Disclaimers: I don't know why I keep trying to disclaim these folks – goodness knows I've chatted with them/about them enough. So, I'll just say that all names, places, people, and situations I write about are fictional. They are not based on anyone or any place. Although Amanda would disagree, I do own these characters – so please, no stealing :)
If you have anything to tell me, please let me know at email@example.com . You can also get the scuttlebutt on my website, www.CarrieLCarr.com . Drop by and say hello.
Big time thank you: To my chat group at Carrie's Crossing, who keeps me motivated. And to my awesome beta readers, Kay and Kelly – thanks for keeping me on the right track!
Dedication: This story is dedicated to the love of my life, my beautiful Jan. She's the reason for everything I do. Forever and always, my love.
** The chapter numbers have changed, due to some reworking of the original text. I apologize for any confusion – Carrie **
“We'll leave in about an hour,” Lex told Lorrie, who was buried beneath the covers on her bed.
Lorrie mumbled an acknowledgment, but didn't move.
“One hour,” Lex reiterated before she walked through the bathroom to Melanie's room. She stopped and regarded the round lump under the bright, polka-dotted comforter. “Melanie, it's time to get up.”
Lex sat next to the lump and gently shook it. “Sweetheart, if you want to go to the craft fair with me, you'll need to get up and get ready.”
“Don't wanna go to school,” Melanie whined. She rolled into a tighter ball away from Lex.
“I'm leaving in an hour. It's up to you whether you're with me.” Lex gave the lump a gentle pat and left the room. She ambled down the hallway, gazing at the photographs that adorned the walls. Pictures of their children accounted for the majority, but there were some of her parents and grandparents, as well as candid shots of Michael, Lois, Anna Leigh and Jacob.
She touched the glass of one and a sad smile crossed her face. Jacob and her grandfather, Travis, were being chased from the kitchen by Martha after a holiday meal. All three were laughing and Lex remembered fondly how the two men kept getting in Martha's way while she tried to wash dishes.
“No!” Eddie cried from his room.
Lex sighed. “Wish me luck,” she asked the photos, before heading down the hall. Upon arriving at their son's room, she found Amanda in the rocker, wrestling with Eddie. “Need any help?”
Amanda stopped what she was doing. “Do you think you could get him to take this?” she asked, waving the medicine dropper.
“No!” Eddie swatted at the ibuprofen. “Uck!”
“What's wrong?” Lex took the dropper and squatted beside them.
“He's got the sniffles and running a low grade fever.”
Lex held out her hands and Eddie reached for her. “Why are you giving Mommy a hard time?”
“Uck, Momma.” He made a face and shook his head. “Bad.”
Amanda gave her one of those patented, “see what I mean?” looks, but didn't say a word.
Lex rested Eddie on her knee. “Okay, buddy. Do you feel bad? Ucky?”
“Momma,” he whined and rubbed his eyes.
“All right, then. This will make you feel better. Momma takes it when she doesn't feel good.”
He looked up at her. “Bad.”
“No, it's not bad. It's good.” Lex made a show of tasting the medicine and barely kept a disgusted look off her face. “See?”
Amanda giggled but quickly covered her mouth when Lex's eyes stared into hers.
Lex tried another tactic. “Don't you want to go see the craft fair? Sick little boys can't go.”
Eddie shook his head. “No.”
“All right. Guess you'll just have to feel bad.” Lex stood and took Eddie to his bed. “I'm going to town with your sisters. Be a good boy while we're gone.”
“Momma!” Eddie held onto the side rails of the open crib, which had been lowered to make a toddler bed. He stomped his feet and looked to Amanda. “Mommy!”
Amanda stood beside Lex. “Do you want me to stay home with you, honey?”
“Mommy, good.” Eddie fell back onto his rump and stuck out his lower lip. He looked at Amanda, then Lex. “Momma.”
Lex held out her hands. “Come here, little man.”
He reached for her. Once he was in the safety of Lex's arms, Eddie rubbed his face on her shirt and cried. “Momma, Momma.”
“I know, son. It's going to be okay.” Lex carried him to the rocker and sat. She rocked and hummed until his crying stopped and he was almost asleep. She quickly squirted the ibuprofen into his mouth while she continued to rock.
Eddie swallowed the liquid with minimal fuss. He tightened his grip on Lex and after a few minutes, nodded off.
“Maybe I should stay home,” Lex whispered.
“No, you go ahead. I'll stay home with him this morning. If he's not feeling better by lunch, I'll call Rodney.” Amanda took him from Lex and settled him in his bed. “How about the girls? Did you get them up?”
Lex followed her from the room. “I did what I could. You know that Mel could sleep through anything.”
Lorrie stumbled from her room. She was dressed but her eyes were half-closed, and her hair stuck out from her head. “Are we leaving?” She joined them at the top of the stairs and leaned into Lex.
“In a little while. I have to see to the horses, first.” Lex placed her hand on Lorrie's shoulder. “You'll need to check on Snow before we leave.”
“I'll go to the barn with you.”
Amanda tried to use her hands to tame Lorrie's hair. “I'll have breakfast ready when you get back, how's that?”
“Thanks, Mom.” Lorrie stepped around Lex. “Do you want me to help with the horses?”
“Sure.” Lex waved to Amanda and followed Lorrie down the stairs.
Anna Leigh sipped her coffee and took in her living room. The floral sofa, where she had spent so many hours snuggled with Jacob, didn't look right in the room. It fit along an empty wall, but the longer she stared at it, the more she noticed the frayed arms and sunken cushions. “I can't believe I actually brought that old thing with me.” The doorbell startled her, but she quickly recovered.
When she opened her door, she was tempted to slam it closed. “Michael. It's rather early, isn't it?”
He held his hands up. “I've already been reamed by my wife and both daughters. Can we call a truce?”
“Perhaps.” Anna Leigh was still furious with her son. The night she moved, he showed up after everyone else had left, demanding to stay. She sent him home and hadn't spoken with him until now. “Do you plan to be civil?”
“Of course!” he snapped, before taking a deep breath to calm himself. “I'm sorry, Mom. Really. May I come in?”
Anna Leigh held the door open wider. “I have fresh coffee in the kitchen.”
“Thanks.” Michael stopped in the middle of the living room. “It looks nice, Mom.”
She stood beside him and gestured to the sofa. “I must have been out of my mind to bring that old thing.”
“Why? It's,” he paused and frowned. “Good grief, it looks like a herd of cats attacked it.”
Anna Leigh burst into laughter. “That's certainly one way of looking at it.”
“What happened to it? Did it fall off the moving truck?” Michael moved closer and ran his hand along one of the scruffy arms. “Maybe rolled down the street?”
“No. Apparently it's looked this way for quite some time. I suppose the living room in the other house was large enough that we didn't notice.”
Michael sat on the far cushion. “Has it always been this uncomfortable? I don't remember.”
She joined him and shifted a few times. “I never noticed it, before. I'm certain it wasn't this lumpy when your father and I sat on it.”
“Like you would have even noticed,” he teased. “It folds out into a bed, doesn't it?”
He shrugged. “Well, if you do plan on getting a new one, I could use this in my office. Just in case Lois makes good on her threat to kick me out of the house.”
“Why on earth did she say that?”
“Probably because I was arguing with Jeannie at the time. I know I've been a complete ass through all of this, but I don't mean to be. I only want to help.”
Anna Leigh touched his arm. “I understand. But you must understand something. Although I depended on your father for many things, it wasn't because I had to. But because I wanted to. And there's no need for you to rush in and try to take his place. It's not only unnecessary, but horribly wrong.”
“I realize that, Mom. Really. And I didn't come over this morning to start a fight, but to tell you that Lois and I are going out of town for a few days. Her Aunt Susan is in the hospital in Dallas , and she wants to be there for her. But you can reach me on my cell phone.”
“Oh, dear. I'm terribly sorry to hear that. Please give my best to Lois. Is there anything I can do?”
He climbed off of the sunken cushion and stood. “Not that I know of. But I'll check with Lois. Thanks. She's home packing, so we should hopefully be on the road in an hour.”
Anna Leigh embraced her son, all of the past hurts fading. “Please keep me updated, dearest. I'll be at the VFW until around four, but should be home after that.”
“I will.” Michael kissed her cheek. “Save me a plate of barbeque?”
“You didn't have to drive me to work, Shelby . I know you've got things to do at home.” Rebecca stared out the passenger window of the truck at the passing scenery. “I'm sorry about taking the hours, today. Especially since we had planned on spending the day together.”
Shelby glanced at her before returning her attention to the road. “Darlin', I'm the last person who'd complain about working extra hours. Don't worry about it. Besides, you'll get off work at two. That's more than enough time for us to goof off at the craft fair.”
“Still, you could be checking the fence right now, instead of driving me to work.”
“Maybe I like spendin' the time with you. Ever think of that?”
Rebecca couldn't argue with that logic. “You win.”
Shelby pushed Rebecca's purse closer to her. “Better write that one down. I don't win many.”
“Smartass.” When Shelby parked next to the feed store, Rebecca leaned across the seat and kissed her. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Anytime, beautiful. Call me if you get off earlier.”
Rebecca got out of the truck. “I will. Love you.”
“I love you too, darlin'.” Shelby waited until Rebecca was inside before she drove away from the store. She was curious on how the set up for the craft fair was going, so she changed her route.
As she came upon the town square, she saw a group of women carrying covered dishes into the VFW building. In the adjacent parking lot, several men stood around a huge, iron grill on a trailer that belched dark, mesquite-scented smoke.
Shelby grinned and shook her head. “Wonder how many it'll take to cook everything? Probably all of ‘em.” She slowed the truck and looked at the grassy square, where the gazebo was decked out in bright green banners. Next to the gazebo, people set up canopies for the craft booths. “Well, what do we have here?” She parked as close as she could to the open area and got out of the truck. “That doesn't look straight,” she yelled.
The person hammering the canopy stake into the ground dropped her hammer and turned. “Like you know what straight looks like,” Lex snapped back. She laughed and held out her hand, which Shelby gripped and shook. “You here to be put to work?”
“Not hardly.” Shelby tucked her hands in her back pockets. “How'd they wrangle you into this?”
Lex removed her baseball cap and wiped her forehead. “My wife volunteered me.”
Lorrie arrived with a bottle of water. “Here, Momma. Oh, Mr. Page said when you're done here, he wants you to meet him at the high school. Something about hauling more tables.”
“Okay, thanks.” Lex drank half the bottle before she set it on the ground by her feet. “So, Shelby. If you're not here to help, what brings you to town?”
“Rebecca has to work until around two. After that, I promised to take her to the craft fair, so I didn't see any sense in us having two vehicles in town. I'm almost finished checking my fence, so I should be done long before I need to be back in town.”
Lorrie kicked at a clump of grass that had just begun to turn green. “You're lucky. There's nothing to do around here.”
“I thought Allie was supposed to be coming,” Lex asked. They had checked with Allie's mother, Wanda, who had decided not to ground her for the school prank.
“After lunch. If she gets all her chores done.” Lorrie sighed. “I went to see if they needed anything in the kitchen, but Mrs. Sparks made me leave. She thought I was trying to steal cookies.” She met Lex's gaze. “I wasn't, I swear.”
Lex took off her leather gloves and rested her hand on Lorrie's shoulder. “I believe you, sweetheart. It's my fault. I used to swipe cookies from the party tables when I was your age. She got you confused with me.”
“Oh.” Lorrie giggled. “Did you get into trouble?”
“All the time.”
Shelby stood by quietly, enjoying the interaction between the two. She could see how someone, especially a woman who had to be in her eighties, got the two mixed up. Lorrie was the spitting image of Lex, right down to the way she stood. But where Lex wore boots and western shirts, Lorrie dressed in sneakers and colorful girl's tee shirts. “Hey, Lex. Do you think you could do without Lorrie for a while?”
“I guess. Why?”
“I reckon two sets of eyes could check my fence a lot faster.” Shelby turned to Lorrie. “That is, if you want to.”
Lorrie's face brightened. “Really? Can I, Momma? Please?”
Lex rubbed her chin and appeared to think about it. “Well, I don't know. I've got three more canopies to set up, and you promised to help.” She looked over Lorrie's head to Shelby, who had her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. “What?”
“Uh huh.” Lex put her hands on her hips. “All right. Just listen to Shelby , and do what she asks, okay?”
Lorrie enthusiastically nodded. “Yes, ma'am.” She gave Lex a quick hug. “Thanks, Momma.”
Lex winked at her. “I was talking to Shelby .”
“Smartass,” Shelby muttered. “Come on, kid. We've got better things to do than goof off around here, like some people.”
Lorrie appeared worried until she heard Lex laughing. “Okay. Bye, Momma.”
As she crossed the threshold into the house, Martha heard Eddie's cries. She headed toward the living room, where she found Amanda seated on the sofa, trying to calm him. “Gracious! What's the matter?”
“I thought maybe he was teething, but he keeps pulling at his ears.”
Martha sat beside them and held out her hands. “Come here, sweetie.” Eddie slowed his crying and crawled into her lap. “Poor little tyke. Have you called the doctor?”
Amanda nodded and leaned back. “Rodney called in something for him and Jeannie's bringing it out.”
“You should have called me, I would have been glad to run in to get it for you.” Martha held Eddie to her chest and hummed softly as she rocked back and forth.
“No, that's all right, Martha. Jeannie was coming out today, anyway. Teddy's spending the day with Rodney and she didn't feel like going to the craft fair by herself.”
Martha's eyes lit up. “She's bringing Hunter?”
“Yes, Mada, you'll have another little one to spoil today,” Amanda teased. When Eddie quieted, she shook her head. “You've still got that magic.” When both girls were babies, Martha's “magic” would calm them when nothing else worked. “Melanie's upstairs cleaning her room before it's condemned. What's Charlie up to?”
“He's sacked out in front of the TV. I swear, men are more trouble than children, when they're sick. You'd think he had the plague instead of a slight cold.”
Amanda heard a car in the driveway. “That's probably Jeannie. I'll run get her so she doesn't ring the doorbell.” She lightly brushed her hand across Eddie's hair before she left the room.
The blinds were drawn and the curtain was closed, which kept the mid-morning sun from reaching the occupants of the queen-sized bed. Kyle, who was spooned behind Ellie, opened one eye and glanced at the alarm clock. “Crap.”
“What?” Ellie mumbled, mostly asleep. She scooted back into her lover's warm body. “Mmm.”
“Baby, it's almost eleven.”
Ellie groaned. “Don't care.”
Kyle moved Ellie's hair and kissed the back of her neck. “I thought you were looking forward to the craft fair.”
“Rather stay in bed with you.” With a sigh, Ellie rolled until she faced Kyle. “Oh, wait. The car smash. Do you have to be there?”
Now able to look into Ellie's eyes, Kyle kissed her. “Nope. I was in charge of getting the old heap. Someone else has to hand out the sledgehammers.” She stroked the soft skin along Ellie's back. “Of course, now we're both awake. I guess we might as well go to the fair, since there's nothing else to do.”
“I can think of a lot better things to do.” Ellie shoved Kyle onto her back and straddled her waist. “Can't you?”
“You know, now that you mention it, I can.” Kyle rested her hands on Ellie's hips. While Ellie was a very loving partner, she rarely initiated their lovemaking. Kyle was almost afraid to ask, but her curiosity begged for an answer. “You sure are frisky this morning.”
Ellie paused and her face turned a deep shade of red. “I'm sorry, I didn't—”
“No, don't apologize.” Kyle held her in place. “Believe me, sweetheart, I'm not complaining. Not at all.” When Ellie's eyes filled with tears, Kyle tugged her down to lay across her body. “What's wrong?”
“You must think I've lost my mind.” Ellie shifted so that she was lying beside Kyle, but kept her head on her partner's chest. She took a deep breath and looked at her left hand, which lay on Kyle's bare stomach. “For the past year, I've kept waiting for you to come to your senses and leave. But then, you proposed.” She turned her head to stare into Kyle's face. Her voice was almost too soft to hear. “I never thought I'd find someone who loved me.”
Kyle felt her heart ache at the tone in Ellie's voice. “Oh, baby.”
“I know I'm no great beauty. Even my mother always said so.”
“You're shittin' me, right?” Kyle asked, using her hand to raise Ellie's face so that she could see her eyes. “You're an incredibly beautiful woman, Eleanor Gordon.” She gently kissed her. “I can't believe you looked past the grease under my fingernails and allowed me a chance to love you.”
Ellie blinked away the tears and raised one of Kyle's hands to her cheek. “I love your hands. They're so strong, but I feel completely safe with them.” She kissed Kyle's fingertips. “And with you.”
“I'd never hurt you,” Kyle whispered. She brought up her other hand and cupped Ellie's face. “I'd rather die than touch you in anger.”
“That's why I know I'm safe.” Ellie lowered her head and kissed Kyle.
A sustained rumble, followed by excited barking caused Jeannie to raise her eyes to the ceiling. She and Amanda were in the living room, catching up. “Whose turn is it?” she asked.
“Mine, I think.” Amanda glanced at Eddie, who slept peacefully on the loveseat.
“I'll watch him,” Jeannie promised. She had been relieved of her son, Hunter, the moment she stepped inside. Martha had gleefully taken him to her home, in the pretense that he might disturb Eddie's rest.
As the noise continued, Amanda trudged up the stairs. She grimaced at the high-pitched bark that greeted her at top. “Freckles, stop.”
The little dog dropped down so that her rear was in the air. She barked again, jumped one-hundred eighty degrees and raced down the hall toward Melanie's room.
Melanie's door opened. “You can't catch me,” Melanie shouted before she galloped toward Amanda, only to come to a screeching halt at her mother's glare. “Um, hi, Mommy.”
“Here I come,” Teddy yelled, running hard with Freckles beside him. His eyes grew large as he stopped behind Melanie. “Mel started it.”
Amanda held up one hand to forestall Melanie's argument. “I don't care who started it. We've told you several times to quit running and yelling in the house. It sounds like thunder downstairs.”
“I'm sorry, Mommy.” Melanie tried her best adorable smile. It quickly faded away when she didn't get the desired result.
“Either go outside to play, or find something quiet to do in your room. Because if I have to come up here again, neither one of you will be going to the craft fair this afternoon.”
Since the charming smile didn't work, Melanie tried another tact. She sidled up against her mother. “We'll go outside.”
Teddy stood on the other side of Amanda. “Can we go to the barn?”
“No, sweetie. You have to stay in the yard.” Amanda lightly rested her hand on Melanie's head. “And keep Freckles with you. It's a lot warmer now, and you know how the snakes like to come out and sun on the walkways.” The rat terrier was great at warning them whenever a snake was in the vicinity, and would keep it occupied until an adult came to take care of the situation.
“Okey dokey.” Melanie hugged her and started toward the stairs. “Come on, Teddy. We'll see who can go higher on the swings.”
Amanda followed them down and returned to the living room. “Did I thank you for bringing Teddy? He's certainly helped keep Mel occupied today.”
“Hey, don't blame me. Rodney was all-set to have a fun day with him, until one of his patients ended up in at the hospital in Parkdale.”
“I'm not blaming anyone.” Amanda sat beside Jeannie by folding one leg beneath herself. She stretched an arm across the back of the sofa and twisted so that they were facing each other. “I'm honestly glad he's here. Since Melanie wouldn't get up in time to go with Lex and Lorrie, she's been driving me crazy. We planned on going to town later, but that was before Eddie came down with the sniffles.”
Jeannie giggled and mirrored her posture. “I had every intention of going to the fair this morning, but Teddy is just getting over his cold, and I saw on the news that we have a slight chance for rain. To tell the truth, I was surprised that you let Lex out on her own.”
“Yeah, well. I'm in no hurry to see Lex, especially after she gets through helping with the set up in town.”
“Is everything all right between you two?” Jeannie asked.
Amanda laughed. “We're great. But I'm sure by now that she's a little pissed at me. I kind of volunteered her truck and services without telling her.”
“Ouch. And we all know how much Slim enjoys running errands.”
“She doesn't mind, really. And I had every intention of telling her, but it totally slipped my mind. And by the time I remembered, it was too late.” Amanda leaned back and relaxed. “I'm sure she's done with the hard stuff and is having a good time.”
At the VFW, two women argued over the placement of the tables. The main hall had been cleared earlier, and they couldn't decide which direction the tables should face. “Honestly, Kathleen. If we do it your way, how on earth will people be able to get to the buffet line?” the oldest one asked. Her posture was permanently stooped, yet her eighty year-old eyes were sharp beneath her thick glasses. What little hair she had on her head was dyed a deep, chocolate brown and her gnarled hands gestured wildly to punctuate her point.
“We can get more tables set up, if you do it my way,” Kathleen argued. Her brown hair was streaked with gray and cascaded in waves just past her shoulders. “Grandma, I'm sure Lex has better things to do than stand around and wait for us to make up our minds.” Kathleen had gone to school with Lex, although she had been a freshman when Lex graduated. “Isn't that right?”
Lex shook her head. “I'm not getting in the middle of this. But I have another truckload of tables I need to bring over. If y'all will just tell me where you want the first batch, I'll get out of your way.”
Kathleen pointed to a wall nearest the back door. “How about stacking them over there? The high school boys should be here soon, and we'll sucker them into setting them up for us.”
“Sounds good.” Lex touched the brim of her hat. “Mrs. Snyder, I'll be back in a short while with the rest.” She hurried away before the old woman could talk her into running more errands. As she stepped out into the mid-morning sun, she could feel the humidity weigh her down. “I hope the rain holds off until after the barbeque, or at least until Shelby and Lorrie get back.”
On the westernmost part of the property, sweat rolled down Lorrie's cheek as she held the power pull steady, while Shelby knotted the wire to the fence post. The hand-held winch made tightening the wire strands a lot easier, but it was still hard work. It hadn't taken them very long to find the break in the fence where an old tree had blown over and bent one of the steel posts. “ Shelby ?”
“Where do you think those horses came from? I mean, we can tell they came through the fence here, but where were they before that?”
Shelby tucked the bullnose pliers into her back pocket and looked up. “Well, if you look right over there, you can see where someone parked alongside the road. They most likely figured to dump the horses off and be long-gone before anyone found ‘em.”
“Oh.” Lorrie glanced at churned dirt and grass on the other side of the fence. “So, they saw the fence messed up and just left? Why would they do that?”
“Times are a mite tough for some folks right now. Horses are expensive to keep, you know that.”
Lorrie nodded. “Momma always talks about it, too. She said if it wasn't for the cattle she sells, she couldn't afford all the horses we have. But she also says that they're the best way to get around on the ranch.”
“I reckon she's right about that,” Shelby agreed. “Although I'm glad I have a decent path around my fence line, ‘cause my horses sure were skitterish today.” She took off her hat and wiped her sweaty forehead against her shoulder. The heavy humidity made for hot and sticky work.
“If they couldn't keep them, why didn't they just sell them?”
Shelby sighed. “That's the hundred-dollar question, ain't it? Either they didn't have bills of sale for them, or maybe they were afraid they'd get in trouble for letting the horses get in such bad shape. Hell, for all we know, they stole ‘em and then couldn't do nothin' with them. Maybe the sheriff will find out more and let us know.”
“Sheriff Jeremy's nice, but I bet my pawpaw was a better sheriff. I've seen pictures of him, even before he was old.” She grinned as Shelby laughed. “Mada says he cut a dashing figure, whatever that means.”
“It means she thought he looked good in his uniform.”
Lorrie wrinkled her nose. “Eww. I didn't need to hear that.”
“Aw, come on. I think it's nice that they love each other like that. Don't you?” Shelby unfastened the power pull. “I'll take this to the truck, if you don't mind picking up the bits of wire on the ground.”
“Sure.” Lorrie thought about how her grandparent's acted. It wasn't much different than her parents. “Yeah, it's pretty cool.” She bent to gather the pieces of wire that lay scattered along the ground, when a gust of wind almost blew her off her feet. “Whoa.” When she heard the far off rumble of thunder, she looked into the sky. “I'm glad we're done before it rained.”
Shelby placed the power pull in the steel toolbox that butted up against the cab of the truck. Before she could close the lid, the wind blew it out of her hand. “Damn!” She turned and yelled, “Let's get a move on, Lorrie. I want to be back at the house before we get caught in the rain.”
Amanda added another diaper to Eddie's bag. She always over packed, but she didn't want to be caught without one. That happened to Lex once, and she still laughed over the makeshift diaper her wife had made from her undershirt. “Who knew that duct tape was so sticky?” She heard the back door slam.
“Mommy.” Eddie stood beside her. He held up a bright blue toy truck.
“Thank you, sweetie. I'll add it to your bag.”
Footsteps pounded up the stairs. “Mommy,” Melanie yelled.
Amanda closed her eyes for a moment. “Will your sister ever learn not to yell in the house?” she asked her son.
Eddie grinned. “Meemee loud.”
“Yes, she is.” Amanda turned as Melanie stopped in the doorway. “Mel, you know better than to—”
“Mommy, Mada wants you to call her on the speaker. She says the phones aren't working.” Melanie went to where Eddie stood. “Hi, Eddie.”
“Meemee, mine.” He latched onto her shirt. “Meemee.”
Amanda was about to ask Melanie to explain when she heard the wail of the weather radio in the kitchen. “Great. Mel, would you please keep an eye on your brother while I see what Mada needs?”
“Okey dokey. Come on, Eddie. Let's go to my room and color.” She led him by the hand and kept the pace slow enough so that he could walk beside her.
Amanda followed them as far as the stairs, which she jogged down in a hurry. The back door opened and Martha stepped inside, followed by Jeannie and her children, with Charlie bringing up the rear. “What's going on? I was just on my way to the kitchen to buzz you, Martha.”
“Where's Eddie and Melanie?” Martha asked, while her husband ushered the others toward the kitchen.
“Upstairs in her room. Why?” Amanda kept her hand on the banister, with her right foot still on the bottom step. “What on earth is going on?”
Martha shook her head. “There's a nasty storm heading this way. It's already knocked out the phone lines. We need to get into the storm cellar, just to be safe.”
“I'll get the kids. Could you see if you could raise Lex on the radio? Hopefully they're already under cover.” Amanda raced up the stairs at a run. “Melanie! Bring your brother here, please!”
Shelby fought the wind as she tried to get back to her house. “How you doing, kid?” she yelled. Big, fat drops of rain began to splat against the windshield. “Dammit!”
“I'm okay,” Lorrie answered, just as loudly. She hand her left hand braced against the dash and her right hand on the door. When a strong blast of wind shoved the truck off the road, she couldn't help but scream.
The force of the wind tossed the old truck sideways, which caused it to flip over onto its left side into a stand of oak trees. Shelby 's head slammed against the side window as the truck landed, knocking her unconscious.
Lorrie's frightened scream turned to a pained cry as she was thrown toward Shelby and tried to catch herself with her left arm. “ Shelby !”
The truck continued to rock with the high wind. The rain came down in heavy sheets as the right side tires slowly stopped spinning.
“I think we've got enough tables and chairs, Weldon,” Lex told the older man. They stood inside the high school gym while they argued. Weldon was ten years her senior, and had been the assistant principal at the high school for twenty years.
“Maybe, but you can never be too sure. Last year, Mr. Miller was in charge, and he had to hear complaints from the Ladies' Auxiliary for months afterwards. I don't want all those old women calling me like that.”
She laughed. “Chicken.”
“Yeah, make fun of me all you want, but.”
Both of them were startled as a loud rumble of thunder caught them off guard. Lex looked up through the expansive windows that circled the top of the gymnasium. Heavy, dark clouds hid the sun. “So much for hauling more chairs, Weldon. We'd better get back and see if they need any help securing stuff before the rain hits.”
He followed her to the outside door. “You just don't want to load anything else into your truck.”
“That's true.” Lex opened the door, only to have the wind yank it out of her hand. “Damn. I think we need to hurry.” She tugged her hat down tightly on her head and headed for her truck at a run.
“Hey, wait for me,” Weldon hollered. He jogged behind her. They were only steps away from the truck when the skies opened and the rain pounded down.
Lex jumped in behind the wheel and slammed her door closed. Water dripped from her western hat and her clothes were soaked. When Weldon climbed inside, she turned and grinned. “Almost made it, didn't we?”
“You're crazy.” Weldon wiped the water off his face with one hand. “Well? Are we gonna sit here and steam up the windows, or go back to the fair?”
Lex laughed and put the truck in gear. “I like you, Weldon. You're as much of an ass as I am.” As she drove away from the high school, the truck was buffeted by the strong wind. “Damn. I hope the canopies hold up.”
“Guess it depends on if you put the stakes in deep enough.”
“Smartass.” Lex used her hand to wipe the condensation off the windshield while she tried to see through the heavy rain. “I hope this blows over soon.”
Weldon leaned closer to the windshield. “It's really coming down. Yow!” The truck lurched sideways due to the wind. A large tree branch fell in front of them. “Look out!”
Lex cursed and jerked the steering hard to the left. The truck skidded across the pavement and only the curb kept them from going over the sidewalk and into someone's yard. “Holy shit, that was close.”
“I knew you could handle it,” Weldon teased.
“Right. That's why you screamed like a little girl. I thought my daughter was in the truck with me.” Lex tried to laugh it off, but her insides were still shaking from the close call.
As lightning hit a few miles ahead of them, the thunder rattled the windows on the truck. “This is insane,” Weldon remarked. “I'm glad we're safe in—”
When Lex turned the corner, the wind blew a small car against the truck. “Shit!” She was so busy trying to move away from the car, that she didn't see the huge elm tree uprooted by the storm. It crumpled the hood of the truck and slammed into the windshield, stopping them in their tracks.
“The wind has really picked up,” Kathleen remarked to Anna Leigh. They were side-by-side in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches from the barbeque that someone had brought in. “My grandmother told me she thought we were going to get a storm, but I hadn't heard anything on the radio about it.”
Anna Leigh tore off a square of cellophane and wrapped the sandwich she had cut in half. “I'd listen to Bernice, dear. She's been right more often than not. What exactly did she say?”
“Well, before I took her back to her room at the home, she was talking about barometric pressure and such. Honestly, I thought she was just having one of her spells.”
“Don't discount her words, Kathleen. She's rarely wrong, especially about—”
Something heavy hit the roof, causing the women in the kitchen to gasp. Evaline Cassidy, who was drying dishes, dropped a plate. The hard plastic rattled and caused her to blush. Her gray hair stood out like a beacon against her red face. “I'm sorry. What was that?”
“One of the trees must have lost a branch.” Anna Leigh removed her disposable gloves and tossed them in the trash. “Perhaps we should go into the main hall away from the windows, until this blows over.”
Phyllis Chambers stood nearby, but hadn't lifted a finger to help. She was the same age as Kathleen, but thought that work was beneath her. “Honestly, Anna. Do you really think that's necessary?” Another crash answered her, and she hurried out of the kitchen as fast as her legs could carry her.
“I think she has the right idea,” Evaline added as she followed Phyllis.
“Come on, Mrs. Cauble. We'll go sit near the restrooms. That's where the strongest walls are.” Kathleen linked her arm with Anna Leigh. “I believe Mary was out there, organizing the tables. Do you mind if I stay close to you?”
“Not at all, dear. Let's see if we can keep Evaline and Phyllis from killing each other.”
Less than a mile from the VFW hall, business was slow at McAlister's feed store. The manager, Tom Bennett, had sent everyone else home except for Rebecca. He sat at the desk in his office, in hopes of getting the deposit figured before they started getting busy again.
In the main part of the store, Rebecca used a feather duster to clean the shelves of product. She picked up a bottle of horse liniment and read the label. “Good for horses and their humans? Oh, my god. That's scary.” She cleaned the shelf and returned the bottles to their proper places.
The sound of the wind and rain hitting the building caused her to sigh. “Wonderful. Just what we didn't need today.” She took her cell phone from her back pocket and hit the speed dial for Shelby . It rang several times before a recording came on that advised Rebecca the party she tried to reach wasn't available. “Weird. It should have least gone to voice mail.”
Lightning struck nearby, and the loud boom that followed caused her to jump. “Geez!”
Rebecca put her cell phone in the back pocket of her jeans after she was unable to reach her lover. “I hope Shelby had enough sense to get under cover before the bad weather hit.”
She cringed as the building rattled from the high winds. Her eyes tracked to the front picture window, where she could see various things blow across the road. Trash, leaves and small tree branches flew by.
As she thought about Shelby , Rebecca crossed her arms over her chest to ward off a frightened chill. “I wish she was here.” She looked up as a loud noise came from above, just in time to see part of the ceiling come down on top of her. Rebecca's scream was cut off as she was buried in drywall, wood beams and the top of a monstrous tree.
“Amanda, you need to get in here,” Martha called from the door of the storm cellar. The wind had picked up and was throwing debris against the house. “Bring the damned hand-held with you!” She rarely cursed, but her worry overrode her upbringing.
“I'm coming,” Amanda yelled, as she hurried toward the kitchen. She carried her cell phone, the wireless handset to the house phone and two radios. “Were you able to reach Helen and Roy?”
Martha helped her down the steps so that Charlie could close the cellar door. “Right before we came over. They're safer where they are, since their house is in a low-lying area. Helen latched the shutters in Roy 's office, so they're well-protected.”
Amanda sat across from Jeannie, who rocked Hunter to keep him from crying. Teddy huddled on the other side of his mother, his eyes wide with fear.
“Mommy!” Eddie patted Amanda's leg and demanded to be picked up. Freckles stood behind him, whining.
She lifted him onto her lap and kissed his cheek. “Hey, handsome. Isn't this fun?”
“I'm scared, Mommy,” Melanie whined. She had her right pinkie finger in her mouth, a gesture that only showed up when she was nervous.
Martha sat on the other side of Amanda and patted her lap. “Come sit with me, sweetie. We're perfectly safe in here. Right, Pawpaw?”
“Right.” Charlie sat beside Jeannie and put his arm around her. “Everything will be just fine.” The house moaned as it was attacked by the hard wind, as if disagreeing with him.
“Are we gonna die?” Teddy asked.
Jeannie playfully bumped him with a shoulder. “Of course not, honey. This is the safest place in the world.”
“What about Daddy?”
Melanie started to cry. “I want Momma.”
While Amanda agreed with the sentiment, she put on a brave face. “I'm sure everyone else is just as safe as we are.” A loud thump above them caused her to look at the ceiling of the shelter. “We'll probably hear from them as soon as the storm passes.”
The duplex shook from the force of the falling tree. One of the bedroom windows shattered and blew glass and rain all over the bed and its occupants.
“What the fuck?” Kyle yelled, awakened from a dead sleep. She had protectively rolled onto Ellie, who immediately wrapped her arms around her. Both of them were under the covers, until Kyle cautiously poked her head out.
“Hold on, baby. I'm not sure what happened.” The rain continued to blow in. Kyle exhaled in relief when she realized the weather was to blame. “It's all right, just a storm.” She raised herself off of Ellie. “A pretty nasty one, it seems.”
Ellie wiped her hair away from her face. The electricity was off, and the heavy clouds made the mid-afternoon seem like evening. “My god, what's going on?”
Kyle tossed the glass-covered comforter onto the floor and wrapped the sheet around her lover. “Stay here while I grab us some clothes.”
“You can't walk across the floor in your bare feet,” Ellie argued.
“Well, I'm not sitting here naked in bed, until someone comes to help.” Kyle stepped on the blanket and carefully tiptoed to the closet. After she was dressed, she brought Ellie her clothes. “If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was a hurricane, or something. That wind sounds fierce.”
Ellie quickly dressed and followed Kyle to look out the broken window. “I can't even see the house across the street. This is crazy.” Another heavy thud shook the duplex. “Are we safe in here?”
A loud crash from the living room was all the answer needed. “I never thought I'd say this to you, but let's get into the closet.” Kyle tugged Ellie with her as she headed for the walk-in closet on the other side of the room.
To be continued in Part 11
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