The Ozark region is known as a vacation destination but few of those who flock into these old hills see the real Ozarks. Although Branson, Missouri offers a variety of fun for all ages, live music in countless theaters, theme parks, water fun, two lakes, and more, the Ozarks have much more depth and history. Shows like The Beverly Hillbillies served to enhance rather than debunk old stereotypes and I’ve learned it’s often difficult to communicate where I live to those outside the area. No one’s ever sure if the Ozarks are in the Midwest, the South or the Southwest. People on both coasts have been known to call it – and a large chunk of the middle United States – “the fly-over zone”. Although portions of the Ozark are located in southern Missouri, all of the Show-Me State isn’t part of the Ozarks. Like a relationship, it’s complicated. And, although I’ve spent my share of time playing in Branson, even set some of my books in or around the town, the Ozarks I prefer is the one outside the tourist areas, what I like to think of as the real Ozarks.
Get a glimpse of some of the breathtaking scenery in the book trailer here:
I’m not native to these old hills and hollows but I began coming here at an early age. Pop, one of my grandfathers, began vacationing in the Ozarks with a lot of other city folks (including Al Capone but that’s another story) in the 1920’s. Long before I moved to the opposite end of my home state, I’d visited Branson and the Ozarks many times. I’m more than a little bit hillbilly though, thanks to my complex family tree. Most of my ancestors either hailed from Europe a few generations ago (I’m third generation American on my dad’s side), the others all managed to put down some deep roots in parts of Appalachia. One difference, though, between the two regions is that the Appalachian mountains are far taller but the Ozarks are older.
If I can quote from one of my favorite John Denver songs, Country Roads, Take Me Home, “life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing in the breeze.” And I like to believe anything’s possible. A few years back, a certain species of woodpecker thought extinct for decades was found alive and well in the Arkansas Ozarks. If it can exist, I believe other possibilities abound and among those, I decided there could be a sin eater still practicing his ancient rites in the modern Ozarks. That’s how The Sin Eater’s Redemption sprang from my imagination and came to life. Here are all the details, blurb, excerpt, and more!
If she’d ever seen a ghost, it had been at Tootsie’s, the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge down on Broadway in the heart of Nashville. Tessa Owens slouched in a chair and sipped her drink beneath pictures of some of the country music legends that once hung out in the bar. Last time, she drank too much and swore she saw Patsy Cline. Her friends howled with laughter at the idea since everyone knew Patsy was Tessa’s idol and no one else believed she might’ve seen a ghost.
“Girl, you’ve got to get over your hillbilly bullshit,” Jed, her guitar player and best friend, told her. “Nobody believes in ghosts but those idiots hunting them on TV.”
Tessa did, though, and so had her Granny. Her late grandmother claimed to have seen images of their deceased kinfolk more than once. But Tessa learned when to keep her mouth closed and not let her Ozarks raising show. She said nothing else about Patsy’s ghost or what she thought it might mean for her own singing career. As if he read her thoughts, Jed asked, “Did you ever hear anything about performing here?”
“Nope,” Tessa said as she shook her head. “I sent the email with all the info and an MP3 file but no one’s responded yet.”
“They will,” Carin, one of her small circle of pals, said. “You’re too damn good for them not to give you a shot.”
“Yeah, Tess, you’ve got star quality,” Jeb added.
One review, a tiny mention buried in the entertainment pages of The Tennessean, said she did but it’d been more than a year ago. Tessa spent days working as a desk clerk at one of the hotels downtown and nights singing whatever gig she could find. Over the seven years she’d been in Nashville, Tessa sang anywhere possible. She’d done brief gigs at a number of small bars, sang at mall events, company picnics, a couple of adult birthday parties and in the park. Her one CD single, a reprise of an old Johnny Horton tune, one of his lesser known numbers, “Take Me Like I Am,” earned some airplay but not enough to boost Tessa onto the national charts.
Twice she performed as a Patsy Cline impersonator, decked out in a dark wig and vintage dress. Some people swore Tessa owned some of Patsy’s power and smoky, sultry quality. When Tessa trotted out some of Patsy’s biggest hits like ‘Crazy’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’, audiences erupted in applause.
“Maybe,” Tessa said. “If not, I can always head home, get a job at the chicken plant and buy me a double wide trailer.”
Her friends burst into laughter but she wasn’t really joking. None of them understood where she came from. Jed hailed from Memphis so he grew up on barbecue, blues, and Elvis. Carin came from down Shreveport way, more crawfish than cornbread. Staci and Nathan both were Nashville natives, born and bred with country music in their blood. Valerie came from Connecticut, from the world of commuter trains and the kind of snobbery some called class.
Tessa called the Ozark Mountains home, hailing from the southwest corner of Missouri, just a notch north of Arkansas. A slight twang flavored her voice, an accent different than those from Kentucky or Tennessee, so her buddies ribbed her about being a hillbilly. She never told them but in her heart, Tessa was redneck to the bone. Sometimes she dreamed of recording her own songs, poignant lyrics about home she scribbled on the back of napkins. Her melodies echoed the rugged, rocky hills and captured the sound of the wind through the trees. So far Tessa lacked enough confidence to sing her music because she was afraid no one would understand or appreciate it.
“Let’s have another round,” Nathan hollered but Tessa shook her head.
“No thanks,” she said and held up her half-full glass to show she didn’t need another.
“Aw, c’mon, just one more,” Jed teased. “Tomorrow’s Saturday, you can sleep late.”
If she didn’t, they’d all fuss so Tessa changed her mind. “Okay, order me another Bacardi and Coke. I need to go to the ladies’, though so let me out.”
Carin and Valerie shifted so she could slip out from beside the wall. Tessa navigated her way through the noisy crowds to the restroom and waited until she could enter a stall. On her way back, she paused to let several people pass and as she waited, she stared across the room. A man caught her eye and she stared, intrigued by a sense of familiarity. He wore bib overalls over a plain blue chambray shirt and was old. Except for a fringe of graying hair around the edges, he was bald and he stared at her but he didn’t smile. Cold shot through her body and she shivered. Tessa would know his somber face anywhere but he didn’t belong here.
“Uncle Calvin,” she whispered but no one heard about the raucous din. Her uncle, a man she’d never liked and considered to be meaner than a cornered rattlesnake, offered a nod in acknowledgement. Then he melted away, his form shifting from solid three dimensional to a faint shadow then into nothing at all.
First Patsy Cline, now her least favorite uncle. Tessa shook her head, distressed by the experience. There wasn’t any doubt Patsy was dead but last she’d heard, Calvin Bates remained on the top side of the grass. Memory flickered and she stopped in the middle of Tootsie’s. For a moment, Tessa saw her grandmother as she rocked on the front porch and told ghost stories.
“I knowed he was dead soon as I laid eyes on him,” Granny told her. “There I was at the county fair in July and I seen my boy clear as morning. He wore his combat fatigues but there was blood around his chest and I knew he must’ve got killed over there in Vietnam.”
Her eldest uncle, Stan, died at An Khe back in 1968, the same day if you allowed for the time difference, when Granny saw him at the fair. Everyone said Tessa inherited Granny’s gift. Uncle Calvin must be dead. There wasn’t any other explanation for seeing his ghost and Tessa wrapped her arms around her torso, freezing cold with dismay. Back at the table, she picked up her drink and downed it with one gulp. “I’ve got to go,” she muttered to her friends.
“What’s wrong?” Jed asked but she didn’t answer as she headed toward the entrance.
He caught up with her and grabbed her arm. “Tessa, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” she said as she faced him. “I think my uncle must’ve died. I need to call home and find out.”
Jed’s lips smirked as if he might laugh but he didn’t. Instead, he paled as understanding dawned. “You think your uncle died? Why? Wait. Don’t tell me. You saw his ghost.”
“That’s pretty much it,” Tessa said. “Go on back to the table. I’ll call you later.”
He stared at her, shaken by her claim then shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, if you want me to go, I’ll go. Keep in touch, babe.”
Tessa nodded and pushed through the crowd toward the door.
Outside, the wind, cool for late May, enveloped her with a rush and she sighed. Tessa pulled her cell phone from her pocket but before she began to dial, it rang. The familiar strains of the ‘Green Acres’ theme song blasted into the night as Tessa took the call.
“Teresa Lou,” her mother’s voice said across the miles from Missouri. If she hadn’t already seen Uncle Calvin, Tessa would’ve known something serious happened because her parents only used her full name in times of tragedy or major trauma. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
“It’s Uncle Calvin, honey,” her mom said. “He passed away just a little while ago. You need to come home for the funeral.”
“Mom,” Tessa protested.
Her mother wielded the one thing certain to cut her objections down. “Aunt Vernie wants you to come, baby. You know you’re her favorite. She’s set the funeral for Monday afternoon but we’re doing the visitation and all at the house on Sunday.”
She wanted to refuse but Tessa didn’t. When she was a little girl, Aunt Verna kept home baked cookies in the cookie jar just for her and she always bought little trinkets in town for her favorite niece. As a teen, whenever she needed an ear or shoulder, her aunt provided one. Without any kids of her own, Vernie doted on Tessa and her brothers, but Tessa most of all. Her rambling old farmhouse felt as comfortable as worn out blue jeans, just as long as Uncle Cal wasn’t there. Feeling as trapped as a coon that the hounds put up a tree, Tessa sighed.
“All right, Mama. I’ll be there.”
Emotional blackmail accomplished what reason couldn’t. After promising to let her folks know when to expect her, Tessa ended the phone call and trudged to her car. She shouldn’t drive, not after two Bacardi-and-Cokes, but her apartment was just a few blocks away so Tessa did it anyway. Inside her tiny apartment, a studio flat in the basement of an old house not far off Music Row, she collapsed on the sofa which doubled as a bed. Packing and preparation for her trip home could wait until morning. She needed sleep now but the last thing Tessa did before crashing was set her alarm clock for an early rising.
Most mornings she woke to music but this time, Tessa set it to blare like a car alarm. The sound roused her and she brushed her hair out of her face. Remembering why she was awake, she splashed through the shower and packed. She made one quick call to the hotel to let them know she’d miss work for the next few shifts. By eight thirty, she headed out the door bags in tow. Since her beat up Chevy required gas and she needed coffee just as much, Tessa headed for the nearest convenience store a few blocks away. Fueled and caffeinated, she headed west at straight up nine o’clock, on the old two lane highway.
Life in the fast line might appeal in everyday living but when she drove, Tessa preferred what she considered ‘real’ roads, the ones cutting through the heart of America. She enjoyed the changing sights along the way, the old gas stations, the closed fruit stands, the empty home places. On traditional highways, Tessa allowed her mind to drift which was impossible on the interstate where huge trucks roared around her with dizzying speed.
The old highways yielded some of the best mom and pop cafes left anywhere, the occasional flea market with a real treasure or two and the kind of people who inspired Tessa’s songs.
As she drove, Tessa calculated the hours between here and home. Eight hours, probably closer to nine with minimal stops, ten if she paused for lunch or to stretch her legs. She popped a favorite CD into the player and sang along as the strains of rockabilly filled the car. Her Chevy ate up miles of gray pavement as the morning passed and the sun lifted higher into the sky.
Two hours into the journey, she hit Paducah, Kentucky. Since Tessa hadn’t eaten breakfast, she wheeled into a Dunkin Donuts. She took her cup of coffee and two frosted cake donuts to a big park on the northern edge of the city. Above the picnic table where she took a break, squirrels chattered and birds sang. After Tessa washed a little sticky icing from her hands and used the bathroom, she called her mom.
“I’m on the way,” she told her without preamble. “I should be there in six or seven hours.”
“That’ll be around six o’clock tonight,” Melissa Owens said. “Do you want me to keep supper for you?”
The last thing Tessa wanted was to sit down to a meal. She’d be frazzled and ready for a shower. “No, but thanks. I’ll grab something on the way.”
“Where are you now, honey?”
“Paducah,” she replied. “But I’m fixing to leave.”
Already, just over a hundred miles out of Nashville, her speech shifted toward childhood patterns. Amazed and almost ashamed she reverted so easily, Tessa ended her call and motored ahead. The bridges on US 62 and US 60 crossed the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Tessa craned her neck to catch a better view but she couldn’t see much, just the wide waters of both rivers spreading out below her. Once over the mighty Mississippi, she entered her home state but she had no sense of coming home.
The rich bottomland lacked the rugged, rocky hills of her Ozarks and when she paused for gas in some little town, the fresh air she inhaled lacked the right aroma. Tessa motored onward, sunglasses in place, as her mind overflowed with memories. Her straight blonde hair floated in the breeze from the open car window and although it’d be a tangled mess by the time she made it home, she adored the freedom. The sun baked her left arm but she wouldn’t burn, she’d tan. Aunt Verna, Vernie to one and all, always offered her unconditional love. Later, she always scrounged up change so Tessa could ride the miniature merry-go-round in the Wal-Mart lobby. In the summer, Tessa spent every night she could at her aunt’s place. While Uncle Cal went out coon hunting and drinking until all hours of the night, she and Aunt Vernie curled up on the couch and watched movies together. They always had fun, until Uncle Calvin came home.
Tessa could be sorry he died for her aunt’s sake but she didn’t care. She didn’t like the man. As long as she could remember, he treated her as a nuisance. He never teased her like her other uncles did or told her she looked pretty. Uncle Calvin glared at her through the hazy smoke of his ever present home rolled cigarette and called her down every time she giggled or laughed. Once, hung over from a long night’s drinking, he backhanded her because she turned a somersault across the front porch. Afterward Tessa steered clear of him as much as she could. At holiday dinners or family gatherings, she stayed distant and spoke to him no more than required. By the time she’d grown up, Tessa realized he treated her aunt poorly as well but Vernie wouldn’t talk about it or dare complain.
“I made my bed,” she’d say. “Now I gotta lie in it.”
Other snatches of memory flitted through Tessa’s mind quicker than the changing scenery outside the window. Catching lightning bugs down by the creek at dusk with her brothers, wading through the cold waters, listening to the grown-ups play guitars on the front porch, and waiting for the school bus in all weathers were just a few of the images, like still photographs in her head. She recalled the delightful aroma of baking ham or frying chicken in her mother’s kitchen and the way her daddy always came home from the chicken plant in his black rubber boots. Her pink room, made for a princess, served as her haven from the outside world.
Thinking of old times revived high school memories, too. She’d been a homecoming queen candidate once but she wasn’t crowned. Tessa acted in every play possible, sang in the school choir, and also signed up for agriculture classes. At the annual county fair each summer, she showed a calf. By the time she headed out to Nashville, Tessa owned her own horse, a pretty little dappled mare named Skydancer. Tessa rode in a few rodeos and practiced barrel racing in the north field. At one time she planned pro-rodeo to be her fallback career in case singing didn’t work out. Now she hadn’t been on a horse in longer than she could pinpoint.
It was then Lucas Rowlands sneaked into her head like a midnight thief. Her conscious effort to block him out failed and he took over her recollections, banishing the rest away. Tessa saw nothing but Lucas. Sunlight brought out the highlights in his otherwise brown hair and his deep blue eyes, brighter than the sky, crinkled with laughter in her mind. She recalled walking down a wooded path with him, his hand wrapped around hers. His arm around her waist steadied her as the trail narrowed and he kept her from falling to the deep ravine below. Images flickered past in a virtual photo gallery, one after another.
Lucas in a tuxedo at prom, holding her tight as they danced a slow number, passion burning in her blood like fever. Tessa and Lucas rode in tandem on horseback to the old swimming hole. They dived into the deep water, colder than February snow, and screamed. Her hands clutched his naked body and he grasped her against him. “You won’t drown, honey girl,” he’d whispered and now, driving down the highway, his voice resonated in her mind.
Tessa lifted one hand from the steering wheel to wipe away a stray tear. Lucas and Tessa were together through high school and during her two years of junior college in Neosho. If he hadn’t got into his patch of trouble and then wrecked his truck during a high speed chase with the local deputies, they might’ve been married. The idea horrified her, scared the dickens out of her, and yet she liked it on some level, too. If they had married, though, she wouldn’t have gone to Nashville. She would be just another county wife, working somewhere and raising a few kids along with a little hell.
Last time she saw him, he’d been in the hospital. Two deputies were on duty outside his room so he wouldn’t bolt even though he’d suffered such serious injuries he couldn’t get out of bed. Tessa spent hours in the emergency room and twice as many in a waiting room down the hall, waiting to find out if he’d be okay or not. Tears she refused to shed now clogged her throat until it hurt as she remembered walking over to the bed.
Lucas stared up at her, his eyes bluer than usual, dark with pain. He’d been so pale, his face so bruised her heart broke into pieces and she’d bent down to kiss his mouth but he turned away.
“I hear you’re leaving,” he said, his voice husky from being so hurt.
“You know I am,” she replied. One of her cousins on her daddy’s side invited her up to Nashville and she accepted the offer. Nashville was her dream, her shot at the big time. When she shared the news with Lucas, she thought he’d celebrate with her but he hadn’t. He walked away from her without another word, headed down to a little liquor store, robbed it and drove away at a sedate pace. When the law caught up to him, he’d sped up and almost eluded them when he missed a curve and crashed.
“Good-bye then,” Lucas said.
“Come with me,” she whispered. “I’ll wait until you heal.”
He shook his head back and forth. “I can’t but you go on, go.”
“I love you, Lucas.”
“It ain’t enough.”
They were the last words he’d spoken to her ever.
Tessa pulled over at a little ice cream stand in some tiny town to get her emotions under control. She couldn’t drive with her hands shaking, her heart aching, her eyes blinded with tears.
I can handle going home, she thought, but I don’t want to see Lucas.
The funeral was Monday and on Tuesday she’d be on her way back to Music City.
Watch the trailer here: