Lee Martin, a finalist for the Pulitzer with The Bright Forever, returns with Break the Skin, a novel that follows four women on the search for love, and the shocking, tragic circumstances that somehow connect them. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:
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The police came for me in the middle of the night. Two officers: one tall and slope- shouldered, the other big-bellied. They walked into the Walmart where I worked, and after speaking to the shift supervisor, they came to my register and the tall one said, “You’re Elaine Volk, aren’t you? We asked you a few questions once before. Remember?”
Of course I remembered. Questions about where I was on a certain morning in May. Home, asleep, I’d told them, and No, I didn’t hear any shots.
Now a few customers who had been about to push their carts to my checkout line were hesitating. I gave them a grin in hopes that they’d think everything was all right, but I knew it wasn’t. I said to the officers, “I’m Laney.” My voice sounded strange to me, too loud for my soft-spoken nature.
I was the sort most folks didn’t give a second look—a scrawny thing with short curly hair, a nothing kind of girl with no hips to speak of and arms and legs as thin as ropes. I looked like I might turn to dust, which is what I wished I could have done just then. I was nineteen, and as I stood there waiting to see what was going to happen next, I felt how far
I was from the girl I’d always been—Little Laney Volk, as ordinary as bread from the wrapper, nothing to take note of at all unless, that is, you could get her to sing. Then, my mother said, the angels would fall from the sky, struck dumb with envy.
As a favor to her, I sometimes sang at the New Hope Free Methodist Church, and my senior year in high school, I played Marian Paroo in The Music Man. I didn’t know what to say when after performances people told me I’d put a lump in their throats and tears in their eyes with my renditions of “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You.” My director said I should go on to college and study voice and musical theatre. There were prettier girls I could have cast, she told me, but none of them could sing like you.
Much to my mother’s disappointment, I was too shy, too afraid to leave New Hope, too worried that in a bigger place I’d find out I was what I’d suspected all along—no one, no one at all. Oh, Laney, my mother said. That just breaks my heart.
Sometimes, like that night when the police came, I felt that girl—that Laney I’d been, scared and shy—watching me, hoping beyond hope that I might find my way back to her.
That night, though, I knew I was leaving her behind. I knew she couldn’t save me.
The police officers wanted me to come with them. They said they had more questions. “Let’s go back to wherever it is you keep your coat and purse,” the big-bellied officer said. “Then we’ll drive uptown to the station.”
It was snowing outside, a hard, wet snow slanting down through the sodium lights in the parking lot, but I could still make out the flash of the red lights on the police car. I felt a shiver go up my spine.
“All right,” I said, because there was nothing else I could say, at least not to the police officers who were waiting for me to come with them. I wouldn’t say, I know why you’re here. I wouldn’t tell them that my boyfriend, Lester, after a summer of fretting, had taken off. He was somewhere I didn’t know—him and that silly derby hat he always wore; him and his gap-toothed smile that could melt my heart. His house on Route 130 was locked up tight. He’d left everything behind in September, and I hadn’t heard from him, not a word. I wouldn’t tell the police officers that.
I wouldn’t say, Go talk to Delilah Dade. They’d already done that once. They’d come to her and said they’d heard she had a pistol and people had seen her wave it about once in a public place. Did she still have that gun?
“No,” she told them. “That gun belonged to my old boyfriend, Bobby May. He took it with him when he left me high and dry.” Would she mind if they searched her trailer?
“Look all you want,” she told them, “but you won’t find any gun.” And, indeed, their search didn’t turn up a thing.
That was back in the summer. Now it was almost Christmas, and here they were again. This time I was afraid they wouldn’t stop asking questions until they had what they needed to know.
I did what they said. I let them follow me to the break room at the back of the store, and I picked up my coat and my purse. Then I had to walk back through the store, all the way down that long aisle, my head bowed, a police officer on either side of me, the wet soles of their shoes squeaking on the floor. I knew everyone was watching—the other Walmart associates and the shoppers—but I didn’t raise my face to look at them or make any attempt to say this was all a mistake. I just kept walking.
Then, at the front of the store, I glanced up and saw Delilah, who had taken over at my register. We’d sworn we’d never say a word, and now she was giving me a hard look— a look to kill.
She was the pretty one, the one with the curve to her hips and that ash-blond hair that fell to her shoulders in soft waves. She was nearly twice my age, the big sister I’d never had.
Since Daddy died when I was twelve, it’d just been Mother and me, and as I got older and it became clear that I had this gift for singing but was afraid to do anything with it, we’d lived with the tension of her wishing I’d be more forward and have more confidence in my talent, until finally I couldn’t take it anymore, the little ways she had of making it plain that I was disappointing her.
When I went to work at Walmart and fell in with Delilah, I didn’t think twice when she asked me to move in with her at the Shady Acres Trailer Park in Mt. Gilead. It was only eight miles up Route 50 from New Hope, but it was far enough from my mother to convince me I could make a life of my own and not have to spend my time feeling all down in the mouth because I couldn’t live up to what she wanted for me. All right, then, she said when I told her I was moving out. You just go.
I wanted to be like Delilah—independent and tough as nails—but that was no excuse for what I’d done to make the police have an interest in me. The time had come when I’d have to give them answers.
The police car was parked at the curb, its lights still swirling. I hunched my shoulders and stepped out into the snowy night. I let the officers lead me to the car. The slope- shouldered one opened the door to the backseat, and I got in. The snow was coming so hard I could barely make out the shapes of people moving inside the store. Just a few minutes before, I’d been one of them, but now there wasn’t a sign, no sign at all, that I’d ever set foot in the place.
I closed my eyes, and I let myself be scared. Scared to death.
Excerpted from Break the Skin by Lee Martin. Copyright © 2011 by Lee Martin. Reprinted by Permission of Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.