After losing her husband, Harold, and her beloved grandson, Cody, within the past year, Louisa has two choices. She can fade away on her Indiana family farm, where her companionship comes courtesy of her aging chickens and an argumentative cat. Or, she can concoct A Plan. Louisa, a retired schoolteacher who’s as smart, sassy, and irreverent as ever, isn’t the fading away type.
The drunk driver who killed Cody got off scot-free by lying about a deer on the road. Harold had tried to take matters into his own hands, but was thwarted by Gus, the local sheriff. Now Louisa decides to take up Harold’s cause, though it will mean outsmarting Gus, who’s developed an unwelcome crush on her, and staying ahead of her adult son who’s found solace in a money-draining cult and terrible art.
Louisa's love of life is rekindled as the spring sun warms her cornfields and she goes into action. But even the most Perfect Plans can go awry. A wounded buck, and a teenage boy on the land she treasures help Louisa see that the enduring beauty of the natural world and the mystery of human connection are larger than revenge . . . and so is justice.
“I adored this fun yet poignant book.”
—Diane Chamberlain, New York Times bestselling author of The Stolen Marriage
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Sometimes in the shower he'd think of it. Or it would get going in his head at night if he got up to pee and didn't fall back to sleep quickly. Like a movie rerun with no stop on the remote. Blinking and shaking his head sometimes worked, but he had to do it right away. If the movie got past the thud, the steering wheel fighting his hands, he had to let it play to the end to hear how he'd shouted, "There was a deer! It was a deer," at the back of the do-gooder woman who'd stopped at the accident.
"Honey, what's the matter?" LuAnn said once when he hadn't known she was awake, and she went up on her elbow and wiped his face with her finger. "It's okay to cry."
"What the hell are you talking about," he said, not a question. "Shut up, will you," not a question, either. He'd been looking at porn to get his mind on better things, but then he long-armed the magazine under the bed, switched off his lamp, and shimmied down with his back to her. If he hadn't, she'd have kept talking.
She'd made it worse saying that crap when he might have still been able to get it to stop. And then he'd had to let it play to the end again, to hear what he'd yelled, even though he'd seen the movie, hell, he'd made the damn movie, and he knew how it went:
A heavy thud, and then another, something recoiling off the hood. He jerked the wheel to an overcorrection back across the center line, off the shoulder. Get the truck under control, get it stopped. Goddamn, he'd dozed and hit something.
Prob'ly a deer. Rut season. They were all over the roads in the damn early dark. He'd never hear the end of it from LuAnn. Not his fault, dammit. He hadn't had that much, not that much, he'd get Chuck to tell her.
Don't just sit there, get out, check the truck. Shit. Front end a mess. Headlight and ... oh Jesus. Jesus. What is that? Oh Jesus. No. No way. Don't look. A random sneaker and papers is all that is.
Gotta be a deer, there's deer all over the roads now. Rut season. Gotta be a deer. Truck ought t'drive okay. Get outta here, then figure what to do. Lose the empties outta the truck first, walk 'em t'the other side of the highway, other side, throw 'em in the brush. Lotta highway trash. Farther away. Don't trip. Wipe 'em clean. LuAnn'll see the truck. Probably look inside. Thinks she's smart.
Okay. Cross back, get t'the truck. Go, steady. Keep your eyes open.
A long lull in traffic. Lucky.
He was just checking the truck so he could get it straight to tell LuAnn what happened.
Wouldn't you know the damn do-gooder in a six-year-old blue Civic would pull up right then. "Are you all right? Oh my God! Did you get 911? Have you checked him? Where's the other car?" Bitch freaking out, holding a cell phone to her ear, running toward what lay crumpled on the gravel shoulder of the highway, the sun bleeding all over the blackening sky by then.
"It just now happened. Call 911! It was a deer! There was a deer!" He yelled at her back, yelled it twice, then followed her.
He could make the replay finally stop if he turned up the volume on how he yelled it again, too, as he caught up to the woman with the cell phone, to get it right in his head: "It was a deer! There was a deer!"CHAPTER 2
I am Louisa, Harold's wife. Or I was. Now the last best friends I have are Jo, Beth, and Amy. The four of us still mourn Meg. I'm the only one who's finished Little Women, but when we have tea out in the yard, I read it aloud to them from the battered copy I bought at the library sale. I have all the classics now.
They don't care to hear more than a paragraph at a time, but so what? They're beautiful, my friends, my comfort. My looks are closest to Beth's, a brownish blond, but hers are wholly natural while mine are compliments of Miss Clairol. Amy is purely white but for a couple of stunning black streaks that also run in her otherwise cheery temperament, while Jo is a quick-eyed, pretty, russet auburn, like my sister down in Georgia. All of us are old, I suppose. My mind rebels at the word. Old is something that I once thought I'd never have to worry about because time took forever to pass. I won't think about it now, and you shouldn't focus on it, either. None of what's happened had to do with age anyway. It was all set in motion by two selfish men, one of them my son and one a stranger to us both, neither more than half my years, so if you're one of those people who think it's youth that matters, you've been warned.
I thought about changing my name to Meg, after my husband killed her, which was right before he killed himself. That doesn't sound good, does it? Well, it was quite the right thing to do. She was sick and it's wrong to allow suffering. We all miss her terribly. I didn't change my name, even though it would have made us a more coherent group again, because I thought my sainted mother would be upset. That's an expression Mom used to indicate someone was dead, calling them sainted. My sister, CarolSue, and I say it now as a joke. But my son, Gary — a name I would surely reconsider if I had the opportunity since I've learned it means "spear carrier" — would claim his departed father is definitely not sainted because he died on purpose. He would say it as a black-or-white fact, too. After everything that's happened, he cannot stand to look in the shadows. I'll never be able to count on him to kill me when my time comes. But I can take care of myself.
* * *
"This is crazy. They're chickens, Mom. They're chickens, and they don't belong in the house." Gary had dropped by without calling and caught me having tea in the living room with the girls. It was raining outside, and much as I love them, I don't sit in the rain to have tea. That would be crazy.
"They have names, son. Please be polite. You were raised better. Look, here's my pretty Beth. Say hello, Beth. You know Gary." Beth was already clucking quietly. She's quite the conversationalist. "Gary, tell Beth how pretty she is. Notice how my hair is the same color as hers?"
"Mom, no, I came to check on you, see if you need anything. I'm not talking to chickens. I'm going to get them out of the living room and back into the coop. Besides, Marvelle will kill them." Marvelle is a retired barn cat who looks like she's wearing a fluffy tuxedo. She came to us complete with her unfortunate name. Once a living legend mouser, I brought her inside to the soft life after she quit caring what the mice did. As the words spilled from Gary, she was curled up under my green ottoman, ignoring the hens and him. I thought it gracious on my part not to point this out. Gary started to chase down JoJo, which was a terrible way to start since she's the fastest, but I wasn't going to tell him. He wouldn't have a clue how to round them up anyway. All the farm has long leaked out of my boy, who no longer sees the life spark in creatures or feels its force in the land. You'd think, perhaps, that had to do with the way his son, Cody, died, because of that terrible drunken stranger, and Gary's fault in it, too, but it had happened well before then.
"Technically they're all hens," I said, very calm. I crossed my legs at the ankles as if I were entertaining the Prince of Wales, not that Gary looked all that royal in those baggy khakis. "You know, your father never did get another rooster after Bronson died. The girls were past their prime. I'm thinking of enlarging the flock again now, though, and then I might get one. Do you think a rooster would understand if I name him Laurie?"
My son was not looking engaged in this subject at all as JoJo flew up to the hanging light fixture in the dining area to escape him. "Don't you remember that male character named Laurie in Little Women? I read you that whole book — how old were you? Gary, please, will you please just sit? You're getting the girls stirred up. There's room next to Beth." I pointed to the couch. "Move over, Beth." Beth, obliging girl that she is, flapped her gold wings and half hopped, half flew up to the couch back on the other side. She couldn't have possibly created more room for him without entirely abandoning the couch.
"Mom! What are those holes in the wall?" Gary, who'd backed off his silly chicken roundup attempt and started to sit when Amy advanced toward him in a menacing way — she and I like to play good cop, bad cop, and she'd certainly not appreciated his comments — hoisted himself back up, and scrambled behind my chair away from her. I had to crane my neck to see him finger two small holes chest-high in the wall to the right of his high school graduation picture.
Oh crap, I thought. Well, it's my own fault. I could have fixed those a long time ago, and at least he hadn't noticed the ones under the window. For a moment, I wished he'd notice that the walls need painting — once a cheery buttercup color, now they're more like a dying dandelion — but on the other hand if he noticed he might do it, and that would mean he'd be here in my house, and we haven't been getting along that well lately. He worries about me all the time now and it just brings out my worst side.
"Those have been there since last summer. Will you please sit down and have some tea?" I pointed to the china teapot in the cozy my mother knit. "Shall I get you a cup or a mug?"
"You know I don't like ... Never mind. They look like bullet holes. Do you have something to tell me?"
"For heaven's sake. Were you raised on a farm or weren't you?"
"This is hardly a working farm, Mom. The chickens don't even produce eggs anymore. You need to get rid of them."
"I don't produce eggs anymore either, son. Are you going to get rid of me?"
"Mom!" he said, and put on his shocked look.
"You just don't remember all we did on this land. Your daddy hoped you'd take over, but he always suppor —"
"Wait a minute. How did those holes get there?" Gary was raised not to interrupt, but he does regularly. I stopped talking entirely to make a point, but it didn't sink in.
"That's just a couple BBs," I finally said, because he wouldn't let it go.
"What? What happened? Was someone breaking in?" Gary's face reddened deeper than its usual shade. He thinks all my business is his to know.
"Four or five deerflies were in here so I took them out. Back in August. I couldn't find the flyswatter. I wish you'd put things back where they belong when you come over."
"Jesus, Mom. I didn't move your ... wait a minute. You were shooting deerflies? That's insane. You could kill yourself." He stopped for a few seconds, his mouth hanging open and his eyes widening as the idea took hold. He gathered steam and blew. "Wait a minute. Wait just a minute here. Were you trying to —?"
"Gary. You of all people shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain, I'm sure. I occasionally miss a deerfly. If I were aiming at a person, any person, I assure you I wouldn't miss."
Do you see what I mean about my worst side just popping right out? CarolSue gets all over me about it. "Stop, Louisa!" She says it all the time. "You're not helping him or you heal."
Gary's oval eyes went down to mail slots. "What's that supposed to mean?" he said, all this time standing over my chair, looming. I could feel my neck stiffening looking up at him at that bad angle, and I didn't appreciate it.
"Nothing, son. Would you like to give the girls some grapes? They'll eat right out of your hand. They love their grapes." Very glad to rest my neck by having a good reason to look away from him, I picked up the plate of green grapes I'd cut in half. Amy hopped into my lap right away, proving my point. Gary backed up, knocking the floor lamp into the wall and startling everyone. It hit the wall, and he caught it before it hit the floor. The rag rug might have kept it from breaking, but I think the shade would have been toast.
"Mom," he said louder, enunciating as if I was hard of hearing. "We need to think about getting rid of the chickens. They're too much for you now. They can't be in the house. I've been thinking about the farm anyway. This place has gotten too much for you to handle."
"Gary, I love you, son, but over my dead body will my girls leave." I wouldn't dignify the rest of his opinion.
"Is that a threat, Mom? If you feel like you might hurt yourself, I'll put you on the crisis prayer list and take you to the hospital until God makes things right. It sounds like a threat to me. I'll find a safer place for you." He felt around the holes again, stared at me, and without saying anything more turned and went down the hall toward the bedrooms.
Oh crap, I thought. Here we go.
Within a clock minute, he was back. He didn't loiter getting to the point.
"Where is Jesus?" he said, his whole self in agitation. I was going to get smart with him about how being a reverend, he should know, but I decided to be kind and give him a straight answer.
"Jesus is in the closet."
"Jesus is in the closet? You cannot be serious."
"I think maybe it's why he never got married," I said. Poor judgment on my part, but I couldn't stop my worst side. She does love the openings Gary gives her.
"That is blasphemy. Something is wrong with you. Why is the picture of Jesus in your closet?"
Here's the story on that picture: last year, after he became Reverend Gary, my son gave me a painting he'd done himself. He got offended almost to tears when I said Elvis looked good as a blonde in drag. I had to apologize many times and explain that all the paintings involving glitter that I'd seen before were of Elvis, which was why I didn't know this one was Jesus. I pointed out that no one knows what Jesus looked like. This hurt his feelings because the glitter halo was Gary's creative depiction of holiness, which was the point I was supposed to get. He is so sincere it would never occur to him that glitter might not be a good idea. Mollifying him backfired, though, because he carried out his plan to hang it in my bedroom, to be "the first thing I saw in the morning and the last before I closed my eyes."
I knew where that idea came from, and it's an example of chickens coming home to roost. My Harold would say Glitter Jesus on my bedroom wall now is exactly what I deserve for what I made him suffer (he claimed damage to his retinas) during our son's adolescence. Gary was miserable as a teenager, bony wrists and knees and ankles all going in wrong directions, plus he had trouble making friends. In ninth grade, after writing a report on Van Gogh, he decided his isolation was related to an artistic temperament. He'd always enjoyed art class, too. Like any mother, I ignored his father and evidence — anything for your child to have self-esteem, right? — and built him up with praise as gaudy and ill-conceived as his projects. What else would I do? I loved my son then, and I do now. Different as we are, I know I mustn't lose sight of all that is good and kind in him, and you mustn't, either.
Anyway, while death threats from me kept Harold's mouth shut, I'd display Gary's dreadful pictures in our bedroom, telling our boy I wanted his art to be the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing at night. (Anything to keep them out of the living room.) You should have heard Harold when Gary applied to LaGrange Community College to "jump-start" his professional career with an Associate in Studio Art degree. "Now, there's a surefire moneymaker," he said in private, way more times than I cared to hear. That man could roll his eyes as well as any woman. Remembering little things like that crumples me inside like the wadded-up tissue that's stuck in my every pocket to fight the sneak attacks of memory.
Harold had to admit it turned out all right, though he never did give me any credit. After one semester, Gary's tactful instructor redirected him: had he ever thought about the amount of artistic vision computer graphics required? I'd hoped he'd get a Bachelor's, and Harold wanted him to study Agriculture, but at least Gary eventually got an Associate in Computer Science degree. And a job. When he married Nicole and then our grandson, Cody, was born, Harold and I thought we'd run the big bases and were home, safe. Life was finally so good that Harold and I joked how great it was that Nicole, not Gary, had decorated their house; we could visit without being blinded.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Testament of Harold's Wife"
Copyright © 2018 Lynne Hugo.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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