Close to the Bone |
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Close to the Bone

In Good Souls, Texas, secrets can kill you...

Book One of the Lettie Wilson Thriller Series

By Michele Freeman

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Chapter One

I do not believe in deities.

My lack of belief is not because I have an opinion about religions. I simply find no comfort in the idea of a supernatural entity granting favors in return for my unquestioning devotion. In truth, it’s easier for me to accept that life is messy, random, and unreasonable. I figure it’s up to me to find meaning, to create purpose, for myself. How I choose to live, how I answer the why-am-I-here question, is my business. How others choose to live is their business.

Life is difficult.

Either you have the balls for it, or you don’t.

The godly in our small town of Good Souls, Texas do not ask how a nineteen-year-old girl can harden her heart against the eternal love of their Creator. They think they understand why, and it is the same reason they think I was called to give comfort to the dying.

They are wrong. God did not prompt me to hold the hands and the secrets of those who are leaving this world.

My father did.

Her name is Jessie Ann Smith. She’s 81-years-old and a lifelong resident of Marshall, Texas—which is about thirty or so miles from Good Souls. Last Sunday, Ms. Smith fainted at church and was rushed to Good Shepherd Medical Center. The elderly woman endured a convergence of bad health problems, and is now in the last throes of congestive heart failure.

“She’s gonna go soon, Lettie.” says Cecilia. “No family, poor dear. She’s outlived all her friends, too.”

“Has her pastor visited yet?”

Cecilia nods. “Came by this morning and spent a few minutes saying prayers over her. We’re short on staff, honey, and Pastor Myers won’t see Ms. Smith again until she’s in her coffin. That’s why I called you.”

No one should die alone.

Many people did. Though Cecilia is practical, she also has a big heart. If a patient is getting ready to die and has no one, she will call me.

We both look at the door that leads to the woman’s semi-private room. In there, she is rattling her last breaths, making her peace with the world—or railing against it. I never know how the dying will deal with their inevitable ends. Not everyone goes peaceably.

Cecilia pats my shoulder. She is free with her affection, especially if she senses the need to comfort. I’m uneasy with her brand of kindness, but she’s never let that stop her from giving me hugs that squeeze the air right out of my lungs.

Cecilia Wagoner has been a nurse for nearly thirty years. She is plump and short, though her big blonde hairdo adds at least two inches to her height. I met her on my ninth birthday in the emergency room of this very hospital. I was strapped to a gurney and nearly unconscious from blood loss. Then Cecilia was there, holding my hand and telling me to hang on for a little while longer. Cecilia never left my side, even after I was wheeled into surgery. Her steady blue gaze was the last thing I saw as the anesthesia took hold.

“Did you eat anything today?” asks Cecilia.

“Yes,” I say. I ate a piece of toast before I made the trek to Marshall because I knew Cecilia would ask. She worries about my thinness and my lack of appetite, and she is not the only one who harangues me about eating.

“You taking those vitamins I bought for you?”

“Every morning with orange juice,” I say dutifully. “I’ll go in now.”

Cecilia pats my shoulder again. “You’re a good woman, Lettie.” She smiles at me and then gives me a smacking kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you later, honey.”

Some say that I have a calling—a calling from God if you were to listen to believers—to do this work. In truth, I feel compelled to pay a debt I owe, and this is how I choose to honor the sacrifice that ultimately saved my life.

Miss Jessie’s eyes flutter open. The pale blue orbs track me as I round the bed and pull a chair close to her bed. I put my purse on the floor then I lean forward and clasp her hand. Her papery thin skin is cold and her fingers tremble as they wrap around mine. She opens her mouth, her eyes wide, her expression pained, but no words come.

Death has stolen her voice in the same way it will soon filch her breath and rob her heartbeat. Death has no conscience. It only is.

People try to find meaning in these moments. It’s difficult to hold the hand of a dying woman and gaze into her eyes. There is no solace. Not really. There is only the reality that the final act of being human is dying.

Hymns are for religious folks, and I’ve found that I have no sincerity when it comes to praising Jesus. So I softly sing, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” by Death Cab for Cutie. This is the eulogy I offer to Miss Jessie. It’s the only song about leaving this earthly plane that pierces my own heart, and lets me give real meaning to the words.

I don’t break eye contact. I sing to her and squeeze her hand and the compassion, the sorrow rises in me like a mythical beast. It roars from my very core, flows over me and into Miss Jessie. She smiles, a fractional curve of her lips. She closes her eyes, and issues one last shuddering breath.

Seconds later, the grip of her hand loosens and the heart monitor sings its own eulogy in one long sound of mechanical anguish.

Mac Horner leans against the moss green 1951 Series 61 Cadillac. He inherited the car from his grandfather, who bought the Caddie brand new and kept it in pristine condition. I know a lot about this car because it is Mac’s only topic of conversation. Mac is in his fifties, approximately the size of a mountain, and has designated himself my driver and bodyguard.

I never learned to drive. I am uncomfortable in cars and prefer walking to wheels.

Mac wears white T-shirts, overalls, and cowboy boots. I’ve never seen him in any other outfits. He owns the Good Souls Auto Repair, also inherited from his grandfather, and he’s the finest mechanic this side of the Mississippi. He nods to me as he opens the back door to the Caddie. I slide across the white leather seats, clutching my purse. Since this is a vintage car, it does not have seatbelts. I wouldn’t wear one even if it did.

Mac shuts the door, then rounds the car and gets into the driver’s side. I hear the rattle of his keys as he inserts one into the ignition and the engine growls.

“Did I tell you about the time my Grandpappy took this car to the county fair?” asks Mac in a deep, rumbling voice.

He has. Many times. But I say, “What happened?”

This is the story that will get me through the thirty-minute drive back to Good Souls.

I return to the duplex where I’ve lived since I was seventeen. The other half of the home belongs to Caroline Willows. Caroline is a tiny black woman in her seventies. She’s sharp as a tack and doesn’t take guff from anyone. She’s waiting on our mutual porch, sitting in her rocking chair. She’s in her church clothes—a purple dress with big white buttons. A spiffy spring hat with tiny white flowers and a triangle of lavender lace perches on her tight gray curls.

“I prayed for you,” she says as a greeting. “Like I do every Sunday.”

“That’s kind of you.”

She snorts. She knows I don’t believe in God. We’ve had many a conversation about the Lord and the Bible. She stays true to her faith in the same stubborn way I stay true to my lack of faith.

“I put a quart of sweet tea in your fridge. And I made you a sandwich. It’s on your table,” she says. “You eat that now, y’hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You coming over for cards tonight?” she asks.

“Seven sharp. I’ll be there, Miss Caroline.”


I turn toward my screened door. She taps her cane on the worn wood porch.

I look at her. She offers me a business card. I take it and read: John Ravenwood, Esquire.

Beneath the name is a phone number.

“The young man stopped by here ‘bout half an hour ago. He had manners. Well dressed, too. Handsome.”

“What does he want?”

“Said he wanted to talk to you about an opportunity.” She shrugs. “Like I said. He was polite. But don’t you go entertainin’ that gentleman without a chaperone.”

Like most in this town, Caroline is overly protective of me. Ever so often, I chafe at the restraints built from the tragedy of my past. Most days, though, I accept that I must collect on the debts these people think they owe me. Not for myself. For them. Every kindness displayed. Every piece of unsolicited advice given. Every casserole and pie left on my doorstep. Penance for that night ten years ago when their complicity allowed a monster to rampage. “If I decide to call this Mr. Ravenwood, I’ll meet him in town at the Grub. Benny will look after me.”

“That’ll do,” said Caroline. “Go on now. Eat and rest.” Her brown gaze holds a mixture of pity and empathy. I’m used to that look. Everyone in Good Souls looks at me that way. After “the incident” the whole town, all 320 residents adopted me. It’s their collective guilt, y’see. My existence reminds them of their failure to act—and what happened to me as a result. I figure it was nobody’s fault. I blame no one except the person who actually deserves the punishment.

“Did the dearly departed go in peace?”

“I suppose,” I say.

“It’s a hard thing you do, Lettie. A hard thing. I think the Lord gave you this calling, but that don’t mean it comes easy. Sometimes, we carry burdens too heavy for us alone, even those handed to us by God.”

“I don’t mind,” I say softly.

Caroline outlived her daughter and her two grandchildren. After her daughter Camille died from cancer, Caroline took on the raising of her grandbabies. Some years back, her grandson Herman was walking home from school when a car careened over the curb and hit him. The car sped away, and the kid died right there in the front of The Lamb & The Way Baptist Church. The driver was never found, though we all think it Goeth Jones. He’d had a penchant for drinking himself stupid all day. Not long after Herman’s death, Goeth drove his car into Lake Hell. Everyone figured his suicide was confirmation of what he’d done and he’d administered his own death penalty. I know for a fact that Caroline prays for Goeth Jones as often as she does for the souls of her loved ones. As if losing her daughter and grandson wasn’t awful enough, her granddaughter, Lila, died last year. Soon as Lila hit eighteen, she put Good Souls in her rearview mirror and moved to Dallas. I knew she was a troubled person and maybe that’s why she turned the street drugs that ultimately killed her.

Caroline never cries. Not in front of people. I know she weeps, though. The keening sounds of her heart breaking punch their way right through my walls. I stuck close to her during those dark days and I stood beside her as she buried Lila with her mother and brother in the Good Souls Cemetery.

Putting a preserved body into a pretty wood box and burying it under the earth seems a strange tradition. I admit that I find such things pointless. Caroline tells me that cemeteries are for the living. They need a place to remember and honor those they loved. She says it brings comfort to the grieving to know that the mortal vessel is still nearby, even if the soul moves on to heaven. I understand what she means, but I think she’s wrong. Cemeteries are not memorials where you go to feel comforted. They are portals to the past where you re-live pain and re-experience anguish. And you ask questions you know will never be answered. Why did this happen? Where did you go? When will I stop feeling the guilt and the sadness and the horror of your loss?

I don’t understand why Caroline still has faith in a God that has taken everyone she loves away from her. She likes to quote from Ecclesiastes 3: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

I don’t agree with that at all.

Barbara Johnson

I’ve read this before :) I think You sent it awhile back to me .... I’m trying to remember it ... is there money involved in the story ? A lot of money?

Penny Ramirez

Oh, this was but a cruel taste - please tell me this will be available soon!

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About Michele Freeman

When not writing psychological thrillers with heart-pounding twists and turns, award-winning mystery suspense author MICHELE FREEMAN writes the Broken Heart Forever series as New York Times and USA Today bestselling PNR author MICHELE BARDSLEY. Michele also crochets, reads on her Kindle, and eats chocolate as dark as her soul. She resides in Texas with her husband and their adorable fur babies.

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