Black Brier

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The long drive home was uneventful- much to my chagrin. Anything that delayed my arrival was welcome, even a ticket, but as was the case on most days, the long stretch of Old Hwy 27 was free of police officers lying in wait. Every now and then, when Monty Hester went on a bender and forgot to replenish the wards, the cops would pass by the old road and decide to patrol it.

When that happened, I always tried to warn Monty before my grandmother got wind of it. Last time Clemmy Leopold found out before me, she gave him such a bad case of the pox he couldn't sit down for two weeks without a foam cushion. Of course, he didn't slip up for a whole six months after that. A record in Black Briar.

I knew the moment I passed the imaginary line into town. Every resident could feel it. Most said it felt like crawling into bed after a long day. Coming home eased their weariness. For me, it was as if someone had tightened a noose around my neck or pulled my skin too tight. Everyone knew I didn't belong here- even the town.

There was no denying the town was beautiful. Mainstreet was a postcard picture. Towering Magnolia trees lined the road as you entered the city, each one accompanied by a wrought iron lamp post. At night, flickering flames in each light turned the avenue into a fairy tunnel. The trees soon gave way to stout, red brick buildings. Flower boxes filled with blooms of every color were attached to every window, and cafe lights were strung across the street.

    I drove slow, not to admire the scenery but to avoid hitting the shoppers who crossed the road after little more than a pause and a wave. Nothing in any of the shops was worth getting hit by oncoming traffic, but they couldn't help themselves. Their minds were filled with whispers and warnings. Black Briar was not a town to be found in when the sun went down if you weren't local. By five, they'd all be gone, barreling down the highway, unimpeded by the police.

A mother and daughter duo darted in front of me, bypassing the courtesy nod and wave completely. Braking hard, I threw my hand out to the side to stop my purse from dumping into the floorboard. Neither noticed their near demise.

"No, no. It's fine," I said, gesturing wildly. "I'm just glad you weren't hurt." A fist rapped on the glass, the shock prompting me to jam my foot against the brake pedal harder. All my cosmetics and loose change went flying.

"Rose, roll the window down."

Slapping one hand over my chest, I did as requested. "Aunt Ophelia. You shouldn't walk up to cars and scare people. I wasn't in park."

"Well, I'd sure hope not. You're in the middle of the road. Who were you talking to? You got one of them bluetooth contraptions in here?" She leaned over me and peered at my dashboard. My car was too old to have bluetooth, but I said nothing. She didn't know what to look for.

"Myself. I was talking to myself."

"Hmm, you're not hearing voices are you?" Aunt Ophelia's expression was so hopeful I hated to break her heart, but after one disastrous attempt in my childhood, I'd learned to never pretend to possess abilities I didn't have.

"No ma'am."

Her smile fell. "I just wanted to catch you before you drove all the way home. Your mama wants you to come to the shop."

She waited for my response. Green eyes narrowed and thin lips pursed as she readied herself for a fight. Going to the shop was the last thing I wanted to do- dread was curdling in my stomach- but going home wasn't a much better alternative.

"I'll get right over there." Agreeing was almost worth the shock on my aunt's face. Almost.

Aunt Ophelia backed away from the car, her attention elsewhere already, and I pulled into a parking spot in front of the family store. The name, Southern Charms, was emblazoned in elegant, crisp white script over a deep purple, painted wooden sign. The darker plum color would fade to mauve as the evening brought cooler temperatures, and when the last of the daylight faded, the white would become a silver shine in the black. There was little I liked about this shop, but the sign always made me smile.

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