I created (and fell in love with) Carlton Hillis.
When I started my work on The One True Love of Alice-Ann, I knew that Alice-Ann’s older brother, Nelson, would have two best friends, both of who went into the armed services when the U.S. went to war after December 7, 1941.
Mack, of course, was Alice-Ann’s “one true love.” The problem was … he didn’t know it.
Carlton was the brother of Alice-Ann’s best friend, Maeve. Both he and Mack are five years older than Alice-Ann and consider her to be a “kid sister.”
When Mack and Carlton leave Bynum, Alice-Ann is a somewhat immature sixteen-year-old. But when Carlton returns, badly injured from the war, she is eighteen with the maturity of a twenty-four-year-old.
War does that. It ages us.
I found myself somewhat startled the first time Carlton called Alice-Ann “Doodlebug” as a nickname. I hadn’t seen it coming. I had spent a lot of time developing him as a character knowing that he would be the one to steal Alice-Ann’s heart (and send it into confusion—when a girl thinks she’s in love with one man only to find herself falling in love with another … it’s confusing!). But I had no idea just how charming he’d become.
Looking back, I think this is because I stripped him of the use of his eyes and legs and found no anger. His only hint of bitterness came from the hero’s welcome the town placed on him and, because of that, the fear of losing his one true love.
So now, let me confess. The first time Carlton gave Alice-Ann goosebumps, he gave me goosebumps. And, he gave my critique partner, Sandie Bricker, goosebumps. We both giggled like schoolgirls over the scene you’re about to read.
They climbed the three cement steps from the sidewalk to the walkway cutting the lawn into two patches of dark-green weeds. “And the lawn could use some reseeding,” she added.
They stopped at the base of the front porch steps. Carlton used his cane to test them. “And some new boards here.”
“I’m going up,” Alice-Ann said as she studied the splintered wood.
“To the porch.”
She took the first step, turned and looked at him. “Coming with me? Or are you going to let a little rotten wood frighten you?”
Carlton’s eyes widened and his lips formed a round O as he shook his head. “Oh, young lady,” he said. “You may not know it, but I’ve met the enemy, and it ain’t some two-by-fours in need of replacing.”
She giggled as she jogged up the remaining steps, hoping none of them collapsed beneath her—how embarrassing would that be?—and turned to look down at him as she crossed her arms. “Oh, really?”
Carlton took each step carefully, his cane steady against the boards until he made it to the porch. “Glad you could join me,” Alice-Ann teased, then crossed to the picture window on the right side of the porch, cupped her hands around her face, and peered into the house. “This is the living room,” she said. Her eyes swept both the emptiness and the details. “Come over here and look at the woodwork, Carlton. Look at the gingerbread accents in the corners of the door leading to that room there. I think it’s the dining room.”
Carlton stood beside her, imitating her stand. “Nice. And nice crown molding and baseboards,” he said. “And only about an inch of dust on the floorboards.”
“That’s probably not all that’s on the floors,” she added with a frown.
“Come,” he said, stepping away from her and walking over to the smaller window on the left side of the front door. She joined him and studied the glass as she came closer. A hairline crack ran diagonally across the top right corner. “This window would need fixing.”
They looked in as they had before—hands cupped, faces against the pane. “I think this is the front bedroom,” she observed.
Alice-Ann smiled. Compared to the tiny box he called his bedroom, the room was palatial, but she elected not to say anything. Since Carlton had been able to get out of bed, she’d not been in the intimacy of his room, and it felt awkward now talking about such things. “Well,” she said, her breath fogging the glass, “the whole house is small.”
“A cottage, really,” he said.
Alice-Ann pulled her face away from her hands to look at him. “You remember,” she whispered.
He studied her without answering and she did the same, noting the tiny dimple in his chin. The crinkles around his eyes. The fullness of his lips.
Oh . . .
“I remember,” he said, and her eyes came back to his.
She struggled to find her voice as she faced him fully. “How—how did you remember?”
He shifted the cane
from his right hand to the left, then raised a finger to tap the tip of her nose. “I remember pretty much everything you say.”
“You do?” Her voice squeaked, and inwardly, she cringed.
Carlton leaned forward, his lips—those full lips she’d noticed only a moment ago as though she’d seen them for the first time in her life—brushed against her cheek, found her ear, and sent tiny gooseflesh down her arms. “I do,” he whispered. “Miss Alice-Ann.”