Tides change. So does the moon. With the unfailing constancy of brittle autumn closing in on bright summer, things always changed. If Suzanne had ever had faith in anything, it was in knowing that all things were fleeting. And for good reason. The highway of life was littered with the roadkill of those who didn't know when to change lanes.
Almost asleep now, Suzanne brushed the pads of her fingers across her forehead, then down the bridge of her nose to the small, pointed bone of her chin. Yes, it was still her. One thousand miles, a quick dye job, and the surgical removal of her life had not completely obliterated her. Just smudged the edges.
The hissing of the bus's brakes brought Suzanne awake from her almost–doze. She pushed herself away from the images of a soft bed and dark Italian suits and opened her eyes wide to stare out at the anonymous highway rolling outside her window. A waxing moon smiled down at her with a crescent grin, and she touched the glass as if to bring it closer. "God's smile," she whispered to no one, recalling something her mother had once told her. Absently she let her fingers fall to the charm on the gold chain around her neck, finding comfort in touching the small heart through her shirt.
A sign on the overpass above them beamed at her through the murky glass: Welcome to Walton. Where Everybody Is Somebody. She craned her neck as the bus slid under the overpass, partially obscuring the sign, but wanting to make sure she had read it right. The bus slowed to a stop, and the door opened with a loud gasp. An older woman, wearing red high heels and with hair puffed out in a tight bouffant like a halo, stood at the back of the bus and began walking forward.
The driver followed the woman off the bus, and Suzanne listened as the luggage compartment was opened. With a squeal, the woman greeted somebody who had been waiting. She listened as a deep male voice, definitely not that of their Hispanic driver, greeted the passenger. His voice carried an accent that would have placed him in rural Georgia no matter what corner of the world he might travel. Suzanne smiled to herself, content not to be so burdened.
The driver seemed to be taking a long time pulling out the woman's luggage. From the snippets of conversation, Suzanne gathered that there was a piece missing. She rested her head on the back of her seat and continued to listen. She heard the Georgia man speak again, and there was something about his voice that pulled at her, something thick and rich like dark syrup. It soothed and cajoled, as if the voice had had years of practice.
Disturbed by the effect the man's voice was having on her, she turned away, but only to catch sight of the sign again. Welcome to Walton. Where Everybody Is Somebody. She sat up, watching as the light trained on the sign dimmed, then brightened, flickering at her like a winking eye. With a hand that trembled slightly, she pulled at the chain around her neck until the charm fell on the outside of her Tee–shirt. Tucking in her chin to see it better, she turned the gold heart over in her hand to read the tiny, engraved words.
A life without rain is like the sun without shade. With short, unpolished nails, she scraped the charm from her palm and flipped it over. R. Michael Jewelers. Walton.
She pressed her forehead against the window, forcing herself to breathe deeply and recalling the woman who had given her the necklace. Walton. The name shifted her jaw, as if moved by her mother's invisible hand, but she shook her head. It was a million–to–one shot that it was the same town. It would take sheer luck—something that had always run on a parallel with her life, never intersecting.
As she stared out the window, a small shape darted from the grass on the other side of the highway and onto the shoulder of the road. Headlights from an approaching car appeared on the horizon, two pinpoints gradually growing larger. The shape moved into the arc cast by a streetlight, and Suzanne recognized the pointed head and thin, whiplike tail of an opossum.
Pushing her hands against the window in an impotent offer to help, she glanced again at the approaching car, then back at the animal, its quivering nose pointing into the road. "Don't," Suzanne mouthed, but slowly the animal waddled into the lane and stopped, watching as the car bore down on it.
From After the Rain by Karen White. Published by arrangement with NAL Signet, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Karen White, 2012.
Antioch, Georgia April 2011
I stood outside my parents’ house feeling the heat from the black asphalt through my leather flats. My mother’s impatiens bloomed in the clay planters that flanked the front door of the ranch-style house I’d called home for most of my thirty-four years. Even the heat wouldn’t dare defy my mother by making her flowers wilt; Gloria Whalen ruled her garden as she’d ruled her five children, and disobeying her was as much of a rarity as a January snow in Georgia.
A bead of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades as the heat beat down on me and my new husband as if it were the middle of July instead of just spring. I tried to explain to Matthew that summers were like that in west Georgia, so sudden that spring was like a cool evening sandwiched between winter and high summer. Matthew was from the coast, so I figured he already knew a thing or two about heat and humidity.
Matthew held my hand as I faced my father and four brothers, my siblings ranging in age from fifty-five down to forty-five, assembled as either a farewell party or as a show of force to the stranger I’d chosen to marry. Even now, standing in a suburban setting, they could still be identified as the funeral directors they were. Whalen and Sons had been in my father’s family for three generations, and the serious, solicitous expressions on all five faces were more genetic now than learned.
Their assorted wives and my various nieces and nephews remained inside by unspoken assent, perhaps gathered in sympathy around my mother’s bedroom door, a door she’d refused to open since I’d arrived that morning. I’d called the day before, the day of my wedding, to give her time to adjust. Even Phil Autry, my fiancé of four years, seemed to have taken the news better than she had.
I let go of Matthew’s hand and hugged my father. He held on tightly for a moment, then released me to hold me at arm’s distance. I was used to this. Despite my being the youngest and the only girl, and being reassured that I’d been what my parents had hoped and prayed for, they’d always seemed too wary of their good fortune to hold me tightly. It was as if by their holding me close, the vagaries of fortune that had given me to them would notice and take me away.
“Can I try to talk with Mama?” I didn’t really want to. I hated to leave with things unspoken between us, but I didn’t want her to think that I was desperate for her approval. I’d outgrown that need along with Clearasil and braces.
My father shook his head. “Give her time, Ava. She’ll come around. It’s just been a shock. To all of us.” He paused and settled a stern look on me. “You know how Gloria doesn’t like surprises. She’ll come around.”
I hoped my expression conveyed my doubt about the sincerity of his words. My mother had been vaguely upset when I told her I was married. Although she didn’t admit it, I knew she’d always planned a large wedding in her garden with all the frills for her only daughter. It wasn’t until I told her I was moving to St. Simons that she’d had her meltdown.
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