Joining the book club had been a bad idea. Sherrie knew that going in. She’d always had a thing about finishing books she was told to read; well, starting them was its own boondoggle too. Ever since fifth grade, when she’d been forced to sweat and slog through Lord of the Flies she hated it. Give her a suggestion and she’d get around to it…sometime. But Jan was not a suggester. She was the type to serve you the new brand of coffee she’d ordered from some place with a fancy name and watch each separate drip make its way down your throat. The book club was very austere with her at the helm: no skipping books, no books-on-tape. And there were so few things to do in Buford county that Sherrie just felt…stuck.
Right as Jan rang her, the book lay spread-eagled over the old rabbit-ears of her television. Sherrie threw a pillow sham over it as if Jan could see all the way from her house.
“Did you read it?” Jan breathed heavy on the other line. No ‘hello’, no small talk, just business. That was Jan.
Sherrie tried to laugh. “It’s only been three days, Jannie, give me a break.”
“I found it a quick read.” Jan panted like she’d been running, and spoke too close to her receiver’s mouthpiece. It was like being crank-called by a pervert. “I started it Thursday, had it done by the time we met.”
“Oh.” Sherrie swallowed. “Well, you always were a sprinter, Jan, you have to remember I get distracted real easy.”
“How far along are you?”
“Halfway,” Sherrie lied.
“Good.” Jan seemed to relent a bit “well, pretty soon you’ll see it just goes faster and faster. Everything does. I just finished edging my lawn.”
Sherrie bit back laughter. Jan lived in the old Victorian horror by Cutter drive, it had lawns upon lawns. “You know, that’s what god makes teenage boys for, dearheart.”
“I made me,” Jan said, flatly and finally as if pronouncing the time.
Sherrie swallowed. “Oh…well, I have the salon to open in an hour, I’ll go fast and read like they taught us in eighth grade.”
“Do,” Jan said, and hung up.
Sherrie put the phone in the cradle like she was dropping a snake into the hog’s feed trough. Now she was ordered to finish the book, then?
She retrieved the pillow sham and looked down at the cheap mass-market paperback. Wish Upon Yourself said the italic semibold title. “Learn how to map destiny.”
Sherrie studied the back of the book. Lots of blather about how to control the world around you by a series of thought exercises. The book club was no stranger to that; she’d read The Secret and enjoyed it, even though she’d run out of interest mere weeks after.
But really now, Jan was pushing too much. Sherrie had befriended her because her forcefulness and blunt personality had looked entertaining from a distance, and maintained the friendship because being Jan’s friend was easier that ceasing to be Jan’s friend. She vowed to skim it after coffee and Dr. Phil. Halfway into her third cup, she looked at the clock and realized she had to go open the salon. She grabbed her purse, keys, and multigrain crackers to snack on and was out the door in a heartbeat.
Sherrie stood in line at the store, nursing a headache. She hadn’t had much beside coffee all day, and one of the machines at checkout was making a dissonant whine. In the back of her mind was the book. She wondered if there were crib notes of the thing online, and whether Jan would detect that she had cheated on reading the book. It shouldn’t matter, really, Sherrie wasn’t looking to have her life changed drastically, none of them were. They were small-town girls, they weren’t about to go traipsing around the world doing yoga on mountaintops.
Sherrie shifted a bit, and noticed the person behind her was Florence Lambert. Flo had frozen as if in mid-speech, mouth hung open a half-inch as she looked off in the distance. The machine tone, Sherrie realized, came from her mouth.
Sherrie turned to look in front of her.
The checker was moving in a series of repetitive, twitchy gestures. He passed his hand over the scanner, scratched the underside of the till, then typed something on the register. Then he’d turn back to the man in front of her, repeating the cycle. Sherrie watched him move, a sinking feeling coming over her. As a child on a church picnic she had once stood over a nest of ants, not realizing it until they bit through her leggings. This dropped a similar pit in her stomach.
“Excuse me,” she said to the gentleman in front of her. He watched the cashier with a dull, unwavering gaze. “Excuse me,” she prompted a little louder.
Flo dropped to the floor and began seizing.
Sherrie jumped back. It had simply been from one second to the next: Flo had gone from vertical to horizontal in the blink of an eye. Now the cashier came around the counter, shedding his store apron. He knelt and cradled her head.
“I’ll call the emergency line,” Sherrie said, fumbling in her purse. She looked up to find both men looking at her as if she’d just spoken in Greek.
Flo jolted, hammering her rib cage on the floor. The checkout clerk shushed her.
“A body in light is done changing,” he said, “could a given be a malefactor in total? Awe begets greed.”
Sherrie gaped at them, phone forgotten in one hand. Flo’s eyes flew open, rolled to the whites.
“Leonard!” the manager shouldered his way in. “what fool thing are you—I’m sorry folks, this needs to be—”
Abandoning her hand basket, Sherrie fled.
She had enjoyed going to the chain market, because every time she got produce at Miller’s grocery on the corner of 15th and Stillwood Evan Miller handed her each fruit piecemeal so he could fondle her hands. Now…
Sherrie made it home and poured herself an ice tea that was mostly ice. Sloshing the pieces down and crunching them, one at a time, between her teeth, she watched the Coogan boy next door mowing the lawn. He walked in a tight, fixated pattern, lawn mower wheels traveling over the same ruts every time.
Sherrie went to go lay down.
She didn’t want to go open the salon. She didn’t even know if she should open the salon, things being what they were. Hardly anyone had shown up the past few days, less even than when the Supercuts had opened up two towns over. More importantly, Sherrie did not feel safe going outside.
The salon, back when aunt Tessa had run of it, was a county seat of innuendo and gossip. News traveled lightning-quick on the feet of rumor. But the women that had shown up in the last two days had known nothing or been curiously tight-lipped. Sherrie had never gone to a fancy college, but she was an apt student of human nature, and every instinct in her body was telling her to flee.
The phone rang. Sherrie stared at it. She was supposed to be at the salon by now. Or maybe she was en route and got distracted. It happened.
The phone rang ten times. Then nine times. The caller gave up, perhaps trying the salon phone now.
Sherrie got in her car, for lack of a better idea.
The streets were calm, even for a small town early in the morning. Some joker had parked askew in front of the pet shop, Sherrie crept around the ancient Buick like a boat maneuvering around a whirlpool. There were no people outdoors.
Sherrie turned the neon sign on and swept the shop floor. She wasn’t expecting anyone today, which was why Mavis Roper stumbling in at a quarter past ten was such a shock.
“Mavis,” Sherrie said when she found her tongue, “how you been, girl? I wasn’t expecting you ‘til next month.”
Mavis gasped for breath. Her auburn ringlets, unbrushed, spilled over her head like an octopus.
“Can’t breathe,” she said, “darlin’ cut them off for me.”
Sherrie blinked. “Now Mavis, I just did a lovely auburn rinse on those curls, you paid—”
“Cut it of!” Mavis had never spoken above a singsongy whisper, the growl that came from her throat made Sherrie jump. “It’s strangling my future.”
Sherrie directed her to a chair and slung a cape over her. Mavis wouldn’t sit still, not even as Sherrie tried to grasp individual locks and size them up with the shears. Mavis tugged her head away.
“No, girl, no. Get the clippers.”
Sherrie blinked. “You mean…Mavis, I can’t buzz those curls off. It’d be a crime.”
Mavis made a strange animal noise high in her throat. Maybe she was going through one of those low blood sugar episodes.
“How about I get you some coffee,” Sherrie said, fumbling for the cart behind her. “How many sugars?”
Mavis writhed in a fit. “GIRL. GET. THIS. HAIR. OFFA. ME.”
Mavis sighed in relief as Sherrie aimed the little-used electric clippers on her scalp, letting entire locks drop to the floor. Sherrie dabbed away a tear.
Mavis smiled in the mirror at her pale scalp. “Bald as the tip of the moon. Even an eagle-eye couldn’t see the thoughts in my skull.”
Sherrie wrung her hands like she was washing them. “You’re really satisfied Mavis?” It did not escape her that Mavis cooked up the same word salad she’d heard from the men at the store.
Mavis gave her an exacting look. Sherrie stepped back.
“Why does the loon not call the swan,” she said, narrowing her brow in suspicion, “a pebble can’t perceive the size of the mountain, tumbling to oneself only brings the gravity forward.”
Sherrie felt numb. “Don’t you worry about paying, Mavis, I’ve paid enough. Tell the mountain I said hello.”
Placated, Mavis got out of the chair and shrugged off the cape. Sherrie watched her skip like a young girl out of the store.
It was technically morning, although the sky outside her house was dark as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Sherrie packed with all the lamps off, struggling with zippers and ties.
Well, she’d made a good go of it, but this town had lost its damn mind. She felt like a sneak thief stealing away in the night, but being forced to shave off a head of hair that fine had tipped the scales. Momma always said that you needed to leave just before you really felt you ought to leave, and, well, here she was.
The phone rang.
Sherrie dropped a blouse, hands over her heart. The sound was loud in the still house. She chewed the inside of her cheek as the phone rang five, six times. Finally, she crept over to the receiver and cleared her throat.
“‘Lo?” she asked, making her voice thick with sleep.
“Sherrie? What are you doin’ answering the phone at this hour?”
It took her too long to recognize the voice. Jan sounded thick and rough, like she’d smoked a lot in a hurry.
“You called,” she said, trying to make it sound innocent.
“Why aren’t you up on the roof tonight?” Jan’s voice came like a pair of pinching fingers through the phone line. “The chart says to face the secret star. Have you been doing your exercises?”
Sherrie cast a guilty look at the book still spread-eagled on her television.
“Of course I was up on the roof,” she lied, “but I heard the phone ringing and thought it might be you. Give me a break, girl.”
“Ah.” Jan sounded placated. “Well, the town’s flushed out to see the cheek of the moon ripen.”
“Including me. Now if you don’t mind, I’m getting back on that roof.” Sherrie went to hang up.
“It is the four-sided triangle that awaits the southern face.”
Sherrie swallowed. “It is. It really is.”
She hung up the phone by throwing it down on the cradle, then she abandoned the slacks she was attempting to cram into an already full bag. The bags were thrown into the trunk of her hatchback, the book tossed as an afterthought on the seat beside her.
With the headlights off, Sherrie crept through town.
Many cars had been parked or abandoned on the darkened streets, some of them still idling. Sherrie squinted, but couldn’t make out any shape in the driver seat.
She inched her way down Thrush drive, cutting through Gold River Tributary way when Gordon street proved to be blocked off. This turned out to be a mistake, as she hit a barricade constructed of furniture and other household items. She could see in the little light that people crawled over the barricade, turning their heads to regard the intruder. Swallowing silently, Sherrie put it in reverse.
“Thank god!” Her passenger door flung open, Evan Miller depositing himself on the seat. “Drive, girl. There’s nothing good happening this way.”
Sherrie hissed, tongue on teeth. “Evan, Jesus!”
Evan still wore his grocer’s apron, smugly looking back at the barricade. “Those crazies tried to strongarm me outta my damn house. Showed them a thing or two.”
“You’re drawing too much attention.” Shapes agitated before her, shadowing the car. Behind her, she could see a coupe slowly swivel away from the sidewalk. Evan followed her gaze.
“You better punch it, girlie, they’re blocking us in.”
Sherrie hit the gas, leaping backwards. She hit the other car, cracking the headlight as it scratched a dark streak down her car’s side. Evan hooted.
“That’s the way to do it!”
Sherrie bit her cheek and turned back onto Thrush. “You seen any clear way out of town?”
“Oh sure,” Evan said breezily, “provided you don’t mind driving over fields and such. Try Grayson.”
Sherrie turned down Grayson street, Evan criticising every move she made. She went too slow, she turned too soon onto the next street, did she have to pump the brake like that?
“Oh no,” he said as they closed on a dark shape capping Webster lane. Between the Hay&Feed and Hailey’s Hardware was another barricade, this one much higher than the last.
“They know we’re trying to escape.” Sherrie’s stomach sank.
“Naw, it’s something to do with that gobbledeygook they keep spoutin’.” Evan squinted out the window. “Hand on. I got an ideer.”
Evan popped open the passenger door. Then he turned and planted a sloppy kiss on Sherrie’s unguarded mouth.
“We had a good time back in eighth grade, didn’t we?” He asked devilishly. He left the passenger door open.
Sherrie swiped her mouth with her hand. “That was Candy Gaskins, you creep!”
She watched as Evan dove into the crowd, bellowing and swinging, before wrenching free and running down the adjoining street.
Sherrie gunned it.
The barricade was not very solid, it splintered under the might of her little hatchback. A solid object, hopefully not a body, hit the passenger door closed. She hit Dutch street and sped through, weaving through the parked and prone cars like she’d been doing it her whole life. Dutch also dead-ended, but here were the start of the vacant lots that stretched to the edge of town, so Sherrie went offroading. Sherrie wove the car between pavement and field, praying she wouldn’t hit a ditch because she was too shit-scared to turn on her headlights. When she felt a mighty clunk under her wheels she stopped, fearing the worst.
She got out of the car and found herself on the lip of the old two-lane highway, by accident of nature a full two inches taller than the road.
Sherrie drove on, cackling.
She passed Miner’s Bend, with its outlet store, and Wardville, where her cousin lived. Out, out past all the towns and counties and everything she’d ever known.
Shortly after dawn, she pulled over at a service station to get gas. She counted out the last of her cash tips to the attendant, who looked to be about nineteen and done with the place. She perused the racks of merchandize while he popped the gas tank open, humming to herself.
“Aw, you got that book.” The boy pointed to her passenger seat.
“Huh? Mmm.” Sherrie blinked tiredly. She didn’t feel much like talking.
“Ev’rybody’s talking about it. We got it on tape.”
He pointed to the rack where, yes, in between mindful meditation and something about whale song, was a cassette bearing the title Wish Upon Yourself.
Sherrie blinked again. “Well I’ll be.”
“That all for you ma’am?” the boy asked once the tank was full.
Sherrie considered the tape. “How much for this?”
“How much you want?”
She swept the book from the passenger seat and tossed it on the counter. “Here. Trade you.”
She was in the front seat and driving away as the clerk waved after her.
Sherrie popped the tape in. A soothing male voice started immediately.
“Hello, by buying this tape you indicate you are ready to wish upon yourself. Throughout this tape, we will move through several exercises to help you achieve your goals. Now tell yourself: ‘I feel effective. I can make change in my life.’”
“I feel effective.” Sherrie smiled at herself in the rearview mirror. “I’ve made changes in my life.”
“Very good. Now remember, you are just starting out on your journey of self-actualization. You’re like a small pebble sitting before a mountain. You have a gravitational pull, but it is so small you’re only pulling yourself down…”
As the voice droned on, Sherrie drove away into new pastures.