Epilogue for Bitter Water- My first novel
Mara Conley stood in the still night. All she heard was the rustling of the leaves along the sidewalk and the creaking of a leftover Christmas ornament hanging from a utility pole. She could smell a slight whiff of smoke from someone who had burned leaves earlier in the evening. The moon was not full, but full enough that she could see the shops and the town that she had left behind. She was standing in front of her mom’s beauty shop. She shivered, not knowing if it was from the cool autumn night or because she was back where she started from eight years ago.
There were no lights on in any of the shops. They rolled the sidewalks up early in small town USA, and this was one of the smallest. From what she could see, there were several empty storefronts up and down the street, windows boarded up, forlorn looking in the night. Her mother’s shop was still there in the little building with the grand name of Main Street Mall. The front window displayed antiques, which meant Nancy’s shop was still there, but she couldn’t tell if any of the other shops were still open. Well, at least Mother’s shop is still here, she thought.
Mara wondered how her mom would react when she showed up at the shop. Was her dad still alive? She had no way of knowing. The years had slipped by, and Mara hadn’t kept in contact with anyone from home. She had decided to come home, perhaps to get some questions answered that had been gnawing at her. She knew she had to find herself, and the only way to do that was to come home.
She sighed and got back into her little Cavalier. She turned on the heater to take the chill away from her body and sat for a few moments, just thinking of the last time she had been in this little town. This was her hometown and her beginnings. Slowly she drove back to the Interstate and then to Springfield to find a room. I’ll start fresh in the morning, she thought.
The next morning dawned bright, and Mara’s mood lifted just by the fact she had a little sunshine in her day. Cool weather was normal in San Francisco, so her clothing would be right for autumn in Illinois. She loved warm weather in the daytime and cooler weather at night … but not this cool.
Mara showered, standing under the stinging spray to feel the warmth invade her body and loosen the muscles that hadn’t relaxed during her restless night. Lathering her medium-length brown hair, she tried to let her worries slip away. Mara had learned a bit since she went away eight years ago, but she still had a long way to go to recover her emotional stability. This trip home was only the beginning.
Mara walked next door to pick up a quick breakfast and a cup of hot coffee. Sitting down at a table, she picked up a local paper and started browsing through the classified ads. Since you’re here and will probably be here for a while, you’d better start looking for a job and a place to stay, she counseled herself. She had enough money to last her for a few months. A job wouldn’t be too hard to find; she had good skills and faultless references from her previous employers, and her resume was perfect.
Munching on her breakfast, she went through the classified ads. Nothing struck her as the right job, but she intended to apply for a state job in Springfield anyway. She was going to find a place to live wherever her job took her; she didn’t want to be right in the same town with her parents. She wanted to give herself and them space as she went about searching for the answers she was seeking. Decatur would also be a good place to look for a job and a place to live.
Back at the hotel, she chose an outfit carefully that would complement her tan, and then she brushed on her makeup and highlighted her eyes with liner and mascara. She used her makeup sparingly, just highlighting the natural tint of her skin and playing up her jade green eyes.
She wasn’t beautiful, but she made the most of her assets. She’d learned the hard way on her way up in the world to dress as if you were successful, even if it meant buying clothes at a secondhand store. Mara had left Illiopolis with just savings from babysitting money and tips from shampooing hair in her mom’s salon. She came back with skills and a savings account that allowed her to buy her clothes at expensive department stores, and she owned more than one pair of shoes and plenty of purses.
She dropped the door key on the dresser and left her hotel room. She unlocked the door to her little red Cavalier and slid in. She had an address book but hardly knew where to start. She wanted to see her best friend first, find out what it was like in her former hometown, and get a feel for the pace and the general atmosphere before she tried to contact her folks.
Looking at her in the rearview mirror she thought, Well, you are here. Stop putting off the unavoidable, and get in gear. She drove out of the parking lot and back to the Interstate she had just traveled down the night before.
The air was crisp but warm enough to have the car window cracked to let in some fresh air. She had forgotten the smells she loved and breathed deep the scent of newly harvested cornfields and the aroma of newly turned black dirt. In the daylight, it was easier to spot some of the landmarks. Mara saw the smokestacks from the ammunition plant and bunkers where the ammo was stored for use in World War II. She didn’t stop at the small towns that she encountered on her 20-minute drive back to Illiopolis. She had one goal in mind, and that was to go home. She drove up and down the streets of what used to be her home, avoiding the street where she assumed that her parents still lived.
Driving by the small cemetery, she thought about stopping to visit her grandparent’s grave, but she decided to leave that for another time. She passed the high school where she had spent four years of being the ugly duckling and wallflower. Mara felt the sharp sting of rejection. I thought I was long past that.
Not surprising, there were no stoplights in town yet. She drove slowly looking for remembered landmarks. Mara passed by the Baptist Church she attended with her parents, the grade school where she had endured her school years, and the park in the middle of town where she used to go and sit. It was her refuge, a place to get away from her father’s stony stares and her mother’s anxious looks. Yes, the bench was still there, although there was a new array of playground equipment. Gone was the big metal slide that she used to ride down with a piece of waxed paper under her bottom to make her go faster. What freedom it was to slide ever so fast down the tall slide and feel the wind tug at her hair. She was happy that it was no longer permed, and now if the slide were still there, it would stream out behind her in ripples, instead of standing on end because of its brittleness and curls.
Parking the car, she walked slowly around the block. She had been right last night; storefronts were empty and neglected, and dirty windows and cobwebs and trash cluttered the doorways. It made her sad. She knew the town had suffered because of the one manufacturing plant leaving town and laying off all its workers, and the other surrounding towns were suffering from cutbacks and plant closings as well. She wondered what kept people there. Yet she knew the answer; they were afraid of change and felt secure in their own little world—a world where everyone knew everyone, and you could set your clock by the 12:00 whistle. Of course, everyone in a small town always knew others’ business; nothing remained sacred or secret in this little town or any other for that matter.
She wondered what they had said about her when she left eight years ago. No matter, she was back and was a different person. Recognition wasn’t a worry. She was no longer the chubby teenager with outdated clothes and acne on her face. No, she wasn’t a perfect 10. She still held some of her weight, but had toned up and gotten down to a respectable size 12. She had changed her hair, lightening it just a little to bring out the natural highlights and had gone to an expert to find out how to play up her few attributes. Mara accepted herself for who she was and no longer worried about fitting into someone else’s idea of what a perfect woman should be. She had learned the hard way—other people were bad enough about pointing out your faults, and you didn’t have to pile on your own version.
Mara knew if she asked at one of the business places in town how to contact her one true friend that it would be all over town in a heartbeat. Small towns have their own way of spreading the news, and since her mother was the local beautician, she would know almost immediately that Mara was in town. She couldn’t face that just yet. She still wanted and needed to talk to her best friend, Heather Gentry. Was she married? Did she have children? What was her life like now? Mara knew she’d still be here. Heather was the type that would never be happy living anywhere else except in her hometown, with her parents and family and even larger circle of friends.
She sat in the car at the edge of the park, wondering just how she would go about looking for Heather. She must be married by now, but which one of her many boyfriends finally won her hand? Still she sat, listening to her favorite Tim McGraw CD and trying to decide where to start. There had to be a way. Illiopolis didn't have a library or local newspaper, so she couldn’t do research to find her. She knew in her heart Heather would have children by now. Driving over to the grade school and just watching was one of the easiest ways to see if she could spot her. Everyone dropped off and picked their kids up. It was the small town way, and she had a feeling Heather could be found here.
Mara parked her car in a shady spot, pulled out a paperback by Pamela Kimmell, her favorite mystery writer, and prepared to wait. Sitting in her car, with the warmth of the fall sun pouring through the windows, the book slid out of her hand and she drifted off to sleep.