Melinda Clayton is the author of Appalachian Justice, Return to Crutcher Mountain, and Entangled Thorns, as well as the lead contributor to the Cedar Hollow anthology. In addition to writing, Melinda has an Ed.D. in Special Education Administration and is a licensed psychotherapist in the states of Florida and Colorado. Her vast experience working in the field of mental health gives her a unique perspective on human behaviors, and she likes to explore this dynamic in her writing. Melinda lives in central Florida with her husband, two children, and various cats.
Beth Sloan has spent the majority of her life trying to escape the memories of a difficult childhood. Born into the infamous Pritchett family of Cedar Hollow, West Virginia, she grew up hard, surrounded not only by homemade stills and corn liquor, but by an impoverished family that more often than not preferred life on the wrong side of the law.
After the mysterious death of her brother Luke at the age of thirteen, seventeen year old Beth and her younger sister Naomi ran away from home, never to return. As the years passed, Beth suppressed the painful memories and managed to create a comfortable, if troubled, life with her husband Mark and their two children in an upscale suburb outside of Memphis, Tennessee. But the arrival of an unwelcome letter threatens to change all that.
Against her better judgment, and at the urging of her sister Naomi, Beth agrees to return to Cedar Hollow, to the memories she’s worked so hard to forget. When old resentments and family secrets are awakened, Beth must risk everything to face the truth about what really happened to Luke that long ago summer night.
No one with Jessie’s history of childhood trauma could make it through unscathed, and Jessie is no exception. As recounted in Appalachian Justice, Jessie is an adult survivor of horrendous childhood abuse. At the age of thirteen, on a stormy night on top of Crutcher Mountain, Jessie was rescued by Billy May Platte, a reclusive mountain woman who understood only too well what Jessie had suffered.
Now, at the age of forty-seven, Jessie is a success, at least by all outward appearances. Though divorced and childless, Jessie has built a successful career as a producer of big screen historical dramas and has a reputation as a hardworking perfectionist. But underneath it all, Jessie still struggles to reconcile the broken pieces of her past. As she explains:
I did attempt psychotherapy, not once but twice. The first therapist outlined a meticulous treatment plan designed to encourage me to be an active participant in my own healing. We discussed my shortcomings and spent weeks devising action steps to assist me in reaching my goals. In the end, when confronted with so much paper and ink proof of my own issues, I did what any rational person would do when confronted with such insurmountable odds. I quit.
The second therapist took a different track. He assured me of my inherent worth. He validated my feelings, no matter how terrible, how frighteningly horrid they were. He accepted me unconditionally, regaled me with never ending positive regard, and sat in nonjudgmental acceptance of me. I quit him, too. If he couldn’t see the flaws so obviously apparent within me, I didn’t trust his abilities as a therapist.
It’s hard to find one’s way out of a circle.
Little does she know, Billy May’s dying wish may just bring her the peace she so desires.
In honor of Billy May’s final request, Jessie has invited an agency that works with children with developmental disabilities to establish a wilderness retreat for special needs children on top of Crutcher Mountain. Everything has come together beautifully, until a series of strange events threatens to shut down the operation. Petty vandalism, a mysterious fire, and an anonymous note left for Jessie, demanding that she return to Crutcher Mountain.
Unsure what to expect, Jessie returns to West Virginia in search of answers and finds more than she bargained for. Along the way she falls in love with the residents of the Platte Lodge for Children, none more so than ten year old Robby O’Brien, a freckle faced, earnest little boy who was diagnosed at birth with Down Syndrome and who, upon the death of his grandfather, finds himself alone in a scary world.
Robby knows a secret.
Used to being misunderstood, Robby longs for someone to tell his secret to, someone who will listen and understand.
As Jessie searches for answers, determined to save not only the Lodge but Robby as well, she must open her heart to the truths she discovers and place her trust in a lonely little boy. It’s only by doing so that she can save herself.
Appalachian Justice by Melinda Clayton
Billy May Platte is a half Irish, half Cherokee Appalachian woman who learned the hard way that 1940s West Virginia was no place to be gay. As Billy May explains, "We was sheltered in them hills. We didn't know much of nothin' about life outside of them mountains. I did not know the word lesbian; to us, gay meant havin' fun and queer meant somethin' strange." In 1945, when Billy May was fourteen years old and orphaned, three local boys witnessed an incident in which Billy May's sexuality was called into question. Determined to teach her a lesson she would never forget, they orchestrated a brutal attack that changed the dynamics of the tiny coal mining village of Cedar Hollow, West Virginia forever. Everyone, from Gerald Smith, the elderly owner of Smith's General Store, to Sue Ann Leary, the spoiled daughter of the town's only doctor, to Corinne Pruitt, Billy May's childhood friend, was affected by the event in ways they could never have anticipated.
Chapter One: The beginning
Crutcher Mountain, West Virginia, 1975
In the chill of the encroaching evening the girl ran, heart pounding with the effort, lungs gasping for air. Her bare feet, cut and bruised, left bloody smears across the rocky outcrop but she didn’t notice, intent only on escape. Panting and gasping, chest heaving, scrawny limbs pumping, she ran down the treacherous wall of the briar-choked gully, tripping over the uneven ground. Clumps of her dark, knotted hair caught and remained on branches that seemed, in her terrified state, to reach towards her, conspiring against her, using their gnarled wooden fingers to hold her hostage.
She was young, certainly no older than twelve, balanced somewhere on the precipice between childhood and adolescence, and painfully thin for her age. The threadbare t-shirt she wore did little to camouflage the xylophone of her ribcage, the knobs of her spine a fragile zipper down her back. She was filthy, too, her battered feet nearly black from the coal dust soil of the mountains. Under normal circumstances, she would have been pretty, her almond shaped eyes a stormy shade of green, her limbs long and supple. But the girl didn’t live in normal circumstances, and as such, any prettiness she might have possessed was eclipsed by the ravages of fear and despair.
It was dusk in the mountains, the last warm rays of the sun shining upon the girl’s chestnut colored hair and creating momentary sparkles of light among the tangles as she crashed downward through the gully. Ahead of her, squirrels raced for trees, scrambling for higher ground, abandoning the nuts and berries for which they had so determinedly foraged. Snakes raced away from her path, slithering through the impenetrable brush before taking refuge in the cool recesses of the damp rock walls. Even the songbirds fell silent, blue jays and mockingbirds halting their never ending arguments in the wake of the girl’s flight.
The girl, however, noticed none of this. Her sensory perceptions having condensed into little more than animal instinct, she knew only that she had to run.
From the top of my mountain, I seen that girl runnin’. It was the hawks that told me to look. I was just finishin’ my chores for the evenin’ when I heard ‘em squawkin’ the way they do when somethin’ worries ‘em. Broad-winged, they was, and there was a passel of ‘em, all spiralin’ up in the currents over them mountains. They wasn’t happy; somethin’ had their attention and I remember hopin’ it wasn’t nothin’ serious. A fox maybe, or even a bear would be fine. I didn’t pay no mind to the animals; it was the people I feared. Give me a bear any day over a man. Bears is predictable; men ain’t.
More than anythin’ else, I was just curious about whatever was botherin’ ‘em. There must have been ten or twelve of ‘em, all gathered together for their winter’s flight south. Smart birds, I remember thinkin’. The cold on these mountains can kill a person quick, if they ain’t careful. The cold, and any number of other things.
I gave the axe a final swing and planted it securely in the choppin’ block. Last thing I needed was to trip over my own axe on my way to feedin’ the animals. If it didn’t kill me right away, I’d be dead of exposure soon enough. It wasn’t like nobody was goin’ to come lookin’ for me, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know where to look. I bent down to gather the last piece of firewood and headed towards the cabin, wipin’ the sweat off my brow with my shirt sleeve. Fall was comin’ but the evenin’ was a warm one, and I was a forty-four year old woman swingin’ an axe. I was filthy, soaked through with sweat, but who was to know? I lived alone, had for years, and that was the way I planned on keepin’ it. I had no illusions about myself and never had. My thick, black hair was cut short for ease, and thirty years on a West Virginia mountain summit had taken its toll on whatever good looks I may have once enjoyed. I was as brown as my Cherokee momma, my skin as creased as old leather.
With the sweat out of my eyes, I looked up to see the reddish brown underbellies of all them little hawks, flyin’ up high above the range and hollerin’ to beat the band. I dropped the split wood into the wood box by the front door with a clatter and shaded my eyes against the lowerin’ sun, gazin’ out over the gully and tryin’ to see what had caused the commotion. And that’s when I seen her. There she was, Roy Campbell’s girl, it had to be, headed for the creek and runnin’ as if her life depended on it. I hadn’t never met the girl, but there wasn’t no one else livin’ this high on the range. Keepin’ my eye on her, I took off my work gloves, shoved ‘em into the back pocket of my dungarees, and felt in my shirt pocket for a cigarette.
Findin’ what I was lookin’ for, I struck a match along the front of my little cabin and, usin’ my hands, sheltered the timid flame while I lit up, sighin’ with pleasure as the nicotine went to work. I don’t like to admit to vices, but nicotine has been mine, nevertheless. I reckon we all got some sort of weakness, and nicotine was it for me, at least after I took up residence on the mountain. My lungs full of smoke and the cravin’ thus satisfied, I leaned forward over the splintered railin’ of the cabin’s west facin’ porch, proppin’ my elbows on the weathered wood, danglin’ my hands over the edge. This was how I spent nearly all of my evenin’s after a hard day’s work, but this was the first time I’d ever seen another person so close to my mountain. I drug hard on the cigarette and squinted through the smoke, watchin’ the girl’s frantic flight down the neighborin’ hill.
The sheer desperation of the girl’s flight troubled me. I hadn’t seen Roy Campbell in nearly thirty years, but I doubted he had changed much. Judgin’ by the frightened, filthy state of the girl, he hadn’t changed at all. I watched the girl until she cut left around a boulder and disappeared from my view.
Takin’ a final drag, I flicked the last of the butt over the rail and into the dust, scatterin’ the chickens and causin’ a flurry of agitated cluckin’. The sun was just beginnin’ to dip below the summit of the mountain, spreadin’ rosy streaks across the western sky the way it does on clear mountain evenin’s. A cool breeze kicked up sudden like from the north, causin’ the dust to dance in miniature tornados and sendin’ an involuntary shiver down my spine. The universe has a lot to tell us, if we’re listenin’. For thirty years, my survival had depended on listenin’, so listen I did.
I still had work to do. First and foremost, I needed to gather them chickens into their coop before the spiralin’ hawks decided they’d make for an easy dinner. But I found myself drawn to the girl, unwillin’ to leave my perch. Distracted from my chores, I raked my hand through my hair, the calluses catchin’ and pullin’ as they always did, and gazed down the holler. Truth be told, I was afraid; I ain’t ashamed to say it now, and I wasn’t ashamed then, neither. The universe was talkin’, and I didn’t much like was it was sayin’.