The Road Home


By Susan Crandall

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Susan Crandall takes you back to Glens Crossing with a story of heartbreak and forgiveness, of finding your way to the home of your heart.

Lily Holt’s life is falling apart. Her marriage is over. Her ex-husband is in alcohol rehab. Her teenage son, Riley, is out of control. Looking for a new start and stability for her son, she reluctantly returns to her childhood home, a town she’d left without reservation fourteen years before. But Riley is quickly in trouble again. And Lily’s problems mulitply ten-fold when Clay Winters, her frist love and first heartbreak, is thrust back into her — and her son’s — lives. Will the painful secrets of the past bring her downfall or her salvation?


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Magnolia Sky

Copyright Page

It's strange how a single event can alter the course of your entire life. Of course, some are obvious: winning the lottery, getting hit by a car when you're riding your bicycle, saving a kid from drowning in the lake, or your momma running off with a liquor salesman. But it's those more secret things, the ones that keep quiet and don't reveal themselves until the fall of events has completed itself, that seem to make the most significant changes. You know something started you on the path from there to here, but only by backtracking can the source be found. Follow the trail of toppled dominoes and pretty soon, there you are, staring squarely at the reason your life took a left turn onto a gravel road filled with potholes instead of a right turn onto the sweetly paved blacktop with clear shoulder markings.

For Lily Holt, that event was finding a single cigarette butt.

Twenty-one years later

Chapter 1

For the past twelve years of her marriage, Lily had fought against the cyclone working to tear her world apart. She'd frantically snatched and grabbed the pieces, as the winds whipped and whorled, ripping them away more quickly than she could reassemble them.

Maybe she shouldn't have tried so hard. Maybe at sight of the first black thunderhead on the horizon she should have simply thrown her body over her son, covered her head and waited to see where things settled after the storm. Maybe then her ex-husband, Peter, wouldn't be in alcohol rehab right now. Then the divorce would have been over before Riley was old enough to react with so much antagonistic belligerence and bad behavior. Even if he had, he would have been young enough to control—and it would all be just a distant memory by now.

Exhausted from the past days' emotional events and the five-hour drive from Chicago, Lily pulled up in front of the southern Indiana lake cottage and shut off the engine, telling herself she was not running away. She was putting necessary space between Riley and his grandparents, herself and her ex-husband. She was taking the first step toward a new life.

After a long and bumpy struggle, she and Peter had surrendered the fight for their marriage. And for some inexplicable reason, with the ending of her present, Lily had a sudden, irrepressible urge to review her past. That past was deeply rooted in Glens Crossing, the catalysts for its changing course embedded in this cottage on Forrester Lake.

She rested her chin on the steering wheel and studied the house. It was still the same forest green with white trim it had been since it was built by Peter's grandparents. Two tall stories, it had deep, open eaves, multipaned windows and a foundation made of river rock. The lower half of the front porch pillars were river rock, too, topped with square wooden supports that were wider at the base than at the top. A symbol of tradition, of familial stability.

She hadn't been back here since she and Peter eloped fourteen years ago. The lake house was Peter's now, deeded to him by his grandparents on his twenty-fifth birthday. That was one of the few things his parents couldn't circumvent. Lily had no doubt that Peter's father would have given his right eye to have prevented that transfer of control.

Although the ownership was Peter's, they had never returned here as a family, she, Peter and Riley. It seemed best to let the specters that dwelt on this quiet lake rest undisturbed. The past had caused enough unrest in their lives from three hundred miles away.

The mere mention of Forrester Lake always brought doubt to Peter's eyes, a pain born of wondering if Lily would have been his had things unfolded differently. In his most unhappy moments, he always posed the same question: "If Clay walked through the door today, would you leave with him?"

The question, no matter how often she heard it, no matter how she steeled herself against it, made her heart trip a little faster. Clay had abandoned her, discarded her love with no more thought than he'd give yesterday's paper. And she hated him for it. But it was an odd sort of hatred, one that fueled angry fires in her soul and flirted with the edges of her heart at the same time. When she thought of him, she wanted to strangle him with her bare hands; she wanted to throw herself into his arms for one more embrace. Both feelings brought self-loathing. She was so weak. Weak enough to have damaged Peter's life while trying to save her own.

She had loved Peter, she supposed for nearly as long as she'd been in love with Clay. But it had been a different kind of love, a safer love, than what she'd felt for Clay. Clay set off volcanic upheavals deep in her soul. Peter calmed her spirit, warmed her with security. Clay was passion. Peter was family.

Throughout their marriage, her reassurances had done nothing to erase Peter's doubt. It had grown and expanded, becoming the strongest link and, at the same time, the thickest wall between Lily and her husband.

Now, as she looked at the house, a sense of déjà vu settled over her, draped itself weightlessly about her shoulders, wrapped tightly around her chest and sent far-reaching roots directly to her soul. So easily did the years of adulthood slip away, leaving the heart of a girl exposed and bleeding. A girl who had trusted completely, without reservation—and paid the price.

What would she have done, if Peter hadn't been there to pick up the pieces when Clay left?

And now she was alone, really and truly, alone. There was no one to pick up the pieces except Lily. And she would do it. She had to, for her son.

The press of tears was strong. But she would no more let them fall now than she did fourteen years ago. Forge ahead. Take care of business. Deal. That's what had sustained her for most of her life. No sense in ignoring the tried and true at this point.

She glanced at Riley leaning against the passenger door, asleep. He didn't stir. His head remained propped on his hand, his dark hair tousled over his closed eyes. The tinny beat from his headphones was the only sound in the car.

Every time she saw him sleeping, her heart broke. He looked the same as he had when he was three, sweet and open and loving. When he was sleeping, there was no trace of the wary tension and defensive attitude that dominated his waking features.

He'd been "excused" from the last week of seventh grade for "conduct unbecoming." That's what went in the official record. What really happened was Riley's friend had come to Carrigan Park Prep School with some pills he bought at a party. The exact type of drug had yet to be determined. That's what frightened Lily the most—he took something without any idea what it was.

After swallowing the pills, Riley and two friends flushed cherry bombs down three of the toilets in the boys' bathroom. They'd been too stoned to even have the sense to run. They just sat there in an inch of water, watching the plumbing spew.

Riley had insisted this was his first experience with drugs. Lily wanted to believe him. She wanted that with all of her heart. There had certainly been no indication of his using prior to this.

Anyone else might have been expelled from school, but Peter's parents stepped in and softened the blow—again. Being on the board did have its perks. But this had to stop, before Riley got into something with permanent consequences. When she'd called Peter at the Sheldon Center to tell him about Riley's latest, they'd agreed the boy needed to be away from his current environment, at least for a little while. He'd urged her to use the cottage. As her options were currently limited by expediency and a tight budget, she'd agreed. Although Peter came from a wealthy family, their own financial situation ranged in the comfortable middle class—and with the dissolution of the marriage, the money had been spread thin.

Reluctantly, she shook Riley awake, got out of the car and climbed onto the front porch. As she put the key in the front door lock, Lily thought she heard a shout from the lake. She jerked her gaze in that direction and saw the empty water glinting in the late afternoon sun. It had been Clay's voice, calling from a distant memory. The four of them, Peter, Clay, Luke and Lily, had raced from the shore to the diving island nearly every day. Clay always reached the dock first, pulled himself out of the water and urged Lily on. The day she actually beat the other two boys Clay had grabbed her against his wet chest and twirled them in a circle.

The old sadness and anger mingled in her heart as she thought of it. Maybe reviewing the past was going to be more difficult than she'd anticipated.

"Mom?" Riley's voice made her jump. He was right behind her, weighted down with his duffel and backpack. "We going in, or what?"

She didn't look at him, afraid he'd see how shaken she was. Throwing open the door, she tried to sound cheerful. "Here we are." She didn't want him to view this trip as punishment, exactly, but as an opportunity, a chance to start over. She'd lectured for the first hour of their trip south, trying to drive home the fact that he was being given a chance that few in his situation were allowed. He seemed to listen, nodding his head in agreement, but Lily thought it was entirely for her benefit. Riley didn't have a clue.

In her hastily thrown together plan, she had decided not to see anyone until tomorrow. She needed a few hours to mentally adjust. Once word of her return was out, she would be bombarded with a thousand questions, most from people who felt they had a right to details of her life just because she'd been born in this town.

So she stuck to her plan, stowing away the feeling that she was sneaking into town like a thief. Once the car was emptied, she went about settling into the cottage. She turned on the water, uncovered furniture, washed linens, chased cobwebs and nagged Riley to unpack his duffel.

The sun set and the night turned chilly. She was tempted to have Riley bring in some firewood from the rack beside the boathouse. Even though the cottage was seldom used, there had always been a handyman to keep the grass cut, the windows clean and the firewood stocked—Peter wouldn't think of breaking such a tradition. For years she'd worried over the unnecessary expense. Now she was grateful. But who knew how long it had been since the huge rock fireplace had been used? It wouldn't do at all to call Peter and tell him she'd burned down the family cottage. She passed on the fire.

Before they'd left Chicago, she'd packed a cooler and enough groceries to get them through the first night. After a makeshift meal of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, fruit and almost a full bag of Oreos—which Riley still twisted apart and ate the center of first—they sat on the leather club sofa in the living room. Through his earphones, Riley immersed himself in a hard-core CD, all driving metal and screaming voices. Lily stared into space, wondering exactly where she was going to go from here.

The decision to leave Chicago had been easy. Riley couldn't go on thinking his grandparents could undo his missteps. Talking to Peter's parents rarely availed anything beyond empty promises to be less meddling. Something had to be done before Riley took a step that couldn't be undone. She hoped a full summer with the stability of her own father's loving discipline would set a good paternal example. But after that? Her future was a blank slate. The only thing she knew for certain was that she had no intention of settling here permanently—not in a town that knew each and every bone of the skeleton in a person's closet.

She sighed and told herself to take one day at a time, she had three whole months to figure out what was to come next. If she was careful, she had enough money to make it through until fall. Then she would have to land somewhere permanently and find a job. She had no idea what job that would be. She had no marketable skills. During her marriage to Peter, she'd spent her spare hours on her hobby, pottery. She'd taught several ceramics classes at the community center in the inner city, but that hardly counted as work experience.

She glanced at Riley. Where they ended up depended a great deal upon how he managed himself over the summer. She didn't really think that returning to the same private school in Chicago would be the answer. He needed to live in a world where everyone was accountable for their actions. A lesson that had taken Peter thirty-four years to begin to learn. Not that Peter was a bad person. He just couldn't face the things he perceived as failures. And those failures had piled up until they tumbled him like an avalanche. The final snowflake that set his most recent decline into motion came from errors in judgment that cost his company—his father's company—a fortune. Of course, his father's reaction hadn't been much help. Publicly he'd defended Peter and the company position. Privately he'd made sure his son knew exactly where the finger of blame was pointing.

Lily finally lifted Riley's earphones and slid them off his head. The angry, powerful beat of the music became louder in the silent room. "Why don't you go upstairs and pick out a bedroom?" She raised her voice over the music.

His hazel eyes narrowed and he gave her a sidelong look. "Doesn't matter." He started to put the headphones back on.

She interrupted the action by putting her hand on his head and brushing back his hair. He pulled away, as she knew he would. Sometimes it was hard for her to realize the distance that had grown between them over the past year. "You might want your dad's old room." She waited for some reaction. She didn't get one. "Or the guest room—it gets lots of morning sun."

"I don't care," he said through tight lips, nipping the words into a staccato beat. Then he seemed to back off just a bit and said more softly, "You pick."

It was moments like this, when he showed her that he knew he was being a prick and actually tried to make amends for it, that let her know he wasn't yet lost.

"Okay," she said, "I'll put the sheets on in Dad's old room. It's the one to the left at the top of the stairs." It seemed odd that a place that had been so familiar to both her and Peter was totally alien to their son.

Riley actually managed a half-smile. "All right."

Lily picked up the sheets from the dining room table and started for the stairs, uneasy with the knowledge that she was sharing the house with a child who was quickly becoming a stranger. Where had her happy little boy gone? The one who picked wild violets and dandelions and delivered them with the eagerness and pride befitting two dozen white roses. The apple-cheeked child who'd broken her heart when he made her cinnamon toast and brought it to her in bed when she had the flu.

His voice stopped her halfway up the stairs. "Mom?"

She stopped, her heart jumping to conclusions. "Yes."

"When's the cable coming?"

Her shoulders sagged. "Tomorrow morning."


Lily heard the music as he turned it back on. She was about to go back and do what she knew she should—tell him the cable, and all other privileges, would come when he earned them. But tonight she was just too tired for the argument.

She climbed the rest of the stairs, bone-weary and sick at heart. God, give me the strength to pull him back and the wisdom to know how to start.

The next afternoon, after the cable guy left, Lily forced herself to get on with it. She stood just outside the screen door that opened into the kitchen of the Crossing House Tavern. It was nearly four o'clock and preparations for the evening trade were getting under way. She heard the sounds of pots clanking and dishes rattling as someone pulled them from the dishwasher and stacked them on the shelf over the stainless steel worktable. There was the muffled clatter of glassware being carried out to the bar in their plastic dishwasher trays. A warm comfort bloomed in Lily's chest. It was as if she'd never left.

In her mind, she could see the heavy black iron skillets and the no-frills white stoneware, gray-marked from years of knives and forks scraping across their surfaces, the frosted beer mugs and stainless steel bowls filled with peanuts.

"Evening, Henry!" Her dad's voice carried out the door.

Lily smiled when she heard the once-familiar booming greeting. Henry Calverson was still the cook—and apparently still without a hearing aid.

Henry was one of those fixtures from childhood that was always there but never really thought about, like running water and electricity. Something that would be sorely missed if taken away. Lily was taken by surprise at the flood of happiness she felt knowing he was still here.

She waited, listening a few moments longer, unwilling to interrupt the soothing sounds of routine with her arrival. She had spent so many years closing her mind to this place, shutting this town out of her life, that she was startled to realize that coming home could feel so good. She savored the moment, the warmth of reminiscence, before the barbs and stings of reality set in.

"Why, lookee here!" Henry shouted—his normal speaking voice. He never had adjusted to the fact that he couldn't hear but everyone else still could. "Benny!" he called to her father as he threw the screen door open and pulled Lily inside. "Lily's here. By God, Lily's come home!" He threw his sinewy arms around her and hugged her close.

Lily was surprised at his strength. Henry had to be seventy-five, a man of average height and way below average weight—from the feel of his grip he was nothing but bone and gristly muscle.

He held her at arm's length and looked her over. "Still pretty as a picture. Now, where's that baby? Benny said he didn't get your blue eyes, but has that hair of yours. Brown sugar sprinkled with cinnamon."

She pushed her hair behind her ear, a reaction of self-consciousness left over from a childhood in which everyone commented about her having her mother's hair. Any connection with the woman who'd abandoned her family made Lily wiggle beneath her skin. Leaning closer to Henry so she didn't have to shout quite so loud, she said, "That baby is thirteen years old! He's at home watching MTV."

Henry shook his head and muttered something about time slipping away. Then he said, "Home? You didn't bring him to Glens Crossing, then?" He frowned.

"Oh, no. I mean he's at the lake house—where we're staying. Peter's family's place."

Henry nodded. Something flashed in his eyes, a question unasked, an opinion unuttered. After her mother ran off with a liquor salesman when Lily was eight, Henry had stepped up his protective attitude, especially about Lily and her little sister, Molly. Since he'd had no children of his own, she supposed she and Henry pretty much looked at each other as surrogate family. She didn't like to be the cause of the uneasiness she saw in his face at the moment and was glad when her dad came crashing through the swinging door.

"There's my girl!" He moved quickly toward her and Lily found herself lost in the bulk of his embrace. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" Then he stilled. "Something's wrong." A statement, not a question. Her dad always did have the best emotional radar in the county.

She didn't know if she was relieved that he sensed it, or more on edge because she couldn't skate through this initial homecoming with the pretense of carefree happiness. What she did know was that she couldn't find her voice at the moment, so she simply shook her head.

Her dad didn't push, he just stood there, arms around her, rocking her gently side to side. God, it felt good to be the child again, if only for a few moments.

Finally, she felt she had the strength to stand on her own again. "I'm fine." As she said this, she found herself swiping at a tear.

Dad just stared at her with those big brown eyes. Had his hair been completely silver the last time she'd seen him? It shamed her that she couldn't remember.

"It's a long story, Dad. I promise to tell you the whole thing, but right now you've got customers." She nodded toward the swinging door, where one of the waitresses stood with an order in her hand and a look on her face that was a cross between annoyance and complete confusion.

"Faye, this is my daughter, Lily."

Some of the confusion cleared from the woman's face—none of the annoyance.

Lily said, "Nice to meet you, Faye."

Faye nodded and stuck her pen behind her ear. It immediately became lost in the cloud of russet hair. "Benny, the beer tap's out." She clipped her order on the end of the stainless worktable.

"All right." He turned back to Lily.

Apparently, Faye wasn't satisfied. "It's Friday night, won't be long 'til we'll be overrun."

Benny cut a sharp look her way. "I said, all right."

Faye disappeared back through the swinging door. She hit it hard enough that it swung back and forth three times before stopping.

Benny said, "Faye's been here so long, she forgets who owns the place." He put an arm around Lily and moved toward the door. "Come sit at the bar while I change that keg."

As he led her from the kitchen, she realized this was the first time she'd been inside the bar/dining room during operating hours. When she'd married Peter she was only eighteen—Dad had stuck to his guns about twenty-one means twenty-one until the day she left. The closest she'd ever been to the bar was the kitchen door, and that hadn't been until she was almost eleven. By then, considering the years of being denied a glimpse, her imagination had taken on all sorts of ideas about the mysterious interior.

One day, one of the waitresses had noticed her straining to see through the swinging door and stopped. She looked at Lily and said, "No sense in breakin' your neck. Here, take a good look." And she held the door fully open.

Of course, the bar was closed, otherwise she wouldn't have been allowed on the first floor at all. So Lily had to imagine what it was like filled with people and music and cigarette smoke. As she'd looked around, there was none of the mystique she'd envisioned. It was just a big room with short windows high on the wall opposite the bar.

The wall with the windows was lined with red vinyl booths over which hung stained-glass lamps. Then there was a row of six square tables set at an angle to the corners of the room, a jukebox and an old walnut bar lined with backless stools, also in red vinyl. Behind the bar was a large plate-glass mirror and shelves filled with bottles of liquor. On the far end, to one side of the front door, was a dartboard. The pool table was tucked out of her range of sight, in the back beside the kitchen.

As Lily now looked at it with her thirty-two-year-old eyes, she realized the place looked just the same, maybe a little more worn. She couldn't help but hesitate as she crossed the threshold, feeling she was breaking the rules.

Benny stopped and looked at her. "What's wrong?"

She smiled and shrugged. "Just seems weird. I've never been in the bar before."

He gave her one of his low-key laughs and hugged her against his side. "It has been a long time. But you're legal now, kiddo." They went through the door.

Benny went behind the bar, Lily walked beside the stools. She settled on one as he bent to change the beer keg.

He said, "Molly called yesterday." His head was out of sight, stuck under the bar, muffling his voice. "Said she's going to try to make it home for a week this summer. Not sure when, said med school is really wearing her out."

Lily warmed with pride. Molly was going to be a pediatrician. "I hope she makes it before I leave."

Benny's head popped up, his eyes peering over the walnut edge of the bar. "Leave? You just got here. I figured you'd stay through Riley's summer vacation—with his dad in the hospital and all."

Oh, boy. "Dad, our divorce was final two weeks ago."

He came to his feet and leaned over the bar. "Is that why you're back here? I thought you were trying to work things out."

"That's partly why I'm here." She decided to leave their discussion about Riley to a more private moment.

Benny straightened and narrowed his eyes. "He got a girlfriend?"

Lily smiled sadly. If only it were that cut-and-dried. "No, Dad."

"Now, Lily, tell me true, I know he's got a drinking problem. Did he hit you?"

"Peter's getting help for the drinking. I wouldn't leave him because of an illness. And no, he was never a violent drunk—just the opposite. He got quiet—depressed." She sighed, suddenly feeling very, very tired. "We're still friends—that was what we always did best anyhow, be friends. Peter needs to get himself straightened out. But I'm not sure we were ever good for each other married." Her voice drifted lower.

Benny's gaze sharpened on her. "You belong here, Lily. Maybe if you and Peter had settled in at the lake house…"


On Sale
Jan 1, 2004
Page Count
416 pages

Susan Crandall

About the Author

Susan Crandall makes her home in Noblesville, Indiana.

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