"No better than a pack of heathens." That's what their grandmother called Charma Deane, Bess and Minnie, three cousins growing up in rural Orla, Arkansas. To them, nothing could be better than being a heathen girl. But when life gets complicated, even the wildest girls grow up. Charma Deane learns that lesson the hard way when Bess steals her fiancé, fails to tell her about her mother's death and then threatens to evict their aunts from their family home.
Now, years after leaving the "Aunt Farm" behind, Charma Deane's back to make peace with the past and repair the strained ties with Bess. Together again, the three heathen girls face their demons and remind each other of their old vow: live without limits, love without question, laugh without apologies and make sure that whoever dies first won't be sent to heaven looking like hell.
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"Jump, Charma! Jump into the water! Everybody here loves you. Not a one of us would ever let anything bad happen to you. you're safe. you're strong. you're free. Now jump!" The late afternoon sun glinted off Daddy's broad, tanned shoulders like he was made of pure gold.
And he was.
And perfect. And wonderful. And, oh, how I wanted to live up to his expectations of me instead of just standing on the dock clenching my knees tight, trying not to pee in my brand-new hot-pink bikini bottoms.
"Jump wa-a-ay out, Charma Deane," he called. "Jump out past your fear."
I curled my toes against a warped plank.
In the distance Mama and my aunts draped themselves over lounge chairs like damp towels, soaking up the sun, drinking iced tea and listening to the Everly Brothers on the radio. Now and again one of them raised her head and peeked out from under her sun hat to make sure Nana Abbra, my daddy's mother, hadn't started out toward us, intent on spoiling everything.
It was Nana's house, after all. Nana's pond. Nana's queendom. And their husbands were Nana's boys, her princes.
"You can do it, brave girl." Ripples of green-brown water lapped at Daddy's chest. He stretched out his arms, his prized fishing hat in one hand and a beer can in the other.
"Be bold. Be fierce. Show some faith, damn it, and live!"
I can still feel my cousin Minnie beside me at the edge of the water. Her dark almond-shaped eyes blinked. She slipped her tiny sun-browned hand into mine. "Let's go together, Charmika. You can do anything if you know you're not alone."
I wanted to believe her but...
Splash! Scum-thick Arkansas pond water stung my soft, round belly.
Skanky water surged up my nose. It clouded my eyes and filled my mouth.
The awful taste.
Then the all-consuming quiet.
And then my daddy's arms around me, pulling me close, holding me so tight that I thought he might squeeze the very life out of me.
Breaking the surface.
The rush of my mother and aunts onto the floating dock. From somewhere, a trickle of warm blood down my arm, then I was whisked away.
Hours of not knowing.And then knowing the unthinkable. Daddy was dead.
More than thirty-five years have passed. Some of the details may have blurred together in memory. But the one thing I have not forgotten the thing I can never forget, though God knows I have spent enough years in churches and beds and bars and therapy trying is the feeling of my older cousin, Bess, pressed close at my back that day.
"What are you waiting for, Charma Deane? God Almighty to kick you in the butt? Get out there."
Her cold hands on my sunburned back.
More of a shove, really vicious and uncompromising in its determination. And afterward nothing in my world would ever be the same.
"I can't. I don't know what to do." My feet sank into the damp ground at the edge of the old pond. It was night, but not really night. Dark and forbidding. And yet familiar. Comforting, even, in its familiarity. "Please, just tell me what you want from me."
No answer came. Even the fat bullfrogs had stopped their resonant belching croaks and plopped into the inky-black water. Nothing. Just the whisper of leaves and the lap of the pond against the dock. Whoosh-whoosh. Whoosh-whoosh.
The same quiet, life-affirming rhythm of an unborn baby's heartbeat. Whoosh-whoosh. Whoosh-whoosh.
Someone was out there.
Someone who needed me.
Desperately. "Mama? Mama, is that you?, Half a year after her death, had she had somehow breached the gap between heaven and earth and come to me? My heart ached with hope. "Mama?,
"Save me, Charma!" The cry ripped through my very being.
Not Mama but...
I strained to see into the night and mist. "Who's out there?,
Whoosh-whoosh. The water rushed toward me on the shore, then ebbed away.
"What do you want me to do?, I demanded.
"You know what you have to do." The answer came, soft and clear.
Whoosh-whoosh. "Charma, it's time. Come on." The voice had changed, but the urgency had not.
"Come?, I stared down at the water. It had reached my feet and was rising fast. I clutched my throat. I could not breathe. I could not make a sound. I could only hear
"Charma? Charma! I need you now!"
I wanted to run. All my life, I never turned my back on anyone who needed me, but God in heaven I wanted to run away now. Run fast and hard and hide where no one, not even God, could find me. But I could not move.
And I knew that if I did not move if I did not run or dive in and swim with all my strength the water would consume me. Whoosh-whoosh. Whoosh
"Charma Deane Parker, wake up, damn it!"
That quick, it was all gone.
The pond. The unknown voice. Gone.
My pulse thudded hard, high in my chest. I wiped a thin layer of sweat from my forehead and glanced around at the modest home.
Home. Home birth. That's what had brought me here. "Wake up, girl."
"I'm awake." I fixed my gaze on my friend Inez Calaveras or, more precisely, on the underside of her. "At least I hope I'm awake, because otherwise I am having that attack of overflowing-D-cups-from-hell dream again."
"Overflowing D-cups?, She stood straight and gave her upper body a shake. "I'll have you know I am the same perky size C as when I got married twenty-eight years ago. D-cups my ass."
"No, darlinâ€™, if we're talking your ass, we are definitely talking a letter way beyond D."
"What? I can't help it. I wake up endowed with the full force of my dazzling personality."
"And people wonder why you are divorced and pretty much always sleep alone."
I laughed. It shouldn't be funny, I know, but sometimes you have to laugh or stick your head in a blender, and my place is such a wreck I couldn't find my blender on a bet. So... "Nobody wonders about me, Inez. It's a small town. They all know my story."
Inez, a midwife in training, had gotten me out of bed in the middle of the night with a plaintive phone call. "Please, Charma, the girl trusts you. The midwife trusts you. And let's get real, any and all of the powers that be in this boys' club of a town trust you. If we should need to call on any of them for help, we'll need you to do it."
The woman did not tell a lie. People here knew me.
They knew my family before me. Well, who the hell didn't know my family?
The Georges. Nowhere in the world could you have found a finer collection of droll, discerning, vain, vexing, cunning, coddled, coy and kick-ass women than in my family's gene pool. Queen bees every last one of them. Queen bees who understood that to survive you cannot just sting, you must also give honey.
My mother and aunts had given honey all over Orla, Arkansas, and parts beyond.
As the school nurse in a one-school-nurse town, I had, too, in a manner of speaking.
So my distress signal, whether to a doctor in the next town over or to the Orla police dispatch, would bring immediate and unquestioning results. It has always been that way at least to hear the women of my family tell it.
Amend that. Most of the women of my family.
Bess did not grasp the legacy of strength through service and self-sacrifice.
Sometimes I envied her that even more than her looks, her fabulous lifestyle and her short but brilliant brush with fame. Right. Classic. I envied the person who had devoted herself to finding new and nasty ways to totally screw up my life.
I rolled my neck to one side, and the sleep-stiffened joints popped with all the subtlety of a sheet of bubble wrap being twisted. "Anyway, I am awake now. I must have just drifted off for a second."
"Some watchdog you make."
"Woof." I covered my eyes with my hand. "How's she doing?"
"It's hard for her. She'd do better if she could concentrate on the birth and not keep worrying that damn asshole will show up."
I'd known RoryAnne, the mother-to-be, since her first day of school, though I'd lost track of her after she dropped out at age fifteen. I'd never met the father of her child, but given the opportunity to introduce myself...
I am not by nature a violent person. But leave me alone in a room with a redneck wife-beater, and I think I could go that way.
A low groan, deep and anguished, crept through the otherwise silent house.
I can't think of any sound save a bona fide ghost or a loved one calling out for help that could have chilled me more than that animal-like cry. I sat up and rubbed my hands over my face to hide any hint of my real inclination. To charge in there, grab that child and haul her out of here. "She really should have gone to a hospital to have this baby, Inez."
"She's a nineteen-year-old, convenience-store clerk with no insurance, in a town with no practicing obstetrician, married to an unemployed man with no mercy. What does the hospital offer her except a visit from the county social services, and a medical billing collection process sure to notify the maniac who has promised to kill her exactly where she can be found?"
"And you think she's safe here?"
"She has her mother, her midwife and us. We're all up for our part in it." Inez didn't meet my eyes. "Aren't we?"
"If you want me to make a phone call to bring help or to stand up to that piece-of-shit husband of hers, then yes, I'm up for my part."Review:
"Reading fit for a queen!" -- Jill Conner Browne, bestselling author of The Sweet Potato Queens' Field Guide to Men
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Book Description Mira, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0778324095
Book Description Mira, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0778324095
Book Description Mira, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110778324095
Book Description Mira. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0778324095 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.2007635