Thank God for twenty-four-hour gas stations. Abigail Dalton set her steaming cup of java in the console holder, put the overloaded car in gear, and pulled onto the main road.
The idea of driving on Thanksgiving Day was a good one, at least from a traffic standpoint, but she probably should have considered not all restaurants would be open on the holiday. While food itself wasn't an issue, feeding her growing coffee habit was.
Thankful to now have enough fuel, for both her and the car, to get her through the last half hour of her trip, she pressed the radio's Scan button and settled into the driver's seat. The numbers on the radio screen scrolled, then stopped on a country-music station. While she had nothing against country music, Abby really wasn't in the mood to listen to singers drone on about how their wives left them and their dogs died.
She blinked hard, stemming a sudden need to cry. Lately her life had played out much like some twangy, cliche song. The difference being that instead of the entire country listening to a fictional breakup play out on the radio, she'd had to face Baltimore's elite while her real-life marriage disintegrated.
Her fingers curled around the steering wheel as the radio changed to a rock station. She'd given that bastard ten years of her life. In return he'd run off with his twenty-three-year-old administrative assistant. Speaking of cliche! Her grip tightened around the wheel as she closed her eyes for a second and swallowed down the all-too-familiar lump in the back of her throat.
Determined not to give up her husband without a fight, she'd even gone to the hussy's home and confronted them both. The only thing her endeavor accomplished was to make her feel fat and worthless.
"Maybe," the little blonde tramp had begun, "if you'd spent more time in the gym working off those love handles, he might have stayed. Though..." She paused and tapped a finger to her chin as if in thought. "From what Brad tells me, you're nothing but a cold fish between the sheets, so maybe not. Face it, Abby. You couldn't satisfy him in bed, let alone give him the child he wanted. Why would he want to stay with you?"
The tramp's words stung, but Abby could have brushed them off if it hadn't been for Brad's silence.
Angry for crying over the asshole yet again, she wiped at a tear trickling down her face and forced her attention to the road. Not once while the younger woman screeched had he said anything to stop the bloodbath. He'd simply stood there, looking on with what Abby had interpreted as abhorrence.
She'd left them that night, broken and ashamed, knowing there wasn't any way she could stay in Baltimore. Now, with a substantial divorce settlement and the home she'd inherited after her mother's death, her path was clear. She'd return to Bethlehem, Virginia, and start fresh.
The radio changed again, this time landing on a station playing Christmas carols. She pushed the button, turning off the scanning process. What she needed was to find her lost holiday cheer. So what if she'd be spending Christmas alone this year? It was, after all, just another day on the calendar. Besides, she could use the time to decide what to do with the rest of her life.
The soft sound of Beethoven rose from the passenger seat, causing Abby to jump before reaching for her cell phone. She glanced at the name on the caller ID. Megan Fowler. Abby stifled a groan and pushed the Send button, connecting them, then switched on the speakerphone so she could talk hands free. "Hi, Meg."
"I know you really don't want to talk to anyone, but I was worried and had to call to see how you're making out."
"I'm doing fine," Abby replied, suddenly feeling guilty for not wanting to speak with her best friend. "I'm driving into my hometown now, so I should be at the house in about ten minutes."
"I still don't understand why you couldn't stay with me on Thanksgiving and drive back on Friday."
"I know you don't, Meg, and I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, but I'm not much for celebrating the holidays at the moment. It seemed like the right thing to do." Like every other time they'd talked lately, somehow this conversation with her friend would inevitably lead back to Brad and Abby's self-esteem issues. They weren't topics she wanted to face right now. "Listen, Meg. I hate to cut this call short, but I really need to go. I'll call you once I'm settled. Maybe we can make plans for you to visit."
Abby could almost picture the frown on Megan's face as she spoke. "Well, okay, but be sure you do call. I don't care if Brad is my stepbrother. As far as I'm concerned, he's an ass, and my friendship with you comes first."
"I appreciate your loyalty, Meg, and you're absolutely right. My relationship with him, or lack thereof, is separate from my friendship with you, and I won't let my feelings about him come between us."
"Make sure you don't. And, Abby, if you need anything, just call, okay?"
"I will. Bye, Meg."
Once disconnected, she turned up the radio and worked to focus her attention on more-cheerful thoughts. "Jingle Bell Rock" ended, and a much-slower song filled the car.
It came upon a midnight clear
That glorious song of old.
Slowly, she steered her car through the downtown area of Bethlehem, known to the locals as "the square." The hub of law enforcement and most municipal business sat to her left, its dome rounding up to the police radio tower that pointed up to the sky. Roads skirted the courthouse on all four sides, with turn-of-the-century brick buildings three and four stories tall lining the streets like a giant wall.
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold.
She bet in its prime, the square was a hopping place for business. Now, with many of the stores sitting empty, it served as a reminder of days gone by.
Maybe, she considered as she passed yet another empty storefront, she could open a craft store in one of the old buildings. The town's population consisting of young and old would certainly patronize a store where they could purchase both yarn for knitting and paper for scrapbooking.
A smile tipped Abby's lips upward at the idea as the car's tires bounced over the old railroad crossing at the far end of the square. Running the business would be easy. After all, she'd gone to college to earn a business degree. Yet somewhere along the way she'd put her dreams on hold for a husband and future family. Only now she didn't have either.
Somehow the idea of opening a craft store felt right, though. As soon as she was settled into the house, she'd inquire about renting one of the buildings.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled.
She passed through the end of town and found herself back in the country. To her left, the farthest pastures of Werner Dairy Farms came into view with a herd of Holsteins grazing on a hill in the distance. Her heart gave a little flip. Did Talon and Teagan still live there? Back in high school, thoughts of the Werner twins occupied nearly every waking moment of Abby's day and many of her dreams at night. Way out of her league, the brothers, both talented and good-looking, were vastly different in their endeavors. While Teagan headed up the local FFA chapter and kept his nose in textbooks all day, Talon spent his time playing quarterback for the football team and getting himself into as much trouble as possible. Back then she would have been happy dating either of them.
Her smile slowly faded. Wasn't it her obsession with the twins that, in a strange and sad way, had dictated her life up to this point? If she hadn't shared one of her more private and explicit dreams with her then-best friend, she wouldn't have needed to leave school her senior year and move to Baltimore to live with her elderly great-aunt.
Her mother never brought up the subject, but Abby knew in a small town like Bethlehem people had talked about her long after her departure. To this day, she still harbored the shame and guilt her unveiled fantasy caused her parents. After all, no normal, God-fearing Christian had erotic dreams about sleeping with two men at the same time.
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
Suddenly dejected, she turned off the music, leaving only the sound of the tires on the pavement humming in her ears. One bad thing about small towns was that people never forgot. Would her return stir up old ghosts? Was she simply moving from one bad situation to another?
Abby turned her car onto the tiny, snow-covered driveway and parked in front of the detached garage. She rested her head on the steering wheel, turning to the side to focus her attention on the old clapboard house. The homestead held so many memories, both good and bad. With the peeling paint and rotting window casings, she should be ashamed at having allowed her birthplace to fall into such disrepair.
When her mother had finally passed away the previous year, Brad had given Abby one week to get her parents' affairs in order and return to Baltimore. Grieving and under pressure, she'd hurriedly packed away her parents' belongings, placed the totes in the garage, and covered the larger pieces of furniture with tarps.
A shiver rippled up her spine, and she pushed open the car door. No use sitting in a cold car when she, with any luck, had a warm home to provide shelter. She stepped out into the cold, dark night, closed the car door, and went to the trunk to retrieve her suitcase. Hopefully Old Mr. Sawyer had made it out to the house to get the heating-oil unit up and running, and the electric company had turned on the power.
Deciding on the smaller case with her pajamas and toiletries, Abby headed inside. Relieved to feel the warmth when she walked into the back door, she flicked the light switch and watched the kitchen glow in the fluorescent light. Thank goodness!
She locked the door behind her. Then choosing to leave the kitchen light on, she walked through the house to her old bedroom. Exhaustion filtered through her muscles. What she needed was a good night's sleep. The right thing to do would be to go back out to her car and find the box that held the clean sheets. Even that chore seemed more work than it was worth. The sheets on her bed were clean, just dusty from nonuse, and would do for one night. Tomorrow she'd go to town and purchase all the supplies she'd need to start getting her new home in order.
After shaking the pillow to remove any excess dust, she crawled into bed and pulled the sheet up over her tired frame. Her mind drifted back to the song she'd heard earlier. Look now, for glad and golden hours. Come swiftly on the wing.
She snorted at the lyrics and closed her eyes. She couldn't be lucky enough to have glad and golden hours come swiftly.
Twenty minutes later, on the verge of sleep, Abby rolled onto her side and wrinkled her nose at a foul smell. What could possibly be causing such a stench in a home that hadn't been occupied in over a year? In an attempt to block out the odor, she put the pillow over her head, yet it grew stronger, thicker, reminding her of so many bonfires from her childhood.
Bonfire? Abby threw the pillow off the bed and opened her eyes. A thin layer of smoke trickled in beneath her bedroom door, turning the air rancid. Fire? For several seconds Abby watched the smoke build while her brain tried to process what she saw. This couldn't be happening. It had to be some sick dream.
She drew in a breath and let out a cough in response. Fear propelled her out of bed. It wasn't some horrible dream but was quickly becoming her nightmare. She raced to the window and pushed, trying to open it. Years of nonuse combined with several layers of paint to keep the window firmly in place.
With little choice but to face what lay on the other side of the door, Abby grabbed the handle, only to jump away in pain as heat infused her hand. I'm trapped. Panic gripped her throat and gave a vicious squeeze. There had to be a way out. She spun to face her room, in search of something, anything, to help her escape the inferno that would most certainly engulf her bedroom shortly. The window.
She pulled the neck of her nightgown over her mouth and nose, then raced to her desk across the room. There, she picked up the chair and, using all her strength, swung out at the panes. The sound of glass shattering combined with the growing crackle of burning wood increased her fear even as fresh, cold air poured into the room. With shards now all over the floor, she'd need her shoes or risk ripping her feet to shreds. Surely she could spare the ten seconds it would take to shove her feet into her sneakers.
Spots floated in front of her eyes, and a sudden weakness captured her limbs. Even with the fresh air now filtering in from the window, it wasn't enough to overcome the oxygen-stealing smoke slowly blanketing the room. The need to flee surged through her. Grabbing the comforter and her purse as she went, Abby stumbled toward the window. Her throat constricted, causing her coughing to increase. The black dots in front of her eyes grew, eventually connecting until her vision tunneled.
All she had to do was get outside and she'd be okay. Barely managing to find the window, she covered the bottom of the casing with the comforter and threw her purse outside. With one hand on the window, her vision disappeared completely, taking with it her one chance at survival. On a cough and a wheeze, she slid down the wall, collapsing mere feet from safety.