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Authors: Rett MacPherson

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BOOK: Thicker than Water
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I decided I would keep the bat for Matthew.

Farther back in the dark recesses of the closet, I found a few mousetraps—none with mice in them, thank God—and an old tripod for a camera that looked like something John Huston would have used on
African Queen
. A box of … shoes. A box of … baby shoes? They must have been hers and her sister Wilma's. They looked like miniature Mary Poppins shoes, with the hooks and the laces meandering up the ankles.

I set those on the bed. Those I would keep.

And so it went for hours. In the top of the closet I found boxes of old photographs. Now, normally this would send me into fits of excitement. Old photographs are like gold to me. In fact, I would rather relatives leave me pictures than money. Rudy laughs and jokes that if I was buried alive in a pile of old photographs, I'd die with a smile on my face. But these pictures would be frustrating for me to go through, because I knew from looking at some of Sylvia's pictures before that she probably hadn't labeled them, and the only person who could tell me who was in these photographs was now gone. So there was something else to drive me crazy. Maybe she did this on purpose.

I picked up a handful of photographs and looked at them. When I flipped them over I was stunned. Sylvia had written on the backs of most of them, and she had done it recently. The ink was new, not faded, the handwriting shakier and more unsure than a youthful hand would have been.

I flashed back to a scene of me talking to Sylvia about a year ago, when a 1920s shipwreck had been visible in the Mississippi thanks to a low water level. I had expressed my outrage over photographs she had shown me then without writing on the backs. I suppose she had realized that these photographs would go into the ranks of the unidentified, so she sat down and labeled them.

The woman would never cease to amaze me.

I took the boxes downstairs, put them on my desk, and booted up my computer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stephanie go walking by but thought nothing of it. I logged on to the Internet and checked my mail. There was nothing from the Iowa GenWeb page.

Stephanie came into my office then. “How long have you been in here?”

“In my office?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“About fifteen minutes,” I said. “Why?”

A peculiar expression crossed her face. “I just went upstairs to ask you about this, and you weren't there, but I could have sworn I heard you up there.” All I could do was stare at her. “I mean, I heard you walking. The floor creaks, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “I … well, I was here. I don't know what else to say.”

“Weird,” she said.

“Yeah, weird,” I said. “Whatcha got?”

“Oh, should I put this in with the legal stuff?”

“What is it?”

“It looks like police reports. Or something like that. From … 1972.”

“What?” I asked.

Stephanie shrugged and handed the papers to me. “Maybe I'm wrong on what they are. You take a look.”

I took the papers from her. Indeed, they were copies of a report of some kind from the Granite County Sheriff's Department, dated October 1972. My brows creased and my head began to hurt.

“Hey, it's lunchtime,” she said. “That's the other reason I was coming upstairs to get you. I don't know about you, but us pregnant ladies need to eat.”

“Oh,” I said. I managed to tear my eyes from the papers in my hand. She was smiling at me, a big, broad, healthy smile, although somewhere deep in the recesses of her eyes—eyes that looked just like mine, just like my father's—there was a hint of concern. “Sure. You want me to order a pizza from Chuck's?”

“Whatever. As long as it's hot and greasy.”

“I think I can fulfill that request,” I said and picked up the phone to call for delivery.

We ate out on the back porch, amidst the hummingbirds that dive-bombed our pizza and the wasps that went about building their nests. “I need to get somebody out here to clean up this yard. Get rid of the wasps.”

“This part of the house seems more neglected,” Stephanie said.

“Yeah, Sylvia wasn't much of a gardener,” I said.

We ate some more, talked some more, and I was full after two pieces of mushroom and green olive pizza. Stephanie's half had mushrooms, green olives, and pineapple. She was pregnant; I'd forgive her for putting fruit on a pizza.

“Do you want me to come tomorrow?” Stephanie asked.

“Oh, you don't have to work on the weekend if you don't want.”

“No, I want to help. Besides, I know the Strawberry Festival begins tomorrow.”

“Ugh,” I said and rested my head on the back of my chair. “I had forgotten for a while.”

“Is it bad?”

“No, it's just very hectic,” I said. “But it's great for the town. Except for the trampled lawns.”

“Well, why don't I come and work here at the house, while you're … doing whatever it is you do at the festival.”

“All right,” I said. “My mother-in-law arrives tomorrow, too.”

“Oh,” Stephanie said and gave me a speculative sideways glance.

“Don't ask,” I said.

Just then a man walked around the house into the backyard. He wore no shirt, his hair came down to his waist, and there were tattoos of dragons and demons all over his body. He had a ring in his nose, like a pig. “Yeah, I knocked but nobody answered.”

I stood then, a bit wary. “The house is closed for tours until further notice.” Maybe he couldn't read the sign, so I'd just tell him.

“I'm not here for no bloody tour,” he said. “I need to set up for the gig tomorrow.”

I gave Stephanie a panicked look. “Gig tomorrow? I'm sorry, there must be some mistake. We're having a Strawberry Festival. Not a…”

“A what?” he asked.

“Well, not something you'd most likely play for,” I said.

“Really,” he said and put his hands on his hips. “I like strawberries.”

“I'm sure you do.”

My head was spinning. Who was this guy?

“I'm with the Brown Jugs,” he said.

The Brown Jugs!
They were supposed to kick off the festival. I had hired them. Their Web page didn't say anything about nose rings and tattoos. The old ladies in town would keel over. My grandmother would kill me. It was supposed to be Americana and oompah music. Not … not …

“Are you Victory O'Shea?” he asked, a slight tone of exasperation in his words.

“I am,” I said.

“I'm George Clarke,” he said, extending a tattooed hand. “Brown Jugs.”

“How do you do?”

“I'm doing great. Thanks for inquiring. So where's the stage?” He rubbed his hands together.

Seven

My alarm went off at four-thirty the next morning.

The Strawberry Festival would begin in five hours. I had to help Rudy pick up all the jars of jam, jelly, and preserves and set up all the booths. There was no point in doing any of it the night before. We had done that once several years ago. My stupid idea, by the way. In the middle of the night somebody had come with a station wagon and stolen a hundred jars of jam and preserves. My stepfather had caught them on Highway P with a flat tire and all those jars in the back of the car.

So, because of potential theft—yes, there are other idiots out there who would steal a hundred jars of jam—we wait and set up the morning of the festival. Sylvia had always been too cheap to hire a security guard to sit and watch the world famous jam overnight, but I was in charge now, and I was seriously rethinking the wisdom of such a decision, especially as I looked out the window to the pitch dark of night. There wasn't even a moon.

There was, however, a barge coming upriver. I could hear the engine through my open window. “Rudy, get up,” I said, and threw a pillow at him.

My shower was quick, and it was more to wake me up than get me clean. I had barely slept. I couldn't get my mind off the things I'd found in Sylvia's house, like the sheriff's report that Stephanie had shown me. I'd read through it, and the story it told wasn't a happy one. Somebody had physically attacked Sylvia while she slept in the Gaheimer House. Of course, this had been thirty-odd years ago. I was just a small child at the time.

For a town with no secrets, this one sure seemed to have a lot of secrets. I didn't remember this event. If there was talk of it when I was a child, it had slipped through the fingers of my memory, and nobody ever mentioned it to me otherwise.

I turned off the water and grabbed my towel.

The sheriff's report had gone on to say that she had been taken to the hospital. At the bottom somebody had penciled in the date she was released, along with a list of her injuries. I suspected that was Sylvia's doing. Her injuries had included a fractured skull, fractured tibia, lacerations on her hands and arms—defense wounds, I'm certain—multiple bruises, and psychological trauma. She had not elaborated on the psychological trauma; she had only written beside it, “the desire to bury my head in the sand and never come out.” Why she had requested a copy of this report and why she had kept it was beyond me.

That was what I had to lull myself to sleep with last night. In actuality, I'm not sure I ever really went to sleep. Not real sleep, where my guard is down and I rest peacefully. It was more like that kind of sleep where my mind is lost between REM and consciousness and so I never really rest.

Great. I had thousands of people to deal with today, including my mother-in-law and the Brown Jugs, and all I was armed with was deep purple circles under my eyes—and frizzy hair. We were out of conditioner.

Colin knocked on the door twenty minutes later and curled up on the couch and went to sleep. He was babysitting for Rudy and me. I can't tell you how surreal that was, to see what was once my arch-enemy curled up and drooling all over my crocheted pillows, babysitting my three children. I was going to change his name. He was going to be Grandpa with the Badge Who Drools in His Sleep.

Rudy and I drove to Virgie Burgermeister's house in silence. His desire not to speak was brought on from lack of caffeine. My desire not to speak was from anger. In fact, other than to bark an order or two, I don't think I'd spoken to him in forty-eight hours. Chuck Velasco, my husband's best friend and the owner of the best pizza place within a hundred miles, was waiting at Virgie's to help us load up the bazillion jars of jam and preserves. Virgie was awake and perky, as if she'd been up for hours awaiting our arrival. Chuck, with his muddy hiking boots and his pillow head, looked more like I felt.

When we had everything loaded, we drove down to the two-block section of town called Strawberry Center. Six booths with red and white awnings were set up in the middle of River Pointe Road, waiting to be stocked. We all unloaded the goodies, and then Rudy and Chuck left me with the job of putting all the jars into the booths while they drove Chuck's vehicle over to get the jelly from Krista.

By this point the sun was coming up over the Mississippi and bringing with it the warm temperatures of a June day in the lower Midwest. “You hungry?” I heard a voice and turned to find Helen Wickland standing there with a bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The closest Krispy Kreme I knew of was up in south St. Louis County.

“Did you drive all the way up to Lindbergh for those?”

“No, the bakery in the grocery store has them now,” she said, dangling the bag in front of me.

“Thanks,” I said. “Just set them down. I need to get this stuff unloaded.”

“I'll help,” she said and set the doughnuts down. “Do you have the schedule ready for next weekend?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I'll let you know which booth you're at later.”

“Just making sure you're not overwhelmed,” she said.

We worked side by side, Helen telling me the latest exploits of her granddaughter, who, I might add, made Mary look like a saint. By the time we had everything in order, the tourists were lined up at the entrance. The only thing that kept them from stampeding down River Pointe Road was the two deputies stationed there.

The town had come alive. Shops were open, people were in the booths, cotton candy was rotting teeth just from the smell, Kettle Korn was hot, and the funnel cakes made the whole world seem rich tasting. It was time for me to give the signal. I walked down and spoke to Deputy Miller. “Let 'em in,” I said.

He nodded, and the tourists spilled into town, reminding me of a much milder version of running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. As long as I could keep the tourists off of the lawns of the private homes, I would consider the day a success. If I could keep George Clarke's shirt on while he sang, I'd consider it a triumph.

*   *   *

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the Brown Jugs. Their music was sort of like a bluegrass version of the Ramones, which was fine with me. However, the appearance of the band—and all the members were a variation on the theme of George—was quite disturbing to most of the generations who could remember the Korean War. Except my grandmother, who was seated in her usual front-row-center seat in her lawn chair keeping time with the music. She just scoffed and said, “So they look like idiots. They're just wanting attention.”

I was on my way to the Gaheimer House when Eleanore Murdoch found me. Now, I love Eleanore, but I could kill her at least twice a week. She's the biggest gossipmonger in town. In fact, she writes a little column in the local paper about the goings-on of the townsfolk. She's large and top-heavy, and she wears clothes and jewelry in colors that I don't think occur naturally in the universe.

“Torie! I cannot believe you let those … those…”

“Musicians?” I said and kept walking in the direction of the house.

“Demons perform at our Strawberry Festival.”

“If you don't look at them, Eleanore, their music is actually pretty good.”

BOOK: Thicker than Water
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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