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Passing Through Paradise
By Susan Wiggs
Warner Books Copyright © 2002 Susan Wiggs
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-446-61078-X
Journal Entry-January 4-Friday
Ten Tortures for Courtney Procter 1. Tell her she's finally growing into her face. 2. Organize a boycott of her show's sponsors. 3. Send her a silicon recall notice. 4. Get a convict to mail her fan letters from prison. 5. Tell everyone who she used to date-and why he dumped her. "... officially ruled an accident, but the sleepy coastal town of Paradise still holds one woman responsible for the tragedy that took prominent politician Victor Winslow- his beautiful young widow, Sandra. Despite last night's ruling by the state medical examiner, unsettling questions persist." The bluish image flickered as the camera tightened its shot on the blond TV reporter. "Witnesses who last saw State Senator Winslow alive on the night of February ninth have testified that he was engaged in a heated argument with his wife. An anonymous caller reported that the Winslows' car was traveling at a high rate of speed when it spun out of control on Sequonset Bridge and plunged into the Sound.
"Investigators later discovered a bullet embedded in the car's dashboard. Traces of the victim's blood were detected on Mrs. Winslow's clothing. "None of this was sufficient to satisfy the state's burden of proof that a murder occurred, but this reporter promises to investigate further the trail leading to the late Senator Winslow's wife, the sole beneficiary of a large life insurance policy ... "And so Sandra Winslow, known locally as the Black Widow of Blue Moon Beach, is left with only her conscience for company. This is Courtney Procter, WRIQ News." Sandra Winslow set down her journal and pen. Picking up the remote control, she aimed it at the morning newscaster's taut, surgically enhanced face. "Bang," she said, pressing the OFF button. "You're dead. What part of 'ruled an accident' didn't you get, Courtney Proctologist?" She stood and walked to the broad, bow-front window, with her arms wrapped around the emptiness inside her. She savored a fragile sense of triumph-finally, the accident ruling had come through-but the local news report left the door open for trouble. No matter what the ME ruled, there were those who would always hold her responsible. A harsh wind, on the leading edge of the coming storm, flattened the clacking dune grasses and churned the waters of the Sound into a froth. A handcrafted suncatcher in the shape of a bird vibrated against the windowpane, stirring memories she couldn't escape. Sandra felt so far away from the person she'd once been, and not just because she'd moved into the old beach house after being released from the hospital. Only a year go, she'd sat at the head table of the Newport Marina ballroom, wearing a pink knitted suit with black trim and matching shoes, her gloved hands folded in her lap. With his trademark panache, her husband held forth from the podium, speaking with compelling eloquence of his commitment to the citizens who had just elected him to a second term. He'd spoken of service and gratitude and family. And love. When Victor spoke of love, he could make even the most jaded heart believe. He'd singled Sandra out as his steady anchor in the shifting seas of politics. His family and friends surrounded her in a warm cocoon of affection, as if she were truly one of them. After the speech, she sipped coffee, shared small talk and smiles, held other women's babies and stood proudly at the side of her famous husband.
The man who was missing, and now presumed dead. She stared out the window, tucking ink-smudged hands into the back pockets of her jeans. For Sandra, there was no "presumed" about Victor's death. She knew. The wounded morning sky, as lackluster as midwinter itself, grew duller rather than brighter with the coming day. Looking out over the gray-shadowed beach, she felt a piercing loneliness, so sharp and cold that she flinched and hugged the oversized sweater tighter around her. Victor's sweater. She shut her eyes and inhaled with a shudder of emotion. It still smelled of him. Faintly spicy and clean and tinged with ... him. Just him. Damn Victor. How could he have done this, told her those things and then died on her? One minute you love someone, she thought, you believe you're tied to him forever, the next minute fate cuts you loose. And all the disillusionment and shattered hopes had nowhere to go. She picked up the notebook again, flipped the page and read over her notes for the story she was working on. Her editor had already granted a sixty-day extension, and she was coming to the end of the second deadline. If she didn't turn in the manuscript soon, she'd have to repay the money they'd advanced her to write the novel in the first place. The money-modest sum that it was-had been spent long ago on luxuries such as groceries and legal fees. Even though she'd never been charged with a crime, she had incurred an amazing sum of attorneys' fees. Now, at last, she would be entitled to the life insurance settlement. The idea of profiting from Victor's death made her feel queasy. But she had to do something, had to pick up her life and figure out a way to go on. It was torture for her to live in Paradise, among the people who had adored her husband. Sometimes she even went up the road to Wakefield to run errands simply because she didn't want to encounter anyone who had known Victor. The trouble was, everyone knew Victor. Thanks to his family name and the swift incandescence of his political career, followed by his spectacular demise, the whole state knew him now. Sandra would have to go somewhere far away to escape his shadow. And now, finally, she had a chance to do that. Something unexpected was happening inside her. She was free, unattached. She had nothing to hold her now-not Victor's political calendar, certainly not any social obligations. A soaring sense of freedom rose like a raft of birds from a marsh. Now that the death investigation was finally over, she edged toward a decision that had been hovering in her mind for months. She could fix up the place, sell it, hit the road. Her destination didn't seem to matter as much as the urge to run. She picked up a flyer she'd found on a community bulletin board outside the post office. "Paradise Construction- Restoration and Remodeling. Bonded and Insured. References." Grabbing the phone before she could change her mind, she dialed the number and got-not surprisingly- a voice-mail message. Sandra hesitated, not sure what to say. Her house was in a state of extreme disrepair. She needed a specialist. She settled for leaving the address and phone number. Outside, gale-force winds tore at the wild sea roses under the window. Thorns scratched across the wavy, sleet-smeared glass pane. No wonder ships lost their way in these waters; she could barely detect the slow blink of the Point Judith lighthouse in the distance. The bone-deep, icy cold of the winter storm reached invisible fingers through the cracks and chinks in the old house. Shivering, she picked up a log for the woodstove. It was the last one in the bin. The stove door opened with a rusty yawn, and she laid the log on the embers. Aiming the bellows, she pumped away until the glowing heart of the coals reddened and then burst into little tongues of flame licking along the underside of the log. Not so long ago, she hadn't known the first thing about heating with a wood-stove. Now it was as routine as brushing her teeth. As the blaze took hold, she adjusted the vents and picked up her journal again. Ten Advantages to Being Poor 1. You learn to build fires for warmth. 2. You can tell phone solicitors to- Who was she kidding? She'd never come up with ten. Setting aside the messy notebook, she glared at the small, furious fire. She felt like the Little Match Girl, burning up her whole supply of matches. Hans Christian Andersen's heroine had been at her wits' end, her survival in question. Sandra imagined herself with no heat, the last bit of firewood gone, curled into a fetal position in front of the stove. Who would find her there? She imagined weathered bones being discovered years in the future, when her memory was no more than a scandalous blot on the history of the town and some developer hired a wrecking crew to demolish the ancient house and replace it with a high-rise of oceanfront condos. She wondered if other people had these thoughts when they ran out of firewood.
Some of the local teenagers earned money by splitting and stacking wood for the summer people, who liked to build bonfires on the beach for clam bakes. But despite the new ruling, Sandra was pretty certain she wouldn't find anyone willing to split wood for her, not in this town. The icy wind crescendoed, howling under the eaves of the old beach house, entering through the cracks, making a mockery of the tepid heat from the last stick of wood in the stove. The big house had been in her father's family for generations, built more than a century ago as a summer retreat. Ever since, the old place had sat abandoned and neglected, like a bleached skull at the edge of nowhere. Although the house wasn't insulated for winter visitors, Sandra had no choice but to live here now. At least she had a roof over her head. But her husband was dead and no matter what the truth was, everyone blamed her. She held secrets in her heart that she would take to the grave. Staring out the rain-lashed window again, she tried not to feel the cold drilling into her bones. The storm had pummeled the dead tangles of brier in the field beside her house. On the beach, the wrack line lay thick with whatever flotsam the waves had driven home. A delicate rime of frost silvered everything-the dunes, the rocks, the windows of the house she couldn't afford to heat. Heat. This was getting ridiculous. She put on a heavy plaid coat, stuffed her feet into gumboots and headed outside. The rain had slacked off, but the wind blew sharply across the property. As she crossed the driveway toward the garage and shed, a flutter of paper at the side of the road caught her eye.
When the rumors had started, she used to find the occasional roll of toilet paper hurled from a car, draping the overgrown hedge by her mailbox. She ought to be used to the humiliation by now, but she wasn't. Hers was a typical rural mailbox, poking out from a hedge of wild roses-nothing special, not even marked with a name. Just the house number. The small metal box lay torn to bits in the ditch beside the road. The crooked red signal flag lay in the middle of the pavement, pointing south. The galvanized steel housing had been reduced to twisted wreckage-a plane crash in miniature. "My God," Sandra said through chattering teeth. "Now what?" Firecrackers; probably some local kid's cherry bomb or M-80. Why hadn't she heard them? Maybe last night's storm had drowned out the noise, or perhaps she'd mistaken the sound for a car backfiring. Driven by the bitter wind, the mail rolled and tumbled along the ditch and roadside. She recognized the cover of a lingerie catalog she never ordered from, a sheaf of oil-change coupons she would forget to use until they expired, and the daily credit card solicitation. Even when the whole world was against you, the credit card companies still wanted you to shop. Kicking the debris around with the toe of her boot, she recognized a telltale scrap of pale blue and picked it up. The paper was the color of a check from her literary agency. Sure enough, there had been a check in the box. When Victor was alive, her modest earnings had been a rather gratifying bonus. Now that he was gone, the money meant survival. She suspected the vandals didn't give a rat's ass about her survival. People still thought she was the Black Widow. Sandra crushed the paper in her hand. Enough. She'd had enough. Something cracked inside her and slowly broke apart like an iceberg shoving up against a rock. Enough. At the lean-to by the garage, she glared at the stack of fat, seasoned logs. Flinging the torn check aside, she grabbed the maul from its hook, used her foot to roll a log onto the colorless grass and set it upright. She brought the blade of the maul down squarely into the heart of the log, splitting it apart. The pith of the wood was pale, slightly moist, fragrant with a clean scent. Setting up each broken half, she split them one after another, a little surprised by her deadly accuracy with the maul. Finally she picked up each split quarter and tossed it into the rusty wheelbarrow to take back to the house. She moved on to the next log, and then the next, whaling away with a sense of purpose as hot and clean as new fire. She had no notion of time passing, though the stack of quartered firewood in the wheelbarrow grew steadily. She was like a machine, pulling out a log, splitting it, splitting it again until sweat mingled with the tears pouring down her face.
Excerpted from Passing Through Paradise by Susan Wiggs Copyright ©2002 by Susan Wiggs. Excerpted by permission.
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