Carolina moon, p.2
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       Carolina Moon, p.2

           Nora Roberts
 

  He was a big man, my father, and grew thick in the chest and arms. I've heard that he was once considered handsome. Years carve a man in different ways, and my father's years had carved him bitter. Bitter and stern with a meanness under it all. He wore his dark hair slicked back, and his face seemed to rise out of that dome like sharp-edged rocks out of a mountain. Rocks that would flay the skin off your bones at one careless misstep. His eyes were dark, too, a burning kind of dark I recognize now in the eyes of some television preachers and street people.

  My mother feared him. I try to forgive her for that, for fearing him so much she never came to my side when he used his belt to whip his vengeful god into me.

  That night I was quiet at supper. Chances were he'd take no notice of me if I was quiet and cleaned my plate. Inside me, the anticipation of the night was like a living thing, jittery and joyful. I kept my eyes down, trying to pace my eating so he wouldn't accuse me of dawdling over the food, or of bolting it. It was always a fine line to balance with Daddy.

  I remember the sound of the fans whirling, and of forks scraping against plates. I remember the silence, the silence of souls hiding in fear that lived in my father's house.

  When my mother offered him more chicken, he thanked her politely and took a second helping. The room seemed to breathe easier. It was a good sign. My mother, encouraged by this, made some mention of the tomatoes and corn coming in fine, and how she'd be canning for the next weeks. They'd be canning over at Beaux Reves, too, and did he think it was a good idea for her to help out there as she'd been asked.

  She didn't mention the wage she'd earn. Even when Daddy's mood was mild, you were wise not to bring up the coin that the Lovelies would dole out for a service. He was the breadwinner in his house, and we were not permitted to forget this all-important point.

  The room held its breath again. There were times just the mention of the Lovelies put the thunder in Daddy's dark eyes. But that night he allowed as that would be a sensible thing. As long as she didn't neglect any of her chores under the roof he was putting over her head.

  This relatively pleasant response made her smile. I remember how her face softened up, and how it made her almost pretty again. Now and again, if I think very hard, I can remember Mama being pretty.

  Han, she called him when she was smiling. Tory and I'll keep things going around here, don't you worry. I'll go on over and talk to Miss Lilah tomorrow and see about getting it all done. With the berries coming in, I'll be making jelly, too. I know I've got some paraffin around here, but I can't think where it's got to.

  And that, just that casual remark about jelly and wax and ness changed everything. I suppose my mind had drifted off during their conversation, that I was thinking of the adventure to come. I spoke without thought, without knowledge of the consequences. So I said the words that damned me.

  The box of paraffin's in the top shelf of the cabinet over the stove, up there behind the molasses and the cornstarch.

  I simply said what I saw in my head, the square box of block wax behind the dark bottle of blackstrap, and reached for my cold sweet tea to wash down the starchy grains of rice.

  Before I took the first sip, I heard the silence come back, the mute wave that swamped even the monotonous hum of fans. My heart started to pound inside that vacuum, one hard hammer strike after the next, with a ringing that was only inside my own head and was the sudden and vicious pulse of blood. The pulse of fear.

  He spoke softly then, as he did, always did, just before the rage. How do you know where the wax is, Victoria? How do you know it's up there, where you can't see it? Where you can't reach it?

  I lied. It was foolish, because I was already doomed, but the lie tumbled out, a desperate defense. I told him I guess I saw Mama put it there. I just remember seeing her put it there, is

  He tore that lie to shreds. He had a way of seeing through lies and ripping them to uneven pieces and sticky parts. When did I see that? Why didn't I do better in school if my memory was so keen I could remember where the paraffin was a year after the last canning season? And how was it I knew it was behind the molasses and cornstarch and not in front of them, or beside them?

  Oh, he was a clever man, my father, and never missed the smallest of details.

  Mama said nothing while he spoke in that soft voice, punching the words at me like fists wrapped in silk. She folded her hands, and her hands shook. Did she tremble for me? I suppose I like to think so. But she said nothing as his voice grew louder, nothing as he shoved back from the table. Nothing as the glass slipped from my hand and crashed to the floor. A shard of it nicked my ankle, and through the rising terror I felt that little pain.

  He checked first, of course. He would tell himself that was the fair thing, the right thing to do. When he opened the cabinet, pushed aside the bottles, slowly took that square blue box of canning wax out from behind the dark molasses, cried. I still had tears in me then, I still had hope. Even as he yanked me to my feet, I had the hope that the punishment would only be prayers, hours of prayer until my knees went numb. Sometimes, at least sometimes that summer, that was enough for him.

  Hadn't he warned me not to let the devil in? But still, I brought wickedness into his house, shamed him before God. I said I was sorry, that I didn't mean to. Please, Daddy, please, I won't do it again. I'll be good.

  I begged him, he shouted scripture and with his big, hard hands dragged me toward my room, but still I begged him. It was the last time I did so. There was no fighting back. It was worse if you fought him. The Fourth Commandment was a sacred thing, and you would honor your father in his house, even when he beat you bloody.

  His face was deep red with his righteousness, big and blinding as the sun. He only slapped me once. That was all it took to stop my pleading, and my excuses. And to kill my hope.

  I lay across the bed on my stomach, passive now as any sacrificial lamb. The sound his belt made when he slid it out of the loops on his work pants was a snake hissing, then a crack, sharp, slick, as he snapped it.

  He always snapped it three times. A holy trinity of cruelty.

  The first whip is always the worst. No matter how many times there's been a first, the shock and pain is stunning and rips a from your belly. Your body jerks in protest. No, in disbelief, then the second slap bites into you, and the third.

  Soon your cries are more animal than human. Your humanity has been compromised, buried under an avalanche of pain and humiliation.

  He would preach as he beat me, and his voice would become a great roar. And under that roar was a hideous excitement, a vile sort of pleasure I didn't understand and recognize. No child should know that slippery undercoating, and from that, for a time, I was spared.

  The first time he beat me, I was five. My mother tried to stop him, and he blackened her eye for it. She never tried again. I don't know what she did that night while he whaled away, beating at the devil that gave me visions. I couldn't see, not with eyes nor with mind, anything but a blood-red haze. The haze was hate, but I didn't recognize that either.

  He left me weeping and locked the door from the outside. After a while, the pain sent me to sleep.

  When I awoke, it was dark and it seemed a fire burned in me. I can't say the pain was unbearable, because you bear it. What choice is there? I prayed, too, prayed that whatever was inside of me had finally been driven out. I didn't want to be wicked.

  Yet even as I prayed, the pressure built in my belly, and the tingling came, like sharp little fingers dancing over the back of my neck. It was the first time it came into me this way, and I thought I was sick, feverish.

  Then I saw Hope, as vividly as if I were sitting beside her in our clearing in the swamp. I smelled the night, the water, heard the whine of mosquitoes, the buzz of insects. And, like Hope, I heard the rustling in the brush.

  Like Hope, I felt the fear. Fresh, hot gushes of it. When she ran, I ran, my breath sobbing out so that my chest hurt from it. I saw her fall under the weight of whatever leaped out a
t her. A shadow, a shape I couldn't see clearly, though I could see her.

  She called for me. Screamed for me.

  Then I saw nothing but black. When I woke, the sun was up, and I was on the floor. And Hope was gone.

  2

  She'd chosen to lose herself in Charleston, and for nearly four years had managed it. The city had been like a lovely and generous woman to her, more than willing to press her against its soft bosom and soothe the nerves that had shattered on the unforgiving streets of New York City.

  In Charleston the voices were slower, and in their warm, fluid stream she could blend. She could hide, as she'd once believed she could hide in the thick, rushing crowds of the North.

  Money wasn't a problem. She knew how to live frugally, and was willing to work. She guarded her savings like a hawk, and when that nest egg began to grow, allowed herself to dream of owning her own business, working for herself and living the quiet and settled life that always eluded her.

  She kept to herself. Real friendships meant real connections. She hadn't been willing, or strong enough, to open herself to that again. People asked questions. They wanted to know things about you, or pretended they did.

  Tory had no answers to give, and nothing to tell.

  She found the little house—old, rundown, perfect—and had bargained fiercely to buy it.

  People often underestimated Victoria Bodeen. They saw a young woman, small and slight of build. They saw the soft skin and delicate features, a serious mouth, and clear gray eyes they often mistook for guileless. A small nose, just a little crooked, added a touch of sweetness to a face framed by quiet brown hair. They saw fragility, heard it in the gentle southern flow of her voice. And never saw the steel inside. Steel forged by countless strikes with a Sam Browne belt.

  What she wanted she worked for, fought for, with all the focus and determination of a frontline soldier taking a beach. She'd wanted the old house with its overgrown yard and peeling paint, and she'd wheeled and dealed, badgered and pushed, until it was hers. Apartments brought back memories of New York, and the disaster that had ended her life there. There would be no more apartments for Tory.

  She'd nurtured that investment as well, using her own time and labor and skill to rehabilitate the house, one room at a time. It had taken her three full years and now the sale of it, added to her savings, was going to make her dream come true.

  All she had to do was go back to Progress.

  At her kitchen table, Tory read over the rental agreement for the storefront on Market Street

  a third time. She wondered if Mr. Harlowe at the realtor's office remembered her.

  She'd been barely ten when they'd moved away from Progress to Raleigh so her parents could find steady work. Better work, her father had claimed, than scratching out a living on a played-out plot of land leased from the almighty Lavelles.

  Of course they'd been just as poor in Raleigh as they'd been in Progress. They'd just been more crowded.

  Didn't matter, Tory reminded herself. She wasn't going back poor. She wasn't the scared and skinny girl she'd been, but a businesswoman starting a new enterprise in her hometown.

  Then why, her therapist would ask, are your hands trembling?

  Anticipation, Tory decided. Excitement. And nerves. All right, there were nerves. Nerves were human. She was entitled to them. She was normal. She was whatever she wanted to be.

  "Damn it." Teeth gritted, she snatched up the pen and signed the agreement.

  It was only for a year. One year. If it didn't work out, she could move on. She'd moved on before. It seemed she was always moving on.

  But before she moved on this time, there was a great deal to be done. The lease agreement was only one thin layer of a mountain of paperwork. Most—the licenses and permits for the shop she intended to open—were signed and sealed. She considered the state of South Carolina little better than a mugger, but she'd paid the fees. Next up was the settlement on the house, and dealing with the lawyers, who she'd decided gave muggers a bad name.

  But by end of day, she'd have the check in her hand, and be on her way.

  The packing was nearly finished. Not that much to it, she thought now, as she'd sold nearly everything she'd acquired since her move to Charleston. Traveling light simplified things, and she'd learned early never, never to become attached to anything that could be taken from her.

  Rising, she washed out her cup, dried it, then wrapped it in newspaper to store in the small box of kitchen utensils she thought most practical to take with her. From the window over the sink, she looked out at her tiny backyard. The little patio was scrubbed and swept. She would leave the clay pots of verbena and white petunias for the new owners. She hoped they would tend the garden, but if they plowed it under, well, it was theirs to do as they liked.

  She'd left her mark here. They might paint and paper, carpet and tile, but what she had done would have come first. It would always be under the rest.

  You couldn't erase the past, or kill it, or wish it out of existence. Nor could you will away the present or change what was coming. We were all trapped in that cycle of time, just circling around the core of yesterdays. Sometimes those yesterdays were strong enough, willful enough, to suck you back no matter how hard you struggled.

  And how much more depressing could she be? Tory thought with a sigh.

  She sealed the box, hefted it to take out to her car, and walked out of the kitchen without looking back.

  Three hours later, the check from the sale of her house was deposited. She shook hands with the new owners, listened politely to their giddy enthusiasm over buying their first home, and eased her way outside.

  The house, and the people who would now live in it, were no longer part of her world.

  "Tory, hold on a minute."

  Tory turned, one hand on the car door and her mind already on the road. But she waited until her lawyer crossed the bank parking lot. Meandered was more the word, Tory corrected. Abigail Lawrence didn't hurry anything, especially herself. Which probably explained why she always looked as though she'd just stepped graciously from the pages of Vogue.

  For today's settlement, she'd chosen a pale blue suit, pearls that had likely been handed down from her great-grandmother, and thinly spiked heels that made Tory's toes cramp just looking at them.

  "Whew." Abigail waved a hand in front of her face as if she'd just run two miles rather than strolled ten yards. "All this heat and it's barely April." She glanced past Tory to the station wagon, scanned the boxes. "So that's it?"

  "Seems to be. Thank you, Abigail, for handling everything."

  "You handled most of it. Don't know when I've had a client who understood what I was talking about half the time, much less one who could give me lessons."

  She took a peek into the back of the station wagon, vaguely surprised that one woman's life took up so little room. "I didn't think you were serious about heading straight out this afternoon. I should’ve known." She shifted her gaze back to Tory's face. "You're a serious woman, Victoria."

  "No reason to stay."

  Abigail opened her mouth, then shook her head. "I was going to say I envy you. Packing it up, taking what fits in the back of your car, and going off to a new place, a new life, a new start. But the fact is, I don't. Not one little bit. God almighty, the energy it takes, and the guts. Then again, you're young enough to have plenty of both."

  "Maybe a new start, but it's back to my beginnings. I still have family in Progress, such as it is."

  "You ask me, it takes more guts to go back to the beginning than just about anyplace else. I hope you're happy, Tory."

  "I'll be fine.”

  "Fine's one thing." To Tory's surprise, Abigail took her hand, then leaned over and brushed her cheek in a light kiss. "Happy's another. Be happy."

  "I intend to." Tory drew back. There was something in the hand-to-hand connection, something in the concern in Abigail's eyes. "You knew," Tory murmured.

  "Of course I did." Abigail gave
Tory's fingers a light squeeze before releasing them. "News from New York winds its way down here, and some of us even pay attention to it now and again. You changed your hair, your name, but I recognized you. I'm good with faces."

  "Why didn't you say anything? Ask me?" "You hired me to see to your business, not to pry into it. The way I figured it is if you'd wanted people to know you were the Victoria Mooney who made news out of New York City a few years back, you'd have said so."

  "Thank you for that."

  The formality, and the caution, had Abigail grinning. "For heaven's sake, honey, do you think I'm going to ask you if my son's ever going to get married, or where the hell I lost my mama's diamond engagement ring? All I'm saying is I know you've been through some rough times, and I hope you find better. Now, if you have any problems up there in Progress, you just give a holler."

  Simple kindness never failed to fluster her. Tory fumbled with the door handle. "Thank you. Really. I'd better get started. I have several stops to make." But she held out her hand once more. "I appreciate everything."

  "Drive safe."

  Tory slid inside, hesitated, then opened the window as she started the engine. "In the middle file cabinet drawer of your home office, between the D's and E's."

  "What's that?"

  "Your mother's ring. It's a little too big for you, and it slipped off, fell in the files. You should have it sized." Tory reversed quickly, swung the car around while Abigail blinked after her.

  She headed west out of Charleston, then dipped south to begin her planned circle of the state before landing in Progress. The list of artists and craftsmen she intended to visit was neatly
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