Red had come to Lake Valley to "escape her past." And this wasn't some coy, tell-me-more attention grab she employed to be the mysterious stranger of their town. She wasn't like the others, the ones who had come before the dam collapsed with dollar signs in their smiles and fresh starts in the hearts. Those people all had their dreams drowned in reservoir overflow, the idealism of youth smothered in dirty water and corporate oversight. Those people all had their sparks snuffed like half-burned kindling, and where their eyes once saw cookie cutter suburbs they now saw only driftwood.
No, she had arrived after dam burst. The people of the town were struck by both the timing and timber of her relocation. They all wondered who this tall, slender, proud creature was and why the smile never disappeared from her face, how the bright Irish red of her just-below-the-shoulder tangles dangled like moonlight in a clear sky.
And the whole "escape her past" thing was just a rumor anyway. But this rumor, as rumors often do, was repeated so often in so many quarters by so many that should've known better that it eventually became accepted as conventional wisdom. And since Red had never refuted the question of her origins with anything more than a wry smile and a single raised eyebrow, people, as people often do, took it as scriptural truth.
No one had any concrete evidence as to her age. Even Carol, Mayor Thornton's wife, who regularly made the business of the town her own, wasn't bold enough to ask Red how old she was. Common consensus put her somewhere between 30 and 35, but the wrinkled creases on her forehead, the only things that kept her skin from looking like that of an eighteen-year-old, wouldn't have looked out of place on a woman twice that age. Then again, every rule has its exceptions, so the townspeople hedged their bets.
Her accent seemed out of place, but no one was able to discern where in the world it wouldn't. It had hints of a silky southern drawl and the organic clarity of the pacific northwest and the eloquence of a New England intellectual and the warmth of a midwestern farmer's daughter and it was like the whole country's linguistic predilections had manifested themselves in this singular woman.
The paradox, of course, was that Red existed simultaneously as both a character of enigmatic mystery and of behavior so set in stone it could've been set to a stopwatch. Many curious Lake Valley men (and a few fascinated women) would show up like summer porch fireflies to where they and the rest of the town knew she'd be.
Fridays would find a small crowd at Ollie's Tavern, watching her order the same drink (vodka tonic) at the same time (9 PM) in the same booth (in the far corner, away from the windows) while she played the same song on the jukebox ("You Send Me" by Aretha Franklin). She'd stir the drink with the accompanying tiny red straw, and aside from the music, the whole place would be so silent that you could hear the ice in her glass clinking against the sides, cocktail waves splashing against a lighthouse. She never drank the whole thing, but at about 9:30 PM, she'd leave the booth, drop a $10 bill on the table, give a kind smile and a "thank you" to her server, and walk to the small apartment she inhabited only three or four blocks away.
Saturdays were far more lively. She'd show up at The Red Door nightclub at 8 PM and country dance. She again had her own designated (albeit unofficial) corner booth, and any man brave enough to approach her and ask for a dance would be rewarded with one. She always held close, treating every song like a slow one, and plenty of blushing young men made dares and bets out of extending such an invitation to her. So long as the request was made graciously, Red would smile at her short-term companion, offering a bent wrist and a soft hand. She'd hold them like a war widow, resting her head on the puffed-up chests of her partners, gliding rose red fingernails up and down their backs for the duration of the song. She'd thank them for the company and reduce them to a stammer with a kiss on their cheek. Like on her Friday nights, she'd leave at 9:30 PM and head home, her cowboy boots striking the hardwood floor with flamingo grace.
On Sundays, she'd show up to the First Church of Christian Fellowship on Main Street and sit in the front row for Reverend Ishmael's sermon. She didn't attend the subsequent Sunday school, but she'd make her way to the children's classroom and play with the toddlers and rock the infants to sleep while their parents and older siblings learned to accept the grace of God. It was the children, in fact, that gave her the nickname "Red," on account of not only her hair, but the cheeks that were so often the deep pink of a Gideon bible. Since her interactions with the children were so much more regular than her interactions with the adults, the name stuck and nobody thought of her as anything but "Red." After the children were recovered by their owners and taken home, Red would shake Reverend Ishmael's hand, thank him for the sermon, and walk back to her apartment.
Nobody saw her during the week and no one knew where she went. She didn't work at any of the remaining Main Street shops like a lot of the women in town did, and nobody saw her at other weeknight gatherings. City council meetings, open to the public, never saw her presence. The weekly bake-offs in the summer that Mayor Thornton had instigated to boost the townspeoples' camaraderie were never graced with her participation. The support group for the people still affected by the collapse of the dam never had her presence to acknowledge.
As the weeks and months went by, speculations drifted across town like tumbleweeds. Some said that she had an estranged husband that was an executive for the construction company that built the dam and that she moved to Lake Valley as a sort of penance for their oversight. Others said she had escaped an oppressive arranged marriage in the deep South and that she'd barely made it from her family's compound alive. Another supposition held that she was a recovering alcoholic who'd run away from a seedy inner city life of debauchery and disgrace.
All Reverend Ishmael knew was that she seemed to awake something in people. He had never seen anything quite like it outside of scripture. Red had managed to acquire some disciples of her own, those that would follow her around like she was a reunited Grateful Dead fronted by Jesus Christ Himself, but who would hide in corners and conceal themselves in shadows, never engaging the object of their fascination. And perhaps that was the problem, the reverend thought: people were coveting her, wanting to possess her, simply wanting her.
Married men would come to him, saying that the spark of their marriages had faded away, their shameful eyes fixing themselves onto the floor of his small office, sitting in the worn metal chair that he'd brought from home when the nice wooden one had collapsed into pieces. Teenage boys would ask for counsel, embarrassed at their lack of self-control in the carnal thoughts they gave quarter. Older women would confess great envious storms in their bosom, jealous of the younger women who remained so beautiful so effortlessly.
As all of these people confided in the reverend, he noticed that the blood would rush to their faces, their illuminated skin all matching the same scarlet hue of the mysterious woman's hair.
For the sake of his flock, then, Reverend Ishmael thought, he'd get to the bottom of this after all.
more to come.