The book is written in third person, but one of the main characters, Maggie Fletcher, introduces it:
Something strange happened in our small town the summer of my seventy-seventh year. Some people said it was magical. Some said it was just coincidence and had no explanation for it. Most said it was spiritual, and, indeed, it might have been since the events began with the Lukefahr Ladies Bible Class. But some of those who sided with the spiritual explanation didn’t claim the strange occurrences were the results of heavenly forces, but rather the dark elements. They pointed out that Lukefahr sounded an awful lot like Lucifer, another name for Satan, the Devil. I resented that implication. My maternal grandmother, Melvina Lukefahr, formed that class back in the 1930s, and she would have no truck with the Devil and neither would any of the other ladies who were current members of the class. Melvina had taught the class until she died in 1962, and I remember her fondly as the nicest, kindest woman on this earth and one who really knew her Bible.
No, I refuse to believe that Satan had anything to do with the events that summer in our little town of Turn Back. Besides, the things that happened were not bad; they were good for the town and they were exciting. It was interesting to see the different people who were drawn to Turn Back because of the discoveries happening there. It was fun watching the changes as the town came alive again after decades of decline. It was the summer I became acquainted with what before had been just words in a book—Minoans and mastodons, archaeologists and paleontologists. It was the summer that, after nearly eighty years on this earth, I learned something new about people. And it was the summer I realized that not all mysteries need to be solved—some merely beg to be appreciated. It all began with the Lukefahr Ladies Bible Class, or, more precisely, a little girl who joined our “old ladies” circle. Ten-year-old Bucky Carter arrived in town in the spring and I think she brought the magic with her. Or perhaps the magic was here all along and she merely showed us how to use it.
Parts of Bucky’s story might be difficult to read. How a child could endure such terrible pain as was her lot in life and yet maintain such a sweet disposition and such a positive outlook was almost beyond comprehension were it not for the fact that Bucky’s story is my own story and a story shared by several of us in our little town. We never spoke of it, having been warned by our parents as they were warned by their parents before them that it was a family secret. So many times had it been impressed upon the family members to keep the secret, that the secret itself had almost been forgotten. I was one who remembered it. It was a secret I have kept for nearly eight decades, but I think it is time for the story to be told.
Margaret “Maggie” Fletcher
The cavernous stone room was dark except where the full moon cast rectangular shafts of light through the tall, narrow windows. The moonlight splayed across the floor and through the two pools of rippling water. Several green glints dipped and darted over the surface and flickered around the silhouette of a young girl who knelt beside the simple stone fountain that poured water into the smaller pool. The child held a hand under the stream and slowly brought some of the clear, ice cold liquid to her lips. She repeated the motion two and then three times. Straightening, she cocked her head as if listening to something and then leaned forward toward the pool as if she were going to tumble into it.
“Oh, my God. What are you doing here?” There was panic in the voice of the man who had appeared in the doorway at the top of the steps leading down to the pool.
The man’s voice did not startle the girl. She did not turn to see who had spoken nor did she reply.
The man picked his way down the uneven stone steps and knelt beside her. “Bucky?”
The child again reached her hand toward the steady stream of water. In the moonlight the man could see that her eyes were wide open but fixed, unseeing. The man gently wrapped one arm around her as he attempted to pull her hand away from the water. She resisted and cried, “No,” but was no match for his strength.
“Oh, Bucky, my lamb. You’re dreaming. You’re sleepwalking.” He swept her up in his arms and carried her up the steps. With his foot he closed the heavy wooden door behind him, careful not to let it slam and awaken her. He would return later to bolt it and examine the lock to see how she had managed to enter the Spring Room. He shuddered to think what might have happened if he had not found her. The pool was not deep, but the cold water would certainly have been a shock to her system had she fallen into it, and the fall itself might have injured her.
The next morning the girl remembered nothing of her nocturnal wanderings and the man did not mention where he had found her. He did spend the morning researching what sort of device he could install that would warn him if she tried to enter the Spring Room again.
WELCOME TO TURN BACK
“Dad, we need to talk.” The young girl rested one hand on the arm of the stuffed leather chair where her father was sitting, reading a book.
Simon Carter slipped a bookmark onto the page and closed the book and laid it on the small table next to him. His movements were deliberate and unhurried. “What do we need to talk about?”
“No, I don’t know, Bucky, unless you tell me.” Her father rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepled his fingers beneath his chin.
The girl sighed. “I thought when we moved from the city, things would be different. But we’ve been here almost a month now and you still keep me a prisoner.”
The hands came away from his chin and a pained expression washed over his face. “How can you say that? You’re not a prisoner.”
“What would you call it? I can’t even go outside without you. I haven’t even been beyond the garden wall. We have all this land and woods and the river and you won’t even let me explore it. You keep me shut up inside here all day long.”
“There are twenty-nine rooms here for you to explore. I think that should be enough to keep you occupied.” Simon Carter and his daughter had moved to the little town of Turn Back to take up residence in the Mansion Mineral Springs Resort that had sat vacant for almost fifty years. Simon had spent the past year and a small fortune renovating the sprawling two-story stone structure that had once been a luxurious spa in the hamlet of Turn Back in southeastern Missouri. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the town had boasted seven health resorts, all claiming curative powers from the mineral springs that bubbled up in the area. But the days were long past when people flocked to the town to bathe in and drink the healing waters. One by one the spas had closed their doors, and the town of Turn Back, which had depended on the revenue from those health seekers, began to wither and dry up, as had some of the springs.
“That’s not the point,” said Bucky. I want to go out there.” She gestured dramatically toward the bay window that divided the library into two equal halves.
“You have an enormous playroom, stocked with everything you could possibly desire,” countered her father. “Maybe… Maybe when you are older. ‘Out there’ will still be there then.”
“You’ve built me a pleasure palace, Dad. It didn’t work for Siddhartha and it won’t work for me.”
Simon Carter leaned back in his chair and studied his daughter for a moment. Her serious countenance made her look older than her ten years. She stared at him with those feral steel-grey eyes that would have been at home on a cat or dog, but out of place on a little girl. They always seemed to penetrate him to his soul. Her dark brown hair fell loosely around her narrow shoulders. “Are you comparing yourself to the Buddha?”
“Not at all, but you must admit our circumstances are similar. You give me everything, hoping it will keep me happy and safe. I might be safe inside here, but I’m not happy. Maybe when I was little it was enough, but I’m growing up.”
“Oh, Bucky.” Simon grasped her thin arms in his hands. “Can’t you stay little for a while longer?”
“I want…friends. I’ve never had a friend. Just imaginary ones. I want a real one.”
“You’re not ready, Bucky. I know…” Simon hesitated. “I know you want to be like other children, like the ones you see on television or read about in your books, but you’re not. You can’t control it. What would happen if you had a friend and something occurred one day and you had one of your…your episodes?”
“I told you, Dad. I’m growing up. I can control it. Besides, if she were my best friend, she would understand.”
“No, she wouldn’t. You have to trust me on this. I know people. I know how they would react.”
Bucky drew her lips together in a thin line. “All right. Compromise then.”
“Compromise? I don’t think I learned that word until I was in high school. What compromise do you propose?
“Just let me go outside and play, out back—by myself. I’ll stay on this side of the wall. But you can’t come.”
“There are doorways in that wall.”
“I promise I will stay on this side.”
Simon stroked the sides of his face with his thumb and index finger, considering the proposal. “Okay. Agreed, except…”
Bucky cocked her head.
“I can come out anytime I want to check on you,” stated her father.
“I guess,” agreed Bucky. “You’ll be watching me anyway from the windows.”
“Only because I need to know you’re safe. But I trust your promise. Starting tomorrow, you may go outside alone for…oh, a half hour each day.”
“Why tomorrow? Why can’t I go out now?”
“Because I have to go out there today to make sure there is nothing that will harm you. Now, our talk has cut into your study time. Since you know so much about the Buddha, I want you to finish those last two chapters in the book you were reading yesterday and be ready to discuss at supper this evening why India is not a Buddhist country since that is where Siddhartha Gautama lived and taught.”
Bucky sighed and turned to leave.
“And maybe…” added her father, “maybe if you can leave me undisturbed to my writing for the next few hours, then perhaps later this afternoon we’ll take the path down to the river.”
Bucky flashed a smile. “You won’t hear a peep out of me.” She skipped out of the library and up the broad curved staircase to the suite of rooms that she had dubbed her “pleasure palace.” The interconnecting rooms consisted of a combination bedroom/sitting room, a bathroom, a study room, and a playroom. Their former apartment in New York, which seemed spacious at the time, would have fit comfortably here in her private quarters in the Mansion.
Their city apartment had been several floors up, but not so high that she could not hear the sounds of the city, the cars and trucks and buses starting and stopping and honking their horns, people talking and calling out to one another, laughing. She loved to watch them hurrying below on the sidewalks and wonder where they were all going or what was in their brief cases or bags they carried, those bags with store names, such as Bloomingdale’s, emblazoned on the side. She especially enjoyed watching the ones who walked there regularly and those who had a dog or two on leashes. She had even named them and their dogs.
It was so different here in the country, so quiet. The noise of the city had been replaced with natural sounds, the wind in the trees, the buzzing of insects, the rhythmic chanting of the frogs at twilight. A whippoorwill serenaded her for hours every night. From her rooms on the second floor at the back of this grand old mansion, she could see the river in one direction, but nothing but trees and fields when she looked to the left or right. Looking out the windows from an upper room at the front of the house, she could see part of the town of Turn Back through the trees. Two church steeples and one tall building rose from the cluster of houses and other structures.
She could also see the little brick school that was built on a cleared hill at the far edge of the town and she had watched yellow school buses going and coming from the school. A private lane ran from the road to this great house. Trees obscured the gravel road that led to town, but she could hear one of the buses each morning and afternoon traveling the road and stopping and then starting again not too far away. She often thought how wonderful it would be if her father would enroll her in the school and she could wait at the end of the lane and catch the bus each morning. She knew it was an unrealistic dream. Her father would never allow her to attend school with other children.
With her father’s binoculars she could watch the children disembark from the buses or climb aboard them at the end of the school day or play outside at recess, but she was too far away to hear their voices. They were evidence that children did exist in this place at the ends of the earth, but in the four weeks she had lived here that was the closest she had been to any of them.
When she and her dad lived in the city, groceries and other supplies were easily delivered to their apartment. She knew different arrangements would have to be made here. Her father had not owned a car when they lived in New York, but he had bought one before they started their three-day journey here. That trip had been a marvelous adventure for a girl who had never been more than a few blocks away from home. But from her brief glimpse of the town of Turn Back as they drove through it on the day they arrived, she had not noticed any large stores. She recalled seeing a hardware store, a café, a small grocery store, a post office, and several vacant buildings. The largest one, a three-story brick building, looked as if it had been hit by a tornado. One upper corner was completely gone.
Here, as in the city, someone from town brought out sacks of food about once a week, but her father always cautioned her to stay in her room whenever the delivery man came. She wondered where they would acquire things such as new shoes or other clothes when they needed them. As far as she knew, her father had not left the premises since their arrival. For a brief moment, she considered that he was as much a prisoner here as she, although he chose to be.
Bucky sat down at the window seat which gave her a view of the back yard of the Mansion. It was enclosed by a high rock wall, punctuated periodically by arched doorways. Statues of animals sat atop the wall. A beaver, deer, fox, raccoon and a bear, which were native to this area, were interspersed with more exotic beasts—a lion, an elephant, a giraffe, a camel and a monkey. Roses bloomed in one section of the enclosed area, but other shrubs had been cut back. Her father had showed her photographs of what this estate had looked like when he bought it. The enclosed part had been a garden at one time, but the vegetation had grown wild over the years and in the pictures the entire yard looked like a jungle of tangled vines. A marble fountain and pool had been barely visible in the photos, but now they stood stark white, although dry, in the center of the yard with nothing but grass surrounding them. Simon had not visited the site before he had purchased it and he had directed all the renovations from their home in New York.
Bucky watched out the window as her dad below walked slowly through the enclosed garden area, head down, searching for anything that could pose a danger to her. The two of them had walked together around and across the area more than a dozen times in the past few weeks, but he always insisted that she hold his hand and stay close by his side. She found it extraordinary, even exhilarating to think that he had agreed to let her go outside by herself tomorrow. Never in her ten years had she been allowed to do that. It was definitely the start of a new chapter in her life and she could not wait to turn the page. She was careful the rest of the day not to say or do anything that might cause him to reverse his decision.
The next morning Bucky went downstairs to the kitchen, wearing a gold crown and an embroidered red cape. A plastic sword in a scabbard hung from a belt around her waist.
Her father smiled as he set a plate of pancakes in front of her and then sat down opposite her at the small square kitchen table. “And who are you today?”
“King Harold of England,” Bucky replied, spreading butter on her two pancakes.
“Fighting against William of Normandy again?”
She reached for the bottle of syrup. “Maybe I’ll win this time and change the course of history.”
“If anyone could do it, I believe you’re the one.”
Bucky cut a bite off one of her pancakes and chewed it slowly. It was so very difficult to control her excitement over the fact that in just a few minutes she would be outside, but she did not want to appear too exuberant. She still feared that her father would change his mind. “These are very good pancakes this morning, Dad.”
“I’m learning. I rather miss just being able to pop down to the corner or ring up a delivery for our meals. All this cooking—and planning what to cook—is cutting into my writing time.”
“Maybe we could hire a cook,” suggested Bucky. “And a maid. I don’t mind cleaning my rooms, but this is an awfully big place, even if most of the rooms are empty.”
“That’s out of the question, of course,” said Simon, “but it is something that will need to be addressed and something I had not considered when I bought the Mansion. The trouble is they’d have to be here all the time. I already have someone bringing groceries and mowing. That’s too many people around already.”
“I’ve told you, Dad. I’m growing up. I’ve learned to control it. It hasn’t happened in a long time.”
“We’ll see.” The grandfather clock in the hall chimed eight times. “And now, if I’m not mistaken, I believe it’s time for you to go outside and try to save England and your crown.”
Bucky flashed a smile and slid off her chair. She went to her father and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“Just watch out for those Normans. They’ll pull back in the center to draw you in and then close on your flanks.”
“I know, but I’m on to them.” She kissed her father’s cheek. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, too, Lamb.”
Bucky skipped over to the multi-paned glass door that led to the garden. She stopped in front of it, drew her sword and looked back at her dad. “For king and country!”
“Long live King Harold,” her father said, then bit his lower lip as he watched her slowly turn the knob and step out into the morning sunshine.
If it had not been for the persistent fly that insisted on flitting near her face despite being brushed away numerous times, Maggie Fletcher might have fallen asleep. Although annoying, at least the fly gave her something to focus on. The sound of Maxine reading the Sunday School lesson aloud in that monotone voice that dragged on and on and on made her want to close her eyes and take her Sunday afternoon nap right there a few hours early. Looking around at the nearly dozen other women sitting in the upholstered seats that had once been a part of the theater in the luxurious Mansion Mineral Springs Resort, Maggie noticed that most were also struggling to stay awake.
“Well, that concludes the lesson.”
Thank God, thought Maggie.
“Any comments?” Maxine Ross’s tone had switched to a much brighter sound and the change had signaled the women to start shifting in their chairs and becoming alert once more.
Ruby Lower, with her gray wispy hair begging for a permanent, cleared her throat. “Did you ask the new preacher’s wife about teaching our class, Maxine?”
“Oh, yes, I did, and I was told very politely that she didn’t have the time. And then she added that she wouldn’t be qualified to teach us anyway with all our combined years of Bible study.”
That brought some smiles to the group. “It’s sure strange that Pastor Robert and his wife had those two sets of twins and she taught school besides and she managed to teach our class for eight years the whole time they were here in Turn Back,” Pernecia Crosson added.
“People are different, Penny, you know that,” said Ruby.
“Well, I’ve been sitting up front here for three months now,” said Maxine, “and I think one of you others ought to take over for a few weeks. I told you I wasn’t a teacher when I took the job and I also told you I didn’t want it permanently.”
“Oh, Maxine, you know none of us wants it either,” said Penny. “Maybe we could just take turns reading the lesson aloud each Sunday.”
A knock on the door frame interrupted their discussion. Jim Runnel stuck his head and hand in the door just far enough to hand a paper to Sissy Casteel who sat closest to the door. “Before you ladies adjourn would you make that announcement?” He was gone as soon as he said it.
Sissy passed the paper down the row to Maggie who read it aloud. “‘The Faith Class is sponsoring a Talent Show and Pot Luck Dinner on July 10 at 6:00p.m. Each class is encouraged to enter as a group or individually. All kinds of acts are welcomed. Come enjoy the fun.’”
“I think I may be too old to enjoy the fun,” said Maxine.
“I know I’m too old to get up in front of anybody and do anything,” said Penny and several of the women nodded in agreement.
“Besides,” said Ruby, “someone has to be in the audience. I think we’ve reached the point in life where that’s our talent.”
“Amen to that, Ruby,” said Maxine. “Well, it’s about time for church to start. Let’s close in prayer, and remember, next week, we’re just going down the row with each of us taking a paragraph, so don’t none of you forget your reading glasses.”
The Lukefahr Ladies Bible Class met at the end of the upstairs hall at the Turn Back Methodist Church. It was not really upstairs. Because the church was built into the side of a hill, entry to both levels could be made from the outside on opposite sides of the building without navigating any stairs. The age of most of the Lukefahr ladies precluded much stair climbing anyway. The sanctuary, choir room, office, and two classrooms were on the upper level. The lower level housed the fellowship hall and kitchen, and several more classrooms.
The Methodist church building, like the Baptist Church and the handful of other buildings in the town of Turn Back, Missouri, was old. The town had been nestled in the hills next to the St. Francis River for more than 170 years and no new structures had been built in the past fifty years. All but two of the health resorts which had once been the lifeblood of the community had been torn down or had burned. The two that remained had been empty hulks, slowly decaying relics of an earlier age, until a year ago when a mystery man from New York had purchased the Mansion Mineral Springs Resort and had begun to restore it.
The name of the town was originally Turn Back Round You Go, but over time, through custom and eventually by decree from the state, it became officially just Turn Back. Turn Back was at the end of the road. The road could go no further west because of the St. Francis River and the soaring rock wall that the river had carved on the opposite bank.
The town was laid out in three concentric circles. Where State Highway J entered the town it became the innermost circle, looping around the park and joining itself before exiting Turn Back. If an unwary traveler had not looked at it on a map or had not been there before, he would be somewhat surprised and possibly confused to find himself going back the way he had come. The town that was originally named Turn Back Round You Go was not on the road to anywhere. There was one road in and the same road led back out.
Turn Back, Missouri was never a large town and in the present day had shrunk considerably from its peak population of 635. Today just 125 souls called themselves Rounders, a term for those who lived within the city limits.
The fields and hills and woods beyond added another couple of hundred people so there were enough to keep the local hardware open, although Ron Crosson, the owner, usually had to order anything a customer needed that was only slightly out of the ordinary. The town of Turn Back also supported a local grocery store and café. Both were small but met the needs of the residents. The café was a popular gathering spot for the locals. The men met there every morning for their coffee and to discuss the problems of the world. On any given day you could hear a discourse on anything from global warming to the best bait to use for smallmouth bass. At eleven o’clock on Wednesdays, one big table was reserved for the Baptist ladies who met at the café for their tuna sandwich specials and Bible study. When they started their weekly meeting ritual in the 1940s, twenty of them might have squeezed around the table. Today only four elderly women showed up on a regular basis, representing about ten percent of the Sunday morning Baptist congregation.
The small Turn Back school had been in danger of closing for the last thirty years, but had managed to survive. But faced with a declining enrollment and difficulty in attracting qualified teachers plus more and more costly demands by the state, it probably would be only a matter of time before it would be forced to shutter its doors.
“Gram,” the small boy with a head full of blond curls whispered to Maggie Fletcher next to him in the pew about halfway back in the sanctuary. The organ played softly as the sixty or so congregants wandered in and took their seats. Most had been sitting in the same pew all their lives. “I saw her this morning.”
“Who?” whispered Maggie.
“The little girl next door. I saw her outside. I knew there must have been a kid there from all the toys that came off the truck when they moved in. I was hoping it was a boy, though.”
“Is that where you were this morning, Ian, before Sunday School when I was calling you to get ready?”
“I’ve been going over there most days, but I’ve never seen anyone until this morning. She was in the back, inside that walled area.”
“You shouldn’t be bothering them. The father’s a famous writer but he’s something of a recluse from what I’ve heard.”
“I wasn’t bothering them, Gram. I just thought it would be nice to have someone my own age for a neighbor.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“No, I just watched her. She was sword-fighting.”
“Sword-fighting?” Maggie raised her voice a little louder than she had intended.
“Yeah. She was wearing a crown and swinging a sword around like she was fighting someone.”
“A real sword?”
“No, Gram.” Ian put his hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh. “Of course not. She’s just a kid. I know. Why don’t you take a pie or something over to them like you did when the new preacher came? That way we can meet them proper.”
“They’re from New York, honey. I don’t know what they’d think about that custom.”
The beginning notes of the processional ended their conversation.