Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
Brother Verber fell to his knees and clasped his hands together. "Lord, I sense we have a sinner about to repent his wicked ways and come back into the fold. Listen to the words of this prodigal son, then throw open Your arms and absolve him. It's gonna happen, Lord, and then we can all exalt in Thy mercy. Say it, boy! Let it ring out so that every squirrel and songbird can hear it!"
Jarvis handed Mrs. Jim Bob the package of cookies, then took a deep breath and said, "I'm real sorry and I'll never steal anything again as long as I live."
"Hallelujah!" boomed Brother Verber. "Let us all kneel and give thanks for this miracle on our very first day at Camp Pearly Gates!"
Mrs. Jim Bob remained standing. "Or at least an admission of guilt. All right, Jarvis, you may help with the bleachers this morning and have lunch with the others. I do hope we won't have any other problems with you this week. Your parents will not be pleased if I have to call them to fetch you. I understand your father's been laid off and your mother's cancer has come back. It would only add to their troubles if they found out you were nothing but a common thief and they had to drive all this way. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
"And that is exactly what I'll do if I catch any of you behaving in an ungodly fashion," she added to the kids hovering nearby. "You are here on a mission, not to paint your toenails and put ribbons in your hair."
Brother Verber staggered to his feet and clung to the back of a folding chair as if it were his pulpit. "'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever.'"
Darla Jean stared at him. "So it doesn't much matter, since we're all gonna die anyway?"
"That ain't precisely what I was getting at," he said nervously. "It's just that vanity's a sin, same as stealing cookies."
"If I'm going to die this week, it ain't gonna be because I got a splinter in my toe repairing up some goddamn rotten bleachers!"
Mrs. Jim Bob's jaw dropped. "Darla Jean McIlhaney, I will not tolerate blasphemy! You go back to your cabin and stay there until I have a chance to decide how to deal with this unseemly outburst. Once you've simmered down, I hope you'll take the opportunity to pray for forgiveness."
"Don't bet the farm on it," she said as she spun around and banged out the door. I caught her partway down the stairs to the lawn. "Calm down," I said. "Go on back to the cabin, and rather than pray, get the broom in the bathroom and sweep the floor. I'll bring you a sandwich as soon as lunch is over."
"Just leave me alone. I brought some chips and candy bars, so it's not like I'll starve or anything."
"And you're not going to run away?" I persisted. "We're a good three miles from the highway, and more than seventy-five miles from Maggody."
"Have I ever lied to you?" she said defiantly.
"So what now?" Heather whispered at me as I came back inside the lodge. She wasn't spitting out the words, but I sensed dampness on my face. "I can't believe you'd let Darla Jean run off like that! Her and Billy Dick came real near breaking up last week. She's liable to -- well, do something!"
"And I'm supposed to know that?" I whispered back at her. "Do I look like my name's Ann Landers?"
Mrs. Jim Bob glared at Brother Verber, who was hiccuping in a corner, and said, "Mr. Lambertino will take the crew to the baseball field, with Arly as second-in-command. The Dahlton twins will remain here in order to start preparing lunch. We'll be having tomato soup and cheese sandwiches, so work up your appetites."
"Cheese sandwiches?" echoed Billy Dick.
"And tomato soup," she said. "Our menu for the week is both nutritious and filling. Tonight, if I remember correctly, we'll have spaghetti, along with lima beans and applesauce for dessert."
"Applesauce?" I said, my expression as appalled as those of the teenagers. I dislike applesauce, and lima beans make me think of diseased kidneys harvested from lab animals.
Mrs. Jim Bob held her ground, despite the very real threat of a rebellion. "Yes, applesauce. You may not be aware of it, but excessive sugar and sodium cause unseemly urges in adolescents, and I must say this group in particular can profit from a lesson in self-control. Our meals will consist of nothing but wholesome foods that will cleanse our systems and help us focus on our goal. At the end of the week, if we have met the Lord's challenge, we'll have a campfire with marshmallows."
"Whoop-dee-do," muttered one of the Dahlton twins.
I grabbed Larry Joe's arm and shook it until he stopped blinking at Mrs. Jim Bob and gave me his attention. "Okay, boss, let's go chop us some cotton."
He gestured at the teenagers. "Yesterday I dropped off a load of lumber next to the field. Jarvis, you and Big Mac get busy knocking together some sawhorses. Billy Dick and Parwell, grab those toolboxes out by the bus. I don't know what you girls are gonna do, but I'll come up with something."
The Dahlton twins were seething as we trooped across the living room, but I presumed they'd survive and slap together some really yummy cheese sandwiches. The rest of us hiked up to the field.
None of the existing planks beneath the bleachers were salvageable. Larry Joe managed to keep everyone busy carting away the debris, hammering the metal frames back into shape, and measuring the spans for fresh planks. The boys, if not the girls, were all accustomed to taking directions from him, and we'd made significant progress by noon.
I took in their sweaty faces and dirt-caked fingernails. "Go to your cabins to wash up, then hustle to the lodge. Lunch should be ready when you get there."
"Yeah, cheese sandwiches," said Billy Dick. "I can hardly wait."
"Don't forget the applesauce tonight," Amy Dee said with a smirk. "Maybe Mrs. Jim Bob will give you an extra scoop if you're mannersome." She began to chant, "Billy Dick, he makes us sick; we all think he's such a prick."
Cousin Lynette from Paris and Heather found this most amusing, but Billy Dick did not. Once Larry Joe had tackled him and I'd come damn close to whacking the girls upside the head, I said, "Clean up and be at the lodge in ten minutes for lunch. Eat the cheese sandwiches or not -- it doesn't matter to me. Getting through this week does, however. I'm going to close my eyes and count to ten. Anyone left will be scrubbing garbage cans with a toothbrush!"
I grabbed Larry Joe before he could dash away with the others. "Not you," I said wearily. "We have a problem. These kids aren't going to work every day for eight or nine hours and then sing hymns until bedtime. If they don't get decent meals and some organized recreation, they'll find ways to have some of an entirely different sort. Neither of us can stay awake all night for a week."
"Like I ain't been teaching high school for fourteen years? What say we work from eight till eleven in the morning, then play softball before lunch? In the afternoons, we'll knock off at three or so and go down to the lake. I'm not sure there's much we can do after the lights are out, but I guess we can try."
I shrugged. "What about the food? By tomorrow, they'll be adopting Diesel's diet."
Larry Joe pulled out a worn leather wallet. "All I've got's a twenty. Add that to what you've got and tell Mrs. Jim Bob you need to drive into town to buy a four-inch drill bit at the hardware store. We can feed 'em hamburgers this afternoon. Maybe some of them brought a few dollars, but after that, I dunno what we can do."
"Me, neither," I said as I took his bill and tucked it into my shirt pocket.
Larry Joe trudged down the hill toward the lodge, leaving me alone on what would have been home plate had there been anything whatsoever pounded into the dirt. A rabbit bounded into the infield, eyed me, and scampered into the woods. Unless Larry Joe and I fed the kids, the rabbit's life expectancy was less than nature dictated. Flopsy and Mopsy might find their way onto the menu by Monday; Cottontail and Peter would be history by Wednesday.
Mrs. Jim Bob was not impressed with the urgency of my request, but grudgingly gave me the key to the bus. Feeling as though I were driving away from a refugee camp, I kept my face averted as I drove under the camp sign and headed for the nearest outpost of civilization.
Dunkicker was twice as ugly as Maggody, but only because it was twice as big. We had one block of abandoned stores; Dunkicker had two. It did have a public library housed in a trailer, as well as a feed store and an establishment called Buttons and Bows. A building with metal siding purported to contain city hall, municipal court, the post office, and the police department. There were no jaunty gingham curtains in the windows or cars parked out front to indicate the offices were currently occupied.
It was impossible to slide into town unobtrusively in a blue bus with a vaguely sinister message painted on its sides. I parked in front of the Welcome Y'all Cafe and went inside.
The dozen tables were occupied, but conversation stopped cold. Feeling as though I'd stepped in a meadow muffin, I made my way to the counter, sat down on a stool, and studied a menu.
"You ready to order?" said a voice.
I looked up, then tried not to goggle. The waitress, or whatever she was, had dark hair chopped off to a length more commonly seen in the first week of boot camp. Her eyebrows had been shaved, and her mouth was heavily coated with magenta lipstick. Beneath her stained apron was a polyester pink dress and a name tag that identified her as Rachael. Dunkicker was either a movie site or a very bad dream.
"Yes, I guess so," I squeaked, aware that I had everyone's attention. "I need eighteen cheeseburgers to go. Hold the onions, and toss in some packets of mustard and catsup."
I forced a weak laugh. "It's going to take me a while to eat them, and I don't want to tie up the stool all day."
"You're gonna eat eighteen cheeseburgers?" she said incredulously.
"Could you please just put in the order?" I asked, hoping my back was not being permanently scarred by the hostility radiating from all corners of the room. "And some napkins, if you don't mind."
"How many napkins?" said this fiancee, if not bride, of Dracula. "Eighteen?"
"That would be great." I focused on the menu until she drifted away, and eventually a low babble of voices resumed behind me.
"Don't mind ol' Rach," said a uniformed cop as he sat down on the stool beside me. "She looks kinda funny, but she's got a good heart. When Miz Gillespie was dying last winter, Rach was there every evening, making vegetable soup, bathing her, seeing to her animals, even splitting firewood. Miz Gillespie's brother tried to make Rach accept a few dollars for helping, but she wouldn't take a penny."
I eased my badge out and flashed it at him. "Chief of Police Arly Hanks, from Maggody. I'm not here in any professional capacity. A group of local kids are staying at Camp Pearly Gates for a week."
"I'm Corporal Robarts," he said. "Panknine's the chief. You'd usually find him here on a Saturday afternoon, having pie and coffee, but he's got back trouble and is in a contraption over at the hospital in Fort Smith."
"Traction," I suggested.
"Yeah, that's what they called it. He got to where he couldn't hardly get out of bed in the morning. His wife got sick of waiting on him and hauled him over to see a specialist."
Corporal Robarts was possibly a few years older than Kevin Buchanon, but no brighter. His hair was slicked back with what may well have been bacon grease, and his face was slack, as though he'd just awakened and needed a jolt of caffeine. I doubted it would help.
"Anything else I can do for you?" I asked politely.
"We don't get a lot of visitors. Chief Panknine sez we got to keep our fingers on the pulse of Dunkicker."
"There's a pulse?"
He stood up. "We don't want any trouble, Miz Hanks. We all get along just fine, no matter our differences. Rach and the others make their contribution to the community, same as everybody else. They may not look like the folks back in your town, but that's not any of your business. Leah went door-to-door to collect clothes and eyeglasses for the county nursing home. Judith helps the old folks get their gardens ready for spring planting. Sarah runs the hot meal program down the road at the Baptist church. Don't go rockin' the boat."
I regarded him evenly. "I came in here to buy cheeseburgers, Corporal Robarts. I've got ten hungry teenagers willing to devote a week to making repairs at Camp Pearly Gates. That's all I'm doing."
The waitress named Rach appeared with two bulging bags stained with grease. I paid at the cash register, smiled at those watching me with deep suspicion, and went outside to the hideous blue bus.
The needle on the gas gauge was quivering just above the empty mark. I was down to four dollars, but that would at least allow me to buy enough gas to let Mrs. Jim Bob and Brother Verber worry about the possibility we might be stranded in our bucolic labor camp.
Resisting the urge to eat a couple of the cheeseburgers, I drove to the convenience store and was unscrewing the gas cap when a disturbingly familiar station wagon pulled up beside me.