It has been over thirty years since the words "Bluegang Creek" passed their lips. Because something that happened near that shady stream has shaped their lives-and haunted their darkest hours. Now, Liz can no longer bear the silence. What she is about to bring out into the light will test the very limits of friendship-and take all three women back to that fateful summer day when their innocence was shattered forever. . .
A novel of friendship and forgiveness, Wildwood brings to life the lengths to which women will go to protect themselves-and each other-in the name of loyalty. . .and in the name of love.
"The pull of family and career, the limits of friendship and the demands of love all come to vivid life in Wildwood." -Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue
"Resist the urge to turn the page to find out what happens next. Linger, instead, to savor the skillfully crafted writing." -Judy Reeves, author of The Writer's Book of Days
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That week no new polio cases were reported in Rinconada so most kids swam at the town pool. For practically the first time all summer, Bluegang Creek belonged to the birds and the squirrels and the crawdad — and a twelve-year-old girl sunbathing on a flat rock with her old Brownie shirt tied at her midriff like Debra Paget, painting her toenails with Tangee Strawberry Sundae polish, waiting for her two best friends.
Hannah Whittaker twisted the top off the polish and took a deep breath. Strawberry Sundae smelled forbidden, grown-up and cheap — like ankle bracelets and pierced ears and the music she listened to on that Oakland radio station. The show was called Sepia Serenade and she didn't know what sepia meant until she looked it up. Brown. Hannah Whittaker, the Episcopal minister's daughter, closed her bedroom door and listened to Negro music down low so her parents wouldn't hear.
She steadied her right foot, lifted the brush from the polish, let it drip, then brought it gingerly over to her big toenail and painted a perfect stripe of pink. Toes were easier than fingernails. Of course it didn't matter if she did a good job or not since she had to pick it all off before she went home. If her mother saw her painted toes, she'd catch it.
Hannah had always understood that she and her mother were not alike. This made her feel bad because if a girl wasn't like her mother, who was she like? She wanted her mother to love and admire her but there seemed no way this could happen unless she made herself into someone she was not, a carbon copy of her mother.
Hannah had explained this to her friends, Liz and Jeanne, and they knew exactly what she meant. Sometimes she felt like they lived right inside her head and if they were captured by Communists and tortured and their tongues cut out they would still be able to communicate. That was what it meant to be best friends.
Hannah's mom thought they all spent too much time together. She didn't approve of the way Liz was being brought up, half neglected. She said intellectuals had "no business" having children. She wouldn't even say what she thought of Jeanne's parents. Just rolled her eyes. Hannah's mother divided her world into two columns, those people who met her standards and those who did not. Women and girls were always either ladies or not. Ladies did not paint their toenails except with clear polish and where was the fun in that?
Fortunately, Hannah's mother was easy to fool.
Hannah had headed down to Bluegang right after breakfast when Liz called and said she had the new copy of Secrets, snitched from Green's Drugstore. It wasn't like they wanted to steal; they had to. In a town like Rinconada they couldn't even pay a quarter for a confession magazine without word getting back to someone's mother.
Hannah hummed a few bars of a song she liked, "Bebop Wino." She loved the beat and the smoky sound of the music on Sepia Serenade, but most of all the words which, even when they didn't say anything, implied so much. "Shake, Rattle and Roll." "Money Honey." "Sixty-Minute Man."
Dirty songs, songs about sex, the dark side of the moon.
If nail polish was cheap, confession magazines were unadulterated trash. Hannah wasn't sure what her mother meant when she said unadulterated; it was one of her favorite words and bad for sure. I Married My Brother. Forced to Love — Forced to Pay. My Secret Shame. The stories were never as good as the titles, which sent little ripples of expectant heat through Hannah's stomach.
Liz always kept the magazines because her mother never investigated her bedroom the way Hannah's did. Hannah stole nail polish and lipstick from Woolworth's and hid them in her bookcase behind boring old Nancy Drew, and she had to remember to carry them to school with her on Tuesdays because that was the day her mother dragged out the Hoover and all its attachments, the furniture polish, the vinegar and ammonia and the basket of rags and cleaned house like she expected a visit from an angel. Jeanne mixed cocktails when they slept over at her house. Last weekend they'd tried out Manhattans, which tasted the way Tangee nail polish smelled.
Hannah heard the crunch and rustle of deep oak leaves, the snap of a branch and looked up, expecting her friends. Instead she saw Billy Phillips on the hillside above her, standing on a saddle of roots from the big oak that had been undercut by high water some winters before.
"Hubba-hubba," he said.
Billy and his mother lived next door to Hannah and went to her father's church. Hannah's father said Mrs. Phillips wanted Billy to be an acolyte but the ritual was too challenging for him. He was a tall, heavyset boy who should have been in high school but had been held back. He wore his hair slicked with grease like a pachuco, but he was white and Episcopalian like Hannah. With his chewed-down fingernails he picked at the clusters of white-capped pimples on his chin and forehead.
"Your girlfriends ain't comin'," he said. "I seen 'em up by the flume."
Billy grinned. Without a shirt on, his pale torso looked soft and feminine. She tried not to stare at his pointy pink nipples. He looked more like a girl than she did.
"Pool's open," he said. "How come you didn't go? I seen you there another time. You swim good."
"That friend of yours, the one with the braces? She's a good diver."
"She took lessons."
"I could dive from here." Billy teetered on the edge of the root saddle, giggling.
"You better be careful."
He made a face.
She caught the Tangee bottle in her fist and slipped it into the World War II khaki pack that held lunch.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, oatmeal cookies and bananas, but it wasn't Billy Phillips's business.
"How long ago did you see 'em?" she asked.
"Now I know you're lying, Billy. We were just talking on the phone then."
Billy patted the pocket of his blue jeans. "I got something."
She rolled her eyes.
"Betcha can't guess what."
"Betcha I don't care," she said. "Whatever it is, you probably stole it."
"Takes one to know one."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Mrs. Watson at Green's Drug told my ma you and your girlfriends'll probably end up in San Quentin the way you snitch stuff."
"Shut up, Billy. You don't even know what you're talking about."
"Don't you want to know what I got?"
Hannah said, sarcastically, "I could not care less."
"What if I said it was something of yours."
"You'd be lying."
"What if I said it was outa your bedroom."
"You've never even been upstairs at my house."
His laugh sounded like he was gagging for air.
She stood up. "You can just show me what it is or you can leave, Billy Phillips. You're not even supposed to be down here."
"It's a free country. Who says I ain't supposed to be down here?"
Hannah had heard her mother say if Mrs. Phillips was smart she'd never let Billy out of her sight. "Are you sure they were going to the flume?"
"That fat one —"
"She is not fat!"
"The one with hair like Nancy in the comics. She had smokes in her pocket."
"You make me sick the way you lie."
Billy looked up into the branches of the oak. "I bet if I was to climb up there, I could jump clear out to where the water's deep."
Hannah buckled her brown leather sandals and gathered up the army pack, slinging it over her shoulder. "You do that and then write me a letter. I'll try to remember to read it." She leaped across the space between her rock and the shore and scrambled up the path.
"Where you going?"
"Crazy," Hannah said. "Wanna come along?"
He grabbed her arm.
"Get your cooties off me!"
He squeezed her wrist so her bones hurt.
"I'm gonna tell."
"Yeah? Well, I could tell your ma some things about you and your girlfriends."
"You better let me go, Billy." Hannah wanted to ask him what he knew but more than that, she wanted to get away from him. Their raised voices had attracted the attention of the crows. A pair scolded them from the branch of a sycamore across the creek.
"I seen you down here actin' like movie stars with your shirts tied up around your chi-chis."
He grabbed at the Debra Paget front of her shirt and yanked it undone. With her free hand, she tried to hold it together. In her ears, a ringing began like the song of the cicadas.
"You're in big trouble now," Hannah said, tugging away from him. "I'll tell my father."
He grabbed for her again; and she kicked his shin and told herself not to be frightened — it was only dumb old Billy Phillips — but panic nipped at her anyway. She kicked again, but he was ready for her and stepped back so she lost her balance and would have fallen if he hadn't caught her wrist again.
"I seen you plenty of times down here when you didn't know I was lookin'."
"You can go to jail for that. That's spying." She snarled the worst thing she could think of. "Commie."
"Look in my pocket. Go ahead. I dare you."
Her fingers were numb and tingled.
"You're hurting me."
"Put your hand in there," he said.
"I don't want to." She began to cry.
Billy snorted. He shook her hard by the arm and she hiccupped. "Put your hand in."
Her fingers touched the frayed edge of his denim pants pocket.
"What you think you're gonna feel? Mr. Pinky?"
"Shut your nasty mouth, Billy."
"You want me to let you go, you gotta ..." Hannah squeezed her eyes shut and put her fingers into his pants pocket up to the middle knuckle. She felt something silky.
It was one of her Seven Days of the Week panties. Her mother had printed her name on the elastic band with a laundry marker when she went on the day camp overnight. She thought of her mother, hanging out the wash and talking to Mrs. Phillips over the fence, thought of Billy's hands on her shirts and shorts and underpants. She didn't think, she just shoved the panties back at him.
"You stole these off the line, you dirty creep. I'll tell your mother. You're gonna get in so much trouble —"
His hand clamped over her mouth. "Wanna see Mr. Pinky spit up?"
She bit his palm. Surprised, he jerked his hand back. Her first scream rang through the woods.
* * *
Up in the field by the old chicken coop, Jeanne and Liz stopped walking. Liz was plump with her dark hair cut in a Dutch-boy style. Jeanne, a full head taller, chewed on a pigtail and talked through a mouthful of braces.
"That was a scream." Jeanne's S's whistled.
Another scream, like diesel brakes on the long, snaky grade down from the summit; and a murder of crows burst from the canopy, cawing.
"That was Hannah," Liz said.
"Come on," Jeanne cried and ran into the trees at the edge of the ravine; and after a moment, Liz followed, slipping and sliding sideways down a steep trail through scrub oak and manzanita and thickets of pungent bay and eucalyptus trees.
A third scream ripped through the wildwood and then another, deeper.
Jeanne yelled, "We're coming, we're coming!" At the bottom of the hill they found Hannah in tears, her shirt half open and filthy, leaning against the trunk of an oak tree. She looked at them accusingly.
"He said you guys went to the flume."
"What's the matter with you? Why were you screaming?" Jeanne tossed her braids back. "We were just this minute up by the chicken coop."
"Are you okay?" Liz asked. "Do you need to go to the hospital?"
"He said you had cigarettes." Snot ran out of Hannah's nose and along the line of her lip. She licked it away. "Billy Phillips."
"What about him?"
Hannah pointed down over the root saddle, down the path and onto the Bluegang rocks.
Liz inched her way to the edge of the overhanging roots. "Wow!"
Billy Phillips lay sprawled on his back on a boulder, his head at an odd angle, his arms and legs splayed.
"His mom's our cook," Jeanne said.
"What happened?" Liz asked.
"I ... pushed him." When Hannah cried, her whole body moved, up and down, pumping up the tears.
Jeanne grabbed her by the shoulders and shook hard.
"Stop being a bully," Liz said. "She's scared and you're makin' it worse." She reached around Hannah and hugged her. "You want us to go home with you so you can tell your mom?"
"Are you stupid? You know her mother, how she gets. And what about the nail polish? That's gotta come off before we —"
Hannah looked down at her toes.
"But he's hurt —" Liz said.
"He isn't hurt, you stupe, he's dead," Jeanne said. "This isn't like a story, in a book, it's real and she's in big trouble."
Hannah sank to the ground and huddled against the trunk of the oak.
"Are you sure?" Liz peered down at the body on the rocks. "There's lots of blood on the rock. We should go down and look, huh?" The way his head was turned, they couldn't see his eyes. "He might be in a coma." Liz had read of such things.
"He had my underpants. They were in his pocket."
"How'd he get them?" Jeanne asked.
"He stole them, I guess. Off the clothesline."
"Is that why you killed him?"
"I didn't kill him!"
Jeanne peered over the bank another time. "Looks suspicious."
"I didn't mean for him to fall. He was touching me and saying nasty stuff."
"Boy, if this ever gets out, your family, your entire family, is going to be completely ruined. You'll have to leave town."
The three girls looked at each other.
"She didn't mean to do anything. It was an accident, like self-defense."
Jeanne snorted. "It's not like he was trying to kill her." She crouched on the edge of the hillside and picked at a scab on her knee. "This would destroy your parents. Probably ruin your father, you know that, don't you?"
Hannah didn't know anything except that she wanted to be away from Bluegang.
"Him being a minister means his family's got to be perfect or the congregation fires him."
The way Jeanne said it left no room for doubt.
"I just wanted him to stop touching me."
"Your mom'll have a heart attack."
"I'm sure it'll be okay." Liz's round, serious face in its squared-off haircut looked almost adult. "I read in a book where this woman —"
"I told you before, this is real life." Jeanne thought a moment. "When the police find out she was down here alone painting her toes with stolen polish, in public, they'll say it's no wonder Billy Phillips acted funny. Haven't you ever heard of girls asking for it?"
"Asking for what?"
They looked at each other again. Below them Bluegang sang over rocks and gravel and sand on its way down to the Santa Clara Valley and the San Francisco Bay; and in the deep pools the trout and crawdads dozed in the shadows of boulders and above it all crows perched in the oaks and sycamores and alders and bays, translating everything the girls said into squawks and caws.
Liz said, "I still think we should tell a grown-up."
Jeanne crouched before Hannah. "If you tell someone, it'll be just like on Gangbusters. The police'll want to know everything Billy said and what he did and there'll probably be photographers from the paper and no one's gonna care if you're crying or embarrassed or anything like that. I bet you have to stand up and tell everything in court. With a jury and all."
"He said bad things."
"And the judge'll want you to say 'em out loud for the jury."
"But I didn't do anything."
"You expect a jury to believe you? You're a girl."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"The church'll have a big meeting and they'll vote and you'll have to move out of Rinconada. Maybe go someplace like Georgia or Alabama."
Hannah blinked and wiped her tears. A smudge of dirt and snot and tears spread from one cheek, under her nose to the other. "All I want is for it to be like it never happened."
Jeanne thought a moment. "Maybe it can be." She stared down at Billy Phillips. "We could just go away and leave him."
"You don't mean it. You know that's wrong, you know it." Liz's plump cheeks colored. "Besides, dogs might get him. There's coyotes around here ..."
"Someone'll find him. They'll just think he fell over."
"What about his mother?" Liz said. "She's only got one son."
"What're you talking about her for?" Hannah sprang up in outrage. "What about me? He said he was going to make me do something ... nasty. I don't care what happens to him. I wish coyotes would get him. I wish I could forget about this forever. I wish I could hit my head on the rocks and get amnesia."
"Like Young Widder Brown." Liz nodded as if she now understood perfectly.
"Yeah, well, if wishes were fishes our nets would be full. My dad says in real life people don't get amnesia." Jeanne tossed back her braids. "Actions have consequences and he says we have to take what we get and make the best of it." She glanced down at her Mickey Mouse Club watch. "If we're gonna leave we better do it before anyone comes along.
"We'll say you fell. We'll say we went up to the flume and you fell off at that place where the boards are rotten. You could say you saw a snake, a big one and it really scared you and that's how come you were crying. And you could walk through the poison oak on the way home. You'll swell up like I do and no one'll blame you for being miserable."
Half way up the hill Liz stopped and pointed at Hannah's feet. "What about her toenails? Her mom'll see —" "I don't care!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wildwood"
Copyright © 2003 Trudar Productions, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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