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|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Central Virginia, Summer 1969
Velvety moss cushioned Nettie's back as she enjoyed the soft, meandering sounds of the Piney River and the sweet smell of blooming honeysuckle. The small glade had been a perfect hideaway for her and Andy since grade school. The smooth, tangled roots of the old riverbank trees made comfortable benches, and their long, arching limbs provided a shady respite. Coupled with the eventide, the glade's thick forest walls and leafy canopy still offered them secrecy.
Andy's strong arm under her head and his hand on the curve of her hip were warm, comforting. Not long ago, Nettie would have punched any boy who tried to put his hands on her like this, but not now, and not Andy. They'd been exploring the rhythms of this almost-dance at River's Rest since the weather turned, enjoying togetherness yet managing to stop on the good side of bad. Tonight, things were different. She and Andy were touching but miles apart. Nettie knew why, but she wasn't ready to have that conversation. Brushing her fingertips along his jawline, she opened her lips to kiss him just as the wind began to blow. The layered treetop canopy pitched back and forth, slowly at first, then harder and faster, whipping leaves and surrounding them with eerie shadows. Nettie couldn't tell her goose bumps from Andy's.
"Storm coming?" she asked.
Andy pushed to his knees and scanned the moon-colored riverbank.
"Maybe. It doesn't feel like rain, but something's off." Sitting back on his heels, he pulled Nettie up. "Come on. We should go."
"I know. We should go."
Nettie tucked in her blouse, feeling her face flush.
Getting in the car, she slid to her usual position in the middle of the seat and lightly bumped Andy's shoulder. "You said you wanted to come here tonight."
"I thought I did." He hesitated, gold specks flickering in his warm but troubled eyes. "Do you love me?"
Nettie slumped. Ready or not, the conversation had started. Words — right, wrong, and in between — surged behind her eyes, but not one made it to her mouth.
"You know I love you, but you've never said it back to me. Not once."
Most of the time, it wasn't in Nettie to be anything other than straight-up, a trait that had cost her plenty in the past and most likely would again. She cared about Andy, enjoyed his company and his touch. She couldn't imagine life without him, but the idea of forever love unnerved her — what it was supposed to feel like, the commitments that came with it, what it would mean for both of them. "I don't know."
Andy tensed and leaned against the car door. "What about the guy you met last summer — Mitchell? Did you love him?"
The memory of Mitchell stung as badly as the pain and jealousy in Andy's voice. She and Andy had grown up best friends, but since they'd started high school he'd made no secret about wanting more; he'd even asked her to go steady the previous summer, before she'd left on vacation. Nettie hadn't been interested in a boyfriend then, much less a steady one; however, spending the summer in the Alabama Wiregrass had changed all that. She'd met Mitchell, a handsome, troubled teen who knew better than anyone what love was and was not. By the time she'd returned to Virginia, her perspective on love and relationships had changed.
"We've been through this, Andy. I cared about Mitchell. He helped me figure out a lot of things: growing up, some of the boy-girl stuff , and how to choose to be happy even when you have no reason to be. But that's not forever love. I don't know what that kind of love is. I want to know what it means before I say the words."
Andy's jaw tightened as he turned away.
Nettie didn't bother to hide the frustration in her voice. "How do you know — I mean, really know — you love me like that? Forever is a long damn time when we're barely thinking past tomorrow. You already know what you want to do and who you want to be. A year from now, you'll be off to West Point, just like your father, and I'll still be here, trying to figure out the rest of my life."
Andy found Nettie's hand in the dark. "Look, all I know is that I've loved you since the day we met in the sandbox. I can't imagine life without you. I don't want to imagine it without you."
"I'm not ready."
His voice softened as he let go of her hand. "You've always moved slower than me when it comes to us, but it's tough being with you when you don't know how you feel. I love you. I need to know you love me too. If you're not sure, maybe we need to take a break until you know one way or the other."
* * *
The tangerine sunset nested in the deepest draw of the rolling Blue Ridge as Nettie made her way to the center of Allen's Hill. The field always welcomed her, its soft, flitting sounds better than quiet. Tall grass and feathery Queen Anne's lace tickled her outstretched arms. The hill's long slope and its distance from the Upper Road and Lower Road made it unlikely anyone would see her, and if they did, she'd just be a someone. That was, except for spooky old Alise Allen, the wispy silhouette in the Palladian window of the mansion at the top of the hill. Always watching, never acknowledging, she allowed Nettie to come and go on the hill as she pleased.
Reaching her favorite thinking spot, Nettie burrowed through the stalks to lie among the silky new shoots. A few timid stars sparked above her, leading the way for thousands of more robust ones. Their slow, kaleidoscopic slide across the sky helped settle her jumbled thoughts.
Except for glimpses at school, she hadn't seen Andy since their standoff at River's Rest the week before, and her world wasn't right. Word of their breakup had gotten around, giving the gossips reason to twitter a little more loudly when she passed. Thankfully, this troublesome scrutiny by the curious, the sad, and the happy would end with the start of summer vacation in a few days.
With barely a rustle, tawny, moon-tinted legs slid into the grass next to Nettie. "There you are."
Win, Nettie's best friend and neighbor, could move so quietly that birds and butterflies stayed put as she passed. Her ability to be in the world and not on it came from her grandmother Nibi, a full-blooded Monacan Indian.
"You were supposed to meet me at the Tastee Freez after school, remember?"
Nettie pushed up on her elbows. "Sorry, I forgot. I'm having a hard time keeping my head straight. All I think about is Andy. I haven't talked with him all week. He won't look at me at school. I don't know what to do. I know why he said he wanted to break up, but I'm beginning to wonder if there's someone else."
"You know that's not true, right? There's room for only one girl in Andrew Stephen Stockton's heart, and he set his sights on her a long time ago."
"I thought I did, but now I'm not so sure. You know Anne Johnson started working at her grandfather's hardware store right after Andy did."
Nettie and Anne had barely tolerated each other since grade school. Nettie played shortstop, ran, jumped, climbed, and got as dirty and caused as much mischief as the boys. She had little tolerance for any girl who preferred hair bows, dressing up, and dolly tea parties.
"Working with her is not the same as dating her."
"True. But she's always stared at Andy like he's an ice cream cone she wants to lick. Plus, she's been smirking at me all week, as if she knows something."
"You sound jealous."
"Wouldn't you be?"
"Why don't you just ask him?"
"Because I don't know if I'm jealous for the right reason."
"Let me get this straight: You don't know if you want him, but you don't want anyone else to have him either, at least until you make up your mind?"
"Yes. No. Damn! I don't know. What if I'm making a mistake? What if I'm wrong about Anne? Worse yet, what if I'm right? What if I lose him before I figure it all out?"
"Then you'll deal with it."
"Right." Nettie sat up. "Like I don't already have enough to deal with. Mom and Dad are pushing me to make a decision about applying to colleges, especially Sweet Briar. Plus, I've got to meet with Pastor Williams about this baptism thing. I can't stall him much longer. Everyone else in the Girls' Auxiliary has already had their interview."
"Don't you want to be baptized?"
"Of course. But I've heard that some of the questions he's asking are not easy."
"Since when have you shied away from anything because it was hard? If the other GAs can answer his questions, you can."
"I know. But he and I have never gotten along very well."
"It's been over a year since you stopped pranking him. Maybe now is a good time to mend fences."
"And if it's not?"
"Remember what Nibi says: Trust fate. It will see you through the storm."
"Not if it drowns me first."
Win laughed and pulled Nettie to her feet. "Look, you need to think about something else for a while. Let's go to Oak's Landing tomorrow. Nibi has a project for us."
"What kind of project?"
"She didn't say, but it must be important."
"She wouldn't take no for an answer."
"Like we'd ever say no to her."
As they turned to go down the hill, Win stepped sideways, pulling Nettie with her. "Don't move."
Nettie tensed as a long, slithery shadow glanced her foot, hellbent on beating them to the bottom of the hill.
"Blast it, Win! You knew it was coming. You could've said something sooner!"
"What would you have done if I had? Gotten yourself bit?"
"I only knew a few seconds before you did. Besides, it's just a black snake. If it had been one to worry about, I would have said so."
"You know I hate snakes," whined Nettie. "That's the first one I've seen on the hill in a long time. Wonder why the hawks and raccoons didn't run it off."
"Maybe one of them just did and we were in the way."
"Well, at least you knew it was coming. That's good."
"I don't know if it's a good thing or not. There's no rhyme or reason to what I see or know, or when, or why. I can't control it — the visions just come. It's scary."
"Have you talked with Nibi about it? I bet she went through the same thing when she was learning how to be a shaman."
"She said she felt the same way at my age and to be patient, that my ability to see and interpret the visions will improve over time."
"Well, if you happen to get a vision about Andy and me getting back together, let me know. On second thought, never mind. I'm confused enough."
"See, that's the hard part: knowing what to say when."
"I'm glad I'm not a shaman. Life's easier if you don't know what's coming."
"My point exactly."
"Look." Nettie nodded toward the far corner of the field, where the Lower Road intersected a long path leading to the back of the Allen mansion. A moonlit figure climbed steadily along the shadowed side. They'd seen the inky form before, always after dark and always from this vantage on the hill. At first, they'd been afraid; however, it hadn't taken long for fear to give way to curiosity. Over the years, they'd hidden at different spots along the path in hopes of discovering the nighttime visitor's identity, but whenever they got close enough to recognize a face, no one showed. "One of these days, we're going to find out who that is," Nettie whispered.
"Maybe it's good we don't know," Win said. "Sometimes it's best if shadow dwellers keep their secrets."
"But they have the best stories. We don't even know if it's a man or a woman."
"Either way, Mrs. Allen is getting company, which is good, since she's lived up there all by her lonesome for the last forty years.
The only people we ever see up there to keep her company are the housekeeper and the gardener."
"Why do you think he did it?" Nettie asked. "Her husband, I mean. Marry her, then leave her alone for a lifetime. Why do that to someone you promised to love forever?"
"I have no idea. Whatever the reason, all that aloneness is a high price to pay."
Nettie's thoughts turned to her last conversation with Andy. "Forever love gone bad."
"Nothing. I'll meet you at the train station in the morning. A summer project with Nibi is just what I need."CHAPTER 2
Climbing the steps to the traveler's platform of Amherst's turn-of-the-century train station, Nettie scanned the crowd for Piccolo, the station's custodian. "There he is, sweeping the other end."
She and Win threaded through the milling crowd of uniformed workers. "Hey, Pic."
Giving them a contagious smile, Pic propped his broom in the corner. His clothes were clean but worn, shoes covered with work dust. Across his shoulder sat an ever-present leather bindle, a holdover from his rail-riding hobo days.
Nettie handed him a rolled-up brown grocery bag. "Momma sent you a picnic."
Pic settled on a bench and dug through the bag with his only hand. As the smell of fried chicken wafted up, a smile deepened his ruddy wrinkles and sparked his faded blue eyes. In days gone by, he would have been considered handsome. He devoured a drumstick, chewed off the ends, and put the remains in the bag. "I'll save the rest for lunch. Tell your momma I said thanks."
"Will do. She wanted to know if you'd check the kitchen faucet at the church after the potluck supper Wednesday night. It's got another slow drip. She put a bucket under it."
"Ever know me to miss one of those suppers? 'Course I will.
You girls headed to Nibi's?"
Win pulled a couple of apples from her pockets and gave them to Pic. "Yes, sir. Any message?"
"Tell her I'm cleaning the station at Oak's Landing tomorrow, so I'll be up to see her after."
A short whistle blast from the station's oldest train, the Weak and Weary, announced its imminent departure for the thirty-minute ride north to the town of Oak's Landing in Nelson County. Regular as clockwork, that whistle kept folks moving better than a watch.
"Got to go, Pic. Maybe we'll see you on the way back."
Nettie and Win jumped from the platform and waved to the train's engineer, Mr. Roberts, who sat in the window of the idling locomotive. For as long as Nettie could remember, he'd made several trips a day carrying logs and shift workers to the pulp mill near Oak's Landing, returning to Amherst with thick fiber boards that other trains would deliver to paper mills up and down the East Coast.
"Hey, girls! We pull out in five. Tell Nibi I could use some more remedies when she has time."
Nibi kept Mr. Roberts supplied with ginger root for his arthritis, as well as feverfew for his wife's all-the-time headaches. Nettie and Win had couriered the cures back and forth for years, so he let them ride the train to see Nibi whenever they wanted.
Running past a couple of passenger coaches and flatcars stacked with tree trunks that smelled of old earth and sap, they climbed the steps of the cozy, washed-out red caboose and settled at the top, spring too present to sit inside.
* * *
Nettie and Win swayed with the Weak and Weary as it trundled up the peaks that divided Amherst and Nelson Counties. An artist's palette of pink dogwoods, white laurel, and bursts of cherry-colored somethings blurred against the new greens and old browns of the mountains as they rounded the summit and rolled down into Rockfish Valley and toward Oak's Landing.
As the train sloped onto the valley floor, the Tye River dominated the view, its water sparkling and lazy after its four-thousand-foot journey out of the mountains.
"River's up," said Win.
"It rained here. Look at the puddles."
One long whistle blast followed by a short burst announced the train's approach to the Oak's Landing station. On the left, rolling, asymmetrical foothills flanked the small town. On the right, dozens of majestic oaks separated the town from a wide bend in the Tye.
When the train stopped, Nettie and Win skirted the bustling railyard and headed to Main Street along the crushed-stone river walk the community had built decades earlier. Shaded by the oaks' interlaced canopies, they walked under the arched wrought-iron entrance to the town's park. Passing benches, Adirondack chairs, picnic tables, a playground, and ropes long enough to drop swimmers into the river, they stopped in front of the park's grand gazebo where ladies were scurrying up and down ladders, trying to measure, cut, and hang uncooperative streamers.
Win stood up on her toes and twirled. "Friday-night dances must be starting. We should come to a couple this summer."
Nettie reached for the missing necklace that used to hold Andy's class ring. He'd given it to her at a dance the previous fall.
She'd given it back to him at River's Rest.
"Still haven't heard from him?"
"Not a word."
"Maybe you should call or, better yet, go see him."
"He broke up with me, remember?"
"He loves you, remember? You two started as friends. Maybe you could be again."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Moon Water"
Copyright © 2019 Pam Webber.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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