The Peach Keeper
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In this early version of The Peach Keeper, Willa's father is still alive and Willa is coming home after years away...

CHAPTER ONE

            Every so often, without warning, the town of Walls of Water became buried in a snow-white mist, making it hard to get anywhere if you didn't already know where you were going.   It was the abundant waterfalls in the surrounding national park that randomly produced this lush phenomenon.   Locals were used to it, developing what everyone called mist sense .   It was land memory, really, how you can know a place so well you can find your way around without actually seeing it.

            Willa Jackson had lost her mist sense, forgotten there even was such a thing.   It had been a long time since she'd left, and of course she had to choose a day when the mist was this dense to come back.   No one would be able to see her, to mark this momentous occasion.   Little did she know that certain people did know.   They saw wild caramel swirls in the mist and felt the ground shiver, always sure signs of trouble.

            The majority of the street parking slips were empty on National Street, the main road leading into the national park.   Willa parked her Bronco and got out, brushing against the fender as she stepped onto the sidewalk, getting gritty road dust on her.   She'd been driving for the past eighteen hours straight.   Her body didn't feel like her own anymore, like someone had taken all that she'd known of herself out and poured someone else in.   Her legs were boneless, and she was clumsy in her favorite cowboy boots.

            She knew she was in the right general area because she could make out the large planters her mother had put on the sidewalk.   Her mother's persistent and elaborate plans to try to spruce up her father's hardware store had been legendary.

            Willa forged ahead in the mist and found the door and pushed it open.   Once inside, she gave her bare arms a useless shake, as if to rid herself of the clingy moisture.   She missed the dry air of Albuquerque already.   That air wore her out, pulled the dampness from her skin, all of Walls of Water.

            When she finally looked up, she was surprised to find herself not in her father's store, but in a small sporting goods store that appeared to specialize in organic wear.   The pierced tin ceiling looked about the same - though she couldn't swear it was the same pattern.   But the floor was definitely different, not the creaky nail-worn floor that had been in her father's hardware store.   This floor was shiny, lemony.   Her father hadn't told her he'd lost his store.   Of course, he hadn't told her about her grandmother selling The Blue Ridge Madam, either.   Something that big, something that scandalous, and he'd kept it to himself.

            The shop smelled dark and sharp and warm, like roasting coffee beans.   It made Willa think of sleeping in on Saturday mornings.   She suddenly felt tired.   It had been a long time since she'd had a full eight hours.

            "Are you okay?" Someone called from the corner of the store, where there was a small café.

            Willa turned, and the woman behind the coffee bar smiled.   She had short dark hair and, in her capris and sport tank, she looked like she was ready to go climb a large rock.   She was probably in her mid-twenties and she exuded a charm that was so young, so ardent.   Willa couldn't have been more than five years older than her, and yet it felt like decades.

            "I thought this was Jackson's Hardware," Willa said.

              "Oh, that's next door.   Easy mistake in this mist.   A little overwhelming, isn't it?   Don't worry, it doesn't get this bad very often."

            Next door.   Her father's store was still there.   Willa felt her shoulders lose the tension that had been building there.   For all their differences, she'd never wish for her father to lose his store.   It was his only source of income, something few people knew.   "I forgot how overwhelming."

            "You've been here before?"   The woman behind the counter tilted her head slightly, like a wren.   "Are you Ham's daughter?   Willa?"

            Willa paused, then answered slowly, "Yes."

            "I've heard so much about you that I knew I'd recognize you!"   Willa took a step back, sure this stranger was going to run to her and hug her like an old friend.   Luckily, she stayed behind the counter.   "I'm Rachel Gilmore.   I moved here and opened this store about a year and a half ago.   Your father was the first person I met."

            Jesus.   She owned the store.   Five years ago, when Willa was Rachel's age, she'd been living out of her Bronco.   Willa's life was one of her own choosing.    And her lifestyle made her happy most of the time.   It truly did.   She just hated when other people made better choices than she did, like they were in on a secret she didn't know.   "Nice to meet you."   Willa turned to leave, wondering how much Rachel knew about her.   Not that she cared.   Not really.   "I'll just go say hello to my dad."

            "He's not there," Rachel called.   "When the mist comes, he closes his store and goes fishing.   We don't usually get much business on mist days.   He won't be back until tomorrow."

            Willa stopped.   When did her father take up fishing?   Her mother would have hated that.

            Rachel looked apologetic.   "I don't think he was expecting you."

            "Grandmother George is still telling stories," she said, mostly to herself.   In the letter, her grandmother had made it seem like everything was now out in the open.   That everything was finally okay.   And she'd written, word for word: Your father would love to see you.

            "Who's telling stories?" Rachel asked.

            "Nothing.   I'm not making sense.   Road buzz.   I drove through the night."

            "Then you must need coffee!"   Rachel said, as if the thought truly pleased her.

            "No, thanks."

            "It's no trouble.   It's not like there's a rush today."   Rachel nodded toward the large store window, which was as blank as a movie screen.   Occasionally, a shadow would pass by, a person walking down the sidewalk, but it was unquestionably a local.   Only locals knew where they were going.

            Willa found herself staring at the smoky window, transfixed, like looking through a crystal ball, hoping something about why she came back was suddenly going to make sense.   Nothing here could fix what was wrong.   In fact, this place had always made things worse.

            "How do you take your coffee?"   Rachel asked, putting on a green apron with Au Natural Sporting Goods and Café embroidered on it in yellow script.

            "Black," Willa said.

            "I thought so," Rachel said as she poured the coffee and capped the cup, then slid a cardboard sleeve around it.   She pushed the cup across the counter.   Willa thought about her pocketbook in the Bronco, about how little cash she had, about how ill-prepared she'd been for this trip.

            She sighed as she walked to the café counter, digging into the pockets of her cut-off shorts for change.   "How much?"

            "No charge," Rachel said.   "It's a welcome back gift.   Would you like some trail mix?   It has chocolate-covered coffee beans."   She gestured to the glass case under the counter.   "Or oatmeal cookies with coffee icing?   Everything has coffee in it.   I make it all myself.   The hikers and campers who come through like to take snacks with them sometimes."

            "No, but thank you."   Willa was already walking away, trying to figure out what to do until her father came back.   Where was she going to stay?   "See you around."

            When Willa got back outside, she went next door and tried the front door of her father's store for good measure, but it was locked.   She lifted the worn paper sign taped to the glass in order to see it better in the mist.   It said Jackson's Hardware would open again on Tuesday.   She let the paper drop and leaned back against the door.

            She stayed there in the brick alcove of Jackson's Hardware for a few minutes, staring into the mist and holding the coffee cup close to her face, as if to warm herself.   She felt her eyelids start to droop, and suddenly the mist seemed to whirl and take form, like ghosts, and she unconsciously pushed against the door, trying to get away from them.   She jerked awake, dropping the cup and getting coffee all over her boots and bare legs.

            She cursed and stomped, then finally stopped and took a deep breath.

            Superstition had it that if you looked hard enough, you could find what you were searching for in the mist of Walls of Water; that the fog would tell you secrets.   Willa had never believed it.   Besides, she didn't even know what she was looking for...though she was reasonably sure it wasn't ghosts.

            This was ridiculous.   She needed some sleep.

            She stepped out onto the sidewalk and squinted until she could find her Bronco.   She got inside and started it.   For all the times she'd spent breaking out of her father's house, she was now going to break in.

            In town for ten minutes, and already she was breaking the law.

            No, nothing had changed, after all.

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