With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?
"This is a darn good yarn with plenty of room for rooting and more than a few laughs." Booklist, starred review
"The story hurtles to a surprising, honest conclusion . . . A grand adventure." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
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|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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By Louis Bayard
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Louis Bayard
All rights reserved.
Mama died hard, you should know that.
Nearly died alone, too. Now, most nights, she'd so much as groan, I'd come running, but this was late March, ten days shy of Easter and spring barely a thought, and a dream come and snatched me. I was the princess of a mountain people, and they come right into my bedchamber and asked if I could tame the dragon that was cleaning its teeth with people's bones, and I said sure. The dragon was living at the bottom of a cavern, half in water, and when it looked up with its yellow-purple eyes, I said, You got some nerve. That was all it took! The thing slunk away, its spiky tail dragging after. And the mountain people, they started cheering for me, calling for me by name, and that was the rub 'cause it took me a long time to hear the voice on the other side of theirs. Calling my name, too, only drawing it out as far as it could be drawn.
"Melia ... Meeeelia ..."
I scrambled out of bed, threw open the curtain. Mama was rolled over on her side, staring at me.
"What's wrong?" I said.
"I'm so sorry."
I set down next to her, ran my hand on her brow. It was cold like a pumpkin.
"Sorry for what?" I said.
"Your daddy," she said.
Her eyes were white and sweaty.
"What about him?" I said.
"He's ..." Her fingers were bent like talons. "Your daddy, he's ..."
She never finished, but I set there just in case she did. Then I felt something. I felt the bed settle.
You know how a mattress sinks under you when someone climbs in? Only there was no one else there climbing in. Just us two.
I don't know why, but my hand went straight to her hair. And I could feel, beneath the hair, her whole scalp crackling. I think now maybe that was her soul flying off. I'm nearly sure of it because when I looked at the rest of her — her face, her hands — her bare white legs — her eyes — she was empty.
Gone. That's what they always say about dead folks when they don't want to say dead. But that's how it was with Mama. Whatever'd been there a second ago, making her eyelids twitch and her breath hitch ... well, somehow or other it'd slipped away when I wasn't looking. Gone.
I rolled her onto her back. Settled her head on her pillow. Combed her hair one last time. Then I left the room.
Janey and Earle was still asleep when I slipped back into bed. I laid there all night, not an ounce of sleep in me now, trying to figure out how to tell them. At dawn, I shook them awake, same as usual. I said, "Guess what? No school today."
Which, looking back, was about the worst way I could've gone about it. 'Cause they got crazy excited. Is it a holiday? Is tomorrow a holiday? Are we going to miss school all the way clear to Easter?
I didn't say anything, but there must have been something in my face because Janey spoke up.
"It's Mama, isn't it?"
She's funny that way. Such an odd, dreamy thing you think she's not even part of the world, only she's more in it than anyone.
Well, Earle's face started to crumple, and then the rest of him crumpled, too. Janey set by the stove, wailing and clawing at her head. I tried to think of all the things a grown-up'd say. She's with God now. ... She's gone to a better place. ... We'll meet her on the other side. They just sounded sour on my tongue. I couldn't even say "She's at peace,"' cause when I thought back on how she'd looked — in that very, very last moment — there weren't a lick of peace in her.
"You got five more minutes to cry," I said. "Ten minutes to eat your oatmeal. Then we got work to do."
I wrapped Mama in her two bedsheets, and me and Earle carried her to the truck. Considering how thin she was, she weighed quite a bit. We laid her in the flatbed, and Earle and Janey climbed in the front with me, and we drove out to the hill overlooking Jenkins Orchard. This was Mama's favorite spot. Back when she was healthy, we'd come here every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, with a basket of chicken and corn bread and dried-apple stack cake, and we'd sit and watch the sun set over Mr. Jenkins's silo.
This time, I drove the truck right up to the edge, so close I could hear Earle suck in his breath. We got out, and we were staring down at a hole. Six feet long, three wide, another three or four deep.
"It's magic," said Earle.
"Ain't nothing magic about it," I said. "I dug it myself."
Next to the hole was a pile of dirt, neat as I could make it. Janey tapped it with her shoe. "Must've taken you a month of Sundays, Melia."
"Took me five."
I never told them, but when Mama took sick, I kept coming out here every week. On account of it was just easier to think. After a time, I started bringing a shovel. If you'd asked me what I was going to do with it, I couldn't have told you. Even when I was digging, I never stopped and thought, This is where we'll put Mama.
On that fifth Sunday, I looked down, and sure enough, there was a big old hole and but one thing to do with it.
"Here, Earle. Give me a hand."
The boy give a little shudder, but he tucked his head down and set to work. Together we lifted Mama out of the flatbed and laid her in the ground. I pulled the top sheet off her face, and the three of us, we stood there on the lip of the grave, just looking. I don't know for how long. Ten minutes, an hour. All the time, I was thinking it was a mistake. She was taking a breather. Any second, she'd jump up and swear about ten thousand oaths (Mama was gifted that way) and ask us what the hell we were doing.
But she didn't do none of that. She didn't move a grain.
I knelt down by the hole and reached in until I could touch her forehead. Damn, but it was cold.
"She needs a coffin," said Earle.
"We can't afford one."
"Then we ought to say something."
"I don't know, something holy."
"Well, don't look at me," I said. "When was the last time you saw me in church?"
"I been to Sunday school," said Janey.
"Then give it your best crack," I said.
She tugged on her collar and cast her eyes off.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down. I will fear no evil. Blessed are the poor. Do unto others as you would have them do. He who is without sin. For thine is the kingdom. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. The Lord is my shepherd. ..."
She kept going for a good spell, circling, circling. I didn't care. I was looking down into the valley, past the Jenkinses' silo, past the Hammonds' horse farm, all the way to the mountains at the other side. The dogwoods weren't out yet, but the tulip magnolias were just starting. I could hear bees and mockingbirds. A handsaw pushing through green wood. I could see Mrs. Jenkins carrying eggs in her apron and someone way out in the distance cutting hay. And a Studebaker crawling down the mountain road, with a little puff of smoke following. Stupid me, thinking the world would stop just 'cause of us.
I took one last look, then bent down and pulled the sheet over Mama's face.
"Reckon we better fill it up," I said.
Well, they didn't have the heart for it, so I took up the shovel myself. It was a queer business. I couldn't stop thinking she was feeling every little clod and pebble. It got so I'd have to stop every couple of minutes and wait. Listen for some faint little cry. Wait, stop. But there was nothing.
Sweat was coming off every part of me. I threw down the shovel and set there at the edge of the grave. From out of the woods came Janey, carrying a mess of wildflowers. Bedstraw and golden ragwort and wild phlox.
"They look nice," I allowed.
Earle come right after. He'd gone and whittled a couple of sticks and tied them into a cross with a strip of bark.
"Most fitting," I said.
We took some time arranging everything. We never did get it perfect. The dirt was loose, so the cross couldn't help but tilt a little, and the wind took a good share of the phlox blossoms.
"Well, now," I said. "Time to say good-bye."
Janey spoke first. Her voice was clenched like a fist. "Bye, Mama."
Earle, he spoke straight to the ground. "Bye."
I didn't say a thing.
Driving back home, I kept glancing at the other two. Janey was quiet and still. Earle's big jaw was working away, like he was chewing on turkey gristle, and his hands made fists and then unmade them.
"What?" I said.
"We done it all wrong, that's what."
"How do you figure?"
"She should've been buried at church."
"She wouldn't have wanted that. You know that."
"There should've been a preacher," he said. "And hymn singing. That's how God likes it."
"God don't care."
"He does, too. He's going to be pissed off. He ain't gonna let Mama in."
"Then the hell with him," I said. "After all he put her through."
Earle didn't answer.
"Listen now," I said. "Whatever we done wrong with the burying, that ain't on Mama's account."
He looked out the window. "What the hell do you know?"
By then we were pulling into the station. I saw a Cadillac V-16 two-door coupe parked by the pump. The driver was standing alongside it, his foot on the running board, a cigarette hanging off his lip.
"Closed!" I called out.
He straightened up, tossed his butt on the ground. Give me a dumbass smile.
"Can't you read?" I said. "We're closed."
"So you are," he said, squinting at the sign in the window. "But now you're not."
"We're closed all day."
"Listen, honey, you think you can make an exception? I just need a gallon to get me to Front Royal."
"Mister, we're closed. If you need gas" — Lord, how it pained me to say it — "you can try Blevins's Standard Oil, eight miles down the road."
"That's out of my way."
"Best I can do."
He looked at me awhile. Then, out of nowhere, give me a wink. "Listen, sweetie, is your daddy around somewhere? Maybe you can run get him for me."
Now, here's the deal. Any other day, I'd have told him how I felt about being called "sweetie" and how, if he wanted me to fetch my dad, he'd have to tell me who my dad was, and if he wanted to talk to my mom, I'd be glad to take him there, only she wasn't talking so much. I had it all lined up inside me, but it got stuck in my throat somehow, and my eyes was stinging so hard all I could do was go into the station house and lock the door after me.
I waited till I heard him drive away, and then I tried to stand up again, but the tiredness pulled me back down. So I set there, on the damn floor. Dozed off for a spell. Next thing I knew, Janey was standing over me.
"You hungry?" I said.
"Okay, then," I said.
The real poser was what to do with Mama's eating chair. Didn't seem right throwing it away, but it looked awful creepy setting idle by the table. So we just kinda turned it around, and we picked at our Ralston wheat cereal (no milk) and Royal gelatin desserts, and every so often, we'd raise our heads like we was about to say something, only we forgot what it was.
At last Earle pushed his plate away. "Don't seem right," he said. "Eating when she can't."
"She'd want you to," I said. "So you can grow into a big strong feller."
"She won't be around to see," said Earle, lowering his chin to the table.
"Melia," said Janey, "you reckon you miss her more than me?"
"Well, it ain't no pie-eating contest. I reckon we can each miss her our own way. You don't quit loving somebody just on account of they're dead."
Janey stared at the back of that chair for a long while. Then she drew her arms round her.
"Melia," she said, "what're we gonna do?"
"Get to bed, that's what."
"Nooo." She always gives you the kindliest look when she thinks you're being a dumbass. "Without Mama."
"Carry on. What choice we got?"
"We gonna starve?" Earle asked in a dull, flat voice.
"What're you talking about? You don't think the station is clearing money? You think — what, we fix people's cars and pump their gas for free?" I give them a nod just to show I meant business. "God didn't make no petroleum trees that I know of. Long as folks got automobiles, they're going to need us, ain't they? And in case you were wondering, there's a plan. Me and Mama worked it all out."
"What?" said Earle.
"Well, I'm gonna run the business 'cause it's what I been doing anyways."
"You can fill a radiator faster than anyone this side of the Blue Ridge," said Janey.
"I suspect you're right. Now, Janey here's gonna learn how to cook and sew and garden, and then, when the time's ready, we're going to get her a husband."
"He can't be more than thirty," said Janey. "And he's got to have his teeth."
"Fine. As for Earle, he's going to college."
"What if I don't want to?"
"What if I don't care? I'm telling you it's been planned. You just got to do your part, that's all."
"When we gonna tell folks?" Janey asked.
"It ain't none of their business."
"But we need to tell 'em. They need to know."
I leaned across the table and glared at her. "You think this here town had any use for Mama when she was alive? How's it going to be any different now?"
"But Mama had friends," said Earle. "Minnie-Cora Harper and Mrs. Bean. And what about Mr. Gallagher?"
"He's gonna be all broke up," said Janey.
"When the time's right," I said, "we'll tell them all. I got stuff to take care of first."
Janey made a little tower of gelatin cubes on her plate. Then knocked it down, then built it up again.
"I know why you don't want to tell," she said. "'Cause if they find out, they'll split us up."
See what I mean? She's a silly child, but she'll surprise you.
"I never heard such foolishness," I said.
But Earle was looking mighty ashy. "Is that so, Melia?"
"Hannah Smartt," said Janey.
"Who's Hannah Smartt?" said Earle.
"She was in fourth grade, same as me, and she set in the back, and her hair weren't never combed, 'cause she didn't have no ma. Then she lost her pa, and she didn't have no kin left, so Hannah and her two brothers, they got sent to Lynchburg, and what I heard?" Janey lowered her voice. "They didn't even get sent to the same family. They got split up. Fos. Ter. Care."
I could see Earle's lips forming the words.
"Listen, missy," I said. "You think I'd let 'em try such a thing? Anybody with eyes can see I'm the nearest thing to a mama as you brats is likely to get. Who's feeding and dressing you? Putting you to bed every night?"
"That don't count," said Earle. "You're not a grown-up."
And to prove my point, I sent them right to bed. Oh, they made me tell them a story about Abdullah the Merman, but when they asked for more, I told them what I always told them.
"Show's over, folks. Come back tomorrow."
I tapped down their eyelids, and I set there until I heard their breathing. Then I walked over to the window.
The moon was fierce that night. I could see the shape of the leaves on the elm tree and the tire swings moving in the breeze.
Go home, why don't you?
That's what Doc Whitworth'd told Mama after he'd sprung the news on her. Go home, Brenda. Get things squared away. Make your peace.
Well, whatever she made, it weren't peace.
Fos. Ter. Care.
I closed my eyes and listened to the crickets. Then I felt a tug on my trousers. It was Janey. Skinny as a goddamned muskrat in her newly mended gray shift and half asleep in the moonlight.
"Come to bed," she said.
"I ain't tired," I said. (Though I was, I purely was.)
"You need your sleep," she said. "Ain't no man going to marry you with them nasty ol' coon rings under your eyes."
"Maybe I don't want no man to marry me."
Janey didn't answer right off. But when she was pulling the sheets back over her, she said, "Wanting's got nothing to do with nothing."CHAPTER 2
I woke up when the sun did. Eyes blazing, hair heavy on my head. Janey was breathing into my neck, Earle's knee was gouging my hip. I laid there, waiting for the dark to peel away.
"Let's get this carnival on the road," I said to myself.
I fried up the last of the eggs, and then I rolled the kids out of bed. They each dragged a blanket to the table. Earle just stared at his plate.
"So help me," I said, "you make me throw that out, I'm gonna kill you."
"What'd you pack for lunch?" he asked.
"Apple butter sandwiches." And when he give me that scowl, I said, "Excuse me, Daddy Warbucks. Filet mignon'll be here tomorrow. You don't like my lunches, why don't you trade 'em?"
"He already does," said Janey.
It was a hair past seven when I shooed them out of the house. There was a hard wind coming down the mountain, right in their faces. They stood rocking in it.
"Listen now. Not a word. It's a day like any other."
"Then why aren't you open yet?" Earle asked.
"'Cause I got business in town, and that's the last nosy-ass question you get."
I give them each a light little kick in the butt. It's what I do every morning, and when they were littler, that kick would send him laughing up the hill — halfway to school. Today, they was like a pair of jennies in harness. I watched them just to the point where they disappeared around the bend, and then I called after them.
"Watch out for cars!"
It's a queer town, Walnut Ridge. Some half a century back, the citizens got a little cash in their pockets and a couple stars in their eyes and figured they was going to be the next big deal in Warren County — bigger than Front Royal, even. So they went and built themselves a main street. 'Course they couldn't run it but the two blocks before it reached the nearest cliff, but they was so keen on their prospects they decided to call it First Street. As in first of many to come.
Excerpted from Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard. Copyright © 2016 Louis Bayard. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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