Authors: Marsha Qualey
Tags: #Literary Fiction
“Terry’s grandfather lived in the cottage, Peach. After the doctor killed herself.”
Peach pursed her lips as she stoked her neck with a plump hand. “I know the story, Leigh. I grew up here. I know the whole story.”
“Will the whole story be part of the show? Will the Christian Family Universe want that?”
Peach made a face. “Just talk to Terry, please.”
“Once again: no. He doesn’t want your gang in there, and I will not try to change his mind. Final answer.”
Peach Wickham pulled sunglasses from a pocket hidden in the folds of her dress. She slipped them on and smiled. “If the show runs, I can guarantee you’ll do several books a year, ten thou a book. That’s minimum; the skies the limit if the Christian bookstores and home schoolers latch on to them, and there’s no reason they wouldn’t because we’re very careful about what goes in and what stays out of the books. Now be the smart girl I think you are and talk to the vice-president and don’t talk to me about final answers.”
Tucker yelped loudly and they both turned toward the sound. “Handsome little boy,” Peach said. “Looks just like the pictures of Dave at that age.” Her smile returned. “I forgot—you haven’t met Terry’s children. Dave’s his middle child, two years younger than Dana and me. Haven’t I heard that you have a daughter, Leigh? Lives with her father? Makes sense, I suppose. Hard to support a child as a freelance writer.”
“I won’t talk to Terry, Peach. Have a good day.”
“Is she gone?” Geneva flicked an ant off the blanket.
Leigh sat down beside her. Tucker handed her a leaf. “All gone, and not likely to return for a while. Terry was pretty rude.”
“It didn’t look like she was happy about what you were saying to her, either.”
“Probably not. I was saying no to a horde of visitors to the cottage.” And saying no to more money than she’d made in years.
Geneva started tossing toys and board books into a bag. “I’d better check on Terry.”
Leigh gently squeezed the young woman’s arm. “He’s fine. I’ll go back in and keep him occupied. Better yet, I’ll watch them both. Leave Tucker with me and go run away for the afternoon.” She checked her watch. How hard could it be—they’d both be napping within the hour.
“Are you sure? I do need groceries.”
“Groceries? Just go have some fun.”
“Going to the store without a baby will be fun. Oh, Leigh, thank you. Is there anything you want? Anything you want me to make?”
Tucker was methodically unpacking the bag. Leigh picked up a book and handed it to him, and he promptly reversed the direction of his work. “Homemade pie,” she said. “I know it’s a little early in the season, but I’d love a peach pie.”
There was a long line at the Dairy Queen. A solid week of muggy hot weather had sent what appeared to be the entire population of Pepin out for ice cream, and nearly everyone was in shorts and summer shirts. Leigh tugged at the sleeve of her light sweater. She’d been infected with the same desire for a warm weather treat as everyone else, but she was still chilled from another long day working in the well-shaded cottage.
As she waited amid the cheery bustle, she studied the white two-story house centered in a small square of well-tended green grass adjacent to the DQ’s parking lot.
She could understand why Marti Lanier was rankled by this version of the author’s home. The television producers certainly hadn’t bothered to copy the cottage. Hadn’t bothered to stick with one architectural style, or even worry about good taste.
A low fence with pickets alternating in yellow and lilac bordered the small lawn. The colors matched the siding and trim of the house. Elaborate wrought iron balconies caged the lower half of each of the two sets of French doors on the second floor. The wide first floor windows, however, were imitation Prairie style, with geometric grids in the glass. Gingham curtains for the first floor windows, dark heavy ones on the second.
The travesty by the Dairy Queen.
A thin boy with poor skin and a wavering voice took her order for a small hot fudge sundae. Leigh smiled as he tried to find the right place to tap on the register’s plastic-covered keypad. A first job. How many years since her first—thirty-five? There hadn’t been much work available to teens in her small Wisconsin hometown, so, underage and off the books, she’d felt very lucky to work weekends and summers at a neighbor’s pharmacy—the origin, she’d long suspected, of her never-kicked addiction to expensive hair product.
She took her sundae and walked to the house. She pushed open the gate and stepped onto a cobbled walk. Just in front of the house on the left side of the walk was a poster-sized, wooden sign. Also yellow and lilac.
Welcome to the Little Girl Museum. This is the actual house used in the eleven seasons of
Little Girl, Big River,
the award-winning television show that brought to life the world created by Ida May Turnbull in the eight books that are beloved by readers of all ages and from all parts of the world. Enter and enjoy!
Smaller script on the sign announced the building’s hours and a no-food or drink policy. On the other side of the walk, a recently-poured slab of concrete shone white under a sun that was still high in the summer sky. She sat on the slab and balanced her sundae on her thigh while she pushed up the sleeves of her sweater.
Just as Leigh finished her ice cream, a woman in a tailored business suit hurried toward the house. She had a bright pink laptop sleeve under an arm, while a plastic grocery bag dangled from one hand and a white canvas tote stuffed with yarn and knitting needles hung from the other. Her salt and pepper curls bounced as she walked. “We’re closed!” she shouted cheerily. She stopped abruptly and smiled. “It’s you! Welcome to Pepin!”
Leigh shook her head. She rose and tossed her trash into a small yellow barrel by the stoop. “I’m Leigh Burton.”
“You certainly are. I’m Ellen Blaney. My mother and I live across the park from you. Small house, middle of three? I’ve seen you coming and going. The museum’s officially closed, but you can surely come on in. I bet this place is nothing like your little cottage. Would you mind holding some of my things while I fuss with this lock?”
A warm cinnamon smell floated out of the grocery bag. “That smells too good for a store bakery,” Leigh said.
“Aren’t you sweet! I always make cookies for meetings, even if it means leaving the office a little earlier than I should.” She swore once at the dead bolt and tried again. The door opened.
“Just the convention planning committee. But come on in; we won’t bite.”
Oh god. Leigh shook her head. That had to include Peach, maybe Marti. Her attacker and her blackmailer. “Thanks, but another time.”
“Not even a quick look? Aren’t you curious?”
She was curious, she realized, and she followed the cheerful woman inside. “Just toss the bags there,” Ellen said. She pointed to a desk as she walked toward a lamp and turned it on.
Leigh set everything down. She turned around and said, “Holy cow.”
Three girl-sized mannequins dressed in period costume were posed with arms linked. Their painted faces were frozen in wide-eyed, maniacal smiles.
“Holy cow is right,” said Ellen. “And just imagine what it’s like at night with the lights out. Sometimes when I’m the last to leave I get a little spooked.”
“The three friends,” Leigh said.
Ellen Blaney put a hand on a tailored hip. “So you’ve read the books Marti gave you.”
“Not yet. I’ve been busy.”
“Don’t feel bad. A lot of our visitors have never read them, but they’ve usually seen the show. As you can see, the inside of this place is nothing fancy. The house was really just a shell; they only used it for shooting exteriors. Our volunteers framed in and decorated the rooms. Those are actual costumes from the show on the girls, by the way, and we’ve got lots of the furniture and props. The producers gave us everything that didn’t go to the Smithsonian. People just eat that up when they come here. Makes up for the disappointment when they realize the inside is nothing like the TV house. There are more scenes in all the rooms. Upstairs, too.”
“Her library card application?”
Ellen laughed. “You saw that in the brochure, I bet. The real artifacts have been boxed up and moved to a church for the convention. There’s more room there and we can put everything out.”
“Yearbooks, school records, personal belongings she gave to the Wickhams and others, letters she wrote to fans. The good stuff. This place is mostly about the show, I’m afraid. Go ahead and look around. I’m setting up for the meeting in the kitchen.”
In nearly every room on both floors more mannequins posed. Each room’s doorway was roped off, and a small sign on the floor just inside gave the title of the scene and its provenance by book and chapter, season and episode. Several of the tableaux had only a television reference.
Leigh peered into a large room on the second floor. “‘Maud welcomes a baby brother,’” she read aloud.
“Which is not in any of the books. They added a lot of crap for the television show.”
Leigh turned around. Marti Lanier, like Ellen, was still dressed in work clothes. Marti said, “Sorry to sneak up on you. Ellen said you were up here browsing around. It’s all a travesty, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I’m not taking sides, Marti. I’m just a bystander who’s curious.” She walked to a display of dollhouses and dioramas on a long table pushed against a wall between doorways. “Made by the Little Girls?” Marti nodded. “The details are amazing.” Leigh peered at a label. “‘The Cottage
. Huh. Not a bad replica. The person who made this must have sneaked in.”
“No one’s ever claimed to have done that, and trust me, if it had happened, we’d have heard about it. They just study the descriptions and illustrations in the books.”
“What careful detail. She didn’t quite get the Red Lady, though, did she? I suppose you’ve already spread the word on that subject.”
“Believe it or not, I’ve only told a couple of people that I’ve even been in the cottage. Have you seen the shrine yet?” When Leigh shook her head, Marti nudged her along the hall to a large room with no rope across the entry and nudged her once again to enter.
The walls of the room were covered with photographs. Peach Wickham was in most of the pictures, posing with different people on the set of the show and in front of the house at its Pepin site. Leigh tapped one. “The Pilates queen.”
Though everyone else in the photo was dressed in clothing appropriate for a hot Midwestern summer day, the actress had gone period and wore a tight-fitting dress that had long sleeves and what appeared to be dozens of buttons snaking their way up a curved bodice. One hand held a giant cardboard scissors that was poised to snip a purple ribbon strung across the doorway of the transplanted structure, while the other appeared to be adjusting the tilt or restraining the collapse of a very blond pompadour.
“That’s Petra Sinclair, the other wicked witch,” said Marti. “She’ll be here for the convention. She always comes. That’s not surprising, of course. Where else would she get such devoted attention? Rumor has it she and Peach are scheming to get an updated version of the show on television, with Petra directing and playing the mother this time. I can’t even imagine what liberties those two will take with the stories.” She pointed to a large sepia-toned portrait of a woman in a dark hat. “Ida May’s stories.”
The wide brim of the hat shadowed one of the author’s eyes, which gazed up. What hair could be seen was pinned close to the head in lacquered waves. She wasn’t smiling, perhaps because the photographer had her positioned unnaturally, with her head tipped and tilted on a long neck partially covered by a carefully arranged polka-dot scarf.
Leigh leaned closer. There was a tiny hole in the author’s sweater, and the thread on two of the buttons appeared to be of different color. She checked the date on the brass tag attached to the frame—1937—and smiled. Ida May was already famous, but she had gone to her portrait sitting wearing a favorite old sweater.
She straightened and faced Marti. “Peach has offered me the chance to write some of those appalling stories, in the event there’s a new show. Of course, I have to open the cottage for the convention before she’ll hire me. Don’t worry; I didn’t tell her about Roberta.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I turned her down. I think she’d be an awful boss and as you know, the cottage is otherwise engaged. The money sounds mighty good, though.”
“Very good, I bet. She’s turned it all into quite the lucrative empire, and I’ve heard she’s quite fair to her labor force. Chances are her husband would be your boss, Leigh. Donnie’s been in charge of the books almost from the beginning. He’s nice enough, if a little thick. If I were you, I wouldn’t close the door on the offer. Assuming you can do it without displacing Roberta, of course. She’s been promised a private getaway.”
“I’d have thought you’d be more horrified I even gave it a second thought.”
Marti shook her head. “The idea of a new show and new books appalls me, but not that you’d be cashing in. Remember, sweetie: my passion is literature, but selling real estate underwrites my very nice life style. There’s nothing wrong about grabbing what comes your way.”