Last Light Over Carolina (Thorndike Famous Authors)

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9781410443946: Last Light Over Carolina (Thorndike Famous Authors)

A New York Times Bestselling Author -- Every lowcountry woman knows the fear that clutches the heart every time her man sets out to sea. Now that fear has become a terrible reality for Carolina Morrison. Her husband is lost and alone in the vast Atlantic fishing grounds with a storm gathering and last light failing. As their close-knit community rallies to search for one of its own, Carolina knows their love must somehow call him home across miles of rough water and unspeakable memories.

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About the Author:

Mary Alice Monroe is the New York Times bestselling author of Last Light over Carolina and Time Is a River as well as many other acclaimed novels. She received the 2008 Award for Writing from the South Carolina Center for the Book. An active conservationist, she lives in the lowcountry of South Carolina, where she is at work on her next novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

September 21, 2008, 4:00 a.m.

McClellanville, South Carolina

For three generations, the pull of the tides drew Morrison men to the sea. Attuned to the moon, they rose before first light to board wooden shrimp boats and head slowly out across black water, the heavy green nets poised like folded wings. Tales of the sea were whispered to them in their mothers' laps, they earned their sea legs as they learned to walk, and they labored on the boats soon after. Shrimping was all they knew or ever wanted to know. It was in their blood.

Bud Morrison opened his eyes and pushed back the thin cotton blanket. Shafts of gray light through the shutters cast a ragged pattern against the wall. He groaned and shifted his weight in an awkward swing to sit at the edge of his bed, head bent, feet on the floor. His was a seaman's body -- hard-weathered and scarred. He scratched his jaw, his head, his belly, a morning ritual, waking slowly in the leaden light. Then, with another sigh, he stiffly rose. His knees creaked louder than the bedsprings, and he winced at aches and pains so old he'd made peace with them. Standing, he could turn his bad knee to let it slip back into place with a small pop.

A salty wind whistled through the open window, fluttering the pale curtains. Bud walked across the wood floor to peer out at the sky. He scowled when he saw shadowy, fingerlike clouds clutching the moon in a hazy grip.

"Wind's blowin'."

Bud turned toward the voice. Carolina lay on her belly on their bed, her head to the side facing an open palm. Her eyes were still closed.

"Not too bad," he replied in a gravelly voice.

She stirred, raising her hand to swipe a lock of hair from her face. "I'll make your breakfast." She raised herself on her elbows, her voice resigned.

"Nah, you sleep."

His stomach rumbled, and he wondered if he was some kind of fool for not nudging his wife to get up and make him his usual breakfast of pork sausage and biscuits. Lord knew his father never gave his mother a day off from work. Or his kids, for that matter. Not during shrimping season. But he was not his father, and Carolina had a bad tooth that had kept her tossing and turning half the night. She didn't want to spend money they didn't have to see the dentist, but the pain was making her hell on wheels to live with, and in the end, she'd have to go anyway.

He'd urged her to go but she'd refused. It infuriated Bud that she wouldn't, because it pointed to his inability to provide basic services for his family. This tore him up inside, a feeling only another man would understand.

They'd had words about it the night before. He shook his head and let the curtain drop. Man, that woman could be stubborn. No, he thought, he'd rather have a little peace than prickly words this morning.

"I'm only going out for one haul," he told her. "Back by noon, latest."

"Be careful out there," she replied with a muffled yawn as she buried her face back into the pillows.

He stole a moment to stare at the ample curves of her body under the crumpled sheet. There was a time he'd crawl back into the scented warmth of the bed he'd shared with Carolina for more than thirty years. Even after all that time, there was something about the turn of her chin, the roundness of her shoulders, and the earthy, fulsome quality of her beauty that still caused his body to stir. Carolina's red hair was splayed out across the pillow, and in the darkness he couldn't see the slender streaks of gray that he knew distressed her. Carolina was not one for hair color or makeup, and Bud liked her natural, so the gray stayed. Lord knew his own hair was turning gray, he thought, running his hand over his scalp as he headed for the bathroom.

Bud took pride in being a clean man. His hands might be scraped, his fingernails broken and discolored, but they were scrubbed. Nothing fancy or scented. He tugged the gold band from his ring finger, then slipped it on a gold chain and fastened it around his neck. He didn't wear his ring on his hand on the boat, afraid it would get caught in the machinery. The cotton pants and shirt he slipped on were scrupulously laundered, but no matter what Carolina tried, she couldn't get rid of the stains. Or the stink of fish. This was the life they'd chosen.

As he brushed his teeth, he thought the face that stared back at him looked older than his fifty-seven years. A lifetime of salt and sea had navigated a deep course across his weathered face. Long lines from the eyes down to his jaw told tales of hard hours under a brutal sun. A quick smile brightened his eyes like sunshine on blue water. Carolina always told him she loved the sweet smell of shrimp on his body. It had taken her years to get used to it, but in time she'd said it made her feel safe. He spat out the toothpaste and wiped his smile with the towel. What a woman his Carolina was. God help him, he still loved her, he thought, tossing the towel in the hamper and cutting off the light.

Carolina's face was dusky in the moonlight. He walked to the bedside and bent to kiss her cheek good-bye, then paused, held in check by the stirring of an old resentment. The distance to her cheek felt too far. Sighing, he drew back. Instead, he lifted the sheet higher over her shoulders. Soundlessly, he closed the door.

He rubbed his aching knee as he made his way down the ancient stairs. The old house was dark, but he didn't need a light to navigate his way through the narrow halls. White Gables had been in Carolina's family since 1897 in a town founded by her ancestors. When they weren't working on the boat, they were working to infuse new life into the aged frame house, repairing costly old woodwork and heart pine floors, fighting an interminable battle against salt, moisture, and termites. His father often chided him about it, telling him it was like throwing more sand on a beach eaten away by a strong current. In his heart, Bud knew the old man was right, but Carolina loved the house and the subject of leaving it was moot. Even in the dim light, he saw evidence of it in the shine of the brass doorknobs, the sparkle of the windows, and the neat arrangement of the inherited threadbare sofa and chairs. Every morning when he walked through the silent old house, he was haunted by the worry that he'd cause Carolina to be the last of her family to live here.

Bud went straight to the kitchen and opened the fridge. He leaned against the cool metal, staring in, searching for whatever might spark his appetite. With a sigh he grabbed a six-pack and shut the door. The breakfast of champions, he thought as he popped open a can of beer. The cool brew slaked his thirst, waking him further. Then he grabbed a few ingredients from the pantry and tossed them in a brown bag: onions, garlic, potatoes, grits, coffee. Pee Dee would cook up a seaman's breakfast later, after the haul. He added the rest of the beer.

At the door he stuck his feet into a pair of white rubber boots, stuffing his pants tightly inside the high rims. The Red Ball boots with their deep-grooved soles and high tops were uniform for shrimpers. They did the job of keeping him sure-footed on a rolling deck and prevented small crabs from creeping in. He rose stiffly, rubbing the small of his back. Working on the water took its toll on a man's body with all the falls, twists, and heavy lifting.

"Stop complaining, old woman," he scolded himself. "The sun won't wait." He scooped up the brown bag from the table, flipped a cap onto his head, and headed out of the house.

The moon was a sliver in the dark sky and his heels crunched loudly along the gravel walkway. Several ancient oaks, older than the house, lined their property along Pinckney Street. Their low-hanging branches lent a note of melancholy.

The air was soft this early in the morning. Cooler. The rise and fall of insects singing in the thick summer foliage sounded like a jungle chorus. He got in his car and drove a few blocks along narrow streets. McClellanville was a small, quaint village along the coast of South Carolina between Charleston and Myrtle Beach. There had once been many similar coastal towns from North Carolina to Florida, back when shrimping was king and a man could make a good living for his family. In his own lifetime, Bud had seen shrimping villages disappear as the value of coastal land skyrocketed and the cost of local shrimp plummeted. Docks were sold and the weathered shrimp boats were replaced by glossy pleasure boats. Local families who'd fished these waters for generations moved on. Bud wondered how much longer McClellanville could hold on.

His headlights carved a swath through the inky darkness, revealing the few cars and pickup trucks of captains and crews parked in the lot. He didn't see Pee Dee's dilapidated Ford. Bud sighed and checked the clock on his dashboard. It was 4:30 a.m. Where the hell was that sorry excuse for a deckhand?

He followed the sound of water slapping against the shore and the pungent smell of diesel fuel, salt, and rotting fish toward the dock. Drawing close, he breathed deep and felt the stirring of his fisherman's blood. He felt more at home here on the ramshackle docks than in his sweet-smelling house on Pinckney Street. Gone were the tourists, the folks coming to buy local shrimp, and the old sailors who hung around retelling stories. In the wee hours of morning, the docks were quiet save for the fishermen working with fevered intensity against the dawn. Lights on the trawlers shone down on the rigging, colored flags, and bright trim, lending the docks an eerie carnival appearance.

His heels reverberated on the long avenue of rotting wood and tilting pilings that ran over mudflats spiked with countless oysters. Bud passed two trawlers -- the Village Lady and the Miss Georgia, their engines already churning the water. He quickened his step. The early bird catches the worm, he thought, lifting his hand in a wave. Buster Gay, a venerable captain and an old mate, returned the wave with his free hand, eyes intent on his work.

There were fewer boats docked every year, d...

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