include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Mystic Mississippi by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


MYSTIC MISSISSIPPI

A NOVEL BY KATIE GEORGE



Mystic Mississippi

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Katie George



Sure as creeks go ’round the bend, my love for you knows no end.”



PART ONE

Autumn


CHAPTER ONE


“WELL,” SAID CAMERON Russell to himself, “it could be worse. Could also be better.”

The young man hoisted the final box from the half-dead Trans Am and smiled. Not at the old Trans Am, but at the house before him. The gem before him was actually his, financed with his own money, a product of his genuine attempt at a reasonable credit score, and all he wanted to do was…

“I hate being an adult,” he muttered to himself as he considered the perks of falling asleep now or later. The mattress was upstairs, calling his name, but he had a lot to do, a little time to do it, and his energy levels were running low. He needed a large pizza, and he needed it now. Too bad this place didn’t come with a live-in chef.

Cameron half-carried, half-kicked the final box up the stairs to the typical Southern front porch, where a cream-colored swing was hanging by a chain, suspended in air. The boards needed painting and he’d probably fall through the wood into some sort of torture chamber, but the house was there, and he’d afforded it. He smiled again.

The entryway was smelly and ugly, the consequence of years of abandonment. He’d need buckets and buckets of paint to cover up the dirty walls, but it would be his project. Most definitely a lengthy project. And really, it would distract him from his little baby, also known as his attempt at the Great American Novel.

Realizing what was in the final box, Cameron pushed his hands through the cardboard and found his simplistic, hand-me-down typewriter, freshly polished like a jewel. He held it in his calloused hands and stared at it in awe. When he remembered that the thing was heavy and not just a feather, he cradled it to the kitchen and set it down on the dusty countertop.

“What more do I need?” he said to himself, and then his stomach growled.

Cameron Russell had done it. He’d packed his things—which had amounted to a few dozen books, clothes, photo albums, knickknacks, and the golden typewriter—driven across the country, toured this old grandmother of a house with a real-life realtor, and scooped up the property for a little over a hundred thousand dollars. He, a twenty-four-year-old law school dropout, had whisked himself across two thousand miles of American heartland to the random destination of his creative desires: a little hamlet of a Southern town called Mystic, Mississippi. It had been troubling at first, not knowing exactly where he was off to, especially from his native and bustling Los Angeles, but with each passing mile, he knew he wanted to go farther and farther away, to see what else was out there.

And he’d ended up, not in Texas or Arizona or New Mexico, but in Mississippi. In a town just south of the Tennessee line, barely bigger than a needle pin on the map. There were maybe five thousand souls in the sleepy town, no more than three gas stations, a McDonald’s, two coffee shops, a handful of genuine cafes, and a fancy-schmancy steakhouse out on something called the Julep Creek. In his research of Mystic, Cameron Russell had come across zero reported crimes in the past five years, a stellar elementary school, three Baptist churches, two Methodist, one Church of Christ, four Missionary Baptist, one AME, and zero Nazarene. There was no such thing as a Catholic here, although his realtor had assured him there was a booming Jewish community. Cameron Russell, a born-and-raised Nazarene, would learn to adapt.

He was doing fine now. He wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand and wondered if his loan had included air conditioning. He’d add that to his immediate list and head to a hardware store, or maybe the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot. If one of those wasn’t in town, which he highly doubted, he didn’t mind driving around to explore North Mississippi for a little bit.

A notepad rested on the ugly counter. He wrote down quickly, in his hurried, sloppy writer’s handwriting: AC. Mop. Dustpan. Paint. After those four items, he glanced around the house. Nope, he needed the entire store’s supply. Didn’t matter what. He needed it all. His bank account could take some more damage.

Cameron was lost in thought for a second until he heard the faded, slightly-haunted cadence of the doorbell. He wiped his hands on his shirt and moved to the front door, where a middle-aged woman greeted him with a Texas-sized smile and a warm apple pie.

“Welcome!” she said, loudly and proudly, shoving the pie in his face. “How are you doing, son?”

Cameron’s belly rippled with delight. The pie would most certainly be a welcome addition to his gnawing stomach. “Well, thank you. I’m doing great, and you?”

“Let me introduce myself. I’m Amy Lee Brandon, and I live just across the street.”

Cameron shook her hand, momentarily struck by the unique Southern twang. It was different than, say, a Texan one, but still so sweet. Sweet as sugar or something. And then his stupid surfer voice replied, “Cameron Russell.”

“Do you need any help with any boxes? I would offer my daughters to help, but neither are in at the moment, and I’m not sure they’d be much help anyway.”

Interesting choice of words, but Cameron went with it. “No, no, I’m fine. Just a bit overwhelmed by the condition of this place.”

Amy Lee’s light green eyes grew big, as if she were letting him in on a dangerous secret. “I can imagine, Cameron. I never thought anybody’d pick this place up, so I’m very thankful you did.”

“Do you want to come in for a moment, Mrs. Brandon?” Isn’t that what people asked if someone was at their front door? This gave him a little thrill. He was all of twenty-four, and somehow he was here.

“It’s Amy Lee to you. Yes, it is a bit hot outside, but when is it not? You came at the wrong time. Everyone hates the summers here. You’re used to summers in the South, aren’t you, Cameron?”

They walked into the foyer. Dead brown leaves dusted the stairs like shredded love notes. Despite how hideous it was at this moment, the house still had a unique charm. Amy Lee caught him analyzing his new abode and smiled too. “Where are you from, dear?”

“Los Angeles, actually,” he said, still in shock at his impulsive decision to up and move across the country. “I apologize that it’s hot in here too. No air conditioning. Not yet at least.”

“My kids used to think this place was like Boo Radley’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s definitely got personality. Los Angeles, hmm? Well, if you like it here in the summer, I suppose you’ll survive.”

“I hope, but yes, I’m a little far away from home.”

“And what on God’s green earth brings you to Mystic? Out of all the places in the world?”

“That is a good question. I don’t really know.”

“You don’t know? What do you mean, you don’t know?”

Cameron nodded. “It may seem ridiculous, I know, but I packed up my car, didn’t even have a map, and ended up here. I drove down this street after getting lost…”

“I’m going to interrupt you right there. How did you get lost in Mystic?”

“I don’t know that either. I promise, I usually have a good sense of direction. And so I saw the for sale sign, contacted the realtor, and made an offer. I’m surprised I got a loan, but I did, and… I’m here. My parents don’t even know I’ve done this.”

Her eyes had been getting bigger and bigger as each word slipped from his lips. “Oh, honey….”

“I’m probably going to get coal for Christmas, yeah.”

“You definitely need to put a word in to Momma. You understand that, right? If one of my girls did that to me, I’d… Well, let’s just say that all hell would break loose.”

Cameron laughed, digging his free hand in his pocket. “Well, we don’t need to worry about that with my mother. Can I get you anything to drink, Amy Lee? I have some water bottles…”

“Oh, don’t you dare offer me anything! That’s my job. Would you like to have dinner at my house tonight? Say, seven o’clock?”

Cameron’s eyebrows raised. “Really?”

“Yes. You need some good home cooking, I can tell.”

“Well, as long as I can do the dishes or something, I’ll say yes.”

“Cameron Russell, I expect you at my house at seven o’clock. My daughter will be there too.”

Well, that’s awkward. And direct. “Oh, really?”

Amy Lee Brandon was nothing less than frank. She smiled her big, Southern smile, her white teeth sparkling a pleading smile.

“I can’t back out now, can I?” he said, attempting a joke, half-laughing, but one Amy Lee did not take as funny.

She twirled out the front door. “Seven o’clock, Mr. Russell. Be on time.”

And he stood there, holding a warm apple pie, watching his new neighbor sashay across the street to her perfectly manicured Southern house, and had he just accepted a dinner invitation with the sole purpose to be some sort of romantic introduction? Cameron Russell shrugged. If it was free food, it was free food.

But had he ever taken economics?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free Southern Saturday night supper.


CHAPTER TWO


CLARA BRANDON HURRIED down the concrete sidewalk, juggling three boxes of knock-off brand shoes from the Egg Barn, where there was a hidden plethora of one-dollar deals on all sorts of things. Want a head scrubber? A buck. Want a cheese grater? One dollar. A TV from 1963? Okay, well, that’ll be three bucks, because it’s sorta vintage. The Egg Barn was both a madhouse and a disaster, with clothes and toys and books and home goods strewn about the place like a literal tornado had spun through. Ah, what people do for the cheap.

Clara never went to the Egg Barn, not usually—unless she needed a scandalous, senseless paperback—but today was a necessity. Tomorrow, she had to be at the bridal shop, and she needed to look presentable. For a fresh-out-of-college elementary teacher who only knew how to wear tennis shoes and flip flops, Clara needed fancy shoes. Good shoes to try on bridesmaid dresses with her very best friend, Danielle Cox, who had been dumb enough to invite her mother to the event.

Clara had been saying—since they were young babies at Ole Miss (a nice six months prior) and it was certain that Danielle would become Mrs. Devante Anthony—that there was no way on God’s green earth that the town’s debutante Tonya Cox should make an appearance at the one and only bridal shop.

“She’s going to be a Bridezilla, Danielle. Not you,” Clara had said for the umpteenth time while on the phone with Danielle during her lunch break. “Mark my words. It’ll be a disaster if you invite her!”

“Clare, sweetheart, did you forget that she’s my mom? She needs to be at the fitting.”

“But this isn’t even your dress!”

“You’re so dramatic!”

I’m dramatic? This is not your dress, Danielle!”

Clara rolled her eyes just remembering the conversation. Okay, so some of her resentment was due to the fact that Danielle was getting married before her (they’d bet on this freshman year, after becoming roommates by chance, and now Clara had won thirty bucks, though she wasn’t as mad about that part), but Tonya would micromanage everything, and Clara was already tired of micromanaging eighteen of the cutest eight-year-old hellions in all Edmond County. She’d been a teacher for all of one week and six days, and already she was itching for it to be fall break. Or summer. Minus the ugly humidity.

Clara tripped her way across the sidewalk and up to the front door, where she dinged on the stupid bell that led to her mother’s quaint house. It was actually her house too, because she was kind of broke, and her mother didn’t want to be alone after the death of the love of her life, Chuck Brandon, who had been the only sane individual in the entire Brandon brood. Clara almost started to cry just thinking about him, but she jammed the tears in, because Amy Lee would lose it if she saw Clara show any trickle of emotion, unless it was dramatic emotion, like shoe shopping at the Egg Barn before meeting up with Tonya Cox.

Clara pushed on the doorbell about sixty times before her mother’s guilty, rosy face appeared. The woman was obviously up to something.

“What are you doing?” Amy Lee whisper-hissed.

“What are you doing?” Clara asked furiously, straining to see her mother behind the shoeboxes.

“We’re having a guest to dinner.”

“I hope it’s not Annie, because I want to kill her. I want to be a complaining, carefree college student again.”

“Your sister’s not here, no,” said Amy Lee. She dangled her diamond-coated wrist in the air. Add that to the diamonds on her engagement ring and the studs glittering in her ears, and Mrs. Brandon wore more than Clara’s entire bank account amount. “Please, put your normal language in a box in your mind. You’re going to want to be on your best behavior.”

“In a box in my mind? What am I, a kindergartener? Mom, my feet are killing me, as you would say, and I don’t mind a visitor, but you have to give me a little more time, you know? This can’t just be a, ‘Hey, I met someone via online dating, and his name is Brad. He’s sixty-two, drives a Porsche he bought in the ’80s, and swears he’s related to Rob Lowe.’ You know I have my introverted moments.”

“Clara! You think I would try online dating? And don’t pretend you’re not an introvert all the time.” This time, Amy Lee hissed like a killer snake.

“I forgot. You don’t know how to operate a computer, so you’d have to meet Brad at one of those chichi boutiques where you spend more each time than my monthly salary. Excuse me.” Clara entered the house, smelling the delightful scent of pumpkin spice, a staple autumn odor. It was barely mid-August, and already the Brandon women had insisted on pretending it was fall. It was necessary to cleanse the gross, seeping pores on their skin, to do some sort of psychological trick that would make them think that clear, crisp days were just around the corner…

Clara noticed the family portraits lining the walls as she had done for the past few months now. She’d never noticed them until Chuck’s funeral, but she jammed those feelings right back down her gullet, and turned to Amy Lee, who was watching with that devious smile of hers. Suddenly, the childlike annoyance was back, just from the mere sight of her pestering mother.

“I was going to ask who it is, but you know, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

Amy Lee giggled like a school child. At least she was enjoying this.

Clara rolled her eyes and hurried through the hallway, tracing her nostrils’ uncanny ability to sniff out Clara’s cooking thumb, and when she saw the delicious golden chicken on the dinner table, she could hardly contain her excitement. Oh, how vegetarian Danielle would stab her with a knife, but she needed to take a cut of the meat. It was…

“Hi, Clara, is it?”

Clara jumped out of her skin.

“Oh, hi. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She stared at the young man before her and thought she was in the Egg Barn again. Why, she wasn’t sure, but it was a peculiar sight, like she’d discovered a few karats of emerald in the midst of the mismatched, knock-off tennis shoes. She nodded her head slightly, like a therapist assessing his or her patient, before she realized that he was looking at her and expecting some sort of a response. Maybe a hello. Clara, never one to butcher an introduction (false, she’d butchered them the majority of the time), did some sort of silly half-wave and fell into her seat. She threw her hipster bag across the room and adjusted her shirt. Realizing she had not spoken, she said, nonchalantly despite her roaring heartbeat, “Hello.”

Just hello? But she couldn’t think of anything else to say to him. At least she hadn’t spouted off some rude commentary that was typical to her thoughts. And he was intimidating, for sure. Some random, devilishly good-looking guy was just sitting at her dinner table, like nothing was wrong with this, and there shouldn’t have been, but she knew she was attracted to him (how could one not be?), and that caused her heart to jump a million miles in the air. In fact, she knew she had just gone through menopause at the speed of light, because her skin flared bright red, and she wondered if her armpits would sweat right through her nice teacher-like blouse.

“Is it hot in here?” she asked miserably as her mother took a seat. She began to swat herself like a stray fly had flown onto her flesh. This is why I will never get married. I can’t even handle meeting a guy without having a heatstroke!

“Yes, it is,” seconded the poor young man, glancing helplessly at his glass of sweet tea. He took a sip of it but looked a bit stunned by the taste. Poor kid. That was a massive strike against him.

“You’re not from here, are you?” she asked meekly. Well, she wouldn’t be winning any awards for Southern hospitality any time soon.

He set down the glass and offered the first hint of one very beautiful smile. One that exposed shiny, perfect teeth. Almost too perfect, like one of those at-home TV advertisement models. A guy who advertised his expertise in the realm of perfect dentistry, but who’d struck out at his one shot in Hollywood. But it was that smile that did her in, she’d realize years and years later. If she thought he was attractive enough before, now her heart melted. Well, this was not good at all. “Nope. I’m from California.”

“California?” she sputtered out. “What brought you here? Seeing a Californian here is like seeing an alien. For many reasons, I suppose.”

He laughed a deep, intricate laugh. It was quite becoming. Becoming? Who am I? “Well, I’m not really sure.”

“You’re not really sure?”

Maybe she was still in the Egg Barn. Maybe she’d cracked her head against the grizzled floor. Were his eyes sparkling? “Your mother had the same reaction. I suppose every sane person would. You see, I’m a writer.” He took another sip of sweet tea. Poor fellow, indeed.

“A writer?”

Yup, the eyes were genuinely sparkling. “Why is everyone so surprised writers still exist?”

“I’m not,” she said, trying to soften her voice, not wanting to come across as too strong, despite the fact that she wanted to fry her mother like a chicken strip. She glanced across the table at the beautiful, smug face of the woman who had held her in a human cocoon for nearly ten months. A chirpy mother hen who never shut up, she was now unusually silent. Oh, how Clara still wanted to slap her. Realizing there was a lull, and hating lulls, Clara said, sticky sweet, “It’s just not every day one meets both a Californian and a writer.”

There was that laugh again, though this time it was nervous, as if he was analyzing whether she was flattering him or not. Flattering him or doubting him completely. He was used to that, whenever someone looked at him with that slightly-amused look and said, “So, you write books?”

“So,” she said, pushing her napkin onto her lap. “You ended up in Mystic because you’re a writer?”

“I suppose that’s accurate.”

“You just… Fell in love with the scenery? I’m sure it wasn’t our obnoxious heat. Or our salacious sweet tea,” she said with a wink, before turning a deep crimson, because she had just winked at him. She wanted to disappear into her seat, but she knew that was impossible. She hoped he hadn’t seen it, but there was no way he did not.

“Something along that line, I suppose.”

“Cameron here is a real writer, Clare,” said her mother with pride. It was true pride. Oh, just because she’d lost her love, Amy Lee didn’t mind playing matchmaker with everybody else in the world. “He’s written a few novels, one’s published by a group in New York, and now he’s here to find some more material.”

“So you can paint us Southerners in the best light, right? A crowd of…” she asked coolly. Then, reminding herself to take a chill pill and relax, she said, “I’m sure you’ll find some great material here. Different than what you’d see in L.A. For one, there are real women like Amy Lee Brandon. Real women named Amy Lee Brandon.”

Both their eyes twirled over to the older woman, who shrugged her shoulders and said, as if she had done nothing at all, “What?”

Clara glanced around the room, her eyes dancing in the dinner light. She finally was able to stare at him without her heart splitting in two. “And there are women like my sister. I don’t know if Momma’s told you anything about her, but she’s a Southern Belle wannabe.”

“Oh, really? There’s such a thing?”

“She thinks the South is the best place in the world. She loves to doll herself up, go to those sorority formals, and oh my gosh! Let’s talk in the most nasally, fake accent we can possibly muster. It’s almost like Valley Girl, but you have to add that spicy twang. That little Southern spice, right?”

“Clara!”

“What? It’s true!”

“It is, but…”

Clara laughed at the mention of her sister, Annie, whom she missed desperately, but she couldn’t show it. She wouldn’t show it. Annie certainly did not miss her as much as she missed Annie, but that was all right. It was part of being the big, protective sister, even if they were three years apart in age, and miles apart in both location and interest and belief. Maybe they needed to grow apart for a little bit to grow even closer.

But forget Annie. If Annie knew who was at their dinner table, she’d bat her big, black eyelashes like a Hollywood girl, and she’d win Cameron’s heart in five seconds.

But Clara wasn’t Annie.

“So, have you always been a writer?” asked Clara, digging into her chicken. While the guy was pretty cool, the chicken was calling to her now. She stuffed a big swab of it in her mouth, savoring the riches of the honey additives and warm taste of spice.

The man named Cameron nodded. “Ever since I can remember, but after college, I decided to give law school a try, appease my mom and dad.”

“Oh, really?” she asked. “Law school, huh?”

“Yup. Law school wasn’t exactly my forte.”

“And why’s that?”

“Well, argument isn’t my strong point. And I’m a writer. Of fiction, not briefs.”

Amy Lee batted her eyelashes. No wonder Annie was such a flirt.

Clara nodded her head. “Well, I like it when people follow their hearts.”

Cameron smiled. “Me too.”

“Which explains why you’re in Mystic, of all the places in the world.”

“Do you like it here, Clara?”

The way he said her name, that was enough to do her in. She set her jaw and felt her body tense up. What was happening? Clara’s eyes blinked faster than normal. She couldn’t remember what he’d asked her, as an interesting case of amnesia had set in, and there was nothing but his smile, his rich, rich smile, and why was it so genuinely pleasant? Why was he such a gentleman—and he was from California?

Clara set her fork down and said, “Do I like it here? That is relative. I hope you enjoy it here, Cameron.”

Amy Lee, meanwhile, was smirking as she dug into her sweet chicken. Not only was she the best chef in all Edmond County, but she saw was also something of a psychic. She saw her daughter, and she saw that nice boy, Cameron, and she knew she was correct in her assessment. It helped to pry into the social affairs of those around her, about 97% of the time. She was a love doctor, tried and true, and yes, maybe this was a bit invasive, but the boy needed a meal, and Clara needed some distraction.

Cameron was such a nice boy. He was handsome too, thought Amy Lee, almost too good to be true. While Amy Lee had always been a staunch (and secret) supporter that nobody was good enough for her two daughters, this guy would do. Did she like the fact that he was a writer? At least he was published. And she could just imagine her grandbabies’ big blue eyes, the color a mixture of Cameron’s light eyes and Clara’s dark.

Plus, the kid had good table manners, and he showed a genuine interest in both Amy Lee and Clara. He must have good parents, a good pedigree, but Amy Lee of all people knew exactly that a person’s family didn’t determine whether he or she was a classy, polite soul.

She smirked even wider. Well, it was true: She was a genius.


CHAPTER THREE


DISHES ARE A MEASLY business. There’s the ecstasy of a perfect meal, and then there’s the clean-up. Some find it therapeutic, and others finds it a nuisance, and then there are others who use it as a power play.

Of course Cameron Russell, the sweet guest, offered his services to the cleaning department. After his hearty meal, he was willing to repay the kind—albeit a bit strange—Brandons in any way he could, and so he found himself in the kitchen, side by side a pretty young woman who was most definitely his age, and most definitely his type. Of course he’d overheard Amy Lee’s firm, “Clara, help with the dishes, okay?” and he knew exactly what was happening.

As his hands were soaked in the warm suds of dishwater, Cameron turned his back just a slightest to see the slim figure of Clara setting the dirty plates all around the kitchen island. Of course the Brandon household was like a gem in comparison to his dirty roach of a haunted place, but it didn’t really matter right now. Something else had caught his attention.

He tried not to care, or act like he cared. She was a girl, and he was a guy. She was sweet enough, and they were both careful with their actions around each other, and that one-of-a-kind Amy Lee Brandon was nothing less than a handful.

His glimpse of Clara didn’t tell him much. He knew she was as hesitant as he was, especially in their awkward situation, but she had handled it well.

“Hey, you really don’t have to do the dishes,” Clara finally settled on, when all the plates had been collected from the dining room. She stood across the room, the granite-coated island separating them. “It’s really not a big deal.”

“Are you serious?” asked Cameron with a cocksure grin. “I can’t let your mother think I wasn’t raised right.”

“That’s what you think, huh?”

“Where did she even go?”

Clara rolled her eyes. That was a good question. She moved a bit closer to him. “I’m sorry for this, Cameron.”

“Sorry for what?”

“I mean…”

“It’s okay. Listen, it’s fine. I understand.”

Clara shrugged. “I would be totally put off if I were you.”

“Clara, it’s not a big deal at all, okay? Don’t worry. This dinner was nice.”

She tried not to be too affected his blue eyes, but it was there anyway. A little lump of awkward silence sliced through the air, and she breathed heavily. She wanted to talk to him more, she wanted to see what was in his gnarly writer’s mind, but she wasn’t very good at this stuff. She was certain he was much too good for her, and he was certain that she was much too good for him. Ah, the dichotomy of the American couple.

It was Cameron who was feeling nervous, who felt something inside him that wasn’t normal. While he’d been around many women, and had his fair share of relationships, Clara was, well, different. She was beautiful, but not the most beautiful of women. She was smart, but a bit reserved. She wore a friendly smile and a pair of observant eyes, and there was no doubt that there was stress by the sad sag of her shoulders. And yet, it wasn’t necessarily that he wasn’t attracted to her, because he sensed her presence sharply, but that he wondered if she would want to talk to him as much as he wanted to talk to her.

Call it what you want, but Clara Brandon was different.

She wasn’t throwing herself at him, or acting too aloof that he couldn’t tell if she had the personality of a fish or not, and there was no doubt that she was a listener rather than a talker. And he appreciated that.

So, when he turned to her, and saw that she was helping him with the dishes, he smiled. Maybe they weren’t going to be star-crossed lovers, but he knew, at that strange point in time, that Clara would eventually become one of his greatest friends.

As for Clara, who was busy with the trash can, there was an unease to the silence that was reasonably comfortable for Cameron.

“What are you thinking?” she finally asked, naturally curious, hating the quiet.

He pushed another dish into the washing machine and wiped his hands against his jeans. “You know, I was just thinking about my family. About my parents not really knowing I am here.”

“That’s stupid.”

“I know. I probably should tell them where I’m at.”

“You think?”

He smiled. “I’m crazy, I know. Not the most traditional guy on the block.”

“That’s okay, though. There have to be the traditionalists and non-conformers.”

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? You sound like you’re from the 1950s or something.”

“Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

And the silence returned, again a pleasant silence for Cameron, and not so much for Clara.

As soon as they were done, Amy Lee popped her head out of the living room, like a peacock on the prowl, and she asked, “What’re you guys up to?”

“I think I’m just about on my way home,” said Cameron with a friendly smile. “I just wanted you to know that I’m very thankful for this dinner. What a great start to my time in Mystic.”

“We’re very glad you’re here,” said Amy, speaking for the both of them. “Clara, how ’bout you walk him out?”

But Clara had a trick already up her sleeve. She gave him a little side hug, almost out of nowhere, surprising both Amy Lee and Cameron, and apologized with a quick, “Unfortunately, I think I need to go make a phone call. It was nice to meet you.”

Amy Lee shook her head, but she wouldn’t give up hope. If she knew her daughter, and she did, this was all going to work out. Just fine.


CHAPTER FOUR


CAMERON SLEPT IN like his fifteen-year-old self. He was pretty sure he hadn’t gotten twelve hours of sleep since he was a lanky kid who slurped all foods at all times of the day, when his metabolism was wider than the Sierras. He dreamt of all sorts of things, things that definitely could inspire a future novel, but he wasn’t interested in that right now.

He woke to the squealing sound of a creature scuttering across the dirty wood floor of his bedroom. It was a cute sound, as if a snuggly little bear was going to come and jump into his bed with him.

But then he remembered he was in a literal sleeping bag, and he didn’t own a little bear.

He jumped up and shrieked when he saw that it was a serious being. He immediately threw his shoe at the thing, and it was at that point he realized it was just a squirrel, and the squirrel was blinking its beady eyes at him.

“Seriously?” he screamed, happy that his shoe hadn’t actually wounded the poor little thing.

It took him nearly an hour to capture the critter, throw it in the backyard, and satiate his burning stomach. When these things had been completed, he hopped into his car, drove over to the local hardware store, and set to collect all the necessary items for his mountain of a repair job back at the house.

As soon as he entered, he was overwhelmed by a sort of masculine pride. This was a place where he could spend hours, learning about saws and sledgehammers and bolts and everything to restore his dream house to its peak potential. But, unfortunately, he knew nothing about anything.

He found a middle-aged man with a Southern face (was that appropriate to think?) scribbling hard in a journal. Cameron understood that this guy wasn’t writing, but he was busy drawing an object with dimensions in dark pencil. The guy wore a flannel much like the one Cameron had on, and it took the guy a second to realize he had a guest. When he looked up, his lips flashed into a smile and he whisked off his glasses.

“Why, howdy!”

Cameron was immediately drawn to the man. “Hello. How are you today?”

“Good, and you? I don’t recognize you, son,” he said, reaching out a calloused hand. He was surprised by Cameron’s humble confidence, and even more surprised at the firm handshake—one of a man, especially for a kid as young as he had to be. There weren’t many twentysomethings in his shop. “I’m Eddie Bates.”

“Cameron Russell,” he said.

“You aren’t from around here, are you?”

“Los Angeles, actually.”

Eddie’s eyes widened and he looked like he’d seen a phantom. “Wow! All the way from California? What’s it like there?”

“Different from here, I suppose,” said Cameron with a smile.

The man nodded. “I salute you, son. Now, you like Mississippi, or you going through some culture shock?”

“I like it here. I like it enough to have bought a house here.”

“A house? In our town?” asked the friendly Eddie. “And that’s why you’re here. To fix it up, is that right?”

“You must have read my mind.”

Eddie was in total and utter awe. He shut his notebook with the authority of a librarian. “How can I help you, son? How much work are we talking about?”

Cameron scratched the back of his work. “Well…”

“‘Well’ is never a good sign.”

“I would agree with that sentiment. I bought that place out in Oak Grove.”

“The half-finished subdivision, right? Oh, please tell me you didn’t buy that shambles of a house. The haunted one.”

“It is haunted?”

“Well…”

Cameron rolled his shoulders back. He could take it if there was a ghost. Maybe that would be a more pleasurable experience after his run-in with the squirrel. Somehow.

“Come on. We’re going on a little journey.”

“A journey?”

He followed the older man through the endless row of supplies, waiting as Eddie would pause to consider what exactly Cameron needed.

“So, son, I want to ask you why you’re deciding to remodel a home all on your own, but I understand that the human heart needs what it needs.”

A few of the lights hanging from overhead seemed to be swinging back and forth like something out of a horror movie.

“Well, I just wanted to… I don’t know. Get away, gain a new perspective.”

“In Mississippi?” asked Eddie in disbelief. Then he nodded his head as if he was considering cosmological possibilities. “Okay. I’ll give you that. It is the only place like it on Earth, but that’s everywhere, son.”

Cameron thought of his family back home for the first time since he’d been here. He still hadn’t called back home to update them on what he’d decided to do, but he’d make time for that soon.

As soon as he’d bought his supplies, he headed back to his roach of a car and threw his sunglasses on.

Something burned in him, a fire that he knew was part of his creative soul, and he was off, driving in his rusted slice of metal, and pretending it was a Porsche. There was no doubt his car would attract all the women in town.

He flew across Mystic and headed to a little lake known as Big Fish. Why was it called Big Fish? No clue, but it was, and it was where a bunch of teenagers congregated instead of church. There were skinny kids holding Polar Pops; there were others jumping into the late summer waters of the lake. Even more still, there were a few scraggly boys tossing their lines, hoping to snag some… Well, big fish.

He parked his junky car, jumped out, and headed to an empty, leaf-covered park bench. He stretched out his long legs and pushed his sunglasses off his eyes so he could take a nice look at his surroundings. A few fallen leaves fell onto his lap, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the greenery was vibrant red. He wasn’t used to that back home, that was for sure.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed the number.

“Cam?” the woman responded on the fourth ring.

His shoulders immediately slumped. “Mom?”

“Where are you? You’ve got us worried sick. Why do you have to be so cryptic all the time?”

“I’m fine.”

“How would I know that?”

“I’m in Mississippi…”

“You’re in Mississippi?” she screamed. “Why on Earth would you be there?”

“It’s not as bad as you think,” he said, waiting for her shrill voice to kill his eardrums for the rest of his life. “I like it here.”

“How long are you planning on staying there, Cameron? Do you think you’re going to live there forever? Do I have to remind you that you just up and abandoned law school to go on your little self-discovery journey?”

“Yes. And I’m the one footing the bill,” he said. “You know I only went to law school to give me more time for my writing.”

There was bitter silence.

“I know you don’t approve, Mom, but I’ve sold books. I’ve sold enough. I’m already paying my debts, okay?”

“And how? Your books? Cameron. Honey. Just come back. Please. We love you so much, and we want you here.”

Cameron was completely distracted by a teenage couple fifty feet away. He wasn’t big into that whole love thing, but the kids seemed so happy. He couldn’t remember ever sneaking off into some park on an August day. He smirked at them.

“Cam?”

“I’m here.”

“No, you’re not. You’re not here with us.”

“I need this.”

“Why? Why do you need this so badly?”

“If you read my books, you’d know,” he said, not trying to sound like a prick, but knowing it would happen anyway. He missed his family, and he missed home, but he also wanted this. He needed it. Whatever was bound to happen in Mystic was greater than going back home, which stifled his creative interests.

“Cameron.”

“I have to go, Mom,” he said, hating the sadness in his voice. Hating the pity in hers. “I’m sorry.”

“Cameron! You’ve barely spoken to me for five minutes.”

“I know.”

“Cameron!”

“I love you, Mom.”

He hung up the phone. The young couple was leaning against a thick oak. He wondered how long it would be before they grew up, had a baby, and broke up. He wondered how the guy would take it when his wife abandoned him for a younger, richer guy, and then moved their son into said man’s house. He wondered what would happen then. What was love then?

Cameron gritted his teeth and stood up, flying across the grass, back to his junky car, and he drove with the wind in his hair and between his teeth, and he thought, This decision was mine.


CHAPTER FIVE


DANIELLE COX WAS one of the most beautiful women in Mystic, if not the most beautiful. It had been an interesting story, of her best friendship with the one and only Clara Brandon, but some friendships are like that, and others are not. Today, Danielle was an outgoing, social creature of twenty-two. She had graduated top of their class with a degree in marketing, and an even more prestigious holder of the title ring by spring. Her fiancé, Devante Anthony, was at law school (haha), and on track to be one of the best students Ole Miss had ever seen. There was no doubt that Devante would pass the bar in any state in the country, and Danielle was miserable at the prospect.

“We’re not moving twenty miles from my mother,” she crooned, blowing on her sticky fingernails. She’d just coated them in a fine violet sheen. She blinked up at her best friend, who was holding a copy of Southern Living, trying her hardest to listen, but wanting nothing more than to fall asleep. Also, a little case of the nerves accompanied her leisurely reading, as she knew the monster known as Tonya Cox was clucking her heels, somewhere close by.

“Yes, I know,” said Clara, ever the bestest best friend in the entire universe. She flipped a glossy page.

“And I really think Devante’s got his heart set on California. ‘It’s the top of the top.’ And then I remind him of the taxes, and still he doesn’t care, and I just want to slap him sometimes! I know he’s only a second-year, but that’s still coming up so soon, and I’m just not sure if I can bear the idea of California. Not since Trey’s there.”

Speaking of California… Clara’s body lurched forward. She thought of the previous night and smiled to herself. It was a half-smile, half-frown, one borne out of her mixed feelings. She wasn’t sure what to think.

“Stay away from California,” she settled on. “You’d never make it ten minutes.”

“I know. As if Tonya Cox would ever even let me go there! Sometimes I thin Devante just says stuff to spite my mother.”

“I know,” said Clara again, pushing her lips together. She wondered if Tonya Cox would ever move to California. There was a snowball’s chance in hell, especially since that was where her son, Trey, had moved four years earlier. Trey was the black sheep of the family, and though no one would ever admit it, he was the hero as well. “Well, I’d prefer it if you stay in Mississippi.”

“Mystic forever, right? Can you believe that we didn’t even know each other at all when we grew up here? What are the chances? It’s such a small place, but you were a private school girl, and I was a cheerleader.” Only five thousand people in this town, and still…

“That’s your comparison? Seriously?”

“I’m sorry. I know that you’re not a big fan of comparisons.”

“I was barely a private school girl. I went for all of two years.”

“You graduated from a private school. Therefore, you are a private school girl.”

“I was a private school girl.”

“Oh, whatever. Momma’s calling me.” Danielle stood up and rushed off, swinging her hips back and forth.

“Do you mean the devil?” hissed Clara underneath her breath. She threw the magazine at the little glass table and blinked up into the eyes of the dress saleswoman, if that was even the proper term. What was this? Why did people get married, and why did people have to get married in dresses?

A few of the other bridesmaids were sitting around, gossiping about this and that and the other happening engagements. Danielle’s wedding wasn’t even until the following spring, anyway. Everything just had to be spick-and-span and as precise as a skyscraper. No biggie.

Clara did not like the other bridesmaids. They were stuck-up snobs from the elite of Edmond County, the cheerleaders who had never properly grown up. Danielle had required ten bridesmaids, of course, and Tonya had wanted even more, but the ten she had now were about as interesting as a flock of geese flying over the nearby lake. Six were sorority sisters, three were Danielle’s high school best friends, and that left one more: The maid of honor.

“Me,” said Clara with a smug grin. She glanced at her competition and mentally cursed them all. Somehow, she, lowly schoolteacher Clara Brandon, had entranced a rich girl with her killer friendship skills that included junk food, free advice, and a handful of horror movie recommendations. Danielle had never met anyone more antithetical to her mother.

Clara blinked and then sitting beside her was her archrival, Melissa Spikes, who threw her long, bleached hair over one shoulder. She was beautiful, that Melissa Spikes, with her cornflower eyes and her pink lips and her big breasts and her faux smile. Clara hated her.

“How are you doing, Clara?”

“Fine, and you?” she sneered. It wasn’t as if Melissa would understand what was happening. Melissa was nice but a bit airheaded.

“I’m doing well. I’m excited for our fitting!”

“Of course you are.”

“I wanted us to wear champagne.”

“But I preferred mint,” Clara said like a witch. Even though she’d won the best hand, she still wanted to protect her territory. “Champagne would not suit Myra Saxton, would it?”

“Mint is a nice color too,” said Melissa, crossing her perfectly shaved legs. She smelled like coconut. “I think it will suit you perfectly.”

Clara stared at her, crinkling her eyelids. “Really?”

“Of course. You’ve got a good complexion for it.”

“Thank you, Melissa.”

“Of course!” There was that nasally voice again. It was an Annie voice. One rehearsed over and over again until the inhuman feminine bubble sound is perfected.

There was nothing else to say, but Melissa was a good conversationalist, and even more beautiful on the inside than out. She would make the best Southern housewife, and it was surprising she hadn’t been snatched up already, but sometimes, things happen. Melissa had one of those long-time high school loves, one where the rest of the class knows exactly what’s going to happen. But then, all of a sudden, he was gone like a ghost, off to New York, and she was alone in Mississippi, finding that most of the good ones were just as gone.

So Melissa, who was most definitely the one everyone thought would be married hours after graduation, was actually playing the part of dutiful bridesmaid, watching everyone else wear their glittering engagement rings that cost more than her college education, and it had humbled her, making her wait for the absolute perfect man. She was content with waiting, and she could wait for as long as she needed.

The only real reason Clara hated her was that she was a better person. It was one of those sad hatreds, one you know only exists because the other person is perfect.

Melissa was one of those people.

“So, how is the teacher life?” asked Melissa, her creamy gold hair shining in the light. Of course.

“It’s great. Very fulfilling.” Partial lie.

“As soon as I found out you were going to be a teacher, I thought it was perfect! It made me so happy. You are such a sweetheart, and kids just love you.”

“I suppose.”

“And you’re such a happy person, and kids need a positive influence, if you know what I mean.”

“I do. How are you doing, Melissa?” It’s not like I don’t see you every Sunday at church.

Her smile was brighter than the sun. “I am great! Still looking for a job. A good, proper job… I don’t like working at the bank,” she said, leaning in, as if to expose a highly personal secret, “because the men aren’t that friendly. Even in Mystic! Momma thinks I should work at the library, but I don’t like books!”

“Have you considered… Teaching?”

Melissa’s body bounced. “Yes! I love the idea of teaching! But I’d have to go back to school, and I don’t know if I could possibly… It was bad enough majoring in accounting.”

“Why don’t you focus on accounting? I’m sure you’d make a great accountant.”

Melissa’s eyes widened. Clara had hit the jackpot. Melissa scooted in closer. “I applied for a place in Memphis, but I don’t think Momma would let me go that far away.”

“Oh, really? Memphis is quite the city.”

“There aren’t accounting jobs here. Not for a young woman, anyway.” She blew a stray wisp of perfect hair from her lips. “But I applied for it anyway. I thin there is a chance I’ll get it.”

“Wow!”

“Awww. Thank you for your support,” said Melissa, grabbing Clara’s hands, holding on like they were best friends. Where was Danielle? “But I’m not sure if I should take it.”

Seconds later, there was a gust of wind, and everyone’s skin chilled, like ice cold water had suddenly baptized them. It was as if a villain had entered the room, and her cronies were congregating on the couches, donning Tiffany necklaces and drinking bottles of sparkling water. The villainess herself was dressed to the nines, her cropped black hair shining in the fluorescents, her fashionable outfit curving against her killer body. She had the eyes of a feral cat, and they were searing across everybody else.

And of course they landed straight on Clara Brandon.

“Clara, darling, just what are you wearing?”

Clara’s eyes were lazy in their blinking. She glanced down. She looked good. For once, she did look good. Tonya Cox just loved to come after her.

“And those shoes. Dear God, where did you get those shoes?”

“It’s not really a matter of where I got them, but of how much I paid for them.”

“That is twisted logic,” said Tonya under her breath, before taking a glamorous seat, throwing one shiny, shaved leg over the other, sitting like Naomi Campbell in the middle of the bridesmaid shop. She crossed her arms. “Now, I need to see action. I want to see the best of the best. All of you have been chosen as bridesmaids, and you should take that as a supreme honor, to be part of Danielle Cox’s wedding. She could have chosen anybody in this world, and she chose you. Do you understand?”

A few of the women gulped.

Clara could hardly contain herself from laughing out loud, but she was able to, especially when Danielle appeared behind her mother. Danielle, unfortunately, looked a whole lot like her mother. She had the same body shape, the same git ’er done eyes, the same sometimes-abrasive nature. But Danielle did have a sort of kindness that her mother did not easily or readily possess.

“We’ve decided on champagne-colored dresses,” said Tonya, the dictator of the room. At least she was breaking gender stereotypes? “I know all of you have different bodies, but I want the dresses to be the same. A-line, classic, fashionable. Maybe some lace, maybe a little chiffon, but nothing too wild. My Danielle isn’t a wild child. And she needs to look her best, which means you all cannot.”

Danielle turned a rosy pink.

“Quick question,” said Clara, lifting her finger into the air. “I thought Danielle’s favorite color for a bridesmaid dress was mint.”

Tonya’s nostrils dilated just a sliver. “Excuse me?”

“You know, mint?”

“I know what mint is.”

“And you know that Danielle has a wedding journal she’s kept since the sixth grade, and she always wanted mint-green bridesmaid dresses.”

Tonya was about to pop. She could barely handle Clara Brandon, let alone Clara Brandon’s disrespect. “Danielle and I distinctly discussed bridesmaid dresses, and we decided on champagne. Didn’t we, honey?”

Danielle’s eyes flashed. “I mean…”

“Exactly. So, Clara, if you have any further suggestions, you can take them up with me. Now, it’s time for the fitting. We’ve already got a few picked out, and we know everyone’s on a very clipped, tight schedule. So let’s get this done.” Tonya was on her heel, scooting down the room to the salesgirl at the counter, a fellow Ole Miss Kappa Delta.

Clara stood up and grabbed her friend’s elbow. “What was that?” she blurted.

Danielle shrugged. “I’d rather appease her, Clare.”

“Danielle…”

“I know, I know…”

“If you compromise this, what else will you compromise? The groom? I love you, Danielle, but as your maid of honor, you know that I’m not going to let your mother ruin your big day.”

“And she’s not going to,” said Danielle, trying to convince herself. She pushed a patch of her shiny black hair over one shoulder. “But I want everyone to be happy for this, okay?” She turned around and went to chat with some of the other bridesmaids.

Clara found herself watching Tonya, who was probably arguing her way to a killer discount for the dresses. Tonya did put her mind to things, and she was rewarded in return. That was one of the positives about her barking personality. She could get anything she wanted. Eventually, though, Tonya turned around and headed straight for Clara, her heels clacking against the wood floors.

“What was that, Clara Brandon?” asked Tonya, her distaste evident.

“You know she doesn’t want champagne.”

“And you do? Why don’t you get it through that tough brain of yours that maybe I know my daughter better than you do?”

Clara tried to seize her snipping tongue, but it was so difficult. She’d done it for years, proving herself to be the most agreeable person until she could no longer let others railroad her at every opportunity. It was frustrating, but she’d had to make a life change, and people like Tonya were the reason why. It didn’t matter if she’d lost her son to the liberals of California. It didn’t matter that Danielle’s favorite person was actually her brother, who wasn’t even invited to the wedding. Tonya would be vicious, because her reputation was at stake.

“I’ll admit, I haven’t known Danielle as long as you, but I listen to her. Frankly, Tonya, you don’t. She wants mint.”

“Does this stem from your jealousy of my daughter getting married?”

What? That was completely out of left field, and completely inaccurate.”

“Is it?”

Clara felt the rage inside her. No one had brought this out of her since… Well, she couldn’t even think when. A sweet smile slipped through her lips, but its intention was the complete opposite. “You know what, Tonya? You win. You’ve thoroughly enjoyed this relationship we have, and I’ll forfeit. I’ll stop arguing you, and Danielle will have us wear champagne dresses, but it’s the point, Mrs. Cox, that you won’t listen to your child, that you’re interfering with everything about her wishes, and if you’re okay with that, then I guess I will be too.”

“I have never met such a thankless woman in my entire life.”

“Thanks for the compliment. I’ll be sure to add it to my resume.”

Clara twirled around and sashayed to the other bridesmaids, and she suddenly had enough ammunition to socialize in the bubble of feminine voices, arguing over the importance of chiffon versus lace.


CHAPTER SIX


SOMEHOW CAMERON FOUND himself sitting in a little wooden pew in a small backwoods Baptist church ten miles from Mystic. It was a white-painted thing, stank of body odor, but felt like a well-prayed-in establishment. There were a bunch of weirdos congregating outside, handing out flyers and speaking in some sort of (English?) dialect about this person and that person, and would someone be willing to bake for the church-wide picnic on Wednesday night?

But Cameron was at church. Somehow.

He pulled on his slacks, trying to elongate the fabric. He was wearing his only nice clothes, a pair of brown khakis and a dressy blue shirt. His mother had insisted it complimented his blue eyes, but he wasn’t really concerned with how he looked. Just as long as he could fit in with the crowd, and escape if he really needed to.

His writer’s eyes scanned the crowd, looking for any semblance of Amy Lee and Clara, but he expected them to be the fashionably late types. Ones who were a bit too cool to be part of these guys. So he sat, listening to the unfamiliar chirp of Southern voices, from old grandmothers discussing the lack of proper church attire amongst the young women, to the young children who were scurrying around the room with old men chasing them down, though they were running after their grandkids at a snail’s pace due to their bad knees. There were middle-aged men who looked like his father, and he could see their wisdom, and he wondered if he would ever be like them, a proper husband with four kids and a stable career and one of those twangy accents.

But Cameron, the introspective one he was, just sat there, knowing he’d never be like that. He couldn’t be like that.

He suddenly felt a presence. He glanced over and saw the biggest hat of his life. It was the size of three human heads, made of violet satin, and projected into his eyes. He scooted over a bit but found a pair of watery blue eyes staring deep into his, as if the woman was in love with him already. There was too much of that, in his opinion.

He smiled and said, “Hello.”

“Hi, young man. Who are you?”

He extended a hand, and she took it, her skin bone-cold. Was this woman a day away from the casket? She was old, probably in her nineties, he judged, based on the endless lines across her jowls. She smiled at him, and he saw a good set of dentures. “My name’s Cameron Russell.”

“I have a young woman for you.”

“Do you?” he laughed, taken aback. This was never going to end. Again, he’d have to learn to take it as a compliment.

“Yes. My name is Susie Brandley. But that don’t matter, don’t it? The girl I have for you, well…”

“Let me guess,” he said, friendly as always, sweet as irises, “she’s five ten.”

“Not quite.”

“Red hair?”

“You like redheads?” She moved back like she’d been shot.

Cameron couldn’t resist a laugh. “She’s got blue eyes.”

She swatted him with her paper-thin hand. “Why are men always so physically minded?”

“What?” he asked, feigning innocence. If this woman was truly ninety, there was no way she didn’t know all truths about men. “Oh, you want me to describe intangible things. Okay, okay.”

“Let’s see what you got, young man. I have to clear you before I introduce you.”

“She’s shy as a button.”

“Are you trying to sound Southern?”

“I am Southern,” he lied, enjoying the barbs.

“If you think I believe that, you’re going to rot!”

“She’s shy. Loves Jesus, and America too.”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-34 show above.)