I'd been humming "Carolina in the Morning" for the last fifty miles when it occurred to me I had no idea which Carolina the song referred to. North, I decided, and slapped the steering wheel to make it official. Hot damn. I'd made a decision, my third in three days. The first had been to get the hell out of town for a while, the second to turn in my badge the minute I got back. Now this one. North Carolina in the Morning. Why not? That's where I'd been for the past several days.
While at home in D.C., I'd cleaned the oven. Twice. Granted, I hadn't gotten to it until almost a month after I thought I was about to meet my Maker, but at least I'd done it. I'd honestly thought it might help. It hadn't. Neither had scouring the shower stall. The application of elbow grease to the grungier areas of one's life might be therapy for some, but it did absolutely nothing for me. I needed a change of scenery.
A friend's offer to use her condo on the Outer Banks had seemed a lifesaver; one more night of bad dreams and the screaming sweats and they'd have had to haul me off to the nearest ha-ha hostel. The prospect of the incessant murmur of the ocean to lull me to sleep had had me packed and out of D.C. in thirty minutes flat, barreling south like a late-leaving migratory bird with winter hard on its tail. For the most part, it had worked. I was rested but still restless, and after walking the beaches for three mornings had nothing more to show for it but a tan-which I didn't need, having been born with one- and sand under my toenails, which I also didn't need. In desperation I'd resorted to driving the highways at odd hours, which is how I'd wound up going westward ho, drawn by my memory of the sun rising behind Old Bluenose Mountain. Since I was in the area, I'd told myself, I might as well take a turn through Sunrise, my old stomping grounds, and have breakfast at Fred's Diner. Another decision made. Definitely on the mend.
Once there, I couldn't believe it. The diner was exactly as I remembered. A faux marble-topped counter running the length of the place, the stools alternately covered in bright orange and purple vinyl. Hand-lettered menu on a long board mounted on the wall, and booths along the opposite wall, purple banquettes flanking white Formica tables. The only difference I could see was that the plants hanging from the ceiling were now fabric rather than plastic, and the ripped upholstery on the second and sixth stools, which would goose you if you didn't mount them just so, had been replaced. It was incredible. I could well have been in high school again, stopping in at Fred's after the prom for a Superburger, fries, and a monster Pepsi. Fourteen years had passed and nothing had changed.
I'd counted on Sunrise being the same little hamlet it had been in my childhood and so far, thank God, I hadn't been disappointed. But then all I'd seen were the stores along Main Street. Several stood empty and desolated, but not nearly as many as I would have expected. The exteriors of those still in business were bright and clean, some featuring signs that warned of wet paint. The horse troughs along the curbs, weed gardens when I'd lived here, overflowed with recently planted flowers. There'd been a serious effort to spruce up things. Perhaps it wasn't as poor a town as it used to be.
The houses would tell the tale, but I hadn't dredged up the nerve to see my old neighborhood yet. There was plenty of time. I was on leave with no clock to punch, no one to account to. I was free (well, unmarried anyway), black (on the toasted almond end of the spectrum), and solvent (one gas card and one credit card, kept for emergencies). I was here on a whim, just passing through, as it were, and one sure way of attracting attention, which I wanted to avoid, would be to drive around the residential sections of town at five fifty-five in the morning. Besides, I was ravenous. Except for the pecan roll I'd picked up at a Stuckey's on Route 85, I hadn't eaten anything substantial since the evening before.
I scanned the menu. The prices were higher -- a double-dip of ice cream was fifty cents more-but I could swear that it featured the same selections I remembered ...
The foregoing is excerpted from Sunrise by Chassie West. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022