Will the teenage carjacker really shoot to kill? Muriel can't die yet. Not until she's accomplished something to make her daughter proud. Not until she's seen her great-grandchild, the unborn baby her granddaughter isn't sure she wants to keep.
It seems Muriel is running out of time. Especially if her survival depends on her driving skills!
Muriel and her carjacker find themselves on a wild adventure that has them both falling "victim" to Muriel's curious prayer life.
|Publisher:||Pelican Book Group|
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What in the world was taking Roxanne so long? She was the only driver in the world inconsiderate enough to leave a seventy-one-year-old friend sitting all alone in her car. Muriel Smith glanced at her watch. More than thirty minutes had passed since Roxanne hobbled off to the other end of the strip mall. The sun was higher in the sky then, the white building blocks of the mall more blinding as they reflected the afternoon glare.
If Muriel hadn't been so eager to escape her lonely house, she never would have accepted Roxanne's invitation. At home she could turn on the TV and look for one of her favorite police dramas.
Or maybe Chloe would drop by. Chloe, the brightest spot in her life.
Muriel peered past the used book store and the sandwich shop to the very end of the sidewalk. The door of Ye Olde Antiques Shoppe remained closed.
The clerk must be giving Roxanne another one of her ridiculous sales pitches.
Ye Olde Antiques Shoppe didn't sell antiques at all. Just junk. Chipped blue and white Corning Ware, 1950's parfait glasses, and bright orange fondue pots that might or might not heat when plugged in. The same household items Muriel's mother, God rest her soul, put in the trash decades ago.
The first time they went into the store, Roxanne found a beautiful ceramic vase. Dainty pink flowers swirled up a body of cobalt blue. But it hadn't belonged to the last tsar of Russia as the salesclerk with the pierced eyebrow claimed.
"That smudge of dirt on the side? That comes from being buried in 1916. The Grand Duchess Anastasia dug in the ground with her own bare hands to save this very vase from the Bolsheviks. Of all her vases, this was Anastasia's favorite." The clerk caressed one of the ceramic sprigs of flowers as if the vase held her own dear grandmother's ashes.
"The last tsar of Russia. Just think of it, Muriel." Roxanne's murmur was hushed and reverent. The type of murmur usually reserved for Rembrandts and Renoirs in museum cubbyholes roped off by tasseled red cords.
"A tsarist treasure? For twenty-five dollars? I don't think so." The words had popped out of Muriel's mouth before she could think them through.
Roxanne had stepped down from the curb and started across the parking lot, two steps ahead of Muriel. "Do you have to say things like that while we're still in the store? Can't you at least wait until we're out the door? If the clerks don't like us, they won't show us their best merchandise."
Best merchandise, indeed!
Every shopping trip since, Roxanne insisted on going into the antiques store alone. She didn't even show Muriel her purchases. She just placed them in the trunk of her car, brown bag and all.
Muriel sank back into her seat. Come on, Roxanne. Please. It's getting late. If Muriel could just catch the teen who lived next door before he left to bag groceries at the supermarket, maybe she could talk him into mowing her lawn one more time. The jerk cord on her lawnmower was too difficult for her to pull. Now there was an antique!
Oh, to be like her daughter, Natalie, who could afford a lawn service. Natalie offered no sympathy at all. "Honestly, Mother. Just buy a new mower. One of the modern ones that starts with a key. You don't need upper arm strength to start those."
Natalie could put a hundred new mowers on her husband's charge cards if she wanted. She was never forced to stretch a small deposit from Social Security so it lasted a whole month.
Natalie's husband, Stan, never let Muriel take money out of the investment account Stan set up for her after Howard died. Muriel should never have allowed Stan to take over her finances. Becoming a widow had made Muriel lonely, not incompetent.
"Twelve percent, Muriel," Stan said. "I'm making you a steady twelve percent every single year. Up years. Down years. Remember when all those people on TV complained their portfolios dropped twenty percent? Yours didn't. It went up the same as always. It's all in the paperwork. You don't want to take your money out of your account now. It might seem to you that I'm keeping you on a tight leash. But I'm doing it for your own protection. Believe me."
Whether the market was up or the market was down, it was never the right time. Stan always had some excuse. She shouldn't have to beg for her own money. Oh, Lord, do You think You could find someone to mow my lawn? I don't want to argue with Stan. It'll just strain my relationship with Natalie.
Natalie already looked down on a mother who had never accomplished more than being an underpaid, unappreciated teacher.
The person God found to mow her lawn would have to be someone responsible and cheap. Soon Muriel would need a machete to make her way to the hedge of peonies that separated her backyard from the alley. The neighbors would start complaining about her yard being an eyesore. Between the unusually high temperatures in May and all the rain they'd had, the grass was weeks ahead of schedule. If her neighbors reported her to town hall, she'd not only have to find someone immediately to mow her lawn, she'd also have to pay a fine. Please, Lord. If I can't even afford mowing, how can I afford a fine? She wasn't asking for something big like a romance or a Hawaiian vacation. She could understand why God wouldn't answer those kinds of prayers. But lawn-mowing wasn't a luxury.
A thin young woman walked an even thinner greyhound across the ribbon of grass that edged the mall's parking lot. The dog's nose was as pointed as a newly sharpened pencil. Muriel turned her head to watch them go by.
"Lady, move over." The voice came from the right. "Lady, what's the matter with you? Are you deaf? Move over."
The passenger-side door flew open, letting a blast of fresh air into the car.
Roxanne had forgotten to lock the doors. And Muriel hadn't even noticed. Oh, my.
The man demanded again, louder and more irritated. "Lady! Move over!"
"What are you doing?" Muriel's alto voice hovered on the edge of soprano. "This isn't your car. Shame on you. Close the door." Her heart fluttered. She groped for the handle of the open car door and unexpectedly touched flesh. She jerked back.
The stranger clenching the inside door handle had the smooth texture-less skin of youth. A dragon tattoo adorned his forearm, black and menacing. A blood-red flame shot from the dragon's mouth. The young man wore a surprisingly well ironed shirt and an even more surprisingly youthful face. Too youthful to belong to some would-be carjacker. The fuzz that grew between nose and upper lip was light and sparse. Except for the tattoo, he looked just like the high school sophomores she taught geometry to fifteen years ago.
"Move over." The teen motioned with his right hand as if he were shooing a cat. With his left hand, he hurled his leather jacket into the backseat.
Muriel looked in dismay at the console separating the two front seats. Maybe a teenage boy was limber enough to climb over it. She was not. "You want me to do what?"
The console with its protruding shift lever seemed to grow taller, changing from hard-to-get-over to insurmountable. Years ago when cars had bench seats, it made sense to tell someone to move over. But now?
"Move over, lady." The voice sounded more desperate now. The dragon tattoo flexed as the teen formed a fist.
"There's a thing in the middle. A console. A lever. I can't climb over it. You see my white hair? I'm old enough to be your grandmother."
"Move over or I'll shoot." The teen jerked his right hand to his pants pocket, an exaggerated cowboy kind of move.
Muriel grabbed her left leg and maneuvered it over the center console lever and onto the driver's side floor mat. Then she moved her right leg. Lastly, she put her hands on the car seat, one on each side of her rather substantial bottom, pushed up, and inched to the left. Her breathing quickened. "I can't do this. It's too hard."
"You better do it. And you better do it fast."
Muriel took a deep breath and, with one determined lunge, cleared the lever. She landed with a plop in the driver's seat. "There. Are you happy now?"
The punk climbed into the vacated passenger seat and glared at her. "Well, start the car, lady. What are you? Stupid?" He grabbed his seat belt.
If he were one of Muriel's former geometry students, she would have sent him to the principal's office for his rudeness.
He ran his fingers through the dark strands of hair that fell almost into his eyes. His face was a combination of emotions, one succeeding the other so rapidly that sometimes two contradictory thoughts seemed superimposed.
Muriel gulped in air. The boy smelled like sheets hung out in the summer sun. Thank You, Lord. But what a strange clean scent for a carjacker with a dragon tattoo.
"Well? Are you going to start the car or not?"
"I haven't driven for ten years. Not since my husband died." Was driving a car like riding a bicycle? Did it just come back automatically? She had read that in some magazine article in a doctor's waiting room. She hadn't believed it then. She certainly didn't believe it now. She reached for the keys that hung from the ignition. Thank goodness Roxanne always pulled through a parking place. Muriel wouldn't have been able to go in reverse. She peered to the end of the row of stores. Roxanne must certainly be done shopping by now. The sidewalk was empty.
Poor Roxanne would have to call a cab. And once she got home, how would she get into her house? Her house key dangled from the same key ring as her car key.
Roxanne would stroll leisurely out of that blasted second-hand store, shopping bag in hand. She would find no car, no keys, no Muriel. It would be the worst crisis Roxanne ever faced in her sixty-nine years. Roxanne would panic, thinking she'd not parked in her usual place.
Muriel turned the key in the ignition and the car sprang to life. Her right foot moved to the brake of its own accord. Everything seemed so automatic, so normal, as if she had driven just yesterday. But the last time she drove was a fiasco. Sweat broke out on her forehead. The interior of the car seemed to teeter like a ride at an amusement park. This was no time to faint. Breathe in, breathe out. She counted her breaths.
"Now listen up, lady," the punk said. "I don't want to repeat this. Don't go too fast. Don't go too slow. Don't even think about putting on the flashers or blasting the horn. I'm stronger than you are, and I'm faster than you are, and I've got a gun. So you'd better not try anything stupid. If you draw any attention to this car, I'll shoot to kill. You first. Then me. One bullet each. Right through the temple." He banged on his right temple with his forefinger, one, two, three. "You don't want to get shot, do you?"
"Of course not. Nobody wants to get shot." And Lord, I need to see Chloe's baby before I die. I can hardly wait to see its eyes focusing on my face. To count its fingers and kiss its little toes. My great-grandchild. I won't die before I see it. I absolutely refuse.
"So here's the story: You're my grandma. We're out shopping. You got it, Gram?" The teen drew the word "gram" out as if it were composed of three syllables, the consonants emphasized and guttural.
"Got it." Muriel's left hand pushed down on the turn signal. The green arrow flashed and clicked. How amazing. If someone asked her yesterday how to put the turn signal on in a car, she wouldn't have been able to answer. Her right hand, too, was shifting from park to drive as if it had a mind of its own.
As Muriel pushed down the gas pedal, the car inched out of its space. She grasped the steering wheel and aimed the car at the two-lane ramp that exited the mall. "Two questions." Her voice quavered. She hated when it did that.
"All right. Two questions. But after this, I'm the one who asks the questions. 'Cause I'm the one who's got the gun. That makes me the boss."
Chills washed over Muriel. She struggled to keep her voice calm. "OK. You're the boss. So you have to tell me whether to go right or left at the traffic light. It might take me some time to get into the proper lane. Remember, I haven't driven for ten years." She could almost feel the wheels turning in the teen's brain as he contemplated the options.
"Right," he said. "You're going to go right at the traffic light. I don't want to wait for it to change."
Muriel stopped at the end of the exit ramp and looked out the driver's side window.
"Well? What's the matter, lady? Are you going to go or not?"
Muriel forced a pretense of calm and confidence into her voice just like the first September morning she stood alone before a classroom of twenty-five wiggly teens. "There's no need for you to get upset. Don't worry. I'll go. I'm just waiting for the traffic to clear."
"Traffic? What traffic?"
"There's a truck down there."
The punk leaned closer to the driver's side window and peered out. "You mean that tiny blue dot on the far horizon?"
The teen was close enough to Muriel that she could smell mint on his breath. "Not so very far. I don't want to get rear-ended. I'm sure you don't want that either. There'd be accident reports, and insurance forms, and police cars coming from all directions."
"Rear-ended? Are you kidding me? That truck's a million miles away."
"It's better to be safe. You know, I don't think I can do this. Not if you're going to rush me. This road's a lot busier than I anticipated."
"You'd better do it. Right now, your driving ability's the only thing keeping you alive."
The car behind Muriel honked loud and long just as the blue truck put on its turn signal and pulled into the far left lane.
Muriel eased out into the right lane, going a good ten miles below the posted speed limit.
The punk pushed his hair out of his eyes again. "So what's your second question? You'd better make it a good one. It's the last one you're ever going to get."
My last question? Ever? What does he mean? Did he mean he wouldn't allow her to ask him any more questions? Or did he mean he planned to shoot her before she could? Either meaning could be inferred by what he just said. She didn't dare ask him to clarify. She didn't want to know.
Muriel couldn't die now. Not with Chloe's baby on the way. And not until she'd accomplished something important on earth. Motherhood and teaching. That was her life. Now she had nothing to show for either. No loving daughter to be with in her old age. No grateful high school graduate sending her Christmas cards year after year. Her old students probably never used geometry. Not in real life. Muriel never used it either.
Her great-grandchild. Imagine! It seemed only yesterday that Muriel watched Chloe in her crib through the hospital nursery window. Natalie stood beside her in her hospital gown and cashmere bathrobe. Muriel had felt so close to her. Bound by the experience of childbirth. Bound by the baby in the crib. To think now that twenty-one years had flown by. Muriel had to stay alive. She would do anything the teen told her. Even drive. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It had no calming effect at all.
"Well? You going to ask me something else or not, lady?"
"In a minute. I have to stop at this red light first."
"You put your foot on the brake. You press the brake down. Are you telling me you can't talk and brake at the same time?"
A long silence ensued as Muriel crept up to the light.
The punk's voice increased in volume with every word. "Good grief, lady. What are you? The world's worst driver ever?"
"I haven't had an accident in ten years. Not even a parking ticket." That much was true. No need to go into details.
"So now you're stopped. Get your second question over with before I change my mind and shoot you just for the fun of it."
Muriel spit her words out before she lost her nerve. "If I'm going to pretend to be your grandma, don't you think I should know your name?"
The silence stretched between them, thinner and tauter with each passing second.
If he gave her his real name, she'd have something substantial to tell the police when this was over. It wouldn't be that hard to ID him. Not with his long dark hair and his dragon tattoo. If he gave her his real name, he'd probably have to kill her.
If only she'd accomplished something in her seventy-one years. She didn't want a funeral like her husband's. Five people standing around a six-foot grave. It had been embarrassing. Even now tears came to her eyes when she remembered.
Though a bullet to the head might be better than Howard's slow, agonizing death. Chemotherapy. Radiation. He had suffered through so much at the end. Indignity after indignity. Most disturbing of all were Natalie's sporadic appearances. Her own father! With just months left to live. And Natalie only came to visit when she had nothing better to do.
It hadn't bothered Howard at all. He had been so pathetically grateful to see his daughter, his whole face lighting up each and every time she deigned to drop by. He never seemed to notice the fresh salon highlights in Natalie's naturally blond hair or her newly manicured nails, items higher on her list of priorities.
Muriel sighed such a deep sigh that the punk turned to look at her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Curious Prayer Life of Muriel Smith"
Copyright © 2019 Carol Raj.
Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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