Chapter One

Crystal Hobbs was expecting dismay from her boyfriend when she told him where they'd be meeting another young couple for dinner tonight. She got it.

"Murl's Famous Country Buffet?" Shane almost choked on the words.

Crystal, twenty-four, was sitting in front of the bedroom mirror. She spent a lot of time there, inspecting her appearance, but not out of vanity. Rather, Crystal was deadly serious when it came to looking her best. She had to make it look as if she had arrived at her beauty effortlessly, when in fact a Herculean effort was needed to maintain it. By most accounts—whether of randy boys or jealous girls—she was successful. Her lustrous blond hair fell on her shoulders in a gentle cascade; her low-cut blouse gleamed white, like a fall of fresh snow, against her superbly tanned skin. Right now Crystal was studying her face for any spots in need of some last-minute attention: Lips good; eye shadow fine; lashes could be better but still passable…

"Yes," she murmured back, "Murl's Famous Country Buffet."

Really, though, Crystal wanted to distract herself from Shane Dawson's inevitable harrumphing. Her mirror reflected the young man's image: six-foot-three, short brown hair, lean, same aged. Ordinarily Crystal enjoyed looking at him—unless, of course, he was complaining, pouting, or otherwise being a jerk. Then she could barely look at him at all. Right now, judging by his rigid posture and the stony expression that had come over his face, Shane was about to be mighty hard to look at.

"The Murl's Famous Country Buffet?"

"Yes, Shane," Crystal responded tiredly, getting to her feet. "That's where he wanted to go."

"Of all the places, though, why—"

Crystal faced him now. "Look, I don't want to hear it. You said you didn't care where we went tonight. I said I didn't care. Arlene said she didn't care. So that just left Donny."

"And Donny cared."

"Exactly; Donny cared. He wanted to go to Murl's Famous Country Buffet. And since we left it completely up to him, it's our own fault."

Shane sighed, "We're going to be thirty years younger than everybody else in there."

"I know."

"Or three hundred pounds lighter."

"That's mean."

"Or both."

"Stop it!"

"Well, I'm just saying…"

"I know, but that's the place we're going tonight. We can't change it. Now get ready, so we're not late."

"Murl's Famous Country Buffet," Shane muttered, heading to the closet to get a new shirt. "Of all the places…"

-o-

Fall in southeast Georgia is a sly, quiet season. It doesn't arrive in September; rather, it creeps into existence. Bit by bit, it steals away the summertime. Each evening, dusk falls sooner. Leaves dry to a crinkly brown and fall to Earth; flowers wither, many disappearing entirely; and a subtle chill descends at night, to linger into the following morning. The afternoons of September, alternating between hot sun and pleasing rain showers, often still resemble those of August, July, or June. Yet there is a kind of wistfulness about them, borne of finality: a bright September day spent at the beach, or splashing around in the pool, or grilling steaks out in the backyard, is well-matched with one last dance before closing time, one big sale before a once-thriving retailer closes its doors, one final party in a well-loved home before the bank forecloses next week. By late October fall has established its dominance. It was a weekend in mid-October, though, when a grumbling Shane drove himself and Crystal across town in his red Ford Mustang to Murl's Famous Country Buffet. So autumn's victory, though certain, remained incomplete for now.

"Of all the places," Shane said yet again, gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles had turned white.

Crystal chose not to take the bait. She got the sense Shane wanted her to defend Donny's choice, or to cite their previous indifference for getting them into this situation, so that he and Crystal could argue about it—which would enable him to blow off some steam and subsequently feel better. Well, sorry. Crystal wasn't here for him to spar with when he needed to work through some negative feelings. He could just sit there and stew for a while. She wasn't fighting with him tonight.

And yet, in the days ahead, Crystal would find herself returning to her boyfriend's new signature phrase—"Of all the places"—at least when she had a moment to ponder it. Those would be few, however. She would spend most of that time just trying to survive.