Marnie Evans searches for the family she's always longed for in the wilds of West Texas. Something is coming which will change her life forever. She must learn to play the hand she is dealt.
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Marnie Evans longs to be precious. She wishes on stars for parents who adore her, even though her family is dysfunctional. She also believes that jack rabbits and a boot-wearing Texas angel show her mysterious signs of things to come.
To escape her mother's neglect over summer break, Marnie finds a short cut through the woods to Garner State Park. There she discovers yodeling cowboy ranger Rick Carpenter and his wife Claire, who live on site at the park.
From buried boxes to colorful characters such as Bible-thumper, Shelby Love, and peacock feather man, Vaughn Conner, Marnie hopes to find what she needs along the banks of the Frio River. Don't miss the boat on this environmentally lush ride that explores the mystery of connection and power of forgiveness.
Excerpt from Jack Rabbit Moon
On a good day in southwest Texas you might spot an angel. In my dreams I'd seen one. Her white cowboy hat and sequined boots impressed me. Each time the vision was the same. She jumped from a cypress branch and said, "Y'all have a nice place here, Marnie. Too bad the Lord's fixin' to crank up the heat."
So here I am at the beginning of the end, latched to world like a burr and armed with nothing but imagination. I didn't have sense enough to be scared. Besides, I'm used to heat. Rough rides. Pity pots. A kid like me couldn't know that dreams and reality sometimes knocked heads. Crap.
That's why I kept pretending and Mama kept lying, although I felt there was little distance between the two. My biggest stretch was believing I was precious and irreplaceable, a child dropped from heaven's lap to a mama who loved me like the dickens.
Mama tells two lies that don't fool me anymore. Number one: Daddy left and never returned because my crying scared him off. Mama said I wailed so violently as a baby it drove him clean to China. Number two: we were dirt poor because Charlie, my Daddy, never earned a dime for nothin. He was in prison, she claimed, for manslaughter.
Liar, liar, pants on fire. Uncle Ben, Mama's only sibling, told me Daddy had never been in prison. He said Charlie went to Colorado six years ago to get away from Mama. She loved liquor and lies more than Daddy loved milk and truth. There was one thing, though, I couldn't figure out. Why did he leave me here with her? She needed a child like I needed a llama.
When I thought too hard on it, my eyes bloated with tears. With the back of my hand, I swiped away leaks from under my eyes. Picking up a stick, I poked an ant mound beside our house, ants streaming out in peppery confusion and scattering every which way. What felt like needle pokes shot over my bare right foot, and I brushed away ants with my shirt tail. Blisters popped the way bread rises. Rubbing the stings, I noticed another mound a few feet away from our ramshackle house.
"Ramshackle" is a word I learned this year in fifth grade. A word I could have done without ever knowing. On my last spelling test I got it wrong. The "e-l, l-e" thing is confusing. But I knew, even though I'd misspelled it, that the word described my house and life to a tee. I also knew things might get worse before they got better.
Cupping my hands above my eyes, I examined the house again. One front window had cardboard for glass, and the house itself, which was the color of egg yolks, had weathered and leaned, chipped paint lying confetti-like on the ground. A porch swing sat lopsided, the chain flapping in the breeze. On the porch railing a scrawny rose vine twirled itself toward the sun, yearning for decent blossoms. I remember when Daddy brought the hothouse rose home for Mama. She had been so pleased with the floppy red blooms that smelled like ripe plums, she cried right into the pot. They hadn't bloomed since.
My gaze fixed on two green metal chairs sitting to the left of the front door, given to Mama by her current admirer. Vaughn Conner was his name. He was a custodian over at the Leakey school, which housed kindergarteners up to seniors, and he was always weighted down with keys. His hair, the color of paprika, somehow made his smile appear slanty. If you didn't know better, you might think he was a robber or a preacher. And I hated his black cowboy hat with the peacock feather, and hair at the nape of his neck, which overflowed its banks. He always fed our chickens white tic tacs, which I believed was dope for the longest time. He was sticky, too, never allowing Mama out of his sight for long.
Mama always made me cook up particular things, while they did particular things. I tried to save her once, had barged into their room and seen them twisted together like gnarled tree limbs. It had scared me half to death.
"Get the hell out!" Vaughn bellowed, when he saw me beside the bed, gawking. Picking up his keys from the nightstand, he rattled them in my direction.
Mama's sad expression changed to irritation. She snapped the sheet around herself. I'm pretty sure what I saw may have damaged my puberty. And that's when I first suspected women were not precious. I already knew men weren't, except for Daddy, of course, he was the exception.
The weirdest things made me miss him. I rubbed my gold rabbit pendant - the only present Daddy had ever given me - and stared at the 22' by 5' piece of plywood hanging next to the front door. Daddy had painted it years before and I had retrieved it from the trash pile. The sign read: JACK RABBIT MOON.
Daddy loved jack rabbits, the one animal he wouldn't kill or eat. He believed their excellent abilities to see and hear put them on a higher peg than other creatures. He caught and caged jack rabbits to observe their behavior, but always ended up freeing them. Two things he claimed to know about them with certainty was their hyperactivity under a full moon and their sixth sense for danger. Mama thought his conclusions were dumb, but I'd slept outside under a full moon enough to know there was truth in what he said about the hyperactivity. And regarding their sense for danger, once, right before a forest fire, our yard had been teaming with them. Mama saw it with her own good eyes, but never gave Daddy proper credit. In her opinion, he never knew squat about anything.
I stood studying the sign that 1995 summer and realized how different I was from other kids. My old clothes smelled sour from dirt and sweat. At eleven, I already had a free school lunch ticket and a reduced attitude. Never were there sweet smelling girlfriends, with lavish curls and clothes, dropped from the bus at my front door. Never was I invited to parties where girls stayed up all night, eating sweet pastries after pillow fights. What I spent my time doing after school was bringing cold rags and aspirin to a mama with frequent hangovers. There was dinner to make, macaroni and cheese if we were lucky, or beans if we weren't. I could wring a chicken's neck, then pluck and cook it too, but hated doing it. I kept praying things would change. Learning to pray was the easy part. My knees were raw from kneeling. I'd been praying hard since I was five, and nothing much had come from them.
It felt downright crappy when my prayers weren't answered, like when I'd found a wad of pink fleshed baby birds in the woods. Flung from their nest, they were lying on the cold ground, their propped open mouths begging like paupers for a meal. My heart flip-flopped. Gathering them in my sweater, I took them home and nursed them. I pretended to be their mama. I actually spent time with them and prayed they would grow to be fine healthy birds. When they were old enough, I would perch them on the grapevine wreath, which hung over my bed. It was decorated with rocks, feathers and dried wildflowers I'd collected from the woods; the perfect place for them to learn to fly. If they fell, they would land on my bed and not bruise or bang themselves. After a week of feeding and protecting them, I ran home from school one day to find them gone; not one feather left.
"Cat got them," Mama said.
In my heart, I knew she gave that outside cat permission to come in. Sobbing into my pillow until my eyelids puffed only eased the pain temporarily. Each time I saw their cotton nest on the dresser, my heart would collapse. It seemed there would be a permanent lump in my chest. "Please let Mama be forgiven," I prayed to the Lord. My life depended on those prayers, so I kept after it the way a spider builds its web, strand by silky strand.
My aunt and uncle, Ben and Shelby Love, or Brother and Sister Love, as they were known in church, took up slack for Mama. They bought me crisp new dresses, worn only to church at Goodwill Pentecostal, where they prayed and spoke in tongues until their faces turned a mottled purple. The talking in tongues freaked me out, but I loved the music, especially "I'll Fly Away." Singing it, I pictured those baby birds flapping and flapping their way to heaven where there would be no cats to ruin their good time. And even though Aunt Shelby got me to church every Sunday, and said angels were watching over me, I knew she still didn't favor me.
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kelly, was the only person who cared. She told Mama once that I had uncanny abilities with crafts and words. She said I could lace sentences together better than most adults. Mama didn't seem smitten with her observation. Later, in the car, she grabbed my chin with her fingers and aimed my face at hers. Pinching hard, she said, "Don't be getting any big-headed ideas. Willa Catherine, you ain't."
Sometimes I hated her sharp, stupid tongue.
A curtain fluttered inside the house. I ducked beside the porch, knowing if Mama was awake I needed to disappear. There would be endless fussy tasks to do if I didn't. She would keep me busy until the stars came out. Simmering in the air was the hot smell of cedar, and I thought of the river and what I had planned today. There was a new area to explore, a new season to enjoy.
"Marnie!" Mama bellowed from the open front door.
It felt good in the shade, next to a patch of ferns. If I had some Pixie Sticks and a book, I could have stayed here forever. But before I knew it, she was outside, barreling through the overgrown yard, red-faced and ready to explode. Reaching me, she snatched my arm.
"Why didn't you answer me, Sissy?"
I clutched the hem of my shorts. Give her the right answer, I thought, or there will be no escaping. My brain rattled when she shook me.
"Tell me, Marnie Jean Evans!"
When I was around, I was obedient. I tried not to be around much. "Um, I was out back throwing something on the trash pile, so I didn't hear you." It was a stretch. Actually, I'd been out there earlier, watching a quail poke around some thrown out lettuce. This half-truth somehow made me feel better. Although Mama lied to me, it bothered me lying to her, although I could still manage when necessary. My raw, praying knees attested to that.
Her eyebrows lowered. She let my arm go and clutched her head. "Lord, girl, you're gonna be the death of me. Why don't you help around here? Vaughn is coming and I need you to run to Aunt Shelby's and see if she has some Midol. My ovaries are about to explode. And sugar. Get two cups. I intend to make that man those snicker doodles he's so crazy for."
Well la-de-da, I thought. Good for Vaughn. If somebody could squeeze a snicker doodle from Jeanie Evans it was a miracle so pure. He must be doing something that I wasn't, and I didn't care to know what, either. How could you ever want to kiss someone that much? There was hair sprouting from his nose, for the sake of heaven.
The idea of Vaughn and Mama kissing made me walk faster to Aunt Shelby's, whose house was a half mile down the dirt road. My mind rambled. It was the first Friday of summer freedom from school, and I had plans for a day ripe with sun and flowers and dreams. Those plans did not include Vaughn Conner. Picturing his slanty smile lined with snicker doodle crumbs about made me throw up in a ditch. I'd probably need to be gone all night. Mama or Vaughn would never notice once they started drinking.
Before I got back home with sugar, I had it all planned. I would take my sleeping bag and two books my teacher had loaned me from her own private stash, The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd already read a sampling from the first book; J.R.R. Tolkien's descriptions made me dizzy with joy. He put his finger on shadowy stuff, and made a person love life before time fizzled, leaving none for reading, dancing or singing. And that's why I intended to read it, even if it took me a whole dang month.
Back at the house, cinnamon drenched the air as Mama baked cookies. I packed and changed into clean shorts. It's not like I'd never stayed out all night before. When they got to drinking hard, I sometimes slept underneath the house, not far from the front steps. There was a hole just big enough for me to slip through, and room enough under the house to halfway sit up. I had a tiny Jesus statue under there, kneeling next to a big stone, his hands clasped on the rock in prayer. At night, when the fighting started, I'd shine my flashlight on his red flowing cape and black glinting eyes that looked as if they were searing right through me, and heavenward both. Sometimes I'd hear Vaughn calling me, but I never let on where I was. If they were acting really crazy, I'd sleep away from the house altogether, under my favorite cypress tree in the woods.
I put my books in the backpack, still deliberating which place I'd sleep. I packed a flashlight and thin blanket. There were crackers I'd snatched from the kitchen and a hairbrush, just in case I needed to look good.
While Mama did up her mascara and sprayed her hair dead with Aqua Net, which she carried in her purse, as well as in Vaughn's truck, I snuck outside and slid the backpack through the hole and under the house. Back inside, I grabbed a warm cookie from the plate and bunched it into my mouth. Mama came in and gave me that mad, crazed expression she wore when she was sober; it was like she was expecting the sun to crash through the ceiling and land on our heads. She was always looking for something new to be unhappy about. When she spotted my cookie filled mouth, she popped my hand. I winced, but didn't cry, even though it stung to heaven high.
"Those are for Vaughn," said Mama. "Now you high tail it on out of here for awhile."
I was shooed like a wasp or fly. "My plan exactly," I mumbled before cracking each knuckle.
"Don't sass me," she said at my back. "Keep cracking those knuckles and you'll have cave man hands before you know it."
Because Mama was acting weirder than normal, I made my mind up to sleep under my tree. I collected my backpack from under the house and took off. Soon I was in the woods, a place more home to me than anywhere. Land was my best friend. I socialized with it on a daily basis. It's a good thing, too, because that's all we had to our name, two hundred acres, passed down through two generations on Mama's side.
The sun turned everything golden, the wind whipping my hair as I ran. Stopping to listen, the earth crackled with sound: bugs' wings, birdsong and the slight sound of butterflies sipping nectar cocktails. Sometimes I truly expected leprechaun or fairy sightings, even though I was well past the age to believe such nonsense.
From the corner of my eye I saw a shadow gliding over the path and realized it was Pumpkin, our orange tabby, trying to follow me. Stopping dead in my tracks, I wheeled around and balled up my fists. Pumpkin got the mean eye. After a twenty-second stare off she high-tailed it out of there. The bird incident had poisoned my heart towards her. In my mind were those baby birds, shrieking for worms, and her biting into them like Halloween candy.
It wasn't long before I came up behind a tiny white clapboard house, owned by Aunt Shelby and rented to city slickers, although today it appeared empty. The field behind the house was ablaze with yellow and chocolate color. I'd forgotten it was brown-eyed Susan time. I think I forgot every year on purpose, so when I saw them it was like a brand new experience. Through the flower quilt I raced, arms flung from my sides, until I was bone tired. Lowering myself into all that beauty, I instantly disappeared. I lay on my back and watched clouds swirl into shapes only my imagination could sketch. There was a lizard the size of a semi and a ship complete with pirates. A plank was added to the ship, and really stretching my imagination, a poor helpless captive teetering on the edge.
The air, whirling with flower scent made me wild. I wanted to kiss a boy without nose hair, climb a tree, or possibly steal the sun, but settled on being crafty. Popping up, I picked blossoms like crazy. It took awhile to thread them into a wreath. When done, I crowned myself. Twirling, I shouted to the trees, "Marnie Evans, Queen of the Forest!" Now I could explore.
Following a backcountry paved road, I came to a familiar canyon. For awhile I skirted the edge, watching transparent bugs no bigger than sugar flecks swirl funnel-like in the sun. I moved on. Back in the woods, I came to the place I had nicknamed Bird Nest Acres. Ball moss latched itself onto oak branches, making them look full of birds' nests. Some dangled like spiky ornaments. At school this year we learned that ball moss was an epiphytic plant, which meant its nutrition came from the air, not the tree. The oaks seemed like scraggly old men, pooped out from watching things grow and change for two hundred years. Any minute I half expected them to groan. This place was starting to creep me out.
A glimmer of color peeked through the trees. I ran toward it, spider webs silky against my skin. Not thinking where or how far I'd gone, I finally stopped at a redbud tree that pulsed with color. Why it was still blooming puzzled me; the rest had already done their business. A blind person must have named them redbuds, because the limbs screamed purple-budded profusion.
Mesmerized, I sat and gawked. In Sunday school Rachael Lampas had told us how the Lord loved details. That Sunday she brought different colored beetles pinned to cardboard, their lives given up for our spiritual lesson. We had examined the zigzag color shots on the bugs' backs and scratched our heads in pure wonder. My crafts and poems were downright stupid compared to the Lord's talents. Even so, I was mad at myself for not bringing paper and pencil. This tree deserved a poem and I would write one. It would go in my red notebook plastered with rabbit stickers.
I finally stood and took in my surroundings. The big trees were gone. Cedar and prickly pear cactus had moved in. Stepping gingerly over cactus, I realized how far I'd ventured. There was nothing but strange sights, knobby hills and a canyon I didn't recognize. This was not where I'd meant to explore. Being lost got me all out of whack.
My stomach churned. What if I wasn't discovered and had to wander out here forever? I thought instantly of feral children. We'd read about one in school, a human child taken in by wolves and forced to survive with the pack. Maybe when they found me I'd be naked and filthy with fresh musky meat between my teeth. That was almost as gross as nose hair.
Crows cawed, their noise razor sharp. The racket, which usually comforted me, gave me the willies today. I shivered and couldn't stop. Walking fast, I repeated to myself, "Marnie Evans, Queen of the Forest, Queen of the Forest." It moved me along, although I didn't know to where. And I didn't cry, even when a tree limb whacked me square in the eye. Knuckle popping queens are tough.