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Authors: Carolyn Wall

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Playing With Matches

BOOK: Playing With Matches
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Praise for
Carolyn Wall’s debut
SWEEPING UP GLASS

Winner of the Oklahoma Book Award
“This extraordinary debut novel, both a ‘what happened’ and a ‘whodunit,’ explores survival and the guilt that can accompany it. The writing is filled with arresting images, bitter humor, and characters with palpable physical presence. The fresh voice of that clear-eyed narrator reminded me of Scout in Harper Lee’s
To Kill a Mockingbird
. I literally could not put it down.”

—The Boston Globe

“By the end this rich literary portrait of a woman and a place unexpectedly transforms into a surprise-filled thriller.”

—The New York Times

“If it seems implausible for reviewers to compare the almost-unknown writer Carolyn Wall of Oklahoma City with Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, and Charles Portis, you haven’t read her debut novel.”

—The Courier-Journal

“This is a perfect little book, like a head-on collision between Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee, with a bit of Faulkner on a mystery binge. I loved every page of it. Just my kind of book.”

—J
OE
R. L
ANSDALE
, Edgar Award winner

“The suspense is gripping, the danger is very real and the reader gets caught up in Wall’s powerful, moving debut. Highly recommended for all collections.”

—Library Journal
(starred review)

“This debut novel does so much more than traditional, tightly focused mysteries. It has a powerfully, sometimes uncomfortably, realized setting; characters who seem drawn from life; and a wide-ranging plot, bursting with complications.… A gripping story and a truly original voice.”

—Booklist

“Carolyn D. Wall has created an engaging character in Olivia Harker and a complex and densely interconnected community in Aurora, Kentucky. Her evocative prose recalls the regional style of such authors as Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and Eudora Welty.”

—Mystery Scene

“A powerful novel … features unforgettable characters placed in a terrifying situation … This is a fine novel which deserves a wide audience.”

—Mystery News

“Gritty, vitally alive first novel. It roars into life on the first page and never lets up.… Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking,
Sweeping Up Glass
is profoundly moving and impossible to read dry-eyed, with one thrilling sequence after another going off like a chain of firecrackers, not to mention plenty of surprises and reversals, subtle set-ups with genuine payoffs … and a brave, honest woman at the heart of the story … whom you love passionately and worry about until the last page.”

—Shelf Awareness

Playing with Matches
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

A Bantam Books eBook Edition

Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn D. Wall

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

BANTAM BOOKS and the rooster colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wall, Carolyn D.
Playing with matches : a novel / Carolyn Wall.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-345-53439-2
1. Mute persons—Fiction. 2. Prisons—Fiction. 3. Mississippi—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3623.A35963P53 2012
813′.6—dc22                  2011032703

www.bantamdell.com

Cover design: Belina Huey
Cover photograph: © Lynn Koenig/Flickr/Getty Images

v3.1

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Dedication

In Appreciation

Other Books by This Author

About the Author

1

I
f there’s help for the little guy—for my Harry, who won’t talk—it’ll be north on a green elbow of the slow-moving Pearl River. But that’s the one place in the world I cannot go. It would mean the chicken circus, the boy who lived in the tree. The burning bed. Hell’s Farm and the curse of Millicent Poole.

Wherever we go, Thomas Ryder will come after us—won’t he? I hope he’s frantic and sorry, and that he never finds us. But I’m waffling in my thinking. In this tiny motel room with the worn-thin rug and the rusty washbasin, it’s been a long night. The storm has played out. I leave one candle burning.

But oh, God, Harry’s neediness points me upriver. It steers me home.

The candle sputters out. In the stifling dark of after-storm, I kiss my children’s damp foreheads, and I pray for three things:

Jerusha will remember me
.

She’ll do for my Harry
.

And she’ll care for them both while I’m locked away
.

2

“U
priver” is Potato Shed Road—dusty shotgun houses and run-down duplexes, folks backed up to False River and poor as Job’s aunt. Miss Jerusha Lovemore’s place was a good ways along, a clapboard house with two floors, a small attic, and a crooked turret.

It was widely known that Jerusha once worked for a chicken circus up in Haynesville. What exactly she did there seems a subject best left for adult conversation. In the end, though, she took up a riding crop and thwacked the ringmaster, in the name of the Lord.

Then she bought an old car and putted down through the long green state of Mississippi, heading for the town of False River, where her sister lived. She used a chunk of her circus-earned money to buy the big house, and she settled in. Rapidly, she grew to know her neighbors. Her years under the big top had done her no harm because she beat her rugs regular and went to church on Sunday. She put up bread-and-butter pickles and was a right hand at turning out sweet-potato pie and jalapeño corn bread.

Past Auntie’s place was a narrow field of weedy grass, and then the bony old house that belonged to my mama.

I, Clea Shine, was born in Mama’s kitchen—on the table, so as not to ruin the sheets upstairs—and I lived there for one hour and ten minutes. It took Mama that long to get down off the table, clean herself up, and step into her high heels. Then she carried me, in a wicker laundry basket, over to Jerusha’s.

I picture Mama wobbling off through the brown grass, wrapped in a sweater, for it was coming on winter.

Poor Auntie, as I came quickly to call Jerusha. I was chicken-legged skinny and already howling for my dinner. She couldn’t have known beans about foundlings and such. And I was a handful.

But her sister, the broad-in-the-beam Miss Shookie Lovemore, was herself raising up a fat daughter called Bitsy, and Miss Shookie knew all there was to know about everything.

For a long time, in those days, I had not a tooth in my mouth nor a hair on my head and according to Miss Shookie, I cried all the time. I must have given Aunt Jerusha one everlasting headache. Still, she held fast to my hard little body, and rocked me long, and hummed slow, quiet streams of things like
We. Shall. Not. Be. Moved
.

At nine months I came near strangling with the whooping cough, and while I crouped and hawked up phlegm and sucked air, Auntie dangled me by the heels over the kitchen sink. For three weeks, she fed me with an eyedropper, slapped mustard plasters on my chest, and whomped my back with the pink palm of her hand. At least once each night, she pinched my nose and blew in my mouth just to keep my lungs going.

And all that time, Mama was across the field. Auntie couldn’t help but hear the piano music pouring from there, and I wonder if that noisome key-plunking helped or hindered her in laying this white child down to sleep. It was my lullaby, but maybe Auntie cursed the racket and hated my mama and all the men who came there—prison guards, mostly, but others too, looking for a fine time. Mama obliged them. She was a tireless thing and could drink and dance and laugh all night. For a few dollars, she laid the men down.

My earliest memory could be nothing but a trick that my brain played on itself. I seem to recall Auntie’s front window being propped up in the hope of a breeze. Inside, I rested my chin on the sill—and thrust out my tongue to receive a drop of whiskey, amber in the moonlight and tasting like butterscotch. It could not have happened, of course, because Auntie kept screens on her windows. Still …

Sometimes she and I sat on the upstairs gallery, cracking beans into plastic bowls,
snap snap
. From there, we could see Mama drifting out into the yard, lithe as a willow and throwing slops, her yellow hair backed by the sun glinting off the wires of the Mississippi state penitentiary, another quarter-mile on, at the end of the road.

In the heat of the day, Auntie draped a sheet over our upstairs gallery rail, and there we sat, her in her slip and me in my undies, overseeing the dirt road and the prisoners working the far fields in their orange suits, while even the dust shimmered in the heat. Toward the end of the day, we watched guards in gray uniforms park in Mama’s yard. Sometimes she’d greet them at the door—the river wind lifting her pink feather boa. Her silver-heeled slippers winked like glass in the twilight.

BOOK: Playing With Matches
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