Brazoria County, Texas
The power had been off for hours, and candles flickered inside Ruth's house. Through the windows, she watched a raging tropical storm dump waves of warm Gulf waters upon the saturated earth. Engorged, the San Bernard River surged beyond its banks as the Texas winds roared. A palm in her front yard bent in the gusts, leaning sidewise and flinging out fronds like surrendering arms.
As the thunderstorm threw its tantrum, Ruth thought back to the day, three decades earlier, when her husband, Chuck, had moved them to the small house on stilts, ten miles upstream from where the San Bernard spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, the river had been a mostly benevolent presence. Its brackish waters provided fish for their table, and the tall spindly pines and massive oaks along its banks supplied shade during blistering summers. On quiet nights, bubbles escaped from the San Bernard's silted bed, emitting sweet strains that mimicked invisible violins.
Through Chuck's death more than a dozen years past and the trials of her unrelenting aging, the river had been Ruth's constant companion. In her darkest hours, it gave her solace. The sun glistened on it each morning, and at night she gazed out at moonlight shimmering on its calm waters.
Yet the Gulf could be a fickle neighbor. At times it birthed hurricanes that spawned dangerous winds, tornadoes, and torrential rains.
Staring out at the dark, ominous skies, Ruth considered that she had lived through many such gales. Most eventually blew inland, traveling north and east until they dissipated and vanished. But there were those bad times when muscular currents devastated the land, sweeping away trees, boats, cars, even houses.
How long would this storm last? What damage would it leave behind?
The daggers of lightning and the pounding thunder set Ruth's nerves on edge. She clicked fresh batteries into her radio and turned the dial to a favorite station. The familiar strains of Artie Shaw playing "Begin the Beguine" on his clarinet filled the room. The music soothed her, and she thought of the old days: Chuck sitting at the kitchen table and reading the newspaper to her while she cooked dinner, gay nights laughing at clever remarks and commiserating over whispered confidences with long-dead friends. Now I am too much alone, she thought, alone with my past.
As she had so often over the years, Ruth opened a frayed black scrapbook. Fragile, yellowed newspaper clips announced her name in banner headlines. She ran her hand gently over fading cables of congratulation signed by presidents, first ladies, celebrities, and explorers.
Once, decades earlier, she'd made history.
At the time, she'd believed her triumph to be a great legacy. She'd trusted that her accomplishment would be remembered always. How foolish. The world, of course, had quickly moved on to the next news story, and Ruth had become yet another forgotten curiosity.
Absorbed in reminiscing, she didn't notice the passing hours. Her small terrier, Ginger, raked Ruth's leg, eager for attention, but Ruth paid no heed. Although physically present, her mind had drifted off to another world, to another place.
The storm, the river, her home, and more than four decades of her life melted away. The arthritis in her back eased. Her legs felt strong and straight again. Transported back in time, Ruth once again stood on a Goliath rock, mesmerized by a glistening wall of water cascading from the heavens to the earth.
Her husband snoring beside her, Gabby Jordan strained to smother an overwhelming urge to scream. When daybreak finally came, she lay dead still while Jeff showered and dressed for work. As he bent over the bed and gave her a peck on the cheek, his musky, achingly familiar aftershave enveloped her, but Gabby—fighting a sinking feeling in her chest at his touch—kept her eyes closed, her breathing steady. Only after the door slammed behind him did she finally crawl out of bed.
The effort was exhausting.
The soreness in her arms and legs, the throbbing in her head, brought back the terror of the night before. Rubbing her aching shoulder, she walked through the condo and considered the damage. Their white-pine coffee table, one leg snapped off, balanced precariously on its side, the books and candlesticks it had held scattered across the knobby gray rug, and in the shattered mirror hanging over the fireplace, her face looked as distorted as a cubist painting. At her feet, jagged fragments of off-white porcelain—the remains of what had been the base of her favorite lamp—resembled shards of broken bone.
Why? she wondered. Just why?
Yet she knew. She'd known for a very long time. Jeff needed no reason.
Hoping to ease her tension, Gabby flicked on the TV, and a local newscaster's voice blared about a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico. "We're okay if this storm moves fast. But folks, this one's bringing a bunch of rain, and it looks like it might stall. If it does…"
Paying scant attention, Gabby grabbed a broom and dustpan from the pantry, then swept the wreckage as she thought about all the other times—the smashed plates and knickknacks, the wrecked furniture, the painful bruises that took weeks to fade. In the past, Jeff had been careful to hit her only where long sleeves and pants covered. Not this time. Last night was…
Pouring the debris into a trash bag, Gabby glared at the three-legged table as if it were somehow to blame. With a deep breath to calm frayed nerves, she inspected the broken lamp's shade. A golf-ball-size dent and a four-inch tear disfigured the delicate fabric. She flipped the ragged edge back and forth and murmured, "No way to fix it."
Gone were the days when the condo had been her sanctuary. Tucked into an inner-loop neighborhood just fifteen minutes from her downtown Houston office, the place had once given her a sense of accomplishment, of pride that she'd bought it on her own. Alone in the evenings after a long day at work, gazing out at the city lights, she'd felt a sense of peace. After they'd married and Jeff had moved in, bedlam invaded and never left.
Reexamining the cracked mirror, Gabby mumbled, "Seven more years of bad luck. If I—"
The thought stopped her. Shuddering, she sank onto the couch and folded her body into a ball. It was then that the tears finally came.
An hour later she ran a trembling finger down her list of phone numbers, deciding, No, not her and farther down the list, No, not him. On her third swipe through, she stopped at the name of a childhood friend. Cynthia lived in Corpus, and they hadn't seen each other in a very long time, at least a decade before Jeff.
"Can I stay with you? Just until I figure out what to do?"
"Gabby, I"—her friend's voice held sympathy but also dread—"don't want to get involved."
Pushing aside her pride, Gabby begged. "Cyn, I know it's a lot to ask, but I don't have anywhere else to go."
After a tense pause, a reluctant sigh. "Okay. But come tomorrow. There's a storm, and—"
"No. Today." Gabby heard the urgency in her voice, the fear. She knew what would happen when Jeff walked through the door, carrying a bouquet of flowers—as he always did after one of his rages. All evening long, he would watch her, searching for any sign. The one time she'd tried to leave him before, he'd picked up on something—she didn't know what, some clue to what she'd had planned—and he'd—
Cynthia broke the silence. "Okay. But if you're running late, promise me that you'll stop somewhere and find a phone."
"I won't be late. I'll be there before dark."
"But if you are, Gabby, don't let me sit here and worry. Call me. Please."
Rain fell gently but steadily on Gabby's short drive through Houston traffic to the bank, where she emptied her secret savings account and withdrew the maximum allowed out of the ATM. At the gas station, a persistent but gentle breeze buffeted the narrow overhead awning, and by the time her tank hit full, her jeans hung wet and limp against her legs.
It didn't take long for her to realize the magnitude of her mistake.
Staying off the Interstate, she took a lesser highway, reasoning that fewer cars meant fewer drivers to notice her. She covered ten miles, twenty, and fierce winds pummeled her silver Camry. The farther south she drove, the harder the rain fell. Gabby clenched the steering wheel until her nails embedded crescent moons into the black leather. Unfamiliar with the roads, she could barely make out the signs. Panicking, she cranked up the wiper blades to full speed and turned the defroster on full blast.
I should have known better. A storm like this…
For the briefest moment, she considered turning back. But no. She would never have made it home before Jeff walked through the door. Once he saw that she'd packed her clothes? That she hadn't cleaned up the mess? How long before he noticed the money she'd pulled out of the ATM? Maybe he had already.
The rain bucketed down, and the ditches on both sides of the road overflowed. Twice she pulled onto the shoulder and parked beneath an overpass to try to wait it out, once staying so long she nodded off from the exhaustion of having been up all night. A crack of thunder jerked her awake. The storm hadn't eased. Worried about the time, Gabby pressed on, missed a turn, and mistakenly veered off onto another desolate highway. All around her, pools of rainwater rose and merged, converging into rushing streams. The roadbed disappeared under a dark, wet sheen.
"Where am I?" she whispered. The dashboard clock warned that hours had passed since she'd left the condo. If she didn't pick up speed, she'd never make Corpus by dark. Gunning the engine, Gabby wondered how far she had to drive to get through the storm. If the bad weather was tracking north, there might be blue skies south.
Instead, the rain fell at a blinding rate. The right front tire hit a pothole, and a swell engulfed the hood, swamping the windshield. The wipers thrashed—left, right, left, right—helpless to keep up. Over the clatter of the storm, Gabby's heart pounded as the wheels lifted, and the Camry hovered above the road. Fighting to steer, she struggled to aim straight ahead, where the road should have been, but the car refused to obey. The front end slid left as the rear end shifted right, water exploding from beneath all four tires.
No longer in her control, the Camry skidded onto the opposite lanes.
Desperate, she slammed on the brakes. The back end whipped forward, sending the car into a spin. Although belted in, Gabby was thrown to the side as the car whirled once, then twice. The engine quit, and the Camry stopped dead, blocking both oncoming lanes.
A horn blared.
As if it had materialized out of the ether, an 18-wheeler drove directly at her. Hands trembling, Gabby cranked the key in the ignition. "Come on! Come on!" The engine ground but refused to engage. She smelled the faint odor of gas.
The truck's mammoth tires kept turning, and the distance from the Camry shrank, narrowing by half. Then by another half. The truck bore down. The horn blasted louder.
Gabby froze behind the steering wheel.
As she watched, the truck skidded on the wet road, sending out a deafening screech.
Shoulders hunched, she squeezed her eyes shut and braced for the inevitable crash. Another loud squeal from the truck's tires. And then…
When Gabby opened her eyes, the truck had come to a stop across the highway.
Relieved, she let out a long breath, trying to calm her jagged nerves, as the door to the 18-wheeler's cab swung open. The driver sprinted toward her, bent over to keep the pounding rain out of his eyes. Trembling, her breath ragged, Gabby wanted to thank him, to apologize. But then she remembered how important it was that she not be seen.
"Please, start!" She turned the key twice before the engine fired awake.
Gabby threw the car into a sharp U-turn, and the truck driver jumped back to escape being run over. When she glanced in her rearview mirror, he was waving at her to stop, until he disappeared behind a curtain of rain.
A few miles down the highway, Gabby spotted a faded red-and-white convenience-store sign. The rush of adrenaline had left her with shaking hands and a roiling empty stomach. Although the store's sign beckoned, she had a plan, one that included not stopping anywhere until she reached Cynthia's house. Yet she worried that she was headed the wrong way, and something else needled at her: the promise she'd made to Cynthia that she would call if she ran late.
Stores had pay phones. She could ask for directions and about road conditions ahead and get her bearings. Yet did she dare chance it?
Still debating, she made a sharp turn onto the gravel lot at PETE'S GRUB & SUCH. I'll be quick, she thought, in and out. No one will even notice me. She parked at the edge of the lot—far enough back that she hoped no one inside would get a glimpse of her car—grabbed the door handle and got ready to make a run through the rain. But the open sign wasn't lit, and the lights inside the building were dark. The store appeared closed.
The downpour pounded against the Camry's steel skin, and the exhaustion she'd fought rushed through her. Gabby closed her eyes, defeated, and surrendered to the roar of the wind and the hammering of the rain.
It sounds the way my life feels. Like a war.
Drained, she nestled her face against her hands on the steering wheel. "Ouch," she whimpered when she touched her right eye.
A boom of thunder, and she wondered what to do next. She was considering going on her way, looking for somewhere else to stop, when the store's double doors popped open and a man sauntered out, lanky, in a brown plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, carrying a blue-and-green striped golf umbrella.
Despite the dense clouds, Gabby grabbed her oversized sunglasses off the passenger seat. When he knocked on the window, she looked up through the dark lenses to find him gazing down at her. She lowered the window a few inches and managed to curl her lips into the suggestion of a smile.
"You want to come in and get out of this monsoon?" He leaned forward, his dark eyes scrutinizing her through the narrow opening. "Not much sense sitting in the car."
"Have you got a pay phone?"
"Yup. Electricity's out, but the phone oughtta work. Come on in, and you can give it a try."
The window back up, she slammed the door and then splashed through puddles beside him as they rushed toward the store. Once there, they paused under the overhang while he shook off the umbrella. All around the store, in every direction, Gabby saw nothing but trees, fields, and empty highway.
"I'm thinking it's probably going to blow through soon," he said, eyeballing the gloomy skies. As if to prove him wrong, a jagged spear of lightning cut through the clouds, followed by a thunder strike so loud the store windows shuddered. "Then again, maybe I'm overly optimistic. I've been accused of that in the past."
Out of the corner of her eye, Gabby watched the man's thin lips edge up to a slow grin.
The shelves were neat if somewhat bare, but the store stocked the essentials—bread, canned chili and vegetables, along with four-packs of toilet paper and single rolls of paper towels. Blister packs of bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and lunch meat hung in a cooler beside the milk. On a hotplate, the glass coffeepot was streaked a muddy brown, the liquid inside as thick as molasses. Craving caffeine, Gabby poured a cup anyway, only to discover it was cold. Reasoning sugar might help, she decided on a cup of ice cream, the kind with a wooden paddle tucked into a paper lid. But a strip of silver duct tape secured the freezer door.
"Sorry. Don't want all the cold to escape," the man explained. "No telling when the power'll go back on. Sometimes around here, well, it can be a day or more."
"What about a Pepsi?"
"Sure, help yourself. Nothing in the soda case will melt."
Her sodden tennis shoes squished on the linoleum floor as she walked to a refrigerated display against the wall. As she peered through the doors, the glass reflected the muted image of a slightly round woman, pale, with straight brown brows peeking over the tops of her dark glasses. Reaching to a lower shelf, Gabby claimed a can of soda. She pulled the tab and gulped a swig. Its sweet foam tickled her throat.
From behind the counter, surrounded by racks of cellophane-wrapped sweet rolls and bags of homemade beef jerky, the man asked, "Anything else?"
"Just this." Gabby grabbed a blister pack of some kind of dried sausage, far from healthy but protein, nonetheless.
"Register's not working either, but that'll be two seventy-five."
Gabby put her brown leather bag on the counter, unzipped it, and lowered her eyes to find her wallet. When she did, her sunglasses slid down her nose. She hurriedly pushed them back, but when she looked up, the man's smile had turned downward.
As casually as she could manage, she handed him three one-dollar bills, and he gave her a quarter out of his pocket in return. "Thanks, Pete."
Putting the dollars beside the register, he said, "The name's Nick. Pete's buried in the church cemetery. Folks around here say it was a heart attack, but I figure the poor guy died of boredom from owning this place."
She tried to manage another weak smile, but the right side of her face ached. "You think?"
"Well, Pete was eighty-six, so no telling." He offered his hand. "Nick Foster. Glad to meet you."
"Ga…" She coughed and swallowed the rest of her name, looking up to find his eyebrows bunched together. Questioning. Taking his palm in hers, she said, "Ma-Maddie. Maddie Gregg."
"Nice to meet you…Maddie." His slight hesitation bothered her, and she felt sure that she hadn't fooled him.
The futility of it all crashed down on her. Stopping at the store had been foolhardy, she realized. She could have driven on and looked for an outdoor pay phone to call from, despite the rain, and tried to find road signs to get back on course. But then she considered that maybe it had all been ill-conceived. Why had she thought that she'd be able to pull it off? She'd never been good at lying, so there was no reason to think she'd be good at hiding.
The store felt uncomfortably quiet, and Nick focused intently on her. When the still air became even more awkward, he asked, "Anything else I can do for you? You're welcome to hang out here and wait for this storm to pass, but it could be a while."
Gabby took another gulp of Pepsi, then put the can on the counter and tore open the sausage pack. He knew Maddie Gregg wasn't her name. She felt certain of it. She took a bite, thinking. He appeared curious. Why wouldn't he be? I've certainly given him reason. But then she sensed something else, a sadness in his eyes. The guy looked concerned. Worried. For her? Maybe. At thirty-five, Gabby guessed that Nick Foster was seven or eight years older, somewhere in his midforties, but strands of silver streaked his dark brown hair, and deep cervices marked his broad forehead over his deep-set brown eyes.
Determined to play it all off as nothing of importance, she shot him a reassuring grin, fighting not to wince from the pain. Nothing going on here, she tried to telegraph. Holding up the sausage stick, she said, "I'm fine with just the Pepsi and this. But I could use that pay phone."
"On the side wall, near the restrooms."
Coins inserted, Gabby punched in a number. The dial tone buzzed as she twisted her straw-colored hair into a knot, anchoring it with a few bobby pins out of her pocket. "Cyn, I've run into a snag. I'll be later than I'd hoped. You were right about the storm. The weather's bad, and I got turned around on the road."
For a moment, Gabby listened while she nibbled on the stringy meat and scanned ads on a bulletin board above the phone. Teenagers offered their services for babysitting and grass cutting. A man had a shed for sale for a dollar to anyone willing to move it off his property. One note scribbled on a torn half sheet of yellow legal paper, written in a shaky hand, caught her attention: "Live-in companion needed for elderly woman."
When Gabby returned her attention to the phone, she heard worry in Cynthia's tone.
"No, please, if I'm too late, you don't need to wait up. Just leave me a key under the front mat. I'll sleep on the couch and see you in the morning."
Sensing his eyes still on her, Gabby glanced back at Nick. He stood fifteen feet away in front of the counter filling a BIC display, slipping the brightly colored plastic lighters into rows on a small turntable. When Nick swiveled the rack to stock the other side, Gabby turned her back to him and leaned against the wall next to the bulletin board.
Outside the rain beat down, but it sounded softer on the store's roof. Maybe Nick had been right; perhaps it was finally letting up. While Cynthia talked, Gabby reread the ad posted by the elderly woman searching for a companion. "Cyn, I know you don't want to get involved. I get that. But I need help. And I promise that it will be for just for a little while. A few days. At the most, a week. Just until I—"
Cynthia's tone spiraled higher. She was angry now. Upset.
Gabby's voice rose as she struggled to get her friend's attention. "Cyn, you said I could stay at your place. I can't go back. I have nowhere else to—"
A click, and the connection ended.
Her fear felt like a vise squeezing her heart. Unsure what to do, Gabby stared at the handset. When she turned toward the cash register, Nick's eyes were solidly on hers. She hung up the phone and cleared her throat. "Is there some place around here to stay? A motel or something?"
His heavy brow knotted as if he'd heard her bad news. How could he not have? "There's a hotel in Lake Jackson. Or a couple of places in Freeport. Both are usually maybe a twenty-minute drive. In this rain, no telling."
"Oh, well, I—"
"Most likely some of the roads have flooded." When Gabby said nothing more, Nick added, "But I can call Freeport for you, see about a room, if you want."
Silent, Gabby listened to the rain. It was finally letting up, but what did it matter? It felt over, and she had no way to recover. Nowhere to go. Yet, she couldn't return to the condo. The moment she'd walked out the door that had ceased being an option.
Rubbing her forehead, she felt exhaustion gnawing at her. There were so many things to think of, to be careful of, to consider. So many ways she could get caught. Jeff would track her credit cards. He'd have people looking for her car, her license plate number. A hotel was out of the question. I have to be careful. No more mistakes.
Gabby squinted through the windows at the highway and thought about how remote the place seemed. Then she turned back to the bulletin board.
Brazoria County, Texas
"She seems okay. Nice lady. Saw your advertisement on the community board. She says her name is Maddie Gregg."
Gabby heard doubt in Nick's voice when he uttered the phrase: "says her name is."
As she'd done with him when on the phone with Cynthia, Nick turned his back toward her. Still, Gabby could hear his every word. "Ruth, I know this is kind of odd, but I think this lady's in a bad jam. My guess is that she needs a place to lay low for a while. Maybe you two can help each other out?"
Gabby wished she could listen to the other side of the conversation. The woman would undoubtedly say no. Who would take in a stranger who pulled into a convenience store off the highway? It probably wouldn't help that Nick had told Ruth that Gabby was in trouble. But he was trying to help her; she could see that.
"Okay, I'll tell her." Nick hung up and gave Gabby a half shrug. "Well, the good news is that it wasn't a complete turndown. Ruth says you can drive over and talk to her, and she'll see."
Unsure how promising that sounded, Gabby still shot him a grateful, "Thanks."
He rattled off directions, and she made her way to the door. As she reached to open it, Nick stopped her. "Listen, Maddie, the thing is, Ruth's a great gal, good people. She needs help, but I'm sure that she can't afford much."
"Money's not important," she said, thinking that she'd happily pay for a safe place to stay.
"That's good, but the other thing is that like lots of old folks, she's a bit of a contradiction." He stopped as if considering how to explain. "You should know that Ruth gets testy sometimes. Agitated. I think it's because, off and on, she gets more than a little confused."
"I understand." Gabby tried not to sound impatient. She wanted to get going. It would be getting dark soon, and she needed a place for the night, hopefully longer. If this doesn't work out… But from the look on Nick's face, he had more to say. "Is there something else?"
When he grimaced, Nick's cheeks squeezed his eyes almost shut. "Listen, don't get your hopes up. I know Ruth will like you, but she sounded skittish on the phone."
With a resolute nod, Gabby grabbed the door handle, thinking about how concerned Nick seemed, how he'd gone out of his way for her. She turned back to him. "Nick, thank you."
"You're welcome, I—"
"And something else."
He looked expectantly at her, and she thought about Jeff, how he'd stop at nothing to find her. For once, Gabby decided, she needed to not worry about being sensible; instead, she needed to go with her gut. And her instincts told her that Nick Foster wanted to help her. "So that we start out being honest with each other, Maddie isn't my real name. It's Gabby."
"I thought you weren't telling me the—"
Nick smiled and nodded at her. "Okay. Good to meet you, Gabby Jordan."
"And if anyone asks if you saw me, asks anything about me—"
"You were never here."
The rain eased to a steady drizzle as the sun sank lower in the sky, the storm heading northeast. From the convenience store, Gabby drove under the highway. Downhill toward the river, the road narrowed into two scruffy lanes of asphalt. On both sides, scattered woods glistened wet from the storm. She passed a cattle ranch and modest wood-sided cottages.
Minutes later, the house appeared on the left. Just as Nick had described it, the green clapboard structure stood propped up on ten-foot stilts. A deck wrapped around the front extending out toward the river. In places the paint had peeled, exposing decaying boards, and slatted shutters flapped loosely in a stiff breeze. Lattice panels painted white enclosed the area under the house, and a rusting beige Plymouth sedan sat nearby under a tree, weeds and grass growing tall beneath it.
Sheltered under an umbrella borrowed from Nick, Gabby scanned the swollen river. Out of its banks, it stopped within a few feet of the thick beams that supported the deck.
Now that she'd arrived, Gabby debated the wisdom of walking up the rickety wooden stairs to the door. It was late in the day, the sun low in the sky. Night was coming, and Gabby wondered if the time would be better spent putting as many miles as possible between her and Jeff. This woman will just tell me to leave. Why would she let me stay? But then Gabby surveyed the river and the considerable distance to the neighbors' houses. She could barely make them out behind the trees. On the drive over, she hadn't encountered any other cars.
Abruptly, the door swung open at the top of the stairs, and a frail, elderly woman stared down at her. "Come on up, will you? No sense standing out in this rain!"
Once inside the house, they stood in the kitchen, and a blond-and-brown-haired terrier barked at Gabby's feet, sniffing her soggy tennis shoes. "That's Ginger. If anything, she's overly friendly. No doubt she'd lick a burglar to death." The old woman eyed Gabby. "And you're the woman Nick called about? Maddie?"
"Yes, and no." Gabby had thought about how to handle this wrinkle on her way to the house. "Nick did call about me. But my name is Gabby—Gabby Jordan."
"But why would Nick say…" The woman screwed her cheeks up until they pinched her eyes. "You gave him a fake name?"
Gabby bit the inside of her lower lip. This was harder than she'd thought it would be. "Yes."
"Why would you…"
Gabby drew a deep breath and held it as she wrangled over how to explain. Having to admit she hadn't been truthful wasn't a good way to win the woman over. But she knew eventually her name would come out, and then, if she'd lied to Nick and Ruth, they might never trust her. "I gave Nick a fake name to protect myself. To hide my identity."
"Huh." Ruth tilted her head slightly, curious. "But you told me your real name?"
"I told Nick, too. After he hung up the phone with you. I'm not very good at all this. It's new to me, being on the run and hiding. Nick promised that he wouldn't tell anyone that he saw me, and I believed him."
Ruth tossed her head back and let out a short huff. "Well, you've got that in your favor."
Confused, Gabby asked, "I have what in my favor?"
"That you're a good judge of character. Just met him, but you got Nick right. He's good people."
Perhaps wondering if Gabby had snickered at her, Ruth appeared more than a little annoyed. "What's so funny?"
"He said the same thing about you."
Ruth's eyes narrowed, but her lips curled up at the corners. "He did, did he? Guess that makes Nick a good judge of character too."
This time when Gabby laughed, a knife-blade-sharp pain radiated up the right side of her face. When her hand shot up to quell it, she jostled her sunglasses. She hurried to straighten the frames but noticed Ruth watching. To Gabby, the brief silence that followed felt heavy with unspoken questions.
"Well, okay. You're here to talk about the companion job, so let's get to know each other. I'm Ruth Marietta. I don't like being called Mrs. Marietta, so just call me Ruth. Now, let's sit down and get acquainted."
The problem was—where? The house overflowed with the possessions of a long life. In the box of a kitchen, the countertops, the battered oak table, and all four chairs disappeared under rumpled clothes and unopened mail. A cubbyhole office off to the side was in similar shape, as was the den, a narrow room that butted up to the kitchen. Three doors were closed, and Gabby assumed that they led to a bathroom and two bedrooms.
Settling the matter, Ruth picked her way toward the den, weaving between piles of newspapers and magazines. She gently eased down onto a wood-framed armchair upholstered in off-white. Behind her, books and knickknacks turned every which way on crowded, dusty shelves. Gabby followed her in and pushed aside a stack of books to claim a spot on the couch.
Outside the sun was low in the sky, and a candle burned on a glass-top coffee table. When she noticed Gabby looking at the flame, Ruth explained, "The power's out. Happens a lot on the river. We're kind of on the edge of civilization here."
"It's out at the store too." Gabby considered again how remote the area was and that it appeared the perfect hideaway. Intrigued by the stranger, Ginger pawed at her legs. The dog rolled over, and Gabby stroked its soft chest. "I bet Ginger is a lot of company."
"She's good to have around, but she's not much of a talker." Ruth let loose a raspy laugh, and the web of wrinkles radiating from her eyes deepened. Before age had taken over, Gabby decided, Ruth must have been an attractive woman. Her abundant white curls ended at her shoulders, and she had remarkable gray eyes that peered at Gabby from behind wire-rimmed glasses. Petite, with shoulders stooped from age, Ruth stood at the most five feet tall, and delicately boned, she couldn't have been much more than a hundred pounds.
Ruth smoothed her wrinkled white cotton blouse, pulling on the sleeves to straighten them, as she said, "So, you'd like to live in and work for me for a bit, Nick said. That right?"
"I would. Yes."
"You need a place to stay, I gather?"
"Yes. I do."
Assessing Gabby as she gave her a thorough once-over, Ruth cocked her head to the left. "You know, I never trust people when I can't see their eyes. That window to the soul thing, I guess. So, why not take off those sunglasses? I'm pretty sure you don't need them in here, and from the way you flinched earlier, it's unlikely that I'll be surprised by what they're hiding."
"Well, I…" Gabby hesitated, then did as asked. She cringed as the right stem brushed her face. An angry bruise encircled that eye, deep-purple veined with red.
"That's one heck of a shiner." Ruth's lips tied into a knot. "I hope you gave him one to match."
On the couch, Gabby turned away, embarrassed. "Silly thing. You know, I had a run-in with a door. In the dark and—"
Gabby stopped midsentence.
For a moment, neither woman broke the silence. Gabby considered what she'd just said and shook her head, disgusted. Her voice laced with a painful recognition, she confessed, "I've been lying for so long it's become second nature."
"You're pretty good with that story. Sounds like you've had a lot of practice." Ruth tapped her nails in a soft click, click, click against her chair's wooden arms. "I might have believed it, except for that bruise just above your wrist. That's a nasty one. Looks like someone grabbed you."
Gabby glanced down at her left arm. That morning, the discoloration had been faint, and she hadn't noticed the shape. Now that it had darkened, she saw the imprints of Jeff's long, thin fingers. There was a time when she'd loved his hands. She shuddered, remembering how he'd jerked her arm behind her and forced it up between her shoulder blades. The pain had seared through her like a jolt from an electric cattle prod.
Weary, reluctant to explain more, Gabby said, "I thought the long sleeves would cover everything."
"Not quite, dear, but it was a good try."
Gabby nodded ever so slightly and bunched the sleeve up, holding her arm out so Ruth could see. Bruises tattooed her from her wrist to just below her elbow. Many were fading, remnants of other harrowing nights.
Ruth sucked in a sharp breath and pushed it out with a loud sigh. "You're leaving this guy, right?"
"He's my husband. I…this hasn't…" Gabby swallowed, hard. How silly that she'd thought she could change Jeff. How foolish. Instead, the beatings had grown progressively worse and more frequent. In the early years, it happened rarely. Never such a brutal attack. Last night, the monster who'd come at her hadn't even looked like the man she'd married.
"I need to find a place to hide. To figure things out."
Ruth's bow-shaped lips pulled taut. "Looks to me like you don't have much to figure out. You can't stay with that man. Marriages have ups and downs, sure, but this?"
Ups and downs. Gabby considered that phrase. Lately, there hadn't been a lot of good times. Their lives, her job, everything suffered from Jeff's anger. The fear haunted her throughout the day, until she couldn't focus. An important deadline missed at the office, the condo uncared for, laundry piled up, and she'd forgotten to pick up groceries last night. After she'd promised him homemade lasagna. His favorite. That was all it had taken for him to—
"You have kids?" Ruth asked.
"No. I thought we would. Jeff wanted children, but I…I didn't want to bring them into…this."
"Well, at least, that's good—not to have little ones balled up in the mess you're in, I mean."
Gabby wiped away a tear, and Ruth considered that maybe she shouldn't have been quite so blunt. But then again, it seemed that the young woman needed a healthy dose of honesty. Not that she wasn't sympathetic. Ruth had done it herself, tried to soften situations instead of labeling them what they were. "Well, I didn't have kids either. But that was my decision. I had my work. Or maybe it was more just the way my life played out."
"I try to fight back. I don't just let him…" Gabby's thin voice trailed off.
Ruth considered how frayed the young woman appeared, as if ready to unravel. "You know, I do want to help, but I'm not up to a lot of drama these days. I've got my own issues."
"Well, I wouldn't—"
"Tell you what. You staying here with me? That would be fun, I bet. I could use the help and the company." Ruth's voice turned gentle despite its hoarse, whiskey rattle. "Some days, I'm not so well, and it would be comforting to have someone to look after me. But I don't like worrying that the man who did that to you is going to show up on my doorstep."
Gabby fought to tamp down a growing sense of panic. Summoning all her courage, she insisted, "Ruth, Jeff has no way to know I'm here. Anywhere near here. He can't find me if I stay with you. And I'd do everything for you. I'd clean and cook. I'd…"
Ruth scowled, and the end of Gabby's plea died before it was spoken.
"I'm sure you believe that this husband of yours couldn't track you here, but life has taught me that things happen that we can't predict."
"No. Jeff wouldn't have any reason to ever look anywhere near here. That can't happen."
Ruth sized up the woman. Despite the bruised eye, a pretty young thing. Tall, at least by Ruth's standards. Maybe five-five, five-six or so. As much fear in her eyes as a racoon caught in a trap. "Like I said, not many things really can't happen, unless it's me being twenty-five again."
Despite the situation, Gabby chuckled, sending another shard of pain through her cheek up to her black eye.
"Stings, eh?" It was impossible to ignore the younger woman's agony. Ruth decided that perhaps there was a little something she could do for her. "Listen, with this storm, that man of yours won't be out looking for you until morning. All this rain? A bunch of the roads are under water. So, how about you stay?"
"That would be—"
"But only one night."
Gabby swallowed hard and nodded. "Okay. Thank you."
"How long's it been since you've eaten?"
"Toast this morning, and kind of a shriveled-up sausage at Nick's place."
"Oh, I love those," Ruth said. "Especially the ones with the jalapeños."
After consuming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in six bites, Gabby retrieved her backpack and suitcase from her car. In the back bedroom lit by only a flashlight, she and Ruth stretched sheets on a twin bed with a black metal frame. Above an old mahogany dresser hung an oval mirror etched with a border of flowers that dated back a century or more. The floorboards moaned with each step, and the house smelled of old wood and the river.
As they tucked in the blanket, an olive-green wool worn thin in the wash, Ruth pondered the situation and felt the urge to do what she could to help, yet she knew that her advancing age made it difficult to solve even her own problems. Taking on someone else's… "Gabby, get some sleep. But tomorrow, like I said, you'll need to be on your way."
The desperation in the young woman's eyes was painful to see. "But really, I can help you, and—"
"Why don't you call your parents?"
"My dad died when I was a kid. A car accident."
Gabby choked on her answer: "She passed away two years ago. Breast cancer."
Ruth pursed her lips. "I'm sorry. I know that's hard."
The younger woman's problems had struck a tender spot, and Ruth considered confiding in Gabby, explaining that she understood the ache of such losses. My mother dying and then I made a terrible bargain, Ruth remembered, one that changed my life. But to open up, to tell those things? Some she'd never spoken of, not even to her closest friends.
Instead, Ruth simply said, "Try not to worry. Something will work out. You'll see."
Gabby wondered if she should argue her case, push the woman, try to convince her, but then she took a long look at Ruth. The older woman looked so fragile, so vulnerable that Gabby decided pleading to stay longer might be too much to ask. "Thank you. Even just tonight, this helps. I'm so tired, I…"
Although her own bones ached, Ruth leaned forward and gently rubbed Gabby's shoulder. It was the only encouragement she could think to give her.
"Have a good rest. Things may seem clearer in the morning."
Life streams past, Ruth thought as she walked from the room. Her stay on earth, long by anyone's standards, was nearing an end. Days melted quickly; todays replaced by tomorrows. With dwindling time before her, Ruth tried to concentrate on good memories, but the bad ones too often refused to be buried.
Ghost-like, they hovered in the shadows.
"You painted these?" The other folks in the town square strained not to make eye contact and hurried past, but Momma stopped. She recognized the wooden bridge outside town in one painting and the sawmill on the river in another. The man who would become my father had a cart pulled by an old mare parked near the general store. The placard beside it read: OIL PAINTINGS FOR SALE.
"Yes. I'm an artist!" Dad said, his voice softened by the hint of a Scottish burr. "I have a studio outside town. A little place. The trees are my companions."
When Ma, my grandmother, found out Momma was keeping company with the man in the wagon, she ordered Momma to stay away from Jack Robertson. "That man's a ne'er-do-well," Ma warned. "Not husband material. Not suitable company for a good girl."
At nineteen, Momma was among the youngest of Ma and Pa's twelve children. Her name was Marcella, but the family called her Pinkie. For months, Momma hid her pregnancy until her screams pierced the darkness. Carrying a candle, Ma rushed into Momma's room and found her writhing in the bed, terrified and in the throes of labor. Shouting for my grandfather, Ma sent another of the girls in search of her sewing basket. When my aunt returned, Ma cut the girdle off Momma's swollen belly and found me pushing my way into the world.
My grandparents greeted me with outrage.
At the cusp of the twentieth century, such untoward circumstances generated gossip. An unwed daughter giving birth sullied the reputation of a good family. Neighbors had eyes and ears, and they whispered rumors.
The day after my birth, a justice of the peace performed a hush-hush courthouse wedding.
Beside Dad, Momma stood in a navy blue dress, the skirt snug across her still bloated abdomen. I was left at Ma and Pa's house, cared for by an aunt, and concealed from prying eyes. The judge recited the words that bound Momma to Dad in matrimony and recorded their marriage in the county records. Those documents legalized their union but came too late to legitimize my birth.
My parents named me "Ruth," and with their marriage I became Ruth Robertson.
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