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Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams

Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13 (9 page)

BOOK: Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13
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"No, ma'am," Parwell and Big Mac muttered in unison. Heather had regained consciousness, if indeed she'd ever lost it, and was sitting up. I grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet. "I'll go down to the lodge with you."

"Yeah, okay," she said without enthusiasm.

Larry Joe clapped his hands. "It looks like we're gonna get a storm, so we'll call it a day. Jarvis, you and Big Mac move all the tools to the dugout and make sure they're covered with tarps. Parwell and Billy Dick, stack the lumber. You Dahlton gals need to gather up all the softball equipment and stuff it back in the bag. Amy Dee, you sit down over there and take off your shoe and sock. From the way you was carrying on, you'd better hope your toe looks like a ripe purple plum."

I glanced at the sky as I escorted Heather down the hill. Across the lake, dark clouds were massing. Whitecaps riffled the lake like peaks of seven-minute icing, and what had been a pleasant breeze now had a bite. I hoped Jacko had enough sense to move his gear to his car before the storm hit. Sodden sleeping bags smell worse than wet dogs, or even teenagers in heat.

"I'm sorry to be a bother," Heather said, sniveling just enough to annoy me. "When I was a little kid, I was barefoot and stepped hard on a thorn. My ma had to hold me down while my pa tried to dig it out with tweezers. When that didn't do any good, he made me drink a glass of whiskey so he could cut the thorn out with a knife. I thought I was gonna die right then and there."

"All we're gonna to do is soak your finger in warm salt water," I said soothingly. As we neared the lodge, I stopped her. "Look, Heather, I didn't find Darla Jean. She put on her bikini and walked down to the lake, where she was last seen about two hours ago, give or take. She wouldn't swim out too far, would she?"

"I don't think so. They made her learn how to swim at camp four or five summers back, but she didn't like it. Whenever we go to the pool in Farberville, she'll sit on the side of the pool and dangle her feet, but I ain't ever seen her get in the water. She won't even wade in Boone Creek because of the minnows."

"Minnows?" I said.

"Darla Jean claims they're baby barracudas, and the crawdads hide under rocks till they're big as lobsters and able to pinch off your toes. She swears that house flies suck blood. She flunked biology two years in a row, and was going for a third when Ms. Mertzworth got kinda discouraged and gave her a passing grade for staying in the lines when we colored mimeographed handouts of amoebae."

"Do you have any idea where she might be?"

"Ms. Mertzworth? She went off to be a missionary in one of those African countries that nobody can spell."

"I meant Darla Jean."

Heather considered this as she chomped on a wad of gum. "Maybe she was hiding when you went to look for her. She wasn't real excited about hauling lumber and stuff, and the only reason she came was because of Billy Dick. Then they had such a big fight two nights ago that she threw his letter jacket in the lake outside Farberville. I hate to think what he'll do when he finds out."

"So she's doing this to get back at him?" I said blankly. "He doesn't even know she's missing."

"I reckon he will when Mrs. Jim Bob hears about it."

I grimaced. "You have a point. Let's get you settled with Ruby Bee in the kitchen. I'll go back to the cabin, but then I'm going to feel obliged to do something. Darla Jean can't spend the night in the woods, especially with a thunderstorm coming."

"Hold on a minute." Heather sat down on a log and plastered the gum on her finger, then removed it. "Okay, I got it out." She picked out the sliver of wood, tossed it over her shoulder, and put the gum back into her mouth. "It might be better for me to go to the cabin. If Darla Jean's hiding in the area, she's more likely to listen to me than someone like you."

"Like me?"

"Oh, you know, like old and everything. Can I tell her she's not in trouble?"

"She's not in trouble if she shows up for supper," I said, resisting the irrational urge to force her to examine my teeth as if I were a racehorse about to be retired to pasture. "I'm more than willing to tell Mrs. Jim Bob and Brother Verber that she spent the afternoon repenting on her knees."

"You'd lie? Isn't that kinda like bearing false witness?"

"Yes, Heather, I suppose it is. You have any better suggestions?"

She mumbled a response and hurried down the path. I gave her a minute's head start, then headed for the lodge as rain began to rustle the leaves.

 

Jim Bob sat in his office at the back of the supermarket, scrolling through screen after screen of images of sweet young things baring their souls (and other things) for any and all to behold. The more innocent of the websites he'd found focused on hooters. Others were downright lewd, which isn't to imply he objected. Mrs. Jim Bob found her enlightenment in the Bible; he found his on the Internet.

He was downloading pictures from a site featuring pretty little cheerleaders that'd forgotten to put on their panties when Kevin Buchanon came into the office.

"Kin I ask you something, Jim Bob?"

Sighing, he deleted the image on the screen. "You just did."

Kevin sucked on his lip for a few seconds. "No, kin I really ask you something?"

"Two down, one to go."

"But, Jim Bob," Kevin said, lapsing into a whine that made Jim Bob's teeth ache, "I need some advice. I'd ask Arly, or even Ruby Bee, but they're gone for the week, in case you hadn't heard, along with Mrs. Jim Bob. Brother Verber is, too, but this ain't something I'd want to ask him about. I know he's the preacher, but -- "

"Spit it out, Kevin."

"What?"

Jim Bob reminded himself that it was damn hard to find employees who were willing to work for minimum wage and had never heard of overtime pay. "You wanted to ask me something."

"I sure did, Jim Bob. Kin I sit down?"

"Does this look like a bus station? Just ask your question and then get back to work. I'm planning to leave in half an hour, and I'm gonna inspect all the aisles to make sure they've been mopped. Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less has a reputation in this community, boy, and I aim to make sure the floors are shiny and the shelves are neat and the produce is mostly fresh. Did you spray the fruit?"

Kevin tried to remember how all this had started. He'd had a question, but now Jim Bob had so many questions that it was murkier than a mess of collard greens. "Well, I guess it ain't a bus station," he said real carefully, "since the only buses that come through town are heading for Branson and they don't stop here. I was spraying the fruit when Idalupino startled me and ... well, she grabbed the hose right out of my hand and said she'd finish up. I thought I'd wait till closing time and then wax the floors. I always wax the floors on Saturday night so they'll be nice and bright on Sunday."

"Is this conversation going anywhere?"

Kevin pondered this. "You got somewhere in mind, Jim Bob?"

"You had a question, Kevin," Jim Bob said, barely getting out the words. "Ask it."

"Well," Kevin said, wishing he could sit down but staying where he was, "it has to do with Kevvie Junior and Rose Marie being models in Hollywood."

"Say what?"

"Dahlia's convinced they can be in commercials on account of how cute they is. The thing is, as cute as they is, and ain't nobody better say otherwise, this ad -- "

Jim Bob cut him off. "Do I look like somebody who gives a shit?"

"But I was wondering -- "

"I get real irritated when I have to repeat myself. When I come in tomorrow, I'd better be able to see my reflection on every square foot of the floor. The oranges and apples had better be glistening like they'd been plucked straight from the orchards. The paper towels on sale better be stacked in a pyramid that damn near bumps the ceiling. Got that, boy?"

Kevin nodded, then left the office and retrieved his mop from a bucket of scummy water. He knew it'd been dumb to go to Jim Bob for advice, but he shore wasn't about to ask Idalupino after the way she'd cussed at him. She should have known better than to creep up behind him when he had the hose in his hand.

 

Estelle and I were seated at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes and trying to ignore Ruby Bee's grumbles, when the first crack of thunder shook the lodge from the chimney to the basement. Estelle's paring knife clattered on the floor.

"Goodness gracious," she said.

"It's a thunderstorm, for pity's sake," said Ruby Bee. "You plannin' to go upstairs and crawl under the covers?"

"You're a fine one to talk. You've been on pins and needles since we left this morning."

"Mostly because of your driving. I liked to have a heart attack when you passed that chicken truck outside Starley City." She glared at me as though I'd been driving the vehicle under discussion. "There we were, going up a mountainside, no guard rails or nothing, and -- "

"I'm just glad you all made it," I said, "and the kids are, too. Do you want the potatoes sliced or quartered?"

Said kids erupted into the front room of the lodge seconds after rain began to pound down with such intensity that I found myself wondering if the lodge might shudder and slide into the lake. I went into the living room, where they were whimpering and shivering like puppies.

"There's firewood on the back porch," I said to Larry Joe. "Amy Dee, you and Lynette can help me make tea for everybody. Ruby Bee hasn't started frying the catfish yet, but we should be able to eat in an hour or so."

Mrs. Jim Bob came down the staircase like Gloria Swanson in
Sunset Boulevard
. "I can only hope you made satisfactory progress this afternoon," she said as she peered sternly at them. "We only have a week, and the Robarts Foundation is counting on us to do our best."

She undoubtedly would have continued had not lightning hit so close to the lodge that I could feel the hair on my arms quiver. Thunder resounded almost immediately. The light bulbs snapped, crackled, and popped. Dimness of the most dismal sort enveloped us as though someone had thrown a moth-eaten blanket over the building.

"Armageddon is upon us," intoned Brother Verber as he stumbled into the room like a poorly constructed patchwork monster. "Fall to your knees and pray with me, children. 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for Thou art -- '"

Although it was far from pitch black, the Dahlton twins began to shriek. Mrs. Jim Bob commenced a lecture that could not be heard over the continual outbursts of thunder. Big Mac fell to the floor and began to roll around, begging forgiveness for everything from stealing hooch from Raz to filching candy from the supermarket and putting a dead fish under the hood of my car. Lynette and Amy Dee clutched each other and sobbed hysterically. Larry Joe was paralyzed with either fear or revulsion.

"Stop this!" I said between claps of thunder. "This is a typical spring storm, not an assault from a SWAT team. We're perfectly safe here. Once the storm passes, we'll replace the bulbs and have supper. The range is gas, so we may end up eating by candlelight, but we will eat. Now let's get some wood and start a fire." I did not add that the dead fish incident would be discussed at a later date, but I figured I had a likely candidate to till my garden patch and keep it weeded for the season.

One of the Dahlton twins pointed at Brother Verber. "But he said -- "

"He was testing you," I countered obscurely. "Everybody needs to get an armload of wood. Scoot!"

The kids didn't exactly scoot, but they trooped through the dining room to the back porch. Eight of them, anyway; Darla Jean and Heather were noticeably absent. Hoping Mrs. Jim Bob wasn't counting noses, I said to her, "I think I saw extra light bulbs in the pantry."

"I'm sure Mrs. Robarts has seen that we are well-supplied with necessities. She was quite wounded when you walked out so abruptly."

"Is there any other way to walk out? I suppose I might have hopped and skipped to the door, but somehow -- "

"One of these days, young lady, you're going to be sorry for that sassy mouth of yours."

Thunder drowned out her ensuing remarks, none of which were apt to be novel. I watched her jaw waggle for a moment, then went to the kitchen and assured Ruby Bee and Estelle that all the bulbs would be replaced in a few minutes. They seemed to have resolved their differences for the moment, and had retrieved the sherry bottle from under the sink.

I started a kettle of water, took out a dozen mugs, and found teabags and a sugar bowl in a cabinet. Dishes clinked as thunder once again resounded.

"I hope you ain't thinking I can cook in the dark," Ruby Bee said as I counted out spoons from a drawer. "Estelle and me might just go back to Maggody. Maybe I'm a magnet for bad luck."

Estelle snorted. "And who appointed you the center of the universe? We get storms like this every spring, and they happen whether or not Rubella Belinda Hanks is in the vicinity. You got no call to say it's your doing. Mrs. Jim Bob would say it's blasphemous. I might agree."

"I never said such a thing, and I resent you saying I did."

I felt like the captain on the bridge of an ocean liner, spotting an iceberg and incapable of halting headway. "Nobody said anything, okay? The storm will pass. Stay here if you like, or come sit by the fire and have a cup of tea. Mrs. Jim Bob may try to get the kids to belt out a few hymns, but I don't think she'll have much luck. Call me when the kettle begins to whistle."

BOOK: Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13
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