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After the Rain

After the Rain
 

Chapter One

Tides change.  So does the moon.  With the unfailing constancy of brittle autumn closing in on bright summer, things always changed.  If Suzanne had ever had faith in anything, it was in knowing that all things were fleeting.  And for good reason.  The highway of life was littered with the roadkill of those who didn't know when to change lanes.

Almost asleep now, Suzanne brushed the pads of her fingers across her forehead, then down the bridge of her nose to the small, pointed bone of her chin.  Yes, it was still her.  One thousand miles, a quick dye job, and the surgical removal of her life had not completely obliterated her.  Just smudged the edges.

The hissing of the bus's brakes brought Suzanne awake from her almost-doze.  She pushed herself away from the images of a soft bed and dark Italian suits and opened her eyes wide to stare out at the anonymous highway rolling outside her window.  A waxing moon smiled down at her with a crescent grin, and she touched the glass as if to bring it closer.  "God's smile," she whispered to no one, recalling something her mother had once told her.  Absently she let her fingers fall to the charm on the gold chain around her neck, finding comfort in touching the small heart through her shirt.

A sign on the overpass above them beamed at her through the murky glass:  Welcome to Walton.  Where Everybody Is Somebody.  She craned her neck as the bus slid under the overpass, partially obscuring the sign, but wanting to make sure she had read it right.  The bus slowed to a stop, and the door opened with a loud gasp.  An older woman, wearing red high heels and with hair puffed out in a tight bouffant like a halo, stood at the back of the bus and began walking forward.

The driver followed the woman off the bus, and Suzanne listened as the luggage compartment was opened.  With a squeal, the woman greeted somebody who had been waiting.  She listened as a deep male voice, definitely not that of their Hispanic driver, greeted the passenger.  His voice carried an accent that would have placed him in rural Georgia no matter what corner of the world he might travel.  Suzanne smiled to herself, content not to be so burdened. 

The driver seemed to be taking a long time pulling out the woman's luggage.  From the snippets of conversation, Suzanne gathered that there was a piece missing.  She rested her head on the back of her seat and continued to listen.  She heard the Georgia man speak again, and there was something about his voice that pulled at her, something thick and rich like dark syrup.  It soothed and cajoled, as if the voice had had years of practice.

Disturbed by the effect the man's voice was having on her, she turned away, but only to catch sight of the sign again.  Welcome to Walton.  Where Everybody Is Somebody.  She sat up, watching as the light trained on the sign dimmed, then brightened, flickering at her like a winking eye.  With a hand that trembled slightly, she pulled at the chain around her neck until the charm fell on the outside of her T-shirt.  Tucking in her chin to see it better, she turned the gold heart over in her hand to read the small, engraved words.

A life without rain is like the sun without shade.  With short, unpolished nails, she scraped the charm from her palm and flipped it over.  R. Michael Jewelers.  Walton.

She pressed her forehead against the window, forcing herself to breathe deeply and recalling the woman who had given her the necklace.  Walton.  The name shifted her jaw, as if moved by her mother's invisible hand, but she shook her head.  It was a million-to-one shot that it was the same town.  It would take sheer luck—something that had always run on a parallel with her life, never to intersect.

As she stared out the window, a small shape darted from the grass on the other side of the highway and onto the shoulder of the road.  Headlights from an approaching car appeared on the horizon, two pinpoints gradually growing larger.  The shape moved into the arc cast by a streetlight, and Suzanne recognized the pointed head and thin, whiplike tail of an opossum.

Pushing her hands against the window in an impotent offer to help, she glanced again at the approaching car, then back at the animal, its quivering nose pointing into the road.  "Don't," Suzanne mouthed, but slowly the animal waddled into the lane and stopped, watching as the car bore down on it.  

The entire scene was too much like her mother's fascination with the bottle, complete  with Suzanne's own helplessness, and she shut her eyes on the inevitable, only opening them when she could hear the dying strains of a country song from the radio of the car as it passed.  Peering out the glass, she could make out the small animal in the middle of the road, curled into a tight little ball under the crescent moon.  It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t doing anything to prevent another onslaught, either.

Abruptly she stood and announced to no one in particular, "I'm getting off here."

The driver looked up in surprise as she stepped off the bus, the gravel crunching under the heels of her sandals.  "Your ticket goes all the way to Atlanta ."

She gave him a half-smile.  "I've changed my mind."  Spotting her one compact piece of baggage sitting on the pavement with the rest of the unloaded luggage, she stooped and picked it up.  Holding the oversized canvas bag by her side and adjusting her backpack-style purse over her shoulders, she glanced at the other two people standing with the driver.  She recognized the lady with the big hair and nodded briefly. Standing behind her was the man who had to have been the owner of the voice.

He towered over the two people in front of him, standing somewhere around six feet four.  He wore a button-down white oxford cloth shirt tucked into wrinkled khakis that looked like he'd slept in them.  A red whiteboard marker and a pencil protruded from his shirt pocket.  She raised her eyes to study his face and was surprised to find him staring at her chest.

Shifting her suitcase to her other hand, she sneaked a glance down at her shirt and noticed that she hadn't tucked her necklace back in and it was now dangling over the mound of her breasts, calling attention to their size.   Disgusted, she twisted away from him and turned toward the driver.

"Can you tell me if there's a place around here to call a cab?"

There was a brief silence before the tall man drawled, "You're not from around here, are you?"

Suzanne frowned up at him, wondering how he knew that about her.  She briefly thought about stepping back onto the bus and its cool anonymity.  But then she remembered the petrified opossum awaiting its chance to be roadkill, and she ground her heels a little deeper into the gravel.

"No, I'm not.  Could you recommend a cab company to call?"

The older woman stepped forward, her perfume reaching Suzanne first.  "Sugar, are you visiting somebody in Walton?  Joe and I could give you a lift…"

Suzanne cut her off. "No, thank you.  I'll take a cab."  She looked around, spotting a service station across the two-lane highway.  Surely there would be a phone there, and she could call a cab to take her to the nearest hotel.  Someplace sterile and impersonal, where she could get her thoughts together and figure out what she would do next.  With a brief nod good-bye, she headed across the road, avoiding looking at the opossum and making sure she checked for oncoming traffic first.

As she neared the service station, she stared at the large neon sign stuck on a pole on the edge of the highway.  It read, Bait. Gas. Cappuccino. Then, underneath the first line, in different lettering as if it had been added at a later date, the word Diapers.  She hesitated again, wondering what kind of place this Walton was.  She could hear the rumbling of the bus behind her as it waited on the side of the road.  It wasn't too late to get back on and head to Atlanta.  A big city would make it easier to disappear.  Then again, they'd never think to look for her in a small town stuck in the middle of nowhere.  With a deep breath of resolve, she crossed the parking lot.

The tinkling bells over the door as she entered were the last peaceful sounds she heard.  A towheaded girl of about four streaked past her wearing only a shirt.  Suzanne got a glimpse of the stark-naked behind of the little girl as she darted down an aisle.

"Amanda!  You quit it right now or I'm gonna jar your preserves!"  A tall teenage girl ran past Suzanne in hot pursuit of the pantless child, forcing Suzanne to press herself against the door so she wouldn't get run over.  The girl held a small boy of about two against her hip, who seemed happily oblivious of the pursuit and grinned a drool-filled grin as he flopped by, apparently glad to be along for the ride.

Suzanne stayed where she was, afraid to move as the sound of more running feet approached from the second aisle.  Three more children raced by, two girls and a boy, the youngest girl swinging bright red braids down her back.

Suzanne had just managed to move against a tall rack of MoonPies and drop her bag when the procession of naked child and pursuing teenager ran by her again.  The teen paused for a moment as she spotted Suzanne, then, without preamble, handed the little boy to Suzanne.  "Hold him.  I can run faster without him."

Caught by surprise, Suzanne stuck out her arms and felt the heaviness of the child as he was placed in her hands.  He looked as surprised as she was and blinked large blue eyes at her.  She kept her arms extended, not knowing where to put him.  Never having held a child before, she wondered briefly if it would be the same as holding a puppy.  It had something to do with the scruff of the neck, but never having held a puppy either, it was all pretty vague.

The little boy let out a huge wail and began pedaling his legs as if he were on a tricycle.  Just then the front door opened, and the woman from the bus and the man she had called Joe entered the store.  They pressed back as the running stream of five children ran past them, the redheaded girl now carrying the pants of the escapee.

Staring after the running children, Suzanne asked, "Don't they have leash laws in this state?"

At the sound of the jingling bells, the child in her arms stopped screaming and turned his head toward the man and woman.  "Daddy!" he shouted, and launched himself into the outstretched arms of the tall man.

With one smooth movement, Joe reached forward and grabbed the arm of the undressed child as she tried to make it down the MoonPie aisle again.  In a stern voice he said, "You go put your pants on right this minute, young lady.  And don't give your sister any more trouble, you hear?"

The little girl stopped and looked up at him with somber blue eyes.  "Yes, sir," she mumbled as the redheaded girl caught up and dragged her back to the bathroom.

Joe straightened and looked at Suzanne with eyes that were less than friendly.  With a brief "Excuse me, ma'am," he moved past her down the aisle and toward the counter.