Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
Come a Little Closer
Formats and Prices
- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 23, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
Table of Contents
CHRISTINA TUCKER GASPED in fright as the jagged fork of lightning splintered across the darkening sky. Strong gusts of wind lashed the trees of the thick wood, bending boughs and violently rustling leaves. The fresh, strong scent of the storm enveloped her as if it were a blanket, overpowering. Heavy drops of rain suddenly began to fall, hammering against collapsed tree limbs and rocks, muddying the earth, and soaking her blouse to her skin. Thunder rolled toward her from close by, menacing. There was no chance to outrun the storm.
"Charlotte!" she shouted. "Charlotte! Where are you?"
Shivering from both cold and fear, Christina looked frantically for a sign of her older sister. Only moments earlier, Charlotte and their dog, Jasper, had been beside her as they hurried from one clearing to the next, racing between the massive evergreens and elms that surrounded Lake Washington, desperately trying to get home before the storm struck. She had only stopped for an instant to fix her shoe…
Now, she was completely alone.
"Charlotte!" she cried again in growing worry, her voice swallowed by the squall; there was still no answer.
Christina struggled to hold back her fears. She had no real sense of where she was. No matter what direction she turned, she saw only darkness, lit for a flickering instant by each flash of lightning. Though it was only late afternoon, the storm had brought heavy, dark clouds that shrouded the sky as black as night. Panicked, she could not remember what direction she had come from, or even where she had been headed. The lake might be in front of her or behind; if she knew where it was, she could have skirted its shore until she found town. But blindly stumbling into the brush would only make her more lost. Who knew what could happen? She could catch cold in the downpouring rain, stumble into a deep hole, twist her ankle, wander so far out into the tall trees that she would never be found, or, even worse, encounter a wild animal.
If only I were older than eight, Christina thought. Then I might know what to do…
The rain began to fall harder; it pounded the forest so relentlessly that Christina couldn't hear any other sound. Every inch of her was drenched; raising her hand to shield her face couldn't keep the water from getting into her eyes or from soaking her dark hair.
She was scared, alone, and quickly growing cold; though the summer day had been hot and humid, a typical August afternoon in Minnesota, the rain had brought with it a chill that set her shivering.
She needed to get home, quickly.
Suddenly, the sound of rustling leaves behind her broke through the overwhelming din of the storm. Spinning on her heel, Christina searched for some sign of what had made the noise, but she could see nothing. She strained to listen, hoping with all her heart that it was Charlotte finally coming back for her, or that maybe Jasper was rooting around, his worn old nose somehow managing to find her scent and reunite them. But with every passing second, nothing, or no one, revealed itself. When she heard the sharp sound of a stick snapping somewhere off to her left, she let out an involuntary gasp, her nerves pulled tighter than piano wire.
"Charlotte?" she asked. "Is that you?"
There was no answer.
BOOM! Thunder raced across the woods.
In that instant, in her mind, Christina heard the voice of her father as surely as if he were standing beside her. Over and over he had warned her about the dangers lurking in the woods around their home. Fox, wildcats, and even bears and wolves had been spotted, animals with sharp teeth and long claws, beasts capable of tearing her flesh from the bone. While there were beasts that walked on four legs, there were others who walked on two: men who were sick, who were desperate and depraved enough to hurt a little girl.
"Charlotte…," her voice trailed, her eyes wide with fright.
When the leaves again began to rustle, Christina didn't wait to see if anything emerged from the brush. At the first sound, she was off running, blindly careening through chokeberry shrubs, plunging past ninebark bushes, and trampling baneberry flowers beneath her feet. Branches struck her face and arms as clinging nettles pulled at the fabric of her blouse and skirt, but still she kept going, her legs pumping furiously, desperate to get away from what was surely right behind her, breathing down her neck.
Ducking beneath a low-hanging branch, Christina bumped it, sending a cascade of water plunging down onto her head; she was so panicked that she ignored it, desperate to keep running. Her breath was ragged, her vision blurry with rainwater, and her arm ached from a long, thin cut sliced by a thorn, but nothing mattered except getting away as fast as she could.
BOOM! The storm continued relentlessly to pound the forest.
"Charlotte! Where are you? Charlotte?"
On and on Christina ran, never slowing, never looking back, just running, running. She had never been as resourceful or levelheaded as Charlotte, never calm in a crisis; there was no way to keep Christina's emotions from running out of control. Thoughts rushed through her as fast as the trees she dashed past: horror at what was the source of the sounds that were closing quickly behind her; worry that she wasn't going in the right direction but running away from the safety she so desperately sought; the image of her mother, pacing before the window, wondering why her daughters weren't home…
Just as Christina was about to jump over a rotting tree stump, her feet suddenly flew out from under her and she crashed down onto the muddy ground. She fell hard, sliding on her front, the muck coating her clothes and face.
"Ooofff!" she gasped as the air was driven from her chest.
Desperately, she struggled to get back to her feet. Under the relentless driving rain, her hands grabbed fistfuls of the wet earth. Over and over she tried to gain purchase as her feet pushed, then slid, then pushed again before falling. No matter what, she refused to look back, to have to watch as what she had been running from finally caught up to her.
I won't let him catch me! I won't! I won't!
It was then, just as Christina was about to scream, that she heard a dog bark. The sound was close, cutting through the raging storm, and getting closer.
Jasper! And wherever he was, her sister was surely nearby.
Before Christina could call out either of their names, the bush beside her rustled and parted, revealing her sister. Soaking wet from the storm, Charlotte Tucker's blond curls cascaded down the front of her once-white blouse, now caked with streaks of dark mud. Her hands and arms were scratched and dirty, but from the broad smile on her face it was obvious that she didn't care in the slightest. Right behind her came Jasper, his tan coat wet and matted, his tongue lolling sideways out of his mouth. Panting without pause, he scurried over to where Christina lay and nuzzled his nose into the crook of her shoulder.
Even with the comfort of having been found, the fear did not leave Christina easily; she looked back over her shoulder to where she believed her pursuer to be, but there was no one there.
"Where in the world have you been?" Charlotte frowned, kneeling down beside her younger sister, the hem of her skirt flopping into the mud. "Jasper and I have been looking everywhere for you. It wasn't until Jasper heard you running around, crashing through the brush, that we knew where you were."
Jasper barked as if in agreement.
"I sto-stopped to tie…tie my shoe and you-you were gone!" Christina cried, struggling to contain the tremor in her voice. "You know how I ha-hate bein' in the woods by myself!"
"I didn't leave you—"
"Yes, you did!" Christina insisted.
BOOM! More lightning and thunder.
"What are you getting so worked up about? We found you, didn't we? Nothing bad has happened to you, so stop your bellyaching."
Deep down in her heart, Christina knew that Charlotte was right; she should have been relieved, happy to be back with her sister. From the moment Christina found herself alone, all she had wanted was to find Charlotte. Listening to how childish Charlotte made her fear sound, Christina almost felt worse than when she believed she was being chased through the woods. It was humiliating. Charlotte was only six years older, but she always seemed so confident, so fearless, that no matter what Christina did, she always felt like a baby. She could no longer contain her tears. She had been as brave as she could be, but no more.
"If this is the way you're going to be," Charlotte huffed, "Jasper and I'll go on home without you," and she turned to leave.
"No, Charlotte!" Christina cried. "Don't leave me!"
Desperately, Christina tried to get to her feet but slipped back down to the muddy ground. The rain pelted her unmercifully. The thought of Charlotte leaving her behind was even more unbearable than the thought of being chased.
But just as her panic peaked, her sister stopped, turned, and came back to her. Gone was the impatience and disgust for her young sibling. In its place was a spark of compassion.
"Get up out of the mud," Charlotte said as she helped Christina to her still-unsteady feet. "Our folks are used to me coming home looking like something the cat dragged in, but you being that way is going to turn their heads but good. More than likely, it'll just get me into more trouble."
"I'm sorry, Charlotte," Christina sobbed. "I was…I was so scared!"
"Just stop right there," Charlotte ordered, her voice sharp enough to bring a halt to her sister's emotional outburst. "There's something that you have to accept in life, Christina. No matter how much you want to believe otherwise, you will get lost again, you will be scared, you will be in danger, real or not, and I'll not always be there to help you."
"I know that…it's just—"
"No, you don't know. Everybody, no matter who they are, no matter how old they are, gets scared sometime."
"But you never do!"
"Yes, I do," Charlotte answered with a shake of her curls and a knowing smile. "But when it happens to me, I don't panic. I don't invent things that go bump in the night. I keep my head and use it. When I do that, things have a way of working out."
"But I didn't invent anything!"
"You were running because you thought something was chasing you, right?"
Christina hesitated. "But…but there was!"
"Then where is it now?"
Confused, Christina looked around them; there was still no sign of whatever it was she believed had been chasing her. Even if it had been hiding, Jasper surely would have sensed it and growled. Maybe it had been her overactive imagination getting the better of her. Maybe she had been so frightened that she had created something out of thin air and she had run without really knowing the truth. When she looked back at Charlotte, she couldn't think of anything to say.
"You're going to have to learn not to turn tail and run away from what scares you," Charlotte explained.
"I…I know," Christina agreed. "But…but I'm still glad you found me."
"Me too." Her sister smiled as Jasper barked.
OAK, ELM, AND EVERGREEN trees whizzed past the open window of the Ford coupe as it raced wildly down the backcountry road, slipping on the loose dirt and gravel. The road twisted and turned, rose and then fell, but the car hurtled on faster and faster. Occasionally, Christina Tucker glimpsed an old, weathered house or a leaning barn, but she hadn't time to make out more than the color of paint before it was lost from sight.
She pressed her feet hard into the floorboard in a futile attempt to slow the car from the passenger's seat, one hand clenched tightly to the door frame, the other pressed flat against the dash. She felt sick to her stomach, certain she was about to meet a fiery end.
"Lord have mercy!" she gasped through clenched teeth.
"If there was one thing that was a given in this world, it was that someday Hugh Simmons was going to burn his house to the ground."
Dr. Samuel Barlow sat behind the Ford's wheel completely at ease, driving with one hand draped over the steering wheel, the other in his lap, rising only to shift. Gears ground as they were shifted, arguing loudly before jarring into place, a loud, screeching process. The wind rushing in through the window tousled Barlow's white, thinning hair. He talked with a slight accent unidentifiable to Christina, and when he wasn't speaking he had a habit of chewing the inside of his cheek. He was an older man who looked his age: his shoulders slumped slightly beneath his worn, rumpled dark coat, and his belly protruded in an obvious paunch. His eyes appeared large, behind the thick lenses of his glasses, and his face was a bit jowly, not the features of a particularly pleasant man. Still, although Christina found it easy to ignore the doctor's grumpiness, there was one thing about him that she simply could not ignore.
He was one heck of a poor driver.
"With the way Hugh always has one of those damn cigarettes clutched between his fingers," Dr. Barlow growled, "you'd think the fool had eleven digits instead of ten! Only a matter of time before he fell asleep, passed out drunk most likely, and burned his place to the ground."
While he spoke, the car drifted toward the shoulder, its wheels dipping over into the soft earth before he yanked them back to the center. Rocks pounded against the coupe's undercarriage, a noise made worse by the sirens and clanging bells of the fire truck and sheriff's cars racing down the road ahead of them. Christina fought the urge to cover her ears.
"Been out here so many times I could make the drive with my eyes closed." Barlow chuckled.
Christina caught a frantic glimpse of herself in the coupe's side mirror: wispy strands of her long, black hair swirled this way and that, dancing in front of her emerald green eyes, gliding over the bridge of her delicate nose, wrapping around her clenched jaw, before cascading across her white blouse. Beads of sweat flourished on her forehead. She didn't like what she saw; she looked ashen.
With his foot firmly planted on the accelerator, Dr. Barlow suddenly rocketed toward the sheriff's car directly in front of them with such speed that Christina was certain there would be a collision.
"Watch out for the—!" was all she had time to shout before fearfully closing her eyes, turning her head, and bracing herself for impact. Nothing happened. At the last possible moment, Barlow again swerved the car sharply, then braked so hard that the tires locked and skidded, shoving Christina's stomach into her throat, before again barreling forward. Through it all, he continued to chatter.
"I remember one time down at Marla's Diner," Dr. Barlow kept on, completely oblivious to how he was terrifying his passenger. "Hugh must've dozed off for a second while he was having breakfast, 'cause all of a sudden he leaped up out of his chair, yelling loud enough to wake the dead. You've got to be one hell of an imbecile to drop enough cigarette ash in your lap to burn a hole clean through your britches!"
It was almost impossible for Christina to believe that this was her first day in Longstock. She hadn't known what to expect on her arrival; on the train she had wondered if there would be a crowd, townspeople gathering to welcome her. She had not expected there to be a band or a parade as there had been when the men had returned from the war. But for there to be only Dr. Barlow, scuffing his shoes against the platform and doing nothing to stifle a yawn, was a bit disheartening.
Still, it hadn't done much to dim her excitement. This was to be the beginning of her new life, leaving behind her family in Minnesota and striking out on her own. She had long wondered what it would be like to experience such a moment, and no amount of disappointment was going to stand in the way of enjoying its beginning.
But just as Dr. Barlow was about to show her where she would be staying, the sheriff skidded his car to a halt beside them, its siren wailing, and frantically related what had happened. After Christina and Dr. Barlow had hastily wedged her trunk into the rear of the coupe, they all set off like a shot. Falling in behind the fire truck and sheriff, she and Dr. Barlow began the frenzied race to Hugh Simmons's home.
For as long as she could remember, all Christina had wanted was to help people. When her sister or friends skinned a knee or bloodied an arm or nose, she had faithfully tended to their wounds. She was fascinated by what it took to make a wrong thing right. Eventually, that interest had blossomed into much more. Encouraged by her parents and grandmother, Christina had enrolled at a small nursing college in St. Paul. Her greatest inspiration had been her sister. When Charlotte Tucker graduated from school, she had moved to Oklahoma to become a teacher. She fell in love, got married, and began raising a family. Christina had worked hard, earned good grades, and thought her life would follow a similar trajectory.
But then the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and her life, along with that of every other American citizen, had been changed forever. Instead of taking a position in a small town in the Midwest as she had long hoped, Christina found herself stationed at Fort Winger in Michigan. As a new member of the Army Nurse Corps, she was responsible for tending to soldiers sent home from the front lines with debilitating injuries. Every day, men arrived with missing limbs, some swathed head to toe in bandages, others burned nearly beyond recognition, all often on the brink of death or desolation. They came from every branch of the service, from all over the country, with backgrounds and accents unlike any she had met before. She cared for them as best she could; with a warm smile, an ear well suited to listening, while doing her best to hide the tears she could never completely seem to banish.
Years passed and the war raged on. When soldiers she knew were sent off to fight on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, men like Charlotte's husband, Owen, Christina feverishly prayed that they would not end up in her hospital; every time new soldiers arrived, she fought against the urge to search each of their faces, fearful she would see one who was familiar. Her prayers had been answered. However, she still saw more than her share of men whose lives were shattered, where rebuilding what once was would be painstakingly difficult, if not impossible.
Even after Germany and Japan surrendered, Christina's duty to those still leaving the battlefields showed no indication of stopping. Summer became fall, which then became winter, and still she worked with no end in sight.
But just as she began to wonder if things were ever going to change, salvation arrived in an unlikely form. One night during dinner, a fellow nurse read aloud a letter she had received from back home in Wisconsin; in it, among the usual recollections and gossip, was the offer of a nursing position. The girl to whom the offer had been made loudly declared she had no intention of returning to the life she had previously led; she wanted to find a job in New York City. Christina then surprised even herself by asking if she might inquire about the offer. A couple of letters and a lengthy phone call later, the job was hers.
In the days and weeks after, she'd been so excited she could barely sleep. She would have a chance to use what she had learned, in a happier place, not one filled with the results of the horrors of war. She took great pride in the comfort she had given to soldiers, but now she wanted to soothe children and care for the elderly. She wanted to help bring babies into the world, just as her grandmother and mother, midwives both, had done. She wanted to be a part of a community, to build a life that would take root. Longstock offered her just such an opportunity.
"…taking his life in his own hands, which is just plain foolish!"
"Who's being foolish?" Christina asked, wondering if it could be possible that the doctor was talking about his own driving.
"Hugh is the fool, of course," he snorted. "If he had listened to what I've been telling him, he wouldn't be in the mess he's in today, by God!"
Dr. Barlow drove the car hard up a steep incline that soon veered sharply to the left. Not once did he step off the gas pedal; the engine strained, pressing Christina against the passenger's door. The coupe's rear end began to fishtail, shooting bits of gravel off the road and down into the ditch. Every terrifying instant, Christina expected the car to follow, plummeting over the edge and becoming a fiery, twisted mass of charred metal, but somehow they shot down the other bend of the curve in one piece. Still, they managed to clip a mailbox with the front fender, sending the box and splintered remains of the post hurtling over their hood and scattering behind them in the road.
"Shouldn't put the damn things so close to the road." Dr. Barlow frowned.
"How much farther is it?" Christina asked, more out of a mounting concern for her own safety.
"Just a short ways," Dr. Barlow answered. "Just up and down a few more hills and there it'll be on the river's side."
Even before she could see the dark, billowing plume of smoke rising from the burning Simmons home, Christina could smell it: an acrid penetrating odor drifting on the spring breeze, strong enough to make her nose wrinkle. When the black spiraling smoke came into view, it looked angry.
"When we get there, grab my bag out of the back and follow close behind," Dr. Barlow explained. "Only the Good Lord knows how bad a mess that buffoon has made of things, so I don't know what I'll need and I don't want to be searching for my things or wondering where you might be."
"Then we'll get along just fine."
Now if we can only make it there in one piece.
The Ford coupe bumped and thudded over every pothole in Hugh Simmons's drive as it followed the fire truck and sheriff's car toward the house. Frustrated, Dr. Barlow whipped the car down into the tall grass and weeds of the lawn; the motion turned Christina's stomach while giving her a first glimpse of the fire's devastation.
The two-story house couldn't have been much to look at before the fire; items littered the yard and spilled over onto the drive. Christina spotted a cast-iron stove, an icebox missing two of its legs, a pair of sawhorses that had themselves been sawed in half, and an antique phonograph player, its megaphone in tatters, rotted completely through. Rusted, empty food cans, bound stacks of newspapers, and discarded clothing filled in every available space, it resembled a garbage dump. A mangy old dog sat at the edge of the disaster, idly scratching at its ear.
Looming over it all was the house. Tongues of hungry red, orange, and yellow flames licked up and over every surface. Black smoke billowed from every broken window and doorway, pushed through gaping holes in the ramshackle roof, and soared skyward. Beams cracked and glass popped. The inside was undoubtedly packed full of refuse, more fuel to stoke the fire's insatiable hunger. Waves of intense heat washed over them, sucking the air from their lungs. Much of the house had already been consumed; it didn't look like it would be much longer before the whole thing collapsed.
"It was only a matter of time 'fore this happened." Dr. Barlow shook his head before setting the coupe's hand brake. He groaned as he got out of the car, then began striding toward the house. Christina grabbed his medical bag and hurried to follow.
All around them, men rushed to fight the fire. Members of the volunteer fire department pumped furiously at the well, feverishly filling buckets and passing them forward to douse the flames. Others soaked blankets beneath the pump faucet before flinging them, again and again, at the smoldering grass and bushes. One man took an axe off the side of the fire truck, its sharp blade gleaming in the sunlight, and began chopping at tree limbs that hung close to the side of the house, to prevent the fire from spreading. Over all the turmoil, the sheriff's voice could be heard, ordering the firefighters first one way and then another, all of them trying to do what they could so that the Simmonses didn't suffer a complete loss.
The Simmons family wasn't hard to find; Hugh, his wife, and their four children were sitting in the yard beside a gnarled elm tree in front of the house where a suspended tire twisted and turned in the scant breeze. They all appeared shocked and were streaked with soot and grime. One of the boys hacked with a persistent cough while the mother's tears cleared trails down her dirty face. Amazingly, Hugh Simmons held a lit cigarette between trembling fingers. He puffed on it furiously.
- On Sale
- Nov 23, 2011
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing