Authors: Lisa Bullard
I suddenly felt a strong need to make sure there wasn't a single wrinkle on my T-shirt. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gram smoothing the corners of the aluminum foil covering the fundraiser food, making sure it was really tight. Really, really tight.
Finally Gram pushed off from the counter and straightened her shoulders. “I'm thinking about the loyalty he showed Carl. I told you that Carl stepped in as a father figure when your grandfather died. As John got older, Carl changed; he'd make plans with John and then not show up. But even in high school, John still made a point of stopping by Carl's house every couple of weeks. He brought him groc-eries and cleaned up the place. Carl's always been too proud to accept much help from most people, even as sick as he is now, but somehow he was willing to accept help from John. One of the things John was taking so hard that last summer was that Carl was finally losing his house, and John wasn't sure how to help him.”
Gram glanced at the clock and grabbed up her keys. “Goodness, you're turning me into a regular chatterbox, Travis. We're late!”
Gram talked only once on the way into town, and that was to mutter, “They better have left us something other than that Jell-O concoction of Mimi Ingersoll's to eat. Mayonnaise and Jell-O! I'd rather be tarred and feathered.”
Mayonnaise and Jell-O? I felt my gut tighten up. But I wasn't sure if it was the thought of a food combination even Kenny would likely avoid or Gram's mention of tarring and feathering. From what I remembered of middle-of-the-night Westerns on cable, that was what good old-fashioned townsfolk did when they wanted to hand out some vigilante justice.
And guess who was likely to be first in line the next time the local farmers cleaned the feathers out of their chicken coops?
When we got to the fundraiser, first thing I saw, swear on a Bible (after all, it
a church), was a cage full of chickens sitting in the parking lot. The tar was not yet visible, but there were plenty of village elders to do the deed. The deputy and a bunch of other old dudes were milling around. I thought I recognized one of them as Apron Guy from the grocery store, even though he wasn't wearing his work getup. The whole group of them turned and laid their eyes on me as I climbed out of the truck.
Gram raised her chin up into the air in their direction. “Good evening, boys. Travis, get the hotdish.” She marched toward the church. Deputy Dude scrambled to hold open the door for her. I trotted up right behind her with the big glass dish balanced in both hands so he had to hold the door for me, too.
“Nice night for a fundraiser, Deputy,” I said, giving him my best it-wasn't-me-who-shot-the-spitball look.
Dude just gave me Taser-eyes for an answer.
Before he could whip out the handcuffs or the bucket of tar, I scrammed down to the room where I'd helped set up tables the day before. It looked as if the entire population of Chicken Scratch had gathered there, and they all stopped whatever they were doing to check me out, as if they'd just seen my face plastered on a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” sign. I had just about decided there was no way I was waiting around for them to Judge Judy me when Kenny and Iz walked over. Iz took the glass dish out of my hands and Kenny fist-bumped me.
Okay, so the
town didn't hate me.
“Bro, you brought Tater Tot hotdish,” Kenny said, pulling the aluminum foil off the top of Gram's dish as Iz set it on a table loaded with other food. “TouchÃ©!”
Huh? I looked at Iz.
“Kenny likes to pick out a new word of the day once in a while. He doesn't really care if he actually uses it right,” she said.
I shifted my eyes toward the torch-bearing villagers. “I'm not feeling it. Maybe I'll just take off.”
“Ah, ignore 'em, man,” said Kenny. “They're just hungry. They'll forget all about you once they start eating. Besides, we got six kinds of Jell-O. Stay away from Mrs. Ingersoll's, thoughâshe puts carrot scrapings in hers. But Mrs. Tunsen, she goes all out with these little multicolored marshmallows and Cool Whip.”
Before I could suggest he get his own gig on the Food Network, this football-jersey-wearing mammoth swaggered over to us. “Nelson,” he said, nodding to Kenny, real man-to-man for two guys who were barely old enough to shave.
Then he turned to Iz. “So nice they let you out once in a while, Izzzz-abella.” He smirked while he said it, but I thought that just proved the local connection between football and lowered IQ levels; man, I'd been in town only a few days and I knew better than to mess with her. I could tell by the look on her face that if this bruiser wasn't careful, Iz was going to blast him back to the Ice Age.
Finally he turned to me. “Who's your new little friend, Izzzz-abella?” Dude was oozing attitude and testosterone in equal parts. Considering we were in a church, I probably should have given him the benefit of the doubt and figured there was some really sad story explaining why he was acting like a Neanderthal. I guess I'm not that good a person. I was fine with hating him on sight.
Without waiting for an answer, the brute looked back at Kenny and said, “Football players are sitting over in the corner, Nelson,” and swaggered off again. “Svengrud” was spelled out in big letters across his shoulders.
Kenny glanced in the direction Mr. Congeniality had headed, then gave Iz a sad puppy-dog look.
“Oh, go on and sit with the ster-idiots. I don't care.” Iz glared and crossed her arms across her chest.
Kenny gave me a sheepish look. “If you wanna come tooÂ .Â .Â .”
For some reason, the story about the rugby team who crashed in the mountains and then eventually started eating one another to survive came to mind. All things considered, I figured I was better off not finding out what Svengrud and his buddies might be cooking up for me.
“Bro, I'd rather eat than be eaten, but thanks anyway.” I waited until he'd headed off before turning back to Iz. “Svengrud?” I asked. “Heir to the Big Store Kingdom?”
“Daddy's own little darling. Gets anything and everything he wants handed to him like he's a prince or something.”
This party was just getting better and better. I wanted to ask Iz why the prince wasn't acting so charming, but then this woman stood up in the center of the room and raised her arms for quiet.
“Everyone, I'm Pastor Jackie. Thank you all for coming. I especially want to welcome our visitors tonight! I know you can't wait to get to all this wonderful food the Church Ladies have prepared. The donation baskets are here at the end; we appreciate whatever you can contribute. And don't forget the special event up in the parking lot afterwardâremember to buy your tickets from the men's group!”
She waved her hand toward a row of tables over on the side wall where some of the men from outside were now standing. I wondered if they were selling tickets for my tar-and-feathering; it seemed like one way to make sure their fundraiser was a whomping success.
The pastor continued. “The Sunday-school children are going to sing us a little song before grace. Children?”
A bunch of munchkins gathered around her and belted out “Jesus Loves Me.” One little girl in front seemed to think she was Hannah Montana, swinging her hair and pretending her fist was a microphone while her mother snapped photos.
After the applause died down, the pastor said, “Now, let's please bow our heads.”
Since all the people in the room had their eyes closed, I thought it was the perfect time for me to send up a little prayer of my own, asking the Big Guy Upstairs to levitate me out of there or maybe turn me invisible while nobody was looking. But I guess His ears were still ringing from the munchkin singing, because I hadn't gotten my answer by the time we reached “Amen.”
Then Iz and I were elbowed aside by a stampeding herd of small fry on their way to the food tables. Note to self:
don't ever let yourself get trapped between the livestock and the feeding trough
Two little girls came over and grabbed hold of Iz's hands. “Aunt Jen says you both should come sit with us,” said the smaller one. She hid under Iz's arm and peeked up at me with eyes as big and gray as Iz's.
The bigger munchkin giggled. “You're the bank-robber boy! We talk about you all the time at my house. Do you really have all the money hidden somewhere?”
I shot Iz a look and she shrugged. “That's Kenny's little sister, Krissy. And the shy one here is my sister, Linnea.”
Krissy worked on dislocating Iz's arm, yanking her toward the food. “Come on, I'm hungry.”
It didn't seem like Jesus was going to beam me up anytime soon, so I figured I might as well eat while I was waiting for My Man to do that saving thing he's gotten all the press for.
We worked our way down the food tables. It was a whole new universe of chow choices from what I was used to in California; nothing even pretended to be healthy. There wasn't a hunk of tofu in sight, although I guess Mrs. Tunsen could have hidden some under the Cool Whip. I loaded up and headed for the table where an adult-size version of Krissy was sitting next to Gram.
“You must be Trav. I'm Kenny's mom, Jen. Thank you for finding my butter head!” She got up and gave me a big hug that started all the Jell-O wobbling on my plate. She turned back to Gram. “Lois, these dark eyes. He looks just likeâ”
“Let the boy sit, Jen.” A big blond guy next to her stood up and pulled a chair out for Iz. “He's probably starving.” Then, as soon as I set my plate down, he stuck a hand out and said, “Ken Nelson, Sr. We've heard a lot about you from our boy and Iz.”
We shook hands the old-school way, and then he gave me back my arm so I could start in on the taste-testing. I pretty much checked out of the conversation for a while, focusing on working my way through a rainbow of Jell-O. I had just found what had to be Mrs. Ingersoll's when Big Ken spoke up.
“Almost time for them to wrap up at the ticket table. Anybody here still need to buy some?”
“We've already got ours.” Iz and the little girls each held up a colored slip of paper.
“I'm gonna win, Daddy!” Krissy flapped hers overhead.
Gram started fishing around in her purse. “Travis, go over and get yourself some tickets so you can play too. Here.” She handed me a twenty.
I almost crossed my fingers like you do to ward away vampires. Wasn't I already in enough trouble from spreading around Gram's stash of dead presidents? But my breath whooshed out when I looked at the bill more closely. It was a normal one, with the colors and all; no way it could be fourteen-year-old bait money.
“Thanks, Gram,” I mumbled.
Krissy grabbed one of my arms. “Can we help you pick? Pretty please with cherries on top?”
I sent Iz a what-do-I-do-now look and she got up, taking Linnea's hand. “We'll all help.”
We headed for the row of tables where the old dudes were hanging out. Each table held different- colored slips of paper with numbers on them. It looked as if a bunch of them had already been taken. King Svengrud was standing behind one of the tables; I handed over the twenty, feeling like I was signing my own execution notice.
He immediately gave the bill the once-over. That saying “if looks could kill”? I'm guessing someone invented that one for the expression on old Svengrud's face when he realized I was in the clear this time.
“All right, pick yourself four tickets,” he snapped.
I didn't have a clue as to what game we were playing, so I shrugged. “Whatever.”
“No, no, you got to think lucky. What's your favorite color?” asked Krissy.
I couldn't resist yanking her chain. “UhÂ .Â .Â . black?”
“No, silly, one of these colors.” She pointed at the tables.
“I'm not exactly Mr. Lucky these days,” I said. “You pick a color for me.”
She clapped. “Pink! Now, what day is your birthday?”
Her forehead wrinkled up while she thought about that.
Iz pinched me on the arm. “He's just teasing you, Krissy. Come on, what's your real birthday?”
“November fourteenth,” I admitted.
Krissy scanned the pink tickets but then stuck out her lower lip. “Somebody already took pink fourteen. But here's yellow fourteen.”
“Okay.” I took the ticket from her. “You each go ahead and pick me one more and we'll be doneâit doesn't really matter to me.”
You would have thought they were choosing between five hundred flavors of ice cream. I was watching Iz trying to decide between blue eleven and green fourteen when I felt someone tug on my sleeve. I looked down.
“I got you purple fourteen,” said Linnea in this really soft little voice. She handed me a purple ticket. “I like purple the best. My ticket is purple number seven.”
“UhÂ .Â .Â . great,” I said. I was as mystified about how to talk to girls in the munchkin size bracket as I was about how to talk to ones my own age. But she seemed to be waiting for something else, so I added, “I bet you'll beat me.”
She got this big, goofy grin on her face, and I could see where a bunch of her teeth had fallen out.
“I like you even if you are a bad boy,” she said, ducking her head down and taking hold of my hand.
Iz and Krissy walked over just then to hand me the tickets they'd picked out for me, and we let ourselves be jostled out of the way by other ticket pickers.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Five minutes, folks,” boomed out the Big Store King. “Just five more minutes to buy yourself a winner! The fun starts outside in ten!”
“Almost time for the chicken game!” squealed Krissy. “Let's go.”
The whole basement full of people started pushing and shoving their way upstairs as if we were on the
after it had had that fender-bender. I would have held back but Linnea yanked me onward.