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Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13 (4 page)

BOOK: Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13
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"The Old Rugged Cross" lasted for a mile or so, and we had subsequently worked our way down from a hundred bottles of beer (nonalcoholic, of course) on the wall to seventeen before we rattled across a cattle guard and under a blistered sign proclaiming the entrance to Camp Pearly Gates. Heather, who'd been moaning the entire time, made good on her threat and threw up on my shoe. Big Mac Buchanon made one final attempt to stick his head between my legs, then sat up and said, "You reckon this is it?"

"Abandon all hope," I muttered, wishing I'd brought a second pair of shoes.

Mrs. Jim Bob slammed on the brakes, sending Darla jean into the front seat and both Dahlton twins on top of Jarvis Kennistern, who'd been napping on the floor and woke up with a yelp. Larry Joe, whose head had been resting on Amy Dee's ample bosom, sat upright as though he'd been jabbed with a dull needle. Various knees and elbows collided.

Our commander-in-chief ignored the squeals and squeaks behind her. "Brother Verber, get out the map we were sent by the caretaker. The lodge is up ahead, but we need to find the cabins. I do believe the girls will be up on the hill and the boys down by the lake."

"Ain't this a pretty place?" Brother Verber said as he rummaged through his pockets. "I can just see all the little children frolicking happily, unawares of their limited time. Once the dock is fixed up, they'll be paddlin' canoes and -- " He broke off abruptly.

"And what?" she said.

He looked back at me. "Did you see something in those trees?"

"Like a squirrel?" I said as I slapped at Big Mac, who was gnawing on my neck with adolescent fervor. I looked out the dust-streaked window at the oak trees, scruffy pines, and thickets of brambles leading down the hill to a large lake. Dogwoods were still in bloom, as were redbuds and varied wildflowers. What had once been a ball field was overgrown with contentious clumps of weeds; the bleachers we'd been sent to repair were rusted skeletons. A concrete pit, presumably the swimming pool, was now likely to be the breeding grounds for algae, tadpoles, water moccasins, and typhoid fever.

I felt no regret that I'd left my bathing suit at home.

Mrs. Jim Bob sighed. "We did not drive all this way to observe nature, Brother Verber."

He found a folded paper, studied it for a long moment, and said, "I ain't right sure, but it looks like Larry Joe and the boys can get out here and make their way to their cabin, then come to the lodge to unload supplies."

I grabbed a handful of Big Mac's hair and jerked him away before he could progress to my earlobe. "An excellent idea."

The sperm bank was deposited at the end of what one hoped was a path. We drove past an impressive stone lodge, replete with a broad veranda and weathered wicker furniture, and bounced along the road to a concrete-block building with a sagging roof.

"Eeew," said Darla Jean. "I can already feel the spiders crawling up my back. I wanna go home."

"Snakes," Heather added, hissing in an appropriately reptilian fashion.

Amy Dee gulped loudly. "Snakes? What kind of snakes?"

"We hate snakes!" the Dahlton twins shrieked in unison.

Reminding myself that we were on a worthy mission, I opened the door of the bus and dragged the most vocal of the group out onto the pine needles. "I will make sure that there are no spiders or snakes in the cabin. Once we're established, I doubt so much as a tree frog will risk crossing the threshold."

Tough talk. I opened the warped door and paused to allow whatever critters might have been in residence to beat a timely retreat. The structure was a good thirty feet long, lined on both sides with rickety iron bunk beds and a decor that seemed to consist of cobwebs and balls of dust -- or possibly fur. What screens there were on the windows hung in tatters. The concrete floor was littered with what appeared to be rodent droppings, some distressingly fresh.

"It's fine," I announced as I went outside.

Brother Verber was at the back of the bus, pulling out sleeping bags and backpacks. He pulled me aside and, in a moist whisper, said, "I swear I saw something, Arly."

"Like what?"

"I don't know," he said, mopping his face with a handkerchief. "A fluttery white figure with a face like a skull. You don't think this place is haunted, do you?"

"If the staff was nondenominational, you might have spotted a Methodist from the netherworld. They can be pesky, or so I'm told."

He stepped away as Mrs. Jim Bob approached. "Get the girls settled," she said to me, "and then bring them down to the lodge. The pastor from the Baptist church over in Dunkicker assured me that the kitchen is acceptable, but knowing what I do about Baptists, I have misgivings. What's more, a group of Unitarians last stayed here, and we simply cannot trust them to have left the kitchen in a sanitary condition."

"Unitarians?" said Brother Verber, gazing nervously at the thick barrier of brush. "Do we know for sure that they went home?"

I left the two of them to sort it out and went into the cabin. The girls had spread their sleeping bags on the bunks, set out plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioners along the windowsills, and were busily fixing each other's hair, applying lipstick, and giggling as if nitrous oxide was seeping through the cracks in the concrete floor.

"Five minutes," I said, then stopped as Darla Jean pranced out from the bathroom at the back, dressed in a bikini that covered very little of her significant areas.

"Did anyone bring sunblock?" she asked.

I glared at her. "It's my understanding that we're here to renovate the campgrounds."

"Yeah, right," drawled Heather, "like we're gonna spend our spring break building bleachers at the softball field. It's a good thing I brought my algebra book so I can stay up every night and study."

"And floss," said one of the Dahlton twins. "Just imagine a whole week of flossing."

"I'm gonna floss from dusk till dawn," said the other.

Amy Dee squatted on the end of a bunk. "I'm thinking I might use this week to memorize the books of the Bible so I can get a ribbon at Sunday school. Genius, Exit Us, Levitation, Numbers -- "

"You couldn't memorize your telephone number," said a girl with greasy black hair and wire-rimmed glasses, who'd been introduced as Amy Dee's cousin from Paris (Arkansas). "I hear Billy Dick sure did, though."

Darla Jean spun around. "What's that supposed to mean, bitch?"

"How would I know, whore?"

The squabble might have escalated into hair-pulling had Mrs. Jim Bob not come into the cabin. "I think we'd better get a few things straight right now," she said with all the warmth of a prison matron on death row. "As you were warned, alcohol and tobacco are prohibited. No bare midriffs or unseemly dress of any nature. Profanity will result in extra kitchen duty. We will gather at seven sharp each morning for the raising of the flag and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Breakfast will be served at seven-fifteen, lunch at noon, and supper at six. Gatherings of an appropriately inspirational nature will be held at seven, with lights out at ten o'clock and not a second later. Two of you will be assigned to prepare each meal; the boys will clean up afterward." She waggled a finger at each of them in turn. "What there will not be, under any circumstances, is hanky-panky. We are here to do God's work, which, in this case, happens to be rebuilding the bleachers and repairing the dock."

"Why don't the boys have to cook?" asked Darla Jean.

Mrs. Jim Bob chewed on this for a moment. "Because a woman's place is in the kitchen, but if you'd prefer to hose down the garbage cans, it can be arranged."

"I'm sure she would," I said, winning Darla Jean's dedicated animosity for the next seven days, and possibly until she moved away from Maggody to get a job eviscerating chickens in Starley City.

"Well, then," said Mrs. Jim Bob, "I shall expect all of you at the lodge shortly. We need to unload supplies. Brother Verber will be in charge."

Heather snickered. "You and Brother Verber are staying there by yourselves, right? Arly's going to keep track of us, and Mr. Lambertino will be watching the boys, but what's to stop you and Brother Verber from ... ?"

Mrs. Jim Bob's lips tightened. "From what, Heather? Feel free to finish your sentence."

"It's just that everybody knows, or they think they do, that you and he ... "

"Go on," she said coldly.

"Well, ever since you all were caught up at the cave by Raz's still, you know, the both of you wearing lacy lingerie -- "

"There is an explanation, Heather. Perhaps you would care to come to the lodge and scrub the kitchen floor on your hands and knees while I share it with you?"

Heather did what I would have done, which was to start mumbling like crazy as she backed into the bathroom at the far end of the cabin. Mrs. Jim Bob shot her a final beady look, then reminded us that we were due at the lodge in ten minutes and drove away in the blue bus.

I clapped my hands until I had their attention. "Okay, ladies, you agreed to this. No one was hogtied and tossed onto the bus. You will have the chance to sunbathe, roast marshmallows, and sing camp songs, but you will not -- and I repeat, will not -- go wandering down the road to meet with someone of the opposite sex. One week consists of a mere seven days. We'll get up at six-thirty and be in our bunks at ten o'clock. We will stay in our respective bunks for the rest of the night. Questions?"

"Did you notice that Mr. Lambertino has a dimple?" drawled a Dahlton twin.

"And a cute butt?" said the other.

Darla Jean fell back on a bunk. "Give me a break! Next thing you're gonna say is the dimple's on his butt."

It may have taken ten minutes for the giggles and increasingly ribald remarks to subside, but eventually I calmed them down and escorted them to the lodge. Mr. Dimpled Butt was supervising the boys as they carried boxes into the lodge, Brother Verber seemingly having excused himself.

The main room of the lodge was dominated by a stone fireplace and broad windows with a view of the lake. Had it been crowded with leather sofas and easy chairs, it might have been charming. A dozen or so corroded folding chairs failed to provide the ambiance. The dining room resembled a mess hall, appropriately enough, and the kitchen had been scoured into shape by the Unitarians or the Baptists.

"Are you planning to feed these kids any time soon?" I asked Mrs. Jim Bob, who was waving her arms and issuing orders as if she fancied herself to be the director of a movie set.

"Did you not hear what I said earlier? Lunch will be provided at noon."

"They might be getting hungry."

"Or they might be filled with the glory that comes with doing the Almighty's work. As soon as we're unloaded, Larry Joe will take half of them to the softball field to start work on the bleachers. The rest, under your supervision, will get busy on the dock. Their rewards will not come from self-indulgence, but in knowing they are humble servants of the Lord. I hope you'll share that, too, Arly. I shudder every time I envision you in Satan's claws for all eternity. Look at this as your opportunity to -- "

"That wasn't part of the deal," I interrupted. "I approve of what the kids have volunteered to do, and applaud them. On the other hand, I did not agree to be bombarded with pieties for a week. Don't think for a second that I can't walk back to the highway and hitch a ride home. Try for a lower bunk near the bathroom and keep an eye out for bats. The rafters may be a prime habitat for the Almighty's nocturnal rodents."

"Your attitude does not surprise me."

"What's more," I said, really heating up, "I am not going to head a work crew. My idea of a tool is a nail file. Larry Joe's in charge."

We were eyeballing each other when Brother Verber appeared, his demeanor a bit wobbly, his grin suspiciously genial. "The Unitarians did a right dandy job cleaning up the lodge," he announced. "The bedrooms upstairs ain't as nice as motel rooms, but they're clean. There's toilet paper in the bathrooms, jars with dried flowers, and crayon drawings taped on some of the walls. It made me think of when Jesus said, 'Let those li'l children come unto me.'" He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. "It wrenched my heart, just imagining them with their disfigured limbs and withered lungs. I reckon a lot of them was orphans, locked away all year except for the one week they were allowed to frolic in the sunshine and -- "

"What an appropriate topic for your evening homily," said Mrs. Jim Bob, grabbing Jarvis as he attempted to sidle behind her with a package of cookies half-hidden under his shirt. "I'm sure this young man would be honored to participate with a personal interpretation of one of the Ten Commandments." She tightened her grip on his wrist. "You may go to your cabin and contemplate the meaning of 'Thou shalt not steal.' If this concept confuses you, we can discuss it further."

"It's been a long while since breakfast," he said sullenly.

"There is no justification for breaking a commandment," she countered. "I do believe you need to spend the remainder of the day reading your Bible and praying for forgiveness. Should you and the Lord reach an accord, you may come to supper."

Although he was bulky enough to be drafted by an NFL team, he hung his head. "Yes, ma'am."

I felt the need to intervene. "That's unreasonable, Mrs. Jim Bob, and what's more, we need his help with the bleachers. Why don't you allow him to apologize and let it go?"

BOOK: Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13
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