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THE PEACH KEEPER
General Mainstream Fiction, Mainstream
The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she'd had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn't be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handing the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor's office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson's invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird's nest outside. Harper Rowley's invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley's in his elderly mother's garden shed.
If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there's more to what's written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don't see.
But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.
The envelope sat untouched on the back counter of Willa's store for over a week. She picked it up curiously when it had been delivered with the other mail, but then she'd dropped it like it had burned her as soon as she'd recognized what it was. Even now, when she walked by it, she would throw a suspicious glance its way.
"Open it already," Rachel finally said with exasperation that morning. Willa turned to Rachel Edney, who was standing behind the coffee bar across the store. She had short dark hair and, in her capris and sport tank, looked like she was ready to go climb a large rock. No matter how many times Willa told her she didn't actually have to dress in the clothes the store sold-Willa herself rarely deviated from jeans and boots-Rachel was convinced she had to represent.
"I'm not going. No need to open it," Willa said, deciding to take on the mundane task of folding the new stock of organic T-shirts, hoping it would help her ignore the strange feeling that came over her every time she thought of that invitation, like a balloon of expectation expanding in the center of her body. She used to feel this way a lot when she was younger, right before she did something really stupid. But she thought she was past all of that. She'd padded her life with so much calm that she didn't think anything could penetrate it. Some things, apparently, still could.
Rachel made a tsking sound. "You're such an elitist."
That made Willa laugh. "Explain to me why not opening an invitation to a gala thrown by the richest women in town makes me elitist."
"You look at everything they do with disdain, like they're just too silly to be believed."
"I do not."
"Well, it's either that or you're repressing a secret desire to be one of them," Rachel said as she put on a green apron with Au Naturel Sporting Goods and Café embroidered on it in yellow script.
Rachel was eight years younger than Willa, but Willa had never written off Rachel's opinions as those of just another twenty-two-year-old who thought she knew everything. Rachel had lived a vagabond and bohemian life, and she knew a lot about human nature. The only reason she had settled in Walls of Water, for now, was because she'd fallen in love with a man here. Love, she always said, changes the game.
But Willa didn't want to get into what she did or didn't feel about the rich families in town. Rachel had never spent more than a few months in any one place growing up. Willa had lived here almost her whole life. She inherently understood the mysterious social dynamics of Walls of Water; she just didn't know how to explain them to people who didn't. So Willa asked the one question she knew would distract Rachel. "What's on the menu today? It smells fantastic."
"Ah. Excellent stuff, if I do say so myself. Trail mix with chocolate- covered coffee beans, oatmeal cookies with coffee icing, and espresso brownies." She gestured like a game-show hostess to the snacks in the glass case under the counter.
Almost a year ago, Willa had let Rachel take over the previously closed coffee bar in the store and gave her the go-ahead to put snacks that had coffee as an ingredient on the menu. It had turned out to be a great idea. Walking into the shop in the mornings was actually a pleasure now. Being met by the sharp scent of chocolate mingling with the moist scent of brewing coffee had a dark, secretive feel to it, like Willa had finally found the perfect place to hide.
Willa's store, which specialized in organic sportswear, was on National Street, the main road leading to the entrance of Cataract National Forest, widely known for its beautiful waterfalls, in the heart of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. All the shops catering to the hikers and campers were located here, in one long, busy stretch. And it was here that Willa had finally found her niche, if it could be called that. Truthfully, she didn't care much for hiking or camping or any of the outdoorsy stuff that sustained the town, but she was so much more comfortable with the other shop owners and the people new to town than she was with the people she knew in her youth. If she had to be here, this was where she belonged, not with the glittery townies.
The stores were housed in old buildings that had been built more than a century ago, when Walls of Water was just a tiny logging town. The ceilings were pierced tin, and the floors were nail-worn and lemony. With the slightest pressure, they creaked and popped like an old woman's bones, which was how Willa knew Rachel had approached her.
She turned and saw Rachel extending the dreaded envelope. "Open it."
Willa reluctantly took it. It was thick and rich, and felt like cashmere paper. Just to get Rachel off her back, she tore it open. The moment she did, the bell above the door rang, and they both looked up to see who it was.
But no one was there.
Rachel rubbed her bare arms, which were goose-pimply. "I just got a chill."
"My grandmother would say that meant a ghost passed by you."
Rachel snorted. "Superstitions are man's way of trying to control things he has no control over."
"Thank you, Margaret Mead."
"Go on." Rachel nudged her. "Read it."
Willa took out the invitation and read:
On August 12, 1936, a small group of ladies in Walls of Water, North Carolina, formed a society that has since become the most important social club in the area, one that organizes fund-raisers, sponsors local cultural events, and gives out yearly scholarships.
It is with great pride that the current members of the Women's Society Club invite you, as a past member or relative of a past member, to a special commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the formation of this great organization.
Come help us celebrate 75 years of sparkling good deeds. The party will be the first event held in the newly restored Blue Ridge Madam, on August 12 at 7 p.m.
rsvp with the enclosed card to Paxton Osgood, President.
"See?" Rachel said from over Willa's shoulder. "That's not so bad."
"I can't believe Paxton's holding it in the Blue Ridge Madam."
"Oh, come on. I'd give anything to see the inside of that place, and so would you."
"I'm not going."
"You're crazy to pass this up. Your grandmother-"
"Helped found the club, I know," Willa finished for her as she set the invitation aside. "She did, I didn't."
"It's your legacy."
"It has nothing to do with me."
Rachel threw her hands in the air. "I give up. Do you want some coffee?"
"Yes," Willa said, glad for the end of this conversation. "Soy milk and two sugars."
Just this past week, Rachel had become convinced that how people took their coffee gave some secret insight into their characters. Were people who took their coffee black unyielding? Did people who liked their coffee with milk and no sugar have mother issues? She had a notebook behind the coffee counter in which she wrote her findings. Willa decided to keep her on her toes by making up a different request every day.
Rachel walked back to the coffee bar to write that down in her notebook. "Hmm, interesting," she said seriously, as if it made all the sense in the world, as if she'd finally figured Willa out.
"You don't believe in ghosts, but you do believe that how I take my coffee says something about my personality."
"That's superstition. This is science."
Willa shook her head and went back to folding shirts, trying to ignore the invitation, now sitting on the table. But it kept catching her eye, fluttering slightly, as if caught in a breeze.
She flopped a shirt over it and tried to forget about it.