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Friday, January 10, 2014

A Taste of Friday with Deborah Heal and Every Hill and Mountain, book 3

(book III in the trilogy)

by Deborah Heal

 “Did Doug say how long this is going to take?” Abby said, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. “And remind me. Why exactly are we using this antique instead of an electric one?”
“He said using an electric ice cream maker meant it didn’t count as homemade,” John said, wiping his forehead with first his left T-shirt sleeve and then his right.
“Really. And I’m supposed to crank until I can’t turn it anymore.”
The day was typical for southern Illinois in late August: hot and humid. At least she was sitting on an icy, albeit uncomfortable, seat in the shady pavilion. Doug Buchanan had to be sweltering out in the sun where he manned the deep-fat fryer along with three of his cousins. Wearing a Cardinals cap to keep the sun off his balding head and an apron that said, “Kiss the Cook,” Doug looked so friendly and benign that Abby wondered again how she had ever thought of him as The Hulk.
One of Doug’s cousins gestured their way and said something that she couldn’t make out. Whatever it was made the other men laugh.
A short distance away, under the shade of a maple tree, Jason and Jackson, Doug’s twin teenage sons were practicing their washer-throwing skills in preparation for the tournament to be held tomorrow. The washers clinked and clacked, depending upon how, or whether, they hit the sand-filled wooden boxes. Those sounds along with the rhythm of the turning crank and the hot afternoon made Abby drowsy, and she surveyed the activities going on around her through a sleepy haze.
Next to them, Doug’s wife Dora and a dozen other Buchanan women began unpacking coolers and setting out dish after dish onto the groaning picnic tables under Alton City Park Pavilion #1. Abby turned and smiled at the look on John’s face as cakes, pies, bowls of watermelon chunks, and dozens of other goodies made their appearance.
 “Hey, Dora, is that potato salad?” he asked.
“Yep,” she said with a wide smile. “And I brought macaroni salad and deviled eggs.”
John sighed blissfully.
“This is nothing. Wait’ll tomorrow,” Doug called to them. “That’s when the ladies go all out. I heard Aunt Hil’s making her chocolate chip cake.”
Under the second pavilion reserved for the event, Eulah and Beulah played dominoes with several of the other elderly relatives. Fanning themselves with paper plates, they chattered happily while they waited their turns.
Abby smiled and a wave of contentment washed over her, knowing that she had been instrumental in getting the Old Dears in touch with their Buchanan relatives. And now the 85-year-old twins were at their first-ever family reunion.
Eleven-year-old Merri came over, panting and red-faced, but smiling. On each arm clung—as they had from the first half hour there—an adoring little girl. One little blonde looked about four, the other about six.
“What are you doing?” Abby asked.
“We’re taking a break from the kiddie games,” Merri said. “I’m hot.”
Merri was a different girl from the one Abby had met when she had arrived at the beginning of summer to be her tutor. Naturally, she still had her moments of sadness and snarky attitude. After all, her mother was hardly ever around and her father was serving time in Joliet Prison. But Eulah and Beulah had made her their pretend granddaughter and invited her to come along to the Buchanan reunion.
Abby pushed Merri’s hair away from her sweaty face and grinned. “It’s hard work being an honorary cousin, isn’t it?”
Merri frowned, but it was easy to see she loved the little girls’ attention. “Yeah, tell me about it,” she said. “Is the ice cream about done?”
“Not quite,” John said. “I can still turn the crank. Slowly, but still.”
“Come on, Mewwi,” the smaller girl lisped. “Let’s go swing on the swings.”
“Okay,” Merri said good-naturedly. She turned to look back as she was being dragged away. “But don’t forget, John. You’re on my team in the water balloon war.”
“I won’t forget, squirt.”
Abby lifted her hair and waited for a breeze to cool her own sweaty neck.
John blew gently and then leaned down to kiss it. “Watch out, girlie. That’s what led to the ice incident before.”
Earlier John had put a piece of ice down the back of her T-shirt, which had made her leap up from the ice cream churn with a squeal. He had chased her around the pavilion threatening her with more ice until she told him to behave or he’d have to get someone else to help.
John’s breath on her neck did anything but cool her off. Abby leaned back and kissed his cheek. “Just stick to your job, ice cream boy.”
Doug Buchanan brought a huge platter of fried fish over and handed it to his wife. “Is the ice cream about done, John?”
“I’m still cranking.”
Doug laughed and glanced back at his grinning cousins. “You can stop now. Anyone else would have quit a half hour ago. Anyone with normal-sized muscles, anyway.”
“Dang it, Doug!” John said. “I think my arm may fall off.”
Abby rose from her bumpy perch and rubbed her sore rear. “Yes, and a certain part of my anatomy.”
Doug packed the ice cream maker with more ice and covered it with thick blankets. Then, after conferring with the women about the readiness of the food, he put his fingers to his mouth and whistled for everyone to come and eat.
After Reverend Goodson, the Old Dears’ pastor, prayed an uncharacteristically short prayer, Merri and a gaggle of other kids converged on the food table. Dora shooed them back and invited the oldest members of the family, including Eulah and Beulah, to fill their plates first. John held Eulah’s plate while she made her selections, and Abby held Beulah’s, and then they helped the ladies onto the awkward picnic benches near their friends.
Then she and John filled their plates and went to sit by Merri.
“What’s that pinky fluffy stuff?” John said, pointing to Merri’s plate.
“Dora said it’s a salad, but it tastes good enough to be dessert.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said after he had swallowed what looked to Abby like a mountain-sized bite of potato salad. “I’m going to get some on my next trip.”
“This is going to take a while, isn’t it?” Abby said.
“Yep,” John said.
“Could you try to hurry?” Merri said. “Me and Abby have to—”
“Abby and I,” Abby said.
“Whatever,” Merri said. “Anyway, we have to get home and get ready for our girls’ night with Kate. We’re going to make snickerdoodles and—”
“You are?” he said. “Bless you, my child. You know how I love snickerdoodles.”
“Well, you’re not a girl, John,” Merri explained earnestly. “So you know you can’t come to our girls’ night, right?”
“Yeah, John,” Abby said, patting his bicep. “You’re definitely not a girl.”
“That’s okay, Merri,” he said. “I’ll survive.”
“Merri, you’re going to love Kate,” Abby said. “She’s a riot.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
Abby laughed. “I mean, she’s a lot of fun. She always thinks of something crazy to do.”
After Abby’s disastrous roommate her freshman year at Ambassador College, Kate had been a Godsend. After only a few weeks as sophomores, they had become best friends. They didn’t share any classes together since Kate was majoring in art and Abby in elementary education. But together they had explored Chicago’s art museums to Kate’s delight, and bookstores and coffee shops to Abby’s.
While it was true that Kate’s personality was so different from her own, Abby knew they each brought balance to the friendship. As for herself, she needed to stop being so serious all the time, to lighten up and go with the flow once in a while. When Kate had decided to wear outdated and mismatched polyester clothes from the thrift store to the dining hall just to see people’s faces, Abby had gone along with the joke. Seeing the reactions had been educational, like one of the experiments in her sociology class. And it had been amazingly freeing to do something spontaneous and random.
But sometimes Kate needed Abby to be the voice of reason. When Kate got the idea to paint their dorm room purple suddenly after chapel one day, Abby had reminded her that she had a test to study for and that they’d have to pay a small fortune in primer and paint to convert the walls back to boring white for the next students to occupy 205b Whitaker Hall.
Kate’s visit today was another example of her spontaneity. Abby had been trying to get Kate to come visit for weeks, but she had been caught up in a project with her mother and unable to get away. Then, just two hours ago, she’d texted to say she was coming. Now. But instead of spending their time together at Merri’s house as they had planned all along, Kate had proposed a “friend-fest weekend in Equality,” which according to John was a tiny, Podunk town three hours southeast of Alton.
She would have to talk Kate down from that hare-brained idea when she got there.
“Look at the idiot,” John said, gesturing with a thumb.
An electric blue PT Cruiser roared down the gravel road toward them, slowing only minimally before skidding to a stop alongside the pavilions.
White dust coated the windshield, and Abby couldn’t see the car’s occupants. But she recognized the ARTCRZY license plate and began to disentangle herself from the picnic table. “That idiot would be Kate,” she said with a laugh.
“Oh. Sorry.” John wiped his hands and rose from the picnic table.
“Come on, both of you,” Abby said. “I want to introduce you.”
 Merri wiggled out of her space at the picnic table and went to stand expectantly at Abby’s side. “I thought she wasn’t supposed to be here until tonight.”
“She wasn’t,” Abby said. “But that’s Kate for you.”
The car door opened, and Kate stepped out and rushed toward Abby. She was wearing a pristine white sundress and heeled sandals. Her hair was a shining mahogany mane that fell half way down her back.
Abby threw her arms around her friend. “You look fabulous. How did you find us?”
“We went to the house first, and Merri’s mom told us where you were.”
“It seems like ages since the beginning of summer break. Wait a minute,” Abby said, pulling back to look into Kate’s face. “We? We who?” Then, over her shoulder she saw Kate’s boyfriend unfolding his tall, lanky frame from the passenger seat. His polo shirt was the same brilliant white of Kate’s dress, and he wore charcoal gray tailored slacks.
Abby felt a quick burst of disappointment and shot a look at Kate, but she was looking at Ryan as if he were the best thing since the invention of air conditioning. She must have gone spontaneous again and decided to bring him along. So much for their girls-only weekend.
Abby pasted on a smile and said, “Ryan. You came too. Good. I want you to meet Merri and John. Guys, this is my infamous roommate Kate Greenfield and her boyfriend Ryan Turner.”
Ryan and John shook hands, but Kate thrust hers in Abby’s face. “Not boyfriend anymore—fiancĂ©! I told you he was going to ask. Isn’t it gorgeous?”
The sun glinted off a huge diamond ring on Kate’s left hand. “You’re engaged? You didn’t tell me.” Abby shook her head to clear it. “I mean, yes, it’s gorgeous.”
“I wanted to surprise you. I’ve been dying to tell you ever since Ryan popped the question last weekend.”
Abby hugged her again. “Have you set a date?”
Ryan smiled contentedly. “Next June after Kathryn graduates,” he said with an indulgent smile. “One and a half carets of sparkle to hold her until then.” He put an arm around Kate’s neck and kissed her temple. “But don’t worry, Kathryn. I promise to upsize it as soon as I get my law practice.”
“Ryan just graduated from the pre-law program at the University of Illinois,” Abby explained to John.
“Really? I’ve never seen you around.”
“Chicago campus,” Ryan said. “I think Kate said you’re at Urbana?”
“That’s right. Where will you go to law school?”
“Loyola,” Ryan said. “It’s really the only choice.”
“Do you really think so?” John said. “I have my eye on Kent.”
Ryan pushed a strand of silky dark brown hair back from his face. It was similar in color and texture to John’s, only freakishly perfect in cut and style.
Kate pulled her to the side and said in what passed for her version of a whisper, “Why didn’t you tell me how hot John is? Wow! No wonder you’ve been going crazy for him. We could have a double wedding, Abby.”
Abby blinked in panic, but sneaking a look at the guys, she saw that they were still talking about law schools. Hopefully, John hadn’t heard Kate’s outrageous comment. “Kate! We’ve only known each other for a few weeks.”
Kate just smiled knowingly and then turned and held out a hand to Merri. “You must be Merri,” she said. “Abby’s told me so much about you.”
Merri shook her hand, her expression changing to uncertainty. “Uh, really?”
“Really,” Kate said. “About how smart you are, and nice.”
Merri’s face brightened. “Abby told me about you, too. We’re going to my house after this.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
“Come on, let’s get you guys some food first,” Abby said. “Wait until you see the selection.”
“How about if John and I go get food so you two can get started gabbing?” Ryan said.
“You’re so thoughtful.” Kate patted his arm.
When the guys were lost in the crowd, Abby said, “Another imaginary star on Ryan’s imaginary chart?”
Kate grinned. “He just keeps on racking them up.”
“John, too,” Abby said. “I’ve lost track of how many stars he’s collected this week. But, hey, you’re the one with stars—in your eyes.” She put her arms around Kate and squeezed again. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Do you think I should tell Ryan about his chart—you know, since we’re engaged now?”
“No way! Well, at least not here with John around.” As far as Abby was concerned, the fact that they had been rating them as possible marriage material was something they never needed to know about.
Merri smiled slyly. “Hmmm. You’d better be nice to me.”
“Come on, brat,” Abby said, edging her way past a man carrying two heaping plates. “Let’s show Kate where we’re sitting.”
Abby was glad that she’d worn shorts. Hiking first one leg and then the other over the picnic table bench, she managed to sit down halfway gracefully and then glanced doubtfully at Kate’s skinny white dress.
Seeing her look, Kate said, “Don’t worry. I’m the queen of picnic table sitting. I did a lot of contortions wearing fancy dresses when I ran for Miss Sangamon County. I didn’t win the crown, but I did pick up this skill. Watch and learn.”
Kate pulled it off gracefully, quickly, and without once flashing her underwear.
“Amazing,” Abby said. “I can’t imagine why they didn’t pick you for queen. So quick, tell me all about it before the guys get back. Did Ryan get down on one knee when he proposed?”
“Yes, he did. Of course, he asked the waiter to bring an extra napkin to kneel on so he wouldn’t mess up his pants. He took me to Sixteen in the Trump Tower. It looks out over the lights of downtown Chicago. It was so romantic. I wish you could have been there. Well, not really. But you know what I mean.”
“Did they have waiters in tuxedos,” Merri asked. “I always thought that’d be cool.”
“They did,” Kate said, grinning at Merri. “And it was cool.”
“Did he hide the ring in your dessert,” Merri asked.
“No, I don’t think that’s Ryan’s style,” Kate said, laughing. “But it was wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbons. I nearly fainted when I opened the box and saw the size of the diamond.” She held her ring out for them to admire again.
“Kathryn, you’re going to ruin your Manuela sitting on that picnic bench.” Ryan was back with two plates. A small frown marred his handsome face for a moment and then was gone.
“It’ll be fine,” Kate said.
“Hey, Merri Christmas, move over,” John said.
When she had scooted over, Merri looked up at Ryan. “What’s a Manuela?”
John and Ryan set the plates they carried on the table and then squeezed in at the picnic table.
Kate smiled her thanks and answered the question for Ryan. “Manuela is a designer from New York,” she explained. “I’m wearing one of her dresses.”
“I bought that dress for Kathryn last weekend in Chicago. It set me back three hundred dollars.” He smiled down at Kate. “But she’s worth every penny.”
Abby concentrated on keeping a pleasant expression on her face. People who dropped price tags into a conversation never impressed her. It was a pretty dress but not Kate’s usual casual style. And she wasn’t wearing the bright, funky jewelry she usually did—jewelry she had designed, created, and made a small business of selling on campus.
Kate looked from John’s plate heaped high with fried fish and various side dishes to the plate of raw broccoli and carrot sticks Ryan had put in front of her. “Where’s the food, Ryan?”
“Oh, drat. Is all the good stuff gone?” Abby asked.
“I assumed you wouldn’t want any of it, Kathryn. It’s all loaded with carbs and fat.”
“Well, I do,” Merri declared and headed back to the food table with her plate.
Ryan watched Merri leave and muttered something that Abby didn’t quite catch. It sounded like, “I rest my case.”
Abby blinked. She waited for her roomie to say she loved carbs and fat. That she lived for carbs and fat. That her favorite entertainment was carbs and fat.
But Kate merely smoothed the front of her dress and smiled. “You’re right, Ryan.”
“We’ll get something later in the city.” Ryan took a meager bite of fruit salad from his plate. “I was reading online about St. Charles and the downtown St. Louis scene. Sounds like there are a few decent restaurants around.”
“Yeah,” John said drily, “they have a few.”
“We want you to come celebrate with us,” Kate said.
Ryan patted his lips with a napkin and took out his phone. “You, too, Roberts, of course. I’ll make reservations. Is seven o’clock all right?”
“And then, after dinner,” Kate said, “we can zip on down to Equality so that tomorrow we’ll have all day to—” 
“About that. What made you choose Equality for our little friend-fest weekend,” Abby said, using air quotes. “John says it’s just a tiny town.”
“Tiny town, but a big help with my project. At least I hope so.”
“Kate says you have some kind of weird genealogy program.” Ryan’s voice rose at the end and Abby wasn’t sure if he was making a statement or asking a question.
“That’s not what Beautiful House is… not exactly.”
 “It’s all your fault, Abby,” Kate said. “I made the mistake of telling Mom about your adventures with the Old Dears’ genealogy. Now she is obsessed with tracing our family tree. But we came to a dead end with the Greenfield side of the family. Since you got us hooked, it’s only fair you lend us your expertise.”
“Genealogy is kind of addictive,” Abby said. “And Eulah and Beulah are so happy we found their Buchanan relatives for them.”
“Mom wants me to paint a wall mural of our family tree in Dad’s den as a surprise. Here, let me show you what I had in mind.” Kate took a pen from her purse and began sketching a whimsical tree on a paper napkin. “I thought I’d draw faces on the leaves. And each person will have some sort of item symbolizing them. Like for me, I’ll put a paint brush to show my love for art.”
In mere seconds, Kate had drawn an amazingly detailed sketch, and as always Abby was astounded by her talent.
“That is so cool,” Merri said, returning with a plate of mostly potato chips and pink fluffy salad.
Kate smiled. “Thanks, sweetie. But it won’t look very cool if it’s all lopsided. And I’m running out of time. The only opportunity I’ll have to paint it is next month while Mom and Dad are gone to Colorado on vacation. So that’s why I thought if you went with us and we used the program…”
Abby shot a meaningful look at Kate, willing her to stop talking. Fortunately, she seemed to get the message.
“Let’s talk about it later,” Abby said, tipping her head toward Merri. Whether or not she agreed to go along with them to Equality, it sounded like the girls-only night was off the agenda, and she needed time to figure out how to tell Merri.
Abby glanced at John for his take. He didn’t look happy. It was flattering to think he was disappointed that she’d be gone for the weekend. But then he was probably only worried about losing control of the program.
Abby had been telling Kate about Beautiful House and all they’d uncovered with it for the past two and a half months. And for those two and a half months, Kate had steadfastly insisted Abby was joking about the program’s abilities. Eventually, she had decided it was just as well Kate didn’t believe her because they had begun to realize how dangerous it would be if the program fell into the wrong hands.
 But now that Kate had finally come, she couldn’t resist setting her straight. “Listen to me,” she said, putting her face up to Kate’s. “Look at my face. Read my lips. Notice that I’m not kidding around. This is not ordinary genealogy software. It—”
“It no longer works,” John said, staring at Abby behind Kate’s back. “Not right anyway, not since the Fourth of July.”
“But it does still work a little?” Kate said hopefully.
“Yes, but—” John said.
“Great,” Ryan said. “Let’s go have a look at it.”
“Okay,” Abby said, shrugging her shoulders at the look John gave her. “But first I want you to meet the Old Dears. There they are at the far end of the pavilion.”
The twins, in their identical lavender pants and sequined tops, stood one on either side of Doug Buchanan, as he struggled with a karaoke microphone.
“Aren’t they cute,” Kate said, laughing. “How do you ever tell them apart?”
“Beaulah’s always cheerful and Eulah’s…not so much.”
The microphone squealed. “Test, test, test,” Doug said into it. “Can you hear me in the back?”
A woman behind them called out, “Louder, Dougie.”
A man two tables over called out, “Hey, if you’re taking requests, I want Proud Mary.”
The crowd laughed, and Ryan rolled his eyes. “If they’re going to start singing, I’m leaving.”
“No, wait,” Abby said. “Doug’s up to something.”
“By now,” Doug said, “you’ve all met these two sweet ladies. Now, it’s time to welcome them officially into the Buchanan clan.” One of Doug’s sons handed each beaming lady a yellow T-shirt.
Grinning happily, the Old Dears held up the shirts so the audience could see that printed on the fronts were the words, I Survived My First Buchanan Reunion. The crowd erupted in applause and whistles.
“And we put their names on the back so you can tell them apart,” Doug continued.
The cheers turned to laughter when the audience realized the twins had been handed the wrong shirts. After trading, Eulah and Beulah held the shirts up again for everyone to see their names in blue script. Doug went on to remind everyone to be back tomorrow for more great food, the water balloon war, the quilt auction, and the washer tournament.
 “Can we leave now?” Kate asked. “I can’t wait to try out your program.”
“You sure you don’t want to stick around?” Ryan said in a fake southern accent. “I have a hankerin’ to play worshers. I bet you five dollars I can whup you, too.”
“Okay. I guess we can leave now,” Abby said. She had looked forward to Kate meeting the ladies, but Eulah and Beulah would have lots of questions that were bound to take more time than Kate—and especially Ryan—would want to spend.
On the way to their cars, John waited until Kate and Ryan were out of earshot. “I thought we agreed not to let anyone else in on this until we could figure out what to do with the program. You know how dangerous it could be if this gets out.”
“Yeah,” Merri said. “That’s the first rule. Besides, we’re the three musketeers. Whoever heard of the five musketeers?”
 “I know, I know,” Abby said. “I don’t know what came over me. Kate’s always been so…so…annoying about it, an agnostic, you might say. I don’t know what made her change her mind, and I had no idea she had told Ryan about it.”
“Speaking of which, how well do you know Turner?”
“I’ve only met him a few times when he came to campus to visit Kate. He seemed nice enough. Then.”
“I think he’s a jackass,” Merri declared.
John snorted a laugh. “Yeah, you’re right about that, squirt. But don’t say that word, okay?”
“We just have to give it time,” Abby said. “Maybe he’ll grow on us.”
“Well, until he does,” John said, “I think we should stall on showing them the program.”
“Why?” Merri said. “Now that it’s not working right, all they’ll see is a bunch of houses from around the world.”
“It won’t hurt for them to see that,” Abby said, “We just won’t mention that the way we helped Eulah and Beulah fill out their family tree was by time-surfing back to meet their ancestors.

Deborah Heal is the author of the YA Time and Again virtual time travel trilogy, which has been described as “Back to the Future with a dash of Seventh Heaven.”

1 comment:

  1. Hi. Thanks for letting readers get a chance to sample my work. But small correction: Every Hill and Mountain is book 3. Readers should check out first Time and Again, then Unclaimed Legacy before delving into Every Hill and Mountain. Once Again, book 4, was just released.