When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2b
It was precisely one week before college graduation that Amanda Rojas found herself trudging up the steps to her apartment, dusty, sweaty, exhausted and seething with fury.
“You want to talk about it?” her roommate Rosemary asked as she followed. Fortunately, she’d been in the apartment when Amanda called from a telephone booth just outside a darkened service station several miles outside of town.
“No, yes, no, I don’t know!” she wailed, and threw herself on the lumpy sofa in their small living room. She lay there for some time in silence while Rosemary went to the tiny convenience kitchen and scooped them each some rocky road ice cream.
She placed the bowl on Amanda’s stomach and slid a spoon between her fingers. “Here. Have some medicine.”
Amanda didn’t move, but she didn’t drop the spoon, either. Slowly, reluctantly, she grasped the bowl, pulled herself to a sitting position, tucked her straight black hair behind each ear and dipped the spoon in the ice cream. “Thanks,” she murmured.
The two girls ate in companionable silence until they had finished. “Okay, now, talk,” Rosemary said, scraping the last morsel of marshmallow from her bowl.
Amanda licked her spoon and sighed. Her face crumpled. Her lower lip trembled. “He—” She let out a sob.
Rosemary put down her bowl. “Oh, golly, ‘Manda, what did he do? That rat! You should call the police!”
Amanda stopped crying. “Oh, no,” she said quickly, “nothing like that. He didn’t hurt me at all, at least not physically…” She resumed her crying.
Rosemary fetched her friend a box of tissues.
Amanda blew her nose.
“Well then, maybe it’s just a little tiff like people have sometimes. Maybe it’ll blow over. You’re still wearing his ring.”
“Not—any—more,” Amanda said, struggling to wrench the diamond from her finger and slamming it down on the coffee table.
The telephone rang. Rosemary looked at the clock: one-fourteen a.m.
“Don’t answer it,” Amanda ordered frantically.
Wearing an unreadable expression, Rosemary picked up the receiver. “Oh, hello, Jason,” she said cheerfully. “You’re calling awfully late.” She looked at her roommate and held a finger to her lips. “Amanda? But I thought she was with you.”
Amanda’s eyes widened.
“Where did you leave her? Oh, gosh, Jason, how could you? I don’t care if you meant to come right back—you can’t find her now, can you? Somebody could have—I mean, I can’t begin to think of what could happen to her out there!”
Amanda bit her lip and watched intently, shredding a tissue in her fingers.
“I’m going to hang up now and go find my roommate!” She slammed the receiver and grinned. “Take that, you toad!”
Amanda gasped. “Oh, Rosy, that was mean!”
“No meaner than leaving you all alone by the side of the road, the rat!”
Amanda squirmed uneasily. “Uh, that’s not exactly how it happened. I—I kind of told him to leave me there. Demanded, actually.”
“Why on earth?”
“Well, we were arguing about, um, some personal things—oh, Rosemary, he’s not at all the guy I thought he was! He doesn’t have any of the values I thought he did.”
“I could guess that by the way you’re acting. But why did he leave you out there?”
“Well, we were headed to that artsy movie theatre over in Bascomb, and all at once, he just slowed his car to a stop and pulled off the road and said he was out of gas. Like an idiot, I believed him. You know that car of his. The dashboard looks like the controls of an airplane. So I said, what are we going to do?”
“You should have had a cell phone, that’s what you should have done,” Rosemary put in ungrammatically.
“I’ve told you before I can’t afford one. And Jason forgot his. At least, that’s what he said. I don’t know what part of what he says is the truth any more!”
Rosemary sighed. “Then what happened?”
Amanda pulled another tissue from the box and mopped her nose. “He said it was too far to walk at night, so why didn’t we just make ourselves comfortable there? That is, until some of the farm trucks came along around dawn so he could hitch a ride. And I said, well, okay, and he got a little affectionate, you know? And kissed me?”
Rosemary nodded and leaned forward. “Uh huh, go on.”
“And then he started wanting to get real, real affectionate, and I said no, and he said why not, and I said we’ve been all through this before.”
Rosemary’s eyes became large and round. “What did he say?”
“He said, not really, and I said I thought he was a better man than that, and he said, what’s the big deal, we’re engaged, aren’t we, and I said no way until we’re married, and he said, most of the couples he knew lived together before they were married, anyway, and he didn’t understand why I was getting all upset about nothing, and that’s when I really got mad.”
“Well, anyway, I said if he didn’t understand that, I was going to walk home, and he said I shouldn’t because it wasn’t safe, and I said, it’s not safe here with you, either, and I opened the door and got out and started walking down the road, real fast, in these shoes, my brand-new ones—” she gestured to the dusty high heels on the floor, “—they’re ruined now, of course, and what do I hear behind me but Jason’s truck, starting up, and he turns around and pulls up alongside me, and sticks his head out the window and orders—orders!—me to get in.”
“So he wasn’t really out of gas at all?”
Amanda crumpled another tissue and threw it at the wastebasket, missing. “Doesn’t look like it, does it?” Her lips compressed into a tight line. “Well, anyway, I told him that I wasn’t getting in a vehicle with him ever again, and he should just drive on home, since his truck had so miraculously found more gas in the tank, and he said, suit yourself, and gunned the motor and drove away, really fast, and disappeared over a kind of hill.”
“And you were all by yourself out there?”
Amanda nodded. Tears began pouring silently down her cheeks. She looked over at her roommate. “Oh, Rosy! I was so terrified! I heard coyotes howling at each other like in the movies, and just got so scared! I’ve lived in Texas all my life and I never heard them howl like that.” She began to tremble.
Rosemary moved to the sofa and put an arm around Amanda’s shoulders. “Poor baby! I can’t believe Jason just left you alone out there!”
Amanda sat up and untangled herself from Rosemary’s embrace. “I already told you, he didn’t really.”
“But you said—”
“What happened was, I was so scared, and got thinking about that horror movie you were watching on TV the other night? Remember?”
“Gosh, I’m sorry! That was a bad one! I turned it off halfway through.”
Amanda waved away her friend’s apology. “That’s okay, but I kept thinking about that girl out on the moors all alone and about the werewolf and things, and of course, I don’t believe in werewolves, but what with the coyotes and all, well, I was really spooked.”
“Anybody would be!”
“So I walked and walked and all of a sudden, I heard a car or something coming in the distance, and I freaked all over again, because of that other movie—the ax murder one? Honestly, Rosy, I’m glad I’ve quit watching those terrible movies. They do awful things to a person’s imagination.”
“Amanda! Who was in the car?”
“That’s just it! I didn’t know! It could have been anybody, so I ducked behind a bunch of mesquite bushes by the side of the road and hid. And it turned out to be Jason who had come back to the place he let me off and started calling my name.”
“Why didn’t you—”
“Why didn’t I get in his truck? Well, first of all, I was still furious, and second of all, he kept saying things like, ‘Stop being foolish,’ and what a silly girl I was, and things like that, so I stayed put and after a while, he gave up.”
Amanda sighed. “After that, I kept walking, and then it occurred to me that I ought to pray about the situation—imagine that, all that trouble, and I didn’t pray about it until things really got out of hand!”
Rosemary nodded. “It sometimes works that way.”
“Well, I had just started praying, and asking for help, and I look up ahead of me and there was this gas station right there, and even though it was closed—”
Rosemary filled in the remaining details. “Then you called me from the pay phone and I came and got you.”
Rosemary picked up the empty ice cream bowls and began carrying them to the kitchen. “So what are you going to—“
The telephone rang again.
Amanda picked it up. “Hello. Yes, it’s me. Of course I’m all right. That’s my business, isn’t it? No, don’t come over.”
Rosemary scurried back to the living room and listened intently.
There was silence on Amanda’s end of the line while Jason spoke his piece.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it.” Amanda took a deep breath. “Tomorrow, I’d appreciate it if you’d, you’d, um, come over and pick up your, um, your ring, please. No, I won’t be here. Rosemary will give it to you. Yes, that’s right. No, I don’t want to talk about it any more. Well, that’s a nice thing to say! I’m glad I don’t resort to calling names!”
Rosemary’s eyes widened.
Amanda continued, “I’m just glad we learned these things about each other before it was too late! Tomorrow afternoon sometime, please. Around three would be fine.” She hung up the phone with exaggerated calmness.
Eleven months later.
“Amanda Rojas,” the court clerk called.
Trembling a little, Amanda stood and followed the others from the hallway into the courtroom. Strange, she thought, I’m even more nervous now than the first time I walked into a classroom.
Straightening her shoulders, she tossed her long hair over one shoulder and tucked her small purse under her arm.
Her new boss was sure she’d be chosen for the jury. “A smart girl like you?” Malcolm Best had said, smiling and nodding his bald head, “They’ll pick you in a minute. Go ahead and do your duty. This job will be waiting for you when you’re finished.”
She was grateful for his kindness. Summer jobs were scarce in the tiny town of Connellee, Texas, when you’re an elementary school teacher with large, looming student loans. Not only was it a Heaven-sent opportunity, she thought as she took her seat on the long bench, but this full-time job at Best’s Cinema and Catalogue Center was going to be just plain fun.
Amanda loved movies, especially the classics, and could summon up trivial factoids at will. “Did you know that Walt Disney once considered Bette Davis for the part of Mary Poppins?” she’d asked Malcolm as she filled out the application form.
“As a matter of fact, I did,” he’d responded pleasantly, then said, “‘Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.’ What movie?”
It was a tough one. She hadn’t seen the film, only heard the quote. She made a calculated guess: “Buckaroo Bonzai?”
“You’re perfect for the job,” he’d declared, with a twinkle in the startlingly blue eyes that so resembled his son’s.
She’d been surprised and relieved that Malcolm hadn’t held the breakup with his son against her.
Amanda sat up straighter on the pew-like courtroom bench. The judge was speaking. “Ladies and gentlemen, I must thank you for your willingness to fulfill your civic duty. However, if you fit any of the following criteria, you may excuse yourself. Number one: you are over seventy years of age.” He leaned forward and looked around the courtroom.
Well, that lets me out, Amanda thought, I’m twenty-three. Feeling rather self-conscious, Amanda looked on either side of her.
One gray-haired man meekly raised his hand. “I’m seventy-one. Does that mean I have to go?”
The judge smiled. “No sir, just that you may if you wish.”
“Well then, I’m stayin’,” the man said firmly, folding his arms on his chest. The whole courtroom chuckled gently.
Looking down at a card in his hand, the judge moved on. “You may be excused if you have legal custody of a child or children younger than ten years of age.”
Amanda sighed. Does a classroom full of wiggly seven year olds count? she thought, smiling fondly. Strange that she should actually miss those little monkeys now that it was summer. For instance, there were the wiry blond twins, Rustler and Wrangler McCoy, whose stereo mischief had been etched into her memory.
Right about now, she thought, they’d be arguing over who could swing on that gate-like thing over there, or maybe spinning in those swivel chairs in the jury box.
She didn’t allow herself to contemplate the kind of fun they might have with the judge’s gavel.
Little by little, people excused themselves and were replaced by others in the jury pool.
Nothing applied to Amanda, though. She wasn’t a student, wasn’t employed by the state, didn’t take care of an invalid and hadn’t served on a jury in the last three years. The crowd dwindled, and up at the front, the attorneys consulted clipboards and talked to one another in hushed tones. Things seemed to be moving very slowly.
Amanda felt her ribs being poked by a bony elbow. “Y’ever do this before?” whispered a small, wrinkled woman with flame-red, Lucille Ball hair and a giant shoulder bag decorated in hot pink sequins.
Amanda smiled at her. “No,” she whispered back. “How about you?
The woman shook her head. “Oh, they didn’t call me for the jury. I’m just here to watch. It’s kind of a hobby of mine. You learn a lot, just watchin’.” She patted Amanda’s arm. “Besides, it’s nice and cool in here what with the air conditioning and all.”
Amanda nodded. “I’m glad I brought this,” she said, indicating the white sweater she had tied around her shoulders. ” She took the opportunity now to pull it on over her sleeveless cotton dress. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
“Don’t worry. You got any questions, you ask me.” The woman thrust out a small hand. “Elvira Quinn. Retired waitress. Divorced. Two children.”
“Amanda Rojas. Schoolteacher. Not married. Good to meet you, Mrs.Quinn.”
“Call me Vira.”
The time continued to creep slowly as the lawyers consulted clipboards and murmured among themselves.
She idly contemplated the condition of her cuticles. It hadn’t occurred to her to bring a book to read. Normally, she’d have papers to correct and lessons to plan, but it was summer. She sighed.
Fortunately, Vira noticed, and was prepared. “You knit?” she asked abruptly as she dragged a half-completed sock hanging on needles from her copious purse.
“Not really,” Amanda admitted, shrugging.
“You’re a teacher, y’said?” Vira brightened. “I got just the thing.” She plunged into her bag and emerged holding a small paperback book of crossword puzzles and a pencil. “You learn a lot of words doin’ these things,” she said.
Amanda’s life had always been too full of studying and work to do crossword puzzles, but to her surprise, she found she really enjoyed searching her memory for just the right word.
She was actually disappointed when the judge called for attention and said, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, as many of you probably know, we are here today to select a jury for the State of Texas versus Harriet Frames. We will now be asking you a series of questions—“
Vira waved a knitting needle, nodded and whispered, “Voy deer.”
The judge went on, “This portion of the proceeding is called voir dire, which comes from the French and means ‘to speak the truth,’ which is what I’m—what we’re all—counting on you to do. The questions that will be asked are not meant to upset you or invade your privacy, but to help them select an impartial jury. The clerk will now administer the oath.”
Wow, thought Amanda, this is getting serious. If they pick me for the jury, I’ll be The State of Texas, and I’ll be versus somebody. Can I do this? She closed her eyes briefly and prayed, “Dearest Lord, You put me here. Please make sure I do everything Your way.”
“You okay?” Vira asked in a concerned whisper.
Amanda opened her eyes and smiled. “I’m just fine, now.” She took a deep breath. She was ready.
But the proceedings became once again monotonous, as people were summoned up to the jury box, fourteen at a time, and asked a variety of questions. Amanda returned to the crossword puzzles and was about to fill in the five-letter word beginning with a word that meant “outback dog” when she heard the court clerk call, “Amanda Rojas.”
She held the crossword book out to Vira, but the woman shook her head. “Keep it. You’ll need it. I got more of ‘em at home.”
Smiling her thanks, Amanda thrust the book into her purse and moved up the aisle, through the low wooden gate. In the jury box, she sat down in one of the padded swivel chairs, which was surprisingly comfortable. She glanced around nervously, aware that many eyes were on her.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…The quote from A Tale of Two Cities floated into her mind. It was what Ronald Coleman—or rather, the character of Sydney Carton in the movie—had said just before he went to the guillotine. But why that quote? she asked herself. I’m not the one on trial. I’m the one doing the trying, maybe even sending someone—the defendant to…to what? Something terrible? There were women knitting alongside the guillotine, weren’t there?
She could feel her heart begin to pound. Dear Lord, help me calm down.
She took a deep breath. Relax, Amanda. She glanced back into the gallery.
Vira looked up from her knitting, winked and nodded at her. The vivid little woman possessed a strong personality and her friendliness was immensely comforting, not at all like Dickens’ sinister knitter, Madame Defarge, who sat at the foot of the guillotine, enjoying the grisly proceedings.
Remember, she told herself, this isn’t Paris in the French Revolution. It’s just good ol’ present-day Connellee, Texas.
She took a good look around. The jury box afforded her a clear view of the front of the courtroom, the judge’s bench, the two tables, one for the prosecution and one for the defense, just like she’d seen on television. Two men in business suits and ties sat at one table, shuffling through papers and making notes. At the other table, a smartly-dressed woman in an expensive, well-tailored suit spoke quietly to another, pale woman who wore a frown and a worn gray cardigan. Which one of those women was Harriet Frames, the defendant? Surely not the one with that gentle face. Could such a shy-looking person actually be a criminal?
District Attorney Samuel Drinkwater introduced himself and began to ask questions of the jury panel, moving down the row and building an almost unbearable suspense in Amanda.
At last, he turned his gaze on her. “Ms. Rojas, what is your profession, please?” he asked.
In a quiet, clear voice, Amanda told him. This wasn’t so hard.
“Ms. Rojas, have you ever been involved with a fire, say, had your house burned down or known someone close to you who was injured or killed in a fire?”
She hadn’t, she told him and inwardly breathed a prayer of thanksgiving.
“Are you willing to apply the laws of this state if it is proved that the defendant, Harriet Frames, committed the crime of arson?”
Yes, Amanda said, she believed she was. Am I? She thought. Did I tell the truth just then? She glanced over at the defendant’s table, but the two women were still in intense conversation. The one in the power suit seemed annoyed. The other woman’s melancholy expression remained unchanged. She kept glancing over her shoulder into the gallery.
The District Attorney then turned his attention to the next person in the row, asking similar questions.
Next, the woman attorney approached the jury box and introduced herself as Rebecca Gilchrist. “And this,” she said, gesturing to the far table, “is my client, Harriet Frames.”
So I was right, Amanda thought. That pale, mousey woman really is the defendant.
Rebecca Gilchrist’s questioning method was different from the D.A.’s. In no particular order, she read a name from a clipboard and asked the man who answered if he could render a “not guilty” verdict if the case was not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The man stroked his jaw. “I reckon I could.”
“Mr. Lawrence,” she asked a man in the back row, “I see here that you are a volunteer fireman.”
She turned abruptly. “Ms. Rojas, are you from Connellee originally?”
Amanda was surprised at the question. “Well, not exactly. I moved here with my parents and went to high school here, but I’m originally from San Antonio. My parents moved back there when I was in college.” Was that enough explanation? Amanda wondered. Did she need to tell them how she fell in love with the small town and the friendly atmosphere, how after college she applied for a teaching position here rather than work in a big, impersonal city.
“So you like it here in Connellee County?”
“Yes, certainly I do.”
“Do you know a lot of people here?”
“Quite a few.”
“Do you know the defendant?” She gestured to the table where Harriet Frames sat. The woman just stared at a paper in front of her.
“No, I don’t.” But I can tell from here that she’s scared out of her mind.
“And are you acquainted with a Mrs. Matilda Freeman?”
“No.” Who was that? Amanda wondered.
Rebecca Gilchrist moved on.
When the lawyers were finished, they got together again and murmured some more at one another, glancing up from time to time at the people in the jury box.
“Mr. Lawrence, you’re excused,” the judge said to the man who was a volunteer fireman.
Amanda waited. Would she, too, be excused? She hoped so. Helping people pick out movies was going to be fun; deciding the fate of the frightened woman at the far table was not, she was sure.
The judge leaned forward. “Now that jury selection is complete, we will begin.”
The Court Clerk stepped up and read, “The State of Texas versus Harriet Frames, the Honorable Matteo James presiding…”
Oh boy, thought Amanda. Here we go.
“I hope I never have to sit through anything like that again,” said one of the jurors, Sarah Gahagen, as they were ushered into the Connellee Courthouse’s Jury Room. “If I never hear what smoke inhalation does to a person’s lungs another time, I’ll be happy. Ugh!”
Amanda agreed. The crime in this case had been arson and there had been a relatively helpless victim, the previously mentioned Matilda Freeman. Several months after the crime, the elderly woman still hadn’t recovered from the effects of the fire and was still in the hospital.
Words raced around her brain: accelerants, flashover, point of origin, V-patterns, and one extremely important word, proof. There was plenty of that, Amanda had to concede.
Now it was time for the jury to deliberate about what it had heard, to come to some kind of decision and to find Harriet Frames either guilty or not guilty.
The only thing Amanda knew about a jury room was what she had seen in the movie Twelve Angry Men, and she had hoped that Connellee’s version was going to be a little better than that. To her disappointment, it was quite a lot like the sparse, uncomfortable chamber in the film.
There was a long wooden table, twelve sturdy-looking wooden chairs, a stack of yellow legal pads and a bunch of pencils. A big school clock the size of a steering wheel dominated a side wall, a water fountain stood at one end of the room and there was a small door politely marked “Lavatory” at the other. An elderly window air conditioner unit sent a tepid breeze across the room, assisted somewhat by a slow ceiling fan.
The temperature in the jury room was discouraging after the refreshing coolness of the courtroom and made worse by the fact that Connellee County was in the throes of a killer heat wave.
The other members of the jury weren’t any more impressed than Amanda was.
“Wow, what a dump.”
“It’s hot in here!”
“You think they’re gonna give us lunch? It’s eleven thirty already.”
“How long we gotta stay here?”
“Where can we smoke?”
“What do we do now?”
Amanda heard herself saying, “The judge told us to elect a foreman.”
One of the women agreed. “Yeah, right, I seen that on Murder She Wrote. I vote for you.” She pointed a long fingernail directly at Amanda.
Quickly, almost before she could utter a protest, Amanda was unanimously elected foreman of the jury.
“Foreperson,” asserted a woman with a stone-gray braid draped over one shoulder. She sat down emphatically. “Ouch! These seats are hard!”
The group burst into loud, spontaneous complaints.
Resigned to her new unwanted responsibility, Amanda sighed and took a seat at the end of the table. “Why don’t we—” she began, but nobody heard her above all the talking. Reverting to her teacher persona, she clapped her hands. “People, I need your attention.”
The adults settled down only a little faster than Amanda’s second graders, but they eventually did all turn their eyes on her.
“Why don’t we each introduce ourselves?” she said. Her second-graders always enjoyed that.
This suggestion was met with enthusiasm.
A tall man in a western-style shirt said, “I’ll start. I’m Joe Blaine. I work at the Connellee Mud Company.”
Someone tittered and Joe rolled his eyes. “The mud’s used for oil wells, pumping, stuff like that.” Clearly he’d had to make this explanation before.
“Binnie Mayfield. I’m a housewife, so there.” The woman gave an emphatic nod.
“Clarissa Rockwell,” said the woman with the long braid. “Crystal therapist.”
“What’s that?” asked Walter McCoy, a plump man with a moustache.
“Like a fortune teller, or something,” Binnie Mayfield said, fanning herself with one of the yellow legal pads.
Clarissa Rockwell straightened up in her chair. “Nothing at all like a fortune teller. It’s an ancient art, involving divination. It dates back beyond the ancient Egyptians. Why the Elizabethans were—”
Oh, dear, Amanda thought. She interrupted gently, “Ms. Rockwell, I’m afraid we don’t have time to go into very much detail if we’re going to go home before midnight.”
With a shrug, Clarissa Rockwell agreed. “Oh, all right.” She shot a frown at Binnie.
They moved down the table and learned that among them was a hairdresser, another teacher—high school English, retired—a college student, a short-order cook—that was Walter McCoy, father of the infamous twins, Rustler and Wrangler—also a school janitor, and three more housewives. One of the women knew Amanda, or thought she did.
“I heard that you’re engaged to Malcolm Best’s boy,” plump, vivacious Sarah Gahagen declared, and added in a lowered tone, “I knew his late mother, bless her heart.” She patted Amanda’s hand. “When are you two getting married?”
Amanda said quite calmly, “We broke up. Almost a year ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” It was an animated apology, but there was also a question in it.
True to her earlier declaration, Amanda wasn’t about to give details, either. “Well, now that we’ve introduced ourselves, why don’t we—” she stopped, struck by an idea.
“What is it?” someone asked.
Amanda looked up and down the table. “I, uh, I mean, I was thinking: what we’re going to do is pretty important, don’t you think? I mean, decide about a person’s life and all. I think…” She paused and took a deep breath. “What I mean is, I don’t know what any of you believe, but I’d like to have a moment of silence so I can say a prayer.”
There, she thought, I’ve said it.
The jurors looked at one another and every single one nodded agreement.
Amanda, who had been expecting howls of protest, said, “Well, good. So we’ll start when I, um, say ‘start’ and end when I say ‘thank you,’ okay?”
Obediently, every person bowed his head.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. She had read the verse in her morning quiet time and now she was struck with how appropriate it was. Amen. “Thank you,” Amanda said, and observed two of the women and one of the men crossing themselves.
“Amen,” said Binnie Mayfield firmly sliding a glance over at Clarissa Rockwell.
The next order of business was voting, Amanda decided.
Walter McCoy helped tear sheets of paper into strips and Joe Blaine passed out pencils. Keeping a careful eye on the big clock, Amanda gave the group five minutes to write their vote, guilty or not guilty, on the slips and hand them back.
She counted them herself.
“Ten guilty and two not guilty.” With a nod, she turned to the group. “Does anybody want to volunteer their reasons for voting the way they did? Ms. Rockwell?”
Clarissa Rockwell brought her hand down and said, “I voted not guilty because I think we should at least give this thing a good discussion.”
“Which means,” Binnie Mayfield said, “that you think she’s guilty, too, but don’t want to be too quick about it.”
“Which means exactly what I said: we should talk about it,” Clarissa said firmly.
“Who else voted not guilty?” Joe Blaine asked. “Have you got a better reason?”
Shyly, Amanda brought her hand up.
She nodded. “Me.”
Walter McCoy was surprised. “What about all that evidence? And Harriet herself as much as admitted that she did it.”
“She didn’t say it in so many words,” Amanda pointed out.
“Yes, but you know her lawyer made her keep mum. They always do,” said the woman who watched Murder She Wrote.
Clarissa Rockwell leaned in. Her gray braid had tangled with the long necklace she wore. “Amanda, why did you really vote the way you did? Is it for the same reason I did?” She pulled her braid free.
“Not exactly,” she said thoughtfully. “I just want to know why.”
Joe Blaine was puzzled. “‘Why?’ Why what?”
“Why would somebody do something like that. She barely knew the woman; just did a few odd jobs for her: painted her porch, did a little shrub trimming, that’s all.”
“Well, her lawyer said she wasn’t paid enough, something like that,” Binnie Mayfield suggested. “People can be weird, you know.”
Amanda shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense. And I know crime doesn’t make sense sometimes, but still... Look, here’s what we can do: Let’s go over all the evidence and if I can’t convince at least one of you that it doesn’t make sense, then I’ll vote guilty.”
“How did it go?” Malcolm Best asked cheerfully the next morning when Amanda arrived at Best’s Cinema and Catalogue Center for work. “Did you put the bad guys behind bars?” he half-growled, half-lisped in a lame imitation of Humphrey Bogart.
Amanda sighed. “I guess you could say that.” She stashed her purse in the back office and began the morning routine that Malcolm had outlined for her.
She went to the front door, opened the box containing the overnight movie returns and carried them in stacks to the counter.
“What happened on that jury? You sound so discouraged,” Malcolm said. He pulled up a stool in front of the countertop computer and turned on the machine.
Amanda began to compare the DVD titles to the notations in a large logbook. “Well, it was strange. I mean, the case was a terrible one, all right.”
“I heard on the radio it was arson. Come on, come on, get goin’,” Malcolm said to his computer, knocking on the side of the monitor. He muttered, “This ol’ dinosaur takes forever to boot up.”
“Yes, that’s right, arson, and it seemed pretty clear that the defendant was guilty. I mean, the evidence was all there, and everything, but the reason she did it still bothers me. It was so—so unlikely. They said that this Harriet Frames did some work around the house and poor Mrs. Freeman didn’t pay her what she promised. Does that sound to you like a reason to burn somebody’s house down?”
“Now that’s more like it.” Malcolm squinted at the computer screen and patted it on the side. He looked up at Amanda. “Nope, it sure doesn’t. Small claims court would be the way to go, you ask me. But some people have pretty vicious tempers, especially when it’s about money.”
“That’s what everybody on the jury said.” She opened a DVD case. “Oh dear. Malcolm, this jewel case is cracked. Do we charge extra for that?” She reached under the counter for a new one and transferred the disc.
Her boss looked up from a sheaf of catalogue orders and waved his hand. “Nah, forget about it. It’s better for customer relations, anyway. Got to do something to keep up with the competition,” he added. “That online service has shaved off a lot of our business, but all’s fair, as they say.” He shrugged and smiled. “There’s a few more returned ones under the counter there.”
Amanda smiled back and retrieved the DVD’s. “Y’know? It feels so good to get back to a normal life,” she said. “I didn’t like holding somebody’s fate in my hands. I was so afraid I’d mess up.”
Malcolm stopped typing on the computer keyboard and his face took on a serious expression. “Mandy-girl, I know you. I’m sure you couldn’t have done anything but a fine job on that jury. They were lucky to have you.”
His use of her old high school nickname was strangely moving. “Thank you, Malcolm,” she said quietly, and swallowed a small lump in her throat.
“That fool son of mine may have lost his chance,” he continued, “but I’m mighty blessed to have you working here.” Suddenly embarrassed, he gestured towards the stacks and said in a jerky, John Wayne voice, “We’re burnin’ daylight, Pilgrim! Mount up and get back to work!”
She resumed checking in the movies, but her mind was still full of images of the day before: the earnest faces of the other jurors, the photographs of the crime scene, the final tally as they each voted aloud.
The verdict hadn’t been much of a surprise. When they left the jury room, not one of them was smiling. This was serious business.
Amanda’s heart had been thundering and her hands shaking as they filed back into the courtroom.
“Madame Foreman, have you reached a verdict?”
Amanda stood and faced the judge.
With pale, somber faces, Harriet Frames and her attorney did the same.
Oh dear Lord, let us be doing the right thing!
“Yes, s-sir,” Amanda said.
“On the count of arson in the first degree?”
“We find the defendant guilty.”
As the all-important, life-altering words were being chanted in a dignified singsong, Harriet Frames sank silently into her chair and turned a baleful gaze into the crowd of observers, as if to appeal to them for help.
She whimpered just one word, barely audible, “Mama!”
Her lawyer joined her, put an arm around her shoulders and whispered reassuringly into her ear.
Feeling a little ill, Amanda also looked into the gallery. It would be good to get an encouraging smile or a thumbs-up from her new friend Vira, but all she saw was the back of the woman’s red head as she hurriedly exited the courtroom.
Well, at least it’s over, Amanda had thought, and took her seat, tucking her purse under her arm, ready to hear the judge’s final words of dismissal. She glanced at her watch. If they hurry, I’ll have time to buy groceries before I go home. She began to make a mental shopping list.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, thank you for doing your duty and rendering a unanimous verdict. We will now begin the sentencing phase of this trial…”
That was when the members of the jury learned that they were not only required to reach a verdict, but to determine the defendant’s punishment, as well.
Amanda frowned at the memory as she began replacing DVDs in their proper shelves.
The other jury members had been no less exasperated than she was, having to sit for another hour, listening to both sides present reasons why they should, or should not, be lenient to Harriet Frames, then to go back into that hot and unpleasant room once more.
It had taken them longer to decide Harriet’s punishment than to decide her guilt.
“She’s a first offender,” Clarissa Rockwell had pointed out. “You heard the defense: she had a terrible, abused childhood, tossed around by the welfare system. I don’t see why we can’t give her probation or something.”
“We have to give her some kind of sentence,” Joe Blaine said.
“Then I vote for the minimum.” Clarissa rose and headed to the water fountain.
Defense counsel Rebecca Gilchrist had suggested a sentence of one year.
“No can do. Look what she did to poor Mrs. Freeman,” Walter McCoy said, pointing with a pencil to the stack of medical evidence. “I say let’s give her the whole fifteen years.”
Sarah Gahagen said, “I agree. I think anybody who starts a fire during a drought like this should go to jail, no questions asked. Did you see what happened to Kokomo last year? It’s gone, all gone. Tragic.”
There were several shudders around the table as some remembered the horrendous fire. Three people had died.
Clarissa finished drinking, straightened up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “What’s tragic is a group of grown people being so vindictive. This will ruin Harriet Frames’ life.”
“What do you mean, vindictive?” Joe Blaine took up the word Clarissa had thrown down. “We’re a jury, for goodness’ sake; we’re supposed to determine punishment!”
Walter McCoy piped up, “And what about that poor old lady in the hospital? What about her life?” He tapped the table heavily with an index finger.
“I can’t have a rational discussion with you people,” Clarissa Rockwell said.
It had gone on like that for almost two hours in that uncomfortable, humid room, back and forth between the two camps with Amanda as referee until there was a forceful knock at the door.
It was the bailiff. He stepped into the room, squared his shoulders and announced in his official monotone voice: “This message is delivered with the permission of defense counsel.” He relaxed a bit and turned a wry expression towards the people in the room. “Judge says he’ll give you guys until eight o’clock to come to a unanimous decision, or he’s gonna call a mistrial.” He turned crisply on his heel and left, shutting the door sharply behind him.
The room suddenly exploded in exhausted outrage.
“Can they do that?”
“After all we’ve been through today?”
“What does that mean, ‘mistrial?’” Binnie Mayfield asked, mopping her forehead with a handkerchief.
Joe Blaine snorted. “It means that this whole thing was a waste of time. They’d have to have a new trial with a brand-new jury.”
Clarissa Rockwell folded her arms and tightened her lips into a thin line.
Everyone else’s eyes turned towards Amanda as if to say, “Well, Ms. Foreman, what do we do now?”
Oh, Lord, Amanda prayed, I could really use the wisdom of Solomon right now.
All at once, an idea began to form in her mind: Solomon. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “All right, let’s see now, you five vote for a one-year sentence, and the six of you are determined to give her the maximum, right?”
There were nods all up and down the table.
“But if we don’t come to a final decision, all our work will have been for nothing and Harriet Frames’ll have to be tried all over again, right?”
Everyone nodded again.
Amanda drew a doodle on a legal pad and said, “How about this: split the difference, a compromise, seven and a half years.” Solomon, she remembered, had suggested much the same thing.
Walter McCoy slapped the tabletop. “That’s not right!”
“I couldn’t vote for that!”
Amanda leaned forward. “Look, we’re all tired and uncomfortable and hot. We all want to go home, but we want to do what’s right, too. We can accomplish that if we just work together. What do you say?”
There was no reply, only frowns.
She glanced over at the crossword puzzle book that sat under her small purse. Back in the courtroom gallery, she had been stuck on an eight-letter word for recalcitrant. Now suddenly it came to her: stubborn.
Amanda shrugged. Her shoulders hurt and her head was beginning to ache. “All right, then. Mr. McCoy, would you go to the door and tell the bailiff that we’re deadlocked, and there’ll have to be a mistrial?”
Once again, the reaction of the jurors reminded Amanda of her second-graders. She suppressed a smile.
Joe Blaine stood up. “Now hold on a minute!”
Walter McCoy began, “On second thought—”
“I guess I could vote for that. I mean, another jury might give her more time, right?” Binnie Mayfield said to Clarissa Rockwell, who rolled her eyes, but nodded.
Quickly, casting anxious glances at the big school clock, they took a vote.
It was unanimous. They filed into the courtroom and Amanda announced the decision. The case was truly over now. The jury could go home now. And pale, sad-faced Harriet Frames was taken away by the woman bailiff to prison.
“Mandy Rojas! I haven’t seen you in a million years!” The voice of an old schoolmate pulled Amanda’s thoughts out of the courtroom and back to the store.
“Hello, Jane.” Amanda hugged her friend. “I think the last time I saw you was at your wedding—how long ago was that?—four years?” Jane had married Joe Kerner, her high school sweetheart the summer after graduation.
Who is this?” Amanda stooped to greet a small boy, clinging to his mother’s hand.
“This is Travis,” Jane said proudly, picking up her son. “We’re here to rent the sorcerer movie, aren’t we, honey?”
The little boy nodded.
Amanda frowned and bit her lower lip thoughtfully.
She led Jane and Travis over to the children’s section and picked up a copy of the sorcerer movie. “Jane,” she murmured, “do you know what that movie is rated?” She pointed to a tiny PG-13 hidden among the fine print on the back cover. “How old is Travis, three? I’ve had the parents of several of my second-graders, bigger kids, seven-year-olds, say this movie gave their children terrible nightmares.”
“Oh, gosh, Mandy, thanks for telling me!”
Travis was sitting on the floor, pushing a small toy truck around. His mother reached down, picked up her son and held him close. “I’ve been so busy taking care of him, and helping out at the Chick ‘n Fish, I haven’t had time to check it out.” She whispered, “But he’s going to be so disappointed. What else could I get?”
Amanda led her friend to another shelf where cartoon vegetables danced on the covers. “These are hilarious. And they teach good lessons. Even adults love ‘em. Besides, they’re cheaper to rent than the sorcerer movie.”
Amanda had walked her friend and her little boy to the front door and was returning to the counter when she heard a familiar voice.
“You know, don’t you, that you just lost the store two bucks?”
She whirled around and looked up into the blue eyes of Malcolm’s son, her former fiancé, Jason Best.
Or, as she now liked to think of him, Jason Worst.
Amanda had spent a lot of time planning how she would behave at this moment.
Though Jason worked in an insurance agency in Lubbock, a good four hours away, it was certainly probable that he would be dropping in at his father’s store at some time. After all, Connellee had been Jason’s home town a lot longer than it had been hers.
She would be cool, she had decided. She’d glance his way, say “Oh, hello,” ever so casually, then turn her back and involve herself deeply in whatever task was before her.
As she did this, she’d make sure her hands were rock-steady and her lower lip would be kept from trembling through sheer force of will.
Jason Anthony Worst would never have the satisfaction of knowing how many nights she’d sobbed herself to sleep over him. All he would see was Amanda at her most composed, looking as pretty as she was able, civil, capable and unattainable. He’d once called her “The Ice Maiden,” and that’s exactly what she’d be, at least where he was concerned.
It was a pretty good plan, she thought, and would have been quite effective had Amanda seen Jason coming. What she hadn’t counted on was being ambushed in the Comedy aisle.
Startled, she did a little reflexive step-side-together dance that backed her into a shelf of DVDs. It didn’t help that Amanda had chosen this day to wear some stylish but tricky-to-walk-in wedge-soled shoes. The impact of her body caused an odd assortment of titles to leap from their places and clatter to the floor. Thus thrown off balance, Amanda staggered backwards even further, stumbled and landed with painful impact on her bottom.
All at once, there was a small crowd of people standing over her.
“Doggone it, girl! What’re you trying to do, wreck the place?” The genial face of Brady Charleston grinned down at her. He extended a big hand. “Hey, like those shoes,” he said with a twinkle. Amanda was pulled quickly to her feet in one sweeping motion
Brady had always been strong. In fact, he’d been senior captain of the wrestling team at Connellee High School and now he was an assistant coach there.
Amanda and Brady had gone out a few times last fall at the encouragement of their fellow teachers, but soon realized that a more meaningful relationship was impossible. Amanda neither knew nor cared much about sports, while Brady was utterly absorbed by them. Still, they remained good friends.
“You looked like you were trying to catch a fly ball there,” Brady joked. “You’re not sick or anything, are you?”
“No, I’m okay. I was just startled by—” She turned around, expecting to see Jason, but instead, there was pert, diminutive Vira Quinn.
The woman’s face was pinched in concern. “Wow! Your fanny’s gonna feel that for the next few days!”
Brady and the rest of the observers chuckled.
The personal remark irritated Amanda, especially since it was spoken in front of Brady and—where was Jason? She swept her gaze over the top of the DVD stacks and spotted his blond head retreating into the back room where Malcolm was taking a break.
Wasn’t that just Jason all over? she thought wryly. Create chaos, then high-tail it out of there!
She brushed off her skirt and straightened her blouse. Back to business, Amanda. “Thanks for all the concern, everybody. I’ll be fine. May I help any of you folks find something?”
“No thanks, I was just here to return stuff. Here you go,” Brady said, handing her the fallen movies. “See ya. Don’t forget to watch your step!” He ambled off.
The rest of the group seemed to melt away.
All except Vira Quinn, who was still staring at her with an odd look on her face.
What? thought Amanda, Am I unbuttoned somewhere? She ran a surreptitious hand over the front of her blouse. No, that’s not it. Uneasily, she pushed a strand of hair behind one ear and smiled questioningly at the woman.
As she did, Vira seemed to awaken from her reverie. She blinked, smiled warmly and said, “Sweetie, I need to order something from the catalogue.”
Amanda was relieved to return to normal business. “Sure!” She led Vira to the counter where customers could browse the Nichol’s catalogues. “Just what is it you need?” she asked as Vira settled herself on a tall stool and began leafing through the colorful pages of the fat book.
“I could use me a suitcase, a big one,” Vira said confidentially. “Not too pricey, though.” She licked her thumb and turned some more pages.
“I think there might be a sale…” Amanda said, turning to a display of Nichol’s brochures.
Vira stopped browsing and looked up. “So what did you think of that there trial?”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Don’t ask!”
“Aw, come on, didn’t you enjoy puttin’ the bad lady in prison?” The little woman’s brown eyes danced.
“You know, Vira, I really didn’t. I hated it. It was a tragedy for everybody all around, the victim, the defendant, everybody.”
“Well, if you didn’t, the others sure did!” Vira said with a wide grin. “You could tell it by just lookin’ at ‘em. They got a kick out of it.”
Amanda’s thoughts traveled back to the grave faces of the other jurors as they took a final vote. “To tell the truth, Vira, I don’t think anybody was happy about the job they had to do.”
Vira patted the back of her well-frizzed red hair. “Speaking of her—that old woman, I mean—did y’hear she’s out of the hospital?” She returned to the catalogue and tapped her forefinger on a page. “Now there’s the suitcase I want, got wheels and everything.”
“’Old woman?’ You mean Matilda Freeman?”
Vira didn’t look up. “That’s her name. She’s over at that Lone Cedar Place, that nursing home near the school.” She reached for her purse and pointed again at the picture in the catalogue. “You say this one is on sale?”
“I think so.” Amanda examined the Nichol’s brochure. “I don’t see an expiration date here. We can probably get you twenty percent off, but I need to ask my boss.” Carrying the brochure in question, she headed towards the back room. As she walked, her thoughts turned to the unfortunate Matilda Freeman, old, and sick and bereft of all her treasured possessions, now in a strange place. It seemed so unfair.
Amanda was well acquainted with Lone Cedar Place and its staff. The assisted living facility often invited the elementary school children to come and sing. It was a cheerful place, considering, and the care was said to be excellent, but there was something a little sad about it and its delicate, elderly residents. Still, if Matilda had been transferred there from the hospital, she must be doing better. Amanda wondered if a visit would be appropriate--
“But what can I do, Dad?” Jason voice was plaintive.
Amanda made a dead stop just outside the break room. She definitely did not want to involve herself in the woes of the Best family.
“You can be patient, son,” Malcolm said. “You can pray.”
Pray? Amanda scowled. How likely was that with a guy like Jason? Poor Malcolm must not realize how much his son had changed in the past few years, and not for the better.
“Look,” Malcolm was saying, “Not to change the subject, but I was thinking: there’s a business proposition that might interest you…”
I’m eavesdropping, Amanda realized. This is none of my business. Loudly, she called, “Malcolm? A customer has a question.” She stepped into the room.
The two men were sitting at the tiny break room table, Styrofoam cups of coffee before them. Movie posters covered the walls in lieu of wallpaper. Malcolm smiled warmly as Amanda entered. Jason’s face remained immobile.
Golly, she thought, he looks good. The fact had only fleetingly registered in her mind when he’d first appeared, but it was glaringly apparent now.
The blue chambray shirt he wore was exactly the same color as his eyes. The uneven dark eyebrows—one higher than the other—and the unruly blond cowlick just over his left ear were both still there. He still held his coffee the same way, holding the little cup around the bottom with thumb and forefinger. She could detect a hint of his favorite cologne in the air. All these details, and a hundred more, it seemed, flashed through her mind in the space of three seconds.
But so what? Jason Best, familiar or not, was no longer any concern of hers. She jerked her attention back to Malcolm and cleared her throat. “Is this sale still in effect?” She handed him the circular.
“Let me see.” He began to read it.
Unavoidably, Amanda’s eye caught Jason’s. He was sitting directly under the poster for An Affair to Remember and Amanda could appreciate the irony. “Hello,” she said coolly, just as she’d planned. “How are you?” Agh! Why had she asked him that? She wasn’t supposed to give a hoot how he was!
Jason smiled. “Pretty good. And obviously, so are you, even after that mishap out there.”
A mishap you happened to cause, Amanda thought. With frost in her voice, she said, “Yes, everybody pitched in to help me.” Except you, she thought.
“So I noticed.”
“Mishap?” Malcolm looked up from the brochure. “What happened? Are you all right, Amanda?”
She smiled at him. What a dear the man was! Too bad he didn’t pass any of his kindly traits on to his son. “It was nothing. But about this catalogue sale—“
Malcolm resolved the issue by moving out to the front desk and consulting his balky computer. “Give her the discount,” he ordered Amanda cheerfully. “It’s still good.”
Jason had been looking over his father’s shoulder at the monitor. “Which is more than can be said for this old machine, Dad,” he commented. “You’ve had it as long as I can remember. It’s ‘way outdated, y’know. And look at that logbook: it’s like something out of Dickens; Bob Cratchit and stuff like that.”
Malcolm stood. “That reminds me about something. Come on back.” He crooked a finger and the two men returned to the back of the store.
“Whew, that’s one good-lookin’ boy,” Vira said as she pulled out her checkbook. “You ought to set your cap for him, missy.”
Amanda pulled an order form from a drawer. “Yeah, well…”
Sunday, the telephone rang just as she was returning from church.
“Daddy!” Just hearing her father’s voice gave Amanda’s spirits a lift. “How are you and Mama? How’s San Antonio?”
“San Antone’s hot and humid and we’re as good as can be expected, livin’ so far from our favorite daughter!”
“Daddy, I’m your only daughter!” It was an exchange they’d enjoyed many times.
“Quit while you’re ahead, I always say.” He threw out the familiar punch line quickly and got to the point. “Look, Sugar, are you doin’ all right up there?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, your mama was talkin’ on the phone to Mrs. Miles Gahagen, Senior? And she said her daughter-in-law had seen you and said that you were still feelin’ bad about the breakup with that guy. So Mama got worried, and that’s why we’re callin’. Of course, I told her it was just a whole lot of nothin’, but you know your Mama!”
“Michael Rojas! You give me that phone!” Amanda could visualize her mother shouldering her father aside good-naturedly. They would be in the sunny kitchen, Amanda knew, and there would be a vase of flowers somewhere nearby. Wherever Mama was, there were flowers. “Amanda, sweetheart, that wasn’t it at all. Your daddy just loves to tease. Everybody knows Mrs. Gahagen, Junior, is a terrible gossip. It was what we saw on the news. We heard they’re having grass fires all over the place out there!”
Amanda replaced her Bible in the bookcase. “Please don’t worry, Mama. We have a good volunteer fire department around here—my boss, Malcolm is in it—and they keep a really good eye out.”
“Yes, but you’ve had that drought and all.”
Amanda sighed, plopped in her well-worn papa-san chair and kicked off her high heels. “Folks here are used to things like that, don’t you remember?”
“I suppose so. But do me a favor, y’hear? Pack up your car all ready to go if something should happen—”
“Mama! Come on!”
“I’m serious, sweetheart. Fires like that are nothing to sneeze at. Michael, here, you talk to her—”
“Your mama’s right, honey. It’s not such a bad idea.”
“I’ll consider it, Daddy.”
“And that other thing? You all right about that, too?” he asked quietly.
“You mean my so-called broken heart? It was just bruised, Daddy, and it’s all healed up now. How’s Mama doing about Grandma?” Amanda’s beloved maternal grandmother had died that spring. The loss had hit her mother hard.
“We miss her, but we’ll be okay, too. It’s good to know we’ll see her again.”
Tears came into Amanda’s eyes. “That’s true. We will, won’t we?”
“Well, we better run along. Your mama’s fixin’ a covered dish casserole for the church supper tonight and I gotta taste it to make sure it’s not poison.”
Amanda heard a muffled, playful protest. “Michael!”
“We’ll be prayin’ for you, Sugar.”
Amanda whispered into the phone, “Back at ya, Daddy.”
Right after lunch, still wearing her best Sunday dress from church, Amanda went to see Matilda Freeman.
Lone Cedar Place was located directly across the street from Connellee Elementary School. As she pulled her car into the parking lot, she was struck once again by how much it looked like a small one-story motel, with its covered entranceway and curving drive. The illusion continued in the spacious lobby with its central reception desk. At Christmas, she had brought her second-graders here to sing for the residents.
The children had been surprisingly well-behaved and their little concert of carols were well-received by the audience, consisting of about two dozen residents, mostly in wheelchairs and wreathed in smiles.
She approached the receptionist hesitantly, carrying a small green plant as a gift for Matilda. It was Amanda’s favorite kind of plant, a philodendron, cheerful, leafy, and best of all, easy to maintain.
“Excuse me. I’ve come to see Mrs. Freeman, Mrs. Matilda Freeman?”
The woman looked up from her computer and smiled. She was wearing a nurse’s uniform. “Are you family? Granddaughter, perhaps?”
Amanda shrugged. “No. Just a kind of…friend. I heard she was here and thought I’d see how she’s doing.”
She gave Amanda a clipboard. “Fill this out, please.” Amanda gave her name and address and noted the time and the person she had come to see. When she handed it back, the nurse said, “Come with me.”
There were pretty landscape paintings every twenty feet or so in the hallway. A woman in a Sunday dress, wearing bedroom slippers and using a rolling walker passed them with a cheery greeting. At the end of the hall was a pleasant common room with easy chairs and stacks of current magazines on a large coffee table. A handsome, white-haired man in a three-piece suit sat squinting at a folded copy of The Wall Street Journal. He nodded at Amanda and the nurse as they passed.
“Here’s her room. Mrs. Freeman?” the nurse said as she opened the door. “You have a visitor.” She ushered Amanda in and backed out.
Matilda Freeman sat in an easy chair near a large window and looked up at Amanda with curiosity. There was an oxygen tank on a rolling stand next to her and a thin blue tube led from the tank to a band fastened to the woman’s face.
She was rather larger than Amanda had expected, with attractive, even features and thin white hair pulled into a loose bun. Her skin was a pale grayish color under the usual old-lady age spots. Above the white hospital-issue blanket that covered her lap, she wore a blue and green plaid housedress, topped by an orange sweater.
I recognize those things, Amanda thought with a pang of sympathy, I saw them back when I volunteered at the Baptist Clothing Cupboard. She really did lose everything in that fire.
The room that had become Matilda Freeman’s new home was pleasant enough, though again, Amanda was reminded of a motel. There was a generic-looking floral picture on the wall and the furniture was functional rather than graceful. There was a small hotel-style kitchenette, with a tiny, under-the-counter box refrigerator and microwave. The drapes had an abstract print in shades of gold and wine and the carpeting was a kind of institutional gray-beige, a shade Amanda’s mother always jokingly called “young dirt.”
A large bed occupied one corner. The colorful bedspread which matched the drapes couldn’t disguise all the machinery and wires underneath, characteristic of a hospital bed.
Matilda Freeman tilted her head and made a small gesture with her hand, giving Amanda permission to sit in a nearby chair.
“Still…hurts…talk,” she croaked in an almost inaudible voice. She picked up a steno pad from her lap and took up a pencil from a nearby table. She wrote on it in shaky letters and held it up to be read:
Who are you? Do I know you?
Amanda shook her head and smiled. “No. I just heard about what happened to you and…” She trailed off. What was her real reason for coming? Was it simple kindness or perhaps something a bit more self-serving, such as curiosity. She was at a loss for an explanation to give Matilda. “I brought you this.” She held out the plant.
Matilda smiled. She wrote on the pad.
Lovely. Thank you.
Amanda set the plant on the windowsill. “My mother says they’re the easiest plant to take care of, because you only have to keep them watered. They convert the carbon dioxide in the room into oxygen, did you know that? That’s why they’re good for you, aside from being pretty…” She stopped, realizing that she was babbling.
Matilda watched her with intelligent curiosity in her eyes. There was no sound in the
room except for her labored breathing and the faint hiss of the oxygen.
Amanda sighed. “Mrs. Freeman, I’ve got to tell you the truth. I was on the jury that convicted Harriet Frames.”
Matilda’s eyes widened and her eyebrows lifted. Was she frightened? Tears began to form in her faded gray eyes. One rolled down her cheek and landed, unnoticed, on the steno pad.
Amanda stood. “Oh, dear, I’ve upset you. I’m so sorry.” Dear Lord, forgive me for doing this without consulting You first. I’m always doing that! “Mrs. Freeman, I’ll go.”
“No!” The word was scraped from the depths of a seared throat, but it was nonetheless a command. Coughing, Matilda gestured Amanda back into her seat and began writing feverishly.
I’m glad you came.
I want to know about the trial.
Nobody told me.
I had to read the Ledger.
The two women smiled and rolled their eyes at one another in shared exasperation. It was common knowledge that the local newspaper was excellent at announcing local community events and high school sports scores, but was woefully inadequate with hard news, concentrating more on gossipy tidbits than facts.
Matilda bent her head over the pad again.
So Amanda told her about the trial in detail. Every so often, Matilda would scribble a question on her pad, which Amanda would try to answer clearly and honestly.
When she at last consulted her watch, it was an hour and fifteen minutes later. “And the sentence was seven and a half years,” she said, concluding the narrative.
A tear ran down the old lady’s cheek. Solemnly, Matilda lowered her gaze to the floor, coughed into a tissue, then wrote:
She actually seems sorry for Harriet, Amanda thought.
Thank you for telling me.
Helps to know.
Another tear rolled down the wrinkled cheek.
“Are you all right?”
Matilda Freeman looked at her with a sweet smile and nodded. Slowly, she turned towards the nearby table and pulled a worn, leather-bound book from underneath a folded newspaper.
“Here, let me help you. Oh, it’s a Bible.” The book was bristling with pieces of paper. Its sides were water-stained and it smelled faintly of smoke.
Amanda’s throat tightened a little. Obviously, this was one of the few possessions Matilda had been able to save.
Still smiling, Matilda placed the Bible in Amanda’s lap, methodically opened it at one of the marked places and pointed at a passage shakily circled in pencil and indicated that she wished her to read it aloud.
The passage was in Genesis:
Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil…
Eagerly, Matilda leaned forward and flipped the Bible to another marked place, this time in Psalm 25:
Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins.
As she read aloud the circled passages, Amanda thought, they’re all about forgiveness. She’s searched the Bible for them. This must have taken her a long time.
The last one was Matthew 6:14:
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you…
“Mrs. Freeman, are you trying to say something here?”
Tears were now unrestrainedly streaming down Matilda’s face, but there was a joyous smile, also. She nodded vigorously, loosening the oxygen going to her nose. She used a shaking hand to adjust it, then reached for a nearby tissue to wipe off her face.
“You’re saying you’ve forgiven Harriet Frames?”
Another, gentler nod. Again, the woman reached for pencil and pad.
“Tell Harriet this? Well…I—I mean, I’ll try. I guess I could do that…somehow. This is very gracious of you.”
The vehemence with which Matilda shook her head once more threatened to unloose the oxygen tube from her nose. Her breaths came faster and were more labored. Fresh tears flew from her eyes. Vigorously, she wrote:
I have much to be forgiven, too.
She underlined the last word three times and handed the pad to Amanda.
What is she talking about; does she need forgiveness for not paying Harriet enough for her yard work? Does she blame herself for the fire? Amanda wondered.
Just then, the door opened. “Time for your medicine, dear.” A heavy-set, middle-aged woman in a blue uniform and wearing a large bandage on her left forearm came strolling into the room with the rolling gait of a sailor. She stopped when she saw the expression on Matilda’s face. “Uh, oh. What’s wrong?”
She turned her gaze accusingly to Amanda. “I think you better leave, ma’am. We don’t want her to get upset. It’s not good for her.”
“She’s not—” Amanda began, but stopped as she looked again at Matilda. The old woman had sagged back into her chair, exhausted by the effort of their exchange. “I mean, perhaps you’re right.” She placed the Bible on the table and leaned forward to take Matilda’s freckled, trembling hand in hers. “I understand, Mrs. Freeman. I’ll come back to see you again soon. And I’ll deliver your message.” She added in her mind, though I have no idea how.
Matilda’s expression relaxed. Thank you, her expression said. She coughed painfully.
You’re welcome, Amanda smiled back, and held up the small gold cross she wore on a chain around her neck.
The two women exchanged nods.
The attendant—her name badge read “Barbara”—escorted her to the door. “Sorry, but we can’t have our folks upset, y’know,” she whispered. She held up her bandaged arm. “Look what happened to me. One of these old guys bit me! I had to have shots ‘n everything!”
As the door closed behind Amanda, she heard Barbara say, “We’re going to have to get your pain prescription refilled, dear. You’ve almost run out…”
Amanda turned and tried to get her bearings. Had she come from the hall at the left, or the one at the right? Across the common room, the well-dressed man stood, tucked the rumpled copy of The Wall Street Journal under his arm and walked up to her.
“The exit is that way.” He pointed, then nodded towards Matilda’s door. “You visiting her?”
“Yes,” said Amanda.
He turned to walk down the other hall. Over his shoulder, he said casually, “Did she tell you about the dead boy?” Without another word, he turned into a room and shut the door.
All during the following Monday, Malcolm seemed preoccupied. When she arrived for work, Amanda found his huge wad of keys hanging from the lock of the front door. With his customary graciousness, he thanked her for returning them, then continued to rummage through the filing cabinets in the tiny back office. “I’ll need this,” he murmured, pulling out a file, “and this one, too.” He had forgotten Amanda was there. She left quietly and began the store-opening chores.
It was a relatively uneventful day until the Nichol’s delivery man arrived with catalogue orders. The big truck had pulled around to the back of the building, the driver had opened the trailer door and pulled down the metal ramp. He handed a clipboard to Amanda. “Got lots of little stuff this time,” he told her and began carrying in armloads of gray bags imprinted with the familiar Nichol’s logo. “You’re new, aren’t ya?”
“You’re gonna need to have your boss sign that,” he said, nodding at the clipboard.
Hastily, Amanda summoned Malcolm, who seemed mildly annoyed at the interruption. He was his usual cheerfully polite self, however, once he reached the back door. “Howdy there, Duke,” he said and began the task of comparing the list on the clipboard with the new items stacked in the storeroom.
Amanda hurried to the front to man the store. A woman was standing at the counter, holding a receipt. “I wondered if the towels I ordered got here yet.”
“I think they just did.” Amanda said. “Just a second.” She walked to the back storeroom where Malcolm was watching the delivery man leave. Right before he roared away, Duke leaned out of the window of his cab and called, “We’re gonna miss you around here!”
“Miss you?” Amanda said. “Are you going somewhere, Malcolm?”
Malcolm was lowering the garage-style door of the storeroom. “Hm? What? Oh, you mean Duke? It’s nothing.” He patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”
It was odd, to say the least, but Amanda couldn’t think about that at the moment. She was too unnerved by the words that kept haunting her memory:
Did she tell you about the dead boy?
As she searched among the sealed bags to find the one containing the woman’s towels, the words continued to echo:
Dead boy? Which boy? Whose boy?
I have to find out, Amanda thought. But considering her condition, it would be cruel to ask Matilda Freeman. I’ll just have to find another way.
“Well, hello there, Madame Foreman,” said Clarissa Rockwell as Amanda walked into the tiny Connellee Community Library on Monday evening. “We meet again.” She was dressed in a long broomstick skirt with a peasant blouse and a pin that read “Volunteer.” Her gray hair was tightly pulled back into a huge bun.
Amanda looked at her in surprise. “Yes, we do.”
“We were on that jury together last week,” Clarissa told the other volunteer behind the counter. “The one I was telling you about,” she added with significance.
The woman’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, yeah. That. Excuse me, please.” She nodded and rolled a laden library cart into the stacks.
“Can I help you find a particular book?” Clarissa asked.
“Not exactly. I want to do some research. About Matilda Freeman. About her family.”
Clarissa lifted an eyebrow. “Her? Why?”
“The trial left me with a few questions, that’s all.”
Clarissa frowned. “Me, too. I can’t say I’m happy with the result.”
“We did the best we could.”
“I wonder. Some of those disgusting yahoos…” she muttered, then lifted her head, “but you didn’t come here for my opinion. You want to find out about the Freemans, you say?”
“Yes. Do you think there’d be anything in the Community Room?”
Clarissa pulled a key from a drawer. “Let’s find out.”
The Community Room was located at the back of the small converted supermarket that served as the local library. A few months ago, Amanda had brought her second-grade class here to learn about Connellee’s history.
As a field trip, it had left something to be desired, at least in the minds of her students. Where, they had asked her, were the free samples like they’d been given at the doughnut shop? All there was in this long dark room were lots of brownish pictures of long-ago dead people and big books with names and dates in them. They had liked the little model of an oil rig made out of matchsticks and the big ceramic horned toad that occupied the top of a bookcase, but after five minutes, they were ready to leave.
Amanda, on the other hand, had been intrigued. The names in the big, leather-bound record books were the same as the ones in Connellee’s cemetery and were further commemorated in the street names of the little town. The faces that stared out of the sepia photographs spoke to her of the courage it must have taken to leave home and come out to this live in this wild, barren country.
As Clarissa unlocked the door to the Community Room and snapped on the lights,
Amanda asked, “I wanted to know if she had children. Where would I start?”
“Well, your best bet is the birth and marriage records over at the Courthouse, but since you’re here, let’s take a look at the census information. How old would you say she was?”
“I don’t know for sure. Late seventies, early eighties, maybe?”
The woman nodded. “I agree. About that. What’s her maiden name?”
Amanda sighed. “I don’t know that either. I’m not very good at this, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, perhaps, but I am.” Clarissa stuck her pencil in her hair at the base of the bun and said, “Look, here’s what you can do…”
Later that evening, back in her apartment, Amanda stuck a frozen dinner in the microwave and waited impatiently for it to heat up. She was hungry, but she was also eager to get back to her laptop and the information she’d found.
By searching the Internet archives of the nearby Abilene newspaper, and reading the articles on the arson fire, she’d learned that Matilda’s maiden name was Dibdell and that she was widowed. She’d lived in the house—the one Harriet had burned—for forty-six years. There was no mention of children. It wasn’t a lot of information, but it was a start. Clarissa had told her to begin her research this way, and it was good advice.
The microwave buzzed and the telephone rang at the same time. Perhaps it was Clarissa. She could tell her what she’d found.
“Amanda?” the familiar voice began, “It’s Jason.”
Amanda felt as though a bucket of cold water had been dumped on her head. “I still recognize your voice,” she said hoarsely. She pulled a chair from the kitchen table and sat down, trembling. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to talk to you. I’ll be coming into town Tuesday, maybe we—”
“Jason, it’s all been said. There’s nothing more to talk about. Goodbye.”
As she carried the telephone to its cradle on the wall, she heard Jason’s voice, sounding tinny and far away, saying, “But there is, Amanda! There’s—”
Amanda stood, leaning against the wall, her hand still on the receiver, for some minutes. “Go away,” she whispered. “Leave me alone.” It was too much, too cruel of him to call her like this. Did he actually think she’d changed her mind?
She looked at the little kitchen, with its bare counters. A little over a year ago, along with some expensive linens, she’d bought a toaster and coffeemaker. She had kept them—still kept them—in a big cardboard box in the bottom of a closet.
Jason hadn’t understood. “Why don’t you just go ahead and use them?”
“They’re for when we marry,” she’d said. “For our home. That box is kind of like…a hope chest,” she’d explained.
“Hope chest!” Jason had put his arm around her and laughed. “How quaint! That’s what I love about you, Amanda: you’re my sweet old-fashioned girl.”
There had come a time, however, when Jason hadn’t found being “old-fashioned” so appealing.
The fragrance of hot meat loaf was filling the kitchen. Amanda went over to the microwave, pulled out her dinner and carried it to the place she’d set on the tiny table.
“Please bless this food to my use and thus to Thy service…” As she recited the familiar blessing, both her appetite and a kind of nourishing courage returned to her, crowding out the heartbroken despair she always seemed to feel when thinking of Jason.
You did the right thing, Amanda.
The next morning, Malcolm was even more distracted. “I’ll be making a bunch of calls today,” he told her. “I’m afraid you’ll have to do both the catalogue orders and the DVD rentals.”
“Not a problem.” Amanda enjoyed both sides of this job. Malcolm’s store did a real service for the community. To shop or find entertainment, Connellee residents usually had to travel over fifty miles. At Best’s Cinema Rental and Catalogue Center, it was possible to do both right here in town. The Nichol’s catalogue carried almost as much merchandise as their big mall store in Abilene.
Even, Amanda learned to her surprise, professional quality tools.
Her former fellow juror Joe Blaine ordered over two hundred dollars’ worth. “The Nichol’s prices are better than at the hardware. Mine got stole right out of the back of my truck,” he told Amanda. “Two days ago. Outa that big tool box I got back there?” he explained. “Durned if somebody didn’t just break the lock and clean me out.”
“That’s terrible,” Amanda agreed as she filled out the order form.
“That’s nothing,” he corrected her. “You hear about Mrs. Mayfield? Y’know, Binnie who was with us on the jury, too? She goes to my church. Somebody killed her dog. Right in her own backyard. Put meat out with poison in it.”
“Makes me count my blessings. Tools you can buy more of, but a person’s dog is like a member of the family. She loved that little dog. It was one of those furry little things, y’know? Some people are just rotten,” he said grimly as he headed towards the door. “So it goes to show you, I got a lot to be thankful for. Me, I got a couple German shepherds. They’re trained not to take anything from anybody but me. Well, have a good ‘un.”
Clarissa Rockwell phoned around noon. While surreptitiously nibbling her delivery pizza lunch behind the counter, Amanda filled her in about what she’d learned online.
“You got the maiden name. Good. I checked out the birth and marriage records, found
Darryl Land Freeman—that’s her husband, I think—born eighty-nine years ago. I looked for birth records for a child he might have had, the right age and all, but nothing turned up.”
Amanda sighed. “Well, I guess that’s about it.”
Clarissa laughed. “Are you kidding? We’re just getting started. Come over to the library tonight. We’ll get down to some real digging!”
“I have a question, Amanda,” Clarissa said.
They were sitting at a desk in the Community Room, poring over old copies of The Connellee Ledger.
“Why are you doing this, really? The case is over and done with. There’s nothing more you can do for Matilda Freeman.”
Uncomfortably, Amanda cleared her throat. “Actually, there is.” She wondered how much she should tell Clarissa. Her encounter with Matilda had been so intense, had seemed so personal, she wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t be betraying a confidence in sharing the details with someone else. Maybe just some of the details would be all right, she decided. “I—uh, I went to see her the other day. She’s living over at Lone Cedar Place. I talked with her, Clarissa. She’s forgiven Harriet. She wanted me to let her know.”
“Forgiven her? For burning down her house and nearly killing her?” Clarissa’s eyes widened. Her dark eyebrows lowered. “That’s ridiculous. I suppose she’s not in her right mind.”
“I thought you wanted to give Harriet Frames the lightest sentence.”
Clarissa waved away Amanda’s comment. “That’s different. It was the principle of the thing. I have issues with the concept of incarceration.”
“Well, Mrs. Freeman seemed pretty clearheaded to me. I think she just wants to make things right with God.”
Clarissa’s eyes narrowed. “Which god?”
Oh dear, Amanda thought. “The God of the Bible. Jehovah.”
“I have issues with that concept, too.”
“He’s not a concept,” Amanda said. “He’s real.” He’s here right now, listening.
“So you say. That’s your truth, Amanda. You have yours, I have mine. And it doesn’t include that…antiquated mumbo-jumbo.” She waved her hand again.
What on earth brought this on? Amanda thought. Dearest Lord, help me know what to say. “You sound pretty angry,” she said sympathetically.
“You bet I am,” Clarissa growled, then seemed to realize where she was. She blinked a few times and took a deep breath. She shrugged. “Oh, I just get all wound up sometimes,” she admitted. “Let’s just agree to disagree, okay? Look, would you hand me that book over there; the one that says ‘1959-1960?’ Thanks.”
They went back to work, leafing through bound back issues of The Connellee Ledger. After about an hour, Clarissa suddenly called out, “Bingo! Look at this!”
“What is it?” Amanda turned to look over Clarissa’s shoulder.
The headline read:
Drowning Tragedy Takes Life of Foster Child.
Excitedly, Amanda read aloud, “‘Bernard Smith, age 6, was drowned Tuesday in a freak fishing accident on Lake Moore. The child, along with his older sister, was in the foster care of Fred and Matilda Freeman of Connellee.’ That’s them!”
Clarissa interrupted her in a surprised voice, “I remember when this happened. We were living in Dallas, but my mother told me about it. My husb—well, we never had any children, and this thing really broke our hearts.”
Amanda finished reading the article. “It sounds like it was a pure accident. The little boy just stood up in the boat and fell in the water. The motorboat kept moving, and by the time Fred Freeman got back to him, it was too late. How terrible!” She ran her finger down the article again. “But what happened to the other children? It doesn’t say here.”
“Maybe they follow up the story in a later issue,” Clarissa said. She turned one page, and another until she had examined the whole book.
But there was nothing else in the 1968 back issues of The Connellee Ledger about the tragedy.
“Well, at least I know what he meant by the dead child,” Amanda murmured.
“Who’s ‘he’? What did he say?” Clarissa asked.
“Oh, just a man at Lone Cedar Place. He mentioned it in passing.”
“No wonder you wanted to find out more about Matilda and her family. Wait, was this man reading The Wall Street Journal?”
“That’s right. White hair, very nicely dressed, too. Do you know him?”
Clarissa frowned. “Yeah, I know him, all right,” she said, almost under her breath.
Again, Amanda felt like she was on emotional thin ice with Clarissa. Rather than pursue the subject, she thanked her for her help and began to gather up her things.
“I’m sure I can learn some more if I keep digging a bit more,” Clarissa assured her as she left the library.
“If you really want to, I’d appreciate it.” Amanda pushed the library’s front door open, then turned, took a deep breath and asked, “Would you do me another favor, Clarissa? Would you help me find out which prison Harriet Frames is in and where I can get her mailing address?”
Amanda had no sooner arrived home than there was a knock at her door. A look through the peephole showed a distorted but recognizable image of her neighbor and former roommate, Rosemary Kress, holding up a foil package.
“Just got off work. I brought a couple of Supreme Burritos!” she said upon entering. “I remember how you used to miss ‘em.”
“Rosemary, you’re amazing. How did you know I hadn’t had time to eat yet?”
Her friend removed the burritos from the foil wrapper and placed them on a paper plate. “Just psychic, I guess.” She placed the plate in the microwave and pressed the appropriate buttons.
As the machine buzzed, Rosemary turned and said, “You’ll never guess who came into the restaurant tonight.” She was also a teacher at Connellee Elementary, and had snared a plum summer waitress job at Juanita’s, the local authentic Mexican restaurant made famous in an article in Texas Monthly.
Calmly, Amanda opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of picante sauce. “Let me guess: Jason Worst.”
“BZZT! WRONG!” Rosemary made a jeering sound just as the microwave buzzed. She pulled the burritos out. “Hey, wait a minute. I thought you were over that guy. I thought you never wanted his name mentioned in your presence, and I quote, ‘ever, ever again, for all eternity.’”
Amanda held her hands up defensively. “I slipped, okay? It just seems like he keeps popping up everywhere around here lately.”
“Really?” Rosemary placed the burritos on the table and slid into a chair at Amanda’s tiny kitchen table. She patted the place across from her. “Sit right down here and tell Aunt Rosy all about it.”
“Nope. You want Coke to drink?”
“Sure, okay. Come on, what’s this about ‘the fiend in human form’ being back in town?” Rosemary framed quotes around another private derogatory name Amanda had given Jason.
“Subject is closed.” Amanda sat down. “Come on, I’m hungry. Let’s pray.”
Both girls bowed their heads for the blessing.
“Whom did you see at the restaurant?” Amanda asked as she reached for one of the burritos.
“Whom I saw was Del Branch.” Rosemary grabbed the other one and took a big bite.
Amanda unrolled her burrito and applied picante sauce liberally to the contents. “Who’s that?”
“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you watch TV?” She gestured towards Amanda’s small living room. “Oh, yeah, you don’t have cable.”
“It seemed like a lot of money to pay for something I don’t use much.”
Rosemary sighed. “Oh, Amanda, when are you going to join the Twenty-First Century?”
“Don’t say that, Rosy, please.” Amanda put down her burrito and looked distressed.
She took a large swig of soda.
“Gosh, I’m sorry. That’s what the Fiend said to you, isn’t it?”
Amanda squared her shoulders and reached for her burrito again. “Hey, forget it. I’ve got to toughen up where he’s concerned. And let’s quit calling Jason that. I’ve decided it’s not very mature to horrible-ize the man.” The idea had just occurred to her, and the more she thought about it, the better she liked it.
Rosemary munched thoughtfully and took a sip of her Coke. She nodded. “Okay, whatever you say.”
Amanda got back to the original subject. “So who’s this Branch person?”
Rosemary’s green eyes lit up and her two blonde pony tails bounced with enthusiasm.
“Oh, ‘Manda, it was so exciting! He’s famous! Del Branch was that really cute guy on Wall Street Whiz who was the first to get eliminated this season!”
Amanda, who had heard of the show but never seen it, tilted her head. “And that’s a good thing?”
Rosemary shrugged. “Well, maybe not good, but just being on the show makes you kind of a celebrity. He’s from Abilene, you know. And he’s even better-looking in person than he is on television. He was wearing jeans and ropers, just like anybody. And I waited on him!” She sighed again. “This was even more exciting than when Tommy Lee Jones stopped for takeout!”
Amanda smiled. “So what did he order?”
Rosemary looked off into space and said dreamily, “The San Angelo Plate, eleven ninety five, not including tax and drink. Ate every bite and had bunelos for dessert. He left a five dollar tip.”
“You must have given good service,” Amanda remarked with a grin.
“Are you kidding? I poured him more tea three times and brought him extra tortillas.”
“Did he know you recognized him?”
“I don’t know.” Rosemary looked down at the colorful embroidered Mexican dress that was her waitress uniform. “I just wish we didn’t have to wear these things. Makes me look so fat!”
“I think you look pretty. That aqua color really flatters your complexion.”
“Well, maybe,” Rosemary admitted. “The embroidery is nice. Anyway, it was a neat experience. Makes you realize that these famous people are human. They have to eat and everything.” She laughed merrily. Rosemary’s bell-like laugh was one of the most appealing things about her, Amanda thought. Plus the fact that she was a good and loyal friend. She’d been there for her that terrible night when she and Jason broke up.
Rosemary finished chewing the last of her burrito, licked her fingers and sat back. “I haven’t seen you since you got that jury summons. How’d it go?”
Amanda sighed. “I don’t know. We did our best.”
“You put the bad guy behind bars, didn’t you?”
“Why does everybody keep saying that? It didn’t feel that way.”
“Well, all I can say is, better you than me, girlfriend. Look, I gotta go. I’m helping with Vacation Bible School in the morning. I’m working with the third-graders. We’re making sandals out of corrugated cardboard and twine. Tracing around their feet and stuff.”
Amanda smiled. Some of those children were her former second-graders. “They’ll love that. Say hello to them for me.” She had helped with VBS for many summers now. She would miss it. “I wish my job didn’t keep me busy during the day,” she said wistfully.
She stood on the upstairs landing and watched as her friend made her way down to her own apartment.
“Thanks for the burrito,” she called down the stairs.
“Da nada!’ Night!” she heard Rosemary call and the sound of a door closing.
She leaned against the upstairs railing, looked up at the star-filled sky and thought about her new resolution not to dwell on her anger at Jason.
I’m going to have to forgive the guy eventually and get on with life. But can I really do it? I’m not in a very forgiving mood right now, especially when I keep running into him all the time.
Matilda Freeman’s earnest face floated into her mind. Matilda was determined to forgive Harriet.
Can I get ever to that place, too? I don’t think so. It would certainly take a miracle. I guess I’ll have to ask for one.
Lord, I don’t really feel like forgiving Jason, You know that. But if You want to change my attitude, You have my permission.
I’m willing to be willing.
In a small town like Connellee, Texas, nothing was very far from anything else. Still, it took Amanda a good twenty-five minutes to figure out the location of Matilda Freeman’s house. Or rather, what was left of it. Her problem, she learned, was that the house was down a long, mesquite-choked drive that was hidden from the main road. The mailbox, tilting dangerously, was almost totally covered in the brambly bushes. It was late afternoon and the summer sunlight caused long shadows. Intermittent gusts of wind carried the smell of smoke.
Is it from the prairie fires or from Matilda’s house? Amanda wondered.
Slowly, she drove down the rutted path and parked, facing the front of the house. Dark smoke stains lined the tops of the front windows and the front door dangled sideways from one hinge. As though nothing had happened, a black-painted rocking chair on the front porch rocked slightly when bursts of wind swept across the porch. A planter, still bright with colorful portulaca blossoms, stood next to the front steps.
Momma mother calls these moss roses, Amanda thought. They bloom all summer, whether you water them or not. Matilda had kept a nice-looking house.
Cautiously, she walked into the side yard. “Oh!” she said, “Oh, dear!” One side of the house had been totally burned away. She was looking into the kitchen where the refrigerator had fallen through the charred floor and the sink seemed suspended over the wreckage of the kitchen counter. Blackened wall beams with an alligator-skin surface showed where the walls had stood. One low wall corner seemed unscathed, and Amanda could see a patch of yellow floral wallpaper. Its cheerfulness brought tears to her eyes. The skeleton of a kitchen chair stood bravely on top of a mound of unidentifiable rubble. Most of the roof seemed to have disappeared altogether.
Amanda thought about the testimony she’d heard at the trial. Firefighters had found Matilda on the floor of the living room, overcome by fumes. She had telephoned for help and still held the receiver in her hand.
They got her out just in time, Amanda thought. She moved along the yard, sighing at the totality of the devastation. There’s nothing left, nothing at all. A sooty set of cement steps stood at the back. This is where she set the fire, she remembered.
“Malcolm, what’s going on around here?” Amanda asked during a lull in business the next morning.
He turned his gaze from the computer screen, took off his reading glasses and gave her a mild smile. “Going on?”
Amanda immediately regretted her aggressive tone. “I’m sorry. I mean, you seem, I don’t know, kind of out of it lately. Are you all right?”
“I suppose I have been, haven’t I?” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Look, Amanda, it’s like this. I’ve been running this store for over twenty years. Mary and I—” he paused and gulped. “My wife and I started it together, you know.”
Amanda nodded. She well remembered Malcolm’s wife, Jason’s mother, the bubbly, cheerful woman who had performed the same job she was doing now. Her smile was contagious and something of her personality still lingered at Best’s, three years after her death. Mary had selected the wall colors, had outfitted the restroom with thoughtful amenities, had even selected the classic posters that covered the break room walls.
“It’s been awfully hard going on without her,” he admitted, staring off into the distance. “It’s just not the same, you know? What’s more, people are getting more of their movies from cable these days. I just can’t keep up. I’ve done a lot of praying about it and I’ve made a decision.” He turned to look at her. “Amanda, I’m planning to sell the store.”
“What?” Malcolm gone? Amanda couldn’t imagine it.
Malcolm misinterpreted Amanda’s reaction. “Oh, don’t you worry! I’ll make sure you keep your job and will be rehired every summer for as long as you like. I’ll put it in the contract or something.” He smiled and patted her arm.
“It just won’t be the same here without you,” she said and realized she was echoing the sentiment of Duke, the Nichol’s delivery man.
“I’m not going anywhere, Mandy-girl. Connellee is still my home. Plus, I’ll stick around here for a while and help the new owner learn the ropes.”
“Who is the new owner?”
Malcolm looked away. “Well, the negotiations are still going on, so I’m not at liberty to say.”
“I suppose there’ll be a lot of changes,” she said.
Malcolm looked around and sighed. “Quite a few, I reckon. Improvements. Modernizing, you might call it. But that’s all in the future. We got a business to run! Have you put away last night’s returns yet?” he asked, replacing his reading glasses and peering over them with mock severity. “Get busy! Tote that barge! Lift that bale!”
Nobody came in the store for the next hour, so to keep busy, Amanda decided to gather together a group of seasonal movies for a special display. Strolling among the tapes, she selected films having to do with vacations: Summer Rental, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, Where the Boys Are, National Lampoon’s Vacation. Pretty soon, she thought, it’ll be time to round up some back-to-school titles. In fact, I’ll have to be getting ready for school myself, she realized. The thought both pleased and saddened her.
It’ll be good to get back to the classroom, she thought. It’s where I belong. But with this job, there are no papers to correct. I don’t have to bring my work home. It’s the perfect alternative to my teaching job.
Before she even turned around, she had recognized the cologne. Maybe this job wasn’t so perfect, after all. At least at Connellee Elementary, she didn’t keep bumping into Jason.
She turned around. Remember, Amanda, you’re willing to be willing. “Hi, Jason,” she said, determinedly casual, “you want anything?”
He remained silent for a few moments, just frowning at her, with a strange expression on his face.
She blushed, infuriated. How dare he make silent innuendos, especially in his father’s store! There was something indecent about it, she was sure. Forgive him? Forget about it!
“No? Well, then, I’ll just get back to my work.” What had she been doing? Desperately, she began grabbing DVDs out of the shelves and stacking them in her arms. She had no idea what she would do with them; she just wanted to look busy.
Wearing a frown, but still without a word, Jason stalked in the direction of his father’s office.
You’re shaking like a leaf, she chided herself as she replaced the miscellaneous DVDs in their places. How long are you going to keep having this reaction? It’s like an allergy; I wish there was some kind of shot I could take. What would they call it, Men-adryl, perhaps? Or maybe Suitor-fed?
Groaning inwardly at her own bad puns, she looked down at the DVDs in her hands. Now what was I about to do with these tapes?
“Amanda! Guess what!”
Amanda jumped and dropped the two remaining DVDs she was holding.
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.” It was Clarissa Rockford, looking eager and out of breath. Today’s two long braids swung back and forth behind her in time with the long earrings she wore.
“It’s okay. I was just lost in my own thoughts. What’s going on?”
“I went back to the Courthouse today and guess what I found.” Clarissa paused and dug small notepad out of her knitted string handbag. “A record of the divorce of Fred and Matilda Freeman, dated two years after the death of the little boy.”
“Oh, dear, do you suppose they split up because of the accident?”
Clarissa shrugged. “Can’t know for sure. But look what else: two years after that, Fred himself died.”
“Oh, dear, this whole thing is just one sadness after another.”
“Well, life is sad, Amanda. A real lousy bummer, sometimes,” Clarissa added under her breath. She shrugged and tapped the pad with her finger. “I just thought you’d like to hear what I found out.”
“I did! Thanks so much, Clarissa. You’ve been amazing. You’re a real whiz at this research stuff.”
This brought out a small smile. “What are you going to do with the information?”
“Nothing, I guess. I was just kind of curious about the background of this case.
Oh, by the way, did you find out where I should write to Harriet Frames?”
“Not yet. I’ve been too busy.” Clarissa glanced at her watch. “Would you look at the time? I gotta be somewhere in fifteen minutes. So long!” She headed out the door before Amanda could thank her again.
Amanda had finally remembered what she’d been doing—gathering vacation DVDs—and had started a new stack when fellow juror Sarah Gahagen burst through the door of the store, muttering. “Of all days to leave my cell at home! Oh hello, Amanda, can I use Malcolm’s phone to call triple A?” In response to Amanda’s nod, she stepped around the counter, dug in her purse, pulled out a small card and began dialing a number. “Would you believe it? Somebody slashed my tires—all four of them—ruined! Who would do such a thing? Of all the stinking, rotten, low-down…”
Malcolm and Jason had just emerged from the back and heard Sarah’s angry outburst.
“Son, go see if there’s anything you can do for Mrs. Gahagen.”
Jason nodded and headed out the door.
“Thanks, Malcolm, but he can’t do anything,” Sarah said impatiently as she fidgeted with the telephone cord. “As I said, it’s not just a flat tire, it’s four flat tires! I was just in the quickie mart across the road over there for some bread and milk and—hello, triple A? I have a big problem…”
Amanda went to the door and watched as Jason walked around a large green sedan with the bumper sticker, “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Sure enough, even from a distance, she could see that every tire sagged. Jason walked around other cars in the parking lot, then turned back towards the store, but not before Amanda had retreated back behind the catalogue counter.
Jason walked up to Malcolm. Amanda could just hear him murmur, “All four tires, slashed, all right. It’s just her car, though, none of the others. Dad, I think we ought to call the police.”
Twenty minutes later, a DPS agent had arrived and was taking Clarissa’s statement when Vira Quinn poked her red head through the front door and asked loudly, “What the heck’s goin’ on? What’s that cop car doin’ out there?” Without waiting for an answer, she came inside and walked up to Amanda. “When you reckon’s my suitcase gettin’ here? I’m gonna want it pretty soon.”
While Amanda searched the order forms to determine when Vira’s catalogue order would arrive, the little woman turned to Sarah Gahagen. “That your car messed up out there? Yeah, I figured.” She shook her head and clicked her tongue sadly. “Kids, that’s what it is. Kids these days, what ya gonna do?” She shrugged and sighed. “Sad, I call it.”
“I’m afraid it’ll be next week before your suitcase arrives. Monday at the earliest,” Amanda said, hoping to lure Vira away from the official police business being conducted at the other end of the counter.
Vira moved towards Amanda. “Hmm. Well, okay. I guess you can’t help it.”
“Mrs. Quinn, are you feeling all right? It’s none of my business, of course, but you look kind of pale.” Under her mop of red hair, Vira looked even smaller than ever.
“Call me Vira, remember? Good of you to ask. It’s just this terrible heat. Back where I used to live, I don’t remember it getting’ this hot, y’know?” She leaned in and said in a lowered tone, “By the way, was ‘at you visiting Matilda Freeman over to the nursing home?”
“I know, ‘cause I’m a volunteer there and I hear stuff. What d’ya think about that Barbara Schmidt? You know,” she said in answer to Amanda’s blank expression, “the one with the big bandage?” She gestured to her own wrist.
“She seemed nice.”
“Well, you can’t tell a book by its cover, that’s the truth.” She leaned even closer to Amanda. “Between you and me and the lamppost, a little birdie told me: you look under that bandage and you won’t find no bite, nosiree. It’s a burn. A bad one.” She nodded for emphasis, tapped her forehead and headed out the door. “Makes a person think, don’t it? Call me when my suitcase comes, okay? You got the number.”
Once a wrecker had come and towed away Sarah Gahagen’s car, things began to settle back down. To Amanda’s relief, Jason drove away shortly thereafter.
Malcolm was quite pleased with her idea of a display of vacation DVDs. “It might be a way to get folks to rent the older movies. Amanda, make it so,” he added, assuming Jean-Luc Picard’s stern squint.
“Aye, Captain,” she said, “at warp speed.”
But as she gathered up the supplies to make the poster for the display, her thoughts returned to what Vira Quinn had said.
A burn, not a bite? Could that be significant in some way?
She sketched a big cartoon-style V in pencil and followed it with the other letters in the words: Vacation Time
I did have trouble believing that a mousey woman like Harriet would have the sheer nerve it would take to burn down somebody’s house.
She went over the pencil lines with black marker.
But there was proof, plenty of it. Otherwise, we’d have never found her guilty. What bothered me was the motive. It just doesn’t ring true.
She began filling the letters in with brightly colored markers.
Was there any proof at all that the arsonist was somebody else? Not really; just a woman who maybe has a burn instead of a bite on her arm.
She squinted at the poster and selected another color.
Matilda felt awfully guilty about something, and I’m pretty sure it’s the death of that child. What happened to the other children? Did they drop through the cracks of the welfare system, like you hear about? Did they even survive to grow up?
But how many movies have I seen where all the evidence points to one person and it turns out to be somebody else? Certainly Sherlock Holmes knew of such cases.
She held her marker like a meerschaum pipe. “When you have eliminated the impossible, Watson, whatever remains must be the truth,” she quoted aloud in a Texas version of a British accent.
“Say what?” Malcolm asked, looking over her shoulder.
She smiled at him. “Oh, nothing. Just doing too much thinking. And not making much sense.”
“A red flag warning has been issued for Connellee and surrounding counties,” the radio announcer said as Amanda drove into work the next morning. “Widespread grass fires are possible, even probable, across much of the Big Country, endangering both property and livestock. Weather conditions have met the following criteria: sustained winds of over fifteen miles per hour, relative humidity of less than twenty-five percent and…” She snapped off the radio.
I heard that already, she thought. Hearing it over and over just makes me nervous. Besides, nobody has to tell anybody that it’s hot and windy again today. She touched the back of her head, where she’d fastened her long hair into a bun, making sure the hairpins were holding. Her long, straight hair kept wanting to slide out of its moorings, but on a day like today, she absolutely had to have it off her neck.
Jason had always liked her hair done up this way. “Your neck is like a swan’s,” he’d said, “and your hair shines like black silk.”
Amanda slammed on the brakes as an armadillo skittered across the road. That was a close one in more ways than one, she thought. Why on earth do I torture myself like this? I’d quit even thinking about the guy until I saw him again. It’s over. It’s been over for quite a while. Get used to it, girl. Be willing to be willing.
She pulled her car into the supermarket parking lot and headed inside for a box of corn flakes, her staple for both breakfast and when she just didn’t feel like cooking.
“The air conditioning sure feels good in here,” Amanda told the checkout lady.
“It’s gonna be a bad ‘un today, so they say,” the woman agreed as the scanner beeped. “That wind is rough. They’ve already had a little grass fire over near Rising Star. Don’t forget to leave your window open a crack, now,” she said, counting out change. “Your car window, I mean. A while back, we carried our kids to The Chick ‘n Fish for lunch, and when we come out, it looked like somebody put a rock through the windshield. It’s the pressure. The heat and the pressure,” she said.
All around Amanda, it seemed, people and creatures were trying to escape the heat. Cattle huddled in the shade of the few scrawny mesquite trees. The graceful scissortail birds she loved to watch were nowhere to be seen.
A shimmering mirage slowly emerged on the road ahead of her, then faded as her car came near. She marveled, as she always had, that the non-existent “water” actually reflected images like the real thing.
She shouldn’t have taken this back road shortcut, she thought, even if it is paved.
What if I were to blow a tire out here?
Her mind turned to the image of Sarah Gahagen’s four flats.
It sure does seem like just about everybody I know has been having a bad week: Sarah’s slashed tires, Joe Blaine’s stolen tools, Binnie Mayfield’s poisoned dog, Vira Quinn’s problem with the unaccustomed heat.
“Did you leave your car window open a crack?” Malcolm asked her when she walked in the store. “If you don’t—”
She stowed her purse behind the counter. “I know, I know,” she said good-naturedly, “Hey, I went to college in Lubbock, remember? Where windshields burst like balloons and it rains mud?”
“Oh, that’s right. A combination dust storm and rainstorm,” Malcolm said and chuckled. “I told that to a fellow from Chicago once, and he didn’t believe me. Hold down the fort out here, okay?” He then retreated to his office for the morning and most of the afternoon, making and receiving phone calls.
I guess he’s still working out the details of selling the store, Amanda thought with a sigh. I wonder what the new boss will be like. Or maybe it’ll be a she; that would be an adjustment, too. I hope he, she, whoever, is as nice as Malcolm.
She shook her head. Correction: nobody could be as nice a boss as Malcolm.
Around two o’clock, Malcolm suddenly emerged from his office and headed for the front door, clearly in a hurry. “I gotta go. Grass fire between here and Cisco.” Malcolm was a member of the Connellee Volunteer Department.
He unfastened some keys from his giant handful and handed them to her. “Lock up for me at closing time, would you? And keep an eye on the back, okay?” Amanda knew what he meant. Beyond the back parking lot was a barbed wire fence and beyond that were acres and acres of exceptionally dry, windswept prairie pasture that hadn’t seen rain, even the muddy variety, in months. And somewhere out there was the fire.
He put a hand on her shoulder. “But if you see it coming, flames or smoke, get out. Hop in your car and drive away. Don’t even bother to lock up, Mandy-girl. Just go!”
I was right, she thought as Malcolm dashed out the door and hopped in his car, he’s just about the best boss in the world. She breathed a prayer for his safety.
The next two hours were nervous ones, and many times, Amanda slipped into the back of the store and peered anxiously out at the field beyond the barbed wire fence. She wasn’t the only one.
“See anything?” Velma of Velma’s Hair Gallery asked her as they both scanned the horizon for smoke or flames from their respective back doors. The wind blew her curly blonde bangs straight up.
“Not yet,” Amanda called. “I’ll let you know if I do.”
Velma nodded and waved improbably long fingernails. “Ditto!”
At four-thirty, Amanda distinctly smelled smoke. She was trying to decide what to do when Velma appeared at the front door of Malcolm’s store, followed shortly by Jerry, who worked at the Radio Shack.
“We’ve closed up already. You smell that smoke?” he said. “Come on, we’ll help you.”
The two went around turning off lights while Amanda logged out of the computer and filed the day’s remaining order forms.
She was turning the key in the front door lock when Malcolm arrived, still wearing his fireman’s gear. “It’s out,” he said, and took a deep breath. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped some black soot from his forehead.
His eyes, Amanda noticed, were swollen and bloodshot. She asked about them.
“That’s from the smoke. It really gets to me sometimes.” He coughed into the handkerchief.
“Was it pretty bad?” She handed him the keys to the store.
He opened her car door for her. “Not too. We caught a break, got it in time. One of the hands over at the Bar Five Ranch noticed and phoned it in early. The Good Lord was looking after us.”
She slid behind the driver’s seat. “He sure was.”
As Amanda drove back to her apartment, she thanked God for His protection.
I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t put out that fire, she thought. If I had to run away all of a sudden like that, where would I have gone? What if the fire had burned up my apartment, all my things? Maybe I ought to take Mama’s advice and pack up my car.
She thought about her modest collection of yard sale furniture, her hope chest carton of stuff, her clothes and, most important of all, her family pictures and mementos.
I would hate to lose all that.
Isn’t that what happened to Matilda Freeman?
Then and there, she decided to keep her promise to visit Matilda again. She’d been putting it off until she could assure her that she’d written to Harriet Frames in prison, but the process was taking longer than she expected. Besides, now that she had learned about some of the heartbreak that Matilda had experienced, it made her feel even closer to the elderly lady.
She was approaching the town square and spotted Peabody’s, Connelle County’s last remaining locally-owned clothing store. She pulled into one of the parking slots in front of the store. “I’ll get her something there, something nice,” Amanda thought, remembering the frayed, faded clothing Matilda had worn.
“Hey, Mrs. Blake. I want to get a gift for an elderly woman,” she told the saleslady who was the mother of one of her high school classmates. “She’s a resident over at Lone Cedar Place.”
“Oh, that’s so nice! How about some bedroom slippers? Do you know her shoe size?”
“I’m afraid not. I’d like something really pretty, though; something feminine, to cheer her up.”
She settled on a luxuriously soft zipper-front bathrobe in a flattering shade of pale blue. It cost more than she usually spent on such things.
But I can spare at least this much, she thought, to make Matilda smile. “Could I get it gift-wrapped?” she asked.
Smiling as she drove, Amanda tried to imagine the look in Matilda’s eyes when she opened the package. She thought of how her late grandmother had loved receiving pretty gifts. It’ll be kind of like a little birthday party, she thought.
I wonder if she would like a coffeemaker, she added to herself, remembering of the unused one in her hope chest carton. I don’t really need it, and Matilda might enjoy having something else brand new to put on the counter of that tiny kitchenette.
Her mind was pleasurably busy, devising more ways to replace some of the things Matilda lost when she walked into the lobby of Lone Cedar Place. The receptionist wasn’t at her post, but Amanda knew the drill. Balancing the gift clumsily under one arm, she obediently wrote her name, address and the person she was visiting on the clipboard and headed down the hall.
The door to Matilda’s room stood open. Amanda stepped inside and looked around.
The easy chair where the old lady had sat was empty and there was no sign of the oxygen apparatus. The bed in the corner had been stripped and a uniformed housekeeper was running a loud vacuum cleaner over the carpeting.
“Where’s Mrs. Freeman?” she asked the housekeeper, but the woman only shrugged and gestured that she couldn’t hear over the noise.
Maybe she’s gone for some kind of therapy, Amanda thought hopefully, and they’ve taken the opportunity to clean the room. She looked around for any other sign of Matilda, but the table next to the chair was empty.
She looked at the windowsill, but the little philodendron plant was also gone. Whirling, Amanda looked again at the table next to the easy chair. Matilda’s Bible—it was gone, too!
With a kind of sick, shrinking feeling in her stomach, Amanda hurried back up the hall to the front desk.
The receptionist had returned and was frowning at the clipboard. She had an alarmed expression that raised Amanda’s anxiety. “You shouldn’t have gone—”
“Where’s Mrs. Freeman?”
They both spoke at the same time.
“I’m so sorry,” the receptionist said with a look that made Amanda feel even worse.
“Where is she? She’s not in her room? Is she all right?”
The woman spoke very quietly. “No. She’s not. She died last night, I’m afraid.” She looked at the clipboard again. “This is unfortunate. We had your phone number here. Somebody should have called you.”
“Maybe they did.” Amanda put her hand to her forehead. “I haven’t been—I mean, I’ve been at work all day.”
“What happened? How did it happen? Wasn’t she getting better? I thought she was getting better.” Despite her best efforts, Amanda felt a small sob begin to rise in her chest.
“Come and sit down.” Her voice was kind. “Mrs. Freeman was in bad health, you know, even before that terrible fire.”
She brought Amanda a cup of water and knelt beside her chair. “Working here, I’ve learned to hold onto these people lightly. So many of them are so delicate. It’s a part of life, you know, death is.”
Amanda looked at the woman’s nametag: Sandra Wooten, RN
She wasn’t really a receptionist, after all. She was the nurse in charge.
“Where is Barbara—um—Schmidt?” Amanda asked. “I’d like to speak to her. Wasn’t she the person who took care of Matil—Mrs. Freeman?”
Nurse Wooten blinked rapidly and looked away. “Er—she, well, she isn’t working here any more, I’m afraid.” She stood. “You’ll have to excuse me. I have work to do.”
“Wasn’t she here when Matilda died? I’d like to know more about what happened.”
Nurse Wooten slid behind the reception desk and turned towards her computer. “I’m sorry. Much of that is confidential medical information, you see. But wait, I have something for you. She hadn’t many belongings.” She reached under the counter and pulled out Matilda’s battered Bible. “We didn’t know what to do with this. You cared about her. I think she’d like for you to have it.” She slid the book towards Amanda.
“Please take it. We’ll only have to throw it out.”
Feeling a catch in her throat, Amanda picked up the Bible and slid it into the large tote that served as a purse. “Thank you.”
The nice-looking man in the three-piece suit she had seen on her last visit stepped up to the desk and addressed Nurse Wooten. “My Wall Street Journal, please?”
The nurse pulled a newspaper from a pile of mail. “Here it is, Howard.” She turned back to her computer.
He made a slight bow. “Thank you.” Turning towards Amanda, he surreptitiously crooked his finger, indicating she should follow.
Curious, she made her way down the hall to the common area where Howard took the same seat he had had before and unfurled his newspaper while Amanda watched. He then peered over the top of it, swiveled his eyes back and forth and said, “You wanted to see Barbara?”
“Yes. Do you know where she is?” Amanda asked eagerly.
He shrugged. “She’s gone.” He resumed looking at his paper, then looked up again. “She took drugs, you know. Mine, hers—” he nodded towards Matilda’s door
“You mean she stole drugs?”
He shrugged again and scratched his head. “Maybe. I can’t remember.”
“Is that why she doesn’t work here any more?”
He smiled. “Maybe. I don’t know.” He frowned. “I don’t remember.” He turned back to his Wall Street Journal, shaking it out like she had seen her father do many times.
Hesitant to bother him further, Amanda still had to ask, “Do you know where she lives?”
He brightened and looked at her with a smile. “Oh, sure. In those apartments behind the school. She walks to work.” He frowned. “I mean, she doesn’t walk, does she? She’s gone. Is that what I mean?” He looked at her questioningly.
Howard seemed unsure of his facts. Still, he was the one who had told her about the dead child. There was one other thing Amanda wanted to know. “That bandage she has?”
Howard frowned. “Bandage? What bandage?” He scratched his head. “Oh! That bandage! Yeah, she hurt her arm. Got bitten.”
This was interesting. He seemed to know something. “Are you sure it was a bite?”
Howard raised his aristocratic-looking eyebrows. “Of course! Are you kidding? I’m the one who bit her!”
Amanda stood by her car in the parking lot of Lone Cedar Place and peered up at the hill beyond the elementary school. Perched on the steep slope was a modest apartment complex, quite similar to hers, called Sunset Hill Apartments.
The sun was setting behind the hill, drawing beautiful bands of pink and orange across the sky. The brightness made visibility difficult, but even so, Amanda thought she could see a small figure emerging from a blue pickup truck that distinctly resembled Barbara Schmidt. It was the same sailor’s walk, and there was something white on her arm, like a bandage.
It was a long trek around the elementary school, across the running track, through the playground and up a hill generously sprinkled with cactus in all sizes, but eventually Amanda arrived a the edge of the parking lot to Sunset Hill Apartments.
Panting from both heat and exertion, Amanda stood in the summer twilight and wondered what she should do now. A car passed and pulled into a parking place nearby. A middle-aged man emerged, and, reaching back into the car, fetched out a bag of groceries. He looked at Amanda with a question in his eyes, but nodded a greeting nonetheless, in true Texas-friendly fashion. Then he turned and marched up the steps to his apartment.
Amanda was alone again. She had no idea which apartment belonged to Barbara Schmidt, or indeed if she even lived here. Right now, Howard seemed a less-than-totally-reliable source of information. For instance, he had said that Barbara walked to work. Amanda doubted it now and wished she herself had driven up the hill. She should have asked that man if Barbara Schmidt lived here. What was to stop her from marching up the steps and knocking on his door?
All at once, a woman burst out of an apartment on the ground floor and walked briskly towards the parking lot, carrying a plastic laundry basket piled high full of clothes. She walked with a rolling, bowlegged stride. Though the burden obscured the woman’s face, Amanda was certain that this was the person she sought.
“Barbara? Barbara Schmidt?” she called and hurried across the parking lot.
At the sound of her name being called, Barbara jumped and dropped the basket, strewing items of clothing on the blacktop.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Amanda moved into the pool of light cast by the tall streetlamp. “It’s me, Amanda Rojas. I’m Matilda Freeman’s friend?’ She squatted and helped gather up clothing items. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s okay.” Barbara Schmidt was trembling slightly. Perspiration dripped off her forehead. She accepted the last errant sock and put the basket in the passenger side of her truck, which was, Amanda noticed, filled with household items in both the cab and the bed. “Why did you want to see me?” She said over her shoulder as she turned and headed back in the direction of her apartment.
Amanda followed. “I just learned about Matilda’s death. It was…kind of a shock. Do you know what caused it? So suddenly, I mean?” She paused at the open door of Barbara’s apartment and peered in as she spoke. Aside from the sparse, generic furniture that came with the apartment, it was empty and dark.
Barbara spoke from behind the kitchenette counter. “Matilda was a nice lady, but she was real sick. Couldn’t you tell that? I mean, we came to check on her this morning and she was gone, that’s all there is to it. She died in her sleep, real peaceful. We should all go that way. Look, you’re going to have to excuse me, but I’ve got to go somewhere.”
“Was there an investigation? What did her family say?”
Barbara paused at the door, carrying a lamp in one hand and her keys in the other. “Far as I know, there isn’t any family. And for your information, this here’s real life, not TV.” She pulled the apartment door closed firmly and turned the key in the lock “They don’t investigate sick, eighty-some-odd-year-old ladies who die in their beds.” She moved towards the car, them paused and turned back to Amanda with a suspicious frown. “What are you trying to say—that I had something to do with it?”
“No, of course not.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Look, I’m sorry about your friend. She was a good person. She was kind to me, said she was praying for me, even.” There was a look of great sadness on her face.
Amanda looked down at Barbara’s arm and the large bandage which was now a little grimy. “I, uh, also talked to Howard.”
Barbara nodded. A sour smile lifted one corner of her mouth. “Oh, him; he’s a piece of work, he is; him and his cotton-pickin’ Wall Street Journal.”
“He really bit you?” Amanda said, thinking of the distinguished, white-haired man in his three-piece suit. She just couldn’t picture him doing it.
Barbara wound the short electric cord around the lamp and placed it on top of the basketful of clothes. She touched her bandage. “Oh yeah, I had to go get shots and everything.”
“Somebody said it was a burn.”
Barbara whirled around. Her face began to turn a bright red. “Burn? You don’t say? Oh, yeah, they’d like that, wouldn’t they? Did Brewster send you to check up on me? Is that it? Or was it that snot-nosed Wooten?” She advanced on Amanda.
What had she said? “Who? I, I mean, no—” Amanda backed up.
Barbara wasn’t very tall, but her arms were muscular in her short-sleeve shirt and her hands were bunched into tight, hard fists. She pointed a finger in Amanda’s face. “Tell your friends to leave me alone! Tell them I’m doing what they want, and if I live through it, I’ll be back! And if anybody else gives me any more trouble, well, I can definitely cause ‘em a lot of trouble!”
“And if I ever see you again, you’ll be real, real sorry! Now git! Git!”
Barbara chased Amanda to the edge of the parking lot where she stood shouting epithets while her prey stumbled back down the hillside in the dark. On her way, Amanda had two painful encounters with the side of a cactus, but she kept going.
As she reached the bottom of the hill, there was a squeal of tires. Amanda looked back. Barbara’s blue truck was careening down the long driveway, headed for parts unknown.
By the time she reached the empty school playground, Amanda was crying from both fear and grief. Staggering over to one of the swings, she sat down and examined her leg by the light of a nearby streetlamp. It was bleeding a little, and as she leaned down, her tears dripped and mixed with the blood.
“Cut it out!” she told herself fiercely and rubbed her eyes. “You’re not a kid. She didn’t hurt you, you hurt yourself!”
With her hand, she found a patch of tiny cactus spines sticking from her leg.
“S-speaking of needing a shot,” she murmured with a wince, and was pleased that she was able to produce a weak laugh. “Couldn’t wear jeans, could I? Had to wear something cool, like a stupid sundress. Real smart, Amanda!”
She’d need tweezers to pull the spines out, but they weren’t serious. She’d already had a tetanus shot before the beginning of the school year.
Thank You, dear Lord, that I didn’t bump into a really big cactus.
She sat up in the swing and swayed gently back and forth for a time, letting her heart
slow its beating.
And thank You for protecting me up there. It could have been much worse. I kind of
went off on my own without consulting You again, didn’t I? She sighed and stood. Pull
me up short next time I do that, would You please?
An hour later, with a bandage on her leg, Amanda slid into a booth at the Chick ‘n
Fish. She had just gone to the window and ordered the Bunkhouse Special: a plastic basket containing two pieces of fried chicken, two of fried fish, French fries and coleslaw with iced tea to drink. She looked around. This was the first time she’d eaten here for a long time, but it was unchanged, as far as she could tell: the same horseshoe over the front door, the same red-and-white gingham curtains, the same booths with tabletops of gold-flecked imitation marble and the same country-western music playing in the background.
Business was relatively slow tonight. Only a handful of Connellee citizens were enjoying the joys of deep fat fried cuisine.
Okay, it’s not health food, she thought, remembering the low-cal frozen dinners that filled her apartment freezer, it’s comfort food, and that’s what I’m needing right now.
She had a lot on her mind, and she didn’t know where to start. She pulled a paper napkin from a dispenser and absent-mindedly pleated it as she went over what had happened today.
This morning had begun with another red flag warning on the radio. Though this part of Texas was just naturally dry, and during all the four years she’d lived in Connellee during high school, she’d never experienced anything like a real drought. She’d also never seen the local people this edgy, either.
The weather? Could that be part of the reason Barbara was so hostile back there? Amanda pulled out another napkin. Probably not. The real question was, why wasn’t she working at Lone Cedar Place any more? It hadn’t occurred to Amanda until Barbara mentioned it, but did it have anything to do with Matilda Freeman’s death?
She faced the fact: Matilda was dead.
The sad, aching feeling that she had experienced at her grandmother’s funeral reasserted itself. She had really looked forward to getting to know Matilda better. Now she never would. Something had been taken from her, suddenly, and without her permission. Hot tears filled her eyes.
Life sure could be hard, sometimes. Wasn’t that what Clarissa Rockwell had said?
There was another puzzling situation. What was it in Clarissa’s own life that had made her “have issues” with the “concept” of God?
Lord, I think she’s just plain mad at You. And right now, Father, I must admit, I’m a little annoyed myself. After all she’d been through, why did Matilda have to die? For that matter, what about my dear, sweet Grandma? I loved her so!
A tear spilled from her eye and she caught it quickly with the napkin in her hand, then blew her nose.
She sat up straighter and frowned furiously. Enough crying, Amanda!
Don’t you think I loved her, too? More than you are even capable of? Beyond all earthly understanding?
The thought popped into her head, unbidden. She had no doubt as to its Source.
Of course, Amanda remembered, if anybody knew that God loved them, it was her Grandma. And she had fervently loved Him back.
Will you trust Me? Trust Me to take care of her? And Matilda, too?
Drying her eyes and blowing her nose, Amanda nodded silently in answer. The sense of peacefulness was so strong around her in that restaurant booth, she felt like she was in church.
Oh, thank You.
Suddenly, a basketful of fried chicken and fish appeared before her on the paper placemat.
“Here you go, Mandy,” said her friend Jane Kerner, whose family owned the restaurant. She pulled a straw out of her apron pocket. “That was sweet tea, wasn’t it? This is really somethin’. I go for more ‘n year and don’t run into you, then twice in the same week, here y’are!”
Amanda smiled. “Good to see you, too. Where’s Travis tonight?” she asked as she
pulled the wrapper off her straw.
Jane cleared paper debris from a nearby table onto her tray as she talked. “He’s at my
mother’s. Daddy needs me to help out here some nights, and Joe’s working late at the
pipe plant, so Travis gets to sleep over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, where he’s spoiled
rotten. Oops, gotta go!” She headed back to the kitchen pass-through window in response
to a loud, “Pick up!”
Amanda murmured a blessing over her dinner and had started in on a drumstick when
Jane returned. “Daddy just pulled out a fresh batch of cowboy crullers. They’re nice and hot,” she said, placing a plastic basket of the Chick ‘n Fish’s specialty fried biscuits on the table as she slid into the other side of the booth. “You hear about the fire today?”
Amanda nodded and waited to finish chewing. “Malcolm’s a volunteer fireman. He said they got there just in time.”
Jane sighed. “Yeah, that was good. But I still worry, you know? Trouble is, Mandy, my parent’s place is so far out. You know where the MacCafferty house is? Well, it’s about a quarter mile down that road, and in the middle of all that grassland. Daddy’s been hosing down the roof every chance he gets, but I don’t know…” She sighed.
“My mother says to pack up as much as I can in my car, just in case I need to leave in a hurry,” Amanda said. She slid the basket of bread over to Jane. “Have some.” She handed her the squeeze bottle of honey that stood next to the catsup. There were at least eight biscuits in the basket.
“Thanks!” Jane tore a fried biscuit open and squeezed honey over the interior. This she folded into a sandwich and took a bite. “Mmm. Remember when we used to eat these senior year? We were so proud that they let us actually go off campus for lunch. We felt so grown-up!” She took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. “You know, Mandy, your mother’s idea about the car isn’t half bad. I think I’ll do it.” She finished the first biscuit and proceeded to prepare another. “How are you, um, doing? With, um, you-know-who? I heard about y’all breakin’ up.”
Amanda sighed and took a long sip of tea before answering. “If you mean Jason, I’m doing just fine. It’s been a whole year.”
“I’m sorry, Mandy, but you don’t look fine.”
“I had a kind of shock today. A friend died.” Briefly, she explained her acquaintance with Matilda Freeman.
“Oh, yeah, that’s the lady with the kid who drowned.”
“You knew about that?”
“Well, not me, exactly. It’s a story I heard a lot. The kid was in my mom’s first grade class when she was a little girl, and it really hit everybody hard when he died. When I would go swimmin’, she always used to tell me to be careful I didn’t drown like that little boy in her class. I used to think it was mean of her to try to scare me like that, but now that I have Travis, I think I kind of understand, y’know?”
She popped the last of the biscuit in her mouth and rose. “Well, gotta get back to work. Take care of yourself. Stay safe.”
Amanda finished up the last of her dinner and paid her bill, being careful to leave as generous a tip as she could afford for her friend.
A small remnant of the peace she had felt earlier still clung to her, and she savored it all the way home.
“Another red flag warning today,” Malcolm told Amanda when she arrived at work the next day. I’m on alert.”
“I heard on the radio that they’re expecting rain in a few days,” she said in a hopeful voice.
“That would be great, but I’ve heard it all before,” he grumbled. “You want me, I’ll be in here,” he said over his shoulder.
Malcolm’s gloominess was disquieting, to say the least. He was the most optimistic man she knew, even more than her dad, Amanda thought as she ran a small vacuum over the carpeting between the shelves of DVDs.
I wonder if I should even ask him for time off tomorrow to go to Matilda’s funeral. According the people at Lone Cedar, the old lady’s insurance was paying for her burial and her minister was conducting a graveside service.
Even since Matilda’s death, she’d had a strange, scared feeling following her around like a shadow and she had only been able to shake it briefly the other night at the Chick ‘n Fish.
What was the reason she seemed to be operating under how own personal red flag warning: the trial, the drought, Matilda’s death?
It’s the uncertainty, she told herself. It’s not know what will happen next. It’s not knowing what the new boss will be like and not knowing whether there will actually be a fire.
To tell the truth, she told herself, it was also the feeling that she still had unfinished business with Jason. But what? She had pretty much made herself crystal clear the night of their breakup.
And that was the end of that, Amanda thought as she sorted out the gray-wrapped Nichol’s packages in the back room of Best’s.
The day after the breakup, she’d made a point not to be there when Jason came by, and the ever-loyal Rosemary had obligingly returned the ring.
Now, if he’d just leave me alone, Amanda thought. I can’t go on with my life until I get him out of my system, until I…she fingered the cross around her neck…forgive him.
“Amanda?” Malcolm called. “I’m leaving. I have my beeper with me if there’s a fire or something, but I’m going to have to go into town to the lawyer’s. I’m expecting a visitor around two. If I’m not back by then, would you show him around the store a little and make him welcome?”
This must be the new owner. “Sure.”
At lunchtime, after consuming a chocolate-flavored diet meal from a can, Amanda crept away for a few minutes to make sure her hair was smoothly combed and her lipstick freshened. It would be important to make a good first impression on the new management.
Promptly at two, a man entered the store hesitantly and stood, looking around.
Amanda hastened forward to make him welcome. “Are you the person who has an appointment with Malcolm Best at two?” she asked.
He smiled and nodded. He was rather younger than she had expected, about thirty, with high, sharp cheekbones and very short dark brown hair. He wore the usual Connellee County uniform: well-fitting jeans, flat-heeled roper boots and a simple golf-style sport shirt and he carried a briefcase imprinted with a tiny letter n inside a circle: the Nichol’s logo.
He held out his free hand to shake hers. “D. L. Branch; call me Del.”
Oh, boy, Amanda thought as she looked up into his moderately famous, highly photogenic face, wait till I tell Rosemary about this!
Del Branch seemed embarrassed by Amanda’s surprised reaction. “It’s that stupid TV show, isn’t it?”
For some reason, Amanda sensed he needed reassurance. “No. Yes. Well, I’ve never actually seen the show, but I’ve heard about it and recognized your name.”
He shook his head. “Stupidest thing I ever did. Nobody wants to talk business any more; they always want to know what Brad DeFore is really like.” Brad Defore was the famous real estate magnate who hosted the reality show, Wall Street Whiz.
“Well, I’m glad to see you two are already acquainted,” Malcolm said as he came through the door, closely followed by his son. Both men were carrying fat manila folders.
More introductions were made, and there was no further mention of Wall Street Whiz.
Jason and Del shook hands cordially.
Amanda was surprised that Jason was here in town again.
Malcolm said, “Amanda, we’re going to my office to discuss business. Hold down the fort here, would you please?”
She made a cheery mock salute. “Right, chief!”
As she checked out DVDs and helped people locate items in the Nichol’s catalogue, her mind kept returning to the very attractive Del Branch. He wasn’t at all the show biz type she had pictured from Rosemary’s description. He was quieter, friendlier. He seemed to have a calm center.
That was it, she thought, glad to have found the words to describe what she had sensed. He would probably make a good boss. Maybe.
She was filing some order forms behind the counter when the three men emerged, laughing pleasantly.
“…this is going to work out just fine, I think,” Del Branch was saying.
Jason nodded his agreement and Malcolm just beamed.
“And Amanda here is the only indispensable employee in this business,” Malcolm declared, coming up to her and patting her shoulder.
“Not such high praise, since I’m the only employee in this business,” she quipped, remembering her father’s favorite joke.
Malcolm looked over at Del Branch. “See? What did I tell you, smart as a whip!”
Del grinned at her. Jason’s eyebrows lifted a notch, but his expression remained otherwise blank.
Del stepped forward. “Ms. Rojas, Amanda, I need to discuss your role in this business with you. How about right after closing—over dinner somewhere?”
Amanda hesitated. Was this a date? With her future boss? It didn’t sound like a good idea. “I don’t know—”
Del Branch held up a long-fingered hand. “Strictly business, of course. I promise in front of these witnesses, don’t I, guys?” He indicated Malcolm, who smiled and nodded, and Jason, whose face continued to be unreadable. “You name the restaurant,” Del added.
“Well, I guess so,” she said. Even after all this time, she still felt uncomfortable making a date in front of Jason. Or was it really a date?
Oh, why not? “How about Juanita’s?” she suggested.
Three and a half hours later, they were on their way to dinner in Del’s SUV.
Every Internet review of Juanita’s restaurant had given it four stars, Amanda proudly informed him. “It’s not very fancy,” she said. “Juanita started it in a mobile home next to her husband’s service station and it just grew from there.” Juanita’s was now a double-wide with a neon sign over the door and another sign at the Interstate exit.
“The location has helped,” Amanda commented. “Truckers on I-40 started telling each other how good it was.”
“Word of mouth, you might say?” Del put in.
Amanda groaned at Del’s pun. “Mainly, it’s just that Juanita is such a good cook. But I guess I don’t have to tell you that—oops!”
He smiled as he made the turn into Juanita’s parking lot. “How did you know I’d already been there?”
“This is a small town, Del. I have my sources.”
Rosemary’s face was a picture when she spotted Del Branch and Amanda walk into the restaurant. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened gradually until she realized where she was. She clamped her lips shut and returned to taking an order from another table.
Juanita’s was a casual place. Diners seated themselves.
“Is this okay?” Del pointed to a small round table in the back.
“Uh,” Amanda said, “could we possibly have that place instead?” She indicated one of Rosemary’s tables.
“Of course.” He held her chair and handed her one of the menus that resided behind the napkin dispenser.
Del Branch smiled gently over his menu and jerked his head to the back of the restaurant. “Something wrong with that table over there?”
“No, nothing. It’s just that I know for a fact we’ll get the very best service possible, right here.”
Sure enough, in a matter of seconds, Rosemary was standing over them, pad in hand, clearly unsure of how she should act. While Del stared at the menu, she shot Amanda a questioning look.
Amanda replied with a roll of her eyes, a grin and a shrug. “Del Branch, this is my very good friend, Rosemary Kress.”
Del looked up. “Oh, yes, hello. I remember you from the other night. Good to see you again.”
Rosemary’s pretty face lit up. “Oh, me, too, Mr. Branch. I’m a big fan. I was really rooting for you on Wall Street Whiz. I’m so sorry that you got—“
Del waved his hand. “It was no big deal. But thanks. And call me Del, please.”
Rosemary positively glowed. “Okay, Del.” She lifted her pad. “What would you folks like to drink?”
After they had ordered and Rosemary had retreated to the kitchen, Del said, “Your source?”
Breathlessly, Rosemary placed huge glasses of iced tea on their table. As she moved away, she looked over Del’s head at Amanda and made a telephone gesture with extended thumb and pinkie next to her ear: Call me. It was a long-standing tradition that they’d discuss their dates after the fact.
Amanda responded with a tiny wink at her friend.
“Well, well, hello, Amanda!” Sarah Gahagen appeared behind Del’s chair. “Glad to see you’re getting out more these days…” She looked questioningly at Del.
Amanda made a hasty introduction and Del courteously half-stood. Just as she finished, a stocky, gray-haired man appeared at Sarah’s side. It was Sarah’s husband Blake.
He shook Del’s hand and did a double-take. “Sal! Do you know who this is? You’re one of those TV Whiz guys, aren’t ya?” He slapped Del on the back.
“Guilty,” Del admitted with a twisted half-smile.
“I thought you were one of the best ones on there. I liked your ideas. Why do you think ol’ Brad threw you off?”
By now, Del had pushed his chair back and remained standing. He shrugged. “Well, sir, they said I didn’t have the killer instinct.”
Blake Gahagen slapped Del on the back again. “What a load of—well, it’s just plain wrong, son! I’ll bet you—”
Sarah stepped between them. “Blake, honey, these nice young people are trying to have dinner. We need to find a table.”
Blake complied, but not before giving Del another bone-crushing handshake and saying that Hollywood didn’t know which end was up these days.
Sarah dragged him to the table in back that Amanda had rejected.
“Actually, the show was taped in Manhattan, not Hollywood,” Del confided to Amanda in a whisper.
Amanda wondered, “Did they really say that about you? The thing about not being a killer? Did they really actually want somebody like that?”
“And they were wrong, too. I’ve been told I’d push my own granny off a cliff to get ahead,” he said. One eyebrow arched.
Amanda shuddered, thinking of poor Matilda, not to mention her own grandmother.
“That’s a terrible thing to say about someone!”
He chuckled. “Naw, it’s just business.”
Amanda began to wonder if Del would make such a good boss, after all.
“Well, anyway,” Del took a long sip of tea and said, “Malcolm tells me you’re a teacher. What made you decide to go into education?”
Then Del asked about the places she’d lived, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Lubbock. Amanda told him how she preferred living in tiny Connellee.
Del nodded. “There are lots of good things about a small town. It’s nice and quiet and friendly. No crime to speak of—”
“I wouldn’t exactly say that,” she said, thinking of the Harriet Frames trial, “but it is safer here than a lot of places.”
Their orders arrived; Amanda’s Burrito Supreme and Del’s San Angelo Special.
Amanda quietly bowed her head over her plate and Del did the same.
“That’s nice,” he commented when she’d finished her silent blessing. “People don’t do that so much any more.”
Amanda didn’t know what to say, so she smiled and began working on her dinner, this time utilizing knife and fork in a ladylike manner.
“Malcolm tells me you do double duty at the store, working with the DVDs and the Nichol’s orders.”
“What do you think of the catalogue? You ever order anything from the catalogue yourself?”
“Sometimes.” Amanda pulled her foot from beneath the table and extended it. “I got these shoes.”
“Nice.” Del tore off a piece of tortilla and dipped it in picante sauce. “Tell me, what kinds of things do people in Connellee County order from the Nichol’s catalogue?”
The rest of the dinner conversation concentrated on the store, especially the catalogue part, which surprised Amanda. There was no mention of the DVD rental business. Is he going to get rid of the movies once he takes over? she wondered anxiously. She hoped not. She was about to ask him, then stopped herself. He and Malcolm might still be involved in some kind of negotiation.
All through the meal, Rosemary hovered cheerfully, iced tea pitcher in hand, and was eventually rewarded with a ten dollar tip. She gave them an effusively friendly goodbye as they left.
“Just drop me here,” Amanda said as they passed Malcolm’s store. “My car’s in the back. I’ll drive home.”
“Are you sure? You don’t need me to follow you back?”
“I’m sure. I’ll be fine. This is a safe little town, remember? It’s no use your going all that far out of your way, then driving back to your motel.”
He pulled into the parking lot and politely opened her door for her.
She glanced at her watch. “See? Everything’s fine. It’s only seven-thirty. Won’t get dark for at least another hour.” She extended her hand. “Thanks, Del. I enjoyed the dinner.”
“Glad you did. Well, be seein’ you?”
She watched as he climbed into his car and turned right out of the parking lot, heading for the highway. All the stores in the little strip mall Malcolm’s store occupied were closed up for the night, but across the road, Taco Bueno and McDonald’s were doing a brisk business, especially with teenagers, who claimed the fast-food places as their hangouts.
As she made her way around the building to the back where she’d parked her car, the faint smell of smoke floated in on the wind. Was it left over from the fire of a few days ago or was it from a new fire? She pulled her car keys from her purse and suppressed a shudder.
Her little car was sitting where she’d left it, but even at a distance, she could see right away that something was wrong. The back window was broken. She speeded up her step to a near run. Sure enough, there was the distinctive white cobweb of broken shatterproof glass. What had happened? Had it broken from the heat? She was sure she’d left one of the side windows opened an inch.
As she walked around the car, though, she found not only the back window broken, but also all four side windows and the front windshield. “Oh, no! Why?” This wasn’t heat damage. Someone had smashed her windows on purpose, methodically and with malice.
Amanda glanced uneasily around her. Who did this? Why? Was he—were they—still here, waiting to attack her?
Dear Lord, please help me!
Quickly, she turned and ran towards the back door of the store. When she reached it, she fumbled frantically for her key and turned it in the big metal door, which swung open obligingly, welcoming her into the pitch-blackness of the back storeroom.
She plunged forward, tripped over a carton and bumped her ankle on a rolling dolly, but finally found the light switch.
She sighed heavily with relief when the overhead fluorescent bulbs flooded the room with light, then realized she hadn’t locked the big door behind her. Carefully avoiding the earlier obstacles, she hastened to correct the situation, then made her way to the front, where she dialed Malcolm’s home number.
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” Malcolm said when Amanda had explained the situation. “They could come back, you know. Have you locked yourself in there?”
“I’m safe for now, I think,” she assured him. “But I need a ride. My car isn’t in any kind of condition to drive. I hate to bother you, but could you please come?”
“Sit tight, Mandy-girl. The situation is well in hand.”
Amanda stood at the counter, hugging herself, waiting. It shouldn’t take Malcolm more than fifteen minutes to get over here, she thought.
Her thoughts returned to the little white car behind the building. It hurt her to think of it sitting out there all night, broken and pathetic, rather like an injured animal. She loved that car. It was the first one she’d ever owned, and she was still paying for it from her meager teacher’s salary.
Why, Lord? Why would anybody do something like this?
What possible reason could somebody have? She shivered. Am I safe here? Will I be safe at home? Or anywhere?
Was this just a random act of vandalism?
She thought about Sarah Gahagen and her slashed tires, another senseless act of pure meanness.
Who would want to do something like this?
It was an uncomfortable feeling to think somebody disliked her this much.
Thunk. A noise near the front door startled Amanda from her thoughts. She looked over the shelves to see a dark figure outside, silhouetted against the sunset. It was definitely too thin to be Malcolm’s.
Quickly, stealthily, ducking behind the shelves, she made her way nearer the front.
What am I doing? she thought. I should be heading out the back door!
She was closer now, and a thought struck her: once Malcolm gets here, the intruder might turn around and hurt him! What should she do? It would take to long to crawl back to the counter and use the telephone. Besides, he was already on his way. Maybe if she created a diversion…
There was that sound again. What was he doing? Trying to break in? A cold chill ran down her spine.
She arrived at the front line of shelves and slowly peered around it.
She giggled with relief. Of course! The noise! It was somebody returning DVD’s, sliding them through the slot outside. She stood.
“Amanda!” The cry was muffled and followed by knocking on the glass. “You scared me!” It was Clarissa Rockwell, with a stack of DVDs still under one arm.
Amanda unlocked the front door and extended her arms to receive the rest of the DVDs.
Clarissa frowned. “You gave me a start, jumping out like that! What are you doing in there?”
Amanda shrugged. “I work here, remember?”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Clarissa hiked her purse strap on her shoulder. “All I can say is, I hope that man gives you overtime!” She shook her head. “By the way, I haven’t found out anything more about Matilda. Sorry!”
Amanda held up her hand. “Clarissa, wait a minute.” Quickly, she retrieved the old Bible and handed it to the older woman. “It was hers. It may contain some family information.”
Clarissa gently opened the front cover. “Bibles are often good sources. I’ll check it out. Thanks!”
Amanda had locked the front door again and was depositing the tapes in the return box when she remembered: she should have asked Clarissa if she’d found the address for Harriet Frames. She sighed.
Another sharp knock on the glass made Amanda’s heart begin racing all over again. She looked up to see Jason Best at the door.
“Amanda!” he ordered, “Come on! Let me in!”
“Where’s Malcolm?” Amanda demanded as she unlocked the door.
“He got a call, had to go. There’s a fire down towards Mangum.”
The trickle of fear returned. “Is it big?”
Jason shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m going over there as soon as I get you home, see if I can help.”
Amanda locked the front door of the store. “You’re not a volunteer any more, are you?”
Jason walked to the truck’s passenger door and opened it for her. “No, but they might be glad of some extra hands right now.”
More anxiety began building in her chest. For Jason? she asked herself. No, more likely for Malcolm. Another thought occurred to her. “I keep seeing you around here. I thought you were living in Lubbock.”
Jason shrugged as he turned the key in the ignition. “I had business here in town. Now, where to?”
Oh, that’s right. He didn’t know where she lived any more. “Peabody Apartments, at the end of Banner Street.”
She sat primly, seatbelt fastened and purse in her lap.
As he fastened his own seatbelt, Jason’s elbow touched hers. “Oh, sorry; excuse me,” he said quickly.
She drew her own arms closer around herself and stared straight ahead.
Jason sighed heavily and put the car in drive.
The silence between them in the truck was acutely uncomfortable, Amanda found. Here they were, riding together as they had so many times in the past and everything seemed the same, even though it decidedly wasn’t. Jason’s cologne—one she’d always loved—was stronger here and she couldn’t help but notice that he still had the same little unconscious masculine gestures that she used to find so endearing: rubbing the back of his neck when he was uneasy or squinting at the traffic just before he made a turn. Even the sight of his strong profile brought back the times when she’d said to herself, ‘This wonderful guy loves me!”
He was rubbing the back of his neck a lot, she noticed, and also chewing his bottom lip, a sure sign he was deeply agitated.
Don’t flatter yourself, Amanda, she thought, he’s just thinking about the fire. She leaned forward and pointed. “Turn right here.”
“Um,” he said as he pulled the truck into a parking slot, “I took a look at your car back there. Pretty bad. Did you call the insurance company yet?”
“Not yet, but I will,” she said crisply.
He put the truck in park and turned to her. “Well, don’t forget. They’re gonna have to send somebody out to take a look. Ask ‘em for a loaner to use until yours is fixed.”
Amanda remembered then that Jason had worked in insurance. “Thanks, I will,” she said, putting a more civil note in her voice. She reached for the door handle.
“Wait. Did you call the DPS?” The Department of Public Safety.
“Well, I talked to Joe,” he told her. Joe, a classmate of theirs and Sandy’s husband, was a police officer. “He said he’d come by the store tomorrow and make out a report.”
“You didn’t have to do that—“
Jason smiled. “It’s okay. I was glad to help.”
Amanda opened the door and climbed down onto the pavement. “That’s not what I meant. I’m a grown woman, Jason Best, and quite capable of handling these things for myself.” She slammed the truck door for emphasis and turned on her heel.
It wasn’t until she had heard Jason’s truck speed away and unlocked her own door that a thought struck her: if she was so independent, how come she needed a ride home? He had been doing her a favor and she’d been unusually rude to him. She’d treated him far worse than she would a total stranger. Obviously, this forgiveness business had a long way to go.
Her heart sank. So much for good intentions.
It was eleven-thirty and she had just climbed into bed when the telephone rang.
It was Rosemary. “You still up?”
“Be right there!” Rosemary lived in her own apartment, three doors down.
As Amanda had expected, Rosemary, still in her Mexican dress, was wired. “What did I tell you? Is he not the most gorgeous guy you’ve ever seen in your life?” she asked immediately as Amanda opened the door.
“Yes, Rosemary,” said Amanda swaying sleepily.
“Wasn’t he nice?” she asked, pulling a ten-dollar bill from her pocket and waving it.
“Are you going to see him again?”
“No, Rosemary, I mean, yes, but not as a date.” She waved her hands vaguely. “In fact, that tonight wasn’t even a date.”
“What are you talking about?” Rosemary counted on her fingers. “Cute guy, sort of cute girl,”—she grinned at Amanda—“he asks you out, dinner at a restaurant, you laugh, you talk, he picks up the tab, he drives you home. Ergo, a date! What would you call it?”
Amanda sighed wearily. “An interview.” She recounted the businesslike questions Del had asked at dinner. “He said it would be strictly business, and it was. Look, Rosy, I’m not about to start something with my future boss.”
“Ohh, I see. He’s the new owner, is he?”
“Malcolm hasn’t said, but I’m pretty sure.”
“Well, he drives a nice truck, I noticed. Looks a lot like ol’ Jason’s.”
“That was ol’ Jason,” Amanda said, and ran herself a glass of water at the sink. She knew that a detailed explanation would now be demanded, no matter how late the hour.
“Wow,” Rosemary said when Amanda had finished the story of the damaged car, “you’ve had a weird week, haven’t you, kiddo?” Her tone was sympathetic. “And here comes a fire on top of everything else. I think I’m going to take your mom’s advice and pack my car tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Tears came into Amanda’s eyes. “Oh, no. Tomorrow, I’m going to a funeral, and I forgot to ask for time off.” She further explained her short-lived friendship with Matilda Freeman.
Halfway through the story, Rosemary had fetched a box of tissues from the bathroom. “Look, you’re exhausted. So am I, for that matter. I’m going to run along now. Call me if you need me, y’hear?”
“Thanks, Rosy,” Amanda said at the door. “I feel bad. I didn’t ask how things were going with you.”
Rosemary grinned. “Just fine, now that I know that your dinner with Del Branch wasn’t an actual date.”She winked and skipped to the stairwell. “I believe I’ll be needing to rent a lot of DVDs from now on. ’Night!” She waved and disappeared down the stairs.
The next morning, Rosemary gave her a lift, so Amanda arrived early for work.
Malcolm was in a good mood. “The fire was a false alarm, thank the Lord,” he informed her when she asked about last night’s callout. “The wind today is so high and the dust and ashes from the last fire was blowing around so much, it looked kinda like smoke to some folks.” He sighed. “They were real embarrassed when we arrived. But it was a relief to everybody that it wasn’t a fire again. So, what we got?”
Back to business. Amanda gestured to the IN slot. “I’ve put all these away. Is it okay if I take a minute to go call my insurance company?”
Malcolm shook his head and grinned. “No need. Your car’s gone. I called Larry last night.” Lawrence Krause maintained an independent insurance agency in Connellee. “He got Benny to send out the tow truck to get it. They tell me they’ll have it all fixed by next week.”
Amanda blinked back tears. Malcolm was such a kind man!
“And I wouldn’t worry too much about—what d’you call it—your ride? That’s taken all care of, too.”
The front door opened and Larry Krause stepped halfway in, tossed a set of keys to Malcolm, and said, “Benny says, take care of his baby.” He pointed at Amanda. “Don’t you worry, young lady, it’s got automatic. Gotta run!”
Larry climbed in a car driven by his wife as Amanda pushed open the front door. Parked in the slot directly in front of the store was a huge, shiny red pickup truck bearing the words, “Alvarez Tow and Repair.”
“Benny insisted. Larry told him you’d have to wait a day or so ‘till he could get a loaner from Abilene. Benny says he can’t let hid boy’s teacher go around without wheels. It’s yours until they get you something else.” Malcolm walked around the truck and slapped it affectionately on the hood. “It’s got four-wheel drive, double cab, all the bells and whistles.”
Amanda gazed, wide-eyed. The truck door was three feet off the ground. “How do you get in this thing?” she asked, and realized that her comment sounded ungrateful. “I mean, it’s beautiful and all, but…” A gust of wind whipped her hair into a wild tangle.
Malcolm opened the driver’s door and pulled down a pair of steps. “There you are, Cinderella! And they go back up with the push of a button.” He handed her the keys.
Amanda’s eyes welled up again. “I knew I was right to move back here,” she said. “Everybody’s so sweet!”
Malcolm frowned. “Not everybody. I want to find out who smashed your windows!”
Amanda had to laugh. “Let the police handle that, okay?”
“I guess I’ll have to,” Malcolm admitted. “Here comes the Nichols truck now.”
Amanda’s next hour was spent in the back room, sorting out the gray plastic bags and matching them to the catalog orders. A particularly large, rectangular package made Amanda smile. “Here’s Vira’s luggage.”
As if in response to her words, Malcolm put his head in the door. “Did we get in anything for Ms. Quinn yet?”
Proudly, Amanda rolled out the plastic-swathed suitcase. “Here you go!” With scissors, she helped Vira peel away the wrappings.
“Looks good,” Vira admitted. “You got m’check the other day, didn’t ya? So I’m all paid up?”
Amanda, nodded and handed her a copy of the order form.
“Reckon I’ll be heading for the wide open spaces,” Vira said over her shoulder as she headed for the exit.
“Oh, you’re leaving us?”
Vira paused, her hand on the door. “Oh yeah, missy, it’s time.” She nodded repeatedly. “It surely is time. ‘Bye.” Amanda could hear the rumble of a poorly muffled engine as Vira’s aged car drove away.
The phone rang as Amanda returned to the back room. “I’ll get that,” Malcolm called.
Sorting out the Nichol’s orders was more fun than she’d expected. It’s neat to see what people order, she mused, even if it is just a screwdriver or a set of towels.
Malcolm once more appeared at the door of the back room. “Amanda, come in here, would you please?” His tone sounded troubled.
Please don’t let me have made some kind of big mistake, Amanda prayed, I really like working here.
He sat at his desk and gestured for Amanda to take a seat. “That was the bank on the phone. Wasn’t that Elvira Quinn just left here?”
“Looks like she might’ve bounced a check on us. Ninety-five bucks and change. She seems to know you. You have her phone number?”
“I just met her when I was on jury duty. The only number I have is what she wrote on the order form.” Amanda pointed to a copy of the receipt Malcolm was holding.
He sighed. “I called it already. No answer. Chances are, she just made a mistake in her figurin’. I don’t like to hassle older folks if I don’t have to. Will you keep calling her for me?” He handed her the paper.
“I don’t know if it’ll do any good,” Amanda said, frowning. “I got the impression just now that she was leaving town.”
He rubbed his forehead. “Doggone it! We can’t afford much of this, especially with the Nichol’s fellow hanging around.”
“What’s really wrong, Malcolm?” Amanda leaned forward. “I know you’re worried about more than the fires.”
Malcolm rubbed the back of his neck the way she’d seen his son Jason do so many times before. “Okay, Amanda, it’s like this: there’s only about a dozen Nichol’s catalog centers left in the country. Most people do their ordering over the Internet these days. They kept us on because we’re one of the oldest centers and we won some company awards twenty years ago. But now, well…”
“What are you going to do?”
He shrugged. “I guess I’ll just—” The telephone interrupted him. Gesturing for her to go back out front, he said, “Hello? What? Where? Okay. Right away.” He hung up and turned to her. “Amanda, there’s definitely a fire northeast of here, between Connellee and Ranger.”
She followed him to the front of the store.
He pulled his car keys from his pocket and paused, frowning. “So far, it’s okay. They think they’ve got it under control, but if the wind changes, it’ll be on Connellee in no time.” He pointed towards the television soundlessly playing The Spongebob Movie. “Change that to the Abilene news station. They’re in contact with our crew. And don’t forget what I said: at the first sign of fire, you shake a leg, y’hear? Just say a prayer, Mandy-girl!”
With a sinking feeling, Amanda nodded agreement as Malcolm dashed out the door and climbed in his truck. “I—I will,” she murmured.
The TV station wasn’t concentrating on the fire at the moment. Amanda kept the sound muted and read the crawl under the screen that currently featured nationwide weather reports: “A red flag warning has been issued for the whole of Connellee County until 4 pm…” Bowing her head, she whispered a prayer for everyone in the path of such catastrophe.
The front door dinged and Amanda’s old classmate Jane Kerner came rushing up to the counter with three-year-old Travis in her arms.
“Oh, Amanda, I have just the biggest favor to ask you!” Seating the wide-eyed toddler on the counter, she held up a cell phone. “Mama called me to say that the fire is almost to the barn, and she can’t reach Daddy at the restaurant. She can’t get the car to start, either, so I’m going to run out there and get her.” She held out her arms to Travis, who climbed back into them and clung to his mother like a monkey. “I don’t dare take him out there right now, what with the smoke and his asthma and all.” The child laid his head on her shoulder and began to suck his thumb. “Could he stay here? It shouldn’t be more than an hour.” She pulled the thumb gently from his mouth. “Don’t do that, honey. You’re too big to do that.”
“Of course. We’ll be fine, won’t we, Travis?” Amanda came around the counter and reached for the boy.
To her surprise, he willingly came to her. “Can I have a show?” he asked.
Jane gave Amanda a wry smile. “I kind of promised him he could see some cartoons or something. D’you mind?”
“Sure,” Amanda bounced him in her arms and smiled a smile she didn’t really feel. “No problem.” Travis was sweet, but it was hard to keep cheerful when frightening things were happening. “You just be careful out there, Jane.”
“I will.” Jane held out a tote bag. “Here’s his stuff. There’s his inhaler and extra underwear, some juice boxes and some c-o-o-k-i-e-s if you get desperate. I’ll be right back,” she called from the door.
Travis waved to his mother, then turned his gaze to Amanda. “Can I have a show?” he repeated.
Amanda fiddled with the store television and found an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba. At a lower corner of the screen, she was able to play the Abilene news station.
Travis sat on the chair she brought him from the back room. “I don’t like that,” he said, pointing to the little square where an announcer was silently pointing to a weather map.
“Sorry, honey,” Amanda said, “it’s gotta be there.”
Hesitant to be where she couldn’t see the child, she carried the smaller gray-wrapped Nichol’s packages to the store’s counter, where she could catalog items and babysit at the same time.
Travis sat for a full ten minutes, watching and even singing along with the characters. Presently, Amanda looked down into an unblinking pair of blue eyes. “It’s done,” he informed her. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the packages.
For another five minutes, the little boy sat on a stool entertained by Amanda’s explanation of the packages’ contents before he became restless and began to climb down. “Travis?” Amanda asked, “Do you like to draw?” Extracting some pencils from behind the counter, she flipped over a dozen Nichol’s sale flyers. Apparently, she’d tapped into his creative streak, because he stayed where he was, eagerly scribbling, for twenty-two minutes by her watch. When he began to wiggle off the stool again, she led him back to the television. “Let’s see if we can find you another show…wait a minute.”
She had spotted the words “Red Flag Warning” on the tiny screen. Quickly, she pressed the tiny button marked “swap.” Suddenly, the dancing robot was diminished into the tiny box and a concerned-looking weather man was saying “—miles per hour. Connellee County residents in this area are advised to leave immediately. You should head to the southwest as rapidly as possible.”
The telephone rang. Ignoring Travis’s complaints, she hurried to answer it. “Amanda, get out!” Malcolm barked. “Get out of there now!” She heard him cough, then call an order to someone, then, “Mandy-girl, head into town. Don’t wait, y’hear me? Now!”
“I hear you, Malcolm. I’m going.” She hung up and looked down at the boy. “Come on, honey,” she said, scooping up the little boy, her purse and his little bag. “Let’s get out of here.”
Oh, why couldn’t I have my own car for this? She groaned inwardly as she approached the giant truck. She glanced up and down the strip mall, seeing only closed signs. Apparently, Malcolm was the sole merchant who chose to open his store today. Obviously, she couldn’t hitch a ride with somebody else.
The truck it is.
The steps descended on cue and Travis scrambled eagerly into the cab. “Wow!” he said taking in the complicated dashboard. Another sinking feeling assailed her as she climbed in behind him and pressed the button to retract the steps. “You need a car seat, don’t you?”
The straps of the seat belt came right across Travis’s neck. “Booster seat, booster seat,” she murmured. Closing the child up in the cab, she ran back into the store and grabbed the giant Nichol’s catalog. She wrinkled her nose. There was the definite smell of smoke in the air.
“Here you go,” she said, seating the child on the book in the back seat and fastening the seat belt.
Adjusting the driver’s seat ate up more precious seconds. She lowered it, then moved it forward. The steering wheel seemed huge. She turned the key in the ignition and the truck roared to life.
“Wow!” Travis said again.
“You got that right, honey. Well, here we go!”
Feeling about as small as little Travis, she put the truck in drive and slowly backed it out of the parking slot. The power pole on the edge of the road seemed awfully close in the rear view mirror. She backed even more slowly. “Gotta take good care of Mr. Alvarez’ baby, right, Travis?”
“I wan’ music,” he demanded.
Putting the car in drive, she pulled up to the highway. “Music, music,” she said, poking various buttons on what appeared to be the radio. Nothing.
“Sorry, honey, but we haven’t got time to look for music,” she said, swiveling her head left and right and entering the road.
Travis whimpered briefly, but made no further objection.
She moved along rapidly until they came to the crest of a hill and looked downward towards the expanse before them. Two miles beyond, she knew, lay the town of Connellee, but between them was a thick wall of light gray smoke, reaching up to the sky.
“Oh, boy, we’ll have to go another way.” She backed down the hill, but when she looked behind her, she could see clearly see flames on either side of the road and smoke blowing towards the east. They had left the store just in time. It was probably beginning to blaze right now.
She could feel herself begin to tremble. “What do I do, Lord? Please help me,”she murmured, “It’s not just for me, it’s—” She turned to look in the back seat at Travis. No wonder he wasn’t complaining. He had dug in his little bag and found his mother’s cache of cookies. Covered in crumbs, he smiled at her and offered her a fragment. “No, thanks, honey,” she said.
Malcolm had said to go towards town. It was all she had. She glanced once more at Travis, who was feeding part of a cookie to a tiny plastic giraffe, and breathed another prayer. “I know You’re here with us. Please get us through safely.”
As she fumbled on the dashboard, hunting for the headlights, a gospel quartet, singing in Spanish blasted forth. She turned down the volume, but left it on. Her Spanish was sketchy, but she recognized the tune, “Santo, Santo, Santo, Señor Dios Omnipotente…”
She hummed along, hearing the English words in her head, “Holy, holy, holy.” She pressed the accelerator, “Lord God Almighty…”
The big truck plunged into the mass of smoke. Visibility was getting worse all the time. The headlights barely penetrated the swirling cloud. “Keep going forward,” she whispered to herself. “The road is straight. Steer straight…dear Lord, help me steer straight.” She felt the car dip as it veered slightly to the right. She steered it back on track, at least she thought she did.
Progress was excruciatingly slow. A terrible thought struck her. What if she were to run into another vehicle? She and Travis were in a blanket of smoke, driving blind.
Travis coughed, then coughed again.
“Hang on, honey,” she said, and pressed the button that circulated the air inside the cabin. Would it help?
Travis continued to cough. He whimpered, then wheezed. “Mommy!” he said. “I want Mommy!”
…Bendita Trinidad…Santo, Santo, Santo, Todos los santos te adoran…The radio sang quietly.
No time for humming now. She braked the car, turned and pulled the little bag from Travis’ hands. “Inhaler,” she said. There was an inhaler…”
The little boy was crying, coughing and wheezing all at once as she climbed into the back seat, shaking the little plastic-topped can.
Don’t let anybody hit us! She prayed silently.
As a teacher, she’d learned to administer an inhaler. “Deep breath, sweetie,” she instructed, trying to ignore the tears streaming down the child’s face. Poor darling.
She didn’t dare let him know how much she wanted to cry along with him. “Now let it all the way out…now, breathe in…”
The inhaler seemed to help. But they had to get out of that smoke.
She climbed back into the driver’s seat and moved the truck forward again, a little faster this time.
The music on the radio had stopped and what sounded like a news report began. “Alerta roja,” the announcer said in grave tones, “…peligrosos incendios…Connellee Condado…”
She turned down the volume and kept her eyes on the windshield before her. Her hands were shaking so much, she could barely keep her grip on the steering wheel.
Travis had begun coughing again, and she was coughing, too. How much further, Lord? she prayed. Please don’t let it be much further.
She glanced out the window. Through the smoke, she could make out a sinister glow forming a line to her left. The fire had reached the road!
She stepped on the gas again, fear overcoming caution. We’ve got to get out of here. But I can’t see!
She was about to gradually accelerate when Benny’s truck was shaken by a tiny bump.
Oh, no! We’ve been hit! Amanda craned her head around in time to see a large white truck pass around her slowly. The windows were tinted, so she couldn’t make out the driver, but the truck pulled around in front of her and stopped. She could see the brake lights glowing red in the smoke. It began moving forward, then paused, as if waiting for her.
He wants me to follow! Thank you, Lord!
It wasn’t a big surprise to Amanda. On the long, empty Texas highways, people often helped each other when help was needed. She was grateful for the kindness.
Coughing and squinting at the big white truck ahead, she began moving forward.
Travis whimpered and squirmed in the back seat.
“Hang on, honey,” she called over her shoulder. “We’re going to be all right in a little bit.”
She couldn’t have told how long the trip took, creeping along at a snail’s pace, squinting at the white shape before her. The back of her throat felt raw.
Travis was coughing more and more.
Please dear Lord, help this little one! She glanced over her shoulder.
Big tears were running down his cheeks as he wheezed hoarsely.
She turned her gaze back to the road and all at once, the smoke cleared. Arrayed before her, along the road, were emergency vehicles, flashing their lights. People were swarming all around, ant-like.
She pulled into an empty spot and someone yanked open the truck door.
It was Benny Alvarez. “Well, praise the Lord! You made it!”
Amanda turned back to the miserable little bundle that was Travis. “He’s got asthma! He’s really sick!”
Benny gestured and Nurse Wooten stepped forward. “Here, give him to me.” She scooped the little boy into her arms and walked briskly to the EMS van parked nearby.
They were in the parking lot of Lone Cedar Place. Staff members were guiding the hobbling elderly residents over to a school bus and were helping them climb in. Others were being wheeled out in wheelchairs and lifted into cars.
“Amanda!” It was Jane Kerner. Her face was red and swollen. She’d been crying. “Travis? Where is he? Where is he?”
Amanda, coughing, pointed to the van marked with the big red cross. Her eyes stung. She wiped them on her sleeve.
Without a word, Jane ran towards the vehicle.
Benny put his arm around her. “Are you all right?” He led her to another pickup truck, where a cooler of ice contained bottled water. He unscrewed the top on a bottle. “Here.”
The water tasted wonderful. She drank half of the bottle right away. When she lowered it at last, her gaze fell on a dirty, sweaty, but familiar face gazing at her from a distance.
Jason Best’s smile radiated relief and…yes, there it was, that same loving admiration she used to see, before...
Amanda couldn’t help it. She replied with a small smile of her own. He looked so funny, so sweet. All the old anger began draining away.
Jason stepped forward, but all of a sudden, her view of him was obscured by a big, solid chest dressed in an expensive golf shirt.
“Amanda!” said Del Branch as he swept her into his arms, “You’re here! We thought you were done for!”
“She’s okay,”Benny said, “just give some air, okay, buddy?”
She smiled weakly at Del. When he stepped back, her gaze sought Jason again, but he was gone.
“Oh, Benny,” Amanda said, “I wanted to thank you for loaning me your new truck. I’m afraid--” she said, coughing, “--afraid it has a little dent in the back. We got bumped from behind.” She cast her eye around. “And there’s somebody else I need to thank,” She swept her eyes around the milling crowd and over the many vehicles, “the man in the big white truck.”
Benny squinted. “The only white truck around here is Matteo Guiterro’s little pickup, the one with the red stripes along the side.”
“That’s not it…this one was big, really big. He led me out of the smoke. He was right in front of me. Didn’t you see him when I got here? Huge white truck?”
The man shook his head. “Nope. All I saw was you, in my truck, and I ain’t never been so happy to see anybody. The little boy’s mama, well everybody, thought you’d been caught in the fire.” He turned to go. “I gotta help ‘em over there. You sure you don’t need to get you some oxygen, something?”
“No, thank you, Benny. I’ll just sit here on the tailgate for a minute, if it’s all right. Thanks again.”
“I’ll take care of her,” Del called after him.
“No, really, I’m fine, Del.” Something about clean, perfectly dressed Del Branch, smelling of expensive after shave, irritated her. Where did Jason go? She looked around, but he was lost in a milling crowd of smoke-stained volunteers, carrying shovels, handing out water bottles, bandaging burns. The driver of the white truck was in that crowd, too, she imagined.
Del said, “Why don’t I take you home? You must be tired.”
“No, I’m not.” Amanda didn’t want to admit it, even if it was true. She should help.
Someone stepped forward with a bull horn. “Everybody, the fire is headed in this direction. We’re going to have to pick up and leave here. Let’s all meet at the Thrifty Mart parking lot across town, okay? Be careful, now!”
Amanda slid off the tailgate and accepted a ride in Del’s car. “Drop me off at the Thrifty Mart, okay?” she requested. Maybe I can be of some help there.
Del’s car was at the far end of the Lone Cedar Place parking lot. The last of the residents had been escorted out of the building and the remaining staff had left in their cars, when someone burst through the front door of the low building and came running up the walk, waving her arms. “Wait! Wait! He won’t leave! Please help me!”
Instead of climbing in the car door held open by Del, Amanda turned and headed back. “Clarissa! What’s the matter?”
“It’s Howard! My husband! He locked himself in his bathroom! He won’t leave!”
The older woman’s face was brick red and tears ran down her cheeks. “They thought he was in the first bus, but I had to check. He used to pull this all the time.” She grabbed Amanda’s arm. “Please, help me! We’ve got to get him out of there, but he’s kind of hard to handle!”
Amanda’s mind was whirling. Howard is Clarissa’s husband? A logical puzzle piece just dropped into place, but she had no time to examine its significance. “Howard has Altzheimer’s,” she explained to Del. “Come on, Let’s go,” she urged.
He stood at the open car door and took a step back. “The fire is--I can’t let you do this--”
Amanda took a deep breath, coughed, and said, “You don’t have a choice! I’m doing it. You coming?”
Shrugging, he slammed the door and began jogging towards the low building with the women.
There was an odd atmosphere inside. It was clear that the exodus had been sudden and unexpected. A laundry cart stood askew in the hallway with towels on the floor nearby and a telephone at the front desk was off the cradle, making buzzing noises.
They headed down the hall towards Howard’s room at a dead run. The door was standing open, as was the door to the bathroom. A large window was open as well, and the screen had been pushed outwards onto the wider verandah that spanned the rear of the building.
“He knocked out the screen and climbed out the window! Like I said, he’s strong.” Amanda heard a hint of pride in her tone. The older woman also climbed out, casting the mangled screen to the side. “Look! He’s up there on the hill! Howard! Stop! Come back! Don’t go that way!”
The lean, elegant figure of Howard Rockwell was silhouetted against the distant glow of the prairie fire. He didn’t acknowledge Clarissa’s warning, just kept walking steadily upward.
“He’s carrying something!” Amanda said.
Clarissa let out an anguished snort. “Those blasted Wall Street Journals!” She began running. “I’ve got to stop him!” She glanced over her shoulder and failing to see a small rock in her way, tripped and fell face-first to the ground.
Her companions ran to her side. Amanda knelt down. “Clarissa!”
Holding her hand to her head, Clarissa struggled to rise. “I’ve got to stop him, Amanda! I still love that handsome old goat!” The tears returned. A small trickle of blood ran between her fingers.
Amanda stood. “I’ll get him. Del, stay here with her.”
Del stepped forward and grabbed Amanda by the shoulders. “Amanda, don’t do this,” he whispered gruffly, “He’s an old man. He’s out of his mind. Maybe it’s better this way!”
In her mind, Del’s handsome face turned grotesque even as he spoke. Amanda had never been so angry with anyone in her life, not even Jason. Her dark eyes narrowed. “Let. Me. Go,” she said slowly, then wrenched herself from his grasp, turned and ran up the hill, calling, “Howard! Wait!”
It was a steep hill and the thickening smoke didn’t make the running any easier. Please, Lord, she prayed as she huffed, help Clarissa and Howard like You helped me! Let me get to him in time! I know every life is precious to You!
As she came to the top of the hill, she could hear someone breathing heavily behind her. “I’ve got this, Del. Go back to Clarissa,” she called over her shoulder.
“It’s not Del,” said Jason, running his sleeve across his sooty forehead. “He’s taking the lady to the first aid station. C’mon.” He held out his hand and together, they topped the hill.
They were looking down into stony pasture land and a prairie beyond that stretched for ten miles before there was another town. It was raw, rocky country, covered in brown grass that hadn’t seen rain for weeks. Only an occasional mesquite tree or a large boulder relieved the flatness.
To their surprise, the glow of the prairie fire was still at least a half-mile away. But they were even more surprised to see Vira Quinn.
“Stop right there!” the woman yelled.
“What’s happened?” Amanda called in a friendly, conciliatory voice.
“Get away right now! Vamoose!” She was standing precariously on a small, flat rock, behind Howard Rockwell, who seemed strangely calm. One tanned, ropy arm was wrapped around the man’s neck and in her other hand, she held a knife at a deadly angle. “I’ll kill ‘im!”
“Now that’s a knoyfe!” Amanda thought. Maybe it was hysteria, but she couldn’t help but be reminded of the Crocodile Dundee quote.
“You don’t have to do that, Vira,” she said, ignoring the implications of the two large gas cans standing on the ground nearby. “Howard isn’t going to hurt you. He can come back with us, can’t you, Howard?” Amanda laid a restraining hand on Jason’s arm and glanced up into his eyes. She could tell by his expression that he was prepared to rush the couple.
Not yet, her touch said. She means business.
Dearest Lord, help!
“You don’t want to stay around here, Vira,” she continued, “it’s dangerous, with the fire and all.”
“Don’t give me dangerous, Missy!” the woman growled, gesturing with the knife. “I know all about it. So did my kids. They took ‘em away from me, them sheriffs and policemen. I was an ‘unfit mother,’” she quoted in a singsong. “And guess who they give ‘em to?” Keeping a tight grip with arm and elbow around Howard’s neck, she pointed the knife toward Amanda and Jason. “Guess!” she ordered.
Amanda understood. “Matilda.” She kept her face as calm as possible, adding in a sympathetic tone, “And your little boy drowned.” A cloud of smoke blew their way and she ended her sentence with a cough.
“‘Unfit mother,’ my Aunt Fannie!” The antiquated expression would have made Amanda smile under any other circumstances. “I got my girl away soon as I could. Took a few years, but she ran away with me. Saved her life, I bet!”
The image of Harriet Frames’ face as she heard the guilty verdict came sweeping back into Amanda’s mind. “Mama,” she’d said.
Vira waved the knife again and snarled, “You and that jury! Puttin’ my girl in jail! She didn’t do nothing, just what her mama told her to. Not her fault!”
Then why did you let her take the blame? Amanda thought.
Jason took a step forward and Vira once more aimed her large hunting knife at Howard. “Run off, you two! You got no business here! I’ll let the ol’ coot go as soon as you’re gone!” She was plunged into a spasm of coughing.
“We’ll leave,” Amanda promised, nodding, “just let Howard come with us. Come on, Howard, come with us, just like you did with Barbara Schmidt!”
A light came into Howard’s placid expression. He opened his mouth in a broad smile and as Vira continued coughing, bent his chin down and bit her forearm, hard.
It was said that rescue workers heard Vira’s scream all the way across town in the Thrifty Mart parking lot, but most people think that’s just a tall Texas tale.
What there were witness to was the fact that Vira dropped the huge knife and collapsed, Howard stepped calmly away, and Jason swooped the little woman up in his arms and carried her to the closest first aid station.
Amanda took Howard’s arm and they strolled back to safety, where he calmly set down his armload of newspapers and patted Clarissa on the back saying, “There, there, dear,” as she sobbed in his embrace.
“I prayed,” Clarissa admitted to Amanda after the tears had abated and she had relegated her husband to the competent care of one of the Lone Cedar attendants. “I asked God to help you and save Howard.” She had a bandage on her forehead and a bruise down the side of her face, but her eyes were bright.
“And He did!” Amanda said, tears coming into her eyes.
“Well, I guess,” Clarissa said. “I mean, it could be just--” she shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. I must admit, it really felt good to ask for help like that.”
“We should talk about this some more,” Amanda suggested, coughing.
“Yes. Yes, we should,” Clarissa said thoughtfully. “And thank you for going after him, Howard, I mean. He means more to me than I realized, even with—you know.”
The two women were embracing when Amanda felt a tap on her shoulder. Was it Jason? She turned eagerly and looked up at Del Branch.
“That was great what you did there,” he admitted.
Amanda smiled weakly, stifling the sharp retort that popped into her head. Forgive me, Lord, for how much I dislike this guy. And help me forgive him for…whatever. “Thanks.”
He shrugged. “You need anything?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Well, see ya.” He moved away, much to her relief.
“It’s out!” Amanda heard Rosemary shout as she approached the supermarket command center. “They’ve got the fire out!” She held up her cell phone.
Applause broke out among the crowd, but faded when a squad car slowly pulled out of the parking lot, with a sullen-looking Vira Quinn in the back seat. Several people barked swear words at the car as it passed. “She’s the one started the fire!” a woman said. “I heard her yelling about it!”
Somebody small grabbed Amanda around the legs. “Travis!” she cried, lifting the child into her arms. “Are you all right, buddy?” Never taking the lollipop out of his mouth, he nodded and held up a finger wrapped in a superhero bandage. His breathing was steady, she noticed.
“He’s going to be all right,” his mother agreed. “So are my mom and dad. Their house is gone and Mom’s in the hospital, but they say she’ll be okay.” Her eyes were still red and she burst into tears as she wrapped her son and Amanda in a hug. “Thank you! And thank the Lord!”
That reminded Amanda of something. “Did anybody ever see that huge white truck again? I wanted to thank the driver.”
Jane took the child back into her arms and shook her head. “Sorry.”
“How about Jason Best? Have you seen him?”
“Sorry again, Mandy. I was busy all this time in the emergency van with my little guy. I gotta run. Thanks again!”
As she walked among her now-relieved friends and neighbors, she thought to herself, How can I help here? I really want to. I’m just so tired. She looked around longingly for a chair or somewhere to sit. Cars were moving slowly out of the parking lot, filled with exhausted volunteers. She trudged along the street towards home.
A big red pickup pulled alongside her and Benny Alvarez leaned out of the window. “C’mon, young lady, let me give you a lift. Your apartments are okay. Fire didn’t go nowhere near ‘em.”
“I think I will. Thanks.” She climbed into the cab, relieved to see her purse still there and glancing at the big catalog in the back seat. “I’ll need to take that with me. It belongs to Malcolm.”
“Sure,” said Benny brightly. “Say, by the way, that dent you said I had? It’s not there Nothing. Nada. You took good care of this truck, mi amiga.”
“But I felt a bump…” Amanda began, then stopped and took a deep breath. This had been a most puzzling day.
“That was something, you getting you and that little boy through the fire, all by yourself.”
“I wasn’t all by myself,” Amanda said. As they rode along, she told Benny of her experience with the white truck. “Not alone at all.”
Yea, though I walk (or drive) through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Thou are with me…
She reached forward and switched on the radio. A gospel song in Spanish blared forth.
Benny and Amanda looked at each other and smiled in understanding.
“No, I guess you weren’t,” said Benny.
Benny’s truck pulled into the apartment parking lot at the same time as Rosemary’s little car. Waving her thanks to Benny, Amanda slowly walked over to her friend and slumped into a hug.
Rosey was as soot-stained and sweaty as her friend. “Whew! What a day! Are you okay?”
Amanda nodded. “Come on in, I’ll make you some sweet tea.”
The telephone was ringing as she unlocked the door. “This is Sgt. Meyers of the DPS. Could you answer a few questions about what happened today?”
“Would you like to come over? Or do you need me at your office?”
“Nope, phone’s fine. I understand you were already acquainted with Mrs. Quinn?”
While Amanda answered questions and described her experiences of the afternoon, Rosemary made herself at home, filling the tea kettle, getting out tea bags and the sugar bowl, stopping only to stare, wide-eyed at her friend as she talked about Vira brandishing the huge knife and Howard’s habit of biting people he didn’t like.
“Well, I believe that’s all for now, Miss Rojas.”
“Could you answer a couple of questions for me?” She took a quick sip of the tea Rosemary had made.
“Does it involve this investigation?”
“I don’t think so.”
The sergeant’s voice grew friendly. “Well, sure, then. Shoot.”
“Mesquite Place, where Best’s store--”
“I’m sorry, miss. It’s all gone. The whole strip mall there. And the convenience store across the road. Total loss.”
“Poor Malcolm!” Amanda murmured to herself.
He heard her. “Especially after he got hurt and all.”
“Burns on his hands and smoke inhalation, they say. Maybe more. He was taken to the hospital.”
Quickly, she ended the call and began to dial Malcolm’s cell number. It rang nine times before she heard someone fumbling with it. “Just a minute. Hello!” It was Jason Best.
“Uh.” Amanda didn’t know what to say. “I-I was calling Malcolm.”
“Just a second. I’ll hold the phone to his ear. It’s Amanda,” she heard Jason whisper.
“Doggone this oxygen thing. Mandy-girl?” a muted, hoarse voice said, “That you? You safe?”
Tears filled her eyes. “I’m safe, Malcolm. But the store--”
Malcolm tried a John Wayne imitation. “Aw pshaw, little lady, don’t you worry about--” he coughed over and over. “I’m—I’m insur--” he coughed again.
Jason came on the line. His tone was brisk. “I’m sorry, he can’t talk any more right now. Why don’t you call back tomorrow?”
Amanda hung up the phone, tears in her eyes, but smiling. “Leave it to Malcolm to say ‘pshaw!’” She didn’t mention Jason’s impersonal brush-off.
Her eyes stung and her throat was raw and scratchy the next morning. She took a long shower and thought about what to do. Clearly, she couldn’t go in to work, but there must be something she could do to help Malcolm. She dialed his number as she ate her breakfast.
“Hello?” It wasn’t Malcolm and it wasn’t Jason, but it was a man’s voice. She hesitated. “Hello?” he said again. “Nobody there--”
Amanda took a stab. “Del? Is that you?”
“Amanda! I’m here visiting Malcolm. You want to talk to him? Oh, wait, you can’t. They’re doing stuff to him. Okay, okay, I’ll take this in the hall,” he said to someone. “Listen, I sure am glad you’re okay.”
She sighed. “Thanks. How’s Malcolm?”
“Getting better, he says. He really wants to get out of here. Oh, hi, Jason,” he said, slightly muffled. “It’s Amanda. You want to talk to her? No? Okay.” He spoke clearly into the phone again. “Look, I’ve got to run. Got some business to discuss. We’ll do dinner again, ‘bye.”
Amanda sighed and shook her head. Not if I have anything to say about it.
The telephone rang. It was Rosemary. “Look, Amanda, Juanita needs some more servers for the next few days, what with all these people coming in.”
“You know, news crews and fire crews and utility people and stuff. We’re covered up out here, and could really use a hand. You up for it?”
Rosemary knew that the job at Best’s had gone up in smoke and was trying to help. Amanda nodded. “Sure, but I don’t have one of those Mexican dresses.”
“Just run over to my place and get one out of my closet. It’ll be a little big, but it’ll do for now.” The girls had keys to each others’ apartments.
“I’ll be right there.”
The next few days were full. Three nights in a row, she came home bone weary, but glad for the income. With the tips added, she actually made more per hour than at Best’s. Faithfully, every night, she would call Malcolm’s phone, but was always directed to voice mail. Each time, she left a message.
“Malcolm? It’s me again, Amanda. How are you doing? I hope you’re getting better. I’m okay, so don’t worry.” She told him about the work at Juanita’s and about the incident of the big white truck. “He saved our lives,” she said. “I don’t know if was an angel or not, but I do know that God sent him. I’m praying for you.”
The third night, just as she was about to turn in, there was a knock at the door. Probably Rosemary, she thought, and pulled open the door. “Listen, Rose--”
It was Clarissa, clasping a clipboard and a large book to her chest. “Oh, good, you’re up!” She bustled in, tossing her long gray braid over her shoulder, and took a seat on the couch. She looked around. “Nice,” she said, then leaned forward. “I’ve been so busy getting Howard re-located and settled in, I didn’t have time to do this. Listen, I came by for several reasons: the first is to thank you—no, no,” she insisted as Amanda modestly shook her head, “I really must. This whole thing--the fire, Howard, even looking into Matilda’s life--has given me a new perspective. I mean, the way things worked out, I think you may have even saved my sanity.”
She sighed. “I was just so bitter about losing him. Well, not really losing him, but, well, you know what I mean. He looked the same, but he slipped away from me more and more each day, and I was getting pretty bitter about it. And nothing was helping me.” She looked at her hands, interlocking the fingers, then loosening them. She snorted. “My crystals were a dead loss. I mean, I’m a spiritual person, don’t get me wrong, but, this God thing, this forgiveness thing, this Jesus thing, I don’t know. But I think you do. I want to talk about it. You said we should talk. Did you mean that?”
Amanda nodded, trying not to yawn.
Clarissa smiled. “Oh, I don’t mean right now. Later. But soon, okay? Really soon. Here.”
She handed over the clipboard and the thick book she carried. “These are my notes on Clarissa. I want you to have them. And her Bible. I never had time to take a look at it. Besides, Matilda makes me sad. She had such a sad life.” She stood. “I’ll call you and we can go to lunch sometime.” She turned towards the door.
“Clarissa, keep the Bible,” Amanda said, holding the battered book out. “Look it over for me, please. She made lots of notes in the margins. There are clues there. I think there are more things to learn about her, and I’ll need your help.”
“Well, all right. I did want to know the whole story.” She gave Amanda a hug and left.
Amanda stood at the door and watched her friend drive away. If Clarissa really took a look into Matilda’s Bible, with all its notes and insights scribbled along the margins, it was certain that she’d learn the true “whole story” about God’s love for herself.
The Friday night after the fire was finally brought under control was a time for prayer and thanksgiving in the little town of Connellee. Each church held its own service that night. Later in the evening, all the worshippers would gather for a community hymn sing at the city park.
“I’m glad Juanita closed the restaurant for this,” Rosemary said as she and Amanda joined the crowds streaming into the Baptist church. “I just wish she’d closed a little earlier. I don’t think we can get a seat.”
“Let’s try the balcony,” Amanda suggested, and they ascended the stairs.
“Oh, it’s full, too,” Rosemary murmured, her gaze sweeping the crowd. “Oh, wait a second.”
A young mother and father, one carrying a squalling baby and the other toting a huge diaper bag, sheepishly edged their way out of two seats in the front row and down the steps to the exit. “Let’s get her home. This is just too exciting for her,” Amanda heard the mother say.
The two girls quickly took the vacant places.
There were ten minutes to spare before the service, so Amanda occupied herself trying to identify people she knew by the tops of their heads. “There’s Velma,” she said to Rosemary, pointing at a blonde head, “the Hair Gallery is gone, too, you know.”
“I know.” Rosemary sighed. “This has all just been so terrible.” She poked Amanda with her elbow and whispered, “Look!”
The front area of the church was reserved for handicapped people. A blond man was pushing a wheelchair containing a bald man with large bandages on his hands.
“It’s Jason and Malcolm,” Amanda murmured. This was just like Malcolm. He had to be in pain, yet he came to a service designed to thank God. Tears blurred her vision. She leaned forward to get a better look as Jason positioned the wheelchair at the end of a pew and turned to take a seat nearby.
He was facing backward, smiling at a nearby greeting, when he looked up into the balcony and froze.
He sees me! Amanda thought. Her heart beat faster as tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
She grabbed the tissue that Rosemary and lowered her face into it. When she looked back down into the congregation, he had taken his seat.
The service began. They sang the hymn. “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” then the pastor rose to give a short sermon. “Times such as these,” he said at the end, “make us realize how precious we are to each other. Matthew 5:23 and 24 says ‘…if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.’”
He gestured to the long, white-clothed table containing the elements for communion. “When we receive the Lord’s Supper, we should do the same. If there is anyone in this family of believers who needs to make peace with another, will you please take this God-given opportunity to do so?”
The congregation was still and silent at first, then a man in the back strode up to a man in the middle of the crowd and extended his hand to be shaken. They pulled one another into a back-patting embrace while a woman standing nearby wiped away tears. After this, there was movement all over the room. A sob in the front, laughter off to the right, Amanda and Rosemary smiled at each other in wonder.
“Wow!” Rosemary mouthed.
Amanda glanced down at Malcolm’s wheelchair. He was turned, smiling at the crowd but Jason was no longer in his seat.
Where is he?
She heard movement to her right at the end of the aisle and looked up to see Jason edging his way towards her, while everyone pulled in elbows, tilted knees, fetched purses to allow him to pass.
Rosemary whispered to Amanda, “I see a seat in back. Catch you later.” She exited towards the left, ignoring her roommate’s weak protestations.
Then, Jason was there, so very close, with her hand in his, whispering, “You were right about everything. Everything. I know I can’t expect you to marry me, but will you please forgive me?”
The tears fell again as she nodded. He smiled and sat back in his seat, facing front as the music began again and the service resumed.
They took communion together in the pew, heads bowed, side by side.
The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you…take, eat…
The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you…take, drink..
After the service, they were subdued as they filed up the aisle and down the stairs to the main auditorium.
“Come see Dad, please,” Jason requested. “He’s been asking about you.”
“Jason, how is he?” Amanda’s dark eyes were filled with concern.
“It was rough there for a while, but you know him.” He shrugged. “He makes everybody else feel better, even when he’s hurting.”
The church was emptying fast when they reached Malcolm’s wheelchair. When he spotted Amanda, his whole face lit up. He held up his two bandaged hands and shrugged ruefully. “Mandy-girl, won’t you kiss ‘em and make ‘em all better?”
She knelt by the wheelchair. “Oh, Malcolm,” she said, determined not to cry again, “how I wish I could!”
The older man put his arm around her shoulders. “Never mind. This is a day to celebrate, anyway, now that my little Mandy-girl is going to be my daughter-in-law after all—“
“Um, Dad,” Jason began, but his father continued on.
“When I saw him go up into that balcony, I almost jumped up and did a jig. ‘Praise the Lord,’ I said to myself, ‘You’ve answered my prayers!’”
He looked up at his son. “But Jason, there’s no ring on this young lady’s finger. I know you carry it with you everywhere. Get out that ring, son, and put it on her.”
Jason sighed. “Dad—“
Amanda stood up. “Malcolm’s right, Jason. Where’s the ring?” She favored him with a dazzling smile as she held out her left hand.
Jason burst out laughing and swept her up into his arms.
A second later, Malcolm said, “Son, you’re in a church! Save that sparkin’ for after the wedding!”
IF YOU ENJOYED "TEXAS FIRES," TRY THE MISS PRENTICE COZY MYSTERY SERIES BY THE SAME AUTHOR...