Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
When I returned to the living room, Larry Joe had coaxed a tentative fire in the fireplace. The kids had moved the metal chairs and were sprawled on the floor, grousing but in a more amiable fashion. Rain continued to pound down, but the outbursts of lightning and thunder were beginning to lessen, and the seconds between them indicated the storm was moving on to expend its remaining savagery on Dunkicker and towns eastward.
All I needed to complete the cozy picture were Darla Jean and Heather. Surely they were at the cabin, experimenting with eye shadow and discussing Billy Dick in descriptions that dripped with venom. Surely.
Ruby Bee appeared in the doorway with a tray. "How about some nice hot tea?" she said as if she'd planned it herself. "I just happen to have brought some oatmeal-raisin cookies along. Anybody interested?"
As the kids crowded around her, I kept an eye on Mrs. Jim Bob. She was eyeballing Brother Verber, who had pulled off his shoes and was baking his socks in front of the fire. So far, so good. I considered whether or not I could slide out the back door and go to the cabin without my absence being noticed. Probably not, I decided glumly. Mrs. Jim Bob's nose was already twitching with suspicion.
"How about a round of charades?" I said brightly.
"Give me a break," Jarvis muttered. "We gonna play spin-the-bottle next?"
"This will be fun," I continued. "Let's divide into teams and come up with clues. Larry Joe will take one team, and Ruby Bee the other."
"Charades?" said the Dahlton twins, sounding as though I'd suggested injecting ourselves with flesh-eating viruses to determine who survived to the bitter end.
"You'll love it. You can make up clues for the other team, and then we'll see who ends up with the best time."
"And then?" said Parwell. "Do the winners get to go home?"
Mrs. Jim Bob bristled. "I do not appreciate your attitude, Parwell, nor does the Almighty Lord. You knew exactly why you were coming here, and you should be grateful that Ruby Bee has arrived to provide meals that will be tasty, if not wholesome. Don't toy with your chances of salvation; one more smart remark and you might find yourself in the fiery furnaces next to Arly."
A timely clap of thunder drowned out Ruby Bee's remark, which might have been tart, to put it mildly. The girls squealed; the boys flinched. Brother Verber dropped to his knees and began to plead to be spared from being roasted, toasted, fried, or fricasseed.
I was about to duck out the back way when a heavy hand pounded on the door. Squealing and flinching were instantaneously replaced with gulping. For the record, adolescent gulping is less attractive, and, in fact, downright distasteful. After a moment, I said, "I'll get it."
No one argued.
So, yeah, we're talking frightened teenagers, isolated campground, thunderstorm, pouring rain, electricity disabled, no doubt telephone lines down and the road washed out. Had I seen this on late-night television, along with its seventeen sequels? Machete or chainsaw?
I looked at Mrs. Jim Bob, who, for the first time since I'd returned and assumed my job as chief of police, showed no inclination to overrule me. She, along with my very own mother, Brother Verber, Estelle, Larry Joe, and the kids, could have been participants in a garden store's display of statuary. Gnomes, elves, dwarfs, and toads; all were petrified as if the concrete fairy had waved her magic wand.
Knuckles rapped once again. I might have been a bit uneasy as I went to the door and opened it.
Jacko was carrying Darla Jean in his arms. Her legs were bare, but her upper body was covered with the flannel shirt he'd been wearing earlier. He'd buttoned the vest, but his arms, shoulders, and a significant amount of his chest glistened with rain in the minimal light. "This one's yours, right?" he said as he brushed past me. "Where shall I put her?"
Ruby Bee, who'd allowed me to open the door to a potential serial killer, leaped to her feet. "Just who do you think you are?" she demanded from a prudent distance.
"I think I'm the guy who found her lying in the road. I suppose I could have taken her to my campsite and chopped her up to make stew, but I was in the mood for bouillabaisse. She's cold and in shock. Is there a warm bed somewhere?"
"Upstairs," I said vaguely, having not yet been there.
Ruby Bee cut off Mrs. Jim Bob, who was sputtering. "Yes, indeed. No one's gotten around to explaining why this poor child, dressed in a slip of a bathing suit, should have been out on an evening like this, but I'm sure someone" -- she stared at me -- "is gonna explain afore too long. In the meantime, let's tuck her in bed and try to give her some hot liquids. Estelle, bring up a cup of tea with a dollop of ... something medicinal."
Jacko followed us upstairs, staggering under his burden. Ruby Bee opened a door and stepped back. "Put her in here," she commanded, no doubt envisioning herself in a stiff white uniform and perky cap.
I pulled back the covers and tried not to allow my imagination to run wild as Jacko unceremoniously allowed Darla Jean to bounce on the mattress. She was shivering, but I could see no bruises or other indications of physical assault. I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled the blankets up to her chin.
"You're safe now," I said.
"Ain't none of us safe," she whispered, then buried her face in the pillow.
Our Lady of the Lamp glared at Jacko. "I assume you have an explanation for this."
"Not a good one," he said. "I found her whimpering under a bush and figured I ought to bring her here."
"And why would you think that, mister? Are you accustomed to finding young girls under bushes?"
"On a daily basis?"
I intervened. "He's set up camp down the road from the cabin where the girls and I are staying. I asked him earlier if he'd seen Darla Jean."
"And his reply?" said Mrs. Jim Bob, who must have been eavesdropping just outside the room. "If fornication has been a factor, then I have no choice but to call her parents to fetch her. They will be sorely disappointed, Darla Jean, as will I. This week has been dedicated to doing the Almighty Lord's work, not engaging in depravity."
Jacko gave me a disconcerted look, then left the room. I told Ruby Bee and Mrs. Jim Bob to do the same, then squeezed Darla Jean's shoulder until she rolled over.
"So where have you been and why are you so upset?" I asked.
"It's all crazy."
"That much is obvious."
Estelle attempted to slip into the room. I took the mug from her, thanked her, and eased her backward until I could close the door in her face.
"Go on, Darla Jean."
"Well," she said, sitting up in bed to slurp the tea, "I went for a walk."
"Wearing your bikini."
"Like there's something sinful about working on a tan? All I was gonna do was sit by the water for an hour, and then go back to the cabin to sweep the floors. I was even gonna scrub the toilet bowls just to prove I'd learned my lesson."
"And here I was thinking you might have orchestrated this whole thing to get out of the work detail. Maybe I ought to call Brother Verber up here so he can coach me while I pray for your forgiveness for all my evil thoughts."
"Do you wanna know what happened?"
I sat down on the foot of the bed. "Why don't you tell me?"
"I was walking down the road when I saw this little boy, not more than four or five years old. He ran into the bushes. I went after him to tell him I wasn't gonna hurt him, but then I saw this old guy with a fishing rod."
"And you screeched?"
"I wasn't expecting to see anybody," she admitted. "I went back up to the road, calling for him but in a low voice so's not to scare him. I mean, what was this kid doing by his lonesome? I went all the way down to the edge of the lake, hoping I'd find his family having a picnic or something. There wasn't anyone. I was thinking I'd come find you when I saw him scuttling up the hill."
I looked at the welts and scratches on her face. "So you went after him?"
Her eyes filled with tears. "What was I supposed to do? He wasn't any older than my little cousin Emory, and I'd like to think somebody'd help him if he got hisself lost in the woods."
"And?" I said encouragingly.
"Well, Emory has blond hair, and the little boy's hair was dark and flopping in his face, but -- "
"You couldn't figure out why he was out in the woods by himself," I said.
"Emory lives in West Memphis, so I knew right off it wasn't him. Besides, he has a birthmark on his -- "
"So you went after this child who was not Emory?"
"He was moving faster than a squirrel, and a 'course he could duck under branches that whacked me in the face. It was like I was in a movie, Arly. The storm clouds made everything dark. Lightning was flashing something awful, and all I could think was that this little boy was lost in the woods. Halfway up the hillside he disappeared. I stumbled around for a long while, begging him to come out of wherever he was hiding, then decided I'd better come back here so you could do something. That's when ... "
"You found him?" I suggested, always in favor of a happy ending.
"I tripped over the body."
"Whose body?" I said.
"Like I should know?" Darla Jean finished off the tea and handed me the mug. "You know, this kinda rocked. Do you think I can have some more, maybe with extra sugar?"
"In a few minutes. Please tell me what you're talking about -- and it had better not be a bloated squirrel."
Shivering, she pulled up the blankets. "Not hardly. The whole thing was really, really awful, Arly. I kept falling over stumps and rocks, but I just had to catch up with this poor little boy that shouldn't ought to have been there by hisself in the first place. I didn't mean to, but I guess I scared him, which was making me feel like crap. Maybe I should have come and found you. Thing was, I kept imagining Emory and -- "
"Let's fast-forward to the point when you tripped over a body."
"You don't believe me, do you? You got that same look my ma always gets when I tell her I'm going to Heather's to study."
"I don't have enough information to decide, Darla Jean. Continue."
"It seemed like we were up and down the hillside. Every now and then I'd catch sight of him, but then he'd dart out of sight. Finally there came a time when I flatout lost him. I didn't know what to do, and I was sitting on a log, praying he'd show up again, when it got dark and rain commenced. Lightning hit a tree not twenty feet from where I was and damn near barbecued my skin. I was picking myself up when it turned out I was sprawled in a creekbed that was filling up fast. I'm gonna be puking up tadpoles for the better part of a week."
"And so you got up and started back here," I prompted her.
Darla Jean began to tremble. "I was real scared. The sky was flashing and crashing, and water was gushing down the hill. I wasn't real sure how to find the lodge, but I figured the road was between me and the lake."
"The body, Darla Jean. Was it the child?"
"Gosh, no. I couldn't have left him out in the woods by hisself." She took a deep breath. "It was an alien. Did you ever see those photographs in the tabloids of what they called 'Grays'? Big round heads, with almond eyes and slits for mouths?"
"Those were not photographs," I said. "They were drawings. Could this have been a woman with a shaved head?"
"It was an alien," she insisted. "It makes as much sense as a woman with a shaved head, fer chrissake. I mean, some of the basketball players shave their heads, but ain't no woman's gonna do that, except maybe nuns, and I'm not thinking there's a convent anywhere nearby." She gave me a defiant glare. "Do you think we ought to call the television stations so they can interview me for the ten o'clock news?"
"Let's hold off for the time being. Are you sure this ... creature was dead? Could he or she have been unconscious?"
"Golly gee, Arly, I forgot to ask. I didn't even say 'excuse me' when I caught my foot on its leg and went face down in the mud again."
"Can you tell me where you saw the body?"
She clutched a pillow to her chest and squeezed it so tightly that tiny down feathers spewed out like snowflakes. "I don't know. When I was stumbling down to the road, I thought I saw the bleachers and the roof of the dugout over to my right. I was thinking I might be able to find the lodge when my foot came down the wrong way and I twisted my ankle something fierce. The pain was so awful that I couldn't hardly hobble, so I crawled as far as I could and then got under some bushes to wait until the rain stopped. I wasn't sure what I was going to do when that man came along and scooped me up. I was so panicky that I don't recollect much after that."
I pulled back the blankets and eased out her ankle, which was not only swollen, but also blotched with unsightly hues of green and purple. "It may be nothing more than a nasty sprain, Darla Jean, but you'll need an X-ray in the morning to make sure nothing's broken. As soon as we're finished talking, I'll ask Ruby Bee to bring up an ice pack."
"Do you think I can have something to eat?"
I felt a stab of guilt as I remembered the cheese sandwich I'd stuck into my pocket for her, and subsequently eaten while gazing at the lake. "Give me another minute or so, then I'll go downstairs and find something for you until Ruby Bee fries up the catfish and hushpuppies. How far were you from the field when you found this body?"
"Give me a break," she said as she buried her face in the pillow. "If I knew anything, I'd tell you. You need to be out finding that little boy instead of badgering me. He's still out there, unless he was running back to a spaceship. He's liable to be cold and scared. If he's anything like Emory, he'll be screaming so loud he can be heard all the way back to Maggody. I'm done talking to you, so let me be."