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Authors: Rett MacPherson

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BOOK: Thicker than Water
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“Yes, but you have to look at them.”

“I thought music was best appreciated when listened to with one's ears,” I said.

“Torie! Torie O'Shea, you look at me right now.”

I stopped walking and faced her finally. She was dressed in red-and-white gingham—I'm assuming to match the strawberry decorations—and a green hat with matching green jewelry. She really was a giant strawberry. And she was worried about the Brown Jugs' appearance? “What, Eleanore?”

“Sylvia would never have stood for this,” she said.

Her words struck me hard and unexpectedly. “Well, Sylvia is not here, is she?”

“So you're just going to let our town go to hell in a handbasket?”

“Look, Eleanore, they've only got a few more songs to do and they're off the stage. But when you go back down there, I want you to look at the audience. The younger generation is really digging it. No, I would not have hired them if I had known what they looked like, and you know what? That would have been my loss. Because I think we just guaranteed that about two hundred people under the age of twenty-five will be back next year. And those young people just might learn to listen to music they might not ordinarily have tried.”

To that, Eleanore had nothing to say. Her eyes bugged out of her head, and her nose instinctively angled up in the air. I expected her to cross her arms and say, “Whatever.” But she didn't.

“They aren't using profanity. They're not having sex onstage. They're not even suggesting sex onstage. They're not even drinking, for crying out loud, which is more than I can say for the old farts at the bingo booth. Anything else?” I asked. “I have a lot of work to do.”

She leaned in to me then and pointed a finger at me. “Don't make an enemy of me,” she said.

I couldn't help it. I blurted out laughing. I was being threatened by a giant strawberry. “I would hope that the years we've known each other would count for something, Eleanore. One little band is going to make you my enemy?”

“Oh, it's one little band now,” she said. “But what will it be next year? And what about the Pickin' and Grinnin' Festival? Huh? What then? Are you gonna hire that … Osbourne Osmond fella? Or, oh, I know…”

“We couldn't afford Ozzie Osbourne.”

“Black Sunday!”

“That's Black Sabbath, and they don't exist anymore.”

She snapped her fingers. “That serial killer guy! What's his name?”

“I don't have a clue,” I said and opened the door to the Gaheimer House.

“Look, you will always be the owner of the Gaheimer House, and probably always the head of the historical society. But I can get the position of chairman of festivities taken away from you,” Eleanore said. “The mayor doesn't like you, you know.”

“Duh,” I said. “Do what you have to, Eleanore.”

I shut the door and raced to the soda machine and got a Dr Pepper. Stephanie came out of the kitchen and watched as I drank half the can without breathing.

“Bad day?” she asked.

“No, pretty average, actually,” I said.

“Torie!” A voice shrieked through the living room of the Gaheimer House like a crow that had been caught in a fan. My hands began to tremble, and my eyes grew wide. Stephanie's expression owed as much to humor as it did to curiosity. “Torie O'Shea!”

“Now it's a bad day,” I said.

My mother-in-law had arrived.

Eight

I plastered a smile on my face and turned to greet the senior Mrs. O'Shea. Before I had the chance to say anything, she put her hands on her hips and sneered at me. Her gray eyes narrowed, and I gulped. “Are you responsible for that band out there?” she asked.

“It's lovely to see you, Mrs. O'Shea,” I said.

“Nice to see you, too, dear. Are you responsible for that band?”

“Well, yes and no. Yes, I hired them—based on a demo of their music,” I said. “The Web site had no pictures of them.”

“Oh, the Internet,” she said and curled up her nose as if she'd smelled something putrid. “Should have known. Nothing but perverts on the Internet. Guess you learned your lesson, huh?”

“Well, uh…”

“Do you have a restroom?”

“Yes,” I said. “Down the hall.”

“Oh, is this the house that old lady left you?” She looked up at the ceiling as she headed for the restroom. “Kinda old and creepy, isn't it? But you know, Granite County has never been known for its money. All the houses down here are depressing like this.”

I just shook my head as she shut the restroom door behind her. I must have stood there studying my soda can for minutes, with Stephanie watching me, but it seemed like only seconds had passed before my mother-in-law emerged from the restroom, still talking. “It also has the lowest employment rate in all of the state. It's really quite a depressed area. Why anybody would want to stay here is beyond me,” she said. “Of course, I suppose there are those who get roped into living here because of elderly parents and … spouses that won't leave.”

Do I need to translate that? I got her meaning loud and clear. “I don't think that Rudy feels trapped,” I said.

The ghost of Scarlett O'Hara suddenly appeared as Mrs. O'Shea made her eyes huge and got that insipid look on her face and said, “Well, now, I never said anything about Rudolph. Don't go putting words in my mouth. I was just talking.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Well, now that you have all that money, you can finally get out of this place,” she said. “Must be terrible knowing you can't leave a place like this. Especially when everybody around you has wanted to leave for years.”

Meaning Rudy.

“I trust Rudy has taken you to the house and helped you settle in?” I said.

“He put me in this very small room. I guess it's Matthew's,” she said. “By the way, Matthew looks exactly like his father. In the pictures you sent you can't really see how much he resembles Rudolph. Why, in person he's just adorable.”

“This is my sister, Stephanie,” I said, suddenly remembering she was standing there slack-jawed.

Mrs. O'Shea looked her up and down. “Sister? Thought you were an only child,” she said.

“I…” I could have sworn I told her this story in the last letter I sent.

“Oh, yes,” she finally said. I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that she'd pretended not to remember I had a sister, just so the moment would be awkward and make me look bad and make my sister feel bad. Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly something I could call her on, or Scarlett O'Hara would reappear and I'd look like an idiot. “I remember now. Nice to meet you.”

That was literally all she said. She turned and headed back out of the Gaheimer House, leaving Stephanie and me to stare after her. “The woman is…” Stephanie groped for the right words.

“Don't bother,” I said.

*   *   *

“I haven't seen the woman in four years and all she can do is … spew hateful things!” I said. “And hateful things that aren't even true. Those statistics she uses about Granite County are twenty-five years old!”

Rudy stood in our kitchen with his arms crossed, backed up all the way against the sink. He looked sort of pasty, but there was a defiance to his expression all the same.

“Now, I want to know—and believe me, Rudolph Henry O'Shea, you'd better tell me the truth—did you tell your mother you felt trapped here in New Kassel? Tell me now. Because there's the front door, buddy. I'm not ‘keeping' you here one second longer. But I'm staying.”

Rudy swallowed and then gave me that expression that I could never quite pinpoint. It was part dismissal, as if I were overreacting, and part rage, because I'd hit a nerve. “Calm down.”

“Explain how she got the idea that you weren't happy here,” I said, trying very hard not to scream.

“She can't imagine why anybody would be happy in a small town like this—obviously she would hate it—and so therefore she assumes that I am not happy.”

“Are you telling me that she just said all those things to me based on an assumption? You said
nothing
to encourage her? Because if that's the case, she is Satan. That's it, I'm calling in somebody for an exorcism.”

Rudy said nothing. He just shuffled his feet.

“Rudy?” A lump gathered in my throat. Was he unhappy in New Kassel? It had never occurred to me to ask him if he was happy or not. He'd always seemed happy. He'd never mentioned wanting to move out of the area. Funny how I was ready to kick him out the door a second ago, and now I was worried he would actually go.

“All I said was that now that you had the money from Sylvia, maybe we could build a new house.”

“Build a new house? Where?” I asked.

“Outside of town,” he said. “But not away from New Kassel. I just meant down Highway P or something … or the Outer Road, where there was acreage. For your chickens. So the mayor wouldn't complain anymore. I never said anything about leaving the area.”

“Well, nice of you to discuss your plans with me,” I said. “Obviously you've discussed them with your mother.”

“Torie, it was just said in passing. I was thinking out loud, really, not actually planning anything. It was a casual conversation we had on the way home from the airport.”

“Well, if there is one thing I thought you had learned, Rudy, it is that you can't have a casual conversation with your mother. Because she takes every morsel of information and stores it up to use later,” I said. “And I'm usually the target.”

“I can have a conversation with my mother if I want to,” he said.

“Yes, but then I have to deal with the onslaught.”

He said nothing. He stewed for a minute, his gaze landing on everything from me to the kitchen floor to the clock. “You have to do something about your feelings toward my mother,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because it's not healthy.”

“Who are you, Deepak Chopra?”

“Because she's moving back to St. Louis.”

“What?”

“This autumn.”

“Oh, great. God hates me,” I said. “No, no, better yet, in a former life I must have slaughtered a dozen innocent children or something, and now I'm being paid back.”

“She
is
my mother. You have to deal with it.”

I ignored his remark. “So are you unhappy here?” I said.

“No,” he said. But his mother's poison had worked. I had already begun to believe her. And that had been her goal, after all. Just then the front door opened. It was Mrs. O'Shea coming in with my three children.

“Rudy,” Mrs. O'Shea said, “whoever was that man in town stumbling all over himself and smelling like urine?”

“Bill McMullen,” he answered. “Town drunk.”

“And the woman with the loud mouth who looked like the giant strawberry?”

“Eleanore Murdoch,” Rudy said.

“And that little skinny fella running around with pruning shears?”

“Tobias Thorley,” Rudy said.

Mrs. O'Shea shook her head. “Well, I told you not to go falling in love with the mountain folk.”

With that she skipped off down the hallway with my three children. I crossed my arms and glared at Rudy. “Guess I best be gettin' dat supper a-cookin,' honey. No, better yet, I be goin' out for fixin's.”

Nine

I picked up Chinese food and took it back to the Gaheimer House. I booted up my computer and tried not to think of the plague that was Priscilla Louise Margaret O'Brien O'Shea. My mother-in-law liked to fancy herself full-blooded Irish, but her daughter-in-law is a genealogist, and I know better. Her grandmother's name was Schwartz.

I ate an egg roll while I checked my mail. I had an e-mail regarding the photograph of the little girl on Sylvia's postcard. It read:

I have studied old photographs of Dubuque for close to ten years now. I can, without a doubt, tell you that your photograph is taken at the old train station. If I can be of further assistance please let me know.

Laura James

The train station?

I heard a knock on the back door, but before I could get up and get it, someone let himself in. “It's Colin,” he called out.

“I'm in my office.”

“I smell Chinese food,” he said as he entered the office.

Rummaging through my desk, I came up with an extra plastic fork. “Here,” I said. “I'll never finish it.”

“You look tired,” he said. He went back and got himself a soda, then settled his butt in the chair across from my desk and began eating my Chinese food. Was it me, or did he always eat everybody else's food?

“I am tired,” I said.

“What's up?”

“What, you just come by to visit? You don't visit me unless you have to,” I said. “I figured that week in Minnesota was enough bonding time for you and me.”

“Rudy called, said you guys had a fight,” he said.

“No, we didn't have a fight. What we had was a complete refusal to see the other's opinion.”

“A fight,” he said.

“So what did you think, I was going to go on a crime spree or something?”

“No,” he said. “It's just that since your mother is in a wheelchair and can't exactly go and see if you're all right, I sort of get delegated to do it,” he said and took a bite of rice. “So, I'm here to see if you're all right, or my wife will not rest.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” I said. “I'm fine. There, go report to her that I was stuffing my face and happily poring over records of dead people. She'll think nothing has changed.”

He didn't believe that I was all right, obviously, by the expression on his face.

“No, I'm not fine,” I said, “but you can't do anything about it, and neither can my mother. However, you can do something about this.” I handed him the sheriff's report from 1972. “What do you know about it?”

BOOK: Thicker than Water
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