, but it doesn't look like a truck anymore. It has turned into a monster, something with a hide and a heartbeat. I want to move my feet, first one and then the other, and run to the front door, but I can't. It's like the grass has sprung up and knotted itself tight around my toes and ankles and is keeping me right in this spot. The man inside the truck is holding the steering wheel with one hand. With the other, he stretches out across the passenger seat and I think he might wave at me through the open window. But he doesn't. The truck stops all the way and he takes a good long look at me. He looks at me like that woman looked at Mama after she made the oleander tea. Folks look at Mama and me like we're blocking out the thing they'd rather be seeing.

"You be sure your mama gets a look at that," the man says. "You hear?"

His face is covered over by dark whiskers, and his voice makes the tiny hairs on my arms go stiff.

"You hear me, little girl?" he hollers louder when I don't answer. I stumble backward because his voice is like a two-handed shove. "We know what all goes on here. You tell your mama that. You tell her we know plenty."

I'm still standing in the middle of the yard when I hear those leaves crackling overhead again and smell the sweet air. One string of gray moss hangs so low, I could tug it from the tree. I don't know how long it's been since I slid off the sofa and sneaked outside. The black truck is gone. Maybe it's almost time for Mama to come home. I worry I forgot to do my homework, because I have homework this year for the first time. In fourth grade, I have my own books I bring home in a backpack and have to carry to school the next day.

I swallow, and that's what finally gets me to look down at the bag lying at my feet. I poke at it with the toe of my shoe just like Mama did the first time one of them landed in our yard. She poked at it like she was afraid whatever was inside might rear up and take a snap at her. After staring at the bag for a good long while, Mama had pulled a limp piece of paper from inside, called it a flyer, and said I was never, never ever, to read such filth.

So as I squat to the ground, trying to stop my chin from quivering because that man looked at me like I'm worse than nothing and because my shirt is too big since we bought it secondhand at the thrift store and because I'm afraid Mama will one day sprinkle pink oleanders in a pot of boiling water again, I already know what's inside the bag. It's a flyer and it's from the Knights of the Southern Georgia Order. It's from the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Chapter 2

Imogene

March 2017-Today

Stopping in front of Tillie's place, Simmonsville's only thrift shop, Imogene Coulter pauses, turns away from the smell of fried eggs and sausage gravy rising out of the café on the corner, and closes her eyes until her nausea passes. On the street behind her, the antiques shoppers are just starting to arrive, all of them drawn on a Saturday morning to the part of town where quaint hasn't yet morphed into dilapidated. Most will pass Tillie's place by because there's no striped awning to invite them in. Drawing in one last breath of fresh air, Imogene grabs the door handle and pulls. Overhead, a small bell rings. It's not the weight of the door she struggles with, but instead it's the weight of yet another hangover and another one-night stand.

"Didn't mean for you to come in today," Tillie says, smiling to see Imogene. "Mrs. Tillie'll have my hide for bringing you down here."

Tillie, the shop's owner for going on fifty years, sits at his worktable. He wears a banded magnifying lens over his eyes, and his thinning white hair is tussled. He'll be repairing a cell phone because that's mostly what keeps the lights on these days.

"I was out and about," Imogene says. "Figured I might as well stop by."

Tillie will know she's lying. She came because he sounded worried in the message he left, and he has been more like a father to her than Edison Coulter ever was. The fact that Edison is getting buried today doesn't change that.

"They in the safe?" she asks.

"The cabinet," Tillie says, sliding the single lens up onto his forehead.

Tillie has surely noticed that Imogene's voice is pitched too high, making her sound like her sister, Jo Lynne. The only thing Imogene and Jo Lynne share, besides a mama, is a similar voice, but only when Imogene is compensating. Compensating for drinking too much or sleeping with too many men.

She never asks the names of the men she sleeps with, and they don't need to ask hers. Some, she already knows. Small town and all. Others seek her out because they've traveled to Simmonsville, Georgia, to meet the great Edison Coulter, head of the Knights of the Southern Georgia Order, and they believe his blood flows through her veins. She never tells them otherwise until she's walking out the door, and then she shakes out her long red hair and asks . . . you think this mess come from Ed Coulter? But now Ed Coulter will be buried by day's end, a fact she wishes would bring her some relief, hope even, but doesn't because everything he believed will live on in all the others who followed him. She wonders if all those men who came from across the country will still come now that he's dead, and she wonders why she ever slept with them in the first place. But she knows why. It's been the perfect way to punish herself while simultaneously punishing Edison Coulter. Anyone whose people go a generation or two deep in the South will have a story about a grandpa or a great-uncle who was in the Ku Klux Klan. Imogene's family dates all the way back to the Klan's beginning, but she also has to sit across from it at the supper table every Sunday night.

"We're closing up at noon," Tillie says, and hollers for Mrs. Tillie to come on out and say hello. "We both want to be there today for you and your mama too."

Imogene stretches over Tillie's worktable to give him a hug. Some days, coming here and seeing these two has gotten easier. Other days, walking through that door is as hard as walking through a brick wall. Today, hugging Tillie is like grabbing onto the one thing that'll keep her afloat.

"Well, look who it is," Mrs. Tillie says, walking out from the back room. She smiles at first, but as she gathers Imogene's hands and explains she's just leaving to get her hair done, her smile softens and droops. "You're looking too thin. Are you taking care of yourself?" And then turning to Tillie, she says, "Doesn't she look too thin?"

"Quit fussing at the child," Tillie says, waving her out the door.

"I'm sure real sorry to be dashing off, sweetheart," Mrs. Tillie says, ignoring Tillie and laying a warm hand on Imogene's cheek. "I know today is going to test you."

Mrs. Tillie doesn't say anything about Edison Coulter being a good man, because it isn't true, and also because his passing isn't what Mrs. Tillie is sorry about.

Imogene tries to say something, but a smile is the best she can do. The hardest part about coming to the shop is looking down into Mrs. Tillie's face-her round cheeks, which shine when she's happy, her watery blue eyes, her tiny nose-because it's like looking into Vaughn's face. From the day he was born, Vaughn favored his grandma.

Still holding tight to Imogene's hand, Mrs. Tillie says, "We'd like to sit with you at the service, if that's okay. If you think your mama won't mind."

Imogene nods, but again can't answer. The last time the three of them were inside Riverside Baptist, five years ago, they'd been burying Russell and Vaughn-husband and one-year-old son to Imogene, and son and grandson to Tillie and Mrs. Tillie. Imogene's first thought upon hearing Ed Coulter had died wasn't any sort of sadness that the only man she'd ever called "Daddy" was gone. It was fear that she'd have to go back inside that church. It was another first. There had been the first Christmas without Russell and Vaughn. The first birthday. The first family picture. And now, when she thought all the firsts were behind her-the first funeral. The spicy, musky smell of the church, the colored slivers of light that filtered through the stained glass, the hollowed-out organ music, all had come crashing in on her at news of Daddy's death. And she fears the pain of losing Russell and Vaughn would come crashing in too, just as tall and broad as it did the day they died.

Once Mrs. Tillie has left the shop, Tillie tosses Imogene a set of keys. "Not a word of this to Mrs. Tillie," he says.

Snagging the keys from the air, Imogene nods and walks toward the cabinet where Tillie keeps his most valuable merchandise. She's been coming to this shop since she was a kid, and the dusty smell of water-stained mahogany and tung oil is the same now as it was back then.

"Any idea who they belong to?" she says, looking down on the two watches Tillie called her about. They're locked under glass and pinned to a white velvet backing.