Sitting on my suitcase to keep my ridiculous ruffle-clad butt from burning on the black asphalt, I can’t help thinking how much life sucks as I stick out my thumb and pray for a passing car. The annoying thing is this: I never even wanted to be a princess. That’s my mother’s deal.
“Just imagine, Evangeline,” she drawled with dreamy eyes ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. “One day you’ll marry a Tinkerton and all of Chandlers Gap will be yours…” and blah blah blah and something about kings and carriages and happily-ever-after.
It’s best to tune my mother out the second you see that dreamy look. Anything coming out of her mouth after that is the stuff nightmares are made of, a lot like the silk, ruffled dresses and glittering hair combs bursting from my closet.
When I was little, I hid all that princess junk under my bed, wishing I could wear jeans and sneakers like Allie Simms. Allie and her big brother Peter practically lived outdoors, wallowing in the pond between our yards all summer long. I watched them through the parlor window, where I was stuck, locked up like Rapunzel, pricking my fingers on my embroidery needle and sipping sweet tea like the princess I was raised to be. I could never play in the mud with Allie and Peter. Always had to be as clean and sparkly as the Cartier ring my mother imagined on my manicured finger.
Peter Simms had skinny arms, but he also had these sparkly blue eyes I could see all the way from my window. When he laughed it was better than pecan pie and I used to imagine him riding upon a great white horse and whisking me far, far away from Chandlers Gap.
But I’m not a kid with a head full of daydreams anymore. I’m sixteen and, according to my mother, plenty ripe for the picking.
“Did you hear it?” she exclaimed at breakfast just yesterday. “Your time to be real princess has finally come!”
My stomach turned sour straight away and I couldn’t even finish my cinnamon bun.
She was talking about the announcement made by Emmanuel Johnson Tinkerton - better known as Mr. Manny the Mattress King – of his search for a sweet young debutante for his son, Theodore Robert. I wasn’t at all surprised when my mother grabbed my hand, pulled me up from the breakfast table, and skipped to the Tinkerton mansion. There, I was lined up alongside all the other belles in town, including Allie Simms.
What could be so bad about Theodore Robert that his daddy had to find him a bride, I had no idea. But then there he stood. Face like a toad, only no princess could kiss him back to Prince Charming. The way his top lip curled as he grinned at all of us made every one of my corkscrew curls stand on end.
I expected to be judged from rear to head like a prize heifer, but I didn’t expect to end up blotchy-faced and bleary-eyed after a night spent atop forty mattresses and a friggin’ pea. I guess picking a princess isn’t a scientific matter. All you need is the world’s biggest bed and a legume from the garden. And wouldn’t you know it; the other girls didn’t even feel that pea. They all slept soundly while I tossed and turned.
Turns out, nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.
It was when I saw my mother’s face and hands clasped to her heart, after Mr. Manny announced that Miss Evangeline Coleman (that would be me) was destined to marry his toad of a son that I decided the time had come for me to hike up my skirt, turn on my heels, and run like hell.
But I’ve been sitting here on Elmwood Avenue, the blistering sun melting my skin into a puddle, waiting in vain for a car to go by for the last three hours. I could walk into town, find a bus to whisk me away like a knight in shining armor, but my glass slippers would probably break along the journey and I wouldn’t get far in bare feet.
It’s when I see Peter Simms’s beat up clunker coming down the street that my eyes just about pop from my head. He’s changed a lot since the days when I watched Allie and him from the parlor window. His once skinny arms are now mighty fine, all tan and muscled from working around Simms farm, and I always have to take a deep breath before I see those sparkly blue eyes of his. The last time I saw him, at Virginia Cooper’s Sweet Sixteen a month ago, my knees went weak and I almost fell flat on my face.
Of all people to see me sweating like a cow in my frilly pink dress and crown of curls, why does it have to be Peter Simms? Life just doesn’t stop sucking.
Peter pulls up in front of me and rolls his window down. My cheeks burn and I hope he thinks they’re red from the sun. His eyes fix on my thumb, still sticking out.
“The princess left her tower, huh? Where you headed, Evangeline?”
He has this sweet-as-strawberry-lemonade smile that does something funky to my nerves and I almost chicken out of running away completely. Do I really want to leave Chandlers Gap and never see Peter Simms smile again? No, of course I don’t. But do I want to stay and marry Theodore Robert Tinkerton, the future king of Mattress Land?
“I don’t know,” I say with a shrug, hoping I look a little bit cool. “New York, maybe?”
His smile turns into a grin. “You mean there’s a life outside Chandlers Gap?”
“I sure as hell hope so,” I tell him, shielding my eyes from the sun and drinking in as much of his smile as I can.
He whistles when he sees I’m serious. “Damn. I figured you’d say you’re headed to the Stop ‘n Save. You’re really leaving town?”
“I’m supposed to marry Theodore Robert Tinkerton first thing in the morning. What do you think?”
He finds my answer amusing, his mouth twitching at the corner as he studies me. I find his expression as cute as a pile of puppies. Then Peter pulls open his door, hops out and before I know it, he’s pulling me up off my suitcase and yanking the passenger door open. “Hop in.”
“Someone has to rescue you. Might as well be me.”
I gawk at him as I slide into the seat, hardly able to believe my luck. Peter Simms is really going to drive me out of this town? His rusted clunker might not be a great white horse, but I’ll take it.
“Where were you going?” I ask. He picks up my suitcase and tosses it into the backseat of his car before shutting the door after me. When he’s back behind the steering wheel he answers.
“I was on my way to the Stop ‘n Save. Allie’s planning on drowning herself in butter brickle since she didn’t feel a pea or something while she was sleeping.” He scratches his head before shrugging carelessly and pushing on the gas. “Not really sure what that’s all about, but I had to get away from her wailing.”
My forehead crinkles automatically. Why would Allie Simms cry over not getting to marry the future king of Mattress Land when she’d grown up with blue jeans and freedom? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Once we’re closer to town, Peter turns to me again. “Is the Greyhound station in Peach Creek okay? Do you have any cash?”
“Enough for new clothes, a ticket out of here and a place to stay for a few days while I figure things out,” I tell him, reaching down to pull off the glass slippers. They’re glued to my feet with sweat and I have to work to pry them off. I roll the window down.
“Aren’t you scared of being on your own?”
“Not half as scared as I am of being stuck here for the rest of my life.”
Peter nods at that. “What’s your mama going to say?”
“My mother can kiss my ruffled butt.” I toss the shoes out the window, barely hearing the tinkling sound as they shatter against the side of the road.
He eyes me curiously. “Evangeline Coleman, you’re not the princess I always thought you were.”
I lean back in my seat and close my eyes. Delicious gusts of freedom beat against my face along with the wind.
“Didn’t you know, Peter Simms? I’m not a princess at all. Now if you wouldn’t mind making one quick little stop, I’m in need of some jeans and sneakers.”