The Night the Lights Went Out

Berkley
Published March 27, 2018
ISBN-10: 0451488407
ISBN-13: 9780451488404

The Night the Lights Went Out

Available in Hardcover and Paperback

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Flight Patterns comes a stunning new novel about a young single mother who discovers that finding out who your true friends are is the most important lesson of all…

Recently divorced, Merilee Talbot Dunlap moves with her two children to the Atlanta suburb of Sweet Apple, Georgia. It’s a place where reserved old-timers like town matriarch Sugar Prescott coexist uneasily with the wealthy school moms in their tennis whites and shiny SUVs, epitomized by Heather Blackford. Merilee knows that no life is perfect, especially her own. But just how dangerous that deception can be will shock all three women…

“With well-developed characters, a strong sense of place, a suspenseful plot, and plenty of Southern axioms sprinkled in, this is a warm and engaging novel by prolific author White.”
Library Journal

“Part Liane Moriarty (for the gentle skewering of wealthy suburbia), part Kate Morton (for the connections between secrets of the present and the past), and part Mary Kay Andrews (charming and very Southern), White’s latest should find a wide readership.”
—Booklist

“An atmospheric and entertaining look at the friends who keep your secrets—and the friends who keep you guessing until it’s too late.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“The deeper readers get in this story, the less they’ll be able to tear themselves away from the complex characters and exquisite prose.”
RT Reviews

“If Big Little Lies met To Kill A Mockingbird and had a compulsively readable love child, that book would be The Night the Lights Went Out.  Karen White combines a heart-tuggingly vivid depiction of Depression-era Georgia with a wickedly clever send-up of modern Atlanta private school moms to create an interwoven mystery that makes you stop and ask: how do the secrets from our past affect our daily lives?  And which friend would help ME bury the body?  I couldn’t stop reading!
—Lauren Willig, New York Times Bestsellingauthor of The Other Daughter.

“Karen White’s new novel is a crisp summer drama…her latest is another stellar win.”  
—The Herald Sun

THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT  is one of (Karen White’s) best books ever…FASCINATING.
—Jackie Cooper, Huffington Post

“‘Steel Magnolias’ meets ‘Gone Girl’ in Karen White’s latest Southern melodrama. . . . ‘The Night the Lights Went Out’ touches all the bases of a chick-lit thriller, but White’s sense of history gives the narrative a perspective that few mainstream entertainments have any more. It helps that Sugar proves nearly as funny and pointed as Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce.”
—The Wilmington Star News

“…just when you start to get comfortable with the cookies and okra romantic feel good storyline, [White] throws in a twist and off you go on a rollercoaster thriller ride. Enough fun for any vacation.”
—Jacksonville Times Union

“One of Karen White’s best books ever!”
The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC)

The Playing Fields Blog

Observations of Suburban Life from Sweet Apple, Georgia

Written by: Your Neighbor

Installment #1: A Plague of Bulldozers and White Escalades

A woman at my hair salon today asked me where I’d learned to put on makeup. I considered this a compliment, having always taken good care of my skin for the sole purpose of making it a smooth palette on which to put makeup. I could tell she was a transplant to our north Atlanta suburb of Sweet Apple by her accent. And by her question. Every true Southern mama teaches her daughter about makeup. I think in some parts of the Deep South (like the Mississippi Delta), girls are born with makeup brushes clutched in their tiny hands. This might be hearsay, but have you ever noticed how many Miss Americas are from Mississippi?

She asked me to say a few words for her, like “honey” and “fiddledeedee” and “damn,” to hear my accent, and then actually asked if I’d ever heard of the hanging of an innocent man around these parts. I had the sudden and horrible thought that those who aren’t from around here might think that Gone with the Wind or that song about the night the lights went out in Georgia were true compasses showing what they might discover here in Sweet Apple.

That’s when I decided I needed to write a blog, a sort of tutorial or map for the newcomers here. A way for them to educate themselves on the ways of the South and its natives before they do something heinous like wear white pants after Labor Day or show up at a funeral without a chafing dish full of Southern comfort food.

Just like all polite Southern conversations, this one, I thought, should start with the weather. For those newcomers who haven’t yet experienced what we locals refer to as the furnace, the heat of a Georgia summer arrives suddenly. The cicadas begin their whirring song in the trees as a sort of advance warning, and by the time the tree frogs begin burping in unison, summer is here.

But if you live in one of our new neighborhoods, you won’t be able to hear the cicadas or the frogs because of the incessant thumping of your neighbors’ HVAC systems, rumbling all day long like an endless shouting match.

I’d like to suggest turning off the air-conditioning in the evenings when it’s cooler, to hear yourselves think for a change. Hear the voices of your neighbors, even. It’s easy to think we all live in our own air-conditioned bubbles, but we don’t. We have to share our breathing space with our neighbors. And don’t forget we’re all supposed to love our neighbors no matter how difficult they sometimes make it. Like when they vote to bulldoze another farm, or park in the fire lane at Kroger, or tailgate me in their white Escalade (sometimes it’s a Mercedes or BMW SUV and even the occasional Honda—but it’s always white) even when I’m going the speed limit. Being late for a chemical peel does not give you the right to tailgate, no matter how uneven your skin tone. It’s not very neighborly.

Yes, we’re supposed to love our neighbors. Yet I still can’t shake my daydreams where I come up with a thousand different ways in which I can make some of them disappear. Permanently. Thank heavens they’re just daydreams.

Chapter 1

Merilee

Sweet Apple, Georgia

2016

If there was one thing that Merilee Talbot Dunlap had learned in eleven years of marriage, it was the simple fact that you could live with a person for a long time and never really know him. That it was easy to accept the mask he wore as the real thing, happy in your oblivion, until one day the mask slipped. Or, as in Merilee’s case, when it fell off completely and you were forced to face your own complicity in the masquerade.

No, she knew she hadn’t made Michael have an affair with their daughter’s third-grade math teacher. But she had allowed herself never to question any discrepancies in her marriage, content in her role as suburban wife and mother, until the props and scenery were pulled away and she was asked to exit stage right.

“Mommy?”

Merilee turned toward her ten-year-old daughter, Lily, blond and fine boned like her father but with a perpetually worried expression that was all her mother’s. It seemed Lily already had a permanent furrow between her brows from the worry she’d been born with. The last months since the divorce and the stress from the upcoming move hadn’t helped.

“Yes?”

“What if I don’t meet any friends in my new school? And what if I don’t have anybody to sit with at lunchtime? And I’m thinking I shouldn’t be in the accelerated English class, because what if I’m not smart enough?”

Merilee carefully snapped down the lid of the plastic container she’d been filling with her collection of old maps. She’d been collecting them since she was a little girl, when she’d been in an antiquarian bookstore with her grandfather and he’d shown her an ink-drawn map. It had sketches of horses and cows and fences, and a cozy log cabin with smoke curling from its lone chimney.

“That’s where you live,” he’d said, pointing to the cabin.

It looked nothing like the white-columned brick house in Sandersville, Georgia, she’d lived in all her life and she had told him so, only to be made to understand that the cabin and everything else around it had been plowed under to make room for her house and their neighbors’ houses in the twenties, when he and Grandma weren’t even born yet.

For a long time it had given her nightmares, thinking she could hear the cries of the people from the cabin, not completely sure they’d been removed before the demolition. It scared her to think of how temporary things could be, how your life, your house, your family, could be erased like a sand castle at the beach. And when her little brother had died, she’d known for sure.

Her grandfather had bought her the map, unaware he was fostering what would become a lifelong obsession. Merilee wasn’t sure whether her love for old maps was because they reminded her of the grandfather she’d loved more than her own parents or because she’d needed proof that things changed. That no matter how good or bad things were, they were never permanent.

Merilee knelt down in front of Lily, silently cursing her ex-husband one more time. As if making her feel extraneous and unwanted wasn’t bad enough, his inability to keep his pants zipped and his eyes from wandering had added an extra layer of vulnerability to their daughter.

Gently holding her bony shoulders, she looked into Lily’s pale blue eyes. “You’ve never had problems making friends. You’re a nice person, Lily, and that’s why other girls like to include you. Remember that, okay? It’s who you are, and if you stick with that, you’ll be fine. And Windwood Academy is much smaller than your old school, which is a nice thing when you’re the new kid. You’ll know everybody in all of your classes pretty quickly.”

“And if they don’t like me?”

A little bit of the old spark lit her eyes, making Merilee inwardly sigh with relief. “I’m going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

Lily laughed her sweet laugh, a sound that evoked champagne bubbles popping, almost eradicating the guilt Merilee felt over having left The Godfather in the DVD player one night. It had been right after she’d learned of Michael’s affair, when she’d felt the need to watch violent movies with lots of blood and bad language after the kids had been tucked into bed. Lily had flipped it on the next day thinking it was The Princess Bride, and in the five minutes it had taken for Merilee to realize what was happening, Lily had been exposed to more violence than she had been in her entire ten years. After much apologizing and lectures about the difference between movies and real life, it had become a secret joke between them. For weeks Merilee had watched her daughter for any signs that she might need counseling, glad for once that her daughter had always had the maturity of a forty-year-old rather than that of the young girl she was.

Merilee stood, her right knee popping, yet another reminder of why her husband had wanted to trade her in for a younger model. “As for the accelerated English class, they put you in there for a reason. You’ll do great. And if you find you don’t like it, we’ll move you—just give it a try. That’s all I ask, all right?”

Lily’s small chest rose and fell with an exaggerated sigh. “All right. Should I tell Colin to finish packing his suitcase?”

“I asked him to do that three hours ago. Where is he?”

Lily twisted her mouth, unsure of her role. She wasn’t a tattletale, but she also liked to keep to a schedule. “He found a hole in the backyard and has been sitting in front of it waiting to see what might crawl out.”

Merilee swallowed a groan of frustration. Her eight-year-old son had always moved to his own clock, content to study his world at its own pace. Merilee found it endearing and frustrating at the same time, especially on school mornings when Colin wanted to study how long it took for toothpaste to fall from the tube without his having to squeeze it.

“Would you please run out and remind him that I told Mrs. Prescott we’d meet her at three o’clock and it’s almost two thirty? She’s ninety-three and I really don’t want to keep her waiting in this heat.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Lily ran from the room, blond hair flying, calling her brother’s name with the harsh, authoritative tone Merilee recognized as her own. She bit her lip to prevent herself from calling out to remind Lily that Colin already had a mother.

She picked up the stack of plastic containers and moved to the garage, empty now except for the used Honda Odyssey minivan she’d bought with her own money. She’d let Michael keep the Mercedes SUV and his Audi, wanting the excision of him from her life to be a clean cut, even if it meant not having heated seats or a state-of-the-art stereo system. It was the principle of the matter. And at the moment, the only thing she had in abundance were principles.

Through the open rear door, Merilee spotted the jewelry roll she’d tucked into a back corner of the minivan. It was her brother’s Lego figures. She’d taken them from his room without asking, knowing her mother would never have let her have anything that had belonged to David. Deanne had wanted to claim the grief as her own, dismissing anyone else’s as not big enough to count. So Merilee had taken them and wrapped them in her Barbie jewelry roll and kept them hidden, taking them out only on the anniversary of David’s death, as if somehow that might bring a part of him back. It had been a while since she’d done that, but still she kept them, hidden in her sock drawer as if afraid her mother might find them and ask for them back. As if David were still the precocious boy of seven instead of the twenty-nine-year-old young man he should be.

After tucking the last of the smaller boxes and their suitcases into the back of the Odyssey, Merilee made one final pass through the rooms of the now empty home she’d lived in for less than two years. The rental house was already furnished, so it had almost been a relief to let Michael have all the furniture they’d accumulated over the past eleven years, and she’d felt a ping of regret only when their four-poster bed had been hauled into the moving van. It had been the bed where both of their children had been conceived. She imagined that if she ever had to see Tammy Garvey again, after the woman had been sleeping on that bed with Merilee’s husband for a while, she’d mention that to her.

Having gone back inside, she listened to her footsteps echo against the bare walls as she moved from room to room. The house had never really felt like home to her, just like none of their previous four houses had. Michael thought they needed to upgrade every couple of years to keep up with his job success. They had moved into a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood each time, staying within the same school district to make it easier on the kids. And easier for Michael’s affair, Merilee had realized much later.

Merilee thought she should be thankful for the frequent moves, knowing that leaving a beloved home would be almost as painful as leaving an eleven-year marriage. Or burying a favorite dog. Instead, this parting was as easy as pulling off a Band-Aid—it would sting a little but be forgotten as soon as they’d unpacked the first box in the new house.

The kids strapped themselves into the backseat of the minivan as Merilee headed down the driveway one last time and drove down the street without looking back. No neighbors came out to wave good-bye. She didn’t know them well, having always worked and not had the time to build relationships in each of the neighborhoods they’d lived in, and hadn’t expected any more fanfare when they’d left than when they’d arrived.

She waved good-bye to the guard at the front gate just as the first drops of rain began to pelt the dry asphalt and her dirty windshield, already splattered with the remains of dozens of insects. The rain and bugs were, Merilee thought, a fitting tribute to her old life, the one she couldn’t quite let go of yet had no interest in holding on to, either. She thought of the boxes of old maps shifting around in the back of the minivan, reminding her again of the impermanence of things and how nothing stayed the same no matter how much you wanted it to.

Sugar

Sugar Prescott sat at her dining room table in the front room of the old farmhouse, tapping out a letter to her best friend, Willa Faye Mackenzie, on her 1949 Smith-Corona typewriter, her bottle of Wite-Out sitting nearby. She rarely had to use it but always wanted to make sure it was close by just in case. At ninety-three, she didn’t have a lot of time to waste. And Willa Faye had all the time in the world to sit and wait for a letter. Her daughter had recently moved her to a senior living facility with the improbable name of the Manors. If there was one good thing about not having children, Sugar decided, it was being spared the indignity of being moved into such a place, like a box of old toys that a child has outgrown but doesn’t want to get rid of completely.

She glanced outside, not wanting to miss the approach of her new renters. She hadn’t met Merilee Dunlap or her children before, but the Realtor, Robin Henderson, who’d been handling the rental of the Craftsman cottage behind Sugar’s farmhouse, had only good things to say about all three of them. Robin’s children had attended Prescott Elementary with the Dunlap children, making Robin privy to the unsavory gossip surrounding the Dunlap divorce. Not one to gossip, but a good listener, Sugar had suggested the cottage as a good spot for the family to land while they decided what to do next. It wasn’t as if she had any desire to befriend anyone, but Sugar had the feeling that Merilee Dunlap, whoever she was, was suddenly and unexpectedly on her own and in need of help. And Sugar was in a position to understand that need more than most. She suspected, but would deny if anyone asked, that she was getting soft in her old age.

She typed one last word, then drew the carriage back before standing and approaching the front window. The rain had tapered off, leaving a smoking, dripping landscape, her climbing roses on the front porch supports waterlogged, with petals opened as if gasping for breath. The small lake that sat in the front of the property, separated from the road by the white ranch rail fence, was thick like syrup, as brown as molasses because of the rain. She had a sudden image of her brother Jimmy sitting on the muddy bank, fishing for turtles, his feet bare and his freckled nose red and blistered. Although all four brothers were long gone, Sugar now found herself seeing them more and more, as if old age was nothing more than the past and present squeezing together like an accordion until no air was left.

She watched as a white minivan turned off the paved road onto the long drive leading around the lake to the farmhouse, winding between the stately oak trees that had been planted by her great-grandfather before the Civil War, their roots as wide as the trees were tall. The road was a ribbon of red Georgia clay, soft and muddy with rain, the minivan hugging the side, where grass gave the wheels some traction. Sugar smiled to herself, thinking that Merilee Dunlap knew something about driving in wet Georgia clay.

She moved to the front porch and waited for the minivan to pull to a stop. It wasn’t ideal, sharing a driveway, seeing the comings and goings of her renters, but if there was one thing she wouldn’t do, it was have one more strip of her property bulldozed for another driveway. Her brothers had done a good enough job of plowing under all the farmland the Prescott family had once owned, and she would not continue their legacy no matter how inconvenient it was for Sugar.

The woman who carefully stepped from the minivan wasn’t what Sugar had expected. She was younger—mid-thirties, she thought—and much prettier. As if men didn’t divorce pretty women. She was surprised to find that she’d thought she’d be able to spot a flaw in her new tenant, something that would explain how she’d ended up in the predicament she was in. As if Sugar didn’t know better.

“Hello,” the woman said, stepping carefully onto the flagstone walkway before sliding open the side of the minivan and waiting for two children to emerge. The children were as blond as the woman was dark. She had straight, no-nonsense brown hair, parted at the side, and hazel eyes that looked almost green. Her only makeup was a flick of mascara, a touch of nose powder, and a sheer gloss of exhaustion.

“I’m Merilee Dunlap,” she said, extending her hand.

Sugar grasped the tips of her fingers, still unused to the way women shook hands these days, but didn’t return the smile. She didn’t want Merilee to think of her as anything more than her landlady. “And these must be your children, Lily and Colin.”

“They are. Children, this is Mrs. Prescott, whose house we’ll be renting.” Both children extended hands as they were introduced, confirming to Sugar that their mother, despite other issues, had done a good job in teaching manners.

“Our old neighborhood was called Prescott Farms,” said Lily, her eyes wide and earnest, her forehead creased as if she spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the world around her.

Sugar’s mother had barely been cold in her grave before her oldest brother, Harry, sold the property for no other reason than somebody wanted to buy it. The memory still hurt. “Yes, well, that was part of my family’s farm back when I was a little girl. Most everything around the county with the Prescott name on it used to belong to my family. But that was a while ago, when there were lots of Prescotts around these parts. Now there’s only me.”

Facing Merilee, she said, “Please call me Sugar. Everybody does. My real name’s Alice Prescott Bates, but I’ve been known as Sugar Prescott my whole life and I see no need to change it now. I was married just a short time before I became a widow, so my married name really never stuck. And the children can call me Miss Sugar.”

“I smell cookies,” the boy said, looking up at her with a hopeful expression. His light blue eyes were the same shade as those of her youngest brother, Jimmy, making her forget, just for a moment, that he’d been gone more than seventy years. And in that moment of weakness, she stepped back to open the door wider. “Come on inside,” she said. “They had sugar on sale at Kroger, so I had to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. If you don’t want them, I’ll have to give them to my friend at the nursing home, because I don’t eat them.”

“We really don’t mean to intrude,” Merilee said, a hand on each child’s shoulder.

“Yes, well, the cookies won’t eat themselves, so somebody has to.”

The little girl’s eyebrows knitted together. “Are they gluten free? I keep having tummy aches and my friend Beth says I probably have a gluten allergy.”

Merilee put her arm around Lily and sent a pained look at Sugar. “She’s never been allergic to chocolate chip cookies before. I think the upheaval of the last months has just given us all a bit of a stomach upset.”

“My tummy’s fine,” Colin announced. “I can eat Lily’s if she doesn’t want them.”

Sugar began leading the way back to the kitchen, then stopped as Colin paused at the threshold to the dining room and pointed at the typewriter. “What’s that?”

Sugar took a deep breath, more concerned about future generations now than she’d been ten minutes before. “That’s a typewriter. It’s what people used to use before computers. I used to have a good-housekeeping column in the Atlanta Journal back in the day, and they gave me this typewriter when they retired both me and the column in 1982.”

His eyes widened as if being presented with the key to Disney World. “Wow. That was way before I was born.” With a quizzical expression on his face, he turned his head to look up at Sugar. “So you must be very old.”

“Colin . . . ,” Merilee began.

Sugar waved her hand in the air, stopping her. “You are correct, Colin. I am very old. Ninety-four in December, as a matter of fact. Thank you kindly for pointing that out.”

Lily was frowning again, or maybe she hadn’t stopped. Pointing at the typewriter, she said, “Does that mean we don’t have Wi-Fi in the new house?”

All three new tenants looked at her with panicked faces.

“The young man I hired to update the house said he’d make sure it had all the modern conveniences. His name is Wade Kimball. I’ve got his card in the kitchen, which I’ll give you so you can call him directly with any questions, as I do not involve myself with modern technology if I can help it.”

“I’ve got to have Wi-Fi,” Lily said, the frown back over her nose. “I need to access the school portal to check on assignments. I learned all about it in orientation last week.”

Merilee’s voice sounded weary. “I’m sure Mr. Kimball can get us set up right away if it’s not there already.”

“That’s right,” Sugar said matter-of-factly, taking the plastic wrap off the cookies and putting the plate in the middle of the large kitchen table. “No use borrowing worries.”

Merilee smiled, her face relaxed for the first time. “My grandfather used to say that.”

“Wise man,” Sugar said.

“That he was.” Merilee’s face became strained again as she turned to her children and made sure they took only two cookies and placed their napkins in their laps. She didn’t ask for her own cookie, and Sugar didn’t offer her one. They’d already been there longer than Sugar had anticipated.

“Don’t get any crumbs on the floor, children,” Merilee said, hovering near the table, seemingly as eager to leave as Sugar was for them to go.

While Sugar poured two glasses of milk, Merilee moved to the large picture window behind the sink, a real farmhouse sink that had been installed in the house before they’d become popular as a decorating focal point.

“You can see our house from here,” Merilee said.

Well. “Don’t worry. I won’t be snooping in your business.”

Merilee’s cheeks pinkened. “No, that’s not what I meant. It’s just, well, I guess I’m just used to living in a neighborhood with people on all sides. When Robin showed me the house I almost said no because it seemed too isolated.”

The younger woman looked so young, so vulnerable, that for the second time that day Sugar forgot that she didn’t want a relationship with her tenants. “What made you change your mind?”

Merilee didn’t pause. “It’s close to the children’s activities and their new school and the right price. I didn’t have a lot of options. And the house and all this land is lovely. Perfect, really.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Sugar put the glasses on the table and moved to stand by the window next to Merilee. The clouds wore streaks of pink as the late afternoon sun shredded them like cotton candy, and she saw all four brothers again as they’d been as children, bare chested and barefoot, running across the pasture toward the woods, hollering like stuck pigs. “I think your children will like living there. I grew up here in this house with my four brothers—I was the youngest child. My daddy built the house you’ll be living in when I got married. Didn’t live there long on account of my Tom getting killed in the war. But the house is good, solid construction—not like what they build nowadays. And there’s a cellar for when there’s a tornado. Make sure you know how to get in and out and how to latch it. Nearest tornado siren’s about three miles away and you might not hear it.”

“Thank you,” Merilee said quietly, peering closely at the line of trees behind her new house. “Do those woods belong to you?”

Sugar kept her breathing even. “Yes, they do. But I wouldn’t encourage you or the children to explore. There’s a barn on the far side that might be a temptation, but that’s also off-limits mostly because kids will think the woods are a good shortcut. They’re not. They’re very dark and deep if you don’t know where you’re going. And we still have black bears and more poisonous snakes than I can shake a stick at. It’s just better if you and the children stayed away from the woods.”

She felt the young woman’s eyes on her but didn’t turn.

“Look, Mommy—a rainbow!” Colin sprayed crumbs from his full mouth.

Before Merilee could say anything to him, his sister joined them at the window. “If I had an iPhone, I could take a picture.”

Merilee’s sigh was almost imperceptible. “Yes, well, you’re ten. You don’t need an iPhone. Where’s the small camera I bought you for Christmas?”

“It’s so inconvenient.” Lily paused for a moment, as if to make sure everyone had heard her big word, which she’d probably picked up from her mother. “If I had an iPhone my camera would already be in my purse.”

“You don’t have a purse,” her mother pointed out.

Lily frowned as Colin shoved another cookie into his mouth, undoubtedly hoping that the conversation with his sister had distracted their mother.

“I saw that, Colin,” said Merilee without even turning her head. “Which means you’re not leaving the supper table until you eat all your vegetables, regardless of how long it takes.”

Colin swallowed thickly. “Yes, ma’am.”

Merilee looked up at the sky, pale pink now, the clouds bruised with shadows. “Thank you for the cookies and milk for the children. The rain’s completely stopped, so we should get going. I’d like to get our clothes hung and our suitcases unpacked before bedtime.” She stared out the window for a long moment without stepping away. “How perfectly quiet and still those woods must be. Like time’s being held back or something, you know?”

Without responding, Sugar turned back to the kitchen table and placed two paper plates and a box of plastic wrap in front of the children, with instructions to divide the cookies evenly. She’d never had children, but she’d had siblings so understood the importance of equal measure. Then she pulled out Wade’s business card from a drawer and handed it to Merilee.

“Call him anytime. If there are any repairs, he’ll give me a fair estimate and will actually show up when he’s supposed to.”

Merilee studied the card. “So, he’s like a handyman? I’m looking for someone to build me more bookshelves for a collection I have.”

“Just call him directly—I don’t like to be . . . involved with any tenant issues. He’s very handy because he’s a builder, but he does work for me because his grandma is my best friend and I’ve known him since he was in diapers. Just let him know who you are and he won’t say no.”

“Thank you,” Merilee said, taking the card.

Sugar gave Merilee the keys to the cottage before walking them to the door. “I had my housekeeper put clean sheets on all the beds. There are clean towels in the linen closet in the hallway and in both bathrooms. You’ll be responsible for keeping it clean from here on out.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Prescott . . . Sugar. You’ve been more than kind.”

“I didn’t do it to be kind. I did it because it’s my job. And because I don’t want a phone call in the middle of my shows asking where all the sheets and towels are.”

Merilee’s smile faltered as Sugar held the door open to let them pass, noticing the frown on Lily’s face.

“Can you call Mr. Kimball now, Mom? I need to make sure we have Wi-Fi.”

“Please stop worrying, Lily. I’ll call him in just a minute.” There was an edge to Merilee’s voice that hadn’t been there before. As if her last nerve had already snapped and she was grabbing at its threads.

Sugar turned to Merilee. “Just remember what I told you about the woods. They’re fine to admire from a distance, but they’re not safe.”

“Got it,” she said, sliding open the back door of the minivan. “With school starting and all their activities, I doubt we’ll have much time for exploring anyway.”

They said good-bye, then pulled away, Sugar watching all three heads strain forward in their seats as they waited for the sight of their new home to loom into view from under the canopy of the oak trees, baby birds looking for sustenance.

She listened to the drip of rain trickle off the porch roof and onto the old wood steps. Looking up at the sky, she stepped off the porch and into the drive, aware of the hum of the Honda’s engine in front of her, just out of sight behind the oaks. Like so much in her life now, Sugar didn’t need to see things to know they were there.

She allowed her eyes to follow the rainbow, noticing its colorful arches ending in the middle of her woods. She didn’t need to go there to know there was no bag of gold or anything else a person would want to find. Her lips turned up in an unfamiliar grimace as she headed back inside, feeling the breeze from the opened windows teasing her with the scent of rain and old memories that seemed as permanent as the red clay that lay beneath her feet and under the tall pines of the dark woods.

Excerpted from The Night the Lights Went Out by Karen White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Questions for Discussion

1. A matriarch in a small town is a familiar character for many readers. How is the character of Sugar used to progress the story and provide the backbone for it?

2. Female friendships, such as the unlikely bond between Sugar and Merilee and the friendship between Heather and Merilee, are the core of the story. Why do you think these friendships were struck up suddenly? What is it about human nature that causes people to gravitate toward finding friendship?

3. Acceptance is a major topic in the story, with both Merilee and Heather having felt rejected as children and, as an adult, Merilee wanting to be accepted by the other mothers. What causes the need for acceptance? Is it society or our human nature?

4. Family life is seen in many different ways in the novel, including what it means to be a mother—through the eyes of Sugar, Merilee, and Heather—and what it means to have a mother. In what ways do each woman’s experiences with her mother define her own ideas of motherhood and parenting?

5. The identity of the gossip blogger is revealed at the end—were you surprised at who it was? Did you have other guesses? How did the blogger fit into the story of a small town and help to feed the rumor mill?

6. Sugar’s life during the Depression in Sweet Apple provides a stark contrast to the way present-day inhabitants of Sweet Apple live, especially Heather. Do you know anyone who grew up during the Great Depression, and if so, does this person have an attitude toward money that is similar to Sugar’s?

7. The “mean girl” phenomenon is present in the novel for both the adults and the children. Is peer pressure something that you struggle with as well? Do you know any bullies or anyone who has been bullied?

8. Why do you think Sugar never went to the police for help in the past? Do you think she did the right thing in not doing so?

Karen's Tour of the Milton, Georgia Library

Driving Tour with Karen from Rena Olsen on Vimeo

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