I gave you the blurb for Lilli's book last week and now I'm ready to share chapter one with you. To read the rest, you'll have to buy the book. :) Of course, the book won't come with the visual aids I've embedded in this chapter just for you...
Some days fate hands you calorie-free chocolate and dates with men who don’t live with their mothers. Other days it sets fire to your hair, slaps five extra pounds of water weight across your stomach, and slams you face-first into the side of a barn.
Since every single interaction with my mother in living memory felt like the latter, it took every ounce of courage and desperation I had to turn onto the winding gravel driveway leading past the expanse of well-tended lawn to the front of her house. Truth be told, there were about a million places I’d rather be.
A Jamaican beach. Antarctica. The bottom of the ocean.
Okay, that last one is a bald-faced lie.
I once read a human being can go five minutes without air before nature takes over and it’s ashes to ashes. I can’t speak to the truthfulness of this statement since my personal record is two minutes three seconds. I’ve thought about building up a tolerance bit by bit until one day it’s “Voila! Five minutes of no oxygen to my brain!” but I never got around to it. I’ve been pretty busy. Still, facing the prospect of an imminent reunion with Mother after my five year absence made holding my breath under water indefinitely sound tempting.
My mother owned a farm on twenty-four acres of gently rolling hills complete with a handful of livestock and a faded red barn built an acre behind her elegant white plantation-style home. The mountain rushed up to meet the edge of her property, its forest sneaking across boundary lines to reclaim the land inches at a time.
Rascal Flatts filled the interior of my bright orange 1965 VW bus—It was cheap. Don’t judge me.—and I cranked the stereo I’d installed the year I left tiny Bird’s Eye, Tennessee for Hollywood full of plans I’d rather not discuss now.
Did you know that when an ostrich sticks his head in the sand he thinks he’s hiding from his enemy? Never mind the six feet of feathered ostrich tookus waving in the breeze for the world to see. The bird thinks if he can’t see you, you can’t see him. I guess that makes the ostrich about as smart as a toddler. It’s a wonder they aren’t extinct.
My VW crested the hill and I pressed the gas pedal, sailing past the gracious southern exterior of the plantation house with a crinch-crunch of gravel. What’s good enough for the ostrich is good enough for me. I might have to put that on a t-shirt.
I didn’t ease my foot onto the brake pedal until I’d reached the barn. Parking on the far side of the structure, out of view of the house, I turned off the ignition and sat in silence, staring across the fenced-in pastures at the grand splendor of the mountain beyond them.
I bet the ostrich isn’t extinct because it takes a humdinger of a predator to bring one down. I mean, seriously. Have you ever seen a pissed-off ostrich? They’re like a two hundred pound feathered Jet Li.
Twilight settled across the eastern sky, chasing the last buttery rays of September sunlight across the western edge of the mountain and ushering in the fog that clung to the Smokies like a second skin. In another few minutes, the mountain’s shadow would swallow Bird’s Eye, a premature darkness outsiders found ominous and residents took for granted.
Because I itched to crank the VW’s engine, slide her into reverse, and creep past my mother’s house, putting off the inevitable for another few hours, I yanked the keys out of the ignition and rammed the door open with my shoulder. A stiff breeze poked brittle fingers through my black May The Force Be With You t-shirt as I climbed out and stuffed the keys into my jeans’ pocket.
I glanced at the forest spilling with mad abandon down the side of the mountain and pressing against Mother’s property. Thick ribbons of fog slithered around tree trunks, belly-crawled across the ground, and hovered at the edge of the property as though uncertain of their welcome.
Nearby a cicada chirruped madly as I trudged around the side of the barn and headed toward the entrance. I’d worn my red Chucks for courage—and because any shoe without a heel irritated my mother—so I stepped carefully. I had no desire to sink ankle-deep into any recent bovine bowel movements.
Although, if I did I could at least pretend my mother’s lack of welcome for me had more to do with the substance lingering on the bottom of my shoes than with my general failure to live up to who she thought her daughter should be.
As I reached the barn door, a hawk’s piercing cry ripped the air and the hair on my arms rose as an overwhelming certainty I wasn’t alone settled into my stomach, churning with the peanut butter crackers and bottled water I’d consumed while making the last leg of my drive through Tennessee and leaving a faint metallic bitterness in my throat. I stopped walking and scanned the farm, my eyes sliding over the house, the barn, and the yards of white fencing neatly dissecting what used to be crops from the cattle before coming to rest on the mountain.
For one breathless moment, I fancied some thing mingled with the fog churning across the forest’s floor, but a thudding sound against the far side of the barn cut short my speculation.
Which is sort of a good thing since twilight plus creepy fog often equaled crazy optical illusions, and I hardly needed to add raving-like-a-lunatic to the list of things wrong with me in my mother’s eyes.
Blowing a deep breath into the rapidly chilling evening air, I abandoned my plan to hide out inside the barn and headed toward the source of the sound I’d heard.
Back when Dad was still a willing part of our family, the farm was a real farm with multiple crops, several head of cattle, a handful of horses, and Mr. Pinks the hog. After Dad left, Mother hired others to work the land and milk the cattle for a while but she soon decided crops were more trouble than they were worth. From the looks of things, she’d made the same call about most of the cows as well.
Another thump sounded from the far side of the barn and I grinned. Mr. Pinks, it seemed, had survived Mother’s half-hearted attempt at farming. I attributed this to her refusal to eat pork.
I rounded the barn’s western corner, expecting to see Mr. Pinks banging around his pen and froze.
Next to Mr. Pink’s food trough, a man—a stranger, very Cary Grant meets Colin Farrell, fierce power packed into a tall muscular frame and restrained by casual poise—bent over a silver tripod, snapping black metallic pieces of something together. As Mr. Pinks snuffled the man’s shoes with loud piggy grunts, the man slid another two pieces into place. I sucked in a shocked little breath and eased my body against the side of the barn, praying to be made invisible.
Leprechauns can make themselves invisible at will. Of course, leprechauns are cursed with puce-colored skin so I guess they have more incentive than most. I’ve never aspired to being a leprechaun, despite the whole pot of gold thing, but I figured now would be a good time to convert because the man was assembling a gun.
He was standing in Mother’s pig pen, ignoring Mr. Pinks’ curiosity, so focused on his task he hadn’t heard my approach, and he was assembling a gun.
And not just any gun. A long-range sniper rifle. I might not know how to fire one—Mother’s fierce disapproval saw to that—but a girl doesn’t grow up in a mountain town without learning a thing or two about guns. Fact one: most of the men in town owned enough guns to make Charlton Heston look like an amateur. Fact two: many of those guns were rifles purchased with the express purpose of hunting or protecting the townspeople from the kind of big game lurking on our mountain. Fact three: a long-range sniper rifle is good for accuracy but not for stopping big game. In fact, long-range sniper rifles are pretty much good for only one thing.
Good thing I wore my red Chucks for courage. I was going to need it. I might have next to no relationship with Mother but she was family. You don’t let strangers shoot family. It’s like a rule.
The man slid the rifle onto the tripod with a cold kiss of metal on metal and shuffled his body awkwardly around to face the forest, dragging the gun into position.
Which meant he’d turned his back to me.
I left Mr. Pink’s habitually squeaky gate closed. Grabbing the weather-worn wooden slat at the top of his enclosure, I climbed up three rungs and vaulted myself into the pen.
The man slid a hand into the pocket of his battered leather jacket—Why do killers always gravitate toward leather?—and came out with a shiny brass bullet.
I wasn’t sure whom he expected to come walking out of the forest at twilight. The townsfolk know better than to be caught on the mountain after dark. Still, Mother isn’t the sanest person on the planet. Who am I to say she hadn’t taken up late afternoon strolls through the woods?
The bullet nestled into its chamber with a faint rasp.
I scanned the pen for potential weapons and found none.
The safety clicked off with a barely audible snick.
I crept closer, racking my brain for a plan.
The man’s posture tightened, a subtle shift of motion to stillness.
I was three feet away, crouched behind him as if I had somewhere to hide in case he turned around. I had no plan, no weapon, nothing but the element of surprise.
I kind of thought his gun took away any advantage to surprising him.
Then two things happened to force my hand. His finger squeezed the trigger back, a slow, steady journey toward disaster, and Mr. Pinks turned away from his dedicated exploration of the stranger’s shoes and noticed me.
At the sound of Mr. Pinks’ squeal, the stranger jerked upright. Abandoning caution, I rushed forward, slammed into his back, and knocked us both off-balance. We teetered for a moment, clutching each other, and then toppled headfirst into Mr. Pinks’ very full food trough.