Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
Running away was damn hard work, even harder than memorizing multiplication tables and state capitals.
When I returned, Estelle's station wagon was parked in front of the lodge. Jarvis and Billy Dick were unloading it, while Heather, Amy Dee, and Lynette watched from the veranda.
"Finished with lunch?" I asked them.
"Was that what you'd call it?" said Heather. "My pa's hogs eat better than that."
"And we had grapes for dessert," Lynette added.
I tried to look encouraging. "Grapes are good. Were they green or red?"
"Brown and mushy," muttered Jarvis as he went past me, bedding under his arms.
I found Larry Joe in the living room and told him about the two sacks of cheeseburgers in the bus. Once he'd rounded up the kids and led them toward the ball field, I went into the kitchen, where Big Mac and Parwell were washing dishes under Mrs. Jim Bob's unwavering supervision.
"I assume you bought the bit," she said to me.
I had no idea what she was talking about. Bought the bit? Bit the bullet? Bought the farm?
"The four-inch bit for the drill," she continued. "That is why you took the bus into Dunkicker, isn't it? I'd like to think you weren't looking for an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages."
I slapped my forehead. "Oh, the bit! The hardware had one, in a box on a shelf in the back corner. The Lord's looking after us, Mrs. Jim Bob."
"I will not tolerate blasphemy!"
Ruby Bee came into the kitchen. "Where's the skillets and the mixing bowls?"
Mrs. Jim Bob sucked up a breath. "Although it is kind of you to offer to assist, Ruby Bee, I think it's better that the teenagers take responsibility for meals. They tend to assume that food simply appears on their plates."
"Fine," said Ruby Bee. "You just make sure they understand whose decision it was to have spaghetti and lima beans, instead of fried catfish and hushpuppies."
"Hushpuppies?" said Brother Verber, joining us. "Those moist, delicious morsels of cornbread and a delicate flavoring of onions, crisped to perfection and just beggin' for a dollop of butter? The Good Lord created hushpuppies, Mrs. Jim Bob."
"As He did lima beans," she responded tartly.
Tears welled in Brother Verber's eyes. "I'm gonna go upstairs and study my Bible, but I have a feeling that the Good Lord didn't have much to say about lima beans."
"Nobody has much to say about lima beans," inserted Estelle. "Not Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, if I recollect. Loaves and fishes, on the other hand, were on the menu on one occasion."
I left them to battle it out, grabbed the last sandwich off a tray, and went to make sure Darla Jean had not made good on her implicit threat to leave.
Which she had.
I walked to the cabin, collected my sleeping bag and duffel bag from the ditch beside the road, and went into the cabin. Darla Jean was not there -- surprise, surprise. I dumped my gear on a bottom bunk, checked the stalls in the bathroom, and wandered around, trying to figure out where Darla Jean might have chosen to deposit her shampoo, mousse, conditioner, hair dryer, rollers, makeup kit, stuffed animals, lurid magazines, candy bars, and cigarettes. In that all six girls seemed to have brought identical survival kits, I couldn't tell.
However, it looked as though all six remained fully equipped for any crises of a cosmic -- or cosmetic -- nature. Being a trained professional and all, I concluded that Darla Jean would not put herself in a situation that might lead to bad hair, and therefore was more likely to have headed for the lake instead of the highway.
I ambled down the road. The songbirds were out in full force, trilling, warbling, and screeching. Foliage was lacy enough to permit glimpses of cabins identical to ours scattered higher on the hillside. The insects, both butterflies and less engaging species, had determined they were safely past the final frost and were on the lookout for blossoms and blood. Critters rustled in the leaves, but I'd grown up in the pastures and woods surrounding Maggody, and nothing short of a skunk was worth worrying about.
Music, however, was. Rattlesnakes rattled, but they did not harmonize. Crows did not form string quartets, replete with violins, cello, and bass -- if that's what I was hearing. I wasn't sure. I pushed through some brush and squinted at the lake as sunshine hit my face. Two flat-bottomed fishing boats were visible, but both were at a distance and did not look like the source of what was increasingly sounding like an adulation of springtime, courtesy of Vivaldi.
The New York Philharmonic, if present, was deftly hidden. The only potential conductor in view stood at the edge of the lake, leading his invisible orchestra with a pliant plastic rod. Rather than a tux, he was wearing a flannel shirt, a torn khaki vest, baggy pants, sneakers, and a canvas hat adorned with those weird little feather doodads beloved by fishermen.
"Hello," I called as I thrashed my way toward him with all the stealth of a backhoe.
He looked back. "Yeah?"
I came through the final barrier of briars. "I hope I'm not interrupting."
"I hope you're delivering a pizza," he said, his face creasing genially. "Otherwise, it looks as though I'll have bologna sandwiches for supper again. A couple more days of this, and I'll be out of mustard."
He was not unpleasant looking, despite the stubble on his cheeks and the stains on his clothing. Nice chin, clear blue eyes, only a hint of gray in the hair visible beneath his hat. I could easily imagine him (after an overnight stay at the Fly By Night dry cleaner's, anyway) striding down Wall Street to his corner office with a window overlooking the East River. His receptionist would have a gelatinous English accent, and his private secretary would be named Kaitlin. Men called Brett and Bart would bring him coffee and simper. Senior partners would propose him for membership in politically incorrect clubs.
So maybe I was making a bit of a leap. "No pizza," I said, wishing I'd stayed in the cabin long enough to wash my face. "You camping here?"
He put down the rod. "Well, that's my tent."
"Mr. Vivaldi hiding in there?"
"I'm not trespassing, am I? I have a fishing license, and I thought this area was -- "
"I'm not from the fish and game commission, and I don't think anyone cares if you are trespassing. I certainly don't."
"How kind of you." He came across the muddy expanse and studied me. "Jacko."
"Arly," I said, mentally kicking myself for the blush heating my face. There's something about tall, blue-eyed, slightly ungroomed guys that reduces me to a middleschool mindset. A Peter O'Toole fantasy from my childhood, perhaps. "I'm here with a bunch of teenagers, and one of them's missing. I'm looking for her."
"Short brown hair, braces, bikini, transparent white shirt knotted around her waist, mesh bag hanging on her shoulder?"
"You've seen her?" I instinctively stared at his tent, which was zipped. Music wafted out, but unaccompanied by whimpers.
Jacko gave me a disappointed look. "Do I look like the type to detain some backwoods Lolita and have my way with her?"
I struggled not to imagine what his way might be.
"But you did see her, right?"
"About an hour ago, she came stumbling down here like you did. She took one look at me, screeched, and then dashed back up to the road. I will admit I haven't shaved or done more than bathe out of a basin for the last four days, and my wardrobe's not from a pricey catalogue. What's more, not everyone likes Vivaldi -- or even Bach, which I believe was on the tape player at the time."
"She didn't say anything?"
"She screeched," he said patiently. "I was so unnerved that I had no choice but to pour myself a shot of bourbon. Would you care for one?"
"I'd better keep looking for her." I began to back away. "Good luck with your fishing, Jacko."
"And you with your hunting, Arly."
Vivaldi failed to produce any appropriately impassioned strains that might send thwarted lovers dashing across a muddy expanse to fling themselves into each other's arms. Damn.
"If you run out of mustard, come up to the lodge," I said. "We're having fried catfish and hushpuppies."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"You haven't seen anything else, have you?"
I'd had more poise at the ninth-grade mixer. "Anything that might have seemed odd."
"Odder than a voluptuous teenaged girl in a bikini, goggling as though I'd just reeled in a kissin' cousin of the Loch Ness monster?"
"Just asking," I said, barely stopping myself from scuffling my shoe in the dirt. "If she shows up, tell her I'm looking for her."
He did not reply. I fought my way back to the road and went on, noticing for the first time a battered black hatchback pulled well off the road and partially hidden by scrub pines. I wasn't much interested in whether he was trespassing. If he was, it was Corporal Robarts's problem.
Half a mile farther, the road fizzled out at the remains of a concrete boat ramp leading into the lake. Darla Jean was not sunning herself, paddling in the water, constructing a canoe from birch bark, or doing much of anything that I could see. I sat down on a stump and munched on the cheese sandwich as I regarded the brown water.
So where was Darla Jean? It seemed likely that she'd deliberately provoked Mrs. Jim Bob in order to be banished to the cabin for the remainder of the day, thus avoiding physical labor and supervision. Jacko had mentioned she was wearing a bikini when she'd skittered into his campsite.
I wasn't worried, exactly. Darla Jean most likely had come this far. There were no sandy beaches fringed with palm trees along the shore, but a few scattered plastic toys and gnawed apple cores suggested it might be a picnic area for folks in the area. The only background noise came from the birds and squirrels. I considered shouting her name, then decided against it. Later in the day, if she hadn't returned, I would feel obliged to take action -- presuming I had a clue how to go about it. Larry Joe and I might have to organize a search party, but I wasn't sure if we could do so without tipping off Mrs. Jim Bob.
I peered at the two boats, wondering if there were any possibility that Darla Jean had been bound with duct tape and was floundering atop empty beer cans, Ding Dong wrappers, and bait buckets. Monet might not have opted to capture the scene (it was sadly lacking in water lilies), but it seemed tranquil.
I went back to the cabin. Darla Jean had not returned in my absence, as far as I could tell. I continued to the lodge, not at all sure what I ought to do. Estelle's station wagon was parked next to the bus, and next to it, a monstrous, mud-splattered SUV. I could hear shouts and laughter from the softball field. Brother Verber was sitting on the end of the dock, either rehearsing his evening homily or plotting a watery demise. Whatever.
"Here's Arly," Mrs. Jim Bob said as I came into the front room. "She's here to keep an eye on the girls."
An unfamiliar woman seated on a folding chair nodded at me. "It was very admirable of you to agree to chaperon these youthful Christian soldiers."
"I do my best to be admirable, if not admired by one and all," I said. Although the woman was lean in areas where Mrs. Jim Bob was plump, she had an uncanny resemblance to her. I finally realized it was the smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth, as though she'd judged me on first sight and found me sadly lacking. Her hair had been lacquered into unwavering obedience; not even a gust from the lake would have dislodged a single strand. She was dressed in a floral dress as though she'd dropped by on her way to a tea dance at the local country club, although I suspected the only golf played in Dunkicker was of the putt-putt variety.
Mrs. Jim Bob was not amused. "This is Willetta Robarts, Arly. She is a member of the Camp Pearly Gates Foundation."
"My son mentioned that your group arrived earlier today," murmured Willetta. "I wanted to stop in and make sure you found the accommodations sufficient for your needs."
"Everything seems fine," I said, uneasy about what else Corporal Robarts had seen fit to mention.
She smiled at Mrs. Jim Bob. "And the lodge? Charming, isn't it? We're doing our best to raise money for appropriate furnishing, but this is the best we can do for the time being. It's stark, I'm sorry to say. This time next year we'll have comfortable furniture, and the dining room will be much cheerier. Several organizations have already inquired about the possibility of holding conferences and retreats. It will be a way for us to raise money to provide summer sessions for our little campers. Many of them come from impoverished backgrounds, and therefore scholarship funds are invaluable."
Mrs. Jim Bob almost purred. "It's a blessing for our youth to contribute to the restoration, Mrs. Robarts. Perhaps our local missionary society can spend a few days communing with the glories of the Almighty's handiwork."
"What a lovely idea," Willetta said, "although you may be a bit daunted by our fees. Liability coverage and all, you know." She paused to allow Mrs. Jim Bob to blink several times, then went on. "My great-great-grandfather purchased several thousand acres when he moved here from North Carolina after the war. The mountains reminded him of home, he wrote in his journal. Much of the land was used for cattle and farming, but he never allowed any development surrounding the lake. He would have been proud of what's been done here. Four of his eleven children died before reaching school age. Now, even with the advances of modern medicine, so many little ones -- "