MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Claire Smythe, her chosen nom de guerre for her time on the road with the Scunners, her former Scottish rock band, heard a clamor coming from the far end of the narrow alley that opened to Main Street. She hesitated, weighing her options. Stepping into the crowd would go against her number one rule: Avoid people.
On the other hand, if she abandoned her errand, she would have ridden miles for nothing and would have to turn around and come back the next day. If she and Ms. Meadows wanted something heartier than canned vegetables, then she would need to head to the shop. While leaving might be prudent, it was impractical.
A brisk December wind cut down the alley, gaining in intensity and slicing through her many layers. Her wardrobe wasn’t anywhere near winter-ready. She hadn’t had the money to supplement her clothes with a decent jacket. Luckily, though, the Georgia winter was proving to be mild by her Scottish standards.
Leaving her bike leaning up against the brick wall of the alley, Claire peeked around the corner. A large crowd was gathered in front of a newly painted HIGHLAND ANTIQUES sign. A woman’s voice coming through a microphone quieted the crowd noise.
While she couldn’t see over or through the crowd, she assumed the voice belonged to Anna Maitland, the newly elected mayor of Highland, Georgia. Claire hadn’t paid close attention to local politics. After all, she wasn’t going to be in Highland much longer, but Anna Maitland’s name had stuck out because she had also been the woman in charge of last summer’s Highland festival. And the festival had been Claire’s last performance as lead singer of the Scunners.
She flipped the hood of her sweatshirt up before stepping out of the alley. With her eyes on the pavement under her feet, she made her way toward the shop, doing her best to blend in unnoticed. It was a far cry from her days strutting around onstage, doing her best to draw every single eye in the crowd.
Anna Maitland thanked everyone for coming to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and welcomed the new business to Main Street. A smattering of applause followed.
“I also want to invite everyone to our first annual Burns Night holiday celebration the Saturday before Christmas. Main Street will be blocked to vehicles. Families will be free to enjoy music and shopping and food trucks. It’s going to be a great time!”
Excited murmuring erupted throughout the crowd at the announcement. In Scotland, Burns Night celebrations were typically held in January after the holidays and during the dismal stretch of winter. As a Scottish singer, she’d been to her fair share and lent her voice to honor Robert Burns. The Highland, Georgia, version sounded more elaborate and fun.
But of course, she wouldn’t attend. A pang of remorse infiltrated her heart even though she was the one avoiding making friends in Highland. Contrary to current appearances, she wasn’t naturally a loner.
Claire slipped into Highland Drug and Dime without attracting any interest from the crowd. She pushed her hood back and pulled Ms. Meadows’s list from her back pocket. Along with the typical staples of cornmeal, eggs, and bread, she had been tasked with getting some easy canned soups and pastas and peanut butter.
The shop wasn’t as big as a typical American grocery store, but it carried all the basics, and without a car it was her only easy option. She gathered the items into a handheld basket and headed toward the checkout. Mentally, she parsed the items into the bags she used on her bike. It would be tight, but she should be able to manage without squashing the bread.
The total on the register ticked up with every purchase. Claire pulled the wrinkled cash out of her pocket and bit the inside of her mouth, willing the numbers to quit rising so high. In the heated shop, her multilayers of clothes were stifling, and a damp sweat had broken out across her shoulders and forehead.
The tax put her over by less than two dollars. A queue had formed behind her and her neck burned, but she didn’t dare turn around. Leaning over the counter, she picked out two cans of ravioli and lowered her voice. “Could you take these off, please?”
The lady behind the counter cast a cutting gaze over the register, her expression neutral, yet Claire couldn’t help the shame that roiled through her stomach. Being poor was the same ignoble experience on either side of the pond. That she was currently poor by choice didn’t alleviate the humiliation.
“You can put those on my bill, Sandra,” a man said behind her.