The secrets of peaches, p.1
The Secrets of Peaches,
Jodi Lynn Anderson
The Secrets of Peaches
A Novel by
Jodi Lynn Anderson
Summer was one thing. Summer was skinny-dipping in the lake.
If there was one thing Murphy McGowen had always known,…
In the photo of Leeda Cawley-Smith’s eighth birthday party that…
Birdie lay on her stomach in her white T-shirt bra,…
Outside Bridgewater High School, which still had a confederate flag…
Plunk plunk plunk. Birdie woke with a start and looked…
“She’s a vampire. You know that, don’t you?”
“Excuse me, what time is it?”
“You have to put it on thick for something like…
Outside Kuntry Kitchen, the trick-or-treaters were popping into every door…
Three-quarters into November, Cynthia Darlington steered her car out of…
“He was terrified of me,” Lucretia told Leeda, pulling into…
“She’s not coming?” Murphy cocked her head dramatically, following Leeda…
Thanksgiving evening, Birdie kept throwing glances at the stairs, looking…
Leeda walked into the foyer of her house. The smell…
Because she didn’t want to wake Rex’s dad, Murphy pulled…
The smell of smoky leaves drifted into the cider house,…
The doorbell woke Birdie up. She pulled the pillow from…
Leeda was collecting pecans in a bucket because Poopie had…
Birdie lay on her stomach, her cheek mushed against her…
Murphy and Jodee picked out a short, fluffy tree at…
Murphy parked her bike in the driveway and crunched across…
The afternoon of Christmas Eve, Leeda sat on the couch…
It was sleeting when they pulled up to Hartsfield airport…
Birdie woke to a warm dry breeze streaming through the…
When Leeda opened the door, the first thing out of…
Enrico led Birdie through the electric-lit streets, moving like a…
Leeda pulled Murphy out onto the sidewalk by the hand.
Grandmom Eugenie—still ruling with her white-gloved fist from beyond the…
Tap tap tap.
Birdie knelt in the confessional at Divine Grace of the…
Murphy watched while almost every person in the senior class…
The doctor had explained things to her in teenage girl…
Murphy woke up just as the sun was rising. Gently,…
“The invoices go in the invoice files, which are alphabetical,”…
Birdie watched the orchard wake up the way she had…
It came back to Leeda quickly—the rhythmic motion of knocking…
Murphy stopped, her arms aching sharply, and gazed off down…
When the car door slammed out in front of the…
“I don’t know,” Birdie said, clutching the urn.
Rex was sitting on his porch listening to the radio…
It looked like Murphy wasn’t going to show for her…
The night seemed shorter when you were awake.
Birdie got up about an hour after she’d gone to…
“You sure I can’t stay and wait for the bus…
Leeda pulled her graduation gown out of her closet and…
When Leeda got back to the dorm, she flopped onto…
Murphy got lost three times on the trip from the…
Walter left Birdie in charge the day the workers were…
There were traces left behind.
About the Author
Other Books by Jodi Lynn Anderson
About the Publisher
Summer was one thing. Summer was skinny-dipping in the lake. It was lying on the grass with sopping-wet hair. It was carving their initials—L.C.S., B.D., M.M.—into the magnolia tree. It was summer when the Darlington Peach Orchard—green as a jewel, soft as a piece of velvet—had shrugged itself around them as if it would last.
But on September fifth, a breeze wafted through the rows of trees and settled like a fog. It didn’t smell like peaches at all. It smelled, strangely, like cinnamon and cayenne pepper. It smelled like far away. It smelled like the dark.
That night three friends, Leeda Cawley-Smith, Birdie Darlington, and Murphy McGowen, turned over in their beds, halfway between sleeping and awake, uneasy. Many miles away, in a small suburb in Mexico, a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe stood on the outskirts of town, waiting for a new arrival…or an old friend. A knot of bats in the caves at the Buck’s Creek Nature Preserve felt an ancient breeze waft across their wings. A green urn sat at the Bridgewater Funeral Home on Main Street, waiting for its first and only occupant.
There were spaces waiting to be filled. There would be spaces left empty.
Before another summer, Leeda Cawley-Smith would disappear into black water. Murphy McGowen would run naked for the last time. And Birdie Darlington would find something ancient and new, borrowed and blue in the cider shed.
Now, on the first night of fall, the orchard shivered. Methuselah, the oldest pecan tree on its property, began to slowly draw in her roots. And the last peach of the year—ripe, sweet, and unnoticed—hung suspended for another moment and fell.
If there was one thing Murphy McGowen had always known, it was that she would someday make it out of Bridgewater, Georgia. Among her scattered musical taste, her scattered curly hair, and her scattered past (which included clothes scattered at the edge of the lake and parts of Bob’s Big Boy scattered over Route 1), planning her exit had been the one constant. That, and her long-held desire to streak across Mayor Wise’s front lawn. She just hadn’t gotten to it yet.
If Murphy hadn’t had a tattoo of Ringo Starr on her back already, she would have had these words from Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” tattooed there: Two lanes can take us anywhere.
Songs of escape were written through Murphy’s DNA like eye color (hers were cat-green), and she had the words down exactly. The song went like this: going to NYU and spending the rest of her life feeling like she’d finally landed in the right place. As fickle as Murphy could be about many things, there was never a variation on this refrain.
“I just fed them before we left.” Birdie looked over her shoulder at Leeda, who was tugging Birdie’s auburn hair into a braid. Leeda yanked it. “Oh, I mean, um, no, I didn’t. They’re starving.” She rolled her eyes at the dogs, who smiled back.
“You’re the worst liar, Birdie.” Leeda dropped Birdie’s braid and threw her head back despondently. She stared up through the plastic ceiling of the shelter area where they sat. The rain sent splat patterns across its surface. “I have so much studying to do.”
“A week into school and you’re already obsessing,” Murphy observed.
“I guess.” Leeda shrugged. She was on what Murphy considered a perfectionist recovery program. Leeda went for first place by default, always.
“Five more minutes. One will come. Pretty please?” Murphy looked at Leeda, who was still staring at the rain-splattered ceiling. Next she turned to Birdie and poked her in the arm, which was lying across her own warmly. Birdie was a furnace. “Please?”
“She just wants to see one more,” Birdie said, fluttering her eyelashes at Leeda. “Then we can go.” The thing about Birdie was she was a born ambassador. It was probably from all the time she’d spent hovering in the no-fly zone between her recently separated parents.
Murphy studied them both. Leeda looked straight out of Martha’s Vineyard—all perfect cheekbones and alabaster skin with a smattering of sun-induced freckles and clothes that were totally season-appropriate. Even loose and sloppy like she was today, she looked like the kind of loose and sloppy you saw in People magazine when they caught a celebrity all tired and mussed up at the airport. Birdie, on the other hand, was curved and rosy and Renoir soft. She looked like the milk-fed farm girl that she was.
The two were second cousins but nothing alike. Leeda was straight up and down, and Birdie was as gentle and easy as the rain. Leeda had grown up wearing mostly white and exceeding everyone as the glossiest, the smilingest, and the most southern of the southern belles in Bridgewater. Birdie had grown up with dirt under her fingernails, homeschooled on the orchard, her feet planted in the earth.
Before Judge Miller Abbott sentenced Murphy to time on the orchard picking peaches that summer, Murphy had pegged Leeda for uptight and Birdie for weak. But their time together—picking peaches, sweating in the dorms at night, cooling off in the lake—had been like living the fable of her life. The lesson being that when you think you know more than you do, you end up looking like an idiot.
Murphy, mind restless, tapped her feet on the sidewalk and stared at the initials carved into the Plexiglas walls. She poked at the pack of cigarettes in her pocket, although she’d given up smoking because her boyfriend, Rex, kept telling her it was a stupid habit. She wore faded jeans that clung to her curves and a vine-green T-shirt that matched her eyes. Murphy didn’t have to dress sexy to look sexy. She could wear a nun’s habit and still look like she needed to cover up. Murphy and Birdie let their heads rest back against the wall like Leeda’s.
“It feels like somebody pushed the pause button,” Birdie said. She was right. It seemed like the gray Georgia fall would never end—it would be just one long rainy afternoon after another, on into the apocalypse.
They sat in silence. “What day’s graduation?” Murphy asked, her voice skating across the crackling of the raindrops. “May fifteenth? I wonder if it’s too early to book my bus ticket.”
“Don’t say that!” Birdie said.
Murphy felt the restlessness bubble up the way it always did when she thought of all the days that stood in her way. “Do you think once I leave, if I look back, I’ll turn into a pillar of salt?”
Leeda rolled her eyes. “The drama.” Murphy grinned at her.
She knew the reference was backward. In the story, Saul’s wife turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back over her shoulder at the reckless and rotten city behind her. But Murphy was the one who’d always been too loud, too reckless, too rotten for Bridgewater. The number of times she’d been whispered about, caught, and raked across the coals (usually because she asked for it) were too many to count. Because she couldn’t keep quiet, because she couldn’t contain herself, because she couldn’t say no to boys, Murphy had always had the distinct feeling of being a splotch of tarnish on an otherwise silver southern town. Bridgewater would be a whole lot more wholesome without her.
A thunderstorm groaned in the distance. Murphy glanced over at the newspaper vending machine at the front page of the Bridgewater Herald, dated September 10. In the bottom-left corner, the weekly updates read Carrie Ann Acherton rescues wounded hawk at Winkie Doodle Point, Judge and Mrs. Miller Abbott expect first grandchild. She longed for a home where wounded hawks didn’t make the front page. A home where nothing was called Winkie Doodle. Then she heard it. Murphy’s pulse quickened at the distant wheeze as the bus pulled off the exit ramp of Route 75. She could trace its route like a favorite song: hitting the one stop sign and turning right around the bend, it appeared in little speckles through the trees lining the edge of the parking lot.
“Ha!” Murphy said as it pulled toward them and she read the destination above the windshield. New York.
“Hallelujah.” Leeda sat up and smoothed her hair.
Murphy reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the rock she’d picked up from the parking lot outside her trailer. She stood and waited as the bus wheezed to a stop. It let out another sigh as its door hissed open, revealing the beautiful black rubbery stairs.
She watched in bewilderment as two people got off. Who voluntarily got off a New York City–bound bus?
“Hey,” she said to the bus driver. “New York, right?”
Murphy had been doing this, from time to time, since she was twelve. She estimated that all in all, she had probably sent about forty rocks from the Anthill Acres Trailer Park to New York City. She figured that if she sent enough of her life piece by piece, eventually it would all end up there.
Murphy took her rock and leaned forward, tucking it into the bottom corner of the top stair, where a bunch of shoe debris had gathered. She stood back and grinned at the bus driver. “Have a nice trip.”
He just stared back at her, shook his head, and pulled the handle to close the doors.
She watched the bus pull away into the gray afternoon. This moment always gave her a restless kind of hope. There were no guarantees, and there was so much time in her way. But there was also less waiting ahead each time. Murphy stuck her thumbnail in her mouth and chewed on it, grinning. Her feet began to bounce like a sprinter’s gearing up to run.
It couldn’t keep raining forever.
In the photo of Leeda Cawley-Smith’s eighth birthday party that sat on the parlor banquette, Leeda was invisible. It wasn’t easy to see—she looked visible. There she stood in her white Ralph Lauren Kids dress. Her white Ralph Lauren Kids boots. Her white-blond hair and her white barrettes. Against the green and blue of the summer background, ready to blow out her candles, she looked like Alice in Wonderland. But if you looked closer, you could see how invisible she was. It was the way her mom’s back was turned at the crucial moment. Not that it was just that moment. It was a permanent state of being.
As a kid, Leeda had often wondered if she were at least part ghost. It was the way she was always trailing behind her mom like she was on some kind of invisible leash. Lucretia would drift from school function to social event to the beautifully appointed dinner table, and it always seemed Leeda could never quite catch her attention. The photo was like hard evidence. It showed a p
Leeda stepped outside her family’s house onto the emerald-green yard of Breezy Buds Plantation. Standing with her arms crossed, dressed in daffodil yellow, anyone looking on would have said Leeda Cawley-Smith was hard to miss. She had the kind of fine looks that weren’t just admired but were held in a sort of awe. Her first couple years of high school, she was always looking in the mirror, checking if it was still there—the thing that made people want to be next to her without her having to lift a finger or flex a mental muscle. Now, her face glowing in the soft September sunlight, she looked more beautiful than ever. What had changed was that Leeda didn’t care anymore.
Above her, a magnolia arched crookedly, its big waxy leaves rustling, rubbing against one another like paper. Some of the leaves had turned yellowish around the edges. It was one of those days—light and shady and breezy and cool—that made Leeda feel inexplicably, utterly free.
Two weeks ago, for a first-day-of-school present, Murphy had presented Leeda with a notebook titled (in black marker) Notes for a Truly Leeda Leeda. It was full of all sorts of stuff Murphy had compiled. Thoughts on life. Thoughts about Leeda. Bits of advice. Doodles of peaches. The book had said nothing about climbing trees. This was Leeda’s idea.
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