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Rachel J Howzell

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A Quiet Storm
by Rachel J Howzell   

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Category: 

Mystery/Suspense

Publisher:  Scribner ISBN-10:  074322616X Type: 
Pages: 

249

Copyright:  2002 ISBN-13:  9780743226165
Fiction

A husband disappears... What happened to him?

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In this vividly written, suspense-driven novel, the secrets shared between two sisters erupt in tragedy.

Rikki Moore was always the star of the family, easily outshining her younger sister, Stacy, at every turn. Smart, kind, and beautiful, it was no surprise when Rikki met and married the perfect man -- pediatrician Matt Dresden. Her students at 59th Street Elementary School adored her, the church matrons solicited her help on every committee, and everyone wanted the golden couple to put in an appearance at their parties. Stacy? She was just the overweight little sister who couldn't get her love life together.

But the world didn't know about the storms that rippled just beneath the surface of Rikki's image of perfection. Ever since she was a teenager there were emotional breakdowns and obsessive behaviors -- secrets that Stacy was left to bear alone. Folks whispered, but they didn't know. When Rikki's husband, Matt, mysteriously disappears, however, the Moore family's carefully constructed image comes crashing down.


Excerpt

QUEEN OF HEARTS

Arika -- we called her Rikki -- pulled luck from life like a blackjack dealer pulls aces from a deck. In junior high school, she was voted Best Figure and Most Likely to Succeed. She won poetry contests, received scholarships from Bank of America and the Urban League, scored 1,500 on the SATs, graduated salutatorian of her class, and sacked lunches at the Los Angeles Mission.

She taught fourth grade at 59th Street Elementary School, in the heart of South Central Los Angeles?Rolling 60's gang territory. The hearts of the boys in her class fluttered for the first time in their prepubescent lives when they met Miss Moore. The girls styled their hair with their mothers' big-barreled curling irons to simulate their teacher's cascades. Her colleagues stole her lesson plans because Rikki's students outperformed other kids in the school district.

My sister received more Valentine's Day cards, more Christmas mugs, and more PTA accolades than any other teacher at 59th Street School. She earned her students' love with her warmth, her badly delivered jokes, and the Toll House cookies she baked for them every Friday. With her own money, she bought extra books for the classroom if there was a need, and during gang wars that raged outside the safety of the school grounds, she would load into her car her students who had to walk home. She dropped every frightened child at his or her doorstep. She couldn't sleep at night if she knew that she hadn't done all she could to protect them. "Teaching is my ministry," Rikki would say.

Women solicited her presence for teas and receptions, committees of this and boards of that. No debutante could come out, no Snickerdoodle could be sold, and no Christmas song could be caroled unless she sat on the advisory committee or hosted a fund-raising brunch or donated at least one hundred bucks. She never forgot birthdays and anniversaries. She served God and man to make the world a better place. She out-Pollyanna-ed Pollyanna. At first.

These same committee members and ladies who lunched expected me to hate her perfection, to belittle her efforts and her stewardship, but I couldn't. Rikki never gloated or bragged. She never acted smug and smarmy...how I'd act if I were beautiful, smart, and civic-minded. Who says God doesn't know what He's doing as He hands out gifts?

To add to her abundance, God supplied Rikki with a perfect companion: pediatrician Matthew Dresden. He, too, walked humbly among men even though he was exceptional. Matt spoke six languages, including Mandarin Chinese, and had finished college days after his twentieth birthday. He had joined the Peace Corps in Guatemala for a year. Matt also made the pulses of nurses and fretful mothers at Cedars-Sinai Hospital rise and reach levels not attained with their own boyfriends or husbands. Even when he knew that many of these women's kids weren't sick, he still delighted in making his tiny patients giggle at his magic tricks and funny voices and pretended not to be aware of their mothers' intentions.

Matt met Rikki at a church camp retreat. Some say it was love at first sight. Maybe it was. Maybe it was something else.

It's always been my opinion that a woman should wait at least three dates to sleep with a guy. Rikki, despite her high IQ, fell short by two dates and believed Matt when he said, "I've never met a woman like you, let's spend our lives together, blah, blah, blah" (on their first date, can you believe that?) just as Eve fell for the "You will have eternal life" line from the Serpent. But I'm also a realist. We all make mistakes when a beautiful man has his hands up your skirt.

Despite their premature coupling, Matt called Rikki back for a second date. Their relationship blossomed until they epitomized the All-American African-American Couple. Rikki and Matt kissed in line at Disneyland. They called each other "sweet pea" and "love bug." They kept their hands tucked into each other's back pockets. They talked at noon every day just to say, "I love you." I discovered this when the cops showed me their phone records.

Six years after they met, Rikki and Matt announced their engagement to a crowd of fifty "close" family and friends over tender Chilean sea bass and steamed asparagus with a divine citrus mayonnaise. I planned this special evening once it became apparent that Rikki was overwhelmed by the font selection for the invitations and deciding whether to use the stamps with the hearts or the stamps with the cupid.

Mommy muttered, "My baby's getting married," the entire evening until tears silenced her. Tears of joy? Tears of sorrow? A mixture of both? To be honest, I don't think she believed that Rikki would ever marry. Regardless, Mommy ran out of tissue by the time the waiters served the lemon tarts. Her mascara didn't mix well with the tears and the oil that already soiled her face. I wouldn't say she looked like a raccoon, but...well, you decide if you ever see the pictures.

Matt's mother, the widow Zenobia, recited her own mantra that night. "Oh, how wonderful. Oh, how wonderful" -- and pretended to dry nonexistent tears with her starched monogrammed hankie. A hankie. In the twentieth century. Can you believe that? Okay, maybe my mother also accessorized with a useless swatch of material that night, but Mommy was nowhere near as tacky as Zenobia.

Zenobia Dresden was one of those rich ladies who couldn't find class if it were stapled to her elbow. She decorated with a hatchet and a single color swatch: red. She drove a red convertible Cadillac Eldorado with bloodred leather seats. And her house. Eight red velvet chairs surrounded the black-lacquered table that sat in the middle of her dining room. Fake red calla lilies sat in a red vase, which shimmered in the glow of the red-and-white crystal chandelier. Of course, this was set against a photographic mural of a Hawaiian sunset. And yes, there were the animal-print throw rugs, and brass elephant planters here and there, and the black velvet painting of Jesus and His disciples. I have to admit -- she had a theme. And she carried it over to fashion -- scarlet hankie and all -- the night of the engagement dinner.

As Pastor Phillips blessed the food that evening, the widow Zenobia kept her eyes open. I guess she couldn't glare at her future daughter-in-law with closed eyes. Yes, my eyes were also open, but that's different. I don't get up in church and call myself a prayer warrior like some people. And my eyes were open not because I didn't believe what we prayed for, like some people. I don't think I need to name names.

After we all said "Amen," Zenobia sighed, "Oh, how wonderful, just wonderful."

Like a broken phonograph, that woman. Like cheese made from soybeans. Fake, fake, and more fake. She didn't fool me. I knew that Zenobia cursed out Matt the night he introduced her to Arika Moore over dinner a year after they started to date. She actually frowned whenever she said our last name. Moore. The way some people spit out Hitler or Nixon or Cher.

"You're just like your no-good father, that lousy son of a...," Zenobia said to her son after Rikki left her home. Miss Compton 1995 was her choice of daughter-in-law. Madison Reems (a Madison in Compton, can you believe it?) was a Lena Horne look-alike with an empty Cracker Jack box for a brain. To make matters worse, Matt Senior had, just before dying of congestive heart failure, left the country and Zenobia for Spain and for a dermatologist's assistant who resembled Rikki around the nose and chin. The widow hated Rikki as much as she hated paella and cortisone.

Rikki laughed when Matt reluctantly told her about his mother's feelings, flicked it away with her slender hand. Chalked it up to the widow Zenobia's love of J & B, Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker, Wild Turkey, and schnapps (if someone distilled it, the widow drank it).

Rikki and Matt's relationship endured. But as the time for their wedding drew closer, the gossip mill chugged into overtime. Rikki had never spoken ill of her enemies, had never stolen a boyfriend, wasn't involved in any of that talk show drama. But folks had a bad case of the grapes, you know? Matt hadn't chosen their daughters. What had Rikki done to deserve him?

A friend of a friend of Mommy's told her sister's cousin's niece (who does my hair) that Zenobia said one night after prayer meeting, "I don't trust that Arika Moore. And I don't want Matthew marrying her, either. I told him, ?Son, Madison was Miss Compton 1995. She's drop-dead gorgeous, smart as a whip, and more talented than Whitney Houston. Can Whitney play the accordion? Madison can. And she don't need no drugs to keep her head straight.' But he says to me, ?Mother, Rikki's just as beautiful, highly intelligent, and taught herself piano, and I love her.' I don't care, though. There's something about that girl that's off, taking all those pills. I can't put my finger on it right now, but it's worrying me. I stay on my knees all the time, pleading with the Lord."

Of course, I told Mommy about this one morning on our way to church.

"Who is she to be talking about who's crazy?" Mommy said. "Rikki loves Matthew and that's all that matters. And as far as drugs go, everybody pops something once in a while. Aspirin, St. John's warts, that stuff those ADD kids take. It's all the same." As we neared the church, Mommy tucked a pink lace handkerchief in her bra and pulled on her fuchsia church hat. "Zenobia hates Rikki 'cause she ain't high yellow like Miss Ghetto America, that's all."

True, I guess. But then...

Zenobia Dresden did rise to the occasion on December 20, 1996, Rikki and Matt's wedding day. It was the last major social event of the year: buppies joining together in holy matrimony before God and society. Everyone came, including our congresswoman, pastors from two of L.A.'s prominent black churches, and a movie star. They probably wanted to see if Miss Compton 1995 would bust into Wilshire Methodist Church with an Uzi and a broken forty-ounce.



Professional Reviews

Publisher's Weekly
Stacy and Rikki Moore are troubled siblings in a well-to-do African-American family obsessed with appearances in A Quiet Storm, the debut novel from Rachel Howzell Hall. From a young age, Stacy desperately tries to cover for unstable Nikki-a girl otherwise blessed with talent, intelligence, beauty and popularity-but ends up overweight and living in her younger sister's shadow. Despite her achievements, Nikki goes from being a girl who "wept at the sight of a stray cat" to a volatile adolescent who tries to commit suicide and an adult who is suspected of murdering her pediatrician husband, Matt, after their marriage falls apart. The author portrays mental illness (including the denial of it) with realism and sensitivity, but what really sets this novel apart is Stacey's lively narration, which crackles with dark humor, wisdom and self-deprecation. Though Hall tends to paint with broad strokes, she is capable of skillfully imbuing even the most over-the-top scenes with subtlety and fresh insight.

Library Journal
Insightful and empathic, first novelist Hall's portrayal of bipolar disorder and its long-term effects on an African American family grabs readers from the start. Stacy, the narrator, begins her story with a childhood memory of a storm and goes on to liken her sister's life to a series of storms, an image that works very well. Stacy is compelled by family expectations to watch over and protect Arika, a sensitive child and then a troubled teen who grows into an unpredictable adult. As Rikki's illness progresses, their parents wring their hands helplessly, unable to cope. Counseling and drug therapy are sought only after Rikki's suicide attempt, but her sporadic use of her medication renders both therapies ineffectual. Despite her disorder, Rikki becomes a successful teacher and marries a wealthy doctor, though her bouts of crying and obsessive behavior eventually put her job and her marriage at risk. Meanwhile, the stress of continuing to watch out for her sister ruins Stacy's marriage and her health as well. While Arika's path to self-destruction is predictable, the shocking conclusion alone is worth the price of the book. A surprisingly accurate and touching drama of chronic mental illness, this compelling story is recommended for public libraries and book groups. - Jennifer Baker, Seattle P.L.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.



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