After midnight, a mysterious stranger appears at the edge of the woods and the peaceful life fifteen-year-old Ellen has with her beloved stepfather Frank is turned upside down. Small town gossip, jealousy and murder strive to tear them apart in a tale of secrets and unrequited love. Clues to the outcome hide throughout the book!
“This stand alone story is fabulous. It was a little nostalgia for me. The setting and all the drama surrounding a woman who’s car breaks down in a small town when she takes a wrong turn. There is love, a mystery and a lot of emotions.” Amazon reviewer
Targeted Age Group:: 16 and older
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A recurring idea to follow the course of a young girl in a healthy relationship with her stepfather was my inspiration. The relationship between the mother and a friend was inspired by Norah Lofts book Lovers All Untrue which is pretty dark. The mother is at the mercy of her friend and because of her situation isn’t able to circumvent the relationship. The daughter, Ellen, figures out what’s happening on her own, and the knowledge guides her to the end.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I’m one of those writers with an overactive imagination, so there are always swarms of people trying to get into my stories. It’s a frequent criticism. So many interesting people in the world just clamoring to get into a book!
There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.
Fifteen-year-old Ellen MacPherson sat on a wooden step off the porch of her house in Seymour, Alabama. It was getting late, after eleven, her stepfather Frank watching the news in the living room just behind her. The smell of beer wafted out of the screen door while he listened for the weather report, familiar and comforting voices echoing out onto the porch. The light from the TV cast a blue glow through the window, competing with the yellow lamplight from the street. Their front lawn stretched to the river’s edge, the smooth, green expanse broken by a thread of dirt road. She waited for Frank to shut the lights off in the house so she could watch the fireflies, the light from the moon revealing the disturbance in the water as the bugs hit its surface. When she first saw the pings make concentric circles on the smooth sheet of the river, she thought they were fish coming up for air, but Frank said it was the bugs.
“Watch careful,” he said. “You’ll see the bugs hit the water, and the rings travel away from where it hit.” She did as he said, and sure enough, the bugs came in for a drink. The circles drifted out from the center, stronger at first until they faded away, back into the smooth surface of the river.
She heard the TV switch off. “I guess I’m goin’ to bed, Ellen. Don’t stay up too late.” She turned around to look at him standing in the door behind her, just as he glanced over at the woods, concerned leaving her, but wanting to show her he understood she was growing up and needed time alone.
“I won’t Frank. Night,” she replied. He turned the lights off in the house but left the one over the kitchen stove on so she could see her way back in the house when she was ready. With the dim, yellow light coming from the streetlamp, the black outline of the trees to the right of their property came into focus. The neat lawn stopped at the woods; tall oak and pine trees with little underbrush. Sun light didn’t penetrate deeply enough to support undergrowth and the trees grew so tightly packed together that it was difficult to walk through. Ellen had lived next to the woods as long as she could remember and she knew what was on the other side, downriver.
The thread of the road ended in front of her house, at the woods. Every so often, a car would come down the road and stop at the woods. The driver would look around confused, put the car into reverse, back up onto their lawn, and drive off again. Rarely, someone would come up to the door and ask for directions, but neither Frank nor Ellen knew much about the area beyond the village, even after living there all of their lives, so they were of no help. They went to town to buy food, Ellen to school, and Frank to his garage. That was about it.
When Margaret was alive, they drove to Hallowsbrook to visit her, in the town of Beauregard. Ellen normally didn’t want to think about Hallowsbrook, built on the same river she was looking at now in front of their house, ten miles downriver. But when she got melancholy, she liked to remember what it was like to get ready on visiting day.
Frank would wake her up earlier than usual on Saturday, the one day they had to sleep in. He’d have her breakfast made, and it was always something special; pancakes or corn muffins or scrambled eggs with cheese and biscuits. She’d walk into the kitchen, and Frank would be dressed with his suspenders on, his white shirt draped over the back of the chair. The ironing board would be down from the wall where it was stored in its own recessed cabinet. Standing at the ironing board, he’d be ironing one of her pretty dresses; something with a full skirt. They dressed as if they were going to a party when they visited Margaret. He always asked Ellen the same thing.
“You ready for this, sister?” and she’d nod her head and say the same thing she always said.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Since she was just a little child she’d say the same thing, and Frank laughed. It was the way they’d get through the ordeal. Frank tried to do everything he could to soften it for her; the breakfast, the pretty clothes, shopping when they left the hospital, even a movie if she wanted it. But more often than not they’d be so exhausted, Ellen would reach over the seat from the back and tap Frank on the shoulder. “I guess I want to go home,” she’d say, and he’d nod and look at her in the rearview mirror.
“Me, too. I reckon we both had enough adventure for one day.”
Finally, in March right before Ellen turned fifteen, Margaret died suddenly. It was a relief. Although in the weeks preceding her death Margaret appeared to be getting better, it must have been just a smokescreen. Several months after she was admitted, she ceased acknowledging them half the time, and eventually they stopped trying to engage her.
“We visit just so the nurses know she’s cared about,” Frank said. “They’ll know once a month someone will come to see she’s okay. That’s why we gotta mix up the times, not let ‘em anticipate it.” They’d walk into her room and look at her skin and her hands, make sure her nails were nice and her hair was clean. She was well taken care of; they didn’t need to worry after all, but still were untrusting. They’d sit with her in silence until someone brought her lunch. She’d feed herself, which hit home to Ellen. If she can feed herself, why won’t she look at me? She asked Frank about it.
“Margaret’s a lunatic, sister. Don’t take it personal if you can help it. She checked out long ago. We kept ‘er home as long as we could, but it ain’t fair to you when she got bad and started wanderin’ off.” Ellen looked out the window as they drove. It wasn’t so terrible, having a mother locked up, out of town. Not many people in the village who knew the real details about it; that Margaret got sick shortly after she and Frank were married and the mechanic had his hands full taking care of her and her toddler, spoke of it to their faces. Gossips embellished the story with cruel lies about Margaret, that she was a kleptomaniac or worse. Word got back to the family that people in town said Frank was a better parent than Margaret ever could be, but when Ellen was old enough to understand, she didn’t think that was fair. How’d they know? She could feel that way, but didn’t want others to say it. She and Frank made a pact that they’d never speak ill of Margaret to others. To each other, anything was fair game. But if someone would dare to say anything untoward, they planned to look to the ground and sniff, like tears were near the surface. It worked every time.
After a few months of responding in this way, no one inquired after Margaret again. “It’ll make ‘em too sad if you ask,” people around town whispered. It was as if she had died long before it really happened.
Ellen, brooding, so out of character, had teenaged angst. She tried to reason it away, but couldn’t. Her mother dying might have had a little bit to do with it, but when the thought came to her she disregarded it. There isn’t much to look forward to, she thought. Her school friends got summer jobs in Beauregard; waitress jobs and babysitting jobs. Finally, she asked Frank if he’d let her come work at the garage.
“I can answer the phone,” she said. “Check people in. I’m gettin’ too old for a babysitter, and Mrs. Edwards is gettin’ too old to babysit.” He chuckled while he rubbed his chin, thinking. It made sense letting her come into to town. He didn’t want her alone all day; the thought frightening him.
“Just for the summer, now, not during school. You got to do good in school so you can go to college,” he said.
“What’ll you do if I leave for college?” Ellen asked. The thought of leaving him alone frightened her more than going away.
“I reckon the same thing I’ve been doing all along. Goin’ to work and waitin’ fer you.” They laughed out loud. Then seriously, he frowned. “You keep gettin’ good grades, sister. You’re a smart girl. No point in hanging around this place jus’ cause you grew up here.”
“You stayed! What good did college do you?” she asked. He went to college for four years so he could take over his father’s auto garage.
“If I’d gone away, I’d never met you and Margaret. So you need to go to college, regardless.”
“Not too far, though,” she said. “I want to come home each night, like I was workin’ a job in the next town.”
“We’ll see about it,” Frank answered.
By the middle of June, the routine was set. She got up with Frank as usual, but instead of sitting with him while he had his coffee, she had a cup, too. He’d put her bicycle into the back of his truck so she could leave a little earlier to start dinner each day, and they would drive off to town together. Ellen loved being in the garage right from the start. It smelled like clean oil and cigar smoke.
“How’s oil smell clean?” her best friend, Marisa Dalton asked.
“You can tell it’s from the earth,” she replied.
“But the earth isn’t clean,” Marisa would argue. “You need to come with me to Dairy Bar. I made six dollars in tips Sunday afternoon.” But Ellen didn’t want to be away from Frank; spending the day at the garage with him had always felt right to her. Since she was little, walking home from school and waiting for him at the garage was something she looked forward to.
The oil smell and the bubble gumball machine Frank polished up each week and refilled with colorful, shiny gumballs were memories from the childhoods of the children whose parents brought their cars in for repair. The garage was in the center of town, on the same side of the street as the auto supply store and Miss Logan’s Beauty Parlor and across the street from the post office, the grocery store and the café. Frank set up a low table and chairs with coloring books and crayons for the children to use while they waited, a fresh box every week. At the end of the week, he dumped the broken bits of crayon into a big metal can bolts originally came in and although a few children liked using the new crayons, most children preferred the nubs, sifting through the big can to choose just the right color. Frank papered the window facing the beauty parlor with the most recent works of coloring book art. Women getting their hair done inside would brag about their child’s page of coloring book drawings.
“That’s my Wendy’s elephant in Frank’s window today!” Whenever Frank had time, he’d box up the drawings left behind and drop them off at the local nursing home, to distribute among the residents.
For the adult customers, instead of the typical row of uncomfortable chairs with ripped vinyl seats like other garages had, he set up a bigger table and chairs, and an electric coffee pot. In the center of the table, a neat pile of current magazines he picked up at Family-Owned waited for customers to look through. Every hour he faithfully made a fresh pot of coffee. When Ellen came to work, she asked him if he’d like her to make the coffee.
“No, no, that’s all right, I’ll keep doin’ it,” he answered. “When school starts again and you leave, I’ll forget and the coffee will get thick and black and smell up the place.” She knew what he meant. Once, when she was thirteen, she got her hair cut at Miss Logan’s and the first thing she noticed when she went into the beauty parlor, above the rank ammonia smell of the hair dye and the chemicals women used to put permanent curls in their hair, was the odor of old coffee. She thought it was odd that her mechanic father kept his coffee pot shining clean and used good coffee and real cream, a little half pint carton set in a bowl of ice. Yet in a beauty shop with a bunch of women, they’d have horrible powdered junk to lighten coffee often left over from the day before. Customers coming into the garage remarked that they patronized Frank’s Garage because it was so clean and Frank made the best coffee in town.
Frank put a stool behind the counter for Ellen. He never needed one because he didn’t have time to sit down. He’d finish with a car and walk behind the counter to write the bill, and then after the customer paid he went back out into the garage to work on the next car. Now that Ellen was there, he’d walk into the office and write the bill, but give it over to Ellen who’d take the payment while Frank lotioned his hands up. “When you go back to school, my hands are gonna miss this care,” he said, teasing.
While she waited for customers to come in, Ellen read. She always brought a book with her and when she finished whatever little tasks Frank found for her to do that day; sorting nuts and bolts into their proper bins, or transcribing sales receipts into a ledger, she took her book and went back to the counter to read. Sometimes he’d have her come into the garage, which was her favorite place, and she’d do inventory of the belts and parts and other items necessary to keep an auto repair garage in business. At four each day, he’d come into the office and say the same thing. “You about ready to call it a day, sister?” She’d hop down from the stool.
“Okay, I guess it’s time,” she’d answer. He’d watch her put her helmet on, buckling the strap snuggly under her chin, and he’d resist the temptation to check it for safety.
“Be careful, now, you hear? Walk your bike across First Street, and stay up on the sidewalk as far as you can.” Ellen smiled, didn’t get ornery or defensive the way some kids got when their parents fussed. She knew he was just worried about her. “And please call when you git home.” She never forgot to call; the moment she unlocked the door and went into the house, she reached for the phone. If he couldn’t get to the phone, she’d holler into the answering machine so that her voice echoed throughout the garage.
“I’m home, Frank!” He’d grin at the car he was working on and when he got a chance always called back.
They’d have stayed in this mode of mutual love and respect forever, if it hadn’t been for that one summer night when she couldn’t sleep. After the lights went off in the house, and she saw that he’d left the light on above the stove for her, she put her head down on her knees and swept a little sand that had accumulated on the step into a pile. Meditatively, she swirled the pile into a design, first this way and then that, until she was almost mesmerized, sure she could go to sleep as soon as she could get the gumption to go inside for the night. When she started to lift her head, she knew.
The hair on her arms rose up, and the goose bumps appeared on her skin; someone was there. She could feel the difference in the way the air was coming off the water. Too afraid to move, to turn her head to look, she waited until her heart slowed down from the racing pace to which it had climbed, her throat dry, closing up so that screaming for Frank wasn’t an option. She got the courage to slowly turn her head while keeping it down on her knees, and that’s when she saw him. He was on the edge of the woods, just at the bank of the river. Having crept out of the woods, or along the bank, she could clearly see the outline of a tall, lanky man, watching her in the moonlight. His was a black silhouette, but the moonlight shone on his head as a beam of light.
With speed and precision, she leapt up from the porch and opened the screen, slamming the big door shut and locked it while she yelled for her stepfather, her voice trembling. “Frank!” There in seconds, dressed in t-shirt and sweatpants, handgun in his right hand, he grasped her arm.
“There’s someone out there,” she breathed. He went to the door and looked out the four by six inch window at eye level, automatically looking to the wood line, but seeing nothing.
“No one’s there now,” he said. “No one I can see. Man or woman?”
“Man, I’m pretty sure it was a man. He was right at the river edge, right by the big pine.” A tall pine tree towered over the rest, its roots in the soft embankment of the river so the weight of the tree was slowly pulling it over, but it was still the tallest tree.
“Stand back, stay inside,” he said, gently pulling her around behind him as he unlocked the door and opened it. Stepping out on the porch, he looked close to the house before scanning the wood line and the riverbank, but nothing popped out. “It looks like the coward retreated into the trees.” He turned to her.
“You okay?” She nodded. “It’s a durn shame a person can’t sit on their own porch after dark.” He came inside and locked up the door again. “No need to be frightened now. I’ll see to the windows and doors if you want to go back to your room.” She nodded her head. Tonight, they’d sleep with the doors to their rooms open. He called out for her, asking permission to come into her room to check the window, low and facing the front of the house.
“Just as a precaution, tonight I’m gonna pull your dresser in front of this window,” he said.
“Okay,” she answered, watching him work. Slowly, the fear the interloper instilled in her was fading; she was safe in her own house and her stepfather wouldn’t allow anyone to harm her.
A retired Operating Room Nurse, Suzanne Jenkins writes from a huge vault of characters, acquaintances, co-workers and wild Greek family members. A grandmother to seven, former shepherd, she is a prolific storyteller with over twenty-five books on Amazon.
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