Stand Alone Novels
Home Before Dark
MIRA (September 2011)
Originally Published in 2003
That spike of panic a woman feels when the thought first hits her—I’m pregnant—is like no other. Sixteen years after that moment, its echo haunted Jessie Ryder as she drove through the Texas heat, having traveled halfway around the world to see the daughter she’d never met.
She could still remember the terror and wonder of knowing an invisible cluster of cells had changed her life forever, in ways she could not imagine. Sixteen years and uncounted miles separated her from that day, but the distance was closing fast.
Simon had tried to stop her—It’s madness, Jess, you can’t just go dashing off to Texas—but Simon was wrong. And this wasn’t the craziest thing she’d ever done, not by a long shot.
For the hundredth time since flinging her belongings into a bag in an Auckland hotel room, Jessie wondered what else she could have done. There was no script for this, no instruction manual for putting the broken pieces of a life back together.
There was only the homing instinct, the tendency of the wounded animal to seek safe haven. And then there was the unbearable urge, long buried but never quite forgotten, to see the child she had given away at birth to the only person on the planet she trusted—Luz, her sister.
The front tire rippled over a line of yellow discs marking the center of the highway. Jessie’s driving days were numbered, but a stubborn streak of independence, combined with a sense of desperation, made her defiant. She slowed, checked the rearview mirror—still getting used to driving American cars, on the right side of the road—and pulled off. She was lost again.
The glint of the sun over the jagged silhouette of the hills blinded her briefly, and she flipped down the visor. Grabbing the map, she studied the route highlighted by the counter clerk at Alamo Rent-a-Car. Southwest along the interstate to exit 135-A, State Highway 290 to Farm-to-Market Route 1486, following the little red thread of road to a place few folks had heard of and even fewer were inclined to visit.
Jessie had followed the directions. Or had she? It was hard to tell, and it had been so long since she’d traveled these forgotten country roads. As she traced a finger over the route, a movement on the road caught her eye. An armadillo.
She usually only encountered them as roadkill, as though they’d been born that way, with their little dinosaur feet pointed skyward. And yet here was one, waddling across her path like something out of a Steinbeck novel. An omen? A harbinger of doom? Or just another Texas speed bump? She watched the creature wander to the other side of the road and disappear into the low thicket of chaparral.
An oncoming car crested the steep hill ahead of her. She squinted at the approaching vehicle. A pickup truck, of course. What else did you find out here? As it slowed and then stopped on the opposite shoulder, she felt a slick thrill of danger. She was completely alone, lost in the middle of Texas, miles from civilization.
The window rolled down. Shading her eyes against the glare, she could make out only the outline of the driver—big shoulders, baseball cap—and, incongruously, a child’s safety seat on the passenger side. A fishing rod lay across the gun rack.
“Everything all right, ma’am?” he asked. She couldn’t get a good look at his face with the sun in her eyes, but that Texas drawl somehow put her at ease, evoking faint memories of lazy days and slow, neighborly smiles.
“I’m headed for Edenville,” she said. “But I think I’m lost.”
“You’re almost there,” he said, jerking his thumb in the direction he’d come from. “This is the right road. You just haven’t gone far enough.”
“No problem, ma’am. You take care now.” The pickup truck moved off, backfiring as it headed in the opposite direction.
You take care now. The friendly throwaway admonition lingered as she pulled back onto the road. She fiddled with the radio, finding mostly news and tears-in-my-beer country music. At last she discovered a decent rock station out of Austin and listened to ZZ Top, turned up loud. She hoped the music might drown out her thoughts and maybe even her fears.
Austin’s bedroom communities, with names like Saddle-brook Acres and Rockhurst Estates, were miles behind her, giving way to places with folksier appellations like Two-Dog Ranch. She passed a Texaco station with a hand-lettered sign: We Sell Gas To Anyone In A Glass Container.
Deep in the hill country, late afternoon settled in. The dark pockets of shadows hidden within the striated sandstone hills were not to be trusted. The waddling armadillo had reminded her that, at any moment, a jackrabbit or mule deer could leap out onto the road. She would hate to hit an animal. She didn’t even want to hit a dead one, she realized, swerving to avoid a battered carcass that had not yet been desiccated into a grotesque kite of flattened skin.
The trip felt much longer than she remembered. Of course, years back, she couldn’t wait to leave; now she couldn’t wait to get home. Soon she saw it, the weatherbeaten Welcome To Edenville sign with its faded illustration of a peach orchard. Smaller signs sprouted in the field at its feet: The Halfway Baptist Church. Home of the Fighting Serpents. Lions Club meets on the third Saturday each month.
The tree-shaded town had the eerie familiarity of a half-remembered dream. Hunched-together storefronts lined the main square, which was organized around a blocky, century-old courthouse. Adam’s Ribs B-B-Q and Eve’s Garden Shoppe still stood side by side across from Roscoe’s Hay and Feed and an exhausted Schott’s discount outlet. Despite the addition of the Celestial Cyber Cafe, the place retained its midcentury, slow moving character, a town content to lag behind while time sped past like traffic on the interstate bypass.
Right out of high school, Jessie had left for college. She’d loved Austin’s urban bustle and suburban sprawl, its population of politicians, intellectuals, Goths, Mexicans, criminals and rednecks. Now she was back in the small town filled with everything she’d left behind, whether she liked it or not.
Despite the passage of time, she knew her way now. Five more miles along a narrow lane, past the preternaturally green Woodcreek golf course and driving range, and then a right turn onto the lake road.
She rolled down all four windows of the car and took a deep breath. She could smell the lake before she saw it—mes-quite and cedar and the cleansing scent of air blown across fresh water. One of the few cold, spring-fed lakes in Texas, Eagle Lake was bluer than autumn twilight.
Areas of rounded rock, with hawthorn shrubs blooming in the cracks, plunged down to touch the water. The lake itself was a vast mirror with a forest fringe of the most extraordinary trees in the state. They called them the lost maples of Eagle Lake because everyone knew this particular type of tree didn’t rightly belong in Texas. Maples grew in the long, frozen sleep of winter found only in the woods up north, not the unpredictable fits and starts of brutal cold and blistering heat of the Texas hill country. And yet here they thrived, nonnatives huddled together beside a picture-book lake.
Legends about the maples abounded. Indian lore held that they were the souls of long-dead ancestors from the North. Others claimed a settler had planted them for his Yankee bride to remind her of the New England autumns she missed so desperately. But all anybody really knew was that the trees were transplanted strangers that didn’t belong, yet managed to flourish here anyway, bursting into hectic color after a scorching summer had sucked the pigment from everything else.
Each autumn, the maples blazed brighter than any forest fire, in colors so intense they made your eyes smart: magenta, gold, deep orange, ocher, burnt umber. For two weeks every fall, the Farm-to-Market Road was clogged with tourists who drove out to Lakeside County Park to take pictures of their kids skipping stones on the leaf-strewn water or climbing high in those God-painted branches.
As Jessie drew nearer to her destination, she tried to remember when the foliage reached its peak. Early November, she recalled. Homecoming season.