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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Coming of age

Tennessee Mountain Love Song

 

Tennessee Mountain Love Song

 

Copyright 2017 K. L. Keith

Published by K. L. Keith at Shakespir

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Places, characters, names and events are either used fictitiously, or are a creation of the author’s imagination, so any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or any incidences, business establishments or locales is purely coincidental.

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

About the Author

 

 

 

Chapter One

Musicians hear the songs buried beneath ordinary sounds. And tonight, as the sun dipped behind the peak of Roan Mountain, diffusing pink light over the bright white tents of the county fair, those sounds were only amplified by the excitement of so many other senses. Frances was energized by the gently arching lines of tree farms converging down into the valley, the swirling mob of colors and familiar faces beyond the admission gates, the pungent scent of bodies and sweat mixed with fried batter and sugar.

As she inched forward in the ticket line, she watched people. Most of them were her neighbors and friends. And while none of them would have traded their corner of home for another, a change as small as the fair gave them a chance to dress up in different for a piece. The early-fifties man standing inside the tent of belts and hats, with his foot propped on a crate and his forearm leaning on his leg, was a fine example. Three nights as Eddie Johns the leather-tooler would do him just enough good to return to Eddie the high school math teacher.

And what did she get out of it? Other years the answer had been easy—fun, excitement, social fulfillment, music. The rush of exhilaration. The pleasure of her father’s pride.

At the edge of the belt tent, a stooped woman in an orange shawl stood waiving at her. So, Frances walked over to greet her. What an innocent portrait of elderly feebleness she made, but underneath the deceptive exterior, Frances knew there beat the strong heart of an intelligent and eccentric woman.

She couldn’t help but smile at a photo she’d secretly snapped a few weeks before, of the woman’s peculiar naptime ritual. Her frugal nature stretched to an extreme as she saved chewing gum by sticking it to the end of her nose. When she woke up, back in the gum went. The picture had initially been proof for her brother Alan, who never believed her. But now it was her go-to. Whenever she needed a mood change, out came the phone.

The woman was her near neighbor, one that had kept an eye on everyone’s kids until she had grown too old. Now everyone’s kids kept an eye on her. She held her thin, bony hand out kindly to Frances, who grasped it with a touch so gentle it wouldn’t rub color off a butterfly’s wings.

After a few moments, a little squeeze meant she could let go. The wrinkly but still-pretty lips formed a question—the one she anticipated was, ‘Where’s your fiddle?’ So she headed the conversation in a different direction with one of her own.

“Where’re you going? I’ll walk with you.”

Momentary confusion clouded her face as she tried to decide whether to pursue her original question, which was quickly fading from her memory, or answer this new one before it also grew dim.

She decided on the latter. “Let’s go find some jelly. I’m all out.”

“There’s the canning and pie exhibit over there,” Frances said. “You know, Mrs. Ramey was in charge of that booth this year. Should we go see how she did?”

“Oh yes. Hopefully, someone made some good huckleberry.”

The canning exhibit was basically seven Rubbermaid tables draped in white cotton, heaped with containers of every size and color. Picking up jar after jar and staring hard as if she was actually reading labels, Frances secretly parsed the conversations whirling around her. Most gossip eventually worked its way back to her, so she didn’t really need to eavesdrop. But she was always on guard for hints of anything that might involve her brother. And she was also curious to hear if anyone mentioned a stranger she’d seen lurking around town. It wasn’t that strangers were uncommon, but this one always seemed to be close to her, hovering but never approaching.

The woman grabbed a jar and turned it around in her hand. She held it up to the light, as if that would help her dimmed eyes decipher the blurry text. “I think I’ll get this one.”

Frances stepped over beside her. “Hot pepper jelly,” she read.

“Oh, I don’t want that one.” After replacing it carefully, she shook her head and picked another. “What’s this one?”

The label read Huckleberry, but it also listed the canner as Janet Beecher, who was known as the animal hoarder of Locklee Holler. “No, you don’t want that one either,” she said. “I’ve heard she lets her cats and birds walk all over the counter, and she never cleans up after them.”

Frances reached over to a different stack and sorted until she pulled out the flavor that was wanted. “Will you be ok if I leave now?” She handed it to Mrs. Johns.

“Go have fun, dear. I’m going to get this and some honey, and then Eddie will take me home.”

Frances ducked out of the tent, relieved for the slap of cool air on her hot face. The music from the main stage thumped her chest. She lifted her long thick hair off her neck and fanned herself before walking along, making sure to wave or gesture to all the predictable little clusters of acquaintances. A small child with freshly cut crooked bangs shouted at her from the top of one of the rides, and she squinted to see her better. It was hard to make out anything in the darkness hovering above the fair, beyond the dazzling lights. She paused next to a row of food booths, shining as much from a layer of fryer grease as from the bulbs illuminating them, then grinned indulgently and waved at the girl.

Up ahead, her half-brother Alan was walking with someone she didn’t recognize. She held her hand out to flag him, but it fell limply by her side when she saw him slide a handful of watches into his pocket. The guy she didn’t know was causing a scene, knocking over a bunch of stuff, while Alan did the lifting.

Her stomach churned and the heat returned to her face. She tried to duck behind a tent, but he had already spotted her.

She started to walk away, but that caused his walk to jump to a jog. So she waited, thankful he came by himself. An older man with one shoulder pitched higher than the other struggled under the weight of an odd-shaped case, and she cataloged the instrument in her mind as he walked by them. Standup bass. Left turn at the main stage. He was the third one who had gone that way.

Just as her brother reached her, her eyes locked with those of a man standing off to the side of the stage. It was the stranger. Though he was half-covered in shadows, she measured him in a matter of seconds. He was short and very brown, with about a three-day growth of black beard. His dirty, faded jeans fit his slim figure well, and they were tucked into a pair of ordinary western boots. Judging from the boots and the worn flannel-print shirt tucked in, she guessed he came from somewhere in the Midwest, maybe Arizona or New Mexico. Ugly, ordinary boots. Couldn’t he find some better?

His dark eyes twinkled at her appraisal. To someone less familiar with delicate expressions of disdain, those eyes could have been mistaken for cheerful. But Frances understood. They were mocking her disapproval—daring her to find the next objectionable characteristic and creating insecurity and shame at the same time for making such shallow judgments.

“What are you staring at?” Alan asked.

She knew he hated the way she gazed off at things, as if she could see into a world he couldn’t. She turned her pale orange-brown eyes away from the stranger.

“I saw you take those watches. What do you think you’re doing?”

“You keep your mouth shut about stuff you don’t know.” His face was drawn and hard.

“Who’s your criminal friend?”

He winced but didn’t defend himself. “New preacher’s kid. Says he had a brother must of graduated with you this year.”

She shrugged. “I guess maybe. Perry? He was only in school the last few weeks.”

The whine of a single violin hummed from somewhere in the shuffle between setting up the next main stage set, and her eyes fluttered closed for a moment. When she opened them, she was disappointed to find her brother still there. “See ya,” she said.

There was no more stranger, as if he’d been a figment of her imagination. Frances walked right beside the space she’d seen him in, and it was hardly big enough for a man to fit. Maybe she had imagined him. Either way, the real business of the fair could begin. She followed the violin and its sound of sadness in that involuntary way she responded to all she was kin to.

To Frances, old-time music was mountain-folks’ embodiment of their feelings—a rich infusion of pain, joy, loneliness. It represented a hunger for a broader world and a mistrust of change at the same time. Their melodies outlined the subtle balances that were hard to describe. They spoke of a yearning to break free from the poverty and the instability of rural life. There was the guilt-stricken refrain, the harmony of strong, enduring love and devotion, the second verse of spiritual euphoria from a beauty that fed the soul, and the conclusion of humble thankfulness that pervaded and endured. These were songs of resilience. And she loved every one of them.

An older group of players was assembled in a loading area, and a crowd had gathered to listen and admire. When the rhythm was lively, the people danced. When the pace slowed, they clasped their hands to their chests, waiting to be engulfed and swept away.

Songs passed with the same players for a while, and then there would be a dance, a shuffle of people and instruments. It was seamless, quick and efficient. As she watched the players interact with the crowd, she felt someone’s eyes on her and scanned until she landed on Perry Hernshaw, who was standing several yards away. His sheepish expression was quickly masked with a smile.

She smiled too and was about to make her way over to him, but as soon as the last song ended, a man began to push through the crowd from his place near the front. He was bending them back—a solitary figure, like a car hurtling through a field of corn. And he was shouting something.

“Frances, come on up here.” His booming voice could be heard above everything else.

She tried to duck out of sight, but the man wasn’t going to be put off.

“My daughter Frances here, she’ll play circles around you old codgers.” He shook his long unkempt black hair from his eyes.

At least half the crowd turned to stare at her. This was nothing new to most of them. It was typical for Al Garner to appear at the fair, drink too much, and embarrass his sweet slip of a girl. But they also looked forward to hearing her play every year. To them, it was like a scene out of a TV show, dysfunctional and loud, but not real. No one much considered whether there might be intense feelings to match the drama. But Frances’s resentment had been growing steadily, year after year.

Even though she was determined not to become a spectacle this year, she’d mistakenly assumed she could at least stand in the back and enjoy her favorite part of the fair.

“Not this time, Dad.”

“Aw c’mon.” He bellowed like a big wounded animal. “Just one for your ole dad.”

The tall man she was hiding behind stepped out of the way. She held up her empty hands to show she didn’t have an instrument.

This apparently wasn’t a worthwhile excuse. “She can have mine.” Old Mr. Reamer held up his fiddle.

Frances turned to bolt, but her brother had joined them and was standing directly behind her. He gave her a gentle push. “It means a lot to him.”

“Well, it embarrasses me. My music doesn’t mean anything to him any other time of year. Have you forgotten how he makes me practice out in the barn?” She spoke the words through gritted teeth and eyed his paunchy gut and bad posture. He’d let himself go in the four years after graduating high school. His lone asset at this point was height.

He batted her ear softly. “Don’t talk that way about Dad. Just give him one song and then you can cut out.” When she didn’t move, he tried a different approach. “Frances, it ain’t like you don’t like to play.”

Their conversation gave their dad time to reach them, with Reamer’s fiddle in hand.

It was no use. Next year, she was going to have to skip the fair altogether. But this year, she was here, and there was no fighting the both of them.

She snatched the fine instrument from his hand with surprising gentleness. “Only one song.”

Her words were lost on him as he turned around, victory evident in his beaming, exultant face.

What began begrudgingly soon melted into pleasure. The old men were skilled, and they put her through her paces. She no longer perceived her father or brother, or strangers or friends. What had seemed like a spectacle from out in the crowd felt more like a quaint gathering of close friends inside the music. The night spun on into hours of trading instruments, players, and singers from the crowd. After about three songs, Frances gave up her spot and borrowed instrument, but she never left the music.

A young woman she didn’t recognize got up to sing. The girl turned and said something to the musicians, who nodded and lifted their instruments. She then clapped out a measured, steady beat and began to sing “Molly and Tenbrooks.” Though it was a slower version than she was used to, it was rendered even more unforgettable for it.

Frances stood spellbound. She had never heard a voice like that. There was nothing remarkable or beautiful about the girl—she had sandy brown hair, freckles, straight-across eyebrows and an open expression that lacked any mystery—but all the same Frances was drawn to her with the magnetism of admiration.

“She’s incredible, isn’t she?”

She spun around and found herself face-to-face with the stranger. He had never been so close to her, and her arms and shoulders prickled at the realization. “Who are you?” The biting of her tone revealed her suspicion and aggravation. His presence had ruined the magic of “Molly and Tenbrooks.”

His eyebrows shot up at her accusatory tone. He stepped back a few steps. “I’m no one. I’m here enjoying the music like you.”

Frances’s dad made his way over to them, stumbling over someone’s foot as he got close. “Did ya see my girl? Wasn’t she amazing?”

“It isn’t about that.” She wanted to seep down into the dirt and disappear forever.

“Play somethin’ else!”

People were watching again. Frances tried to be patient, but she was nearing the end of her tolerance. “Everyone’s winding down, Dad. Do you need some help getting home?”

He ignored her. “Who’s your friend there?”

She stiffened. That man was certainly not her friend. She turned, but instead of the stranger, Perry stood beside her.

“Are you walking home with me?” He held out a bent arm to her.

Frances leaned to the side to see if he was the only one there. She craned her neck to either side, scanning the farthest corners of the fairgrounds, before taking the offered arm. Her father could fend for himself. She knew he would pout, then wait until the very last strains of guitar and mandolin bled into the night sky.

“Thanks for walking me home.” She glanced over at the curious person walking beside her.

Perry shrugged. “Well, someone had to.”

She stopped.

Her pause communicated his error succinctly, but he addressed it anyway. “You wouldn’t be afraid to walk home by yourself?”

Following her lead, they started walking again. She smiled freely under the covering of darkness. If there was anything to be afraid of, it was of him leading her off a cliff. He had already edged them too close to the steeply pitched slope twice, and she’d gently guided him back to safe ground without his knowledge.

Frances couldn’t be afraid. She had spent so many nights on the mountain, with the stars as her ceiling and her dad’s flannel as a sheet. “It seems like I’ve spent more nights out than in,” she said.

She tugged on his arm when they got to Eddy Johns’s driveway. “This way.” Fifty more feet and they were standing in front of her house. “This is my place.” She stole another glance at him and wondered what had prompted him to walk her home, happy for whatever it was. She hadn’t seen him since graduation, and back then it hadn’t seemed like he’d noticed her at all. He was different from anyone around Roan. So clean-cut, so city. He spoke with perfect diction. It was strange, but refreshing.

He was staring at her just as keenly, and she became aware of how she must seem to him. What if his observation of her was the exact opposite—that she didn’t speak perfectly, or that she was a complete Appalachian stereotype.

She was about to ask where he had moved from, and why, but Alan burst through the back door. She hadn’t expected him to be back so soon.

“Home in one piece, I see.” After checking her over, he glanced at Perry and drew his dark brows together, which, paired with his hooked nose and tight scowl, lent a sharp bird-like characteristic to his face. That was exactly what she always imagined his mother must have looked like. A lean shrewish falcon mommy.

Alan stuck out his hand. “Thanks for walking her home.” But his gruff words sounded anything but appreciative.

Perry stared at him for a moment before deciding to shake his hand. “Anytime.” Then he mumbled something unintelligible to Frances and took off.

“What are you doing? You make it seem like we were skulking around or something.”

“Weren’t you?”

“No. I barely know him. He offered to walk me home and I thought that was nice.”

Alan laughed in his grating, mocking way that made her want to rip great big wads of his hair out. She’d done it once before, when she was about six, and it had been so satisfying she couldn’t rightly forget it.

He turned to go back inside. “Wait till Duke hears.”

“What would he care? We’re just friends.” She turned around, but he had already gone. A quick gut-punch of loneliness threatened to spoil what was left of her evening, and she wouldn’t let it. One of my first friends to leave Roan. A fleeting memory of a prank she and Duke had pulled at graduation made her smile as she slid down to sit on the cold porch floor, her back pressed against the house.

Roots from the big sycamore tree had lifted the deck beneath her feet. At some point, there had been a discussion about cutting it down. It was leaning and would probably fall and damage the shed in the coming years. The staggered nails her dad had once driven in to form makeshift rungs had nearly been swallowed up in new growth. She smiled as she recalled what he’d called it at the time. A ladder to heaven. More like a cheap man’s handiwork. But there was comfort in knowing the tree would fall before her dad would ever cut it down.

 

Chapter Two

The next morning, Frances woke early to the sound of clanking pots and pans in the kitchen. Aunt Lindy had come to fix her dad and brother breakfast, which she did a few times a week. As soon as she could get herself together, Frances slipped out the front door, careful to latch it without a sound.

The early morning air was fragrant with wild grasses and clover, as unmistakable to summer as a pungent melon or overripe strawberry. In a few weeks, thousands of outsiders would flock to the mountain as the Rhododendron forest bloomed in a thick canopy high above. It was a remarkable experience, walking down paths that meandered through twisted trunks, their ancient branches stretched tall and fanned wide as they searched for precious sunshine.

When she was a child, she’d marveled at her great-grandpa Durham’s stories of the Catawba Indians and their battle with the Cherokee, which had forever stained the Rhododendrons crimson and left the mountaintops bald of trees.

He had been part of an early and notable venture, the Cloudland Hotel, which had been a health resort set high atop the mountain. Few people today knew the black stretch of road twisting across Roan to Carver’s Gap was once just a double rut in a dirt path carved by his sweet mare Gypsy. He’d carried visitors in his wagon, and his stories had carried them into the clouds. Frances knew every one of them. She had memorized the entire history of Roan.

Unlike grandpa Durham, whose pride had revolved around presenting his home to the Yankee politicians and European royalty that made the journey, she didn’t like sharing. During the tourist season, she kept hikes to mornings or evenings, and usually managed to avoid most of the travelers.

“Frances,” Aunt Lindy called from the kitchen.

She jumped, startled, then darted for the stand of trees behind the house, safely out of view from the kitchen window. She hadn’t really intended to start her morning in the direction of the old Durham homestead, but it didn’t matter. She could have picked any path and been pleased with the outcome. Ferns and undergrowth crowded the thin trail of compacted dirt and moss. She hadn’t been down it much to trample them back.

Along the way, she stopped whenever it pleased her, to study a tree frog or trace a pattern of pink and gray lichen. Wild lilies were rare in the underbrush, but as she neared the Durham clearing, she came across a few striking yellow irises. She stooped to examine one, careful to observe every movement around her. That was how she’d discovered a tiny fawn last summer, curled in plain sight. Beautiful speckled jumble of legs.

The clearing in front of her was vibrant green and yellow. Wildflowers dotted the grass with reds and purples. No one tended the property anymore, so it dressed itself in whatever weeds the winds or birds scattered. Frances loitered as she walked, then picked the path that led to the crumbling old house and barn, where she was confronted with a very different scene.

Ugly green, black, and red spray-painted images and profanities were scrawled across the side of the house and barn. She balled her fists by her side, digging her nails into her palms. Who would destroy something so sacred? A piece of Roan Mountain history?

The silence of the meadow was interrupted by a soft swishing sound, on and off, as if someone was spraying hairspray, or… “Paint!” Frances ran around the corner to confront the offender.

If only she had been a little less aggressive and had peeked around the barn first. But compulsiveness was a characteristic that earmarked her as still more child than woman. What she found was indeed someone spraying graffiti on the wall of the barn, and that someone was Wade Hernshaw. Her shout had startled him and he had nearly fallen off the old wooden ladder he was standing on, which had likely come from the very same barn he was defacing.

He scrambled down the ladder and lunged at Frances with a swiftness that was at the same time alarming and impressive. Using one of his forearms to pin her against the barn, he kept his other arm drawn back, ready to strike. Physically, he was built slighter than either of his two brothers, but there was more power in the tightly wound, stringy muscles than observers would guess.

The suddenness of his actions and the fact that no stranger had ever treated her with such roughness left her reeling. The pressure on her throat was starting to burn and she struggled under it. “Get off me!” Even though her heart pounded wildly, she kept her eyes deadlocked on his—wild animals, both sizing each other up. “You wouldn’t want my brother to find out you had his kid sister pinned against a wall.”

She prayed silently he would care about her brother’s reaction, because so far, she wasn’t convinced he was governed by any normal convictions.

Without warning, his free arm swung full force at her face and Frances winced, closing her eyes out of a basic reaction. But the blow never came. When she opened them, he was glaring, his bottom jaw jutted slightly over his top. He shoved her hard against the wall one last time before releasing her, and slunk away backwards.

“If you tell anyone, I’ll make sure you fall off a cliff.” Then he turned and disappeared into the trees on the north end of the meadow.

She stood for a few minutes, trying to regain her composure. Stupid, shaking limbs, trembling and reminding her of how small and powerless she was. When she was able, she sprinted off in a different direction, west, toward their orchard, where she knew she wouldn’t run into him again. She was a fast runner, and she crossed the quarter-mile of rocky ground in a matter of minutes, bursting through the pine scrub and into the clearing, almost colliding with a female hiker who was exploring the southern edge of the property. Here, the woods converged into twenty feet of cemetery before veering into a jagged cliff and the most beautiful view of Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge on the entire mountain.

Her crazed entrance alarmed the woman and she jumped back out of the way, before realizing it was a young lady and not a wild animal that had interrupted her solitude.

“Are you ok, dear?” Her sweet voice hummed.

For a moment, they stared at each other, trying to form quick first impressions.

Frances bent over at her slim waist and leaned on her knees, trying to catch her breath. Then she stood and stuck out her hand. “I’m Frances Garner, and I live here.” She motioned back over her shoulder a little way down the sloping meadow.

The woman breathed in sharply, in a way that surprised Frances, as if she was experiencing Deja vu. But whatever her initial reaction, she hid it behind a more composed and open expression, accepting the offered hand. “Oh, you’re trembling.” She sandwiched the hand between her own in what could only be described as a motherly burst of affection.

Frances slid her hand away, embarrassed at the unaccustomed attention, and smiled weakly. “It’s from running,” she lied. The warmth of the woman’s hand was still imprinted on her own cold one. Oh sharp pain, go away.

“I see,” she said. “And do you run for exercise?” Her eyebrows arched ever so slightly.

For a moment, Frances pondered how to respond. Why was this lady-hiker bugging her? And why was she poking through their cemetery? But her mistrust was tamped out by a basic need for a little human comfort, paired with the fact that she was very beautiful and disarming. Frances decided on a brief version of honesty.

“I was running from someone who was graffitiing an old barn. He wasn’t very happy I caught him.”

The woman’s eyes grew large in alarm. She stepped forward and folded Frances into a hug, allowing her a moment to sink into the comfort. Then she stepped back at arm’s length, keeping her hands on Frances’s shoulders. “Now, tell me about this person. Is he dangerous? Should we leave and go somewhere safe?”

Frances shook her head. “I think we’re fine. He headed off north somewhere.”

She nodded, and her tone shifted back to melody. “You said you’re from around here?”

The way she was staring made Frances feel like she was trying to place her amongst some long-lost acquaintances. “Yes, my dad is Al Garner. We own a lot of the land around here, and we live in a house a mile or so into the valley.”

Her face relaxed. “I lived here for a very short time in my youth, also down in the valley. I wanted to revisit my favorite places this morning, while it was quiet.”

“You’ve been here, in this cemetery before?”

She walked out a little way and took in the view. “This is where I’ve always dreamed of being buried. I never imagined I would ever be back in Tennessee, much less Roan, but here I am.”

Frances stiffened a little at the familiarity she used, referencing something as personal as her family’s final resting place. Though truthfully, many people from Roan had been buried there that weren’t related to the Durhams. There were about four small cemeteries across different parts of the ridge and this one happened to lie on their property. Only a few spaces were left.

“It definitely has the best view of any Roan cemeteries.”

“My name is Marion, by the way.” She turned back to Frances with a kind expression.

“And you’re visiting around here?”

Marion was forming her reply, but instead turned her head to one side. Someone in the distance was calling her name. “My son.” She was smiling, her whole face engaged in the action. “He takes such great care of me.” She turned in the direction of the voice and called out, “I’m here.”

Frances began to walk back toward the dirt road and Marion followed. Up ahead, they heard a rustling in the woods, and Wade stepped out into the sunlight a few feet away. Her lungs tightened at the sight of him. He was smiling in a fake, put-on way that was a complete departure from his earlier scowl. Realization dawned on Frances. She was his mother.

Turning to Marion, Frances mumbled, “I hope you won’t think I’m rude, but I’ve got to get back home. It was nice meeting you.”

“Oh, can’t you stay and meet my son?” she pleaded, the pride of motherhood shining from her bright and beautiful eyes.

Frances glanced at Wade and was disappointed to see he had his mother’s eyes. Though his had none of the defining characteristics that would have made them truly brilliant—no warmth or light.

“No, ma’am, I think I need to get home. Maybe another time.” Without looking back, she darted through the trees. She wanted to put the whole morning out of her mind, but how could she?

Her senses were flooded by the smell of bacon mixed with pungent evergreen from the crushed pine needles under her feet as she ran through the woods behind the neighbor’s house. When she got home, she went around to the front and bounded up the stairs, but stopped short of the door.

“Good morning.”

“You’re the third Hernshaw I’ve met this morning.” For a second, she considered telling him to get lost. If she’d been presented with the choice to see him two minutes earlier, she would have emphatically refused, but here he was, and somehow she didn’t mind.

Perry’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, and then immediately furrowed. Whatever his concern was, he kept it to himself. “You’ve had a busy morning.”

She walked over to where he’d been sitting on a bench and leaned on the deck railing. The small amount she had sweated chilled her now that she’d finally stopped moving and she shivered.

“I find it strange you didn’t ask me who I ran into.” She turned to reproach him.

He stared at her squarely in the eye, every bit of him transparent with an open countenance and nothing to hide. But the faintest color did rise to his cheeks. “I was afraid it might have been my brother, Wade.” His words and manner of speaking were gracious, every inch of him a complete contrast to his brother.

Frances scowled, disgusted. “He’s a terrible person and I’ll never like him, so if that bothers you, we should avoid each other.”

Perry moved closer to her, protectively, his eyes dilated in immediate anger. “What did he do?”

Seeing his concern doused the flame in her heart, and she wished she’d never brought it up. “Nothing. I’d rather not talk about him.”

He turned around beside her and leaned on the rail. “He probably really is a terrible person. I don’t like the stuff he does—the stuff I know about, but at the same time he’s my big brother.” He turned to face her. “If someone was trying to hurt him, I’d defend him. But if he was trying to hurt you, I wouldn’t let that happen.”

She trembled in delight at such allegiance from a near stranger. “That’s the way with brothers. I once got a whipping for hitting a girl who called my brother stupid.” She laughed a little bit. “He is stupid, there’s no doubt, but only I can say that.”

Perry stood to his full length, which was a good head taller than Frances. He smiled at her, his whole face alight. “I like you, Frankie.” His perfect white teeth were gleaming. “Can I call you Frankie?”

She considered it for a second and shrugged. “I guess so. No one’s ever called me that before.”

“Good,” he said, “then it’s all mine.” His brazen stare was possessive and unapologetic.

Alan had been watching them from the corner of the street, near the mailbox, and he didn’t like what transpired. Frances had never had much to do with guys, at least not right under his nose. He really wanted to hate this young scratch, but at the same time, he found something pleasant about him. Add to that the fact that he was Wade’s brother and not someone he wanted to cross. Perry was also a good bit taller and broader than he was. Alan decided to make his presence known and maybe they would get the hint.

“Hey, Perry, come here. I want to talk to you.”

Frances slipped away through the kitchen door without a sound. Perry didn’t notice her go. She stood inside the doorway and leaned back against the wall, straining to hear their voices. They were only talking about the cougar old man Duke had seen last week.

Alan was no good at small talk, so the conversation lasted a minute at most. She knew his next move would be to come in and lecture her, so she decided it was a good time to retreat into her room and shut the door. Everyone appeared to be gone except him, and she really didn’t want to talk. In the safety of her room, she lifted her violin and began a dialogue with her better self. The tension melted and her breathing began to slow.

Nothing lifted her soul or ignited her mind like playing music. It held a sovereignty over her spirit she couldn’t describe. No one in her family cared about it like she did, so she was free to love it with her whole being.

In spite of the obvious sound of her playing, the door to her room opened and closed quietly. She had her back to the door, staring out the window onto the familiar patch of lawn and Nandina bushes. Alan came in and sat on the edge of her bed, which he rarely did anymore. She’d been so lost in contentment she didn’t want to acknowledge him. So, she waited until she finished before turning around.

“You know, Frankie, you’re a really good fiddle player.” Alan drawled the words out in an exaggerated, mocking way.

“Don’t call me that.” Her eyes flamed, burning at his mockery of what had been so pleasant moments before, when Perry had said it. “You can call me Frances, like always. And I play the violin, not the fiddle, you hillbilly.” She lifted her chin a few degrees, determined not to let him play the father or lord his maleness over her.

He glared at her and moved from the bed in a rapid motion, so suddenly, in fact, that she took a step back and nearly tripped over a chair.

“Oh, well, I figured if Perry could have a pet name for you, so could I.”

She was enraged at the way she had jumped back out of his way like a scared child, and even more so at his insinuation. But his mannerism was too similar to Wade’s and she was still jumpy. “You can have your Hernshaw as a friend and I’ll have mine.” The aggression was removed from her voice but not the contempt.

Alan reached out and took her arm in his hand, shaking it playfully. “Hey, listen, I know the way people from the outside see us, and I want you to be careful is all.”

It wouldn’t do to point out that he should take his own advice. That would start a whole other argument. So she shrugged his hand off. “Yeah, I will.”

He nodded, satisfied his brotherly duty was performed, and turned to leave the room.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “I’m going down to Roan Mountain Baptist tomorrow. Want to come?”

He laughed, shook his head and shut the door behind him. “Get Amber to go with you.”

Just like she’d figured, the community had buzzed with gossip about the new pastor who had taken up residence in Roan. Everyone wondered what would cause a family to come all this distance, to move to such a tucked-away place. The morning before, while getting groceries, Frances had heard Marion was once an actress on commercials. The sons had been educated in private schools and would never fit into rural life. The oldest, Wade, was supposedly following in the footsteps of his father and was enrolled in an online seminary, according to the master plan, while the second oldest, Elliot, would finish out his bachelor’s degree at East Tennessee State that year. All week long, Frances had endured the boring stuff about the rest of the Hernshaws to get to the good stuff about Perry. But nothing was ever mentioned about him. He was off everyone’s radar.

The best thing to do was to go and spy on them. Her best friend Amber wouldn’t go with her, and she didn’t feel like explaining why she was interested in going in the first place, so she went alone. Frances was accustomed to sneaking into churches and she knew precisely the right time to make her entrance. After the final hymn, the congregation milled around, shaking hands and hugging necks before they would settle in for the sermon. That was when she’d make her move. She peeked through the cloudy glass window at the back door, trying to spot an aisle seat. A single open spot was next to Mrs. Hitchcock. She and her loud amens would attract attention.

The crowd started milling, so Frances darted around to the front of the church and flew up the stairs, slowing at the door to open it with minimum noise. All church doors in Roan creaked. There was no such thing as routine maintenance—how could pastors catch people sneaking in if someone oiled the hinges? An open seat appeared between two families, which would get her away from Mrs. Hitchcock, so Frances scooted in. Here at the back, unnoticed, she had the perfect opportunity to study the Hernshaws.

Pastor Dave introduced himself and called out members of his family, seated on the front row. Marion was radiant in a cornflower blue dress, navy sweater, and red coral necklace. Wade slumped low in his seat, squeamish and out of place, wearing a too-large white dress shirt and a disheveled tie. From where she was sitting, the other two were blocked from view, but she was very interested to get her first glimpse of Elliot. Her eyes wandered to the back of Perry’s head, with his swirly cowlick on the left side. He was the tallest of the three.

The service was in every way the typical fare Frances had expected it to be, but she was a little disappointed the pastor didn’t make any part of his message personal, the way they sometimes did. She still didn’t understand anything about where they were from or what had brought them to Tennessee. At the close of the message, he invited everyone to stay after for a potluck lunch. Frances took her opportunity to sneak out before anyone stopped her.

The Durham family officially belonged to the Methodist church, but they rarely attended together outside of holidays. She’d always exercised her independence and curiosity, and spread her attendance across all three churches in Roan.

Halfway home, she decided to stop in at her little store. She hadn’t been working very much that year, and she knew she was missing out on some good tourist season business. Every moment she spent combing through antiques was like a treasure hunt; she never knew what she’d discover. It was kind of like the doors. She had stumbled on a heap of them, leaning in the back of the shop, which had led her to question where they were from. And in grandpa Durham’s detailed notebooks she’d found the answers.

“With John’s permission, I’ve started gathering what’s left of the furniture. Some things I’ve stored in my shop, and some I’ve sold or given away to our friends. It makes me happy to see they take pride in having a piece of the Cloudland.

Every trip I make up Tollhouse Gap is more and more depressing. The hotel is in shambles. Most of the roof was torn off by a bad storm, and John didn’t want me to bother with repairs. The beautiful oak floors are already rotten. As I’m gathering furniture, the walls around me bow inward and I pray they won’t collapse until I make one last trip to get the doors. Everyone tells me to leave them, but I can’t.”

Frances loved checking them over. She had a key hidden for the days when she wasn’t planning on working, but decided to drop by. The shop smelled of masculinity, of damp wood and tongue oil, rusty metal tools, gunpowder. Grandpa Durham had salvaged so many wonderful things from the hotel, and he had also taken in broken furniture from people in the valley to fix or refurbish. When she’d opened the shop for business, there had been plenty of interesting pieces ready to sell.

What had been surprising to her was discovering she had inherited a knack for appreciating great deals. She added variety to his antiques with salvaged wood and hardware from old barns and abandoned houses. Her keen sensitivity helped her understand when someone needed money more than they needed their junk. And when they weren’t ready to part with items and secretly wanted someone to sit and talk and appreciate them, she did so willingly. She didn’t see it as work, because it was too much fun. And while she contemplated what she was supposed to do with her life now that she had graduated, her business was flourishing like a weed under the drip line.

A loud knock at the open door caused her to drop the notebook she’d been reading. “Who’s there?” Her stomach lurched at the possibility it might be Wade, and she searched the desk for the heavy rusted axe she kept there.

But it wasn’t Wade at the door. It was the stranger that had approached her at the fair. He peeked his head in. “Sorry, miss, it’s just me. I saw you come in here, and I’ve always wanted to take a look around.”

“Did you follow me here?” She walked toward the door to leave. She didn’t want to get trapped inside.

He shook his head and stepped back into the sunlight, squinting. “No, ma’am, it’s like I told you. I saw you come in here and hoped I might take a look around.”

She locked the door.

He waited for her to turn back around, then held out his hand. “I should’ve introduced myself before. My name is Warren Burnette.”

His dark hand was rough—the kind she usually liked on principle alone. But she refused to shake it. “What business do you have here in Roan, Mr. Burnette?”

The same flicker of amusement she’d seen at the fair crossed his face briefly, painting her childish and foolish, like she was pretending to be grown up.

“I’m here on business. I’ve come to see if I can buy some land and maybe some antiques. I was told you own property at the base of Roan Valley.”

“You should talk to my father.”

“I was told it belongs to you.”

Frances shook her head. “I would never consider parting with it. You’re wasting your time.” She spun around without another word and walked away. She wanted to turn around once she reached the bottom of the hill, wanted to see if he was still standing there, watching her, but she knew he was. The Durham in her couldn’t give him the satisfaction.

 

Chapter Three

Frances placed unconscious markers on events throughout the year and used them as informal guideposts in her life. Just as the fair and the daffodil blooms had been her indicators of spring, the rhododendron festival alerted her to the fact that it was officially summer. Though the occasion always fell around the first of June, Frances never knew or cared much which month she was in.

She always daydreamed about her mom, but especially at this time of year. She cherished a vivid memory of the two of them hiking up Steeple Bluff to see the blooms. Her mom had taken her the back way, behind Peter Wayne’s homestead, which was now part of the parks department. Among the dozens of stops they made along the way was a slender white oak tree, where they had tied her shoe. Glancing at the sky, as was her mother’s habit, as if she were watching to see when God was coming for her, she had spotted a lover’s knot. It had stood firm over time and grown into an enduring member of the tree.

Holding her mom’s hand, she’d viewed the tree as something special by way of her mom’s admiration for it. In fact, most of her favorite places were loved secondhand by first absorbing Ellie’s great reverence for them. If she could have witnessed the reverberations her commonplace affections would have had in her daughter’s life, she would have been amazed. Add to a mother’s influence the tendency for a life taken too soon to become immortalized, and you have a catalyst for Frances to become Roan’s fiercest protector.

This year the blooms were opening early, so she had set out to wander amongst them in solitude. But she’d gotten sidetracked many times retracing her and her mom’s steps. And thinking.

Things had been quiet in town lately, calm, predictable. It drove her friend Amber crazy. And while that was how Frances usually preferred life to be, this year things felt flat and stale. Maybe it was the unspoken pressure to act more like an adult. Her shop was bringing in some money, but she couldn’t tell if it was enough. Every time she went to the beauty parlor Amber worked at, she battled guilt, like she should be working more or doing something important.

The thing to do was to be more productive. Already that morning, she had helped Aunt Lindy plant two rows in her garden. Nasty lima beans wouldn’t be worth eating, but that wasn’t the point. After her tiny hike, she was heading off to do some work in her shop. She’d searched for Warren Burnette online and had been shocked to find he had a salvage business of his own in New Mexico. It was quite a large one. From the look of it, he traveled to South America treasure seeking and gathering beautiful higher-budget artisan items from dilapidated villas. Somehow, the whole thing was too coincidental.

As soon as she walked in, she realized that she would never have what it took to be competitive on his level. For one thing, she had trouble parting with her junk, and for another, she often priced items too high in a subconscious effort to discourage customers from buying the items most precious to her. Her evaluating eye took in the measure of the place and every detail that transformed a piece of garbage into potential. “But these things are never going to do you any good here in the shop,” she scolded herself.

She heard someone come in behind her and recognized the pattern of step-shuffle that could be either a person with a dragging limp, or her friend Duke. When he had lived in Roan, he had taken great pleasure in hiding around the corner and startling her.

“Are you having a conversation with yourself?”

She laughed. “Duke, you’ve known I talk to myself since we were little bits of nothing.” She crossed the distance between them with an outstretched hand. Duke was her dearest friend, and ever since he had moved to Kingsport to work at the Easton factory, her life had lost some of its shine.

Duke took the hand of his friend. Frances had loved and accepted him as a person when most others had treated him as an outcast who was shy, awkward, reserved, and not worth investing in. Her spirited encouragement of their friendship molded the impressions of their peer group to accept him as well. And while most of their so-called friends didn’t have the foggiest remembrance of his initial shunning, that early hurt was one of the most defining cruelties of his existence, and he would never forget every dull knife prick of pain inflicted on his young ego.

Frances was the savior and she would forever hold a sacred place in his heart. The fact that she never noticed her great influence over others, or ever wanted to hear any praise over her virtues, made him love her even more. She would throw herself over a cliff before she would talk about herself, because she hadn’t reached that delicious age of maturity where one embraces all parts of themselves.

“I haven’t seen you since graduation. And I didn’t get to talk to you much then. What brings you to town today?” Seeing him again made her remember how lonesome her heart had been in his absence.

“Mom needs me to take her into the city for some doctor’s appointments.” After a shrug of his narrow bony shoulders, he stared at her face hard, and she turned her back on him.

She walked toward a long table in the back, with a wave of her hand. “Come help me move this big table.”

The dim light filtered through the dusty panes and revealed a thick layer of dirt over everything.

“What’s this?” He bent over to examine the long table. “Why is there paint down the center?” A grimy, faded old stripe of once-white paint divided the long table into two.

She grabbed her end and made a movement with her chin for him to grab his. They moved a few inches at a time, because the table was impossibly heavy.

“Hey, you guys need a hand with that?” Perry ducked into the doorway as they shuffled around the corner.

Frances stopped for a second, surprised he had stopped by. “What are you doing today?”

Duke dropped his end of the table, and hung back a little ways, trying to blend into a shadow cast by the tall doors leaning against the wall.

Perry stepped over to shake Duke’s hand. “Hey, I’m Perry Hernshaw.” He pumped Duke’s thin hand up and down. “You must be Joseph Duke.”

Surprise registered on the young man’s face. “You’ve met my father, I guess?” Duke used his best weapon—a wry sense of humor that could outstrip any insult before it was formulated. He had heard them all anyway. The thing to do was determine the make of the person in front of him. His observant estimate was that Perry was an outsider, not accustomed to the suspicion and privacy of these parts, well intentioned, but somewhat innocent and sheltered from injury, thanks to his easygoing charm. There was no way this kid had known a hard life.

Perry’s expression reflected his amusement. “Frankie here told me you were one of her best friends, so I kind of put two and two together.”

Duke stepped out of the shadow and took his place at the table again, pacified and at the same time flattered Frances had claimed him so highly to a stranger and ruffled because Perry had already given her a pet name. “That I am. Now, let’s move this table in a hurry, ‘cause I have to leave for a doctor’s appointment in a few minutes.”

Perry stepped over to Frances’s side and took her end. “Where do you want it moved?”

She motioned over in front of a dividing wall. “Here. I’m going to make this a half wall and set my desk and computer there.”

The two of them together moved the table much easier without Frances. She stood back and marveled at the strength of her two friends, who were different in every way from each other. Duke caught her evaluative eye, and in return shot her a sideways squint of disapproval, for which she shrank back and hid her face by pretending to study the wall. He was too easy to read after all of their years together. She knew he hated that God built him tall and skinny, even at the same time accepting He had given him an overgenerous portion of other rare qualities. But the lankiness was what stuck in his craw. ‘People won’t notice any of these things you’re praising,’ he had said once to her, ‘because all they see is the peculiar in me.’

With a final effort, they pushed the table against the wall. “I’ve got to go. I’m sorry it was so short.” He pulled Frances into a hug, which was at least his right. It would have to last him another few months until he came back.

She scowled at him and didn’t return the hug because she knew what he was thinking. In his imaginary world, she would rather be there alone with Perry.

Duke made a motion to walk out, but Perry was right on his heel. “Let me walk you out, man.” They stepped out into the bright sunlight and Perry perched a hand on Duke’s knobby shoulder, however uncomfortable it made him. People in Roan had been very hesitant to let him into their hearts, which was a continual aggravation to him. “It was great meeting you.” He held out his hand a second time.

Duke returned a quick handshake. “I’m not around much anymore, so keep an eye out for Frances, will ya?”

Perry considered it for a few moments before answering. “I don’t know that she wants me to, but I’ll surely keep an eye out for her.”

Duke measured him with a keen eye. The open trust and simplicity in this stranger’s countenance prompted him to slip into a true emotion, if only for a moment. He grinned, putting his whole face into the expression that was a mirror image of his father’s. “You never do know where you stand with that girl. But I’ll tell ya, she’s worth puzzling over.” He lighted a hand on Perry’s arm for a moment and then walked to his car.

Perry stood outside for a few minutes, watching the red taillights curve around one of the endless spirals of road leading down the valley. He wasn’t entirely sure what those last words meant, but he took it as Duke giving him his blessing to get close to Frankie. There was nothing he’d rather do, in fact, but her mysterious eyes flashed such mixed messages that he wasn’t sure if she welcomed his company or wished he’d leave her alone.

He turned his head, hoping to find Frankie standing in the doorway of the shop or at the window, watching him. At least that would prove she had some interest in him. But to his disappointment, she was nowhere to be found. She was so unlike him in every way. Her actions sometimes led his heart to hope in one direction, until he would catch her eye and she would volunteer a smile of friendship that dashed his hopes all to pieces.

Frances was standing inside the doorway, pretending to check over some receipts. She had, in fact, been observing her two friends out the door, but had ducked behind the wall in time to avoid Perry’s eye. His openness, and in fact most of his mannerisms, were strange to her. Those characteristics were so opposite to anyone she’d ever met. And as much as she tried to guard her heart against him, his warmth had a way of thawing her disapprobation in a way she always resented later.

Perry walked inside the old shop and picked through her accumulated junk for a moment before he spotted her, leaning against the wall.

He pointed at an old upright piano against the opposite wall. “Do you play that thing?”

The piano was a true antique. It had come from a farmhouse over in Butler, where a stooped elderly lady was relinquishing all her treasures to enter a facility her children had chosen. Frances walked over to the instrument, lowered the fallboard, and ran her fingers across the carved upper panel, cherishing the afternoon of stories they had shared, and choosing not to remember the tears that fell from the old woman as she bemoaned spending her last days amongst strange things and people. Frances had paid her all she could at the time. But she could never pay enough. That’s why she hadn’t tried to sell it yet. Old man Hitchcock had come by and tuned it for her, and even offered to buy it on the spot for a collector in town, but she wasn’t ready to sell.

“I play a little,” was all she said.

He had followed her over and stood a half step behind her. “I watched you play at the fair. You were incredible,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone play like that. It’s like no one else was there and you were the music.”

I was, she thought. She hesitated before turning around. His compliment was so sincere, and fell on the untended soil of her heart like sun and water and seed. “Music is a big deal here.” She tried to deflect his praise. “Most everyone plays something. Do you know who I thought was incredible?” Her excitement was real and a welcome deflection of his focus.

He nodded as if he already knew. “The singer?”

“Exactly.” Frances said. “She drew me in and took me somewhere I hadn’t been.” They shared a moment of mutual appreciation. “How did you know?”

“Because she drew me in and took me somewhere I hadn’t been. Like you did.” He pulled out the bench to the piano and sat. “You know, she’ll be at Peter Ramey’s party tonight,” he said. “I believe her name is Lewelyn.” He plinked a couple of keys.

A twinge of jealousy churned in her stomach at his intimation of an acquaintance with her, or at least enough to know her name and whereabouts. She’d so highly esteemed this Lewelyn for her talent that Frances hadn’t had time to speculate on the makings of her character, or to draw her from the elevated heights of reverence she had placed her in at the time of the fair. “How do you know her?” She tried her best to remove any hint of jealousy from her voice, but anyone who knew her well would distinguish it.

He shrugged carelessly. “I think your brother has been asking about her around town.” Then he turned to ask her an entirely different question, which dropped from his mind when her tense face relaxed in relief. It was precisely the small amount of encouragement he needed. He patted the bench beside him, which had barely enough room for her.

She realized with some embarrassment he saw through her question, and so she walked around and sat beside him. When she found the courage to glance at him, he was smiling, exulting, as if she’d given him the best present in the world.

“What?”

He kept smiling, more to himself than to her. “I need your help with something.” He grabbed the cold small hand closest to him and wrapped it in his own warm one. “I need you to teach me how to read music.”

“Read music?” she echoed, confused as to why he would want her to do that. “Do you play?”

He let go of her hand reluctantly, and rolled off a snappy jazz progression, dabbled into a hymn, and finally ended with the refrain from a pop song.

The way he played was humble, like everything about him was. He wasn’t incredible technically, but he had a good feel of the music and was comfortable and skilled. “I play by ear. Every preacher’s kid plays something, too.”

“If you can play that well by ear, why would you want to read music?”

He turned to her. “You remember the poster in the cafeteria about the Hornwell music scholarship to ETSU?” He could tell she had no idea what he was talking about. “Anyway, there is one full-ride scholarship available to a student in Roan, Watauga, or Butler, who wants to study bluegrass. And the auditions are next month, in July.”

“So you want to audition and you have to be able to read music?” She drew her brows together with puzzled suspicion. “Wait a minute, why would you want to study bluegrass?”

Perry sensed the wall had gone back up, and once again he was an intruder who would never fit into the close-knit community. His temper flared momentarily. “I’ll study anything if it means I can go to college.”

His words stung and Frances knew she’d traipsed on a sore spot. “I’m sorry.”

He shook his head as his own apology and looked down at his hands—the hands that would always be second best. Or more like twentieth best. One day he would find out what they were meant for. “My dad’s in major debt over Wade’s Bible college—the one he didn’t bother finishing. And Elliot had a full academic scholarship back home, but nothing here, so Dad feels obligated to pay for his last year since he was forced to move. There’s no money for me.” His words were neither bitter nor hopeless, but resigned.

“You really think you’ll be able to learn to read music in a month and beat out any competition?”

“Well, I feel pretty certain not many people know about the scholarship,” he said. “You didn’t. It’s not going to cost me anything to try.”

She nodded decidedly. She had made up her mind. “Yes, of course I’d be happy to help you, Perry. We’ll start with the basics. You’ll have to practice and work harder than others because your mind will interject things that aren’t written on the page. You’ll need to learn to tune them out.”

Her narrow face, softened by a cloud of rich dark hair, was distracting him for the moment. He searched her brilliant eyes. “You’re such a good friend.” His expression communicated more than his words and he dared Frances to read between the lines. But there was plenty of time for romance later. He couldn’t think about that right now. Frankie was the type of girl you met once in a lifetime. The kind that flitted in like a timid bird, easily scared away. No, he would wait. If she could place enough value in him to help him achieve this small goal, there might be a chance he could make her his one day.

Later that day, Frances flew through a chore list from her neighbor, old Ms. Johns. Before hearing about Peter Ramey’s party, she had no plans for passing the evening except doing whatever came into her mind. But spurred by her first music lesson with Perry and the knowledge that Lewelyn would be at the party, she decided there was no other place she’d rather be that night. Music was the thing she’d been good at. And so she weighed her musical peers with a strange mix of camaraderie, awe, suspicion, and jealousy, but in the end, she really just wanted to know how they were like her and how they were different. If any of them were going to make it into the wide word, they could not say Frances Garner wasn’t behind them, cheering them on to accomplishment. She finished later than she’d planned and missed dinner, but Ms. Johns wanted her fridge cleaned out, which meant taking out shelves and washing drawers.

When Frances walked the short distance back to the house, she realized with disappointment that Alan had taken the car. All the walking she had done that day was beginning to catch up and her aching feet demanded rest, so she called Amber and begged her to come get her.

“Well, my feet hurt too,” she said. “I’ve stood all day and listened to ladies complaining about their husbands. That ain’t easy to listen to.” But she came. Amber always came. Before they left the house, Amber lifted a section of Frances’s hair off her neck and let it fall back down. “You have to let me do something with this hair before we leave though, at least a nice ponytail.”

Frances pulled back, with a feigned expression of shock and hurt. “You are always complaining about my hair. What’s wrong with it?”

Amber didn’t answer directly. “You need to let me give you some highlights or something next time you’re killing time in the salon. That way it seems like I have a customer and not a groupie.”

They drove the short distance to the Ramey’s house. Mr. and Mrs. Ramey’s car was gone. “I hope they knew about their son’s party this time.”

“If not, someone will call the police. Would you listen to that noise?” Amber complained. She battled recurring migraines, usually from the fumes in the salon, but sometimes loud music had the same effect.

Bass boomed out through huge windows cracked open for ventilation and young people covered every inch of the deck outside. Amber hung back to talk to one of their friends and Frances made a path between people—acquaintances and childhood friends alike. When she reached the porch steps and heard an unfamiliar laugh, like the tinkling of her clumsy dad’s fork against his champagne glass at Cousin Carol’s wedding, she knew exactly who it was. She paused to peer around the crowd. Sure enough, it was Lewelyn, sitting on someone’s lap a stone’s throw from her. Occasionally, she would throw her head back and let out a peal of pure joy. Frances stared at her in the same way a little girl stands when worshipping a beautiful teenager for embodying all the fanciful perfections she is certain God will skip when it comes time for her to grow up.

“What are you doing here, little sister?” Alan’s familiar voice rang in her ear as he grabbed the corner of her elbow and propelled her up the stairs.

Frances turned toward him. “I’ve come to meet her.” She motioned toward Lewelyn with her chin.

His raised eyebrows revealed his surprise. “Really? Why?”

She shrugged. “I heard her sing at the fair.”

He laughed. “Is that all? Because she sings?” He grabbed her elbow again. “Come on.”

Together they wove through the people on the deck. When they reached her, the guy Lewelyn was sitting on got up to leave.

“This is my kid sister, Frankie.” Alan propelled her forward.

Lewelyn held out a hand disinterestedly, her eyes already wandering across the faces of those around them, and then to the door beyond.

“Frances,” she corrected him. “My name is Frances.” She didn’t appreciate him using Perry’s nickname for her. “I saw you sing Molly and Tenbrooks at the fair and it was incredible. It really moved me.”

The girl evidently had little idea of how rare a thing it was for anyone from Durham to admit to being moved, because she shrugged it off with as little notice as if Frances had mentioned her love of eating peaches, or some other random and inconsequential detail. “That’s nice, thank you.” She stared past them as if she were trying to plot her exit.

Frances sensed Alan stiffen at her side. She knew he was about to say something rude and come to her defense, so she grabbed his arm and pulled him along beside her, calling, “Nice to meet you,” over her shoulder. She was preparing to tell him he needed to stop being so overprotective. But instead, he wrenched his arm from her grip.

“Not everyone has to love you and think you’re wonderful all the time, Frances.” His tone was angry, as if he was lashing out against some aggravation that was unclear to her. “I know you think they do, but they don’t.”

Her face flushed in resentment of his unkind and misinterpreted reaction. She shoved him hard and watched him stumble backward against a few guys clustered on the porch. Then she ran down the steps and set out for home, without thinking of poor Amber until she was halfway home. They had been friends for long enough that she didn’t worry. Amber would understand.

She couldn’t believe her brother would say those things out loud, much less at a party full of their friends. Even if no one else heard him, his words hurt. They showed he assumed she was a spoiled baby who thought everyone should adore her. And worse, he was convinced Lewelyn didn’t care for her one bit. Of course, that would have been the same conclusion she would have come to herself, if she’d mulled over it all night. But she would have nursed her embarrassment alone, all to herself. Instead, she knew he was embarrassed too and she couldn’t stand that. Not from him.

Back in her room with the door closed, Frances threw herself into reading a random book from the shelf, trying to shake off the more unpleasant moments of the day. But it wasn’t working. She stood and went back to the shelf, browsing over the spines of books she’d never been motivated to read. There was her mother’s diary. She held it and smothered herself in the affection written into each page. Even the softly curving penmanship was love. If she could one day possess even half of her mother’s passion for life, life would turn out fine. Her fingers traced the words as her mind followed her mother’s description of some of her favorite hikes. A calm settled on her and she fell into a light sleep.

Once, during the evening, she was roused by knocking at the door and loud, angry men’s voices. She got out of bed and peeked out her door without making a sound. A police officer was standing in the living room, with Alan beside him in handcuffs, his head hanging low. Her dad was shouting, inches from his face. Frances shuddered, because she wasn’t accustomed to her dad expressing anger with Alan. They had an easy relationship that worked itself out without ever coming to blows, or even yelling.

The officer reached a hand out to move Al back, away from his son, and then took out his keys to uncuff Alan. “One more time like this and he’s going to jail,” the officer said. “He’s lucky the guy didn’t want to press charges.”

“Who was it?” Al never looked away from his son for a second. His eyes bulged from their sockets and a huge vein snaked across his forehead.

“Someone who is new to town,” the officer replied. “Said his name was Burnette?”

Frances shrank back away from the scene and shut the door. She crawled back under the covers and tried to quiet her mind. It wasn’t like Alan to get into the kind of trouble that would bring an officer around. In fact, it had never happened before. And what role did Mr. Burnette play in it? she wondered. The fact that he didn’t press charges was a relief to her, but the relief was snuffed out by the heavy oppression of worry.

Once, when they had been kids and she could still talk her big brother into hiking up to Grassy Ridge Bald, a thunderstorm had descended without warning. The icy rain was bad enough, but the summer before, a hiker had been struck by lightning and had died. She remembered her fear at being caught miles from home in one of the valleys between balds, and her brother had turned to her. He’d said, “If we get to the top of that ridge, we’ll be above it all—the clouds, the thunder, everything.”

And that was exactly where she wanted to be—above it all, secure in the knowledge her brother was there with her. But much like that day, after the storm had passed, and he’d taken a shortcut to hang out at a friend’s house instead of heading back with her, she realized the paths they chose for themselves would never be the same.

 

Chapter Four

It was quiet around the house when Frances woke up, and she decided not to entertain guilt for leaving it in a state of chaos and mess to investigate a lead for an estate sale she’d seen in the Internet classifieds. She made it her business to know as many of the homes and families in her immediate surroundings as possible, but this was some kind of estate across the North Carolina border, and she had no idea who lived there or what it contained. North Carolina was right in her backyard, but it may as well have been California to the people in Roan valley. Unless there was a dire need to cross, the general attitude was that nothing could be gained there that wasn’t available or even better here. However, Frances understood if she was going to nurture her growing business, she was going to have to venture out.

Her mind wandered to her brother on the short drive into North Carolina. It had been three weeks since she’d awoken to an officer in the house, and even though things were still strained between him and Dad, it was no huge contrast to what their relationship normally was. For the moment, Alan was consumed with seeing as much of Lewelyn as possible, which was probably a good thing.

Frances pulled into the long driveway. A few pieces of furniture were set out on the lawn. Dishes and knick-knack figurines were arranged on six-foot Rubbermaid tables. A light tan, older-model Ford truck was parked out front, and she pulled in beside it. There was no response to her timid call of “Anybody here?” She climbed the drooping porch steps, surveying the condition of the house with critical suspicion. It had once been a beautiful white Victorian-style house, complete with green fascia and gables and a wraparound porch, but it could very well tumble down the steep ravine bordering the backside of the property with the next gust of wind. She turned around and caught her breath as she witnessed the spectacular view of the back of Roan Mountain and Jane bald. “What lucky guy owned this place?”

“What lucky gal, you mean.” The correction came from a man she hadn’t noticed standing behind the door. He stepped out onto the narrow front porch. “Mother always enjoyed her solitude.”

Judging from the dark liver spots marring his face and hands, along with a full white head of hair and plenty of wrinkles, his age landed him somewhere in his late seventies or beyond. He had a very round middle with a belt placed front and center, and dark blue suspenders to keep them up. His narrow shoulders and pointy, bald head contrasted sharply with the softness of his midsection.

After she finished her appraisal of him, he hoisted up his pants and rested his hands on his narrow hips. “They still aren’t teaching manners in public school, I see.”

Frances flushed deeply. “I was trying to figure out if I know you from anywhere,” she lied. She had been raised better, it was true, but she knew many who would have stared longer and wouldn’t have been ashamed to do so.

“Everyone in these parts is kin to you, is that it?”

His biting sarcasm was wasted on her. She simply didn’t care. “Thankfully, I’m pretty certain you’re no kin of mine.”

His face broke into a huge grin as he laughed at her counter. He stepped aside and waved her inside, his belly leaving little room to pass.

A dark figure moved in the shadowy living room. She hadn’t expected any competition so early in the morning.

“Have many people shown interest in your estate sale, mister?” her voice trailed off, not knowing his name.

“Montcamp. James Montcamp.”

“Have you had many inquiries, Mr. Montcamp?”

“Just him.” He nodded in the direction of the kitchen, where the person had drifted out of site. Then he spoke loudly, to compensate for the distance between him and the other buyer. “It’s like I told you, Mr. Burnette, you leave for fifty years and come back, and nothing’s changed. The faces are different—fresher, younger. But they’re essentially the same.”

Frances stiffened as Warren walked back into the living room. “What are you doing here?” She couldn’t help but be disappointed they had both ended up at the same estate sale.

Warren gave her the courtesy of not acknowledging her question, especially one with such an obvious answer, and even held back a little while the older gentleman showed her around.

The place had all the makings of a fine and enviable house, but one that hadn’t been maintained. The plaster walls were in terrible crumbling shape and the wood floors were rotting in many places. She had to be careful where she stepped. The first piece of any significance that caught her eye was a Chicago Cottage pump organ from the 1800s. A swift calculation told her she could make upwards of a grand if it were priced reasonably.

She motioned to it with nothing more than a slight jerk of her head. “Organ?”

“Oh, that was my grandmother’s wedding present from my grandpa. It took six months to get here, and a whole team of horses had to carry it in a buggy, back before there was even a road.” The man eyed Frances as though he was trying to determine why a young lady such as herself would have the money to buy it. “I’ll take seven hundred.”

Frances gave a curt nod to signal she wanted to continue through the rest of the house. They squeezed through narrow bedrooms crowded with beautiful antique beds and dressers. The smell of lacquer, mahogany, and mildew hung nauseatingly in the unaired rooms. “I have a lot of bedroom furniture I haven’t been able to move yet,” she hinted.

Next, he took her through the dining room and answered a few of her questions about the table and buffet, but she wasn’t really that interested. She paused when they went into the great room. The fireplace, which was surrounded by one of the most ornate mantles she’d ever come across, was stunning. She put her hand on his arm to stop him from continuing to the next room. Mantles were a hot commodity lately, at least in Internet trade. “How much for the mantle?”

He stopped and scratched the paper-thin skin on his cheek, drawing a little red spot of blood. He glanced at his fingertips without changing expression, and pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket to dab at the injury. “It is beautiful, isn’t it? That mantle was hand-carved out of hemlock by the original Hawkins Co. group of cabinet makers in the early 1800s.”

Frances stifled the urge to roll her eyes. Every piece in this house had a backstory, and it all began in the early 1800s.

“It’s worth a pretty penny, I would say.” Warren’s voice was gruff and irritated as he entered the room behind them.

Frances turned around to glare at his intrusion, but Mr. Montcamp was standing in her way.

“I’ll tell you what,” Warren continued, taking a step sideways so Frances could view him unobstructed, “I’ll give you ten grand for the mantle, exterior moldings, chandelier, the Wilhelm Brothers’ cupboard, Queen Ann sofa, and the log shed in the back.” He motioned to Frances by a cock of his head without ever making eye contact with her. “The lady can take the organ or whatever else if she’s so inclined.”

Mr. Montcamp searched her face for a clue either to ask more from Warren, or to satisfy his curiosity as to whether there was something deeper going on between the two than first met his eye. He was betting on the latter. “Y’all know each other?”

Frances was right in the middle of shaking her head ‘no’ when Warren interrupted her.

“I knew her mother.”

She focused on him with a hard expression that would have scared most folks who truly knew her. But her vision was clouded by tiny white and yellow flickers of light emerging and fading from blackness, like fireflies against the darkness of night. The room rotated and swirled so she reached out an arm to steady herself. She thought someone asked if she was alright, but even before her blurry vision cleared, she was feeling her way along the furniture toward the bright light coming through the open doorway. She stumbled down the handful of stairs, past the tables of junk, and toward a nice Mercedes that was parked beside her own beat-up red Toyota truck.

“Good luck,” she said to the well-meaning yard-saler.

Backing out of the driveway, she tried to ignore the image of Warren, who was standing in the doorway watching her. So he had known her mother. Nausea threatened to rear its ugly head.

Frances drove aimlessly. When she made it as far as the Elizabethton visitor’s center, she made a U-turn, eventually arriving at the Curly-Q salon. Amber’s car was parked out back. It was an older Lexus, a gift from her parents and a perfect example of the relationship they had with their only child. They didn’t have much, but what they did have they plunked down for her without a second thought.

“Ok, so you know that guy from the fair?” Checking to ensure they were alone for the moment, she sat in one of the chairs, as if she was Amber’s next customer.

Amber was changing out the canister of alcohol she kept her combs in, but stopped. “The one who wants to buy property or whatever?”

Frances nodded. “And he wants to buy antiques for his salvage business. I went to an estate sale and he was there.”

“Well, that is strange.” She tried not to let on how worried she was. She finished arranging the combs and opened a drawer to pull out a brush. Lifting her friend’s long, unruly hair, she began to brush it at the ends, working her way up with the gentleness of a beekeeper.

“Yeah, and he beat me out of a bunch of stuff I really wanted to buy.”

Amber made a clucking sound. “I’m sorry.”

Frances pulled her head back for a moment, to stop her friend from brushing. “He mentioned he knew mom.” Once she was satisfied Amber’s expression was shocked enough, she settled back into the chair so she could finish. “Look at me. I have dark-dark brown hair, but Dad’s is mousy brown and mom’s was dirty-blonde.”

“So what?” Amber asked. “Look at me, I have straight black hair and both my parents have gray hair.”

Frances rolled her eyes. Amber, like Duke, often resorted to her sense of humor to ease difficult situations. “You are also Chinese and your parents are white. And old.” She loved Amber’s parents like they were her own, so she didn’t feel bad describing them that way.

“When are you going to let me cut this crazy hair?” Amber began arranging the long hair into a chignon.

“One day, when I get tired of messing with it.”

Amber stared at her friend, whose light-as-honey brown eyes were shining out under a thick fringe of long black eyelashes. She didn’t like this stranger showing up in the same places as her friend, especially when no one else was around. And she didn’t like where Frances’s mind was heading. Clearly, Frances wondered if Warren was her real dad. It was easy to get lost in the frustration of not having a good relationship with a parent and then resort to the easy explanation that maybe you weren’t really theirs, at least not by blood. No one understood better than she did. Amber had spent countless hours fantasizing about who her true parents were, especially when she was fighting with her adoptive parents. But in the end, it came down to the sacrificial act of parenting, monotonous, daily, and that’s what made Al Frances’s dad, no matter what.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Amber spun the chair around and around, like it was a roundabout at the playground, stopping when an elderly customer walked in. “Hi, Miss. Wanda, I’ll be right with you.”

She turned to Frances. “You have to get lost.”

“Can’t I sit in a chair over there and keep talking to you?” Frances knew there were customers that minded and customers that didn’t.

Amber shook her head, which made her sharp razor-cut bob flip out around her angular face. “Come back later. I’ll fix you up.”

Frances left and drove to her shop, but she didn’t feel like working. She took off, walking toward the old Durham barn with her violin, intending to practice some. As she got closer, the bright graffiti on the side of the building reminded her of a time she wanted to forget, and she considered turning back. But she wouldn’t let herself. This was her special place. She walked to the entrance of the barn, thankful it had been spared.

“Your mother loved this place.” The quiet voice was that of Warren Burnette, sitting on top of a boulder resting beside the old barn.

He had been so still Frances hadn’t noticed he was there.

Judging from the stern expression that transformed her brows, he decided to formulate a hasty defense. “I swear I didn’t know you were coming here.” His voice softened considerably. “Or I wouldn’t have come and bothered you.”

Frances stood there, frozen in place, taking in his measure as if for the first time. “What was she to you? My mother, that is.”

He jumped off his rock perch easily, as if he was still a youthful boy and not a man nearing forty. “A friend. When no one else cared to be one to me your mother did. You don’t make it far in Roan by seeming different or being a stranger.”

“What are you doing here now?”

A flicker of controlled anger crossed his steady countenance, but he was practiced at maintaining composure.

“Call it nostalgia.” He walked even closer and held out his hand for her violin, which she handed over after a few seconds of deliberation. “This isn’t your mother’s,” he declared with surprise, his dark eyes searching hers.

Frances almost gave into the tears that were an empty room and a moment to herself away, but she stood strong. “No, we never found hers.”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Is that so? Why would she put it somewhere you couldn’t find?”

She shrugged. “Probably knew my dad would hock it. He doesn’t get sentimental about things.”

He frowned at the mention of her father.

“She didn’t play like you do.” He twisted his lips to one side like there was more he wanted to say, but wasn’t going to. He handed the violin back to her. “I’ll bet I know where it is.”

Frances snatched her instrument back like a petulant child. “How could you? I’ve searched everywhere for it.”

“Well, let’s go hunt for it then.” His eyes lit up and his features softened into a faint expression of anticipation and adventure.

“I won’t soon forget you beat me out of that mantle,” Frances warned. But he was already ten steps ahead of her, leaping over rocky banks as if they were flat ground as he headed in the direction of Tollhouse Gap.

The two scrambled over familiar rocky paths, matching each other in gait and excitement, Warren because it was like old times, and Frances, because the possibility of finding her mother’s violin loomed closer than ever.

“There it is.” He stopped, panting, in front of a narrow opening in the rock face. The canyon was hidden behind a stand of firs off the beaten path, and Frances never would have found it if it hadn’t been for Warren.

“Your mother called it Durham Canyon, after your grandfather Sam. It’s only large enough for one person at a time.” He hopped up on the lip of the narrow entrance and slid inside on his chest, reappearing moments later with a flashlight. He stuck out his hand to help Frances up, but she clambered up on her own.

“Your mother would have let me help her up.” His complaint fell on deaf ears.

Frances flattened herself against the cold stone and hesitated for a moment, feeling the weight of the mountain pressing inches above her. Tears stung her eyes as she was overcome with the powerful sense her mother had been there first, so alive and fearless of what lay beyond. She shoved herself sideways, into the belly of the rock, and turned the flashlight beam to the space above her, which soared twenty feet into darkness. The cavern was small and could possibly hold two people standing up.

“There’s a rock shelf down and to the right,” Warren called from outside the entrance to the cave.

Frances bent over and stuck her hand out to feel along the stone, which opened near the base to another open space. Little pebbles and loose sand scattered under fingertips at first. But then she grasped loose plastic and felt the texture of a hard case underneath. She shoved the package through the cavern entrance for Warren to catch and then slid out so carelessly that she scratched the back of her shoulder on a jagged portion of rock. But she didn’t care.

“That’s got to be it.” He smiled fully for the first time since he’d been back and pulled out a pocketknife to hand to her, hoping she would accept it more graciously than she had his offered hand.

It took an effort to get through all the plastic wrapping, and Frances was a little disappointed to discover the case was nothing special. It was simply an older version of her own standard black one. But inside, the violin was magnificent—exquisitely crafted, German-made. “The finish is rubbed a bit in places, but otherwise it’s in amazing shape.” She marveled at the instrument, turning it over and over in her hands. Then she paused and tilted her head to the sky.

“Someone’s calling your name?” His smile vanished. Like so many other things in his experience, happiness was fleeting.

“My lesson with Perry—I forgot all about it.” Her voice trailed off. Perching the violin timidly on her shoulder, she played one single high note. “He’ll know it’s me.” The sentiment was spoken more to herself than to him. She filled the firs with the melody of an old Scotch air.

Warren let out a low whistle at the very same moment Perry burst through the clearing from the main path. The small compliment wasn’t wasted on Frances, and she bowed her head in embarrassment. Her feelings toward him were thawing rapidly, especially since she held the prized instrument in her hands. She expected Perry to walk up to him with outstretched hand in the same friendly way he had introduced himself to Duke. But at the sight of Warren, Perry stopped in his tracks and surveyed the stranger, forcing Warren to make the first move.

“Name’s Warren.” He stuck out his hand but kept it low and close to his body, forcing Perry to travel half the distance to greet him.

Frances stood where she was, all dreams of her mom’s violin or the discovery of its hiding place vacant at the moment. The picture of the two guys in front of her was an interesting study. A boy and a man were facing off like two panthers who didn’t want to fight, but they didn’t want to take their eyes off each other either.

“You’re not from here.” Perry lifted his chin, appreciating the advantage his height gave him over the shorter man.

“You either, son.” Warren took back the hand that had never been accepted and shoved it into his pocket. That was twice in one day his hand had been refused. He breathed deeply, inhaling the pine, the dirt, the stone, as if he could absorb both the physical and the spiritual attributes of the place at the same time. “I lived here as a young man and never got over it. This place is like an infection. It gets in your blood. I had to come back and decide whether it was anything like I remembered.” Then he turned to Frances. “And I came to ask her,” he motioned toward Frances with their eyes locked together, “to come and work with me.” He took a step toward the girl.

“Can you imagine the adventures we could have? I’ve already travelled all over South and Central America.” His voice was barely above a whisper and directed to her.

Frances stood there staring at him for a few moments, trying to make sense of his strange and unsolicited proposal.

“I don’t think she would want to leave her home,” Perry interjected.

Warren lifted his black eyes from the girl back over to Perry, as if he were awakening from a trance and had been startled back to reality. “I’ll thank you to let the lady make that decision.” But he didn’t wait to hear her reply. He bent to unearth some stone or token of the afternoon to take with him, and then he left.

Perry and Frances spent a wonderful afternoon together at the piano. Even though her heart ached to hold and study her mother’s violin, it was even more full and accomplished at hearing Perry play through his selection for the audition. He’d really applied himself and shocked her with his ability to follow such technical music after three weeks.

She was lost in rationalizing about his chances of winning as she walked into the house that evening. Saturday night was Aunt Lindy’s fried chicken dinner night, so Frances never worried about going home to make dinner on Saturdays. She was hoping to slip right in through the front door, unnoticed, but unfortunately, her dad was waiting for her.

“Frances,” he shouted. He patted the seat beside him on the couch when she poked her head into the living room. “Been meanin’ to talk to you about your plans.” His posture was relaxed, as if he had been sitting there waiting for a while.

“Have I done something wrong?” Her times of misbehaving and causing grief for her dad were mostly behind her, or so she imagined. Once she was old enough to roam more than a half-mile from the house, and had discovered music, she’d become a much more agreeable person to her father, so much so, in fact, they barely even spoke.

“Naw,” he said. He patted the couch again beside him. The girl took a seat on the sofa, but not directly beside him. The fact that she chose the side opposite to him would have grated on him five years or so ago, but thankfully, that stuff didn’t bother him as much. He had made peace with the girl’s desire to be independent. As long as she was obedient and respectful of her elders, she was ok.

Al studied his daughter’s face. She was still exhilarated from her discovery and from her time with Perry, which had deposited a rosy glow on her otherwise pale complexion. Her eyes, usually hidden away in aggravation or embarrassment, were peering at him expectantly, wide and beautiful. Her long and wavy hair curled more around her face on damp nights like tonight, reminding him so much of her mother it was painful. It was true, if you held up a photograph of Ellie next to Frances, a stranger wouldn’t be able to point out their similarities—but she was there, copied into so many features of her precious daughter, who was made unique in their transformed expression. That was his girl. The remembrance of a hundred hurtful exchanges threatened to steal this moment of tenderness from him, but he beat the bad memories back with a forced replay of his own part in those mistakes—the times he had used his hands or his words to lash out at her.

When Ellie had settled into the family homestead, which had been signed over to her by her mother, she believed she’d lived a small lifetime: she had gone to college, fallen in love, and then lost her childhood best friend in a feud over the whole affair. She’d broken the relationship off and had finally come home to teach at the high school. But life had been lonely. She attracted admiration wherever she went, but up until meeting Al, no man had ever been able to compare to her first love.

Actually, when she had first met Al on a trip with her friends to the twin waterfalls of Laurel Bloomery, she’d known it was a set-up and wouldn’t give him a chance. He was all wrong for her, redneck and crude, uneducated, and he had a small son already. But he did possess one quality she was lacking—he was determined. When he set his mind to something, he got it, whether through hard work or plain irritation to those around him. He had pursued Ellie for two years and he got her in the end. They had been married in the same chapel her grandparents had pledged their love, at the foot of the mountain, and he had readily moved himself and his son into her world.

Soon she’d become fully absorbed in a more complete happiness than she had ever known. She’d been wrong about Al. She discovered he was the only man she had ever truly loved. Within a year, he had given her a beautiful little daughter, Frances. He renovated their house, tended the orchard, plowed new ground for a garden and brought her rose bushes from town. He was so careful of her, so unlike her father had been. She had been spoiled by all the attention she received. Only God knew her time was limited. Maybe that’s why she’d gotten everything she had ever wanted in those short years. She’d brought so much passion to everything she touched that everyone around her enjoyed the full and rich side effects, and when she had departed, the clouds hung a little lower in the sky.

“Your Aunt Lindy tells me you do good in school.” He watched the girl nod, almost imperceptibly. “How ‘bout in math?”

Frances knit her eyebrows in confusion at this strange interchange. Her dad had never inquired about her schoolwork before. So it was especially strange now that she was finished. “I did ok. I mostly got A’s in school.”

Al was relieved. “And English ‘n science?”

“The same.”

“There’s some money,” he said. “Your gramma set it aside in a trust for you, in case you decide to go to college. I’ve ‘bout figured your brother ain’t gon’ go. But I’d like you to think on it.”

“I never knew school was important to you.” She was confused by his sudden interest in her life, especially at a moment when she was on the verge of flying from the nest. Maybe that was exactly why he was interested.

She was about to ask him something else, but the quiet night air became filled with the alarming noise of screeching tires, followed by a loud crash, not a mile from the house.

“What the…” her dad jumped from the couch and ran to the door, swinging it wide open. “That sounded like a car wreck.” His voice rose sharply as he rushed out the door.

She followed him down the road in the direction of the Whitehursts, but remembered very little of what followed or how she even arrived at the scene of the accident. A few yards off the road, around the bend from the Whitehurst’s mailbox, a blue minivan was smashed sideways into a tree. Alan was inside, leaning over the steering wheel, motionless. Wade was in the passenger’s seat, moving his head with apparent difficulty.

Perry appeared beside them, out of breath. “I was outside, checking to see why the dogs were barking when I heard the crash.”

“The damage is mostly in back,” Al shouted, pulling the driver’s side door open and checking Alan’s pulse. He reached across and laid a hand on Wade’s chest, saying a few words to calm the boy, who was coming back into consciousness, and then stepped back and punched the back door in frustration. He shook out his hand in obvious but welcome pain. “They’ll make it. But he’s not s’posed to get into trouble with the law again.” He shook his head fretfully. “Lord, I don’ know whose car this is they stole.”

Frances’s pulse quickened in fear for her brother. “Can we get him out? Or maybe switch their places, so it doesn’t seem like Alan was driving?” She asked the question in desperation, without allowing herself the benefit of thinking before speaking, but immediately realized her mistake.

Perry stared at her from the other side of the car, where he had been checking on his brother, in shock and disbelief, as if her suggestion was more disturbing than the fact that his brother had been in an accident.

“I’m sorry, Perry, I didn’t mean that.” She wanted to explain, to negate her terrible suggestion, but how can you apologize for the subconscious? It always told the truth. The awfulness was hers to own.

He heard her apology and realized she’d never had any intention of following through with the idea, but he was disappointed in a way he didn’t feel he could move past. Not yet anyway. He wouldn’t reply or look at her, and was thankful when the ambulance finally arrived to take them away.

 

Chapter Five

Frances lowered the fallboard on the antique piano that had witnessed so many wonderful moments. Mr. Hitchcock would be there any second to take the instrument away. Whatever nostalgia she’d invited about it before was gone, like so many other things that had fizzled under the burning blaze of the Hernshaw family’s indignation. Not only had the owner of the car, despite being a neighbor, pressed charges against Alan to ‘teach him a valuable lesson,’ the Hernshaws were threatening to sue their family for Wade’s medical expenses. After the accident, he had experienced some partial paralysis of his legs, which the doctors believed could be overcome with physical therapy and hard work once the inflammation on his spine lessened. But she didn’t hold out much hope he would apply himself and work hard on recovering.

Warren Burnette hadn’t been around much after the day he found her mom’s violin. He had come around to offer his help a few days after the accident, but she had sent him away. There was no way she was leaving Roan. Not for anyone.

“You sayin’ yer goodbyes?” Mr. Hitchcock’s voice was bright and cheerful as he walked through the open doorway. A weak sigh was the response he received. He tried again. It wasn’t like Frances to have nothing to say. “Yer daddy says you goin’ to ETSU in the fall.” She nodded. “You know’d them Hernshaws are already moved to Johnson City, right? Ain’t been here six months, but it’s ‘bout what I figured.”

He made a motion to wheel the instrument out the door, and she resisted the urge to stop him. Why hadn’t she taken her opportunity to play one last time? One last song? She could have played over her piece for that day.

Though she’d been wrongfully accused of many characteristics, she had never once been called vindictive. But after the accident, the sting of everything she’d lost and the rejection of her best friend was more than she could bear. As soon as the words had tumbled out of her mouth that night, she knew she’d hurt Perry, but she never would have imagined she wouldn’t be forgiven. Surely, of all people, he would understand the instinct to protect the ones you love, because that was exactly what he did for his own brother. But Perry’s immediate dissociation from her was a blow she couldn’t recover from. She had never cried over anyone before, other than at a funeral, so she was shocked by the torrent of tears that flowed from the injustice. After the tears of hurt she would rage and fume and attempt to destroy any remembrance of their friendship. But the sadness would flow through again, as surely as the rains flooded the gorge and filled the Watauga in spring as the ice melted off the perch of its mountain.

When she was sad, she was governed by no discernable thought process. She either cried or sat and let numbness waste away the hours. But when she was bitter, her mind raced with evil plans for redemption. This was new territory. She’d never been spiteful before. It was exactly in one of these moments of delirious indignation the idea occurred to her: why not audition for the ETSU scholarship herself? She had shaken off the idea as many times as it had entered her mind. When she was Dr. Jekyll, she couldn’t fathom how such an evil intention could ever cross her mind. But at some point, as Mr. Hyde, she made a phone call and registered for the audition. She hadn’t told anyone, not even Amber.

And so, later that afternoon, she stood outside the recital hall of the Mathes building, pacing back and forth, trying to decide which of the two forms to take. The choice must be made, however, because she was next in line to audition. Unfortunately, she was in the lineup right after Perry.

Frances made her decision. She walked in softly, unconsciously matching her footsteps to the notes bouncing up and out of the long grand piano and off the walls around her. She caught her breath, listening to Perry play the song she’d taught him. Well, she had taught him to catch the fish anyway, and he no longer needed her. His eyes were following the sheet music like magic. Or at least that’s what he had described it as. Eyes and ears and fingers worked, each employing their own strengths, yet seaming together to create something beautiful. She slid into the nearest seat, the pain of the beautiful sounds stabbing at her chest. She closed her eyes and allowed herself a moment to enjoy the decisions of someone else’s mind working before her own started again, reminding her of what she was about to do to her friend.

The closing notes were perfect. Perry played with his heart and it showed. Frances sensed his eyes on her and met them. By this time, he would have deduced she was there to take the scholarship from him. As much as she enjoyed his playing for its beauty and simplicity, Frances played with her whole soul, as a loyalty to the only thing she had ever been good at. She would put her entire life and being into her song that day, of all days. Did time stand still and did she stop living for a few moments while she played? What happened? Where did those moments go? She enjoyed the way her musing kept her distracted from meeting his gaze again. His pensive, brooding eyes were always taking in everything and realizing all her innermost secrets, and she hated him for it.

“Frances?”

She glanced up.

Perry was standing right over her, hand outstretched. “Good luck.” He spoke it in a friendly way, but he had a new, hard expression on his face.

She stood but didn’t take his hand. His use of her full name hadn’t escaped her. The bitterness of her anger was the thing that would get her through the audition. Her only other experience of hard times had been when her mom passed away and she had to get used to the lack of softness in everything around her. Then, as now, she’d found strength deep inside of herself.

“Thanks.” Frances brushed past him, hoping he would go ahead and leave. She needed to quit caring what he did, needed to shut her eyes and play her best.

The professor raised his nearly-white eyebrows as she walked up. “Ah, Miss Durham, is it?” He glanced her over as he asked, hoping to make some speedy assumptions on what this last-minute audition was going to be like. He kept his young and otherwise bright face fixed with a stern air, as if he enjoyed the business of disappointing people. Or maybe he had found success in that expression, as if it could somehow warn people to stop bothering him with the trivial.

Frances glanced out across the small crowd of parents and friends that had gathered to support their fellow applicants, her eyes struggling to avoid the place most likely to contain Perry, if he had decided to stay and hear her audition. She was a bit surprised at the generous sprinkling of people, thinking these auditions would be private affairs. There were certainly no Durhams or Hernshaws present. More than likely, they had no idea what their kids were doing that day, the same as any other. The loneliness of independence granted by each of their respective parents had been strong enough motivation to drive them to pursue their own course without worrying about the sting of disapproval that is reserved for children burdened with high expectations.

“Can we go ahead with this, Miss Durham?” The professor, Dr. Kulka, was becoming impatient. He reached out for her sheet music. “You brought two copies, as the guidelines directed?” Even as he asked, he eyed the four sheets of paper in her hand dubiously.

She’d brought one copy with her. And what’s more, she detested people who asked obvious questions they already knew the answer to in an attempt to humiliate. It didn’t work on her. She handed over the rough copy without an apology or explanation. She didn’t need a copy anyway—she knew it. She had written it.

Dr. Kulka furrowed his brows in aggravation. The hand-drawn notes in front of him were sloppy and hurried. “We require our students to be able to read sheet music.” He shuffled the papers as he tried to follow the trembling lines. The furrow between his white-blonde brows deepened, as if he suspected she’d traced the black ink blots randomly out of a Schreibner’s primer.

“My mom taught me to read notes before I could read Dr. Seuss. Bringing one copy has no bearing on my ability to read notes.”

The young professor held her gaze for a few moments, trying to decide whether to scold her for breaking the rules and bringing in an original composition instead of a classical piece from the list, but in the end, he relented. After all, he’d heard of Frances Garner. Most of the professors in his department had been out to Roan for some bluegrass festival or another, and had heard her play. If not for her intimate knowledge of her craft, Frances’s piercing, wild honey eyes would make her hard to forget. He wasn’t exactly sure why she was trying to gain a scholarship and entrance into the music program, though. He knew of her reputation as willful and headstrong, and as someone who didn’t like to accept direction. If she did win the scholarship, he knew he was going to have a hard time breaking her in to his way of thinking.

“Proceed,” he yielded.

Frances climbed the five steps to the platform and took in all aspects of the piano. It was the finest instrument she’d ever seen and would probably ever play. Her hands began trembling, as they always did before she had to perform on a piano—it wasn’t her first choice. She sat, closed her eyes, held her breath and touched the keys, getting a feel for them with her body before her mind took over and she didn’t feel them anymore. She didn’t know how she played. It just happened. The mechanics of thinking and trying were mostly behind her. She drew in another chestful of air and imagined she was alone in her shop, the dusty single-pane windows opening to a beautiful clear sky.

The pace at first was steady. The dark brooding notes danced and swirled around each other, like ballerinas spinning in flashing colors of tulle and ribbons. Then they died off and agonized for several painful moments as her right hand picked a sad melody, the other hand having little choice but to trickle along the path left for it. Next, the left overtook the melody and shifted the forces of sound upward. Her right hand retreated into the higher octaves, tinkling a weak defense as the left hand crawled up to meet it. The hands began moving in unison and played against each other, one rhythm in 4/4 and the other in 3/4, striving to agree at every other bar.

The lilting melody became hushed and beautiful, resolving so reverently Frances worried one sound from a person in the audience would kill the entire thing. She squeezed her eyes shut even tighter, and pictured her mother, telling her everything would be ok. Adversity gave her strength of character. Rejection built the strong wall of resolve. There was her smile, assuring Frances the whole world could be hers. And seconds later, the notes were dying in the air, and her mother had vanished again.

Frances forced herself to stare out across the crowd she imagined was judging her. Throwing her head back, she dared anyone to defy her. Then her eyes landed where she didn’t want them to, on Perry. But she had nothing to fear because he had his eyes closed. She could tell he was moved, and she melted into a pool of regret, pain, and mortification. But try as she might, she couldn’t will him to meet her gaze.

“Thank you, Miss Durham.” The professor startled her out of the moment. “You can step down now.” His voice betrayed no emotion.

Her cheeks burned crimson with embarrassment. Instant insecurity overwhelmed her. What was she doing here? He hadn’t liked it. That was it. That was all there was. That song was her—she’d put her whole self on the table, like an idiot, and he had hated it. “Thank you,” she said. She was all meekness as she walked past him, collecting her sheets of handwritten notes in one motion as she walked past him. Tears blinded her eyes as she hurried past row after row of blurry auditorium. Outside, the sun was shining, but not for her. Frances opened her eyes and stared at it for a second. She didn’t even care if it blinded her.

“That was amazing, Frankie, really.” He had come out behind her without making a sound and had startled her.

Whirling around, she searched his face hungrily to seek out some emotion.

“I’ve decided to leave,” he said. “Well, my family has obviously moved to Johnson City, but I’m moving out of Tennessee, to work in Chicago.” It was an abrupt shift in subjects and he could tell she was confused. His eyes searched hers deeply, but they reflected very little.

Frances shook her head. “I don’t understand. What about the scholarship?”

“There’s no chance of that now and you know it.”

Realization dawned on her. “No, you can’t go with him! He can’t have anything good planned for you. What does he want? You don’t know what kind of person he is.”

“No, I don’t know him very well, I agree with that, but he’s offering me a job and a chance to travel abroad.” Perry took a final look around the campus. “I have no money for college. Working for Warren is better than finding some low-paying job and living with my parents. And your brother is going too, so I won’t be alone.”

He watched the shock register on her face, realizing he shouldn’t have told her that last part. It wasn’t his to tell. “I want you to do your best, Frankie.” He was anxious to change the subject. “I want you to really show them how amazing you are.”

He held out his hand once again, determined she wouldn’t get away from him without some small touch or gesture he could remember when he began to miss her. And he already did miss her. A hug was what he wanted, but his hurt sense of pride was still too fresh from all the events of the car accident and this recent betrayal to allow him to reach for that.

Frances took his hand. “You’ll come back often and check on your mother? She needs you.”

He held her hand for as long as she allowed it and was disappointed when she drew it back after a few seconds, in the same way a bird stunned by a crash into glass rapidly regains its wings after finding himself on the ground. “Mom has her favorite, and Dad has his.” He allowed himself a moment of uncharacteristic bitterness and self-pity. “I’ve never been of much consequence to either of them.”

“That’s not true. You have no idea how much a mother loves and needs every one of her kids.”

He acquiesced, at once thawed by the naivety and optimism of the motherless girl, and backed away from her, a few steps at a time. “I’ll come back for her, then, because you think I should. And you take care of yourself, and your dad too.” And then he turned and left. There wasn’t any sense in dragging out that goodbye.

Frances watched the back of Perry as he disappeared around the corner of an ugly square concrete building. The swirl of his hair around his cowlick and the way it stuck out a little over that ear, his tall figure and broad shoulders ready to take on the world, his long stride, confident and sure of everything, completely aware of every one of his grievances and triumphs, all pained Frances. She knew she was losing one of the best friends she’d ever had.

The ridgeline appeared a little lower in the sky as she drove down 321 toward her rural pocket of heaven. If she’d ever paid attention to anything her folks had mentioned growing up, it was that whatever was good, whatever was honest or worthwhile in life probably couldn’t be found in the big city. Sure, they had their thriving businesses and nice cars; they had a college and plays and a nightlife. But that stuff could only keep two-thirds of you alive: your brain and your body. Her home was where the other third dwelled—the soul abided in high mountain places. Until that moment, it had never occurred to Frances that maybe her parents had been afraid of what the bigger world outside their community held. For her mom, Ellie, it had tiptoed in and collected her family from her when she was a teenager, when they had all left her to move to Johnson City. And for her dad, it spelled change in a way he wasn’t comfortable with.

Frances imagined what her dad was going to say when he found out Alan had decided to go work for Warren and leave Roan. Given his past behavior, it was likely her brother wasn’t going to mention it until the last possible moment, so he could face the least amount of drama. Despite his brush with the law, he was able to go where he wanted, because the judge had deemed him a first-time offender who was unlikely to repeat the offense. Frances wasn’t sure whether he would or wouldn’t. But she could be sure Warren didn’t intend to watch over her brother like his family would.

Determining to find Alan and force him to answer some of her questions, Frances pulled into the driveway, only to find a light tan Ford truck parked in her spot under the redbud tree. She pulled her truck in, close to the house, and sat there for a few minutes with the engine running.

“Frankie.” Alan had walked up to the truck and was tapping the glass.

She rolled down the window, but didn’t open the door.

“Frankie, I’m leaving town. I wanted to tell ya.” His thick breath smelled of tobacco.

Frances shook her head and rolled the window back up. When they had been children, it hadn’t taken her long to discover he had no determination to follow things through. If they played hide and seek, unless her hiding spot was very basic, he would give up and leave her pressed into a corner of some choice space for as long as it took her to realize he was never coming. If they went fishing, he pouted if she caught the first fish. She hoped he didn’t intend to make good on this decision. It would be a first.

She hoped by ignoring him, he would have to wait on her to come out of the truck before he could leave for Chicago. And since she was the direct opposite of him in nearly every regard, she’d been blessed with all the patience and dedication. In fact, neither hunger nor fatigue nor any other bodily necessity could drive her out before she determined it was time. He could never leave.

She was so busy with her own thoughts she didn’t notice the dark stranger approaching. He opened the passenger door, which she hadn’t locked, and climbed inside. “You should have accepted my offer.” He stared straight ahead, afraid to look at her.

“And then you wouldn’t have taken Perry or Alan from me?”

He turned to her, to study this child of Ellie’s with the same strange way of thinking, so foreign to him. She hadn’t wanted to leave either. “I’ve lived everywhere,” he said. “I’ve done everything and met everyone, and I can give that to you.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want it and I don’t want you. Go ahead and take them if they’re stupid enough to go.”

“You’ll regret it.”

“She didn’t.” Frances perceived her words rattled him, which encouraged her to press on. “She understood that you need one place to be loyal to and one mindset to be in, and she was the most content person I have ever known. You couldn’t have given her that, not for all the excitement or travels you claim are so wonderful.”

“So be it.” He climbed out of the car more stiffly than he had entered. For the first time, every bit of his age weighed on him. This tiredness had hovered right beyond what drove him—his hatred and determination to win at least some small thing. He had made enough money to make him proud. But what did money say to a girl like Frances? That creature could live off dew and ginger root if it meant holding on to her dear mountain. And it was absolutely irritating and admirable at the same time.

Frances sensed, rather than watched, Warren back out of the driveway. Alan and her dad stepped out onto the porch and her dad waved her in, oblivious to this hot poker stabbing at her tender flesh. “He won’t go without saying goodbye,” she reassured herself pathetically, even as she watched him wave to her and climb into his car. But drive off is exactly what he did.

She stayed in the car until dusk, when the deer clustered in the yard beyond the tree line to graze on the pink wild ground phlox and on the hostas her mom had planted over a decade ago. It was on desolate nights like this she wished her dad would come out and make it all better. Lucky for her, Amber decided to drop in and retrieve the vintage pie safe Frances had found for her.

She pulled in and noticed Frances’s car wasn’t parked in its usual spot. The dark outline of her friend, slumped in the driver’s seat, conveyed all she needed to know. “Uh-oh,” she said to herself as she got out and ran over to the other car.

The car door opened and her small friend climbed in. “I didn’t hear you drive up.”

Amber reached over and hugged her. “Daddy drama?”

“No,” she said. She shook her head, which was buried in her friend’s shoulder. “No, this time it’s Alan. He left.”

After Frances lifted her head, Amber reached out to brush the hair from her face. She’d never been a big fan of Alan in the way a person didn’t like hanging out with an aggravating big brother. Because that’s how he acted toward her. But it didn’t mean she didn’t care about him. “What do you mean he left?”

“He’s gone to work with Warren.” She had already explained all about the violin and his offer of taking her with him to work. There was very little about her life Amber didn’t know, and vice versa.

“Wow.” She breathed out a long sigh. “I’d say Warren doesn’t know what a sack of potatoes he’s getting.” She was trying to be humorous, but even she didn’t feel like it tonight.

Frances was more grateful for the humor than Amber would have figured. She was tired of being melancholy. It had become a consuming occupation that multiplied hopelessness, and she was ready to shed it off. “He’s not the only one who is leaving with Warren.”

“What? Not you.”

“No, calm yourself.” Amber had a natural tendency to become hyper and dramatic, but Frances still experienced guilt when she mentioned things that worked her up. “Perry.”

Amber sat back in the seat. “That is really weird. I wonder why?” She stole a sidelong glance at her friend. “He was cute.”

Frances ignored that last part. She needed to confess, not to admit some middle-school crush like Amber wanted her to. So she told her all about showing up at the audition, holding back a few little tidbits for herself.

“I’ve never known you to do anything like that,” was all Amber could say. She shook her head, marveling at the evil deed she could barely fathom Frances imagining, much less affecting.

That disapproval was so welcome and needed that Frances broke down and cried. “I know—I deserve to lose him. It was a terrible thing to do.”

Amber hugged her. “We all do terrible things sometimes.”

“But it’s even worse than that. I didn’t need the scholarship. Gramma left me the money to go if I wanted to.”

Amber shivered and shook her head. “Well, you don’t know for sure you got it. When will they let you know?”

“Probably in the next few weeks.”

Amber hugged her again. “Once, when I was small and momma wouldn’t let me play with the vacuum, I took it on the sly and plugged it in. I accidentally sucked up so much of the cord that the thing almost exploded before the plug finally ripped out of the wall socket.”

She did so much talking with her hands that when she got to the exploding part she nearly knocked Frances off the bed.

“Totally not the same thing.”

“I know.” Amber’s beautiful jewel-shaped eyes pleaded for mercy. “I was trying to make you feel better.”

“Nothing can make me feel better.” She shook her head.

“Oh, time will make it better. And helping me decorate my new house will take your mind off.”

Frances perked up a little. “I found some other stuff I figured you’d like too.” She glanced back at the house. “But I shouldn’t leave Dad alone, should I?”

Amber shrugged. “He’s left you alone plenty. I think our parents are going to have to get used to the empty nest.” She bounced up and down in the seat like a little kid. “Come on, let’s go. I want to see what you got me.”

They spent a delicious few hours staging and rearranging Amber’s house. It wasn’t far down in the valley, a stone’s throw from the Curly-Q. The little stone three-bedroom had housed four different families already, and yet its happiest moments were going to be with Amber. Her joy infused every wall of the place and her laughter created a welcome melody for anyone who stopped by. At the end of the night, after a few hours of hard work, she rested her tiny hands on her hips and surveyed their work. “I love it. Thank you.”

Frances threw her arms around her friend. “I love it too. Now, I have to go before I pass out on your floor. I’ve been working too hard lately.”

On the way back, she decided not to dwell on what was a considerably bad day, but her mind kept wandering back to what she’d lost. She determined never to act out of revenge again. Between fighting off her deep sorrow, she was also trying to ignore anxieties about going to college and what she had gotten herself into. Deep inside, she knew she had the passion to prove she could do it.

 

Chapter Six

Communication had never been one of Frances’s strengths. Since her father had counted her independence and her good sense to stay out of trouble a blessing that meant he didn’t have to worry over her, she’d practically raised herself on the doorsteps of their Roan valley neighbors. For most of her life, she had lived as a happy sponge in the rich warm waters of her small inlet, thriving on whatever was significant to others. She spoke like them, she shared their stories, she cooked their food and played their music and was the protégé of many. And yet she was somehow terrified sharing her own small hopes and dreams with any of them.

For whatever the effort cost in hurtful rejection, since she figured she would never receive a response, Frances was determined to keep her brother Alan informed of everything he was missing back home—including something fairly earth-shattering to the family.

She’d been writing him letters since he had left them. She sat at the little desk in her room that lately had been filled with schoolwork and books, and wrote him a letter filled with admonition and vim. Then she threw that one in the trash and wrote him a different note entirely.

Alan,

I started school a few weeks ago and I’m taking a full load: two music classes, a Sociology class called Appalachian Heritage and some easy online math. I recognized my Sociology professor right away. Evidently, he comes out here to hike and wants to put together people’s stories, whatever that means. I don’t know anyone that would tell him their story. He’s from Florida or somewhere where they think they can charm anybody. But now it probably sounds like I don’t like him and I actually do.

The music classes have been really hard for me, because my professor, Dr. Kulka, wants me to forget anything I’ve ever learned and start over. If only it was possible to forget everything, I would be happy to try it to please him. As it stands, we are constantly bickering. He drives me nuts. He’ll praise another student’s performance as I sit over in my seat trying to figure out what was good about it when the kid couldn’t catch a movie, much less the rhythm of the piece. It’s agony sometimes. I know if you were here, you’d tell me I was dumb. See, it’s no fun when I have to pretend to be you. I need you here. On a good note (pun yes), Dr. Kulka has a cousin named Dr. Rhena who’s a neuroscientist at UT, and she wants to study my brain. I guess because I’ve memorized so many songs. What do you think?

I sold the table last week—the one with the paint down the center that came from the Cloudland. Remember when Mom used to tell us stories, and said the guests couldn’t drink alcohol on the North Carolina side? I sold it for thirty-five hundred to some collector in Michigan. I hated to part with it, but letting go of the past is part of my new attitude. Ok, I heard Dad come in and he’ll be wanting his dinner. But I have one more thing to say.

Lewelyn moved in with Aunt Lindy yesterday. She was asked to move out of her house, I guess, because she’s pregnant. She says it’s your baby, Alan, so you better come home as soon as you can. And call. It feels weird not hearing from you in months and months. And if you don’t call, at least write and tell me if I should join Dr. Rhena’s study.

Perry read the letter aloud to Alan after he’d discovered it unopened in the trash that evening when he got home from work. The sight of her handwriting in the garbage filled him with intense rage. But he had self-control that would impress a preacher father, and he wouldn’t let himself express it. This wasn’t the first time he had found one in the trash. Before they were even settled into the apartment they shared, a letter had arrived and found its way unopened into the bin. He found another waiting when he returned from Chile after the last salvage job.

The past few months had been hard, and they had been at each other’s throats more than he cared to admit. Just to dismantle and pack the salvage haul for the slow boat to America had taken five weeks of intense labor. And besides being difficult, if he admitted it to himself, the work was extremely unfulfilling. His new companions were dull and had nothing in common with him, though he had genuinely tried investing in conversations and asking questions about their histories and interests. There was one saving grace at the end of it all, and that was a letter not even addressed to him, but to the stupid brother. And it inevitably went into the trash.

It was very symbolic, he told himself bitterly, before attempting to draw Alan into a conversation. “What do you think about her news?” He couldn’t bring himself to say Frankie’s name. “It sounds like you’re going to be a dad.”

“It’s not mine.” He was sitting on the couch, flipping through TV channels. His expression was as lazy and unaffected as though Perry had mentioned it was raining outside.

“Are you going to write back?”

“Nah, she don’t ‘spect me to.”

“Well, I’m keeping it.” Perry walked into his small room and shut the door hard. He couldn’t bring himself to slam it. Putting the letters in his dresser beside the two others he’d rescued, he lay down on his small bed with the plain white sheets and blanket, and folded his hands behind his head. Then he got up, pulled a lined notepad from the closet and scribbled the words ‘Warren wants me to work overtime this weekend, but I was wondering if I should?’ He would leave it on the counter the next day and see if Alan took the bait and wrote back.

His mind lingered over the contents of the letter, about her classes and professors. He always assumed the bitterness that lingered from the accident and from her suggestion to switch his brother’s place with Alan’s was completely gone, until he attempted any conversation with Alan and realized what a waste of a person he was. Why Frankie held him in such high regard was the question and the anchor that stopped his heart from moving on.

In another corner of the world, Frances entertained her own doubts about her heart. And her mind. What possessed her to imagine she was strong enough to tolerate all of the criticism she agreed to when she enrolled in school? Selling tables and chairs and stalking salvage deals and yard sales were way easier occupations. And playing whatever music her little heart desired was so much more satisfying than trudging through assigned lists drawn from the tedious hand of Dr. Kulka. There was nothing to love about his nitpicky critique of her performance in Old Time String Band III, which is where he’d placed her after the audition. He was even fussier in the seminar class. It was a lecture and she had to sit in a huge room full of people who worshiped every word that dripped from his mouth. And while she admitted plainly he was well-educated and intelligent, he also fell prey to prejudiced opinions more often than not. He respected the music and heritage in the resigned way an outside professor achieving a successful living in East Tennessee might, but he often ridiculed the players for their lack of precision or technicality. It was always a point of contention. Frances argued they were playing passionately, which was reflected in their soulful sound. Thankfully, Dr. Kulka wasn’t the professor of her Appalachian Heritage class, or she may have been tempted to rebelliously discount the actual history of the region.

Dr. Kulka wasn’t a stupid man. He may have been a little self-absorbed, but he didn’t have much trouble deducing his star student, Frances Garner, detested him. Inside the classroom, he regarded her as a person little accustomed to criticism, and believed it was his job to ensure she grew as a musician. The fact that he didn’t take the same care with his lesser students had never occurred to him. Whenever Frances raised her hand, he became tense, supposing she intended to refute him or point out an opposing viewpoint. In his mind, she was constantly trying to show him up, and he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. Whenever he could get away with it, he ignored her. And sometime around the end of the semester, when she finally stopped raising her hand or interjecting, he was surprised to find he somehow missed their sparring.

One bright morning, when the walk to class from the parking lot on the outskirts of campus radiated the delicious fragrance of doughnuts and distant rain, Frances found herself imagining a world without any Dr. Kulkas. Safely inside the messenger bag Aunt Lindy had bought her was the term paper to wrap up Appalachian Heritage. It was right beside the crumpled, ripped piece of notebook paper she’d found in the mail. “Go for it”, written in her brother’s hand, had given her the courage to join Dr. Rhena’s study. And so she was signed up for the first of three sessions that would start later that week. Between the happiness of the letter and the proud achievement of writing a term paper Dr. Rose, or “Graham” as he liked to be called, would love, she was flying high.

She couldn’t help but form a comparison of the two in her mind: both were reasonably young, both were passionate about their subject to the neglect of virtually everything else, both were frivolously picky on so many levels that their criticisms exhausted her. However, Graham believed in her. Never had Frances ever imagined a world where she would have something to offer in the form of the written word, and yet here was this awkwardly mannered professor red-lettering, crossing out, and bullying her to be better. And she respected him. Writing to earn his approval was achievable. In thinking about the topic of the paper and how much he would be pleased, she couldn’t help but smile, which was a rare expression for her and one that disappeared once she rounded the corner of Burleson Hall and encountered the very two people who had been the subject of her comparison, standing side-by-side in deep discussion.

Her fallen expression didn’t go unnoticed by Dr. Kulka, although Graham continued carrying on about whatever his momentary obsession with Appalachian culture was at the moment.

“Ms. Garner,” Dr. Kulka said. Her confusion at finding him there, and the resultant bloom on her cheeks was so attractive he let himself imagine for a moment it was in small part because some magnetism pulled her toward him. But her cold response brought him back to the reality where she tolerated him.

“Dr. Kulka.” Frances mimicked his tone and attitude, dipping her head slightly. Then she turned to Graham. “I came a few minutes early to discuss my paper with you, but I think I’ll go get coffee instead. I’ll see you in a bit.”

Graham stared after her for a minute in confusion. He didn’t switch topics very easily. “Now there is a true example of this region. Do you know that girl’s great-grandfather was Sam Durham? Cloudland hotel?”

Henrik Kulka had made fast friends with Graham when they had both entered ETSU as Assistant Professors in their respective fields, Henrik to music and Graham to Sociology. And even though in the beginning he had zero interest in the region, he had soon realized if he was going to survive in East Tennessee, he would need to embrace it. It was never bluegrass he was uncomfortable with—the Scottish-influenced vocals and melodies had stood the test of time and earned a place in his esteem. But he would always hold the classics as the higher-ordered art form. Within a few years of teaching, it had dawned on him that the folk music he originally scorned had grown into his heart and so firmly rooted there that it was hard to believe he had ever struggled to accept it.

“She’s a hell of a violinist. But she has more regard for herself than she has talent to back it up.” Henrik didn’t notice the expression of warning on Graham’s face, or he would have stopped after his first statement. But without turning around, he could feel her presence.

“I forgot to return this.” She’d walked outside and realized the reason her bag was so heavy this morning was because she was carrying an extra book Graham had loaned her. She had walked back inside to unload it before she hauled it across campus. “I didn’t want to forget to return it once class was over.” She handed the book to him, noticing that Dr. Kulka never turned to acknowledge her. As she walked away, she rolled this new tidbit around in her head.

Frances always tried to give herself a subjective evaluation after she received any piece of information about others’ perception of her, whether it was disapproval or praise. After running through a long list of instances, she found very little to justify Dr. Kulka’s assertion that she was arrogant. Perry, who knew a hard afternoon’s persistence in trying to get her to leave her comfort zone and play him even one little song, would have gotten a kick out of that. As a matter of fact, performing for anyone chapped her like a wound of deep humiliation, and she didn’t like it. Playing with the old-timers was a different matter. That was humble sharing and no single person shined.

However, she did have the persistence of the Durhams and the clamoring for her own preferences some might mistake for overconfidence. And it was true she’d never been able to say no to a dare or a challenge. So, she often did things counter to her nature for no other reason than to settle some silly rebellion or challenge.

And so, Alan, I have decided I may be arrogant after all. Because I have enough sense to play what I like so I get good enough from all the practice to eventually like what I play. And others may like it too, or they may not, and neither is any of my concern. Because I know I’m the one that matters.

Which brings me to my next question: why am I going to school for music if I’m so unwavering I won’t allow myself to be molded? And what kind of future is there in it? I think those questions are at the heart of Dr. Kulka’s insult. He doesn’t know why I’m here either. I’m afraid I may have let my anger get the better of me and applied to a program I shouldn’t be in, and now I’m stuck.

But the good news is that Dr. Rose loved my paper. He lets us call him Graham. I wrote about Mr. Johns and how we switched out his cat—do you remember? We were such bad kids. He had worked so hard trying to catch that stray tomcat that kept spraying his car. Then when he drove it to the humane society and opened the carrier, we had switched it out with a possum and released the cat back into the woods. Somehow you weren’t around when he got back, but he sure found me and took a switch to my backside.

Anyway, Graham thought it was great. He is coming out to Roan over the Christmas break and wants me to introduce him to some neighbors. I suspect he has some kind of ulterior motives, but he says he loves it here and wants to know more of the culture.

Lewelyn is going to have the baby any day now. We are all losing our minds in anticipation. We have scrubbed every inch of Aunt Lindy’s house, fixed up a nursery (I should’ve sent a picture), and bought enough clothes to dress quadruplets. But I have a confession to make—I’m pretty sure Dad loves Lewelyn more than he loves me. Or at least he gets along with her easier. They’ve become fast friends.

And lastly, I think I’m ready to move out of the house. It’s too quiet and awkward with just Dad and me there. You always made so much noise. And mess. I mostly only have time for studying and writing papers, since practicing my music can’t happen unless Dad’s not home. God forbid he asks me one more time to go play out in the barn. I might just kill him. It’s time for me to move out. Every time he says something hurtful, I hate myself a little more. And I hate him. If I lived on my own, I would never know there was anything hateful in the world. Amber has been living on her own for months and she loves it.

Ok, I’m done writing. My head hurts. I’m looking forward to the Christmas break and I have an auction in Mountain City to go to that should be promising. I need to get a lot of stuff for the shop. I hope you’re coming home for Christmas.

Frances knew, even as she folded the letter, that he wasn’t coming. Maybe he would never come again, or write, and she wouldn’t ever understand his ways or why he chose to leave. It had already happened to so many people she had known growing up. They disappeared and never came back.

One thing was certain—she was serious about moving out, even if it had only occurred to her as she was writing. Somehow, she always thought clearly when he was around, which was an uncanny benefit of his grating but brutally honest presence. The plan unfolded plainly. She could move out to the old house in the orchard, where she’d first met Marion Hernshaw. No one had lived in it for decades.

For the rest of the week, Frances calculated her move. She rearranged the furniture in her mind and played house, but she never had the courage to breathe a word of it. Every time her courage rose to tell her dad, a sharp pang of guilt stabbed at her heart. Alan had left them, then she’d started college and was gone all the time. But wasn’t that what kids did? Didn’t they move away?

All these things troubled her as she walked the maze of buildings on campus absentmindedly the next morning. She paused when she reached the music building. Her appointment with Dr. Rhena wasn’t for another fifteen minutes, but she didn’t want to wait. The only sounds around were the quiet nature chirpings of bugs and animals, waiting on the sun to come out and warm them. It was strange how the quiet bothered some people, like Alan, but to her, there was so much beauty. The silence sharpened her as much as the noise and quickstep of music did.

She walked inside and descended a few steps to a lower floor, which was half underground. The large multipurpose room wasn’t used for much, other than instrument and chair storage, but this was where the email had said to meet Dr. Rhena. Musty smells and yellowed taupe walls were so commonplace to her that she’d never noticed or felt the shabbiness of the room until now, when an eminent neuroscientist was visiting.

Against the far wall was an assortment of unfamiliar equipment and a table, where a trim, wiry woman who appeared to be in her mid-forties leaned over a computer. She stood up when Frances walked in. Her coarse black hair billowed out from her head, curling in different directions, and she held out a dainty hand. “Frances Garner?”

Frances shifted her violin case so she could shake the hand. “Dr. Rhena?”

“Yes.”

“They could’ve found you a better place than the basement,” she said. Her attempt at apology went unnoticed.

Dr. Rhena motioned to the table she’d been sitting at, which held a mix of folders and papers. “Dr. Kulka’s told me so much about you. Thanks for agreeing to be part of our study.”

“He said he’s your cousin?”

Dr. Rhena nodded and pulled a bundle of papers out of a black carryon bag. She tapped them on the table before attaching them to a clipboard and sitting down. “The first part of the study is a survey to understand your habits and experiences. There’s no sense in comparing data from someone who’s played for five years versus someone who’s played their entire life, so we separate the data out into relative groups.” A faint smile played around the corners of her small mouth as she set the clipboard on the table between them.

“Do you play?”

Dr. Rhena stopped fidgeting and tipped her head to the side. “I don’t. I wish I did. I had a chance at lessons as a child, but I thought it wasn’t cool.” She shrugged. “A mistake.”

Frances reached for the survey and began skimming the entries. “So what’s the study about? Dr. Kulka didn’t tell me exactly.”

Dr. Rhena folded her hands and settled back into a hard metal chair, rearranging several times to get her posture perfect. “Well, there are two studies, really. One focuses on the cortical laterality of musicians and how that translates to other neural functions, like listening or reading.” As she spoke, her hands swooped all around her face and body, always coming back neatly to fold whenever she paused to think, which was often.

Her stilted way of speaking was unusual and Frances struggled to understand her. For every pause, Frances’s mind raced to fill in the right word, but how could she, when none of the words were familiar. In the end, she offered up a simple nod as if she understood, while rubbing the tip of her finger against the sharp edge of the papers.

“The second study is one I’m mostly just gathering data for. It’s run by one of our neuropsychology fellows, Dr. Hall, who’s interested in changes to the pre-frontal cortex during creativity. He’s gathering data from painters and dancers as well. But his focus is mainly on how that part of the brain, which is involved in everything from decision-making to personality and social behavior, shuts down during creativity. It may be a way of saving neural resources.”

Frances nodded again. “That’s really cool.” She cleared her throat and watched the little fingers as they twined back together. There was no wedding ring or fingernail polish. Neat and clean, the nails were trimmed down close.

Trying not to draw attention to her own chapped hands and dirty fingernails, she slid the clipboard off the table and into her lap. “Well, I have another class soon, so I’ll go ahead and get started filling this out.”

The questions on the first page were easy and straightforward. How many years have you been playing? Nineteen minus four, 15; How many and which instruments do you play? Play well, or just play? She smiled. Violin and piano; Do you write your own music? Only when I have time and feel inspired. Yes; What kind of music do you like best? Can I say everything but rap? Bluegrass, old-time, classical, heavy metal. She chuckled; What makes you connect to some music more than others? Oh boy, skip. I’ll come back to that; Name a piece of music you love. Anything Debussy. Trois Nocturnes, Claude Debussy; Do you consider yourself a good reader? Sure. Yes; Do you consider yourself good at math? I get by. Yes; Do you have trouble focusing on or hearing others in crowded spaces? No.

Frances flipped through the other two pages, relieved they were only checkmarks and not fill-in-the-blanks. Then she looked back at the question she’d skipped and tapped her pen unconsciously.

“Even your pen keeps good time,” Dr. Rhena said.

She looked up in surprise, then smiled. “I never thought about it.”

Dr. Rhena narrowed her eyes and squinted at her. “You don’t think about all the ways music affects your life?” When Frances shook her head, she raised her thick black eyebrows. “Music is all about communicating and having something to say. You’re saying something even when you’re not.”

Frances nodded. Ok lady, but who cares enough to listen. A quick glance at the clock reminded her she better get her answers down and run out the door. She checked through the boxes on the second page quickly. There were some medical questions on the last page, then she came back around to the blank and stared hard. I connect with music that’s beautiful, played skillfully but also with heart. With a feeling of relief, she set the clipboard on the table and grabbed her violin case. Any day, any time, she was happy to make some music, but these probing questions were for the birds.

“I signed up for my next session to be tomorrow.”

“Oh good. You can come by between one and four. I don’t have many people scheduled yet, but even if someone gets here first, you might like to listen in.”

She froze. “What’ll we be doing?”

Dr. Rhena held up some scalp electrodes that were lying on the table. “A bunch of small exercises. I’ll play a general song for you to listen to that every participant in the study hears, musician or otherwise. Then some of the other parts are tailored to you. I’ll play the piece you said you liked in the questionnaire. I’ll ask you to visualize that same song in your mind without the music. I’ll give you sheet music for a song you don’t know and ask you to read the sheet music and visualize the notes in your mind without an instrument. Then we’ll move on to the playing pieces. You play a piece by memory. Then something you composed. If we have time, I’ll use a loop and ask you to improvise something over it. And it doesn’t all need to happen on the same day.”

As Dr. Rhena rattled off the itinerary like she’d been through it a thousand times, Frances wondered how often she had done it. How many times with better musicians? What if she was wasting Dr. Rhena’s time and she was just posing as a musician? “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.” Her shoulders drooped.

“You will come back?” Dr. Rhena walked over and took Frances’s case from her to walk her to the door. Her dark steel blue eyes fixed on Frances with a strange intensity. “Every musician doubts themselves. It’s an attribute of being a human. But don’t ever let doubt stop you. I’m not a professional musician. But I’m a neuroscientist, and I believe in the power of music. I want to share that with you.”

Frances nodded. “Of course I’ll be back.”

 

Chapter Seven

Monday of finals week arrived on the wings of the first heavy snow of the season. Frances had participated in several sessions with Dr. Rhena the week before, and she was determined to fit in at least one more. A shiver rattled her thin shoulders under her fitted wool coat. It had been a gift from her aunt one Christmas early in her high school days, and it looked nice spiffed up with a scarf or knit hat. Alan had said she was starting to look shabby last year. But the shiver was only half from cold and the other from anticipation.

The conversations she’d had with Dr. Rhena had been amazing, electrifying. Her studies and findings had fueled a passion for music Frances hadn’t encountered before. It was like some super-educated, crazy intellectual person was telling her, Frances, that it was ok to play and love and feel. Better than ok, it was helping shape her brain and that was cool too.

Today would be the last day of her visit, so Dr. Rhena had set aside a whole two hours to spend with her.

Frances peeled out of her top two layers when she walked into the room and shook out the fine drops of melting snow that had collected there. She clasped her hands together. “What are we doing today?”

Dr. Rhena came over and picked up her violin case, which wasn’t heavy, but was a gesture she had repeated each time Frances had come. “I just thought we could talk. I mean, if there’s enough time, we can do the creative stuff. The riffing.” She smiled as if to say she knew she wasn’t cool enough to say riffing, but was there ever a better descriptive word? They sat down across from each other, in the chairs she motioned to.

For a few moments, they just sat and smiled at each other. Neither felt awkward in the other’s silence.

“Listen to anything good over the weekend?”

Dr. Rhena nodded and black curls fell across her sharp cheekbones. She pushed them back away from her face. “They had some good jazz on the radio late Saturday night.”

Frances nodded.

“We never really talked family. What’s your family like?”

Frances made a small sound, a groan. “Do we need to talk about them for the study?”

Dr. Rhena waved a hand. “No, I’d say the study is basically over. I just wondered. I didn’t grow up with musicians. My mom was a teacher that quit to stay home with us, of course. She taught me how to read.” A smile played around the thin tight mouth. “She was kind of a hippie. Made all her own soaps and whatever else she could. We had bees and chickens, and a big garden out back.”

“Dad?”

“Accountant. Mom taught me common sense, dad taught me equations. But twice a year we went to Dad’s brother’s house, where everyone played music. Uncle Henrik, Aunt Melanie, and my two little cousins, all immersed in it like some kind of weird cult. I mean, if they didn’t practice their instruments, they didn’t watch TV. Their music was my math, I guess. And I mean, my dad scoffed at them and made me believe they would be worse for the wear. The kids would grow up flighty and bad at arithmetic.” She laughed and leaned forward. “People were so narrow-minded back then.”

“And they weren’t bad at math?” Frances finished her thought.

Dr. Rhena looked up and around the room. “Oh, I don’t know, they couldn’t have been that bad. He’s a professor now and I think she’s in college.

“But it’s like seeing another kid eating ice cream, and you want some. Dad says no, you’ll gain too much weight eating that junk. Then one day you grow up and even though you eat healthy, you still fight with your weight because you have a thyroid condition. But you meet back up with that kid who’s now grown beautiful and healthy. And still eating the ice cream. It doesn’t make any sense—not fair, as my kids would say.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, I started eating ice cream.” She laughed.

Frances reached over and patted her violin. “This was my mom’s. She played, though I don’t remember much before she died.”

Dr. Rhena leaned forward and propped chin, fist, and elbow on her knee. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too. People speak highly of her, so she must’ve been great. And I do remember she got me started on music. She kept a journal.” Frances mimicked Dr. Rhena’s posture and leaned forward too. “You know, I was just reading part of it yesterday, where she talked about singing me to sleep as a baby, and said she could never stop in the middle of a song, even if I’d already fallen asleep. It just felt wrong to leave off in the middle. Isn’t that silly?”

Dr. Rhena tapped her finger lightly on her chin. “Now that would make an interesting study. Effects of routine singing to babies on their future musicality.” She shook her hair away from her eyes and sat up. “And your dad? What’s he like?”

“Oh, definitely not musical. He likes to listen to some old-time and country, but that’s it. Hates classical with a passion. Probably why I play a lot of it.”

“But he paid for lessons? I mean, it’s obvious you didn’t teach yourself two instruments.”

“When he could afford it. I took lessons off and on, but you’re talking fifty bucks a month. When you’re using bread as hotdog buns and eating spaghetti noodles five different ways, the music lessons get dropped. But I actually think I liked the times when I wasn’t taking lessons better, because I got to play whatever I wanted and there were no dumb recitals.”

Remembering those days elicited a mix of feelings, some good and some bad. Recitals no one showed up to. Starting up lessons after a long hiatus and feeling awkward about falling behind, getting to know a new teacher who tore apart the pieces she’d struggled to learn on her own. Making her feel like she didn’t belong in the world of people who paid consistently and never dropped out.

A new thought struck her and she leaned forward. “You know, another weird thing about music is that I think it made me love pretty sounds more than other people. And hate ugly sounds. Like, really hate. I’d never had a panic attack in my life until one day last year when I got trapped in line at the DMV behind an older woman. She had huge teeth, like horse teeth, and she was eating some nuts. The clacking and rattling sounds coming from that mouth were just unholy—she must have had loose bridgework and I’m not even sure what bridgework is, but something was coming apart. I broke out in a sweat and my heart was racing. I couldn’t breathe. I finally had to leave. That was the first time I realized how much I hate ugly sounds. I think music ruined that for me.”

Dr. Rhena smirked, amused at her little outburst. “I don’t like ugly sounds either, but I don’t notice them unless someone points them out.”

“But a beautiful sound will just melt me, like turn me into a puff of vapor and carry me away. I have to stop whatever I’m doing. It just overtakes me.”

“What about writing songs? How’d you get into that? I don’t see as many young people branching out into composition. It seems pretty impossible. The old blank page analogy—where do you start?”

Frances leaned back and followed lines of ceiling tiles and yellow fluorescent lamps with her eyes. She didn’t know. Lacing her fingers behind her head to support her neck, she tried to remember the first song she wrote. “I memorized every bluegrass and old-time song I’d ever heard, to make my dad happy, make him feel like he was getting his money’s worth out of my lessons. I think the memorization gave me a framework to see the mechanics of songs. So many are almost exactly the same—you find the beats, melody, high and low points, the breaths in between changes. Then after that, Allan told me I couldn’t write a song, so I did. But I didn’t store it away in my brain. It wasn’t very good. I couldn’t even play it for you now.”

“What did that do for your relationship? You memorizing all those songs for your dad?”

Frances sat up. “Nothing. It was all on his terms, only when he wanted it. I got tired of that.”

Dr. Rhena nodded slowly with her chin jutted out, but she didn’t look at Frances. “I understand complicated father relationships enough to know not to impose any of my theories.

“One part of music, I think, is all about communicating and having something to say. For some, it’s something they need to prove. Or it’s their shtick, their thing, and maybe that’s bad to say or judge-y, but it seems like some just use music. I really think other people could care less about communicating and are more interested in expressing their soul—putting sounds to their feelings. According to this neuroscientist, none of it’s bad, since it all accomplishes that wonderful structural connectivity. But I’m happy you play for you now.”

Frances smiled at her. “No one’s ever talked to me like you do. What am I going to do when you’re gone?”

Dr. Rhena smiled too and shrugged. “You have Dr. Kulka.” When she saw Frances’s expression cloud, she amended it. “Ok, I guess not. I’m sorry.”

“If I can be honest, I’m not sure I’ll last another semester in Bluegrass. I’ve been thinking of switching my major.”

“To what?”

She shrugged. “I like history a lot.”

“You like,” she echoed. Dr. Rhena drew in a deep breath and stared at the black hardshell case on the table. “Can I ask what playing feels like?”

Frances closed her eyes. Rolled them back in her head. Searched for the words to describe something so fleeting. Then her eyes flew open. “Have you ever been swimming in a lake or the ocean, like floating on your back? And it starts to rain and the little drops hitting your face and shoulders are cold and hard, like pin pricks? The gentle waves rock you. And the two sensations jumble your mind a bit. You can’t think of anything at that moment, because you’re feeling everything. I think that’s what it’s like.”

Dr. Rhena’s eyelids fluttered closed for a moment as if trying to recreate the sensation. Then she sighed and opened them. “You can’t stop playing. You need to find a different path, maybe classical, but don’t give up your music.”

“You don’t understand,” Frances started.

“I don’t have to understand to know that quitting may be a tiny bit shortsighted. I really think you’d regret and resent that decision.”

“I have to get to class for my final.”

Dr. Rhena got up and grabbed the case off the table. “You’re not mad I hope? I’d like to stay in touch and email.”

Frances looked down at the floor, then up at the kind and mystifying woman that seemed equal parts fierce intelligence and deflecting humility. “Definitely not mad and I’d love to keep up with you. And I’m going to give your suggestion a lot of thought.” She reached out for a hug at the door. “You can’t leave without my best.”

Her mind was cloudy on her way to her Heritage class. Before she stepped inside, Graham flagged her to one side. He’d submitted her paper to a magazine his old classmate edited and it was going to be published. She was thrilled and shocked at the same time. The wonder of the unexpected news buzzed her with adrenaline and caused her muscles to tremble uncontrollably. She whizzed through the exam, which was surprisingly easy, and was ready to get the exams for both music classes out of the way.

Outside the lecture hall for her seminar final, Frances was surprised to find Dr. Kulka standing beside the door, patiently waiting on the class to file in. She dipped past him quickly, but stopped when he called her.

“Frances, I want to talk to you about something.”

She turned and walked back out, surprised. Two in one day. But she didn’t initiate any pleasantries.

“Will you come about thirty minutes early to your performance final? I’ve got something to talk to you about.”

Dr. Kulka’s request was puzzling and caught her off guard. The image of being in an auditorium alone with him to perform her final was already overwhelming enough without the thought of coming early to discuss something. Unlike the lecture class, which had a traditional paper exam she could study for, the Old Time String Band required a performance of his choosing amongst three possible songs. And he would ultimately judge the black and white of whether it was good or bad. She wasn’t sure how to study for that.

When Frances didn’t immediately reply, Dr. Kulka became alarmed. “Will that put you into any kind of hardship?”

“No, not at all, I’ll be there.” Then without another word, she ducked inside. The end was in sight. That would bolster her courage.

Later that afternoon, thirty minutes before her performance, Frances walked into the auditorium, which was empty save Dr. Kulka. Only the lights around the main stage were on, and dim beams streamed in from skylights in the spire above. Her footsteps echoed lightly against the walls and alerted him to her presence. But she didn’t notice him turn around, not at first. She was absorbed in the memory of her friend on that same stage, playing his heart out, and of the final notes of his audition echoing off the walls. Has he touched a piano since? she wondered. It was too painful to think about how her act of spite may have destroyed his gift and passion for playing, but she made herself dwell on that summer day for a few moments more—she deserved to suffer the memory.

Dr. Kulka was ignorant of the inner struggles of his student, and he happily interrupted her thoughts. “I requested that you come because I want to discuss the music conference in Knoxville next semester. We need more student representatives than have signed up, and I noticed your name wasn’t on the list.”

For a moment, she blinked and stared at him. Then she shook her head as if she didn’t understand what consequence that would have on her.

“Have a seat.” He motioned to a chair in the front row, next to some of his papers. He took the seat on the other side of them, careful to make sure something was between, lest she have some notion they were meeting on equal terms, instead of as professor and student.

Her full attention was back on the present where it belonged. “I didn’t know the conference was a requirement of the class.” Her words were uttered humbly, but her features were hard. She knew full well it wasn’t.

He scowled. He couldn’t hide his disappointment in her. “If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about you, Frances, it is that you’re not a team player. You don’t have any sense of pride in your school or fellow musicians.”

Frances sighed, not with aggravation, but more with weariness at the unanticipated cost of this semester in time, emotional energy, and intellectual stretching. Maybe things would have been different if she’d never enrolled in the music program. With all of her heart and soul out in the open to be judged by her peers, she felt very small.

“What would you want me to play if I signed up?”

“We need something original, but in piano,” he said. “No one in your class embraces composing like you do.”

She measured him out of the corner of her eye. This same man that had openly opposed her desire to write her own music, and even ridiculed her in class, in front of others, now wanted her to surrender one of her precious melodies. “Anything?”

“Well, I’ll decide if it’s good enough, so no, not just anything.” His words were sharp and he sat even straighter in his chair, if that was possible. “Play me something I haven’t heard before.”

“That would be everything I’ve ever written, minus one.” She was unapologetic for her sassy reply and stepped onto the platform. The angle of the piano didn’t suit her. Frances didn’t want Dr. Kulka to watch her face while she played, so she grabbed the back of the huge instrument and pulled it around a quarter turn to the right. He would get no satisfaction from watching the revealing ticks and vulnerable nuances crossing her features that she hadn’t been able to master.

She sat at the keys, edging the sharpness of their corners into the meat of her inner fingers. Easy enough—she would play her favorite, the one that reminded Frances most of the things she loved. If he didn’t like that song, he wouldn’t like any others either, and she would be relieved from the pain of offering any more of them as sacrifices to his greedy but fickle opinion.

Frances bent to the piano with every conviction she knew. She played through the natural pauses she had built into the song, through the arches and trills with spirit. Her fingers knew every key and pressed so delicately that the notes tinkled through the air like cold rain in March. When she finished, the last sounds shrouded the auditorium richly around them. She clenched her jaw and dared him to break the reverie with the first ugly noise of speech.

Dr. Kulka shifted forward in his seat and stared at the floor in a kind of meditation. He was taken aback by how good the song actually was and how such a creature as Frances could ever imagine, much less execute it. But his nature would never allow him to say that. The last thing Frances needed was someone puffing her up. She would never be open to learn anything from him if he did that. And yet still the song lingered in his ears. He was having trouble arranging his response.

Frances turned around in her chair to glance back at him. The respective period of silence had come and gone, and she was beginning to feel the awkwardness of the pause. “So?” She didn’t mask the distrustful tone of her question.

The flush of her cheeks from the stress and excitement of performing transformed her, and he savored it a moment. She was breathtaking, in the arrangement of her features, but also in the fierceness of her spirit shining through. Never had he met someone so set apart in opinion or governance before. On one hand, she was a humble learner, and the next, she was a vicious beast, lashing out in animal instinct to preserve and protect what she cherished. The problem was that he never knew which mind she was in.

“I thought it was good,” he said. “The bridge building to that first refrain was a little contrived. We will have to improve it a little bit.” He gripped the armrest of the auditorium seat at that last part. It was a trivial opinion and not one he was even convinced about, but he felt some constructive feedback needed to be imparted. As he had always been told in his own studies, everything can be improved upon, and the sooner she learned that the better.

Frances stood and walked down the steps, right over to where he sat. But she didn’t sit. “I’ll play it, but I’ll not change anything about it.”

It took less than a second to determine the beast was in charge of her emotions. Her head was thrown back in defiance, her eyes narrowed and sharp. It would do no good to fight over something so small.

“You won’t be playing it.” He stood as well, which left very little room between them. He expected her to take a natural step back, but she stood firmly planted. “I need you to transpose it and help Katharine learn it. We have a few months before the conference in February.”

Frances laughed. Her long hair was loose and wavy strands tumbled and shook over her shoulders, making her appear very young. She crossed her arms. “Why in the world would I do that?”

Dr. Kulka straightened to his full height in an attempt to break even on this fight. He didn’t like having to measure her eye to eye, but the Kulkas were all smallish men, so he had to use his other assets, like his unwavering resolve. “Katharine is our strongest pianist in the program. She will do your song the most justice. Everyone agrees she plays beautifully.”

His words stung more than he would have guessed and brought her incredibly low.

The graceful shoulders drooped and she blinked rapidly as if he had struck her in the face.

“Frances.” His tone was sympathetic and he reached out to place his hand on her arm, but she twisted sharply away from him and backed up. “Frances, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and you have to know you’re the strongest violin player we have in our program. I daresay the best we’ve had in years. Why do you think you have to be good at everything?”

Frances drew her shoulders back once more. It was amazing how similar this conversation was to the one she’d had with her brother after meeting Lewelyn for the first time. “Play something for me.”

“What?” He was confused by her request and the turn of their conversation. Was she stalling?

“I want to hear something you’ve written.” She walked over and took her original seat, next to his papers. “I’ll sit here quietly and listen. But, I played for you, and you owe it to me to play me something in return.”

He knit his stern pale brows together and pondered in silence for a moment. But he couldn’t justify any reason to refuse. So he shrugged. He had every occasion to play for others in his lifetime and was often hailed to perform, so he didn’t waste much time thinking about it. Unlike those early years of perfecting the craft, these days his hands never trembled in anticipation and his stomach never knotted with anxiety. He sat at the fine instrument and launched right into a melody, choosing his thesis song that had received such commending reviews. Thinking about how impressive the song actually was while he played, Dr. Kulka was disappointed he had never revisited it in the lapse between his thesis performance and these last six years of teaching. Something came alive in him for a moment that hadn’t been summoned in ages. But it was a flicker and then it was gone.

Frances sat as still as a gray spring moth on the pegboard wall of the garage, listening to her teacher play—the student with all ears and senses attuned. But instead of finding herself awed or humbled, she was disenchanted. She wanted her heart to be touched or her spirit to be lifted. That intense pleasure she experienced listening to another person choose their notes and silences wasn’t there. Dr. Kulka was a machine. There was no one on the face of the Earth that would find fault in his execution. But the music didn’t breathe or pulse. After he rounded the last notes, he stood abruptly, and she did the same, mirroring his movement. There had been no pause, no gathering of the last notes in respectful silence. Dr. Kulka had finished and stood right up, business as always.

As he stepped down the stairs, or rather bounded down them, Frances walked to meet him, hand outstretched. He took it eagerly, with rare happiness, and congratulated himself on impressing her.

“What’s this?”

The polite words she returned were cold and empty. “I want to thank you for helping my decision to change my path.”

Dr. Kulka ripped his hand back from her. “What are you talking about? What do you mean?”

“Only that you’ve shown me a valuable lesson, one I couldn’t have learned in my remaining years here in school. I think I would be better suited to changing my degree, or at least my focus. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide what would be best for me, and you helped me settle it.”

He raised his eyebrows in concern and shook his head. “You’re a fantastic player, and I don’t think you should give up so quickly. If I had known you would have that reaction to my playing, I would never have agreed to it.” He leaned back against the teaching podium. “Believe me when I say that with hard work you can become every bit as accomplished as I am.”

Frances couldn’t hide her reaction of surprise, but she could bite back the sarcastic response of her mind, seconds before it winged through the air at him. Out of respect for his position, she took a second to compose herself and arrange her reply. “I don’t wish to play like you. I’m happy with where my music takes me and what I feel when I’m playing it.” She hoped he would understand what she was not saying as much as he understood what she was. But it was evident in his confused and slumped posture that he wasn’t. “You play without hunger, without conviction. In fact, I felt nothing. You’re so good—so technically good that no one could find fault. But if my mind can think it, my heart is probably not feeling it. And that’s what I care about.”

“I don’t understand.” Dr. Kulka was puzzled and irritated with the implication he was less than perfect, especially coming from an unrefined musician birthed from the mountains and almost certainly ignorant of the significance their musical predecessors and pioneers had in her even having a shot at a musical career. “You’re basing a decision of immense weight on some flighty feelings?”

He was upset and desperate for any excuse to make her second-guess herself. She wasn’t going to give him an inch. “I’m going to save my music for myself. I’ll find a way to be successful in other ways, so no one will ever be able to judge or criticize something that was never meant for them in the first place.”

He folded his arms in the exact same way his father had always addressed him, when he needed to emphasize the importance of a matter. “Frances, give it a few days and think it over before you do something you’ll regret.”

He didn’t understand. And she was under no obligation to explain any further. “I hope you will consider that piece as fulfilling the performance part of my exam. Because I will not be playing another thing for you.” Frances turned and walked out into the fresh cold air, relieved and excited, and more than a little apprehensive as to whether Dr. Kulka would call her bluff and flunk her for not performing one of the required pieces. She couldn’t bear to stay in his presence any longer.

It would have been a blow to flunk a class during her very first semester in college, but luckily for Frances, Dr. Kulka didn’t punish her impertinent suggestion or lack of a final. He gave her an A and told himself she was overtired and would be back again the next semester fresh and keen to grow as a musician. Those events would have been forever inscribed on her mind, had not her niece, Morgan, come into the world the very same evening and taken the spotlight. All she would remember from her troubles that day was the overwhelming relief and freedom at their conclusion. She would have no trouble recalling the hospital room and every hair on that tiny beautiful head, as if the baby she was holding were her own.

Alan,

Who would have known you could create something so beautiful? You really have to see her. She is incredible—long delicate fingers and dark hair. You will be in love, like all of us are. Dad, especially, is over the moon.

I included a little picture of her for you. Take care and merry Christmas.

“She sounds sad,” Perry said.

“What makes you think that?” Alan would have never admitted it, but his heart was heavy with loneliness and he was missing his family, especially at that moment. He hardened his heart against them all.

Perry didn’t respond. Alan wouldn’t have understood his explanation anyway. But he could sense her sadness in the letter. And he missed her terribly. “I’m leaving for home tomorrow, and I’ll be back next week, after the holidays.” But he spoke the words to an empty room, because Alan had already left. He was a shadow that slipped away predictably whenever the subject turned to family or home.

Perry knew it was going to take a huge effort on his part to make sure he didn’t drive into the mountains during the seven days he was home. Because that was the one thing he wanted to do. Luckily, these short visits were usually packed and planned by his mother in advance, so he would invariably have no free time to disappoint himself.

 

Chapter Eight

It was amazing how fast two years had flown by since the arrival of baby Morgan. Well, almost two years. Frances glanced anxiously at the child, who was standing at the base of the old ladder leaning against the massive apple tree, bundled heavily against the cold November wind. Every apple Frances dropped onto the ground, Morgan bit with a fierce exaggerated chomp, and then immediately abandoned it for the next one. She searched for Amber, hoping she was coming back to help her. She’d gone inside an hour ago to make some tea.

“Morgan, stop biting all the apples. We are going to take them to the neighbors and I don’t want brown teeth bruises on them.”

The baby gazed up at her in complete boredom, her stringy bangs blocking her little blond wisps of eyebrows, as if she didn’t hear what Frances said. Then she bent over, grabbed another apple, examined it, and finding it free of marks, bit it viciously. With a point of her stubby little finger, mottled purple in the cold, she motioned up at her temporary caregiver. “Wanna climb ladder.”

“No. Ladders are for big people.” Frances had learned the toddler was perfectly willing to accept adult authority in most matters, but only if the reply came right away. After that, the window of opportunity closed and Morgan decided she was entitled to whatever she was obsessing over, whether it was a scramble up the ladder that would lead to a fall, or a bite of a sandwich she was going to spit out and call yuck-yuck.

Morgan dropped her apple into the bucket with a satisfying thud and resumed searching the ground for unbitten apples.

Frances applied a little self-control and focused her attention upwards, into the tree. It was easier not to pay attention to what Morgan was doing than to fight over the issue. Never before had she understood what the phrase ‘pick your battles’ meant. She loved the girl so much her heart could burst from the fullness, but on the days she babysat, night could not come early enough. At the end of the day, she would crumple fully clothed onto her bed in exhausted relief.

When Amber finally came back out, they gathered what was left of the apples on the ground, and Morgan followed them to the car. She knew most of her neighbors didn’t need any apples. It had been a bumper crop year and they had already gathered together at the civic center to make apple butter with cinnamon red-hot candies in old traditional copper kettles, and entered pies into church picnic bake-offs. But there was always room for visiting and sharing. Plus, she knew Morgan enjoyed all the extra attention. Old Ms. Johns always had candy ready at a moment’s notice, while Mrs. Ramey had a room full of toys waiting on a grandchild or little neighborhood child.

By the time they returned to the little house in the orchard after hours of visiting, Lewelyn’s car was parked in the driveway. Some days, if the weather was nice, she would sit on the front porch and wait, but on such a blustery day she would probably let herself into the house. No one in Roan locked their doors.

“I see your mamma’s car, Morgan.” Frances liked to get the girl pumped up. Morgan’s uninhibited joy was a powerful lifter of her head and was more precious than anything Frances had ever experienced. “I’m going to miss you when you go home with your mommy.”

“Want to come?”

“Aw, aren’t you adorable?” Amber reached back and pinched one of the girl’s soft legs tenderly.

Frances glanced back in her rearview mirror. The baby girl stared mesmerized at her tiny outstretched hands as they opened and closed into little fists. “Are you trying to call me like you do the cat?”

Morgan grinned slyly, but didn’t take her eyes from her hands.

Lewelyn walked out to meet them.

“I know your mamma missed you today.” Frances climbed out of the car with a wave to Lewelyn as the young mother retrieved her squirming bundle of energy from the backseat.

As they walked inside, Lewelyn smothered her baby with kisses then turned around. “How are you, Amber?”

Amber walked along behind them and made faces at Morgan. “Oh, I’m fine. Mama says I need to start dating someone or she’ll have me committed, but otherwise I’m good. I’ve got enough work to keep me out of trouble.”

Lewelyn laughed. “Let me set you up with someone at work. That’ll scare your mama.”

“How was work?” Frances asked.

Lewelyn sat on the couch wearily, allowing Morgan to wiggle out of her arms to play with toys on the floor. “It was long. The days are always long, lately.” She worked at one of the chain restaurants that had cropped up outside Elizabethton after Carter County reversed its dry county legislation.

“You wouldn’t have to work so hard if my brother would do the right thing and send some money.” Frances knew she shouldn’t continue renewing that bitter subject, especially since Lewelyn herself never did, but she couldn’t help dwelling on the topic more and more these days. It was incredibly hard, raising a baby and now a toddler, alone, on one minimal income.

The girl shook her head. “No, he’s the one missing out. You all help me. And we get to share her.”

Amber had walked in with them, but had never taken a seat. From where she was leaning on the edge of the kitchen counter, she interrupted them. “Hey, ladies, I’ve got to go. Frances, I’ll see you Sunday at dinner.”

“Are you coming?”

“I’m inviting myself.” She walked over to hug them both.

After Amber left, Frances stood to help the struggling baby pull a puzzle out from under a heap of picture books. There was no sense trying to talk if Morgan was frustrated and squalling. Once the baby was quiet and happy again, she turned her attention back to Lewelyn. “So is it true you’re thinking about moving to Johnson City?”

Lewelyn turned with a new energy and light in her eyes. “Oh, he’s wonderful. You would love him. And no, I wouldn’t move there unless we were married, you know, because he’s a pastor and it wouldn’t be right.”

Frances fiddled with the string that had come loose from her secondhand, white-on-white damask couch. Her whole house was filled with furniture that wasn’t reflective of her tastes, but of deals that were too good to pass up. The best stuff was put into her store or sold online. She pulled at the string roughly as she obsessed every detail surrounding Lewelyn’s insinuation that her relationship was heading toward marriage.

Even as she was brooding over all the changes that might take her small niece farther from her, she couldn’t help but be grateful someone found something special in Lewelyn. Motherhood had changed and deepened her character. It had taken Frances a little while to overcome her earlier impressions of Lewelyn, and it had taken Lewelyn a little while to process the abrupt halt of living for herself and putting responsibilities above pleasures, but they had all reached a very happy place. And they all loved and depended on each other to make sure Morgan had everything she needed.

“I hope you’ll grow to like him after all.” Lewelyn pressed on when Frances didn’t reply. “I know it’s been hard for you to see me getting so religious and all of that.”

Frances shook her head. “No, not at all. I don’t think you will mess up, going that way.”

“Then it’s because he’s a Hernshaw?”

Even the mention of the name caused every muscle in her body to tense. To think about Wade being her niece’s step-uncle, or even Dave and Marion being step-grandparents infuriated her, and she gritted her teeth to keep from opening her mouth and saying something hurtful. “I don’t have much respect for them, it’s true.”

Lewelyn moved from her place on the couch to sit closer to Frances. She placed a warm, soft hand over Frances’s cold, chapped one. “Come with me to church tomorrow. You’ll see how wonderful he is.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Morgan, never one to be outdone or left out, hopped up and ran over, stumbling over the mess of toys she’d dropped all over the floor. She threw her chubby arms over their hands and jealously cried, “My mommy.”

Frances lay in bed that night, staring at the low, popcorn ceiling and tried to connect the off-white globs into pictures, the way some children did while stargazing with their parents. Well, she had never done that. Not unless it was with her mother and she couldn’t remember everything from that long ago. She examined her own prejudices carefully. She kept the darkest ones to herself, like her belief that people didn’t really change. But tonight, she needed to believe it was possible for Elliot Hernshaw to change into an unselfish, caring person who would be well-suited to marry an uneducated girl raised in the hills with one small child born out of wedlock. After all, if it wasn’t possible for a Hernshaw to change, how could she ever believe her brother might one day come back and take on his responsibilities and keep her family together, right there in Roan where they belonged? Plus, she argued with herself, she never knew Elliot personally, only through secondhand characterizations and idle gossip. Maybe he was ok.

Frances drove into Johnson City the next day, still troubled by her questions. She had formulated an excuse not to drive over with Lewelyn and Morgan, even though the temptation to spend time with the baby was always hard to resist. But she wanted her first glimpse of the Hernshaw clan to be from afar, before she was thrust into their notice.

And so, with that mindset, she entered the huge building through the farthest set of double doors, slipping past the greeter the moment the exuberant woman became engaged in shaking hands with someone. Frances was stunned by the size of the church and the number of seats and churchgoers milling around, ready to fill them at a moment’s notice. It was by no means comparable to Roan Mountain Baptist, which held fifty people on a good day.

She ducked into a dark corner and studied a thin, hunched man in a wheelchair, who was also sitting in a corner closer to the front of the church. If it was Wade, he was a changed man. She couldn’t tell. A woman entered from a front side door, which was painted deep purple to match the banners covering the walls. She was elegantly dressed for her age, and her face was beautiful and her smile genuine. Yes, Marion would be a welcome addition to Morgan’s life, Frances decided with a change of heart. Something maternal and loving radiated from her.

“Frances,” Lewelyn called.

She’d been spotted. Lewelyn was waving her over, and the crowd was getting thicker every second. How could quiet, reserved Lewelyn feel comfortable in this setting? Frances walked toward her, pausing every few steps as people clumped into conversational groups all around and in front of her. As she inched closer, a hand reached out to grab her arm. She was poised and ready to yank it back ungraciously from the overbearing, well-meaning small-group leader who was surely trying to engage her, but instead, she was surprised to find her old professor.

“Dr. Kulka!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know you went to church here.” Her voice trailed off as she noticed who he was standing next to. “And you’re friends with Elliot, I see.”

“Pastor Hernshaw, now,” Elliot said. He enjoyed correcting her overly familiar greeting and hoped his lack of pleasure at seeing her was evident. “What are you doing here?”

Frances bristled and was about to lash out, but she stopped. Lewelyn was walking toward them, her whole countenance beaming as she forded through the throng of people. So instead, she didn’t answer, but instead turned back to Dr. Kulka, who was studying her. His eyes went back and forth between them, curious over her tense interchange with Elliot. Meeting her again so unexpectedly was a happy surprise, especially in such a different setting than school.

“You made it.” Lewelyn greeted her with a quick side hug when she reached the silent trio. “Elliot, do you remember Frances Garner? She is Morgan’s auntie.”

Elliot raised his eyebrows and stared at his girlfriend wide-eyed, lips pressed tightly together. “Of course I remember her. And I remember her brother, who caused so much grief to my family.”

Lewelyn winced at his anger, regretting having foolishly instigated it. She was always trying to learn the best subjects to avoid. His sharp mind turned her words in ways she never anticipated. She was learning to think before she spoke, but all had been forgotten in her excitement over introducing two important people in her life.

Elliot could tell his words hurt her, but for the moment he didn’t care. This was his church—he had made it. It stood as an edifice to his determination, especially since his college pursuits had never been evangelical. And after the accident, when he decided to switch to the ministry and follow in his father’s footsteps, his family hadn’t reacted with the happiness or relief he expected, so he had that working against him too.

It grated against him that they held Wade as better suited to become a pastor. That’s what everyone had proclaimed over him from a young age, when he had first charmed them with his flowery praise. Elliot scoffed. He had no time for people who clamored for the insincerity that put them at ease but gave no firm foundation—no solution. It was all smoke and mirrors. Elliot had watched Wade slipping down the dark path for years, but he hadn’t dared approach his father. Dad loved Wade more than the rest of them and had been crushed after the accident. The entire mess was laid at the feet of the Garner boy, with no allowance for their shared history of small-time crime or their eager friendship.

Being alone in the house with his parents’ grief after the accident was unbearably stifling. Even if Perry had stuck around for the family and hadn’t run away from it all, he wouldn’t have been much help. He was too weak and eager to forgive. So it fell on him alone to pick up the pieces and give the family a future. And that is exactly what he had done with his church.

As he made a hasty appraisal of Frances, he realized his brother had been blinded by something even worse than moral weakness—love. Perry had carried on about this girl since the first day he met her, and yet there was very little in her features to account for such admiration. Elliot turned to his friend, Dr. Kulka, one of the few companions he had been fortunate enough to acquire since moving to Tennessee. “And you know Frances how?”

Dr. Kulka’s stern brows drew together for a moment, perceiving Elliot’s disapproval. “She was in our music program for a short time, before she decided to drop out.”

“I decided to pursue other things,” Frances asserted, determined to take back some ground. A group of musicians mounted the stairs to the main stage and started playing a loud upbeat song, so Frances was relieved from the tedious conversation with two people she had no desire to talk to. The fact that Elliot didn’t like her and wasn’t happy she was in attendance didn’t surprise her. And yet, as many times as she decided she’d finally grown used to being hated, she could never get comfortable with the feeling.

As people began filling their respective seats, remembrance of the day she’d entered the little Baptist church in hopes of observing its newest inhabitants flooded Frances. She never would have guessed how things had turned out.

Lewelyn was leading them to a seat somewhere in the front.

“I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

Lewelyn turned at first to question her, but then nodded. “I’ll see you this afternoon for Sunday supper, then.” She reached out and squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.”

Frances bolted out the front door and would have escaped altogether, had not someone called her name. She spun around to find Dr. Kulka jogging after her.

“Wait a second,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“The Hernshaws and I are not overly fond of each other.” From the puzzled expression on his face, she realized he didn’t know their history, or at least not all of it. “Did you know they lived in Roan for a short amount of time?”

He nodded. “The older brother got into some kind of car accident and was injured.”

It was her time to study him. Was he playing dumb? “You’ve changed your hair.” She decided to turn to a safer subject. “It makes you seem younger.”

“Well, I am young.” He was pleased at the turn in their conversation and had no reason to hide it.

Frances didn’t like his warm and friendly tone, as if they had always been good friends. Or the way he was staring at her, like he had missed her face. She was fixing to make an excuse to leave, but he interrupted her.

“Do you still play?”

She stared at him in shock for a moment, not sure what to make of him. “I do, rarely, when I find a little bit of time. You know, I’m doing a bit of writing, and thanks to Dr. Rose’s encouragement I’ve even had two articles published.”

His face clouded at the insinuation that he himself hadn’t encouraged her to succeed.

Frances was thrilled her target had hit the mark. “Well, it was really great to see you, but I’ve got to run.” She backed a few steps away from him. She held all the cards for once.

“Wait.”

Grudgingly, she stopped and waited for him to spit out whatever he was trying to say to her.

“Can we grab some coffee sometime? Or maybe dinner?” He stepped forward. “I know we may not have left on the best terms, but I really do admire you.” She was shaking her head. “Just coffee,” he pleaded.

Frances had always found “no” to be a difficult word, especially when someone was nice or flattering. If someone was rude, she could say no as easily as great grandma Durham’s icing knife could cut through three layers of German Chocolate cake. She stared at this man she once detested, trying to formulate an excuse, and realized the sting was gone and the hurt mostly forgotten. Dating wasn’t an art she was practiced in. And so, for lack of a ready excuse and an ease with rejecting others, Frances found herself agreeing, however reluctantly. “I have class late on Tuesdays. If you want to meet, that would be the only day I could.”

“Sounds great.”

His eager response and unmasked happiness troubled Frances on the way home far more than learning the Hernshaws were now so well off. She replayed the exchange through her mind dozens of ways, contriving responses that would have relieved her from having to meet him again. It was clear he had somehow formed an attraction to her. She shook her head again. It was as ridiculous to think he would find her an attractive and worthy date as it would be to think Elliot would be eternally happy and well-suited with Lewelyn Beatty. No, there must be something else he wants. But then she would remember one of his admiring stares and repeat the whole shaky sequence. Frances found the drive home, usually picturesque and breathtaking, an unrelenting agony of emotions.

Her dad’s truck was parked out front when Frances got home. He rarely came over to her place, though it was a quarter-mile from his. She dutifully set aside every Sunday afternoon for Sunday supper, but otherwise the two of them had few exchanges. Her mind was preparing for all manner of things he could be there to say. When she walked inside, he was lying on the floor fixing one of her broken cabinet doors. “Dad, what in the world are you doing?”

He grinned at her sheepishly as though he had been caught. “Saw this was broke last time I was over to fetch the young’un.”

“And that’s all?”

Father and daughter regarded each other with suspicious curiosity, each of them having something on their mind but little skill or inclination with which to unburden themselves. Al had never been blessed with the sensibility to understand when his kids were going through some internal struggle. And recognizing his lack of this faculty through no fault of his own, his kids usually forgave and let him off the hook. But it was lonely for all of them.

Frances walked over beside him and turned on the back burner, then reached over top of him to get a big pot out of the far cabinet. It was her turn to make the potato salad for supper.

He closed the cabinet behind her. “I told you why I was over here.”

Filling the pot with water, she shrugged and let it go. It didn’t matter.

“Did you go to church with Lewelyn this morning?” he asked. “If so, you’re back awful early.”

Frances used her foot to shove his legs out of the way so she could open the fridge. The kitchen was really too small for them both. She got out the round little new potatoes and started to wash them. “Dad, how many women did you go out with before you married Mom?”

Al jutted his chin out from side to side, left, right, left, which was his way of sorting his memories. It drove Frances insane. She would rather he crack his knuckles, which was also awful. He gave the doorknob a good pull to make sure it was steady. “I guess only Alan’s mom.” He grinned again. “Guess you could say I’m not too good with women.”

“Wasn’t Mom the lucky one?” She mumbled the words under her breath.

“You got a man interested in you lately?” Al stood and leaned on the cabinet closest to the sink.

Frances glared at him for a good second to make sure he understood it was never right to insinuate a girl only had one man interested in her. Or zero. Or too many. Even if it was true.

“Well?”

She scrubbed the potato in her hand so hard that she rubbed the color off. He was never going to understand women, much less her. “Yes.”

Al smiled his brightest. “Well, that’s great. Is he someone I’d like?”

Her eyes grew wide. This was a new and scary thought—Dr. Kulka and her father having a conversation. She turned to him and shoved the bag of washed potatoes at his broad chest. “The cutting board is under the cabinet near your knee.”

“I think you should give ‘em a shot. You don’t know how many of ‘em might come along.”

“Oh you think so, do you? You think he’ll be the last one before I’m an old hag and too ugly to tempt anyone?” She swirled the knife she’d pulled from the drawer through the air in a circle. “You are starting to sound like Amber’s parents.”

He threw his hands up. “You’re so full of studying and filling your head that you don’t make time for anything else.” He took the knife from her hand as soon as she stopped whirling it around. “That’s all I’m sayin’. And as for Amber, I don’t understand a pretty girl like that not fetching a handsome young man either. You both work too hard.”

“Yeah, maybe.” She was reluctant to talk to anyone before she had a heart-to-heart with her best friend. Unfortunately, it was going to have to wait until after Sunday supper.

From what Al understood of his daughter, he would hear no more about the young man, at least not right away, so he went to work cutting potatoes in silence. Ten years ago, he never would have believed he would prepare food or even cook a little, but how things change when you’re without a helpmate.

That evening as Frances was putting the cornbread and potato salad into her car to drive down for supper, she stopped for a moment to breathe in deeply and appreciate the crisp air and the way it always heightened her senses. “I listen to people, and they tell me to give him a chance, or change, try new experiences and branch out. But then I come here and you haven’t changed in thousands of years. You’re as beautiful and rich as you ever were.” Oh, if only the mountains would speak back. They could tell her what to do.

 

Chapter Nine

November and December were cold and held very little excitement for the people of Roan, other than the bustle and anticipation of Christmas. Few families had a comfortable amount of money, but toys could be found cheaply, and the children’s joy didn’t hinge around the costliness of their gifts. Neighboring houses overflowed with folks eager to exchange warm blessings, and churches gathered together food and presents for those who had nothing but their dogged spirit to survive.

Deep white snows filled in the gaps of Frances’s favorite places, then melted away, leaving a soggy black earth and brown grass mess. But that didn’t stop her from showing Morgan the intricate ice waterfalls that formed along the ever-weeping precipice. Hot apple cider was plentiful, and the smell of it mingled with the sharp fragrant oak burning in fireplaces all across the twisting road to the valley. Frances detailed these fine points into her memory, since this would be her last Christmas helping care for Morgan.

Last month, Elliot had proposed. It wasn’t like any of them were surprised, but the couple had set a fairly quick wedding date. Each family member had to reckon the major life change of extricating their habits and decisions, which for two years had heavily centered around the little child, and think of themselves as free again. And they didn’t want to be. Every activity with the child became even more precious.

One December morning, Frances knocked at the door of their newest neighbors, the Wrenfields, a retired couple from Abingdon. “Goodies for me?” At the sight of Mrs. Wrenfield, the little girl had immediately cried for a treat, holding out her hand and supporting it with the other underneath, as if it would become too heavy after all the chocolates were loaded onto it.

Frances was appalled at the greedy baby, but then again, she wasn’t. “I’m so sorry, Carolyn,” she said. “This child has been spoiled the past few weeks with too much candy from neighbors and now I’m afraid she asks for it. You don’t need to give her anything.”

The woman placed her hand lightly on her chest and smiled at her. She was pleased to see the adorable tot, even if she was demanding. “Oh, she’s no bother to me. I’ve got just the thing.” She disappeared but popped her head back around the door to say, “Y’all come in.” When she returned from the kitchen, she had a nice fat chocolate truffle, which she placed squarely in Morgan’s palm.

The girl’s eyes grew big and round and she squeaked out her babble version of “thanks” before gobbling it in one mouthful.

“You should have bit it in half,” Frances said. “Careful not to choke. And you only get one.”

Carolyn watched with pleasure as Morgan licked her palm, which was disappointingly clean and chocolate-free. “People usually want to give, and babies seem to be the only ones who remember how to ask. They bridge the gap between the rest of us.” She pet the top of the girl’s silky fine hair like she was a puppy. “I wish my kids were this small again. All I ever did was fuss at them too.”

Frances pursed her lips with mild annoyance. “You know she’s not my child.”

“I guess I did know that,” Carolyn said. “But it’s easy to forget when she’s always with you, and you obviously love her so much.”

“And I’m so hard on her.” Frances finished her sentence with mild irritation. It was time to move things along. “You asked me here to check on a buffet you wanted to consign?”

“It’s this one here in the dining room.” Carolyn pointed out the dining room as she made her way in the opposite direction toward a back hall. “You take a look and I’m going to get a toy for Morgan to play with.”

“She’s bringing you a toy, but we can’t stay long,” Frances told the child. She walked over to inspect it after Carolyn returned with a small plastic happy-meal type toy. She never left Morgan alone, especially in someone else’s house.

“How are things going with your professor?”

Frances straightened after examining the chest. “I think we can sell this pretty easily if I list it online. And if your price is right,” she added. “Have Mitch bring it by the shop Monday. I’ll open early for him.” It might be something Amber would like for her dining room, but it was hard to tell.

After exchanging pleasantries and apologizing for leaving so soon, she gathered Morgan in a hurry. Henrik was coming out in an hour or so to join their Sunday supper, and she didn’t want Carolyn to keep her. Plus, she didn’t like some of the gossip she’d already heard about him being so educated, and an outsider at that. But most of all, Frances wasn’t sure if she was actually dating him or not. It was so strange to hear him referred to as her professor. They hadn’t formally spoken about it and had only been seeing each other casually, as if each was waiting to determine whether the other was going to take the relationship to the next level.

In the car, she voiced her justifications. “We’re both really busy and don’t have time for romance.” She loved Morgan’s responses to her outbursts.

Morgan raised her eyebrows in an excited expression and met Frances’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I pee-pee in the potty.”

“Oh, nice. And random.” Frances laughed. “That is a far greater accomplishment than anything I’ve done all stinking year.”

She pulled into the driveway at her dad’s house. “Yay, Amber’s here! Now let’s go get Grandpa.”

Frances walked into the kitchen after passing Morgan off to her dad, but she found it empty. “Aunt Lindy coming?” She walked back into the living room and found her dad on his hands and knees, clipping barrettes in his hair and pretending to be a pony. She watched him nod. That was all the reply she would get. He was playing with his granddaughter.

The chicken was already in the fridge marinating, so Frances measured out the flour mixture for breading, then paused to pull a letter from her pocket. It was addressed to her brother and contained a compelling invitation to come and watch his daughter’s play at church. But she couldn’t bring herself to send it. He had never once replied to any of her letters or even acknowledged receipt of them. And even more irritating, he had never once sent a Christmas or birthday card, much less a present to his daughter. It was her decision and goal for the upcoming year to strike him from her notice.

“What’s that?” Aunt Lindy and Amber had come in quietly behind her and Aunt Lindy swiped the letter from her hand. She was generally nosy, but thankfully her heart was large and her cooking unsurpassed, so her sins were forgiven. “It’s a letter to your brother.” She skimmed it, folded it back up and pressed it to Frances’s chest.

“You waste your time on him.”

Amber sat at the table, and made a growling noise, which meant she agreed with Aunt Lindy. But she would wait to fuss at her friend in private.

“I wasn’t going to send it.” Frances took the buttermilk and the green beans out of the fridge.

“Get me that poultry seasoning while you’re at it.” Lindy started soaking pieces of chicken in the milk, but stopped and walked over to Frances. “Are you going to wear that?” She didn’t expect an answer. “You’ve let your hair become a mess. There’s no style to it.” Her jaw hung open in mock distress. “Look, she’s got a ponytail crease in the middle of her head for crying out loud.”

“So I wear a ponytail sometimes,” Frances said. “I don’t think that will shock anybody.” She banged the colander of rinsed green beans hard against the side of the sink.

“Oh Frances, it’s more than the ponytail. It’s the faded jeans, that same old shirt you’ve worn a million times and that ugly yellow sweater. It shows you don’t care.” Lindy went back to her chicken, satisfied she had presented an honest appraisal to the girl. It wasn’t normal that this was the first night she had a boy over to the house for family supper. She should have had half a dozen by this time, and Lindy was sure the clothes and hair had something to do with it.

Amber stood up and tousled the long waves, twisting and rearranging them a little more attractively. She’d always admired Frances’s hair, but fussed at her in private about not keeping abreast of trends. Even Lindy was proving her point, there was no way she was going to side against her best friend. “I think you look beautiful.”

Lindy shot her a dirty look for not standing by her. But these girls had been thick from the moment the Wrights had brought her home. “Tell me and Amber a little bit about your boyfriend.”

“He’s not mine.”

“Then why are we doing all this for him?” Lindy lodged her hands on her hips.

“We were going to eat whether he showed up or not.” Frances snapped the last of the beans, relieved her work was done, threw them into a saucepan with some bullion and ham, and got out of the kitchen. “I’m going to check on Morgan.”

“What? She’s with your dad. They don’t need checking.”

Frances waited until she made eye contact with Amber, motioned with her chin to say, follow me, and walked out. In the living room, she sat on the couch, thankful for an end to the interrogation. Inside, Amber made an excuse to exit. As she watched her dad reading to Morgan, she wondered if he had ever read like that to her. “Dad, did I remember to tell you Henrik might bring his younger sister? I’ve never met her.”

He was distracted by a toddler drumming on his face, but managed, “That’s fine.”

“Oh, you didn’t tell me that.” Amber’s eyes got large. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve got to go home and change.”

“You’re fine.” Frances echoed Amber’s earlier comment, but she was already gone. She would come back, fresh and scrubbed, smelling like lavender and wearing a dress. And when she saw Henrik’s sister for the first time, Frances wondered why she hadn’t spent a little more time doing the same, though she hated to admit Aunt Lindy had been right.

Henrik’s sister was a beautiful, fair-haired and pale complexioned girl named Annalise. Though they shared very similar features, her mannerisms and conversation were warm and engaging, in complete contrast to her brother’s. Tonight, however, he was pleasant and accommodating and a complete departure from his normal self. He walked right over to her dad and aunt after introductions were made and struck up a conversation about bluegrass. It was as if he had known them his whole life. Within minutes of entering the house, Annalise was sitting beside Amber on the floor, snuggling Morgan, who was instantly thrilled with this beautiful new playmate, and Henrik was regaling her father with stories about his family’s Danish heritage and their transition to America.

Frances was grateful to hear him talk so unreservedly with her family and it thawed her heart toward him. In fact, when they first arrived and her dad was having a hard time pronouncing his odd-sounding name, he even suggested her dad call him “Henry,” which was gallant. She’d spent many twilight hours lying awake, mortified by imagined scenes of his reactions to her family’s peculiar manners and ignorance. Ignorance wasn’t the only problem, though in truth she was the first to attend college in four generations on her father’s side. In the end, it was their dismissive attitude toward anything intellectually reaching that upset her. How many times had she come home, excited to share some newfound information with someone, anyone, and they had laughed her out of the room? But so far, if Henrik noticed anything amiss, he hadn’t let on. More than a few times throughout the evening, he anticipated a gap in the understanding of a topic and shifted the conversation, always with a pointed glance at her. His eyes rarely left her for most of the night, especially, she noticed, when she was having quiet conversations with Annalise.

At the end of the night, when Frances had walked them out to their car, Lindy had a short conference with her brother. “I think he’s totally taken with her.” She spoke softly, because she knew Amber was eavesdropping from the kitchen, where she’d volunteered to load the dishwasher. Every time she spoke a word, the clanking stopped.

“And why shouldn’t he be? But is she taken with him?” Al’s terse response masked his worry that Frances was in over her head.

When Frances walked them out to their car, Annalise returned her warm hug and gave her a slight peck on the cheek before climbing in. Henrik held back a little, by the house, to say goodbye privately. He hoped he had done a good job of impressing her and her family. She’d been so reluctant to open up to him, but nothing fueled him quite like a challenge.

He stepped over into a shadow, away from the porch light, and drew her to him. “I had a wonderful time. Thank you for inviting me over.” He clasped his hands behind her slim waist and noted with happiness she didn’t try to get away. “Your family is very kind to have me over.”

“I’m sure it’s not what you’re used to, but thank you for treating them so graciously.” Frances cast her eyes across the ground to avoid his intense stare.

Henrik lifted her chin until she was facing him and then kissed her gently.

It was the first time he had kissed her. Frances’s heart lifted out of her chest, right into the swirling mist above them. She looked at him in wonder. Could it be she really did have feelings for him, after all? She was feeling confused again.

“Come out again tomorrow?” she asked. “I would love to take you to see the snow on the Frasier firs. It smells amazing.” She beamed at him with unfiltered happiness.

He smiled triumphantly, as if he had finally reached a milestone. But he shook his head. “I can’t come tomorrow. I’ve got a meeting with a colleague. And anyway, I don’t care much for tromping through the woods.” He didn’t notice the slight drawing of her brows or her small step backward. “I assume you’re coming to the Christmas play Wednesday night, since Morgan is in it? I’ll see you then.”

Frances stood very still as he kissed her again, this time a peck, before walking to his car.

“He doesn’t care for tromping through the woods.” She’d been quiet the rest of the evening in the hopes that her dad and aunt would understand she didn’t want to talk. She hadn’t even accepted Amber’s invitation to come over after dinner and make fun of the Bachelor on TV, which was really an excuse for gossiping. But when Lewelyn came later that evening after work to retrieve a sleepy Morgan, she could finally put words to her worries.

After explaining the whole situation to Lewelyn, not even holding back his kiss, she asked the question that had been troubling her all evening. “What does that mean? He does know I’m a mountain girl, doesn’t he?”

Lewelyn was accustomed to Frances’s fretting and usually played along. But this time, she landed a little more on Aunt Lindy’s side. Frances should have had more boyfriends by now, and she was fixing to drive this one away too because of something minute. It was time for a hard truth. “Not everyone is as in love with this place as you are. In fact, you’re probably a little bit odd.”

“Wait a minute, why am I odd? Isn’t it ok for me to like what I like?”

Lewelyn stepped down the stairs, hugging Morgan to her chest against the cold. “It’ll all work out. If it’s meant to be, it will work out.”

Frances hated that the thrill of her first kiss was quickly trampled by the same ponderous doubts she’d faced all along. For once, she wanted to gloat in happiness and good feelings and be in love without her nagging mind getting in the way. You act like it’s the first time you’ve ever felt something, she reflected. But she forced it out of her mind. It was time to be done with thinking for a little while.

“Good night all,” she called into the kitchen. She needed to clear her head and there were two choices—playing her violin and tromping through the woods. Funny those are the very two things Henrik doesn’t appreciate about me. Her mind kept turning over resentful ground.

Back at the house, she lifted her mother’s violin and turned it over and over, thinking about her mother playing it. Sliding her fingers over the fingerboard, this time she imagined not her mother’s slim fingers gliding over it, but Morgan’s. That was a beautiful daydream. Happy or sad, busy or bored, she knew she could walk away from her violin and it would always be as sweet a moment when she next played. She danced the bow across the strings and appreciated the steadfast hum. Action. Reaction. Control. Tension. The next few hours passed in the familiar company of Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, and her favorite unsung heroes of folk. Surely no one would ever be alone who knew the comfort of music.

Frances enjoyed two blissful days of contentment as she shopped for the last presents before Christmas, delivered a few promised items from her shop, and gathered together enough grocery items for a family feast. Unlike the past two Christmases, her heart wasn’t burdened with speculation on her brother and whether he would magically appear. Instead, she was ploughing forward, into the future.

She arrived at the church late for the Christmas Eve service, because she’d tried to fix her hair and makeup, by herself, and was dismayed to find the parking lot already full. Amber had agreed to help her, but at the last minute had been called away. Her best hope was that someone had saved her a seat. Inside, the band was already singing and people were making their way to their seats, so Frances was relieved she didn’t have to mingle. She hadn’t been back since the day Lewelyn had begged her to visit.

Her dad and aunt were sitting beside Lewelyn, near the door where the children would come through. There wasn’t an extra seat for her.

“I hope it’s ok, but I was waiting for you and saved you a seat next to me.” Henrik walked over and took her hand in his. It was ice cold.

She nodded, surprised and a little disappointed she wouldn’t be sitting with her family, but she shook it off and followed. Her disappointment returned, however, when he led her to the second row, directly behind the Hernshaw clan. As they scooted in, Marion turned and caught her eye. As they stared at each other for a moment, change flickered across her countenance. She blinked rapidly, and pressed her lips together into a downward frown. It was an unflattering expression, like one a petulant young child would make. But it was gone in an instant.

Frances dropped her gaze, not sure how to act. Within a few moments, Elliot joined his family and turned to search for his girlfriend, annoyed she wasn’t sitting with him. His search passed over Henrik and landed on Frances. He stared into her eyes for a dizzying few seconds. All of the hate she had hoped was in the past flickered across his drawn features. He still blamed them.

The elder Hernshaw stepped onto the stage after the first song died down. “Normally, my son takes over the pastoral duties here, but I wanted to share some exciting news.” He slapped his long slim fingers on the side of the clear plastic podium and rocked back and forth ever so slightly. “Not only is it Christmas Eve and we have a wonderful program for you, but I’m also happy to say I have all of my sons with me today. That hasn’t happened in a few years.”

Frances stiffened in her chair. Where was he? Had he watched her come in? Did he notice she’d been holding hands with Henrik? Her stomach turned and her face flushed. The crowd around them murmured and turned around, trying to locate the oft-absent son. She turned around as well, and immediately locked eyes with his, as if she’d been drawn magnetically. She had no need to scan the sea of faces. Her eyes knew the way.

Perry smiled at her, a sad sort of smile, full of meaning, which she returned. The time came and went for her to turn back around and focus on the stage again, but she didn’t want to. Perry had never taken his eyes off her.

With a slight leftward motion of his head, he led her to search the shadows of the church, where people were standing as a sort of overflow. She was reluctant to pull her eyes from his, but she rifled through all the faces until she stopped on one she recognized—her brother.

The color drained from her face and her mouth formed his name. She looked back at Perry and this time he was smiling with his whole face, as if to say he did it for her; he brought her brother back. Frances tried to find her brother again, but she couldn’t.

“Everything ok?” Henrik’s tone was sharp, and he was clearly annoyed she wasn’t facing forward like everyone else, as if she were making a scene by being different, which he hated.

“Everything is wonderful.” For once, it really was.

The Christmas Eve program was very sweet and touching, and Morgan stole the show with her over-exaggerated antics. The preciousness and wonder of every tiny action was heightened tenfold for Frances, because she knew that somewhere, in that same building, her brother was watching his little girl for the first time.

When the service concluded, she was in a hurry to get to the back of the church and catch her brother before he disappeared again. She didn’t know if he was planning on ducking out afterwards and leaving without saying anything to the family.

She didn’t make it very far down the aisle. Henrik wanted to talk to Elliot, but he didn’t want Frances to disappear either. He grabbed her arm firmly and held on. Making small talk with the Hernshaws was the very last thing she wanted to do. In a panic, she searched the crowd for Lewelyn, but realized she would be collecting Morgan. She caught a glimpse of the back of her dad’s head, but only for a second before he walked out the door. There would be no reason for him to wait on her. In a pout to herself, she let out a puff of air through her teeth.

“You haven’t changed much.”

She could hear Perry smiling by the tone of his voice. Frances spun around and caught herself before throwing her arms around his neck. His smile vanished and a frown took its place, but only for a moment.

“Oh, but I have. And not entirely for the better.” Her tone was regretful, but her face reflected anything but that. She wanted to reach out for his hand or offer him something beyond a smile, but Henrik had turned around and was fully aware of the stranger’s presence.

“This is my youngest son, Perry,” Marion said to Henrik. She was beaming in the full glow of motherly pride and happiness since he was back.

“Yes, you seem familiar. Perhaps from when you’ve come home to visit?” Henrik stuck out his hand in a friendly manner, sizing the boy up. Whatever he felt, he hid it well. After all, the Hernshaws had been good friends to him.

“Yes, I’m familiar with who you are, Dr. Kulka.” He shook his hand. “In fact, I once auditioned for a slot in the music program.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember. We get so many…”

“It’s alright, it was forgettable.” He turned to his friend. “Unlike Frankie here. She’s an incredible fiddle player.” He spoke with pride, as if the years had melted between them and he was every bit as excited at her talent as he was the first day of discovering it.

“Yes, she plays the violin very well.” Henrik rested a hand on Frances’s shoulder. He didn’t bother trying to mask the tone of reproach from his voice at hearing her called a pet name in such a familiar way. “She has an incredible talent.”

Frances looked at him askance for his words of high praise. They sounded hollow and ridiculous.

Perry ignored Henrik’s obvious correction and took the conversation in stride outwardly, but deep inside, he was furious at being talked down to. It was fairly obvious Frankie meant something to the man, and they were probably dating, but it was too painful to sit by while some self-important jerk claimed her affection. And so he made an excuse and left.

Frances was furious and devastated. This wasn’t how she imagined the evening going. Henrik tried to engage her in a conversation with Elliot, but clearly neither of them wanted to speak to the other.

“He’s leaving early tomorrow morning. He says Christmas day is the best and cheapest time to travel.” He enjoyed gloating over Frances’s awkward situation.

“It’s time I got started for home. They’re calling for snow and it’s a long drive back.” She turned and left without another word, which was somewhat cold to Henrik but she didn’t care.

She walked out into the freezing air and scanned the emptying parking lot for her brother’s car, or any car she could imagine her brother driving. If she wasn’t lying to herself, she was also searching for Perry. He couldn’t leave so soon! Out of the shadows to her right, a motion caught her eye, and Perry stepped out smiling, as if to say he knew she would come find him. But two seconds later, he had ducked back out of sight.

“Frances, how could you leave like that, without a proper goodbye?” Henrik had followed her out. “Sometimes, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. It’s like one second you’re this well-mannered, intelligent, incredible girl, and another you’re a wild, immature child, who doesn’t know her own mind.”

“You’re right. I hide behind the well-mannered girl. But who I am at my core is the uncivilized, passionate child, who is trying her best to act grown up. I take care of my responsibilities and that’s all anyone can ask. If I want to wake in the middle of the night and hike up Carver’s Gap to count stars, I do exactly that. And I’m never leaving Roan, not for anyone.”

He winced, and she felt a twinge of regret. She’d never meant to say all of that. The memory of that one sweet kiss plagued her for a moment as she studied his face, made almost handsome by a moment of vulnerability.

“We could get along together, but not without a huge sacrifice from one or the other of us.”

He nodded. “You’re right. My sister tried to warn me. You’re too different.”

Frances raged inside but tried to control herself. Surely Annalise perceived something her brother didn’t, and did them both a favor by saying it. She stuck out her hand. “Let’s part as friends?”

“So that’s it? You’re not even going to try?” His pale face turned red instantly, all except his pale eyebrows, which looked even whiter. “I thought we had something.” He was furious and refused to take her hand.

Frances waited a few long seconds and then withdrew her hand. She’d been so eager to get home, hoping against the odds that her brother would be there waiting for them. But she realized how silly that was. He didn’t wait around after the service, so it was evident he didn’t want to reconnect. In fact, she wouldn’t have even known he was there had Perry not shown her. And somehow, she was going to have to keep it from the rest of the family to save them the disappointment of missing him. “We all have our regrets. We live with them. Maybe I’ll regret this too, but I have to say goodnight.” She turned and walked into the parking lot, feeling older and sadder.

Chapter Ten

April felt colder than it ever had before, probably because it was lonelier. Lewelyn was married. The photos Aunt Lindy had taken at the wedding were of a beautiful bride and a borderline-smiling groom. Annalise was there, as a last-minute fill-in when she was too sick to make it, along with two others. And there was a very handsome Perry as a groomsman. He was beside Annalise in relatively every picture, but she figured that was how the photographer had placed them. It made sense—they were the two most attractive people in the wedding party, aside from the bride and groom. If she had been there, maybe it would have been her standing beside him.

“Look at this one of Morgan.” Aunt Lindy had bought the dress Morgan wore to the wedding and wanted to show it off. “She was a proud little ducky in her satin and lace.”

She held up one particularly beautiful candid shot of Annalise laughing. “Remind me again why Lewelyn chose Annalise? I know she told me, but I’ve forgotten.”

Lindy absentmindedly shuffled past a few unflattering photos of herself that her brother must have taken when she wasn’t paying attention. She leaned over to the one Frances was holding up. “Oh, I’m sure it’s because Annalise works full-time as a receptionist at the church. They probably see each other all the time.” She abandoned the pictures for a minute to grab an armful of the toys Morgan was dropping all over the floor. “You need to clean up your toys, Morgan.”

Lindy placed her hands on her hips. “Why do you care if they are friends?” She hadn’t known Frances to be jealous very often, but she could plainly tell the girl was struggling.

Frances shrugged. She’d been struggling to be positive since she had gotten sick weeks earlier, a terrible, raw cold that had turned into pneumonia and knocked her out. Missing Lewelyn’s wedding was a blow she hadn’t anticipated. Her disappointment had turned to self-pity, and then bitterness, and finally defeat. Though she was improving, she was impatient to get her full strength back. Since her aunt’s question didn’t require a reply, and since she couldn’t pretend to be happy at the moment, she decided to spare her from a juvenile, unpleasant reply by remaining silent.

A sharp yelp from the toddler, who had tripped over some of the toys she was supposed to be cleaning up, brought Frances’s attention back around to the situation. She was struck by the fact that when the newlyweds came back from their honeymoon, they would take Morgan with them to live in Johnson City. Would she ever babysit again? With a huge effort, she walked over, scooped Morgan into her arms and ran her fingers through the long baby-fine hair, digging them in at the bottom where the springy curls were bleached white by the sun. Nothing smelled sweeter than Morgan’s delicate, fragrant cheek, and Frances helped herself to a big whiff of it and a kiss, before setting the squirming toddler back down.

“Wanna go outside?” the girl cried in a frenzied panic when she noticed Frances pulling on her shoes to leave.

“You can come home with me tomorrow. Today is Aunt Lindy’s day.” Amber was going to come spend a few days with her, to help wrangle the girl.

Aunt Lindy knew a tantrum was brewing. She lifted Morgan under one arm. “We’ll walk you out.” Once they were outside, she released Morgan onto the damp grass and watched as she took off running for the bench under the weeping cherry tree.

“Your grandma Garner would have loved watching you enjoy her favorite bench.” Maybe it would have made up for what would surely have been disappointment in Alan’s behavior. Or her own, she chided herself. She was sorry for her bad attitude. But her guilt hadn’t been strong enough to overcome her overwhelming sadness that morning. Lewelyn Hernshaw. The name said it all.

Instead of heading straight home, Frances found herself driving through familiar places and thinking. She’d enrolled in summer classes so she could graduate early, at Christmas. But that morning, in the midst of her pity party, she had considered skipping out on them and taking a welcome break from school. She wound up at her shop and went inside, but for some reason recalled the piano she had sold. As much as she was drawn to focus on the negative that day, she couldn’t help but remember one of her music lessons with Perry, when she’d brought a book over and set it on the bench next to him. Until then, she’d never realized sitting on a book may have been weird—after all, the bench wasn’t a good height for her. But how he had laughed at her, and forced her to laugh too. If she still had that bench, she wouldn’t sell it for a hundred thousand dollars.

As she walked back out into the parking lot, a green truck pulled beside her. “Frances Garner,” Duke called out. “Dad said I could probably find you wandering. And here you are.”

For an instant, she was overjoyed to see her old friend, who didn’t make it home very often now that he was established in Kingsport. But then she faltered. A girl around their age was sitting in his passenger seat, listening intently. In a low timid voice, she said, “That’s cause your dad knows me pretty well.” She motioned discreetly to the girl. “I’m headed home now, if y’all want to come in and visit?”

Duke shook his head. “I can’t. I came to get you.” He parked the truck and jumped out. “Frances, this is my girlfriend Krystal.” He motioned over his shoulder.

Frances walked over to the passenger door and stuck a hand through the open window. “Any friend of Duke’s is a friend of mine. I’m happy to meet you, Krystal.”

Krystal shook her hand limply before dropping it. In Kingsport, Duke’s friends were entirely composed of males, more specifically, with the boyfriends of her own female friends. The whole group was mostly alike in their interests. The guys all worked at the factory, while the ladies were split between finishing college and working various office and teaching jobs. She wasn’t sure what to think about her boyfriend having an attractive, self-assured female friend, especially one not of her own acquaintance. She pursed her lips and began to twirl a piece of her hair as she stared at him, her brows drawn together in deep contemplation.

Duke shifted uncomfortably. It was never easy introducing a girlfriend to a female friend, but luckily, he didn’t have many. He decided it would be best to make short work of the whole affair, at least until Krystal had time to thaw to the idea of Frances. He remembered meeting Perry for the first time, and how awkward that had been at first. Even though he had always known he was never meant to have Frances for himself, she was very special to him, and a friend he wanted to keep for a lifetime. It was important the meeting between her and Krystal went off without any glitches.

“Do you ever hear from Perry?”

Her eyes widened, surprised at the shift in conversation. “No.” She shook her head. “We aren’t really friends anymore. Or not much, anyway, since the accident.”

Duke nodded, vaguely remembering the accident and all of the trouble it had stirred up. “I heard about it.” He motioned for her to follow him. There was no sense involving Krystal, so they walked a few feet away from the truck. “My dad found something of interest to you in his barn this morning. He thought maybe I should bring you back to our house so you can collect it.”

Frances was immediately interested, remembering the day Warren helped her find her mom’s violin. “What is it?”

Duke shook his head. He wasn’t going to tell her. “It’ll take just a second. You can ride with us.” They walked back over to the truck. “Climb in and Krystal can slide to the middle.” The house wasn’t far down the road.

“I love this land your parents’ house is on.” She breathed in the smell of the damp earth dreamily, staring out the open window. It brought her right back to their days of playing ball in the evenings together. “Isn’t it a relief, when this crazy world seems turned upside down, to know you have some land? No matter what happens, you still have your home here.”

Krystal would have died before living like a hermit out on some mountain while the rest of the world moved forward. Duke, for his part, wasn’t sure. Living in Kingsport and bringing in good money was what allowed him to imagine a future. And it also provided him an opportunity with an amazing girlfriend. There had never been much prospect for him in Roan. And yet, he couldn’t deny that the truth of Frances’s words stabbed at his chest. “It’s nice I have a place to come back to, after all’s said and done—and that it will be the same in seventy years as it is now,” he agreed. He didn’t miss the sidelong flash of apprehension Krystal directed at him. He reached out to place his hand on her knee, so she would know he didn’t ever intend to move out here. But she moved it at the last moment before he got the chance.

Duke turned in at a long, unmarked driveway and they bounced along the pitted dirt drive until they reached the house, which was set far back on the property. Behind the house was an ancient two-story, hand-hewn log barn, as well as a split rail fence to contain the back five or six acres for grazing sheep and a cow.

Old man Duke was done with farming, other than what was left of the livestock and his small garden. His son had been a surprise baby, arriving nearly twenty years after their first two girls. Once young Joseph was settled into a comfortable life, he would be ready to downsize and live more simply. After all, life was never lacking in surprise and entertainment. Take this whole business with the Garners. The truck was making its way up the drive, so he walked out to meet them.

He opened the truck door. “And how’s my girl?” He always welcomed a visit with Frances. She reminded him so much of her mom, who had played with his oldest daughter when they had been young. He wrapped his thin arms around her shoulders when she climbed out.

“I’m doing ok. I’m a little low with this wedding business of Lewelyn’s, but it will all turn out fine.” She mumbled the words into his worn canvas work shirt that smelled like old man aftershave.

He pulled back from her so he could look her in the eye. “Well, I have something of interest to you that may make you feel better.”

Frances’s tawny eyes sparked with anticipation.

They were so fresh and bright compared to his milky, faded blue ones, tired from a lifetime of watching.

“That’s what your son said.”

“Follow me inside.”

Frances did as she was told, noticing at the same time that Duke and Krystal stayed behind. She stepped into the house and paused long enough to adjust to the dim interior. A man was sitting at the table in the eat-in kitchen and he turned around when they entered.

“Frankie.”

She blinked a few times. Perry? The silhouette wasn’t the right shape. Who else called her Frankie? “Alan?” The image of her brother came into focus so clearly, she couldn’t mistake it. “What are you doing here?”

Frances turned to question the old man. “You said you found him in your barn? I don’t understand.”

Alan got up from the table. He had grown too thin for his wide and well-built frame. Walking over to where she stood, he reached a hand out timidly, but she wouldn’t take it.

“I saw you at the Christmas Eve play.” She knew her tone was accusing, but she couldn’t help the flash of anger, especially when she realized he assumed she’d be happy to see him. “I hoped you would come back to the house afterwards, and maybe even meet your daughter, but you never showed.” She watched as he hung his head. “Thank goodness I never told them you were there, because they would have been heartbroken. I knew you were a loser and wouldn’t come by.”

“That’s enough, Frances.” Duke’s tone was stern, but his grip on Alan’s shoulder was not, as he steered him back to the table. “Finish your lunch, Alan.”

Frances watched her brother at the table as Duke made his way over to where she stood. Alan closed his eyes for a moment, exhausted. His face was worn and rough, as if he had lived badly over the last three and a half years, rendering him barely recognizable.

“You know, in the beginning, I never understood what your ma saw in Al.” Duke spoke quietly so she alone could hear. “He wasn’t good enough for Ellie—would never be good enough. We all judged the same. But it turns out he was. She reminded us that none of us are good, or perfect, or worthy.” He took a stick of peppermint gum out of his pocket and folded it into an accordion before popping it in his mouth. “I’m going to wait outside. Y’all come out whenever you’re ready.”

Frances sighed. She didn’t know if she was ready to let go of her anger.

Alan sensed she was watching him and turned around. He pulled out a small plastic box from his pocket and held it out. “It’s a magnet—one you used to play with when you were little. I’ve held onto it.”

Frances walked up beside him and took the red object to examine. “It’s an animal crackers box.”

“Do you remember playing with it?”

She shook her head.

He took it back and put it in his pocket. “Well, you did.”

Frances reached over and gathered him into a hug, like she would have done with a child. He resisted for a moment, as if he had grown accustomed to minimal affection, but eventually sank in, resting his forehead on her shoulder and taking a moment to be vulnerable. “I’m glad you’re back.”

Frances thanked the kind old man as they made their way out. Duke had the truck cranked and ready. Krystal ducked past them and into the house as they were leaving, but Frances noticed she was watching them from the window as they backed down the driveway.

“My place is fine, Duke,” she said. “I don’t want to shock Dad or Aunt Lindy by bringing Alan by—not yet.”

When they pulled into the driveway, Frances glanced around. A slim female, dressed in green, ducked into the woods beside the cemetery.

“Go on inside and help yourself to some soap,” she told her brother at the door. “The door isn’t locked. Amber is supposed to be coming by later to help me, so lock the door behind you or she may get more than she bargained for.” Then she slipped into the woods behind the barn, with the intention of overtaking the lurking stranger. Perhaps it was a hiker? Many of the hiking trails did lead back to the house, because the paths were Frances’s own creations. There were some really splendid wildflowers and native orchid varieties growing along each of them, so it wasn’t out of the question for someone to wander that far from their cabin or campsite.

Frances was already exhausted from the events of the morning, but she spotted the woman ahead, emerging from the woods back into the cemetery after deciding she was once again alone. She couldn’t let her weak body stop her. “Marion.” The word escaped from Frances’s mouth so quietly that it didn’t even draw the notice of a nearby rabbit grazing on some evening primrose. It was clear Marion didn’t want to be discovered, but Frances couldn’t let her escape without first finding out why she was there.

“Mrs. Hernshaw, I thought that might be you.” This time she spoke louder.

The woman startled at the sound of Frances’s voice and froze in place.

She was gaunt and her smooth skin rested thinly over her fine facial structure. Stark bony shoulders held up clothes that four months ago had flattered her attractive figure.

“Are you ok, Marion? You’ve lost a lot of weight since Christmas.”

Marion stared but didn’t respond for a few moments. The fires of deep reflection were churning in her eyes. “This reminds me of the first time we met. Do you remember?” she asked. “You were running through the forest, like a scared, lost little bird and I wanted to take care of you.”

“I remember.”

“You were running from someone.”

“Your son, Wade.” Frances watched as realization dawned on the once-beautiful face, and she let Marion’s pain fill her and reach the places that longed for vengeance.

Marion’s demeanor changed from one of sadness to that of scornful defense. Her features drew tight and hard and she stood straighter. “One day, you’ll have children, and you’ll pray very hard none of them will go astray. Because you can never stop loving them.”

It was Frances’s turn to look grim. “Then pray I never have kids. It’s hard enough loving people that don’t love you back. No need to add the pain of realizing they are worthless.”

“My son Perry could tell you about loving someone who is difficult.”

Frances wasn’t happy about Marion turning the conversation to Perry. “What have you come here for? You aren’t picking Morgan up until Saturday evening.”

Marion glanced up and then all around her, as if she heard someone calling her name. But there wasn’t a sound, apart from the quiet chirpings of nature and the silken rustling of the wind through the brush. She scanned the horizon until coming to rest on a section of open sky and nestled ridges. She walked to the end of a row of small headstones. “This spot—is it promised to anyone?” Glancing at her feet to make sure she wasn’t standing over anyone first, she turned to Frances.

Frances stood there, thinking.

Marion turned back around to her view of stacked blue and green, and lifted her arms above her as a child might. She threw her head back and lifted her face.

It was jarring to observe a composed woman behaving so irrationally. Frances didn’t like it at all. “None of the plots are spoken for, but they are saved for family.”

Marion let her arms fall heavily by her sides, but she didn’t immediately lower her face. “I knew the mountain could lift my spirit one more time.” She turned and stepped toward Frances, beaming with complete happiness.

“I won’t need this place much longer, because where I’m going, my soul will always be lifted. But it would comfort me to know my body can rest in this spot that has brought me peace.” Marion reached out for Frances’s hand, and held it between both of her own, like she’d done on that first day they met. “I need to be buried here. Your mother would have understood. She would have gladly given me a place. We loved each other.”

“What happened?”

Marion curled her lips into a slight frown. Deep lines had formed there in the short time since they lived in Roan. “A man. We were stupid to let him come between us.” She squinted her eyes and studied Frances, not sure what the girl already knew. “And he didn’t amount to anything of real value. Nothing you can hold here in your hands.” She gripped Frances’s hand a little tighter. “You, Wade, Elliot, Perry, you came from true love, not infatuation and lies.”

Frances drew her hand back. Even though she was curious about anything having to do with her mom, theirs seemed like a bitter tryst that might taint her precious memories.

“The plot’s yours, then,” she said. “You can have it. That spot right there, right where you were standing, is the best on the whole mountain. And think of it as a gift from mom, not from me. Because I wouldn’t have given it to you.”

Marion nodded exuberantly and looked around once more, then walked over to her spot. She dug her toe into the ground and kicked it to unearth the grass in clumps. “There’s your marker. You promised—it’s mine now.”

She turned back to the girl. “I have to get going. I’m sorry we couldn’t have been friends. I was too hurt by what happened to Wade. And I knew Perry loved you.” She lowered her head and swept her foot over the tall grass. “It was too much to lose two sons at once.”

Frances wanted to deny what Marion insinuated about Perry, to comfort her and explain he had never loved her, but instead she wordlessly agreed so the woman would go on her way. There was no point in dredging up the past.

Back inside the house, Frances searched the fridge for something to cook for dinner. But instead, she let the handle slide out of her hand and the door close. She crumpled into the dining room chair and savored the way it cradled her tired body.

“What does Morgan like to eat?” Alan came up so quietly behind her that she jumped.

She grinned, marveling at how similar the daughter was to the father. “She’ll eat anything. She’ll take whatever she wants right off your plate, without asking.”

He nodded, as if to say ‘that seems about right.’ He sat at the table and folded his hands under his chin, his appearance weary and displaced.

Frances stood back up with an effort and pulled out some sausage and eggs from the fridge. “I don’t have much in here. Seems it’ll be breakfast for dinner.” She set them on the counter and turned around. “I’m still bothered by the idea of you coming back into our lives like a whirlwind. Especially when you never bothered to call, write, or send money for the baby.”

“I was ashamed. And I had no money.”

“You must have been earning some money, working salvage for Warren,” she accused.

He shook his head. “I didn’t work for Warren.”

Frances stepped closer, no longer content with fixing dinner. “Just so you know, Aunt Lindy is bringing Morgan over later, and I’m trying to decide whether or not to kick you out before then. You better explain everything before I make up my mind.”

Alan sat back in the chair with a sigh. “Perry and me went to work for Warren and we moved into a crummy apartment together. I stayed behind to work at the warehouse while they went to South America. But I wasn’t really working. I was messing around, and when they got back Warren fired me.” He paused for a moment. It was hard to confess to his kid sister, especially when she was ruffled. “Perry let me stay in the apartment, but it didn’t last long ’cause him and Warren didn’t get along, and Warren was always pushing Perry’s buttons about you. So we moved to Knoxville and both took jobs at a fancy restaurant, first as table bussers and then as bartenders.”

Frances shook her head. There was only so much disappointment one person could take. She turned back to the eggs and sausage. “Did you quit the job in Knoxville?”

“I did. Not long after I got it.”

She took in a deep breath and stared at the ceiling.

Alan appreciated getting everything off his chest. “Perry saved all his money from working with Warren, and enrolled at UT. He takes classes during the day and works at night. I was never around him much after he started school.”

“So Perry is going to college.” She was happy about that. “And you made him pay for everything while you sat around unemployed?”

Alan pushed back from the table in exasperation. “Dammit, Frankie, why can’t you understand that people do what they want? No one forced him to pay my way.”

Frances was disappointed in her brother and embarrassed at the same time. She rested her head on the counter. “No, I won’t ever understand. I’ll never understand why Perry would take care of you when you are such a terrible friend.”

Alan shrugged. “He always tried to make me want better for myself—said it was the same he’d want done for his brother.”

Frances stood and started cracking eggs on the side of the cast iron skillet. She threw the sausage in and began chopping onions, appreciative of the repetitive and mindless motion.

Alan got up and walked over beside her, taking the knife and finishing the onions. “You never did like Wade, if I remember.”

“No, I didn’t. He was a bad influence on you.” She turned to the pantry for some bread.

Alan laughed. “No, little sister, I was a bad influence on myself. I still am.” He studied Frances for a moment. “You know, I think there was probably another reason Perry treated me so upstanding.”

“So, are you planning on staying in Roan, or are you heading back to Asheville after a few days?” Frances purposely avoided his teasing by deflecting with a question.

“To be honest, I’m not sure.” He turned toward the door, which was opening.

“Relax, it’s Amber.”

Amber walked in stooped and shoulders drooping, her eyes puffy and her complexion pale. When she found Alan standing there in the kitchen, she stood up shock straight and her eyes flew open. “What in the world?”

“Well, if it isn’t little Amber Wright! You haven’t changed a bit.”

She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, and this jaw flapping was repeated several times before she pointed at him. “Before I get into this,” and she swirled her finger around in his general direction, “who’s that stalking around the graveyard? He’s creeping me out.”

They both went to the window.

“What in the world? What’s he doing here?” Alan asked.

Beyond the barn bobbed a dark head and cowboy hat, the rest hidden by a low hill, but she immediately recognized Warren. When he stepped into view, the short, compact silhouette settled it. “Everyone’s coming out of the woodwork tonight.” She turned to Amber with a pleading in her eyes that was immediately understood.

“I’ll finish making dinner. And scolding your brother for all of his terrible choices.” She grinned at Alan. It was good to see him after all these years. “Or better yet, I’ll make him finish making our dinner.”

“Breakfast for dinner is his specialty.”

Frances stepped out into the chilly afternoon shade and crossed the distance between the house and graveyard.

Warren turned around long before she reached him and watched her approach. “Are you happy I’m here? Or disappointed?”

Frances shivered against the cold breeze. “Neither. More like surprised and confused.”

He grinned at her. “I saw Marion with you and wondered what she wanted. Is she sick?”

The fact that he had been watching them irritated her. But she kept her emotions in check. “There are more reasons for visiting a cemetery than being sick and dying, especially when the cemetery has one of the most beautiful views on this side of East Tennessee.”

“Ain’t that a fact. You know, we all used to come up here. Your mother, Marion, and me. Did you know that?”

Frances shook her head.

“And you knew we were sweethearts, your mother and I?” he prompted.

“You told me you were friends.”

“But you didn’t believe me then, and you don’t believe that now.” He walked along the edge of the cemetery, stepping carefully over headstones. “I see her there.” He squatted beside her small headstone. “And there’s her granddad, Sam.” He stood, walked to the end of the row, and stared out like Marion had done, as if he were curious about what she had been looking at.

“I wanted him to be my granddad too. As clever as the entire lot living on Roan Mountain combined, but with more passion.” He craned his neck sideways to study her. “I wanted to belong, here, to a family. To have what she had.”

“What stopped you?”

He laughed in that ugly, cynical way she hated. “You want one clean answer and I can’t give it to you.” He held his tanned hands out, palms up. “I’m like a little boy who builds castles out of sticks and then smashes them. I get the girl and the family and the home and I crush it under my heel. I can’t be happy.”

“Then try again—build it again.”

He turned to her, his eyes narrowed and his face strained. “Build it with me.” He reached out and grabbed her arm right below the elbow. “I’ll treat you like a daughter, like you deserve to be treated.”

Her eyes widened and she glanced over her shoulder to make sure Alan wasn’t watching their bizarre exchange from the window. When she was satisfied he wasn’t, she shook off Warren’s touch as gently as she could and changed the subject. “I don’t know much about Marion. I’ve always been curious about her, but had no one to ask.”

Warren’s face clouded and he frowned at her delicate refusal. His broad, straight shoulders slumped and his voice became dull and monotone. “She came between us. I was trying to get your ma to come away with me, and Marion was workin’ to poison us against each other.”

Frances shook her head. “I don’t understand why she would do that.”

He turned his head slightly. “Not very experienced in love?”

She stood taller. “Wait a minute. If you had the girl and the family you always wanted, why were you trying to convince her to leave everything?”

He shrugged. “Building and destroying castles.” He nodded out toward the valley. “I’d like to buy this land here, too.”

“You bought some land?”

One corner of his mouth wrenched into a strange grin. “So you don’t know. That explains a lot. Now I understand why you treat me like an intruder when really it’s all mine.” He watched her for signs his words were sinking in. He pointed at the tree line directly beside her and swept his arm in a stiff arc to the right. “This is all mine. It has been for the past few years now.”

Frances shook her head and pushed her bangs back from her damp brow. She was clammy and cold all over. “There’s no way,” she said. “This land belongs to my family. It always has. I told you I wasn’t going to sell.”

Warren smiled, baring his perfect, bright white teeth. “Maybe you weren’t, but your pa was. It turns out he had a debt to pay after your brother crippled that kid, and he needed the money. Lucky for me, I knew enough to ask at the right time.”

The earth slipped out from under her as the sky rolled backward. She stumbled, but somehow caught herself. Surely he couldn’t have—that land belonged to the Durhams, not to the Garners, not to her dad. It was her heritage. It was the one thing that mattered after she was dead and gone. Through a fog, she realized someone was calling her name, but she couldn’t focus. Something about wanting the last piece, the orchard and cemetery.

Warren was a little scared by the girl’s intense reaction. It was true he had come with the purpose of shocking her if she refused him again—he wanted to make her feel every bit as miserable as he was. But when she blanched and stumbled around like an injured deer, it was more than he had anticipated. He had never expected to feel remorse. Reaching out a hand to steady her, Warren held her loosely as she took a few wobbly steps.

“No, you’re not telling the truth.” She shook off his touch.

“I’m sorry you’re upset, but I am.”

Frances crumpled onto the ground, feeling disoriented. “What do I have then?”

Warren stepped beside her and knelt in the cool grass. He stared into those soulful eyes, so full of fire like her mother’s. “Right now, I need the land more than you do, and I can’t make you understand why.” When a large tear trailed across her face, he wiped it away gently with his thumb, resting his rough work-calloused hand on her smooth cheek for as long as he dared. “I didn’t come here to apologize to you.”

She studied him through the tears that were brimming and threatening to pour over. “You came to gloat.”

“I really don’t understand what you people are so crazy about up here. You know, there are hundreds of mountains, every bit as good as yours. You act like there is no life or death or love or living on the other side of the border, but you haven’t ever been there.” He stared into her eyes, willing her to accept his words. “You haven’t even tried. If you had come with me, I could’ve shown you different types of beautiful.”

She shook her head. “I’m not missing out on anything, if that’s what you think.” She motioned around her. “I’ve been satisfied living here. And one day, if I’m not satisfied anymore, maybe I’ll change my mind about your offer.”

“I’ll be an old man.” His words were bitter.

Frances couldn’t have known then she would never see him again. But in him, she’d found a surprising compatriot—a person of deep feeling, whether she agreed with it or not. He owned her in some small way after that, and she was sure she would never feel as free again.

 

Chapter Eleven

For all Alan had missed by choosing to be absent from his daughter’s entrance into the world, upon first glimpse of her fat, dimpled face, he decided to overwhelm her little life with whatever he could. Frances had placed a simple phone call to warn Aunt Lindy that Alan was home, so she wouldn’t suffer a heart attack when she first saw him. He stood very still, aloof but gracious as Aunt Lindy cried over and kissed him repeatedly. And he stared at his girl. The woman’s dramatics scared Morgan and she started to cry too.

Frances walked over and picked the girl up. “That is your daddy,” she whispered.

“Like Mr. Banks?”

Alan glanced at his sister for an interpretation. “Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins,” she said. “She watches a lot of Julie Andrews at Aunt Lindy’s house.”

Alan stepped over tentatively. “No, I’m not like Mr. Banks. I’ll never tell you not to feed the birds or fly your kite.” He stared at the baby, taking in all of her features hungrily before she tucked her face into Frances’s neck to hide from him. There were Lewelyn’s blue eyes and small, pouty mouth. There was his nose. But all the features were arranged into a new face, with new expressions and a life of their own.

Morgan reached a solitary hand to find and pat the stubble on his cheek. “He has a beard.”

“She’s obsessed with Santa Claus and his beard.” Frances was tiring of all the explanations that were required. “Ok, Morgan, now give him hugs.”

After the girl lunged from her arms to receive her hug, Frances sat back and watched Alan melt into a kid again. He played silly games with the girl, and peppered her with questions, like ‘What color is this?’ or ‘What is the girl in the book eating?’

His happy expression was food for her soul.

Aunt Lindy came up beside her. Her purse was slung over one shoulder, and she was good and tired, ready to leave. “You seem worried.”

Frances shook her head. “Not worried, but I do wish we could have talked this over with Lewelyn. I hope she won’t be upset. She didn’t get any input into their meeting at all.”

“And why would she be upset?” Aunt Lindy sounded a trifle annoyed.

Frances’s reply was cross, but she didn’t care. “Being a single mother with no support for two years entitles her to make all the decisions.”

“Well, I’ll call and warn her then,” Lindy said. “It’s probably a good idea for Alan to be scarce when she comes to get Morgan. They need to work out an arrangement like grown-ups. No sense in us butting in.” Lindy ducked out quietly, so Morgan wouldn’t know she’d left.

Frances’s eyes followed the little girl as she walked over to a pile of books in front of the bookcase.

“Read story?” Morgan had retrieved her favorite book for Alan to read to her. It was a story about a family of brown bears, called, That’s When I’m Happy.

Alan opened the book and Morgan climbed into his lap. He smiled at Frances with an expression of happy surprise. When he reached second page, which read, “When it’s cold outside and my daddy and I are clearing up…” Frances interrupted him.

“I usually skip that part.”

Alan frowned and his voice wavered, but somehow, he improvised a line about the young bear collecting leaves with a friend.

“I’m so sorry, Alan, I didn’t mean anything by that. Morgan is very particular. She likes repetition and she melts down if things aren’t exactly the same every time.”

He waved her off. “Don’t apologize. I’m the one who’s new at this.”

A knock at the door rescued her and she ran over to answer it.

“Mr. Whitehurst!” She greeted him with surprise. He had never once visited or stopped by for anything, which was understandable, since he was nearing his late eighties. “What can I help you with?”

He craned his neck to peer inside, and Frances beckoned him in. “No,” he waved his hands in reply, “I don’t have time. I haven’t been here in ages, and I was curious whether it was the same as when your grandma Alice lived here.”

“Yes, it hasn’t changed. I never met my grandma, but I heard she hated pine paneling. Maybe she grew up with plaster walls in Johnson City.”

“She was a pretty lady. I think my Ruthie never forgave her good looks. Poor lady, she never did have many friends here.”

Frances knew very little of her maternal grandmother, other than her discontent with living in Roan. That alone dismissed any additional notice of her from Frances’s mind. But the suggestion of her living as an outcast, simply because she was different or even beautiful, raised her understanding of the long-deceased woman, at least a little bit.

“Well, if you won’t come inside, then what I can help you with, Mr. Whitehurst?”

“C’mon by the house after a little while. Ruthie wants you to check out some dining chairs and a cupboard from the Cloudland.”

Frances stood straighter. She knew there were some antiques still floating around from the old hotel, but most of the furniture had been scattered to the four corners of America or had been scrapped for junk after neglectful treatment. “She wants to sell them?”

He nodded. “Consign them in your store she told me.”

“We’ll see,” Frances agreed. “I’ve been sick and I’m finally starting to get my energy back. It may be another week or so before I’m up to coming by.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m often tired myself.” He grinned at her in amusement, before turning to tackle the three stairs that led down from the porch. His walk was unusual. He shifted his weight with every effort to favor his left hip and step with his right foot, thanks to a WWII injury.

Once Alan and Morgan were playing happily, she beckoned to Amber. There hadn’t been time to talk since she’d come over. They walked out onto the porch and sat, neither of them speaking for a few moments. Frances’s heart ached to tell someone that her dad had betrayed her and sold her land. But she didn’t know how to tell it. She still didn’t know how to believe it.

Amber couldn’t hold out long. “Before I even ask about Warren, how did this come about?” She thumbed over her shoulder at the house behind her.

Frances shook her head. “I was coming out of my shop earlier today and Duke drove up in his truck. Said his dad had found something of mine in his barn.”

“Oh, Duke’s in town?” She straightened a little, as if she was really paying attention.

“Yeah, and it was a little weird. I had to sit in the truck with his girlfriend, and she was watching me through the blinds when he drove me back to my car.” Frances had added that as a side note to her story, since they had all been friends in high school, but she noticed her friend’s posture droop.

“Oh, he has a girlfriend now? How nice.”

Frances had been friends with Amber long enough to have witnessed nearly every emotion, but never this one. The surprises of the day kept unravelling. She decided to have a little fun and added, “Yeah, she was a really cute girl from Kingsport.”

“Did she have cute hair?” Amber posed the question pathetically, as if she was hoping against hope the answer would be ‘no.’ And even if the answer was yes, Frances should know enough to lie.

“Amber Wright, in all our years of being friends, you never once told me you had feelings for Duke,” she accused.

Amber’s tiny hands flew up by her sides in her defense. “Oh, I don’t like to talk about it. He never paid any attention to me. Probably doesn’t like Asian girls.”

Frances leaned back in her chair in amazement. “Well, what can we do about it?”

Amber jumped up and ran over beside her, grabbing her shoulder. “Nothing. Don’t you dare do one thing. If you do, I’ll shave your head in your sleep,” she threatened.

“Ok, I won’t.” Frances would have promised virtually anything to pacify her friend, but she couldn’t stop the wheels of her mind from turning. No wonder her friend hadn’t been in a hurry to jump into dating. She was so shocked over Amber’s confession that the conversation never turned to Warren or her land. Days later, she was still desperate to tell someone. But Amber was usually the one she told, and she knew it was too late anyway. Even Lewelyn was out of reach, being on her honeymoon. It would have to stay her secret, because news that depressing wasn’t something she wanted to share with her brother or aunt. They are Garners anyway, she ruminated with a hard heart. What do they care about the Durham legacy?

Two weeks later, Frances drove over to her aunt’s house to wake her brother, who had taken up temporary residence there.

“What do you have goin’ on this morning?” Lindy asked.

“The Whitehursts want to consign some furniture.” She didn’t usually divulge business details with Aunt Lindy.

“What’s that got to do with me?” Alan came out of the back bedroom, which was the only other room in the humble old house. Its purpose up until then had been to house Lindy’s various porcelain collections, not a grown man. There was barely room for a twin-sized air mattress, and he couldn’t help but hold it against his sister, who refused to let him take either of her two extra spare rooms.

“I need the company.”

They didn’t talk as she drove to the Whitehursts because it was a short drive, Alan was still half asleep, and because he was still nursing his self-pity. When they pulled into the driveway, Frances took in the landscape, including the 1920s house and detached garage, and an older barn nestled against the far limits of the tree line. A modest lawn was manicured, and the edge of the yard east of the barn dropped steeply into a creek.

“Have you been here before?”

Alan shrugged. “As kids, I’m sure we’ve passed through the yard, but nothing I remember.”

They walked to the front door and Frances knocked timidly.

“They ain’t goin’ to hear that.”

Frances knocked louder, which brought Mr. Whitehurst to the door. He ushered them inside and showed Frances a set of six chairs, all lined and ready for inspection.

“Ruthie hasn’t come down yet,” he explained. “She isn’t feeling much like herself these days.”

Frances walked around the chairs, taking time to tilt each one of them back and forth and all around on, checking the legs and underbelly. They were not very impressive on their own, but she knew they were from the Cloudland. When she had first opened her shop, a pair of them had come through and she had them authenticated. They had sold quickly. She would never forget the feeling of great regret that, in her limited experience, paralleled trading away the necklace she’d received on her sixth birthday for a worthless pair of used skates she outgrew right away. She would have given anything to get that necklace back, though it was only a simple gold chain with a little heart pendant.

Alan came alongside her. “They’re in bad shape. They need to be refinished.”

“No. How many times to I have to say it? That would devalue them. They’re perfect.” She smiled at one of them in a lovely, admiring way, and caressed its smooth grain.

That strange beautiful smile, which she rarely bestowed on a living creature, concerned her brother. His brows drew together and he frowned at her like she was going insane. “What’s gotten into you lately?”

Frances caught his grim expression, felt him towering over her with disapproval and the smile vanished. She turned to Mr. Whitehurst. “How much were you hoping to get for them?”

The older gentleman shrugged. “I think we would be happy with fifty a chair.”

The dark head dropped to her chest and she heaved a sigh not unlike the hushed murmur of water rushing under a frozen fall. He had no idea of what he had there. “Do you need to get rid of them to make space for other chairs?” She’d noticed earlier that the dark dining table stood empty and waiting.

Mr. Whitehurst shook his head. “No, not really.”

Frances bit her lip. “The barn in the back—do you still use it?”

He was fidgety and shifted his weight every few seconds, as if neither foot could bear his weight for very long, though he was very thin and couldn’t weigh much. “Well, to tell the truth, I still have some tractor parts stored out there from my farming days. But I haven’t set foot out there in years.”

“I’ll tell you what. If you will agree to it, Alan and I will take apart the barn for the lumber and sell it. Barnwood would move before the chairs would, and bring thousands. I think that would be better than parting with them right now.”

Mr. Whitehurst squinted and jutted out his chin, giving him the appearance of having a stiff underbite. “You want to take down the barn?” This was a new concept to him. The barn had been there before he was.

Alan elbowed Frances in the ribs. “What are you doing?”

She jabbed him back and pressed on. “I have a client that makes furniture and picture frames to sell in craft fairs and festivals. She is always asking for barnwood. And it sells like crazy online too, though it’s a little difficult to ship.”

Mr. Whitehurst slid into one of the chairs. He was tired and having a hard time making the transition from one proposition to the other. The barn had never been considered of any worth to anyone but his young grandson, who had claimed it for the hours of diversion it provided. But it had been years since he had come and played there.

Frances walked up beside him and laid a hand on his thin bruised arm. “Please don’t sell the chairs, Mr. Whitehurst. I couldn’t bear it. Not right now, anyway. I’ll consign the wood and not take a dime for myself.”

He covered her hand with his for a moment. “All right. We can sell the barn. It’s falling down and a danger to us anyway.”

Frances exulted silently and glanced over at her brother, but he was being sulky and wouldn’t meet her eye. She didn’t care.

“And if one day you decide to sell the chairs instead of passing them on to your kids, we can talk about putting them in my shop.”

The brother and sister walked out to the barn to evaluate how much work Frances had signed them up for. “I don’t like you volunteerin’ me for stuff like this, Frankie. I have never taken apart a barn in my life.”

“Oh, I’m surprised you never did when you worked for Warren,” she said. “He liked buying them up, from what I remember.” Then she recalled what he had told her about getting fired for not working, and she decided to drop it.

The barn was indeed falling apart. It wouldn’t be considered a treasure by any normal person, but a stranger wouldn’t know that by Frances’s reaction. She reached out and patted the gray rough-grained wood, careful not to get a splinter. “You’re my first barn,” she whispered. Squeezing two fingers through a half-inch gap between the hand-hewn slats, she tugged and the wood separated easily.

Alan stood a short distance away and leaned against a tree. “You always think you can do anything.”

Frances interpreted his tone and words as admiration and accepted them as such. It was amazing how easily they had fallen back into their old sibling roles. She understood how rare it was for Alan to praise or compliment her outright, but expressing mock aggravation at her determination was by no means true fussing. “I think we can get most of it done between today and tomorrow before my morning class.”

And so they spent the rest of the afternoon engrossed in hard work. The steady groan of wood separating from wood and clacking as it fell onto the pile was rhythm enough to make any heart satisfied. Sam Durham had believed in the simplicity of toil and preached it to his own son. And while the message was lost on that deaf generation, the seeds sprouted in Frances.

Alan walked around the lone wall standing at the end of the evening, surveying it with pride. The first thing he had done was to borrow a picker from one of the neighbors and nothing drew a crowd like machinery. So, with a little help from gathered neighbors, they dismantled the roof. The beams were the heaviest part. Each easily weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. The pole rafters and girts that followed weighed less, but the monotony eventually strained his unaccustomed muscles. He could imagine what his sister was feeling.

“You want to stop for dinner?” He stood beneath her ladder and watched her struggling with a particularly stubborn mortise and tenon joint, but didn’t try to help. He was done for the day. “I figure I’ll let you treat me to dinner at Maud’s since I’ve worked so hard for you.”

Frances gave up on her board. She was too weak and hungry. “Ok, but I don’t know why I should have to pay,” she complained.

They were the last two customers of the day. Usually Maud liked to close early on Mondays, so she raised an eyebrow at them as they came in the door. “You two can get some supper, but you’ll have to sit outside. I got soup beans ‘n cornbread left.”

“And pie?” Alan was feeling testy from all the hard work and had forgotten what it meant to be back home where the women barked the orders and their men obeyed. Well, not today. Maud was going to produce some pie from somewhere or he was going to pitch a big old baby fit right there.

They took their meager feast and went outside. Luckily, the days were getting a little longer, but the nights were still chilly.

“We’ll have to eat fast ‘cause it won’t stay warm long.” She watched Alan take a bite of his beans. The tension and strain melted right off his shoulders and his face relaxed.

“In my heritage class, they said soup beans were basically poverty food from before Roosevelt built the damns.”

He glared at her. “Don’t.”

“What?”

“Just don’t talk about school or them or anyone who wants to tell me about me. You included.” He shoved a huge bite into his mouth, then tried to talk around it. “Plain and simple—do you like eating them?”

“I’m trying to educate you.”

“Do you like them?” He drawled the words out slowly, separating each one with an irritating pause.

She smirked and took a bite. “Mmmm.” But her sarcasm was lost on him.

He jabbed his spoon at her. “Damn right.”

It was time to change the subject. She could tell he wasn’t in the mood for conversation of any substance. “You really were hungry.”

“Aren’t you? You better hurry‘n eat or I’ll get to yours too,” he threatened. “How’s it possible for you to work all day like that with those puny arms? I’m wore out.”

“They’re hard as rocks under there.” Frances took a big bite and held out her arm so he could feel her bicep. The truth was that she was exhausted and had jumped back into work a little sooner than her body appreciated. But she couldn’t appear weak before her brother.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise and that was as much of a response as she was going to get. “You’re not like anyone else, are you?” he marveled. “You’re always thinking or studying or working too hard for your own good.”

She fumed. First it had been her dad, then Henrik, and now her brother was trying to act like she was weird. If Perry had said she wasn’t like everyone else it would have been a compliment. Everything he said came off like admiration. But coming from her brother, it was quite the opposite.

“Well, what’s wrong with not being like everyone else?”

“Nothin, except you act like they’re all exactly like you and it grates on me.”

“Well, sometimes I wish you would try being a little different from everyone else, and think before you talk.” He had always been so eager to point out her flaws and she wasn’t in the mood, whether he had helped her on the barn or not. She grabbed his pie off the plate and hurled it out into the road nearby. Ignoring his stunned expletive, she grabbed what was left of her own dinner and stalked off without another word.

“The important thing is that you like yourself,” she told herself. But it was a quiet walk back that evening. Not even the company of a thousand stars or a herd of grazing deer could make her feel acceptable.

The next day, Frances went through the motions of paying attention in class. But she didn’t have a clue what was covered. Later, as she walked toward the food court, she spotted Dr. Kulka walking around the common areas, appearing to take in the budding azaleas and late-blooming bulbs. She ducked around the side of a building. Over the last two semesters, she’d skillfully avoided him, and enough time had passed for her to realize she had made the right choice. The feelings and emotions she’d experienced were a bittersweet and foggy memory she wasn’t ashamed of, but she didn’t really want to rehash any of it.

When she rounded the corner of the Culp center, she almost ran into Dr. Rose.

“You running from someone, Frances?”

Her eyes grew in surprise at having been caught. But she wasn’t about to confess to him.

“How are you, Professor Rose?”

He nodded to indicate he was well. “Call me Graham,” he reminded her. He didn’t like exchanging meaningless pleasantries, but he did his best to accommodate anyone that preferred them, especially females. He fidgeted and thrust his hands in his pockets as she began questioning him about his classes.

“Have you been writing much?” He interrupted her with his own question.

Frances was accustomed to his peculiarities after spending two semesters with him in that first year of college. She shook her head. “No, not unless I have a class with a writing requirement.”

He drew his bushy red eyebrows together in a deep frown. “That’s a shame.” There was probably more he could say, but he wasn’t sure what was proper.

“Are you doing much writing?” She could tell Graham wasn’t in a hurry to leave.

“Yes, I’m always writing and always trying to publish. I’m going to a mountaintop removal protest this weekend and I’ll write about it.” He clamped his thin lips together.

Frances raised her eyebrows. “It’s such a terrible thing. I’m so glad no one has tried it here in Carter County.”

“Not yet.” His frown returned. “You should come with me to the protest.”

Frances shifted her heavy bag off her shoulder and let it drop to the ground. “No, I don’t think I can. I have too much going on at home and with my work.”

“Uh-huh, meaning the salvage stuff you wrote about?” He narrowed his yellow eyes.

Frances was surprised at his recall. At the time, he hadn’t impressed her as overly interested in anything she’d written about. But she couldn’t complain. After all, he had helped her get an article published and that was proof enough he believed in her.

“I better get going. It was great seeing you.” She grabbed her bag to leave.

He pulled his hands out of his pockets, as if he was going to shake her hand, but never carried out the gesture. He reached back in and pulled out a business card. “Do you have a pen?”

She rifled through her bag until she found one.

“Here’s my number. Please call me if you find yourself free after all.”

Frances drove by her aunt’s house on her way back from school and glanced in that direction out of habit. Morgan was in the backyard swinging, so she pulled into the driveway. Morgan spotted her and ran full-speed, knowing Frances would catch and throw her into the air. It was one of their favorite games, among many. Lindy ran after her as fast as her heavy build would allow.

When she rounded the corner, she stopped in her tracks and placed her hand on her heaving chest. “Oh, thank goodness it’s you. I was worried the child had gone plumb crazy and was running into the road.”

“Why are you watching Morgan? I know Lewelyn and Elliot are back from their honeymoon.”

Aunt Lindy’s shoulders drooped ever so slightly. “Then you haven’t heard. Marion passed away.” She paused a moment to let the information sink in. It had come as a shock when Lewelyn told her that morning. In fact, no one had expected the woman’s passing.

Frances lowered Morgan to the ground. “I’m sorry, baby, I can’t hold you right now,” she whispered into the feathery hair.

“She went peacefully, in her sleep, last night. They are all busy over there trying to pull together funeral arrangements and contacting the family that lives out west.”

“She was just here, over at my house.” The pulsating sound of blood pumping through her heart pounded in her ears.

“I know. I thought she didn’t look very good the last time I saw her, but I had no idea she was so sick. I guess she was keeping it from the family and planned to tell them after the wedding.”

“Did she? The wedding is over.”

Lindy shook her head. “No, it was a shock.”

“And how is the family taking it?”

“Rough, from what I can gather. They are trying to arrange a funeral for this weekend.”

Frances knew what she had to do. She walked back to her car and drove back to Johnson City. She wasn’t sure how she would be taken by the family, especially on an errand like hers. At the church, she parked in the very same spot she had on Christmas Eve, even though it was a distance from the church and there were only two other cars in the parking lot. The familiarity of the spot provided a tiny amount of comfort.

When she walked inside, the place appeared empty, even though the front door was unlocked. From somewhere to the left, a phone rang and a cooing, sing-song female voice responded. Maybe it was Lewelyn. She walked in that direction.

“Oh, it’s you Annalise. I forgot you worked here.” Frances had never been in this part of the church before, but it held a small reception area and some offices behind it.

Annalise was confused about why she was there, but she assumed it might have something to do with Morgan. “Is everything ok? It’s not a very good time for us right now.”

Frances tensed at her use of the word “us” as if she was part of the Hernshaw family, but she took it in stride. “I know that. That is why I’m here. I need to speak to Dave.”

Annalise’s face took on a hard expression, so that she resembled her brother. “Pastor Dave is with Pastor Elliot in his office, working out some funeral arrangements. They can’t be bothered right now. You’ll have to come back.”

“No, thank you, I won’t be coming back.” Frances walked past her. There was a hallway and three offices. She walked past the first two dark rooms, ignoring Annalise’s plaintive voice of reason, and pushed her way into the third.

Dave and Elliot were both hunched over a massive desk, studying some paperwork, but they stopped when she burst in without notice. Their faces each became hard and annoyed in their own way, Dave with rippled forehead wrinkles and Elliot with deep frown lines.

“May we help you, Miss Garner?” Dave asked. “You must know my wife died last night and this is the worst possible moment for you to barge in here.”

Frances cowered inside, but she was on a mission and wouldn’t be bullied. She comforted herself with the knowledge that a good solid cry was awaiting her, as soon as she said her piece and could make it back to her car. “I’m so sorry—please believe me. Your wife was at my house just last week.” She moved from one drawn face to the next, looking for any outward sign of receptiveness.

“To pick up Morgan. Yes, I know,” Elliot said.

“No, she came to pick herself a spot in my cemetery. She knew she was dying.”

Dave stood at the desk. “Don’t you come in here with your lies, trying to bring even more disruption to my family. My wife is going to be buried in the plot beside mine, in the cemetery we chose and bought together. We planned this years ago.”

Elliot stood too and took a step toward her, clearly with the intent to usher her out of the office. He seemed confused and a little bit shaken up. His body movement, poised to remove her, was in agreement with the wishes of his father, but his troubled expression indicated he had some doubts. “Thank you for your concern, but you should leave now.”

Elliot’s hand on her arm was surprisingly warm and reminded her of Perry for a painful moment. This was her last chance. “She wanted to be buried in the mountain. It was her special place.” Her eyes pleaded with Elliot’s. “Surely you would honor a dead woman’s request for her own burial.”

“Leave, please.”

She accepted defeat. Bowing slightly to Dave, she shrugged Elliot’s grip from her arm lightly and turned to leave the room.

Frances stopped at Annalise’s desk on her way out. “Do you expect Perry soon?”

The girl raised her blonde head and drew her shoulders back. She had no idea about Perry’s whereabouts, but she wanted to spite Frances for challenging her earlier. “Yes, he’ll probably be here sometime today, or at least that’s what he told me. I’ll make sure he hears about your visit.”

Frances made it as far as the double doors before the tears broke loose. After she climbed into her car and relieved her heart, she was thankful she’d parked so far from the building.

 

Chapter Twelve

Frances was sitting at her kitchen table Saturday, musing over an ad in the paper for an estate sale at an address she didn’t recognize. She sat back in her chair for a moment to relish the mundane task. If she’d told herself five years ago that she would one day appreciate this sort of mindless occupation, she wouldn’t have believed it. But for the moment, it was keeping her from wandering to the sad reality that the beautiful Marion Hernshaw was now an empty shell, a cocoon abandoned by its butterfly, and was about to be placed into the earth forever.

She glanced at the door when her brother walked in, but it wasn’t unusual for him to come and go, now that he was home for good. A few times a week, he stopped by to help himself to a cup of coffee, which was far better than the stuff Dad or Aunt Lindy brewed. If they ever found out what she paid for the stuff in town, they would die. But unfortunately, she’d become a coffee snob and couldn’t live without it. Apparently, Alan couldn’t either.

Her eyes followed him halfheartedly, not noticing he didn’t help himself to coffee. She was vaguely contemplating attending the sale in Abingdon, and mulling over the aggravation of it being so far away, when he planted himself directly in front of her.

He was blocking her view of her favorite ugly painting, a yellowed still life of a goopy floral arrangement and grapevine, that had come with the house and whose dreadfulness had grated on her until the day she realized that staring at it somehow helped her think and stay focused. “Sit already. You’re blocking my painting.”

He stood still, right where he was, and crossed his arms. “I am disappointed in you Frances Garner.”

She made no pretense of hiding her stunned amazement at his accusation. “And what, may I ask, did I do that is so bad even boy wonder is disappointed?” She didn’t feel the need to hide her scorn when he would need a lifetime of repentance to account for all of his wrongs.

“I just got off the phone with Perry.” He watched her reaction melt from indignation to startled apprehension, and decided it was an affirmation of what he had heard.

“Go on.”

“He said he knew for a fact his mother told him she wanted to be buried here, in this cemetery.”

Frances sat straighter in her chair and crossed her legs under the table. “That’s true. She told me as much herself.”

“But when Perry told his dad and brother to ask you for permission to bury her here, they said you had already discussed it with them, and that Marion was to be buried in town.”

Frances drew her eyebrows together and tried to make sense of why she was the object of his disapproval. “Yes, I did discuss it with them. I don’t understand the problem. Why are you here, wasting my time about something that’s already been decided?”

Alan threw up his hands. “Look, I know this precious mountain means everything to you, but there is enough space for her at least, without taking any spots from us.” He shook his head. “I thought more of you.”

She stood so abruptly that her newspaper fell to the floor. “You stop right there. I did offer a spot to them—the very spot Marion chose. If they told Perry I refused to give it, they lied to him.” She pushed the chair back so hard it fell over backwards, but she didn’t bend to right it. Instead, she walked into the kitchen and dug angrily through a junk drawer for a pen and a sheet of paper.

Alan stood, glued in place, surprised by the information and turn of events. He didn’t know what to make of it. “Calm down, Frankie.” He felt guilty over his part in the injury.

Frances ignored him, walked back over to the table and began writing. Her penmanship was barely legible and scrawled from one end of the page to the other, without any formal address or closing. She folded the makeshift letter over and over, until it wouldn’t fold again, and held the little wad out to him. “You give this to Perry. Drive out there and give it to him right now. We’ll show them.”

Her tone was stern and her posture and address eerily reminiscent of his stepmom, Ellie, at moments when she had to resort to firmness in response to one of his childish pranks. Her likeness, superimposed on his sister now, made his heart ache.

“I don’t like the sound of that.” But he took the letter. He knew better than to attempt any more conversation with her until the task was done. The drive into Johnson City was filled with worry she’d developed one of her schemes that would lead to interference in some poor lady’s funeral, and he was very tempted to open the letter and read it, but in the end, he couldn’t. If he opened it, Frances would ask if he had, and if he didn’t open it, chances were she would never even ask. That was his luck. And either way, he had never been fond of lying. He wasn’t any good at it.

Alan found Perry at his dad’s house, which wasn’t far from the church. The whole family was there, actually, including Lewelyn, whom he hadn’t seen in three years. Even though they had talked on the phone the week before about getting together to make some arrangements about Morgan, it was intimidating now to come face-to-face. The shame of his behavior, especially to her, overwhelmed him and scared him from getting out of the car, but it was too late. From where they were sitting on the front porch, the entire family had already spotted him. Alan got out and stood by the car awkwardly, hoping Perry would know enough to come over and rescue him.

Perry did, and walked out to meet him, pausing once to glance over his shoulder as someone spoke to him. But he didn’t answer. Behind him, his dad stood and walked inside.

When he was close enough, Alan thrust the wadded-up letter into his hand discreetly. “You led me a bit astray when we talked, and Frankie wasn’t too happy with you or me either.”

Perry stared at him for a moment, puzzled, then read the note. His expression became taut with anger as he read, and he clenched his jaw, folding the paper and sliding it into his pocket.

Alan was mad at himself for not reading it when he had the chance. “What did it say? Everything ok?” His suspicion of his sister grew even more.

Perry’s gaze moved across Alan and the yard without comprehending any of it, his eyes flashing with anger. “You tell her I said ‘ok,’ will you?”

Alan nodded. “Are you going to tell me what was in the note?”

Perry smiled faintly. “You should have read it.” He reached over and laid a hand on Alan’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re home. This is where you’re meant to be.” He turned back to the porch, where Lewelyn was sitting alone on the swing, watching them with interest. Everyone else had gone inside. Perry stopped to address his friend one more time. “You owe Lewelyn a huge debt. You could start with saying hello.”

“I don’t know if she’d want me to.”

Perry shook his head. “She’s probably the most reasonable creature I’ve ever met. Very different from your sister.”

Alan laughed. He followed him to the porch and stood uneasily in front of Lewelyn after Perry went inside. “I don’t know if I’m welcome here or not.” His tone was quiet and low, and his posture humble and uncertain.

“You’re the father of my child, so you’ll always be welcome.” She moved from the swing to a bench, patting a space beside her. “Come, sit.” She waited until he sat before she spoke again.

“Morgan’s so wonderful, isn’t she? Such a joyful girl. I wasn’t happy at first when I heard you were back and you had spent time with her. But I’ve had time to realize it’s the right thing. And you make her happy.”

His smile was faint, doubtful of her praise. “I’m glad. And thank you. You’ve done such an amazing job.” The mention of his little girl, who seemed blessed with much more of her mother’s spirit than his, lifted his heart. “Not much of me in there, thankfully.”

Lewelyn laughed her little tinkling bell laugh, and shook her head. “There’s so much of you in Morgan. It’s not even funny.” She reached over and squeezed his hand in a sweet gesture of friendship. “I hope you’re not going to run off again, now that you’ve come back. That would hurt her.”

Alan waited a moment until he could compose himself enough to answer. “No, I couldn’t leave her now if I tried. I’m in love with that little girl.”

Elliot’s large frame filled the screened door.

“We’ll discuss arrangements for regular visitation some other time.” Lewelyn’s words were abrupt and businesslike.

“Maybe after he’s gotten himself a job,” Elliot interjected, walking back out onto the porch.

Alan stood and was pleased to find he stood nose to nose with Elliot. The old Alan would have punched anyone who dared talk down to him like that. But this was the stepfather of his child, and as much as he hated to admit it, he had a lot of sins to pay for. So, he took it in stride.

“I’m already in the motion.” He tried to mask his irritation for Lewelyn’s sake, but his fists clenched tightly by his side. “Thank you again for all you’ve done. We’ll talk about stuff some other time.” Then he turned to Elliot. “I know you’re going through a hard time with your ma dying, and I’ve been there. Twice. So don’t shrug off what I’m gonna say, thinking I don’t know what pain is.”

Elliot puffed out his chest and crossed his arms, but said nothing.

“You’re screwing up right now.”

Elliot uncrossed his arms and stepped forward, poking his index finger into Alan’s chest. “You have no right to talk. Get out of here before I do something I’ll regret.”

With a crushing grip, Alan removed Elliot’s hand, dropped it, then turned and walked away. But he couldn’t help but feel bad about the way Lewelyn had been caught in the middle.

Sunday morning came and went. Frances paced the floor of her house, and then she went to Aunt Lindy’s and paced some more, waiting for her return from Marion’s funeral so she could hear how it went.

She got impatient and decided to walk around the yard deadheading flowers. As soon as her aunt’s car pulled into the driveway, she rushed out to meet it. Before Lindy could even climb out of the car she was pitching questions. “How was the funeral? Who all came?”

Aunt Lindy swung her legs out in a labored way, as if each weighed a hundred pounds, and then crumpled into Frances, which was a very unusual gesture. Frances held the crying woman for as long as she needed, patting her shoulder. It occurred to her that Lindy and Marion may have been closer friends than she’d known.

Once Lindy stopped, she managed to wipe her eyes and straighten herself. “It was a lovely service. All her friends were there, and her kids, of course, and they shared beautiful memories. I hope my parting will be as happy.”

“And Dave, did he cry?”

Aunt Lindy frowned and gave her a sidelong glance. “What a thing to ask.”

“Well, did he?” Frances persisted. She wasn’t in a generous mood concerning the husband or son.

“Not that I can recall. But everyone deals with grief in their own way.” They walked into the house and sat in the living room. “Do you recall those days after the accident? And then after your brother left for that job? I don’t remember you crying once, though I know I cried bucketfuls for the both of us.”

“Fair enough. I did cry, you know, but not around anyone.” She stood, walked over, and kissed her aunt on the forehead.

She sensed her niece was bidding her goodbye. “Where are you going? You just got here.”

“I’ve got to go, but I’ll come back and help cook supper.”

Once she got home, Frances rushed around and prepared. She tried on each of her dresses, and while there weren’t many, it took every try before she was satisfied with the girl staring back in the mirror. Normally, she wasn’t overly fussy with her clothes, but she wanted to look her best. She smoothed every wavy strand of hair into a low updo her aunt would have been proud of. Closing the door behind her, Frances stepped out onto the porch, her lightly sprigged navy dress billowing out in the wind. Perry and Lewelyn were weaving their way through the woods at the far edge of the property. Her heart beat wildly at the sight of them, especially Perry, whom she hadn’t seen since Christmas. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Anxiety struck. She hadn’t followed her plan through, and had arranged it in haste and anger. None of her ideas fashioned that way worked out. She hadn’t told a single person about her plan, not even Amber, because she had been too ashamed. But the events were already in motion and she couldn’t back out. Even though she hadn’t told Lewelyn their plans, her presence brought immense relief to her troubled spirit.

“What are you doing here?” Frances hugged her tightly. She was breathless from all the clothing changes and from running over. Perry stood a little ways apart, watching them. He had one hand in his pocket and his face was cold and hard. He hadn’t spoken a word of greeting, and Frances was half scared to meet his eye. Alan had come home the day before and reported that Perry was still angry, but his answer had been ‘yes.’ And that’s all she knew.

Lewelyn gave her a squeeze then pulled back. “Perry asked me to come and sing.” She eyed him with an expression of anxiety. “Can we get into legal trouble for doing this?”

“I’m not sure. People scatter ashes all the time over lakes and fields and whatnot, so I don’t think it’s exactly illegal.”

“But stealing is.” Lewelyn fidgeted with the hidden pocket of her dress.

Frances looked to Perry, hoping for some support. He was here, after all. He could have stayed away if he found her suggestion deplorable. He locked eyes with her, but his expression revealed none of his feelings.

“She didn’t get a single thing she wanted today.” When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet and hollow. “The biggest thing was her desire to be buried here. So let’s do it.” He walked toward Frances and handed her a small cardboard box.

The hole was already dug. She didn’t know how deep to make it, so it was about two feet. A simple stone was set in front of the hole, which was in keeping with the others around it, although it was fresh and pretty and new. Frances held the box for a moment, trembling slightly.

“Where did the stone come from?” Perry came over to stand beside her.

A fresh line of tears reflected off each cheek and his mouth was set in a hard line. She wanted to cry too, but blinked her eyes rapidly to keep back the tears. It was never easy to watch a man you respected feeling such sadness.

Her tone was soft, respectful. “Doc Raulerson and his family in Stoney Creek have always made our tombstones. He never goes into Johnson City and doesn’t keep up with obituaries, but I still made him promise not to mention it to anyone, just in case.”

“Did you bring your violin?” He hesitated for a second over the word, trying to make sure he didn’t use the wrong one.

She reached behind a large headstone and pulled out the violin from where it had been protected in the shade. “What did she want played?”

“’I’ll Fly Away’. Another thing she wanted that she didn’t get.”

Without another word, Frances lifted the instrument to her shoulder and the bow to the strings. With a gesture to Lewelyn, she played a verse by herself first, and then was joined by the girl’s pure voice, still as striking as the first day she’d heard it. She had forgotten how beautiful it was. To her surprise, Lewelyn was also joined by Perry, who had a clear, strong voice. The combination was incredible. Frances could barely hang on to what she was playing, because she was so enthralled in listening, and was tempted to keep the song going, but she didn’t want to attract an audience from any interfering neighbors passing close enough to hear and search them out.

Perry knelt and pushed the black dirt over the box with his bare hands. When the last of it was mounded, he left his hands resting on top, bowed his head and prayed a simple prayer of gratitude. “She was my first example of you, Lord,” he prayed, “and I would ask that you help me live in a way that would have made her proud. Please let her love live forever through the people she’s touched. Amen.”

Frances and Lewelyn echoed him with muffled Amens that were almost imperceptible.

Perry didn’t get up right away. Lewelyn walked over and hugged him, whispering something in his ear. His head dropped a little lower.

Then Lewelyn spoke to both of them. “We need to get back. The family has no idea where we are, and they’ll worry.” She hugged Frances and left them, walking down the hill toward her car.

Perry stood and turned to take in the last view his mother had chosen for herself. “I’m glad she’s here. It feels right.” He looked over at Frances. “Normally, I wouldn’t do something like this, and I’ll probably never tell a soul.”

He wasn’t sure why he was explaining his actions to Frankie, when she was the one who suggested they smuggle his mom’s ashes to bury her here. If there was one person on earth he didn’t need to defend his character to, it was her. In some weird way they were internally linked, no matter how much time or distance stood between them. He knew her and she knew him. It was that sense of understanding that felt like home.

“Your dad and Elliot started it by lying. They should have told you that your dad decided on Johnson City, and let you be angry.”

“Did you know your mom and my mom were best friends growing up?”

She nodded faintly. “Not until recently. I never would have guessed.”

“Mom told me a few weeks ago. Evidently, they let something come between them.”

Frances studied him for clues as to what he wanted her to say, but he was a stone fortress. The cold hard expression had returned to his face, and he thrust his dirty hands into his pockets. She decided this was as good a chance as any to apologize.

“I’m sorry for so many things, Perry, more than this. I’ve behaved very badly. And of all the people I’ve hurt, I’m sorriest for hurting you. I’m sorry for taking the contest and the scholarship from you.”

He let a huff of derision escape. “I was never going to win it anyway. There were plenty of people far better than me there that day. But I’m glad none of them were better than you. I’m proud of that.”

Frances shook her head, unwilling to accept his compliment. “Whether you would have or not, I’m still sorry. Could you find it in your heart to forgive me?” She searched his face desperately. “Alan told me you’re working through college, and I think that’s amazing. All I want is for you to succeed in life and be happy.”

“That’s all? You want me to be happy?”

Frances nodded. “Yes, with all my heart.”

He dug the toe of his shoe into the ground, trying to think of a way to separate all of his emotionally charged feelings and keep from saying more than he intended. Especially when she was giving the vibe that their future relationship was one of benign acquaintance, with a bored so-called wish for each other’s happiness.

“So if I told you I proposed to Annalise Kulka last month, you would say you were happy for me? For us?” He searched her eyes and willed her to say the right thing, even though he knew it was stupid to still wish for her.

Frances swallowed hard and fought the impulse to react the way she felt inside. Because inside, she was exploding. She was supposed to be apologizing, not going off the rails. Hadn’t she just proclaimed she would be happy for him, as long as he was happy?

“Yes,” she managed, “yes, I think I would be very happy for you both.”

He walked over to a large stone resting at the edge of the cemetery and sat on it, drawing his legs to his chest and resting his head and arms on them.

She followed him, confused. “I don’t understand. What did I say that was wrong?” His reply was hoarse and barely above a whisper. “I’ve never cared about Annalise.” Frances stood there so long, staring at him, that she imagined the soft chickweed starting to grow over her feet.

Eventually, he stood, his face weary and careworn as if he didn’t have the strength to leave or the courage to stay. “Thank you for this. You’re an incredible person. I hope you understand I wish you success too. I always have.”

He took one last hungry glimpse around him before taking a few steps, but paused and looked back. “Take care, Frankie.” Then he was gone.

She stood where she was for a long time, frozen, absorbing the gravity of losing someone. It finally sank in that he meant to never see her again. His words were like the closing statement at a job interview when they planned to give the job to someone else.

A strong breeze kicked through the trees and she lay down, letting the cold ground press against her bare legs. It was impossible, on a sorrowful day of loss like this, not to count each destroyed opportunity and forfeited relationship, and Frances determined her future wouldn’t be anything like her past. She needed to become an advocate for something stable, unchanging, something bigger than life. But unfortunately, she had no idea how to go about that.

 

Chapter Thirteen

This Sunday evening began in a way suspiciously similar to so many others that had passed before it, or at least that’s what Frances believed as she sat on the back deck talking to her brother. Was life dull, or was it him? Or, God forbid, was it her? The crickets sounded an almost deafening alarm, warning that night was creeping over the summit. She couldn’t make out her own reflections anymore. At the dinner table, she tried not to mourn the missing dynamics of the high soprano preschooler, or her lovely alto mother. The Sundays Morgan was with the Hernshaw clan were definitely lackluster, and lately Frances had been trying to duck as many of the bland dinners as she could. She was tired of hearing the same stories, rants, jokes, and predictions about subjects swerving anywhere from politics to Oprah’s book club. And they didn’t read. Well, to be fair, Aunt Lindy did have her romances.

That night, Frances had come over because it was Alan’s birthday and she couldn’t get out of it. She was usually happy to stay and help clean as well, but she needed to duck out early to work on an assignment before the deadline. So, with as meek an apology as possible, she explained why she was leaving.

Her dad wanted none of it. “Frances, you’ve been leavin’ earlier and earlier lately, and missing dinners. I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but it’s not being a part of this family.”

Alan sat back in his chair, stuffed to the point of discomfort, but in complete agreement with his dad. He even nodded. But he kept his mouth shut. Lately, Frances had bailed him out on several child support payments, so he had no room to criticize how she spent her time.

“I have to finish my article for the Tennessean Star. I already told you guys that, but you weren’t listening.” The faces around the table were blank and disinterested. “I guess it’s asking too much to expect any of you to care about the stuff I care about?”

Her dad scoffed. “This from the girl who wouldn’t even walk across the stage at her graduation so we could show how much we care.”

Frances unloaded the pile of plates she’d stacked to carry into the kitchen. “It must be hard to be a parent. Because after more than twenty years of practice, you still don’t seem to have a clue about what is important to me. The things you make a big deal over are the least of my worries.”

“Frances, what’s gotten into you?” Lindy shook her head and got up from the table, taking the pile of plates from where Frances had left them.

Her eyes followed the rounded outline of her aunt’s generous shape until she disappeared into the kitchen. Oh, how she wished she could say what had gotten into her. What comfort it would give, bringing to light the darkest throbbings of her heart. Dad sold my land. Perry is gone forever. I have nothing left. But instead, the words that came out were weak and bitter scoldings that only served to exasperate. The truth was that Frances really loved her dad. She had invented a thousand ways to confront him with her hurt, but in the end, wasn’t brave enough to test their fragile relationship with it. She’d believed that choosing the safer path was right at the time, but she hadn’t calculated the rapid rate her bitterness would grow. It tainted everything she once found pleasure in, and there seemed no end to it.

Instead of driving home, she drove into Johnson City, to Poor Richard’s. Graham and a group of professors spent a regular fortune in beer money there any given week, and it was likely they were there this evening. Though she’d often been invited, she was usually reluctant to sacrifice her time. Tonight, however, she decided the atmosphere of Roan was oppressive and heavy, and she had to escape. She was feeling that way more and more.

Graham’s car was parked front and center. A rusted metal fence loosely protected patrons from the parking lot and enclosed a small patio where he could usually be found at one of the mix-matched tables. But today, a handful of strangers were sitting there.

It was dark inside and the air was thick and damp. This is not good air for that piano sitting against the wall. But who cared about stuff like that? When her eyes adjusted enough, she spotted Graham and acknowledged him.

“Just one, Mike.”

The bartender raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Not your usual coke?” He couldn’t miss an opportunity to tease her. After all, it had taken her months to realize he was messing with her and didn’t care what she ordered.

Frances shrugged. “Yeah, make it coke after all. Who are we kidding?”

When she walked over to the table, Graham seemed pleased, but his only tell was a small squinting of his eyes and tightening of his mouth like the beginning of a smile. Otherwise, he maintained the same awkward posture and finished his speech before introducing her. Motioning around the table, he introduced the others. “This is Scott, associate professor of biology, and Robert, who works at Easton.”

Frances reached over and offered a hand to each of them and took the open seat.

Graham stood for a moment as she put her stuff down and then sat when she sat. “Everyone, this is my former student, Frances Garner, from Roan Mountain.”

Frances was excited to hear that Robert worked at Easton. “One of my best friends works there,” Frances explained. “Maybe you know him? His name is Joseph Duke. We grew up together.”

“Of course I know Joe. Were you at their engagement party a few weeks back?” Robert studied her closely, certain he wouldn’t have forgotten a face like hers.

Frances shook her head. A thousand excuses fluttered through her mind, but she couldn’t bring herself to let the lie escape her mouth. She hadn’t even known he was engaged, much less had she been invited to a party. Some friend she was. So she sat silently, trying to think of a way to turn the conversation without invoking pity.

Robert sensed her struggle, after realizing she hadn’t been at the party and possibly hadn’t been invited. He graciously picked the conversation back up. “Joe and Krystal are about the nicest people I’ve ever met. I have nothing but good things to say about them.”

Graham had been talking to Scott about the supply and demand of native ginseng, but had been listening to their conversation at the same time. “Frances, don’t you visit his dad pretty regularly?”

“I do.” She raised her eyebrows and shook her head ever so slightly. It was always shocking to discover how much he knew about her. “Old man Duke is a fixture in Roan. We all keep an eye on each other out there.”

“You see, that’s something I’ve never been able to understand,” Scott began. “To me, this area is cold and reserved and unfriendly, and yet you say you look out for your neighbor.”

“I guess you wouldn’t really be considered a neighbor.”

Though it was tolerable in a bar situation, the professor’s booming voice had already attracted some attention to their table in the short time she’d been there. He had spoken to Graham about the ginseng as if its single importance was to fill the contents of a textbook. And he had picked apart the Appalachian dialect to the point that Frances became obsessive of the phrases she chose, to avoid his amusement. In many ways, he was like the outrageous row of blush-pink peonies her mom had planted beside the road—hard to ignore. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she did want him to understand he was a stranger who wasn’t even attempting to embrace their ways.

Scott brushed her off as if she hadn’t even spoken. “This whole region is like a buried dinosaur fossil, waiting to be uncovered and slapped into a museum.”

Graham watched Frances, wondering what she would say. She could feel his eyes on her. But she stared ahead of her. Some days she still had the fight in her, but more often she felt like the flame of her fervent heart had been conquered. The changes that loomed over them seemed larger than her hope, and she didn’t know how to react, or whether she should even try. Scott was a respected professor. Maybe he was right. What if they were like dinosaurs and needed to enter the modern world? Though she would never admit it to anyone at the table, she did feel like her dad and brother were backwards.

Lately, their lack of ambition had been bothering her. When she’d been younger and her dad had worked odd construction jobs, she hadn’t given it much consideration. Then, about ten years back, he had come into possession of some asphalt equipment and had started working seriously. And making decent money. The odd jobs slipped by the wayside. But there was only so much paving that needed to be done and soon paving became the odd job. When Alan had come back, her dad had taken him on as a partner. Which meant most days, neither of them worked, and Alan wasn’t motivated to search for more permanent employment. None of which would have bothered her much, assuming they could pay their own bills, except that it satisfied these stereotypes she kept hearing from outsiders like Scott, the ones she was inclined to believe. She’d raged at the two of them and she had pleaded. But there was food on the table and they were happy.

Graham jumped in to defend her in front of his companions. “Frances is the perfect example of the new generation coming out of Appalachia. She’s finished her undergraduate degree and is working two different jobs.”

Robert leaned into the table. “Let me ask you this. Only because I’m a transplant from Boston myself—would you go where the money was?”

“No. A lot of my friends would, and have.”

“So why do you stay? Why work two jobs?”

Frances swallowed hard. There wasn’t a sign of softness in any of the three faces, just cold curiosity. In her heart, she longed to be sitting at Lewelyn’s table, talking about Morgan and church and school and singing. But she wouldn’t be happy there, not unless Elliot happened to be away at a conference.

“Questions like that are exactly the ones that keep you on the outside. I work both jobs because I love them, and if you wanted to add the ones I work without pay, you would have a long list.” She stood, ready to leave. “I guarantee the smart people who’ve left for a better life have a pocketful of regrets about it. You never get this place out of your heart.”

Robert stood too. “Please don’t leave because of me. I promise I wasn’t trying to offend you with my questions. I’m interested is all.”

She regarded him kindly. “Oh, no, you haven’t offended me. But I think it’s time for me to get back. I needed to get away for a few minutes and clear my head before I finished an article. And I’ve done that. It was nice to meet you.” Scott was watching her with the interest of a middle-aged fellow gazing at a pretty young woman he had absolutely nothing in common with.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

When Frances turned to walk out, Henrik walked in. With a sinking heart, she remembered the dozen different times she’d been to Poor Richard’s and had never once crossed his path or even considered he might be a patron. The place was beneath him.

He noticed her right away—saw she was leaving. “Please don’t go on my behalf, Miss Garner.” His words were icy as he walked over to their table.

She raised her head and straightened her shoulders at the sound of his haughty tone. “On the contrary,” she replied, “I wouldn’t consider it. If you’ll notice, I’m already standing and have said my goodbyes.”

Henrik ignored her reply and turned to the door as a pretty young woman walked in. “Frances, I don’t believe you’ve met my student, Melanie. She is making quite a stir in the bluegrass and folk scenes, which you’ve been noticeably absent from lately.”

The girl came over and stood beside her adored professor, the corners of her mouth deepening into adorable dimples at hearing his praise. Her expression was innocent and her countenance unfazed by anything that would mar her freshness. “Do you play?”

Frances shrugged. “Used to.”

Henrik sniffed. “Frances changes her mind with the wind.”

“And what is wrong with that?” she cried. She never meant for Henrik to get the better of her, but he was doing exactly that.

Henrik smiled, as if he couldn’t be more satisfied at her reaction. He knew she still played. In fact, to his huge aggravation, at the last bluegrass festival he attended, Frances was all he heard about. She was select in her appearances, charming in her interactions, humble in her estimation of herself, and not least of all an integral part of a culture not his own, which added up to her being a star. He had gone with every intention of introducing Melanie into the festival circuit, but for reasons he was having trouble grasping, he had failed to impress her on anyone. It made no sense. She was really a skilled player of several instruments, perhaps even as skilled as Frances, and certainly more tractable.

“Frances? Roan Mountain Frances?” she asked. “Then I’ve definitely heard of you.” Melanie reached out a slim and delicate hand to shake.

That little gesture of kindness diffused Frances’s rising temper and she shook the hand gratefully. “We should play together sometime, if we are ever at the same pickin’.” She drawled out the word purposely, knowing it would grate on Henrik. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I had best be getting back. Take care.”

She could tell Graham wanted to walk her out to her car, but she shook her head almost imperceptibly and he sat back in his chair. Nothing was lost on him. That was something people failed to understand when they met him, because his mannerisms were so off-putting and strange, and he rarely held eye contact for long. People assumed he didn’t really notice them. But he did. He watched discreetly.

Since Frances was already in Johnson City and feeling nostalgic, she drove the short distance from the pub to the house Elliot and Lewelyn had built last year. It was stately and expensive and absolutely not what she would have pictured for Lewelyn. But lately, it was dawning on her that she was the one struggling to accept change.

A strange car was parked in the driveway, but Frances didn’t pay it much notice as she pulled alongside the curb. She usually went in through the kitchen, which was around the back of the house with the living room. Frances walked around. All the lights were on. Lewelyn and Morgan were sitting on the floor reading a story and Elliot was sitting apart from them, watching TV. Her heart sank. It had been three months since she’d seen her niece. Alan got her about once a month, but only on Saturdays, and that was usually when she was gone working. The story they were reading was one she had bought, and that pleased her. Deciding not to bother them, Frances turned to walk back to her car, but a movement inside caught her eye. Evidently, her movement had caught his eye too, because he stood up and mouthed “Frankie.”

Frances allowed herself the indulgence to think once she was back on the highway, safely heading home. Seeing Perry at his brother’s house shouldn’t have caught her by surprise, but it had never happened before. Morgan had told her he visited three or four times a year. But hearing a little girl’s musings with her ears and processing them with her head were two separate things. Perry occupied very little space in her attention these days. In fact, she worked harder avoiding any stories or updates about him than she did on anything else. She’d been sincere in what she said that day: she wished him well. But she had also wished he would come back for her, as a sign of his true feelings. And he hadn’t. So instead of being sensible and disappointed in herself for missing the perfect opportunity to tell him her true feelings, she chose instead to wallow in self-pity and anger.

When Frances reached Roan, she was overcome by one of her impulsive schemes. She couldn’t ignore it. Pulling into the Curly-Q parking lot, she searched through the contacts on her phone until she found Duke’s. She’d never once called him since his move to Kingsport. ‘Not much of a friend, am I?’ she scolded herself. The dark row of empty businesses was so creepy she nearly drove off, but she found her courage and dialed the number.

The ten seconds while the phone rang passed in a blur. Frances’s mind was flooded with a hundred things to say. But unfortunately, when his raspy voice on the answering machine hummed in her ear, she realized she was unprepared as to what to do if she got his voicemail. A few moments of dead silence took up space while she tried to make a decision. What if his girlfriend checked his messages? She’d heard some girls did that. Time was running out. She blurted, “Duke, it’s Frances. I’m sorry I’ve never called you before now and I haven’t been a good friend, but I wouldn’t be doing you any favors if I never told you Amber has been in love with you this whole time.” She let out a weird shriek of regret akin to a small animal being tortured, and hung up in a panic. “What have you done?” She groaned and threw her phone at her purse on the passenger floorboard.

As she pulled out of the parking lot, she was filled with regret and anger, mostly at herself. But unfortunately for her father, who was sitting on her porch waiting on her to return from wherever it was she’d disappeared to, she was ready to hurl her terrible resentment at anyone who crossed her path that night. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, least of all the person who had snatched her security by selling her property to Warren to cover a deadbeat brother.

Al stood as Frances got out of the car and walked out to meet her. “I came over to talk to you. I figured you’d be holed up in there writing your paper.”

“Article.”

He shrugged. “Well, it’s obvious whatever you were doing wasn’t working.”

Frances walked past him, up the steps, and paused. “I don’t think you want to get into it with me tonight,” she warned. “I don’t know if I can keep it respectful.”

He clenched his jaw. “See, that ain’t you talkin’. What’s going on?”

She laughed. “Oh yes, it is. It’s me—the me who owns this two-acre square and nothing else, thanks to you.”

He took a step backwards, visibly shaken. “Lord, Frances, who told you that?”

Frances didn’t reply. She just stared at him coldly.

“I was meanin’ to tell you.” He gripped the top of the deck and leaned against it. “We had to find a way to pay that boy’s doctor bills. They were going to sue and press charges against your brother. He could have gone to jail.”

“So what? It would have done him some good.” Frances ignored the tug at her conscience that tried to remind her of her similar fear at the time, and what she would have done to spare her brother. “He could do with a little consequence in his life. Seems like the only one you thought deserved discipline growing up was me.” She stared at him as he sat on a chair. “A hug would have gone a greater distance. How could you do that to me, Dad? How could you sell my land?”

He shook his head. “I told you why, plain and simple. I don’t analyze things like you. I needed money. Mr. Burnette showed up with cash and said he’d give Alan a job.” He lifted his large hands weakly and let them fall back to his lap.

“You took something that was never yours to begin with and stole it from me. It was my heritage, passed down through my great-grandfather Durham. You’re from Mountain City. You’re not even from here, and you don’t know how important that land was.”

Her accusation hit him hard and he stood to take a step toward her, but she backed up. “I know now I done wrong. And I was working the courage to tell you. But I never once thought you would hold unforgiveness in your heart toward me.”

“You didn’t think I would hold it against you because you assumed I wouldn’t find out until years and years later.”

He shook his head in frustration. “For as long as I’ve known you, child, you’ve been as strange to me as the marks in that music you love so much. At first, I understood it to be women that were queer, but now I realize we’ve gotten used to being strangers. And I don’t like it.” He walked past her with his head lowered and his eyes on the ground. He plodded down the stairs and walked toward his car, but realized he hadn’t actually voiced those two words she craved and turned back. “I’m sorry, child, I had no right. I only done what I figured was best for my family. And I’ll make it up to you.”

Frances watched him climb into his car and drive away. Though she hadn’t responded, his apology had deflated her anger. And she didn’t like it. She wanted to be furious. She craved it these days as the fuel that drove her to seek success. If she went inside, she would be tempted to smash every one of her belongings. So instead, she walked the little well-worn path to the graveyard, where she would tell her troubles to her momma. With a little flicker of jealousy, she remembered that Marion would hear her too, but she let it go, since she was the one who’d come up with the plan to inter her there.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Frances nailed new lattice around her deck as she waited on Graham to arrive. Some creature had been breaking holes in the old lattice, determined to make a home underneath, and she didn’t want to know what type of animal it was. Graham was driving them to a rally, hopefully so she could write an article about her newfound cause—mountaintop removal. All the excuses she had made over the years came to mind—how many ways she’d dodged his invitations to attend rallies, and how strange it would be to spend two solid days with him. In the end, she’d come around to the idea because she absolutely hated what these coal mining companies were doing to Appalachia, her Appalachia. The practice was so devastating, so like a method born of medieval times. One day she awoke in a dark age, and modern America had buried its head in the sand as a few wealthy businessmen cut down their precious mountains as if they were trees.

The truth was that for almost a year, Frances had buried her head as well. It was easier to ignore the problem and wish it away than to try to pretend that a helpless person like her could make a difference. She was one person. But he hadn’t thought so. He had persistently approached her and had spoken about it so often that it became harder and harder to refuse.

His success at turning her into a protestor fueled him in an even bigger quest: to get the people of Roan to trust him and share their stories with him. He was desperately in love with the idea of Appalachia and he wanted to write about it. But no one would welcome him into their homes or lives. After Frances had written a few papers about her experiences, which in her opinion amounted to plain ordinary life, he had latched onto the idea that her role in the community would somehow be the key to his own success.

In all fairness, Graham didn’t measure success the way Henrik did. He wasn’t seeking fame or glory, or a one-hit-wonder published in a prestigious journal. He was a nomad in search of a cause, who had come to the area and found a story that needed his artistry. How devastating that the same history and people and landscape he was desperate to write about was in danger of being obliterated into obscurity, completely out of the notice or concern of the rest of the world. And they wouldn’t let him in. Frances Garner had become his beacon of hope. If he could get this person, a native herself, to rise above her fears and take on such a massive issue, then maybe it would become a small snowball rolling downhill. So far, it hadn’t been easy.

If he had known in the beginning some of the things he knew after he was better acquainted with Frances, the journey wouldn’t have been so frustrating. Yes, she was in many ways representative of the collective attitude of the region. But in as many ways, she was an individual that swam against the tide. And like so many people who somehow stumbled into the happy accident of discovering all the contradictions that made her unique, he had found an idyllic companion in Frances.

He drove his car around the last curve before Frances’s turnoff. He liked to watch her in her natural habitat, as if she were an animal in captivity and he an eager observer. He had told her that once, to watch her reaction. She had laughed and asked what he expected her to be doing? He had shrugged. She could sit or stand or play her violin or paint the house and would never disappoint him. He had zero notions of what girls like Frances did. But he was always happy in her company. She represented the entire social strata he had little time for in his life. And it was during the moments when she told him stories of her past, or mentioned small things most people discounted as silly conversation fillers, that he became acutely aware of his own deficiencies. In a way, he didn’t like that about their friendship.

Frances stood as Graham pulled into the driveway. She had her book bag packed for the night. At this particular protest, they were going to be spending the night under the stars, high above the city of La Follette. And, if things went as fruitlessly as they had at the last protest, in a few short months, a night under the stars would occur at a much lower elevation—at least five hundred feet lower. She and Graham had both tried their best to entice journalists and media from states outside Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, but there was no way of knowing who would attend these things. Graham loved to dissect the politics behind the stunted media attention, but Frances chose to focus on ways she could help individuals. Her brain had never been fashioned for politics.

On the three-hour trip, Frances could tell Graham was eager to delve into all the little details about the location’s significance and the coal company that was trying to destroy it. But lately, Frances had become tired of the hypercritical state he worked into before protests.

“Is everything going ok with you?” The question hung in the air like a heavy cloud over their conversation. Well, actually, Graham had been the only one having a conversation. And he’d finally realized it.

“I don’t know.” Graham typically didn’t pry into her emotional state, so she was sure he would change topics. She would be saved without having to be honest.

“Is anything going on at home, with your family?” he persisted.

Frances turned, bewildered as to this new development. “You could say we’re all fighting.”

Her answer was simplistic, so Graham took the hint graciously and moved the conversation to his other passion—the written word.

Frances knew she was out of any danger of offending him with cursory replies. As long as she popped a “huh” or “really” into the conversation, she was able to occupy her own agenda.

Once they reached the entrance of Zeb Mountain, they were greeted with picketers lining the road. “Well that’s a good sign. At least there’s good roadside coverage.” He drove carefully, waiting for picketers to move and let them through. Once they reached the top, they set their belongings alongside those of twenty or thirty others and joined the group milling around, eager to get the scoop on who was expected from the media.

A few people recognized Graham and he fell into an easy conversation with an environmental biology professor from Knoxville. Most of the details they discussed were rehashed from previous rallies. Frances had heard it all before. The coal companies destroyed whole sections of rock with machinery that eliminated the need for workers. Thousands of jobs in the area had been terminated, thanks to new methods and machinery, devastating the economy in areas that depended on the industry for their livelihood. And after the venture was complete and they had raped the mountain, the companies dumped the leftover dirt and rock material into the valleys, which destroyed streams, rivers, and the delicate ecology so unique to the region.

All the while, people like Frances, who lived and worked and planned to die there, were wishing it away, or refusing to believe it would happen. Frances couldn’t judge. She’d been the same way, until she had witnessed the devastation firsthand. She couldn’t go back to her old way of thinking, though a part of her would always wish she could forget some of it. For Frances’s entire life up until that point, Roan had been the only place that was important to her. Graham had forced her to acknowledge the need to extend her sympathies to all of Appalachia. But it was hard fighting a bunch of people exactly like her. They didn’t want to accept their worst fear.

While Graham was talking to the professor, Frances took a moment to slip away unnoticed. She wanted to walk around and take in the trees and streams and high places that would be gone in a few weeks. Usually, the coal companies chose mountains that were fairly bare of human habitation. And if there happened to be a few homes, the companies paid for the homeowner’s relocation until the land was “restored” enough for them to return.

For a few blissful hours, Frances discovered the nooks of Zeb Mountain. By the time she reached the bottom, she was satisfied. She’d eaten a peanut butter sandwich while sitting on a huge root overhanging a stream, with her bare feet dangling in the cool water. This wasn’t Roan, and didn’t have as many breathtaking overlooks, at least from the paths she had chosen, but it was incredible nonetheless. At the base near the road, she stumbled onto a homestead she assumed was vacant this close to the demolition date. There was a lovely old barn at the back of the property and she was beyond excited to peek through the cracks and see what was inside.

“Hey you girl, get away from there.” The gruff voice of an older woman echoed off the barn Frances was peering into.

She spun around. An elderly lady was standing on a sagging back porch, holding a rifle. Frances held up her hand. “I’m here for the protest.”

“You’re here to steal from me,” she accused.

Frances shook her head and backed away from the barn. She wasn’t really afraid. But she also didn’t want to tempt an accident. “I was wandering and I saw your wonderful old barn. I buy and dismantle these for a living, so I got excited.” She figured it wouldn’t hurt to reemphasize that last part. “I buy them first.”

“You have no right to be on my property. All you people come outta nowhere, claiming to care, and then trample my hostas.”

Frances checked around her feet, expecting to be standing on an offended plant, but found none. “I’m from Roan Mountain in Carter County, past Johnson City.”

“Oh, are you now?” The woman lowered the gun by her side. “And who are your people?”

Frances raised her eyebrows and smirked at her insinuation that she knew people from far and wide. “I doubt you’ve heard of them, but they’re the Durhams from Roan and the Garners from Mountain City.”

The woman held out a bony hand with grossly swollen and distended joints. “Come inside.” When they were inside, she lit a lantern for added light. “Name’s Lily Robinson,” she said, perching on the edge of a worn recliner. She was wearing a faded polyester housedress and a jacket over it, as if she were cold.

“Sorry there’s no fire. I don’t want no one to know I’m still here. I’m waiting until the last minute to leave.”

Frances nodded. “I understand. I would do the same.” The cabin was dirty and crowded, and couldn’t have been more than eight hundred square feet, total. “How long have you lived here?”

“All my life. I was born right here in this cabin.” Lily spoke the words proudly, revealing a good set of yellowed teeth with only two missing near the back.

“Amazing,” Frances acknowledged. She turned her eye for appraisal, hoping to find something to buy for her store. But there wasn’t much of value among the woman’s possessions. The cabin was a poor excuse for a home, and one very rarely cleaned. If Lily had lived in Roan, Frances would have added her to the monthly rotation. “Do you live alone?”

“Ever since my Randy passed ten years ago I have. The government keeps me alive, though I have no idea why.” She laughed at her own joke—a gravelly, hoarse laugh that turned into a watery coughing fit.

“Do you know what will become of the barn? Will it be relocated until the mining is done?”

The woman raised her eyebrows at Frances’s ignorance, then shook her head and made a clucking sound. “No, child, this whole place will be destroyed. I’m going to a facility, soon as I leave here. The government sent someone out to investigate me.”

Frances had no idea what “investigate” entailed, but acted as if she did. “If I pay you a good amount and I can get my brother here to dismantle it, would you sell the barn to me?”

Lily’s bushy white eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I’ve already been paid for the house and the trouble of moving.”

“Well, a little extra money couldn’t hurt,” Frances persisted. She pulled out a check from her pocket, where she always kept one for such an occasion. She wrote the woman out a generous amount and held it out to show her, smiling at her reaction. “Do you keep a telephone here?”

“I got one.” Lily led her into the kitchen, to a phone beside the fridge.

Everything in the kitchen had been modernized sometime in the fifties, from what Frances could tell. It was very retro. Some young hip person would’ve loved the appliances. But Frances’s time was limited to the barn. And that was only if she could get Alan out here with the trailer and picker.

Alan answered the phone on the first ring, which was strange.

“Were you expecting someone to call?”

“Oh, hey, Franks,” he said. “Not really. Aunt Lindy said she might call with a grocery list for tomorrow’s supper, but that’s fifty-fifty. What do you want?”

“I’m out in La Follette for this rally and I found an old barn.”

“Oh, is that all? I’m not driving all the way out to some crazy town for a barn.” There was a long pause. So long, in fact, that he eventually groaned.

“Ok. I’ll come.”

Frances was shocked. “What? Why the change of heart?”

“Dad said I needed to start pitching in and helping you. He says I owe you. So give me directions and I’ll be out whenever I get done around here.”

It wasn’t the time to dig deeper into the motivations of her dad or brother, so she gave him directions and let him go.

“You’ll stay and pass an afternoon with me while we wait?” The question was posed eagerly as she’d been standing just beyond the short wall that separated the ’50s dinette from the living room, eavesdropping.

Frances shook her head with regret. “I came here with a friend and he will worry if I don’t come back and let him know where I’ve been. He expects me to disappear a little. But it’s time I got back to check in with him.”

When she reached the summit, Graham was less than pleased to hear about her changed plans. “So you’re not going to spend the night?”

She shook her head in answer.

“Or participate in the rally at all?”

Again, a shake.

“Do you really think a barn is worth more than what we’re accomplishing here?” He was completely baffled and disappointed in her.

Frances could tell he didn’t understand. She tried to explain. “I know it’s not important to you, but it’s a great find for me.”

He crossed his arms, the freckles and red hair combining to form a mottled patchwork. “Basically, you’re as bad as the big coal companies,” he declared in a rare fit of anger. “You take what is supposedly important to you—your treasured heritage in heirlooms and old barns and whatnot and you sell them to the wide world for a profit. You’re destroying your own legacy.”

His words stunned her, like a sharp slap across the face. She was shocked. It didn’t help that she had never witnessed him express any of the typical emotions, so this outburst registered as bizarre.

“I have to go.”

She left, but didn’t immediately return to Lily’s cabin. She needed some time and distance to lick her wounds and make peace with Graham’s accusations. At the end of an hour, she worked herself into such a bad state that when her brother found her by the road, in the place they had agreed to meet, she’d decided to call the whole thing off. She was crying into his window before he’d even turned off the truck.

Alan put on his best, most commanding big-brother voice as he climbed out of the truck. “Hold on, hold on now, Frankie. We need to talk about this first.” He bit back the other part he nearly blurted, the complaint about loading the trailer and picker and driving three tedious hours by himself with a broken A/C.

“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with dismantling old, half-rotted, good-for-nothing barns and letting someone turn them into something they enjoy, like a picture frame or a mantle to hang kids’ stockings on at Christmas. Isn’t that romantic, like you always say? And if not romantic, isn’t it at least environmental?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

He put his hands on her shoulders. “Look at me.” He waited until she did. “You turn old ugly junk into beautiful stuff. You’ve always appreciated things other people think are worthless and you make them believe and think exactly like you. If you were doing it for profit or money-grubbing, you’d be rich. But I know you. You make this stuff accessible to people because you want them to love it as much as you do.”

“Thank you. You’re a good brother. And you don’t owe me anything. There’s no debt to be paid—regardless of whatever Dad said.”

“That means you’re splitting the profits with me this time?” He shook her playfully, so she would know he was teasing.

“What profit? You just agreed I wasn’t rich. But I’ll buy you dinner.” She grinned, happy he had talked her back into rescuing the barn.

He wrinkled his nose. He had been to many hollers and out-of-the way places, but this was a little backwoods, even to him. “Ok,” he said, “but maybe once we get out of town. And I’m not eating there.” He motioned toward Lily’s cabin, which they could barely see peeking through the trees.

Frances agreed. “Anything you want.”

It took the rest of the afternoon and evening to dismantle the barn. They couldn’t get all of it, since there were only two of them and Frances couldn’t carry more than forty or fifty pounds at a time. But at the end of a long day, they were both satisfied at what they were able to salvage. Each plank would be lovingly resurrected into a whole new existence.

They walked out to the truck after thanking Lily and saying a regretful goodbye, when Alan remembered something.

“Hey, I forgot to tell you, two people came by the house looking for you while you were gone.”

“Came by whose house?” She always had to clarify, because Alan drifted equally between the three residences.

“Your house.”

Frances opened the passenger door, but stopped to stare at him. “What were you doing at my house? Drinking my good coffee?”

He shrugged at her without answering.

“That’s about what I figured. You need to start paying up.” She climbed into the truck.

Alan reached over and mussed her hair because he knew she hated it. He would never get tired of aggravating her.

Frances was quiet until he pulled out of the twisty driveway. The trailer was sometimes difficult to manage. Then she turned the conversation back again. “Who was looking for me? And what did they want?”

He lowered his window and hung an elbow out. “Well, the first one came by right after you left, when I first came over for some coffee, and it was old man Duke. He wouldn’t say what he wanted. But he drank a cup of coffee with me.”

Frances hugged her arms in closer by her sides. On the outside, she didn’t want to appear concerned, but Duke was getting so old that he hadn’t come by in ages. “And the other?”

Alan turned onto the main road and settled in for the long drive. “Oh, it was Amber.”

She stiffened. “What did she want?”

Alan shrugged. “Who can tell with that girl?”

“Did she act upset?” She was growing impatient with her brother’s short answers.

“I wouldn’t say upset. Maybe a little hyper.” He was quiet for a few moments. Then he squinted at his sister.

Frances pulled her phone out of her bag and checked it. But there were no messages or missed calls.

“What did you do?”

She wasn’t about to confess her sins to him. “There’s a restaurant at the next exit, so pull off there and we’ll eat.”

As they ate, they were both fairly quiet. Alan was trying to think of things to say, but no topic was safe until he ate his dessert. He recognized Frances’s mood as one of guilty anxiety, but since she never came to him with her problems, he had no notion of what she might have done. He finally decided on a safe subject.

“I noticed the Parks Department sign at the entrance to Roan said something about hosting a celebration next week.”

She sat straighter in her chair. “That’s odd for this time of year. I wonder why?”

He shrugged. “Something about acquiring some more land from a generous benefactor.”

The color drained from her face and her eyes dilated. She swiveled in her chair to peek at those around her. Could they hear her heart beating out of her chest? Because the steady thumping in her ears was deafening. She put her finger to one ear and plugged it. Maybe the sound was her imagination.

“You ok?” Alan was getting worried about her. One minute she was sitting there normally, the next she was hunched in her chair, looking around crazily at the people next to them. They were going to think something was wrong with her. “Why are you being weird?”

Frances managed to compose herself, if for no other reason than to avoid further questioning. Pushing her half-eaten plate of food back, she fished through her purse for her money and paid the tab. Alan could sit there until he was done eating, but she needed some fresh air.

 

Chapter Fifteen

The next afternoon, Frances and her brother worked to unload the barnwood from the trailer into the back of the shop. After a few phone calls that morning, she already had a buyer lined up, but one that couldn’t come collect it until the following week. So they had to unload it. She didn’t know about Alan, but she was sore.

All day, she’d half expected Duke or Amber to call or stop by, but no one ever did. She wanted relief or closure, like a little kid who had been caught burning paper in the backyard but had to wait on their spanking until daddy came home. The waiting was the worst part of the punishment.

Frances stopped working for a minute and pulled off her gloves to examine the blisters on her hands. She held them out for her brother to inspect. “Do these look like the hands of anyone you would date?”

He grabbed one of them to inspect, then threw it away in exaggerated disgust. “Hell no.” He teased because he liked watching her get worked up. “I don’t think your professor minds.” He shuffled to block a punch and took it as a sign he had hit the nail on the head. “And what is it with you and professors? Are you tryin’ to climb the social scale or something?”

“He’s not my professor. Never will be. Not my type.” She slipped the glove back on, lifted a few short rails and threw the bundle of them into the open doorway. “For one thing, our opinions are opposite on almost any topic you could pick. And for the other, he wouldn’t ever tease me about worrying over something dumb like rough hands. He wouldn’t be useful to me.”

Alan walked over to lift a big beam she was struggling with. “They say opposites attract.” He wasn’t in a hurry to drop the subject, even though he knew poor Graham would never be a good match for his sister.

“You know, he has a sister I could fix you up with, if you’re so interested in the family,” she said. “Elaine. She’s an exact female copy of him.”

He walked to the far side of the pile and muttered under his breath. “He wasn’t good enough for you. And he’s not at all good-looking with that beak of a nose and all those freckles.”

“I don’t care about looks,” she declared. It was her turn to aggravate.

“Stop it now. That is an outright lie—and on Sunday too.” He clicked his tongue, mimicking Aunt Lindy with a perfect impersonation.

They went back to work in earnest and got the pile cleared. Frances was happy Alan appeared to be turning around, taking care of his responsibilities and helping out more.

“How’s Lewelyn getting along?” She grabbed the broom to sweep off the trailer.

He peered at her strangely through narrowed eyes. “Why are you asking me? I’m not her husband.”

Frances, who hadn’t perceived it to be a weird question, got defensive. “Well, I didn’t think it was a dumb question since you share custody of a child.” She threw the broom into the shop and it landed on top of the barn wood.

Alan walked over and retrieved it, setting it in its place behind the door. “Since we’re on the subject, are you free after work tomorrow to watch Morgan?”

“Of course. I miss my girl. But why aren’t you spending time with her instead of me?” It had been too long since they had kept company and she was eager to see her, but suspicious of his generosity to give up his time slot. It’s not like he had a job to go to, or was dating someone.

Alan shrugged. His expression hinted he wanted to tell her something. But for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to open up, no matter how many times she opened up to him.

“Who’s the kid?” He pointed to a young teen coming around the corner of the shop.

Frances squinted against the low afternoon sun. She recognized the face, but was having trouble placing it. “Heya.”

“Can we help you with something?” Alan asked.

“Little Joey Whitehurst.” Frances grinned, proud of herself for putting the face and name together. “I haven’t seen you around here in years. You’re all grown up.”

The handsome young face broke into a smile that could charm a flower off an orchid. He turned to Alan. “I’d like to talk to Frankie here alone, if you don’t mind.”

Alan raised his eyebrows and put his hands up. “Ok, whatever you want.” He walked over to the truck and climbed in. As he drove out of the parking lot, he yelled back, “I’ll see you at supper.”

Joey stared at Frances, happy to see her. “You all eat supper together? Even though you’re all grown up?” He was amazed, since his family didn’t ever eat supper together and they weren’t even grown or moved out.

Frances had other things on her mind. “You called me Frankie. Why’d you call me that? Where’d you hear it?” She unconsciously placed her hands on her hips.

Joey stared at her quizzically and shrugged.

“Ok, what do you need me for?”

He stuck his hands in his pockets and slumped, the remembrance of why he was there on his mind. “I think you helped my grandparents once, when they wanted to sell some furniture. Do you remember?”

She nodded. “It was a while ago, but yes I do remember. I bought their barn.”

“I loved that barn.” He kicked at some loose gravel on the asphalt as he spoke.

Frances remembered them telling her how much their grandson loved playing in it. So she changed the subject. “How are they doing?”

He shook his head. “That’s what I need help with. I’ve been living in Connecticut with Mom these past three years and I’ve missed them. So when I moved back in with Dad, I went right away to see them. But gramps won’t come to the door when I knock.”

Frances tried to remember any news or gossip she’d heard about the elderly couple that might help ease his mind. But she was drawing a blank. “They keep to themselves, mostly. I’m sorry I don’t know more.”

“They have a grocery service that delivers right to the doorstep, but otherwise, no one ever visits.”

Frances led him over to the stack of wood and sat. Her aching body was throbbing in places she didn’t know existed. “And is your dad worried about them?”

Joey hung his head, disappointed that she asked. His wide blue eyes clouded with anger and some other mix of emotions Frances didn’t want to drum up. She immediately regretted asking. The Whitehurst clan had been feuding as long as she’d been alive.

“How about this—I promise to help you the first chance I get.”

He pressed his lips together and lifted his head into a slight nod, grateful but also a little untrusting. “When do you think that will be?”

The sun was making its descent and it was high time she arrived at Aunt Lindy’s to help cook. She would never hear the end of it if she arrived too late. “I have no idea.” She felt a twinge of guilt at brushing off his question. “You need to get home. It’s fixing to be dark out and you don’t want to run across that cougar Eddie saw around Grassy Ridge last week. I’ll walk you as far as my aunt’s house.”

He stood straight. “No thanks.” He looked as hurt as if she’d offered him a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid for a scraped knee. “I come and go as I please.”

“Oh, well, sorry then.” She tried to weed the mockery from her voice. “And how old did you say you are?”

“I’m a freshman in high school.”

“What is that, like fourteen?”

“Yes.” He stalked off in the direction he had come from, but stopped and turned around one last time. “I remember the other thing I wanted to ask.”

“Go for it.”

“The old guys are getting together for some bluegrass at the civic center next weekend. I wanted to know if you’d come play.”

She couldn’t hide her surprise. “Now what do you care about some old men playing bluegrass? Or me playing with them, for that matter?”

He grinned at her. “I love it, actually. I wish I could play. And it would be nice to have something pretty to look at.”

“Get out of here.” She swatted her hand through the air, as if to chase him away, and watched him take off into the woods. She considered his strange request on the way to her aunt’s house. It was easy to take for granted the fact that young kids could appreciate music—after all, she always had. But when she brought it up with most of her friends, their faces either registered boredom or exhaustion, and over time, she had come to the conclusion that she liked things other people didn’t. She would much rather talk about something that lit people up like kindling than send them into a coma, so she’d fallen into the habit of dismissing her own interests. And because of that, it was awkward talking about music at all.

When she reached Aunt Lindy’s and walked into the kitchen, a newspaper on the end of the counter caught her eye. She grabbed it and held it over the trash can. “Are you saving this for anything?”

“No. I mean, yes, don’t throw it away. Your dad would kill me.” Lindy rushed over and grabbed it from her, placing it back on the edge of the counter. “Go outside and shuck this, please.” She handed her a grocery bag of corn.

“Gladly.” Outside, she ripped the paper-like husks off the first ear and threw them into the azaleas. The stars were out by the thousands and there was no moon to dampen their brilliance. Nights like these reminded her of their rugby days, gathered together with every friend they could muster, playing with nothing but starlight to keep them on solid ground. She missed the excuse it gave her and Alan to enjoy each other’s presence without the struggle of conversation.

When she walked back into the kitchen, she noticed the newspaper was gone. “Now where did she go with that paper?” Frances walked out into the living room. “Did she go and throw it away after fussing at me for doing the same thing?”

Her dad was the only one in the room and he turned to her. “What paper? My paper?”

She shrugged. “I guess so.”

“The one with your story in it?”

Frances was confused. She shook her head. “I don’t know what story you’re talking about.”

He drew his brows together sternly, even though anyone could see he wasn’t actually angry. “I’ll tell you, I’m not too pleased to find you’re writing under the name ‘Frankie.’ I know your brother uses it, but Frances is the name your ma and I chose for you.”

She stared at him without expression. “That must be an old article. I haven’t had anything published lately.”

He shook his head. “No, that’s yesterday’s paper. It says ‘Frankie Garner’ and it’s about mountaintop mining. Isn’t that what you kids have been spending your time on?”

“I guess I haven’t checked my emails in a while. I’m always submitting something. Maybe one of my articles got printed.”

He smiled and tilted his head back, impressed with her. Then he said, “I’m proud of you.” The words were no louder than a whisper.

“Who’s at the door?”

Frances and her dad had spoken at the same time, and even though their words had overlapped, she’d managed to catch what he said. Her heart jumped at the acknowledgement.

“I’m sorry. We were talking at the same time.” But he had already spun around in his recliner when Alan walked in the door with Lewelyn and Morgan.

“There’s my little peanut!” he shouted, getting up with an effort.

Surrounded in the bustle and noise of an energetic child and her talkative mother, Frances never got the chance to acknowledge what her dad had mentioned. It was something a girl like her dreamed of, but at the same time didn’t want to hear, because it meant she had to remove a few bricks from the wall guarding her heart. It was like she’d spent her short life planning, drawing up blueprints, contracting the work, and laying finishing touches on her dream home just in time to watch her mountain toppled. It was time to start over somewhere new, and to her surprise, she was fine with it.

At the dinner table, Alan set a place for Morgan next to his, but when she came over, she moved it next to her Grandpa’s. He jutted out his chin and started to reach for it, to set it back, until Frances shot him a glare that said ‘grow up,’ and he snapped out of it.

“I hear you and I are going to be spending the day together tomorrow, Morgan. I can’t wait to hang out. I’ve been missing my best girl.” Frances reached over to hug her.

Morgan cringed and shook her head in an exaggerated way, so her long blonde braids swung out on either side of her small head. She was a sophisticated four-year-old, and she didn’t appreciate being called baby names.

“Yuk, don’t call me that. A boy in my class calls me that and I hate him.”

“Whoa, young lady,” Al corrected her, “hate is a strong word and we don’t say that in this house.”

Her bottom lip jutted out and her chin began to quiver. She was less upset about offending her aunt as she was about being scolded. “I’m sorry.” Then she turned to her mom for acknowledgement.

Lewelyn laid a warm hand over the little girl’s and smiled. The gesture reassured the child, who went back to chattering.

“So why am I watching Morgan tomorrow?” Either it was her imagination, or Lewelyn had been slightly aloof that evening. Aside from a small hug, she’d mostly avoided her, which was strange.

The table became quiet, other than Morgan’s chattering. Each of the faces immediately became occupied in studying their dinner plates. And it struck her—they all know something I don’t.

“Ok, if everyone knows why but me, that means you’re going to make me guess.” She stopped, because Morgan had become very interested in what she was saying, and Lewelyn’s eyes were pleading with her to drop it.

“I saw little Joey Whitehurst today.” Frances changed the subject and the collective relief reflected in the faces around the table was telling.

“Is that Tom’s boy?” her dad asked.

Frances shrugged. “I guess so. You may not recognize him. He’s all grown up. Wants me to go check on his grandparents and is worried about them.”

Alan threw his napkin in mock aggravation. “Is that all he wanted? I thought he was asking for some privacy so he could ask you to his middle-school prom or something.”

She scanned the table for something to throw.

He elbowed his aunt. “Better stop her now or she’s going to throw some kind of food at me.”

Aunt Lindy glared at her niece. “Oh no she won’t—not in my house. You two kids need to grow up and set a good example for this young’un.”

Morgan was smiling, her eyes wide and expectant.

She sighed. “Don’t listen to your dad, Morgan, I would never throw food.” Ignoring a loud protest from her brother, she turned back to her dad. “Do you think there’s any cause for Joey to worry about them?”

Al turned his roll over and over in his hand before taking a big bite out of it. “No harm in checking. I wouldn’t worry, but then again I’m not family.”

After dinner, Frances cleaned up by herself while Aunt Lindy and Lewelyn read Morgan stories before her bath. She would rather be over on the rug, reading stories with them, but she knew how much her aunt treasured these moments. Dad had lowered the volume on the TV, which was astonishing, since he never would’ve done it for his own children. She scrubbed baked bean goo off a saucepan with a little more force than usual. Was he changing, or did he love the little girl more? It was hard to tell, but in the end, she decided it was a welcome change, whatever the reason.

Out in the living room, Morgan was finishing every sentence. And it was throwing Aunt Lindy off her rhythm. Frances stepped out of the kitchen with the dripping pot in one hand and a worn flour sack towel in the other. “You’ve got them all memorized, Morgan. You need some new books.”

Lewelyn stood and took the pan from her.

“Oh, don’t bother, that’s the last one. You guys keep reading. Give me a kiss and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Frances walked over to the little girl, holding out her arms. The sweet small body pressed into her arms tightly.

“Let me give you a ride,” Alan offered.

“No, I’d rather walk, but thanks.”

“What about…”

She cut him off with a motion of her hand. It was telling that she was about to receive the very same lecture she gave to a fourteen-year-old earlier that evening. “I know about the mountain lion.”

She set off and tried to shed off the grim loneliness that was threatening to ruin a nearly perfect night. Back at home, she checked her email, searching for something to explain the article published under her name, but found nothing. She rifled through some old mail on the counter and on her desk. But at the end of her search, she was every bit as confused.

Out of desperation, she called Graham. “Did you submit one of my articles to the newspaper?”

“I just got home from La Follette.” He avoided her question.

“And the article?”

After a long silence, he said, “Yes.” It was followed by another long pause. “It was too good to waste.”

“Where did it come from?”

“You don’t remember it?”

“I didn’t get a chance to read it. My dad had the newspaper.”

Graham let out a long sigh. Confessing was never easy. He had secretly hoped things would be going well between them and news of her story getting published would be thrilling, but the whole business had turned awkward.

“It was one of your school assignments from a few years ago. You wrote about mountaintop removal because you knew I cared about it.” His words had a certain accusatory ring and he didn’t try to hide it. He was still disappointed she left in the middle of the protest.

It was coming back to her. Graham had been a ruthless taskmaster and had assigned papers bi-weekly. When she had grown tired of getting papers back, illegible from all the red pen, she’d decided to conduct an experiment. She had written a completely fabricated story about her brother taking her on a trip to meet some distant relatives that lived on one of the mountains about to be mined. And the relatives had refused to move, so the local police came and escorted them out, and the big coal company backfilled the valley where they lived.

Frances burned with shame at the realization that a bizarre and false story had been published under her name. “I can’t believe you would do that,” she cried. “That story wasn’t even true. I made it up.”

“What do you mean you made it up? Why would you make something like that up?”

She held the phone out and shook it in anger before returning it to her ear. “I wrote what you wanted to read to get a good grade. And you loved it.”

“That’s never an excuse to lie,” he retorted.

“You’re right. I never should’ve done it. But please, never do anything like that without asking me again.” When he didn’t answer, she said the minimal pleasantries coldly and hung up. She sank into the couch. Maybe if she cried, she would feel better. But then she realized she didn’t feel like crying. She wanted to laugh. So she did. “You messed it up good this time,” she scolded herself. The whole thing was embarrassing and yet so funny. “And that was the only paper I got an A on.”

The next day, the mystery of why she was babysitting Morgan was revealed. Lewelyn was moving back in with Aunt Lindy, at least for a trial separation. Frances was shocked and a little disappointed. Even though she’d never been a fan of Elliot’s, she believed in love and knew how miserable he would be without his family. And she pitied him.

When Lewelyn came to get Morgan later that afternoon, they only had time for a short conversation.

“I don’t want to be intimidated anymore. I want my girl to see me as a strong person.” She watched Morgan darting up and down the steps, depositing snails in a neat row.

Frances understood two things about the situation: Lewelyn still loved Elliot, and that love wasn’t strong enough to make her life with him bearable. In a way, it was natural they were moving ‘home.’ But at the same time, the hardest was yet to come.

Al stopped by on his way home to discuss some things. Frances was stealing a few minutes to herself to read under a big oak tree in the backyard. She didn’t expect to be discovered, so when her dad came stealing around the corner of the house searching for her, she couldn’t help being a little disappointed.

“Thought I’d find you somewhere working, not reading,” he said. “It’s a treat to see you relaxing.”

Frances put the book aside. “How did things go with Lewelyn?”

He waved his big hand at her, to say he didn’t come to talk about that. “It’s all sad. I think she’ll give him another chance, if he straightens up.”

“But that’s not why you came.”

He knelt so he wasn’t towering over her. “I feared talkin’ to you about this the other night.” Out of his pocket, he pulled a folded-up envelope. “This came for you while you were gone last weekend.”

“You got this out of my mailbox?” She reached to snatch the letter away, insulted that he had gone through her mail, but he held it out of reach.

“I did not. It was delivered to my house.” Then he dropped his hand so she could take it.

Frances turned the envelope over so she could study the printed label. The sender was a lawyer. In a moment of weakness, she turned to her dad. “I don’t want to open it.” She looked at him, her bright eyes pleading. “You open it.” And she handed it back.

With a big sigh, Al lowered himself onto the grass beside her and opened the letter. Inside were two sheets of paper, one handwritten, and one printed on a legal letterhead. He skimmed the contents of each, and then returned to read each meticulously. With every word, his head and shoulders stooped lower. After reading, he folded them back and handed them to her. “I can’t tell you what’s inside. They’re for you to read.”

Frances read the handwritten one first. Though she’d never received anything in his handwriting, she knew it was Warren’s. The penmanship consisted of fluid and precise cursive, written by a hand that wouldn’t accept less than perfection.

“Dear Frances,

I already know you’re angry, even before you read this, because you suspect I sold your land to the Parks service. I know I promised I would give it back to you. But before you get too upset, please hear me out.”

Frances let a little gasp and shriek escape. She forgot her dad was there. “How could you?” she cried.

“You can’t have it. You think you’ll be able to guard it, but I’ve witnessed enough births and deaths to account for the truth that nothing lasts forever. And after you’re gone, who will take care of it? Please forgive me. Even if it takes you a whole lifetime. I did it because I love you.”

She cried openly and let the tears stream across her cheeks. Was this her penance for all the wrongs she had committed? She flipped to the printed letter and skimmed it, as her dad had done. She read little bits through her tears: “…Mr. Burnette didn’t take care of himself…could have been avoided with early detection…will stipulates that all land goes to the Parks Department of Carter County and all other property goes to a nephew.”

“I don’t care about that stuff. I care about what was mine.” She flung the papers away from her and sobbed into her hands. “He promised. How could he do this to me?”

Al had never been in this situation before and didn’t know exactly what to do. Since Frances was so fiercely independent, she usually rejected his interference. But he was uncomfortable with her tears and obvious grief, and so he scooted beside her and placed his arm over her shoulder, turning her to him and letting her cry on his chest. Though it wouldn’t help the situation, he kind of felt like crying himself. Wasn’t it he who sold the land in the first place? He was ignorant of the conversation where Warren promised to give the land back, but he gathered as much from his daughter’s gibberish.

“Did you read the bottom, about his remains?”

She pulled away from him. “He can stay right where he is. I don’t know why he thinks I would want to bring him here.” Out of pain and misery, she sought to make him as wretched and hateful toward Warren as she was. “You know he was Mom’s first love, don’t you?”

Al stared at his daughter for a moment, eyes open with surprise, this new information hitting him like a fallen roof rafter. He understood plainly that she no longer wanted his comfort, and he wasn’t about to stick around for her pity party. “Just because things’s true, it don’t mean they’re right to say.” His words were kind, but firm.

She drew her knees to her chest and buried her head in her arms, crying bitterly. When her energy was finally spent and she picked herself up, she was alone. Retrieving the letter, she read the last lines again. “…and after your consideration, if you see fit to bring him home to the cemetery located on Apple Blossom Court, you may call, and I’ll make all necessary arrangements.”

Oh, how bitter was her disappointment. He didn’t think she was fit to care for her own land? Well, by those standards, maybe she wasn’t fit to care for anyone. It was a dark day.

 

Chapter Sixteen

The aroma of mid-May feathered the morning air, smelling like coffee, woods, wet and dirt. Before most people started the business of living, that thick breath of fog would float up to become heady white clouds above them. Frances tried to never miss it. She’d spent this morning trying to wake up on her front deck, and that’s exactly where her brother had found her. As he walked over to take a seat next to her, she stood and walked inside. He followed her in wordlessly. Their dad had explained the land situation to him and they had both agreed to tread lightly for a while and extend her some grace.

In the kitchen, Frances took out some eggs and bacon to fix breakfast.

Alan walked up behind her and took the pan from her hand. “You go get ready for the day. I’m perfectly capable of making you breakfast.”

Frances turned to him suspiciously and they tugged back and forth for a few moments. But eventually she released her grip on the pan and disappeared. He didn’t have to tell her twice. She went back to the porch and sat until he brought breakfast out for them both. The scrambled eggs were watery and the bacon was squishy, but she was appreciative.

“You know what I think is strange?” She forced a bite of eggs.

“What?”

Her face clouded. “I haven’t heard from Amber in weeks.”

He started coughing and almost choked on his breakfast. After he leaned forward, Frances beat on his back until he motioned with his hand that he was better off without it.

She waited until he recovered before she tried again. “You better tell me what you know.”

He shook his head and tried to turn away so she couldn’t read his expression. Right as he was about to fabricate something, which he absolutely hated doing, Amber drove up the driveway. He stood so quickly, his plate clattered to the floor. “Now how’s that for timing?”

Frances leaned to grab the plate. “You’re like an elephant,” she said. “Good thing they’re cheap Corelle.” Then she stood too. She was more than a little suspicious of her brother’s antics. “It feels like forever since I’ve talked to her.” She waved at the car and stepped down the steps. But when Duke got out of the passenger side, she froze.

“Guys, I’m so sorry.” Even though fear and guilt strangled her, she was also somewhat relieved, because she could finally apologize for making that terrible call. In the driver’s seat, Amber was trying to untangle her giddy hyperactive self from her seatbelt, and Duke stood outside laughing. They’re not upset. She could hardly believe it. Duke was practically shining with happiness.

When Amber got loose, she bounded out of the car and hurled herself at her best friend. “Oh my gosh, tell me everything that happened while we were gone. What did I miss?”

Frances turned to her brother, bewildered, as Amber jumped up and down, still hugging her.

Alan walked over and said something to Duke, shaking his hand and pounding his back with a burst of brotherly affection.

He turned to Amber. “Sweetheart,” he drawled in an exaggerated way, “no one told her. Remember, you told us not to say anything because you wanted it to be a surprise?”

“Yes.” She shrieked and released Frances, held out her left hand and twisted it around backwards so Frances could see a delicate diamond ring. “We ran off and got married!” Then she started bouncing again.

“What?”

“That message you left,” Duke said, “was meant to be. I never knew she loved me and when I came to talk it over, we decided to do something crazy.”

Frances stared at him, all the color draining from her face. “So, you love her?” It was a stupid question, especially since they were standing in front of her as a married couple, but she still had to ask it.

He smiled bashfully. “I always had feelings for her, but she never let on she had feelings for me, so I moved on.” He smiled at Amber adoringly and reached for her slim hand. “Who wouldn’t love her?”

“Are you shocked?” Amber asked.

“Yes, but I’m happy. If you’re happy, I’m overjoyed. I figured I was going to be in trouble.”

Amber lunged at her again and wrapped her in a tight embrace. “No, I’m so grateful. At first I was angry, but only until I found out he cared for me too.” Duke motioned to her and she let go. “Listen, we have to go now, but we’re going to plan a reception for this weekend. There are lots more people to see and explain what we’ve done. Once this whole thing is over, I want to catch up. I love you.”

And so the whirlwind of excitement and affection disappeared as quickly as it arose. “You knew? And what about poor Krystal?”

He shrugged. “Well, according to his dad, they had already broken off their engagement when you left that message.”

They didn’t discuss it further, because they both paused to watch a fit young figure running up the hill to the house. “Who in the world?” Frances stood and gathered her hair into the ponytail wrapped around her wrist, as if she was going to be called upon to run as well.

“Oh, it’s just that kid Joey.” Alan lifted a hand in greeting.

“Shoot,” Frances gasped. “I never got back to him about checking on his grandparents.”

From all appearances, Joey was in some kind of panic. His gait never wavered, even right up to the porch, where he stopped abruptly, surprised he had reached it so fast. Then, the tall youth bounded up the stairs and grabbed Frances’s hand in a surprisingly gentle way, given the force of his entrance.

“It’s grandma.” He was out of breath and tugged her down the steps like a child would’ve done. “I’m worried something’s happened to her.”

The breakfast Alan made would never get finished now, but there wasn’t much she could do. She’d promised the boy she would look in on his grandparents and then allowed herself to get too busy to fulfill it. Together, they ran along for about a mile, until they reached the small house. Her eyes drifted over to the black foundation of dirt where she and Alan had taken apart the lovely barn.

“What makes you think something’s happened, Joey?” They paused on the front lawn to catch their breath. Frances wanted to piece together the facts before she went barging into someone’s home.

Joey’s eyebrows were drawn together and a decided frown transformed his youthful face. “Their grocery service leaves a box of groceries on the deck every Monday. I’ve been walking this way after school every day to check on it.” His chin trembled slightly as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. “It’s still there beside the door.”

“But it’s Friday,” Frances gasped.

“The house is blocked from the road, so people passing by can’t tell they haven’t brought the groceries inside.”

A moment of understanding passed between them as both acknowledged instinctively that something was very wrong.

“Well, you need to go catch your bus. I promise I’ll get to the bottom of it. Nothing else is on my agenda today.”

He shook his head. “No way. I’m not going to school, and besides, the bus has already come and gone.”

Frances sighed. She wasn’t his parent and was in no position to tell him what to do. But she also didn’t want him hanging around in case something bad had happened. She walked onto the porch and inspected the groceries. Luckily the temperature had been mild and the porch was relatively shaded and cool. A package of ground beef was rotting and starting to stink, and so was the produce and dairy, but it could have been worse.

She knocked on the door.

“I already tried that.” Joey hovered inches away from her.

“Do you remember how your grandpa locks his door? Is there a deadbolt?”

He considered it for a minute, then shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember there being a deadbolt.”

The doorknob appeared to be of the old cheap aluminum stock that was easy to break into with a credit card. She pulled one out of the thin wallet she kept in her back pocket and slid it into the crack between the latch mechanism and the strikeplate. With a jiggle and a shimmy back and forth, she managed to force the latch back far enough to release the door. The handle remained locked in her hand, and she used its inflexibility to lean on when the pungent smell of death struck her nose.

When she faltered at the door, Joey ran up behind her and placed a supporting hand on her back so she didn’t fall. He tried to ask, “What is it?” but his words were too faint to hear after he was greeted by the same foul odor.

“It’s the spoiled groceries,” he said. They both stepped back into the clean freshness beyond the deck.

Frances looked at him in surprised wonder. She knew her shocked expression dashed his hopes when he hung his head and began to cry silently.

“Go call the paramedics,” she said. “I’ll look inside and see if there’s anything that can be done, and I’ll yell for you if you can help.” Her eyes pleaded with him to follow directions and stay out of the way.

After he walked off to make the call, she searched her pockets, hoping to find a handkerchief to cover her nose. The deliberation to go back inside with that rank smell made her nauseous, but she didn’t want to hesitate, or Joey might come back. So, she filled her lungs and walked bravely through the front door.

At first glance, everything was as it should. She held her arm over her face and greedily sucked in whatever small amount of carbon dioxide was trapped between her shirt and nostrils, but even that didn’t block out the awful stench. And it was making her lightheaded. She surveyed the neat kitchen and the two coffee mugs in the sink. The house was incredibly silent, save her hurried steps. Most of the homes in the valley, including her own, were built with the same layout, so she knew the narrow hall ahead of her probably led to the bedrooms, which was her best bet at where she would find the couple.

After breathing in a few more puffs of her precious carbon-dioxide shirtsleeve air, she hurried across the hall, peeking into two well-laid guest rooms. The bed and windows in the second were dressed with white lace lined in pale pink, and there were several baby dolls and an old woven bassinet at the foot of the bed, as if Mrs. Whitehurst was expecting a young granddaughter that weekend. The sight of it filled Frances with a familiar pang of longing she brushed off.

When she reached the Whitehurst’s bedroom, she was disappointed to find her imagination hadn’t disappointed her when she’d smelled that first wave of death. But she prayed in the weeks and months that followed, that her imagination would lose a little of its alacrity in recalling the dead couple. It appeared like Mrs. Whitehurst had gone first. Her physical remains were left to whatever was strong in her, as what was weak was already gone. She’d been dressed in a beautiful embroidered housedress and was lying flat on her back. “Went in her sleep.” It was useless talking to herself, but it brought some measure of comfort.

One could mistake Mr. Whitehurst, lying diagonally across the bed on his side, as still being alive, save for the mottled color of his complexion. Frances understood at once that he was gone too. He was dressed in his typical polyester front-pleated khaki pants and short-sleeved button-up dress shirt. He had fulfilled his promise to his sweetheart and not forced her to leave her most intimate and familiar home in her last days. And with no one to live for or watch over, he had passed as well. It was at once both a very sad sight and a happy one.

Frances didn’t linger. She descended the stairs with peace on her face and arms open wide, so Joey understood everything at once. He fell into her arms in a sobbing mess and she held him until he didn’t want to be held anymore. The wail of a fire truck heading up the road signaled to the neighbors something was wrong, and many of them walked out to the end of their driveways to determine which way it was heading. And when they came to take some of the burden, she surrendered with relief.

A few moments behind the fire truck was a police car and an ambulance. But thankfully, they didn’t use their sirens.

Joey was sitting beneath a tree, trying to collect himself, when his dad drove up. After climbing out of the truck, his stride toward Joey was rigid and swift, and his face revealed his anger in no uncertain terms. Frances walked toward him to intervene, but the officer stepped in and beat her to it. One gesture and word of caution, and his dad changed his approach. He walked over and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, which caused Joey to bury his head in his arms and weep again.

It was time for her to leave. “Do you need anything more from me, officer?” She approached him meekly.

He shook his head. “I’ve got your name here if we run into any problems. This isn’t an unusual case.”

Frances was pensive and subdued the rest of the day. The starkness of death and finality were meant to be witnessed sparingly in such fragile creatures as humans, and Frances was no exception. If she didn’t come across another dead person in the next decade, that would be fine with her.

By the next morning, the rawness of the experience had somewhat left and she was able to dwell in realms of hope and possibility again. The good news of her two best friends’ marriage lifted her spirits. Everywhere she went, everyone agreed it had been a beautiful way to go.

She was still thinking about it later that afternoon as she drove to the civic center, though she was trying her best to chase it away with a focused concentration on music. Her mind wandered and she wasn’t paying attention to the road like she should have been. When the Jeep in front of her braked hard to let some woodland creature pass, she slammed on her brakes, but not in time to keep from running into the back of it.

A hiss of steam escaped from under her hood. “Damn.” She pounded the steering wheel with her fist. But she knew she had to get out and make sure the other person wasn’t hurt. Reaching over to the passenger floorboard, she searched until she grasped the handle of her mother’s violin. In the extreme possibility the truck went up in flames, she wasn’t going to lose that. She set it on the seat, where she could grab it through the open window if she needed to. She tried hard not to turn the crash around and blame the other driver, but inside she was furious.

The other driver climbed out first and slammed his door forcefully, then walked to the back of the truck and surveyed the bumper with crossed arms.

“Of all the luck…” she muttered. It was Perry Hernshaw.

He turned his attention to her truck, and the drawn eyebrows and stern frown melted in an instant when he recognized her. He uncrossed his arms and walked over to open her door. “Are you ok?”

She wanted to melt down into her seat. “Kind of you to ask how I am when this’s my fault.” She climbed out, avoiding his offered hand. “Are you ok?”

He nodded. “We weren’t going fast enough to get much hurt. Some of those dumb muskrat things crossed the street right in front of me and I had to slam on my brakes.”

He walked over to her crunched-up hood. “You got the worst of it. Looks like she may be done for.”

Frances groaned.

“Where were you headed? Maybe we can push it off the road and I can take you.”

That was the least desirable scenario she could imagine, but it wouldn’t do to say so. She deflected his question with one of her own. “What are you doing in Roan?”

He tilted his head and put his hands in his pockets. “Well, I did ask Lewelyn not to say anything, but I didn’t really think she would keep her word.” He noticed Frances kept glancing over her shoulder at the road, as if she was hoping someone else would come that way and give her a ride. “I’m here now. I rent a house right outside Butler and I teach at the high school. One of the English teachers had a baby last year and decided not to come back, so I started in the middle of the year.”

“You live here in Carter County now? I had no idea.”

“I have for a while,” he said. “I was visiting my student, Joey Whitehurst. I guess he found his grandparents dead yesterday and I was worried about him.”

She nodded vaguely.

“I’m sure you know that,” he apologized. “I forget how fast word travels here.” Perry walked back over to the driver’s side of the truck and waved at someone pulling in behind them. He noticed her violin sitting on the seat. “Your violin—you were going to bluegrass night at the civic center?”

“That same student of yours begged me to go. I was mostly going as a favor to him.”

Her heart had been beating rapidly from the adrenaline response and her first calm came when Eddie Johns climbed out of his truck and joined them. She could have hugged him right there.

“Let’s push her off the road,” he said gruffly.

Perry moved his Jeep, which had sustained almost no damage, up and out of the way so they could push Frances’s truck off the road.

After thanking Eddie and sending him on his way, Perry grabbed her violin off the seat. “Let me take you. I was going there myself.”

She shook her head, but he had her violin and was already walking away. “I probably won’t play,” she warned, running to keep pace with him. “I don’t go to these things much anymore.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.” His smile was huge. He looked at her as if she was the best thing that had come across his path in years.

Frances knew it was her turn to pick up the thread of conversation, but she didn’t feel very chatty. So she stared ahead and didn’t say another word. And he didn’t either. In the parking lot, she jumped out as soon as he stopped, with a shy word of thanks as she slammed the door. She felt indebted to him, since the accident was her fault and he hadn’t called the cops or even gotten angry with her, but she didn’t want to get caught up in memories.

Inside, there was a good crowd worked up. To undiscerning ears, the noise of dozens of instruments being tuned at once might have seemed like chaos, but to Frances, it sounded like a heavenly prelude to music. Somewhere, the willowy throb of a perfect E sawed the strings of a violin and tempted her fingers to clutch an imaginary bow, like she’d done when she was a child.

Once the players began, it didn’t take long to become immersed in the familiar tunes. Each person played skillfully, in perfect time with those around him. But as a musician, Frances heard the ebb and flow of microsecond decisions, where the passion of playing expressed itself and the music took on a life of its own. Sometimes, an achingly beautiful blend of vocal harmonies lifted the music, and other times the instruments took full stage. Frances was so absorbed in listening that she had no design of playing, until an unfamiliar voice called her name.

“Frances, come play something with me.”

Melanie, Henrik’s student, was standing near the stage, beckoning her. She was dressed in a knee-length flannel dress with a wide, camel-colored braided belt and matching boots. Her hair was loosely pulled over to one side, with wisps purposely teased out, and she had large sparkly earrings that were hard to miss. She was fashionable. And so inappropriate. Frances did a quick comparison that left her far outshined. She was by no means an insecure person, but she didn’t like the idea of a beautiful girl coming in and outplaying her. Hadn’t Henrik described her as the best? Frances wavered on the border of refusing or accommodating the eager and attractive face. She made a decision and scanned the crowd for two male faces in particular. Tonight, of all nights, she felt weak and didn’t want to embarrass herself.

“Come on, Frances,” Melanie pleaded. She was smiling her best, in that dimpled, adorable way that made it hard to say no. “You said if we were ever together…”

In her peek around the building, Frances hadn’t seen either Henrik or Perry, even though she knew Perry had come in behind her. The people all around were beckoning and pushing her forward. Without much of a reason to resist, she made her way to the front, grabbing at a few older players that hadn’t stepped up yet to play. She waved a few others over as well, once she got to the front.

“One song. And you can choose.”

Melanie’s eyes grew large as she took in the group of musical veterans gathering around her. For nearly a year, she’d tried her best to make this happen. Frances was her “in.” And she couldn’t waste her opportunity. “Do y’all know Wildwood Flower?”

A few of the men chuckled.

She realized her mistake too late. Of course they knew the song. What didn’t they know? She lifted her violin to fine tune and tried to shake it off.

Frances noticed Melanie’s embarrassment and she shook her head at her, as if to say, ‘It’s not a big deal.’

Melanie nodded, understanding her meaning.

Frances searched the first few rows. “This song would be perfect if Lewelyn Beatty was here to sing. What are the chances she’s here?” The murmur of the crowd grew to an energetic hum as people glanced around and mumbled a few words of agreement. Frances knew she wasn’t there, but it didn’t stop her from wishing.

The crowd decided on another singer and pushed her forward. With a glance at Melanie and a tip of her chin to Henry Adler to start them on his guitar, they began. The upbeat swing of Henry’s foot, combined with the down strum of his pick, filled the room with a contentment Frances could get lost in. When the singer reached the line, “Tho’ my heart is now breaking, he never shall know, that his name made me tremble and my pale cheeks glow.” Frances couldn’t help herself. She turned and skimmed the crowd until she found him. He was near the back of the room with Joey standing beside him, both of them smiling. She hated herself for looking, because now their eyes had met and it would be easy for him to guess he was the one she was thinking about. Well, she would show him. She would get lost in the music.

Frances tried to refocus her energy, thinking she may need to limp the song along and save Melanie. But to her amazement, the girl was neither keeping up, nor falling behind. The timing was delicately her own. She played a run that, to an outside observer, might have sounded simple, but was improvised in such maturity and grace that it caused her to wince in a painful response she always had to the most beautiful music. Startled, Frances looked at this rare creature with fresh perspective and wondered if anyone had experienced such pleasure or agony hearing her play. It was a new consideration. Aware of the rarity of such an experience and eager to soak in the sound without the distraction of sight, Frances turned away from the smiling face and stared at the west wall.

Her mind was on fire. Revelations boomed—about herself, about others. She saw herself for the first time as she’d seen Melanie. She was strong and powerful. Anyone who ever had to pair a talent vulnerable to extreme ridicule with the desire to please understood the ferocious rebellion born of such a conflict, a rebellion that, in the end, had to become master of all emotions and rule with prejudice. There was no room for mediocrity, submission, or insecurity. For Frances, music was be all or be nothing, and she embraced every pang of beauty coming from that wonderful girl’s instrument.

Frances let Melanie lead the first and second verses, so she could hear her shine, and then came back in to harmonize the last two together. They mirrored each other deftly, as if they had played together every day of their lives. The final notes were intensely satisfying, and Frances finally turned back with an expression of approval. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, each feeling a new bond of friendship and respect neither would soon forget.

“Stay and play another,” Melanie begged.

Frances shook her head sadly. “Another time.” There was nothing she’d rather do right at that moment, but she knew the high would eventually dissipate and she would find herself in the same room as her disappointment. It was best to leave. She headed for the door, hoping she had time to escape. Luckily, the path was clear and it closed behind her as the crowd chose more players.

In the parking lot, she remembered her wrecked truck. Well, it was her own fault, she reasoned. It would be a long hike back to the house, even if she took the shortcut along Doe River. Frances stared at the night horizon and hugged her violin case to her chest. She held it together until she passed behind the Whitehurst house, and then she let a few tears fall.

When she passed the part of road that passed close to Aunt Lindy’s house, she shook her head. Would Morgan ever hear her mom sing or understand how uniquely gifted she was? She needed to try to encourage her more.

She finally reached her own wonderful little house and orchard, but didn’t walk inside, instead walking over to the little cemetery. It was an impressive night, full of stars, and the view from the humble resting place gave the impression that the earth fell away from the sky in a great slice of black and indigo. It was so big. She let the bigness of it envelope her.

“I come here some nights when I know you’re gone.”

She spun around. “Perry.” Inside, she scolded herself for being stupid enough to think he wouldn’t drive up to make sure she made it home safely.

“I have to come and talk to her sometimes.” He was talking about his mom, but looking at her in that way that made her feel a tumble of emotions.

“Remember when I said Mom didn’t need me, because I wasn’t her favorite, and you told me I still needed to take care of her?” He waited for her to acknowledge. “Well, I never thanked you for that. She did need me. I wasn’t her favorite, but she did need me.”

The flickering lights of houses and cars dotting the hillside would soon be drowned out by the light of a thousand stars. He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Nothing tells a kid life isn’t fair like being a shy, quiet third child, and neither parent’s favorite. But I’m thankful for it in the end. It’s helped me exist under everyone’s radar and really live the way I want, you know? Without disappointing anyone.”

“I do know.”

“That was beautiful back there. Why’d you stop? Why do you always back away from everything you want?”

If he’d been anyone else, he would have been stung by her angry denial and retaliation, but since he was Perry, she would submit to his observation. She had absolute faith he understood her better than anyone else. So, she didn’t reply. He wouldn’t expect her to.

After a few moments, when the silence became awkward, Frances brought up something that had been on her mind. “Joey Whitehurst called me ‘Frankie’ the other day.”

Perry grinned at her. “Oh, he and I talk music after class and one day your name came up. I think he has a little crush on you.”

“It seems like everyone hears that nickname and runs with it.” She purposely blew past his remark about Joey. He was adorable and every little boy was entitled to a harmless crush or two.

Perry squinted at her. “That bother you?” When she shook her head, he took a few steps closer to her. “I put him up to asking you to come play.”

“What?” She couldn’t hide her surprise. Or the small flicker of satisfaction that he still liked to hear her play.

The fact that she was pleased didn’t escape him; in fact, it encouraged him. And anyway, he had nothing to lose. In a playful way, he quoted the lyrics of Wildwood Flower. “So will you think of me never, and be wildly gay, charm every heart, and live to see me regret every dark hour?”

Frances wrinkled her nose. “You left out a few lines.” Then her voice took on a more serious note. “I didn’t pick that song. Melanie did, and you know it.”

He stepped closer. “Well, I wish you had.”

She shook her head. “No, because you never left me. Even if you had, there aren’t any hearts I want to charm. I had my chance to tell you how I felt, after we buried your mom, and I blew it.” And then she added quietly, “Just as much as you did.”

“And now look at us.” He frowned and tipped her chin up, so she would be forced to meet his gaze. “You love me. I know you do. You have to.” His words were forceful, but his touch was gentle as it dropped from her chin. “Why is it so hard to say it?”

He was so close she could smell his sweet breath. She smiled her best, slow-blooming smile, the one she’d saved for him. “I’ve always loved you. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say.”

His eyes stared so intensely that hers dropped away. “And I’ve always loved you. I knew you should be mine.” He tipped her chin back toward him again.

She reached her arms around his neck and pulled him close, answering him with a kiss. All the years between them melted in an evening spent recounting sweet confessions and making promises neither of them would forget. Hand in hand, they climbed to the summit of Roan and stood on top of the crumbling Cloudland foundation. Even as she explained the situation of her dad selling the property to Warren and him willing it to the parks department, she realized it no longer mattered that the land belonged to someone else. She would still be there to watch and protect it.

“I’ve called Warren’s lawyer and made arrangements for him to send the remains,” she said. “He’ll rest here, like he wanted.”

Perry reached across and grabbed her hand. “Warren always claimed he never could understand you. But I think he did, better than anyone.”

On the way back, she stopped to show him the maple tree with the love knot, created so many years ago. They stared at it, each of them wondering what had become of the lovers. Overwhelming gratitude flooded her heart. She had watched herself grow tall under its low-hanging branches, and she knew likewise, one day, she would watch herself grow small. It was a circle she wanted to be part of.

 

About the Author

 

K. L. Keith is a Southern writer of fiction and a graduate of East Tennessee State University. This is her first publication. When she’s not writing for herself or her day job, she’s usually out enjoying nature, rehabbing a piece of furniture, playing her piano or catching a lizard for her child.

 

If you enjoyed this book, it would be a huge honor if you would take a few moments to write a short review of what you liked or didn’t like. This will help grow the author’s readership, and also help her understand areas to explore for future books.


Tennessee Mountain Love Song

Nineteen-year-old Frances Garner lives for two things—playing music her way, and running a small architectural salvage business in the close-knit community of Roan Mountain. Even though she still lives with her dad and brother and has few romantic prospects, she refuses to believe those who tell her she’ll have to move far away from East Tennessee to have the best life. But after her brother steals a car and her dad sells her inheritance to pay for damages, Frances realizes her safe world is a fantasy, and if she doesn't make a change, she'll end up spending the rest of her life practicing out in the barn. Frances auditions and wins a scholarship into the music program at the nearby university, and people begin showing interest in her—important people, like a neurologist who wants to study her brain. Suddenly, instead of being told to get a life, people are asking to be shown her world. Her dream of staying in Tennessee and contributing something larger is quickly overshadowed by doubts introduced by her professors, who think Appalachia is worthwhile only as a specimen to study. This leads her to question the future of her home and her part in its shifting landscape. She must find a way to balance tradition and progress and discover her true self, one whose future doesn’t hinge on education, regret or obligation.

  • Author: K. L. Keith
  • Published: 2017-06-14 18:20:16
  • Words: 72762
Tennessee Mountain Love Song Tennessee Mountain Love Song