Monday, May 25, 2009

Sneak Preview of WHERE THERE'S A WITCH

That's right, my lovelies. It's preview time for my July release, WHERE THERE'S A WITCH, #5 in The Bewitching Mysteries. Which means, of course, that I am in deep deadline mode . . . hence my absence. I did have a terrific time at Paranormacon in Fort Wayne the weekend of the 15th--the In Nomine group did a fantastic job at organizing the event, and I got to spend the entire weekend sitting next to one of my most favoritest people in the whole world: my best friend, Kristy Robinett. We gabbed, giggled, took silly pictures, and of course, went ghost hunting with a really cool group of people. Fun!

Heads up: Kristy and I are planning another of our fun "Putting the Normal Back in Paranormal" events, this time in Traverse City, Michigan on July 25th. This will be a ticketed event. For more information, please see

Without further adieu . . . the preview. Enjoy!


Chapter One

When a person has spent her entire life in the same small town, she starts to think she knows everything there is to know about it. That she has seen and heard and done it all, and no matter what happens, it is nothing that hasn’t been seen or heard or done before.

I believed that about my Indiana hometown. I did . . . right up until the day I met my witchy boss, Felicity Dow, and began to discover the truth about Stony Mill’s not-so-hidden dark side. Along the way, I also unearthed a few truths about myself.

My name is Maggie—Margaret Mary-Catherine O’Neill, actually, but I’m not a formal kind of girl—and one of my personal truths recently discovered is that I am an empath. A bona fide, natural-born intuitive capable of sensing emotion, both past and present, in the air around me. This means that I have a tendency to pick up strong emotional memories that linger near people, places, and things, whether those feelings are in the physical world or the world of spirit. Memories perhaps better ignored, or even forgotten. Too bad I didn’t understand all of this sooner. It would have saved me from internalizing a lot of emotional heartache growing up that wasn’t even my own.

And that was only the beginning, as I had been discovering. When I looked back over the last several months, I realized my abilities had been expanding. Whether I liked it or not—which also appeared to be a moot point. And the spirits who were making themselves known to me? I used to think ghosts and hauntings were no more than the products of an overly imaginative mind. Now, I’m not saying I’m psychic. But I will acknowledge that there is something more going on with me. No more sleepwalking through life, blissfully ignorant of the truth about the world around me.

I didn’t have that luxury anymore. Things were changing. I was changing.

And I wasn’t the only one experiencing oddities in my hometown. There were the other N.I.G.H.T.S., of course, a motley crew of ghost-hunting sensitives/intuitives I counted among my closest friends. But pay no attention to all the old stereotypes. You’ll find no scarf-wearing, crystal ball–gazing pseudo-mystics here, only normal people living somewhat extraordinary lives. To me, that juxtaposition was part of my friends’ charm. It proved one thing—that if none of us were quite “normal,” at least we weren’t alone in the experience. I, for one, couldn’t have done it without them.

My name is Maggie O’Neill—empath, sensitive, and ordinary girl, and this is my story.

# # #

Dragon’s breath. Well, that’s what it felt like, anyway. The air, I mean. The month of June had baked us straight on into July with little respite in the way of rain, and my temper was slowly beginning to fray. Make that fry. Maybe that’s why I was in such a black mood as I awoke that Sunday well before the alarm clock’s bleeping beeps, the damp sheet wrapped like bindweed around my ankles. The remnants of a dream were still clinging to my cobwebby brain. A stone building, water surrounding it . . . sunlight streaming down, warm and golden in the crisp air . . . the sky so blue above, as vivid as I could remember seeing it . . . and the eyes . . . oh God, the eyes, paler blue with just a hint of green . . .I knew them well. Whose were they?

It was that dream again, the one I had been receiving in tantalizing snippets. Bits and pieces, flotsam and jetsam drifting through my consciousness time and again. Sometimes months separated the fragments, and sometimes they would be close enough together to actually almost, kinda, sorta make sense. “Almost” being the operative word. The bits and pieces seemed to connect, without being consecutive in any way. More like variations on a theme. It was only after years of having the same recurring dreams that I’d started to put it all together, the narrative of the story my mind was telling. Even then, I didn’t believe what it was telling me. Couldn’t believe. They were just dreams—what our minds liked to do for entertainment when the rest of the body was shut down for the night. SnoozeTube. They didn’t really . . . mean . . . anything.

Of course, that didn’t keep me from trying my darnedest to catch a glimpse of the face those eyes belonged to. It also didn’t keep me from feeling desperately disappointed every time that I failed in my quest.

But that didn’t matter. Because . . . “Dreams are nothing to worry about. Dreams are just dreams. Right?”

I posed that very question to my witch of a boss, Felicity Dow, the moment I set my things down and slid into my usual place at the gourmet tea and coffee bar I haunted at my place of employ. For several reasons: one, because as the proprietor of Enchantments, Stony Mill’s best darned gift shop and secret witchy emporium, Liss had the best grasp of all matters that lay beyond the realm of normalcy of anyone in town; two, she had voluntarily served as my mentor in all things metaphysical since the moment I walked—er, fell—through the store’s front door; three, because a part of me worried I was making too much of things; four, because another part of me worried that I wasn’t making enough; and last but not least, five: because if Liss didn’t know, who would? A rhetorical question, surely. Especially in this town.

I mean, what was the sense of working for a real, honest-to-goodness witch if you couldn’t get the inside scoop on matters otherworldly—or not—when they presented themselves to you?

Lucky for me, Liss didn’t seem to mind answering a never-ending stream of semi-intelligent questions from a struggling would-be sensitive. Liss personified grace under pressure. She was the kind of woman who never failed to take life in stride, even when she wasn’t wearing the right shoes for the job. This morning she took one look at my pale, washed-out face, dark circles, and the wavy light brown hair that sprang out in all directions no matter what I did to tame it, and immediately set to work pouring out a demitasse of her favorite medicinal potion for sleepwalkers and talkers: Espresso, steaming hot, ultracharged, and guaranteed to vaporize any remaining vestiges of cobwebs still clinging to overtired brains.

“There you are, ducks. This should do you some good.” There was something about her British accent that made me feel all cozy inside. It was like an instant shot of the warm-and-fuzzies.
Unlike her espresso. One sip of the stuff was more likely to give me a case of the nervy-and-janglies. I eyed it warily, took a deep breath, and wished it would
magickally turn into a cup of Earl Grey on the spot. Still, I took it in hand and lifted it to my lips, determined to give it a try.

“Thanks,” I muttered around stiff lips—the stiffer, the better with this stuff.

Liss waited politely and made sure that I downed every last, bitter drop. “Now, then. What dreams are we talking about here?”

“Weird ones,” I confessed. “Dreams where I’m not me—I mean, not the me that I am now, here, today, but another me. And yet it’s still me. Only that doesn’t make sense, does it.” A statement, not a question. I knew it didn’t.

“That depends. Have you been having these dreams often?”

She poured herself a cup of tea. Simple, neutral, nontraumatic tea that soothed one’s system more than jolted. I gazed at it longingly as I shook my head in the negative. “Not often. Every once in a while, I guess.”

“Is it a recurring dream? One that you have over and over again?”

“Well . . . I have had it—I mean, them—more than once. It seems to be part of a string of dreams that somehow feel as though they belong together if I can figure out how to put them in the right order.”

That faint, neutral smile still hadn’t left her lips. “And are you always the same you in them, this string of dreams?”

I bit my lip, remembering. “Always. A young woman. Blond, I think, with my hair in a long braid. Only it doesn’t seem to take place in the here and now. And that’s the crazy part.”

“Not crazy. Not if you’re remembering yourself from before this life.”

That brought my chin up sharply. Not a good idea, when one was nursing a migraine and fighting sleep deprivation. “You mean . . .”

“You suspected it yourself, didn’t you? Another lifetime? Another existence? Unless we’re speaking of spirit contact through dreams here,” she amended, her brow charmingly furrowed in deep thought. “It can at times be tricky to tell the difference.”

Another surprise gift from the Great Beyond. Was I ready for this? I didn’t even have a handle on the first ones yet. Wasn’t being empathic and occasionally telepathic and newly aware of the spirit world enough? “Hm. I’m not sure I like either option. Do I get a choice?”

Liss laughed softly and reached out to cover my hand with her own. Her rings flashed in the focused beams of light from the recessed lighting, tastefully hidden in the rafters over our heads, which made the coffee bar glow like an oasis in the middle of the overflowing aisles. “I rather think we are the chosen ones,” she told me, “not the other way around.”

I’m afraid the face I made swung a bit toward the wry side of the spectrum. “So that’s a no, then.”

“Take heart, pet. Perhaps it is nothing more than dreams after all. Maybe there is no hidden meaning. Go with what your instinct is telling you.”

That was just it. There was something different about these dreams, something very vivid and compelling that made me remember the details. Enough to recognize the fact that I’d had them before, more than once, and enough to fit them together like so many puzzle pieces. Something about them felt . . . important.

From the floor beside my bar stool came an insistent, chirruping Merch! that made me jump. “Minnie!” I leaned down to reach for the soft-sided pet carrier that was my constant companion these days. “I’m sorry, sweet pea. I wasn’t thinking. I should have let you out first thing.”

“I was wondering when you were going to let our dear girl out of there.”

Our dear girl” would be my beautiful kitten, Minnie, who had found her way into my life mere weeks ago and had instantly taken over. It wasn’t just me, though—Liss seemed just as charmed by the little fireball of black fuzz, and had insisted that, as she was too young to spend her days alone in my apartment, Minnie should be the store cat while I was working. She didn’t have to ask me twice. Minnie had accompanied me every morning since then and really seemed to be settling into her role. She spent her days learning how to walk on shelves without bumping things out of the way, which windows were best for viewing the birds and passing pedestrians, and, most important, where I hid her litter box. All the vital things in life.

I unzipped the carrier. With another funny meow Minnie scolded me for my forgetfulness as she climbed out onto my lap, all righteous indignation as she arched her back in a long stretch. I ran my hand down her back by way of apology, smoothing the gleaming fur and then scratching behind her ears. My reward was a motorboat purr, larger than life, as she lifted her face toward me. Her bicolored eyes, one blue, one green, sparkled like gems beneath the lights before she took a flying leap from my lap to the middle of the aisle and walked nonchalantly toward the back office.

One blue, one green . . . “Maybe that’s what it meant,” I mused, half to myself. Maybe Minnie’s spirit or energy was coming through in the dream as the mystery individual. Maybe the dreams were simply an entertainingly symbolic confirmation that the two of us belonged together, she and I.

“What’s that, dear?”

I shook my head. “Nothing. Nothing important, that is.”

I was saved from having to answer any more questions when Evie Carpenter and Tara Murphy, our two young protégés and both sensitives in their own right, strolled through the front door.

“Hi, Liss! Hi, Maggie! What do we have on the plate for the day?” That was Evie, an angelic blond ray of sunshine with a lightness of being that could rival any daisy blowing in the summer breezes.

“Cool it with the sweetness and light, wouldja, E-Vil?” Tara groused, shuffling around the corner of the bar and snatching at the first cup she could find. “I mean, jeez, it gets a little hard to take at the ass crack of dawn.”

Evie just smiled and started to hum as she reached down to pet Minnie, who had reversed course the moment she heard the girls’ voices and was now circling around Evie’s ankles and gazing up at her intently.

The longer I knew the two of them, the funnier I found their differences. Tara was the yang to Evie’s yin. It showed in her every aspect. Where Evie’s hair was blond, Tara’s was dark; Evie’s long and free-flowing, with a sweep of bangs over one eye, Tara’s shorter and chunky, almost as though she’d taken the scissors to it herself, and actually, I wouldn’t put that past her. Evie was a morning person; Tara would sleep ’til two if no one woke her—and would still bite heads off until she got her shot of caffeine. Evie always looked on the bright side of things; Tara viewed the world-at-large as an adversary, ready to be squashed. Evie was all things Light; Tara, her polar opposite, right down to her quasi-emo makeup and predilection for Screamo Rock. But don’t get the wrong idea. Tara also had a softer side to her that she hid behind all the hard-edged bluster. She just didn’t want anyone else to know about it.

Tara plunked herself down on the nearest stool and rested her head on her hand and her elbow on the scarred wooden surface as she blankly stirred her iced mocha, heavy on the whipped cream. “Late night, sweetie?” I asked her soothingly. She barely lifted her glance in my direction and continued stirring.

“She had an argument with Charlie last night,” Evie filled us in as she scooped Minnie up into her hands and settled on the stool to my right. “Because he’s not spending enough time with her. I keep telling her that he’s just got a lot on his mind right now, what with signing up for college classes next month and work and everything.”

Teenage dramas. Boy, was I glad I had grown past all of that.

Tara glared at her. “Thanks for the spill, Evil. Jeez. Like they want to know about my man trouble.”

Man trouble. Hee. Oh, if she only knew . . .

Evie pretended to be wounded. “I just thought maybe they could help. Give you some input. A shoulder to cry on. You know.”

“Like I need advice from older ladies.”

Older? Well, for heaven’s sake, I was only twenty-nine. At least for a little while longer. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, trying not to be insulted. “It’s not like I don’t remember what it’s like to be seventeen. It wasn’t that long ago, you know.”

Tara gave me a sidelong glance that wasn’t so much annoyed as it was completely and utterly dismissive. Which somehow made it worse. “No offense, Maggie, but, um, well, you aren’t exactly a shining example in the relationship department, ya know.”

Evie had just taken a sip from her cup of tea and spluttered into it. Liss turned away toward the cash register, but not before I caught the twitch of her lips that she was trying so valiantly to hide.

“Exactly what is that supposed to mean?” I bristled, really insulted now.

Tara had the decency to at least appear apologetic. “I’m sorry, but . . . well . . . you know.”

And that’s all she had to say. That was the trouble. I did know. It wasn’t a secret that my most recent foray into the dating world with Tom—Fielding, that is, duly appointed officer of the law and recently named Special Task Force Investigator for the local boys in blue—hadn’t exactly been the raging hot success that I had so hoped for. It wasn’t even lukewarm. There just hadn’t been time. He was busy. I was busy. We both had busy, busy, busy lives . . .

And I was making excuses. And what’s more, I knew it. Because every girl in the world knows that a relationship needed to be made a priority in its early days if it was ever going to get off the ground.

And then there was Marcus. Marcus, who had become such a close friend, and whom I had been struggling so valiantly to keep at arm’s length. Well, my efforts had been valiant, if not particularly successful. It had been easier when I’d thought him Liss’s romantic property. Now, though . . . hm. I guess it was fair to say I was feeling more conflicted than ever. Why had I been struggling so, you might ask? I was beginning to wonder that myself. What was it about Marcus that made him the Kryptonite to my Superwoman attempts to resist my own weakening resolve? Was there something special about him? Or was it more that he represented everything that Tom did not?

Was I being played by my own mixed-up sensibilities?

I turned away so that I couldn’t see the sympathy—not pity, never that—in their eyes. Give me liberty or give me death, but for heaven’s sake, don’t give me pity. I’m much too proud for that. “So, what’s on the calendar for today?” I said, changing the subject and making my voice light and carefree.

“Before or after work?”

“After, obviously. Since we’re all already here, for actual work, mind you, and Liss is such a slave driver.”

“So sorry, ducks,” Liss sang out good-naturedly without a shred of contrition as she sailed toward the front door to turn the sign over to Open.

“Well”—Evie climbed down from her bar stool and grabbed Tara’s now empty cup for a refill before the wannabe-Goth cutie could even register the need—“here’s the thing. Tara’s all up in arms about Charlie not having time for her—”

“With good reason,” Tara interjected in her own defense.

“He’s working construction this summer, you know,” Evie continued without missing a beat. “So, what we thought we’d do is head on over to the Baptist church out on Wayne Road for the fundraising carnival.”

I was following along word for word, but obviously I had missed something somewhere. A fundraiser instead of face time with the boyfriend didn’t seem like an acceptable trade-off to me. Because I couldn’t stand being the only one who didn’t have a clue, I let my bewilderment get the better of me. “Wait, why the church?”

Tara sighed and gave me a look. You know the kind. One that said, Do we have to spell everything out for you? “The fundraiser is for the new wing they’re adding on to the church,” she said, as though I should already have known that.

Still missing something in translation. “Oookay.

Evie leaned over the counter and looked into my empty demitasse, grabbed it, then slick as a whistle turned to the espresso machine, refilled it, and had it back under my nose before I could say Timbuktu. Or even, no thank you. Urg.

“Charlie’s working as a dirt laborer for the construction firm that’s doing the job for the church,” Evie supplied, helpful as always. “They’re all supposed to show up there for the cook-off, and then there’ll be a groundbreaking ceremony while everyone else is invited to watch. Most people there will be parishioners, but the fundraiser’s open to the public, so it’s okay if we show up, too.”

Church fundraiser, huh? That hardly seemed like Tara’s first choice for a fun Saturday afternoon’s hijinks. “So, you’re going to check up on Charlie, then? Make sure he’s doing what he said he’s doing?”

Liss coughed discreetly. “I’m sure the girls wouldn’t dream of spying on Tara’s boyfriend, ducks.”

No, of course they wouldn’t. Our strong, hard-as-nails Tara would never stoop to that kind of weakness. Our Tara would kick ’em to the curb at the first sign of anything untoward. Go, girlpower.

“We’re going,” Tara said tartly, with an angry toss of her head, “to make an appearance. To show Charlie that he’s not the only one with a life.”

A life that still managed to revolve around someone else’s schedule didn’t quite qualify . . . but hey, who was I to judge? I made my tone neutral as I said, “Sounds like fun.”

I soon forgot all about the girls’ plans as I served a few early customers and Liss and I set about changing the window display at the front of the store. Liss had cooked up a fab idea for something fresh and different that involved switching out the antique furniture and adding in new, wrestling it into place between the two of us, draping and swathing and polishing it to perfection, and sprinkling it with clear white Christmas lights. Tiny fairies, diminutive masterpieces crafted by an English High Priestess of the Fey (known to us only by her Craft name of “Titania of the Woodland Green”), were strung from above, not so much elements to be viewed as discovered. Pretty little treasures. What we were left with was an enchanting Victorian fairyland, more than enough to bewitch anyone whose head was still filled with sugarplum daydreams. And really, what was wrong with that? A little fairy tale never hurt anyone.

We stood back, each gazing in satisfaction at the fruits of our labors. “Well. That turned out even better than expected,” Liss said with only a hint of smugness as she wiped her dusty hands on a damp bar towel.

“I most heartily concur, Ms. Dow,” I said, finishing off the round of back patting. “How do you do it?”

“I was, shall we say”—Liss cast her gaze playfully heavenward—“inspired.”

“What do you think, girls?” I asked as Evie and Tara came up behind us.

“I like it,” Evie offered.

“You like everything,” Tara complained.

“Well, I do. I can’t help it.”

“It needs more sparkle. Another strand of lights or some glitter or something,” Tara assessed casually. “Want me to put the sign on the door?”

“Sign?” I was tilting my head and squinting at the display, trying to see it through Tara’s eyes. Did it really need more?

“The Closed sign. The noon siren went off ages ago. Didn’t you hear it?”

I hadn’t. I had been otherwise engaged, blissfully immersed in the artistic process. I glanced at wall of antique and restoration clocks. Twelve fifty. Goodness. “Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t you have places to go? People to see? A boyfriend to put in his place?”

Tara didn’t need to be told twice. She was already grabbing her bag and heading for the door. Evie hesitated, torn between following her friend and her devotion to duty. “Don’t you need our help shutting down and closing up the shop later?” she asked.

I waved away her concern. “We’ve got it covered. You two go on and enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

The smile that spread over her face was as sudden as a ray of sun breaking through the clouds, and just as brilliant. “Thanks, Maggie. We owe you one.” With a last scratch under the chin for Minnie, who was once again hovering underfoot, Evie waved at us and headed off to emulate her friend’s disappearing act.

Liss removed the cash drawer from the register for counting. I headed toward the front door to turn the lock with Minnie scampering along at my heels, bat-bat-batting at me all the way. Little minx. I locked the door and scooped her up for a good ear rubbing as I carried her up the aisle . . . or, I would have returned up the aisle if a harsh rapping at the glass door behind me hadn’t stopped me in my tracks. I turned to look, only to find Evie and Tara with noses pressed against the glass and hopeful and even, dare I say it, ingratiating smiles on their faces.


I unlocked the door. “What’s up?”

Evie and Tara rushed across the threshold. Evie turned me around and inserted herself under one arm, wrapping her arms around my waist, best-girlfriend style. Tara looked as if she might be thinking of doing the same thing, though in the end she decided to play it cool and let Evie handle all the sweet stuff while she fended off Minnie’s relentless barrage of attention-grabbing tricks.

“Maggie? Do you think . . . oh, I know you’re busy,” Evie fussed, “but maybe do you think you could . . . oh, gosh, it just doesn’t seem fair to ask, and if we had any other option at all, of course we wouldn’t bother you, but . . .”

“For cryin’ out loud, Evie, spill it, wouldja? It’s not like Maggie’s gonna bite our heads off or anything.” That was straight-up Tara, proponent for the fast and dirty approach toward most things in life.

“Oh, I know. Maggie would never do that.”

“Right. I try to reserve that for bats and old bosses. And old bosses who are bats,” I quipped, laughing.

Liss scurried past us toward the coffeemakers. “What bats are those, dear?”

“Present company most definitely excluded!” I sang out, grinning at her.

“Can we get back to the really important things?” Tara interrupted. “Like whether or not Maggie can give us a ride over to the Baptist church.”

Evie sent Tara a reproachful glance for her lack of tact. “What Tara is trying to say is that her scooter ignition is messing up. Again.”

“What can I say? Big Lou said it was fixed.”

“Which means that we don’t have a way to get there today. I don’t suppose you’d want to tag along with us, would you? It might be fun . . . Just think. Brats. Elephant ears. Hot fudge sundaes. Frozen lemonade. Cotton candy. All the good stuff.”

What did it say about me that all of Evie’s offered inducements were food related? Probably not as much as the fact that they were actually working.

Hot fudge. Hmmmmm. Talk about food for thought.

“First sundae is on me . . .” Tara just had to up the ante.

“Well . . . I do have Minnie here with me,” I hedged, glancing down to where Minnie was playing with the ties on Tara’s backpack.

“If you’d like to go with them, I’d be happy to keep the little dear here with me,” Liss offered as she wiped down the outside of an oversized coffee vessel.

“Well . . . all right. I’ll take you. But no complaints from whoever has to sit in Christine’s barely existent backseat.”

Evie and Tara looked at each other. “Shotgun!” came the simultaneous cry.

Evie grinned. “I called it first.”

“Like hell, Evie. I called it before you did.”

Before World War III broke out at my feet, I held up my hand. “One of you gets the passenger seat on the way there, and the other gets it on the way back. Easy peasy.”

Tara raised her brows. “Easy peasy? News alert: No one says that anymore, ya know, Magster.”

“Stuff it, Tara!” I said cheerily. Then to Liss, “You’re sure you don’t mind kitty-sitting?”

Liss scoffed. “Would I ever mind having the little sweetheart around? Go on and have fun. I have a million things to catch up on here. How does that sound, little one?” she asked, scooping Minnie off her feet. Minnie just gazed up at her with trusting eyes, seemingly entranced by Liss’s face.

“Good. Great! Thanks, Liss!” Tara grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the office and the back door that lead to the alley parking before I could even give Minnie a departing chin scratch, with Evie bringing up the rear. I pulled my arm free with just enough time to snag my purse and car keys, and within moments the motor of my old VW Bug (long ago endearingly, if not originally, christened Christine) puttered into action and we were on our way. Evie and Tara had played an amazingly speedy game of rock-paper-scissors, a test Evie won to much grumbling on Tara’s part. Evie took the front seat without further ado, leaving Tara to crowd into the diminutive backseat with her knees drawn up to her chin. I avoided looking in the mirror, because I could feel the thundercloud emanations rolling from her and I was afraid I would laugh. It’s not that I couldn’t sympathize, but . . . well, Tara on a rant could be very entertaining.

As we drew closer to the destination du jour, Tara forgot her annoyance with the heat and the tight quarters, even with the jarring ride over bumpy country roads. Her whole demeanor changed with every corn or soybean field we passed, becoming sharper, more focused, more intent as the sky-stabbing heights of an old church steeple loomed between distant treetops on the horizon. The sighting was soon followed by a series of handmade signs along the roadside that heralded the fundraiser one tantalizing word at a time:

You’re . . .
Almost . . .
There! . . .
Who, Me? . . .
Yes, You! . . .
Ice Cream! . . .
Games! . . .
Godly Fun . . .
For The . . .
Entire . . .

The fallow field next door had been roped off to provide parking, since the majority of the church’s regular lot had been taken over by construction crews and heavy equipment. The makeshift lot was filled to overflowing with old-fashioned sedans, a few SUVs, and an extraordinary number of pickup trucks parked willy-nilly in the choppily mown field grass, almost all of them displaying the ultra popular “In God We Trust” specialty license plates to the world at large. Dodging jutting bumpers, I drove slowly through the chaotic disarray of vehicles, searching for a place to berth Christine for the afternoon that would still allow me a way out later, when the girls were ready to make a departure. Behind the roped-off area I could see a number of open-sided tents and tables, even a raised platform with bales of straw set around it in radiating half-circles for a makeshift open-air sermon hall. Fancy.

The old Baptist church that was hosting the afternoon’s event was your stereotypical small country church that stood at one edge of what had once been a Depression-era crossroads community that grew up on the fringes of Stony Mill. Time had not been kind to the once-upon-a-time village—homes had fallen into disrepair, the corner store was gone, and the defunct gas pumps looked like something out of Pleasantville—but the need for the church had not dissipated in the same way. Instead, the pocket of Stony Mill Baptists had grown by leaps and bounds over the years. Some had stayed faithful to the old-style Baptist preachings of a vengeful God fond of fire and brimstone, and some had split off into other, more lenient factions, but the overall size of the congregation had grown incrementally, thanks in part to the charismatic tent gatherings spreading The Word back in the day. It was a universal truth that people might move from home to home around the county, but few felt comfortable in leaving their church behind and would travel miles, despite the price of gas, to attend with their old tried-and-trues. And there was nothing more tried and true than a country church of stark white clapboard, double doors spread wide in welcome at the front, while the bell loomed, little more than a shadow in the towering steeple high above.

“I guess we’ll park . . . here,” I said, looping into a spot at the very end, which seemed easiest to manage. I had barely shifted the car into park before Tara was pushing against the back of Evie’s seat.

“Come on, Evie!” She nudged the seat forward the teensiest bit again.

“Hold on and let me get out of the way. Sheesh!” Evie waited, standing dutifully aside as Tara climbed out. “Wait, don’t you want your purse?”

Tara shook her head. “Nah, it’ll just get in the way. I’ve got my cell and some cash in my pocket.”

The two headed off like a shot toward where all the action was without even a wave or a backward glance, leaving me to shake my head after them. Ah, youth.

Left by the wayside, I dislodged my purse from the floor behind the passenger seat, dropping my keys into its depths before reaching across the car to roll up the window to within four inches of the top to keep the heat outside from baking the interior and lock the door. More from habit than because I honestly thought there was a chance anyone might be inspired to steal my beloved, if slightly ragtag, VW Bug. Outside I spritzed myself liberally with aerosol sunblock, then slung my bag over my shoulder and set off idly toward all of the activity myself.

It was hotter than hot out. Hotter than Hades is what my Grandma Cora would have said with one of her trademark grim glances at the sky. The sun was beating down, the few clouds doing little to dispense it. I hurried over to where the tents were set up, not caring what entertainments would be found there so long as they were under cover. First things first: I found a frozen lemonade at a stand right by the edge of the parking lot and handed my money over with gratitude. It tasted a little too much like the kind of powdered lemonade you get out of a can, but the extra-large cup of smoothly ground ice was worth it. I sipped it slowly as I moved around the widespread gathering, indulging my favorite pastime of late: people watching.
And there was plenty of it to be had. One thing about church functions that I always found intriguing was the fact that people remained their usual, stressed-out, over-the-top, unlovable selves, despite the churchy goings-on, which one would think would ensure everyone’s best behavior. Good, church-going families, all; and yet everywhere I turned, I saw more than one meltdown in progress. Some of them were even by the kiddos.

Was it the heat that was fraying tempers all over town? Because it definitely seemed to be a trend on the upswing. Just yesterday morning on my way into work, two men at the gas station I’d stopped by had nearly come to blows in front of me. Not over the astronomically rising prices at the pump, but because one didn’t move his pickup out of the way fast enough to suit the other waiting his turn. And then there was the flustered call from my mom the day before. Seems she had gone to the grocery store only to witness a woman she knew from her own church group roughly handling her oldest daughter. A woman she had known for years to be the soul of grace and patience. Now, everyone knows that anybody can have a bad day. And teenagers have a tendency to push both boundaries and buttons. But this was harsh, even borderline abusive behavior, and it upset the applecart that was my mother’s comfortable, small-town existence.
Because these were not isolated incidents. Because it was happening over and over again, between people not known to be violent. Longtime Stony Mill families that were displaying the first signs of splintering and dysfunction. Normally that kind of thing, when it did happen, would have been kept quiet. Family secrets better left to sleeping dogs. Even the Stony Mill Gazette sometimes agreed with that philosophy, burying select newsworthy but scandalous local items behind the farmer’s report on page seven . . . but it did
publish the police call report religiously. Everything that was called in to Dispatch showed up on those reports. Who, what, when, where, and why-dunnit, even if it was as minor as rescuing a cat stuck in a tree. The information it conveyed was better than a gossip sheet.

Lately, the call reports had been running . . . long. Very long. And not with lost pets. Filled with incidents similar to the one my mother described, like the one I had witnessed myself. So many people, already on short tethers, snapping for no good reason. Not to mention the deaths—murders, actually. No wonder I rarely saw Tom these days. He still had his regular duties in addition to serving as leader of the special task force that had been created to integrate between law departments. That promotion had guaranteed that any kind of a personal life Tom might have been wanting to have would have to be put off for later.

Oh, Tom denied this. We’d talked about it before. But even though he’d said mostly the right things, and even though he had more than hinted that he would like our so-called relationship to go somewhere—although the somewhere in question was clearly open to interpretation—the two of us never seemed to achieve liftoff status.

Maybe it was too much to ask right now. Timing, as everyone knows, is everything. History proved that particular Nugget o’Wisdom over and over again. Knowing it was one thing. Accepting it, well, that was another matter entirely.

It was a sore subject with me, growing sorer by the day. Was it any wonder Marcus and his gentle but compelling flirtatious ways had held so much intrigue for me? Tom told me time and again that he’d like to deepen our relationship, but it was beginning to feel like lip service. And Marcus? Marcus went out of his way to make me feel I was important, without demanding a single thing in return. Everything he did said that he wanted me. But what did I want? I was starting to wonder if I knew. All the more reason to steer my thoughts out of treacherous waters and channel them into more calming venues.

But deep within me was the sense that change was on the horizon, must be on the horizon.

It would come whether I was ready for it or not.

Copyright 2009, Madelyn Alt. All rights reserved.

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